NFL Nation: Rocky McIntosh

INDIANAPOLIS -- As the Detroit Lions head toward free agency in under three weeks and the team works on landing an extension for Ndamukong Suh, the team has decided it won't bring back a handful of other free agents.

Players not expected back include kicker David Akers, defensive end Israel Idonije, linebacker Rocky McIntosh, offensive lineman Dylan Gandy and safety/special-teams player John Wendling.

Lions general manager Martin Mayhew said every other free agent, including cornerback Rashean Mathis and backup quarterback Shaun Hill, could end up back with the Lions.

He also indicated the Lions have signed safety Isa Abdul-Quddus, whom the team claimed off waivers earlier this year and was scheduled to be a restricted free agent.

Abdul-Quddus signed a one-year deal worth $645,000 and could play a special-teams role for the Lions. Mayhew said when the former New Orleans Saint hit the waiver wire, special-teams coach John Bonamego campaigned to bring him in.

Bonamego had worked with him in New Orleans in 2011.

Abdul-Quddus' signing seems to fit the reason that the team would move on from Wendling, who was one of the Lions' better special teams players last season.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- It might be time for the Detroit Lions to be concerned about the availability of linebacker DeAndre Levy and tight end Brandon Pettigrew on Sunday against the New York Giants.

Both Levy (foot) and Pettigrew (ankle) missed their third practice this week.

If Levy doesn't play, Rocky McIntosh would likely see a majority of his snaps. If Pettigrew can't go, a host of players would take his place, as I wrote about Thursday.

They were two of five Lions to miss practice Friday. Louis Delmas (knee), Rashean Mathis (illness) and Darius Slay (knee) also were out. For Delmas, this is a typical maintenance day. Mathis also missed Thursday with an illness.

Slay actually was at practice with a sleeve on his right knee, just no helmet. He even participated in some light drill work with the other defensive backs.

Both Calvin Johnson and John Wendling were back at practice Friday.
CHICAGO -- Willie Young thought he had Chicago stopped, having pressured and then plowing into Bears backup quarterback Josh McCown just after the ball was thrown and the Detroit Lions looked like they had held on to win Sunday against the Bears.

Except when McCown's pass to Dante Rosario went sailing out of the end zone, Young was flagged for roughing the passer on what appeared to be a helmet-to-helmet hit. Young wasn't happy on the field. He wasn't happy in the locker room after the game, saying players needed to call a meeting about certain calls made this season.

Young's personal foul, though, set up two things. First, it gave Chicago one last chance to tie. Second, it gave defensive tackle Nick Fairley, who had one of his better games of the season Sunday, a chance to make the game-clinching play.

Chicago lined up with three wide receivers and McCown in the shotgun with Matt Forte to the right of him. Fairley was lined up in his typical spot next to Ndamukong Suh, between center Roberto Garza and left guard Matt Slauson.

[+] EnlargeNick Fairley
Mike DiNovo/USA TODAY SportsNick Fairley celebrates his goal-line stop Sunday that clinched the Detroit Lions' win.
And considering the Bears had thrown on the last play and had limited success running Sunday, most people could have assumed Chicago was going to pass. Everyone except the Detroit defensive line.

“Just looking at the offensive linemen, I had a hunch they were going to probably run,” Suh said. “Just from the way they looked and that they were lined up. They didn't even come to my side but I know if Nick wasn't going to make the play, which he obviously did, I was going to help him clean it up.”

With Suh, defensive tackle C.J. Mosley and even Fairley potentially anticipating a run, Detroit coach Jim Schwartz explained Monday it actually wasn't much of a surprise at all considering the Bears' tendencies.

And that on the prior two-point conversion play wiped out by the Young penalty, McCown might have actually been looking for Forte to catch a ball first. As McCown rolled to his right, he looked in the direction of Forte, who was blanketed by linebacker Rocky McIntosh.

So reading potentially two straight plays to Forte was actually a smart call.

“They were a yard away and both of their two-point plays they tried to get the ball to arguably their best player,” Schwartz said. “They got a lot of good players on offense but Forte, the first play was a sprint-out and Rocky McIntosh did a fantastic job of getting him covered up. That's one of the reasons that play was incomplete. Even though we had a penalty on the play, that had nothing to do with Rocky or the execution of the scheme.

“But there's a lot of plays that the Bears get down to the red zone and they run the ball in. They ran one in the week before against Green Bay from 6-inch line and stuff like that. Anytime you're a defensive lineman, your first job is to stop the inside run. They attacked our perimeter for most of the game and for the most part we did a good job defending that, something that we were a little bit weak on in the first game we played them.”

Once McCown snapped the ball, Fairley broke right past Garza as Slauson moved to the second level to engage linebacker DeAndre Levy. Fairley was already past Garza by the time McCown handed the ball to Forte and was 2 yards from him moving at full speed.

No matter the direction, Forte had little chance.

With Garza trying to grab Fairley from the back after he blew by him, the Lions defensive tackle essentially swallowed Forte with a tackle, enveloping him as Forte took his third step to his left trying to stretch the field.

“Just read my keys, had a big A-gap and I just figured it would probably be a run or play-action pass,” Fairley said. “So I just got off the ball real good and it just so happened I made a play.”

Garza actually tried to wrap Fairley from the back but actually ended up falling over Forte once he was tackled. That's how dominant Fairley was on that particular play.

Fairley threw Forte down and then kept going down the field after that, high-stepping down the field in celebration.

“Just made the game-changing play,” Fairley said. “From the defense and the D-line in our room, that's what we always harped on as a D-line, 'let's go make a game-changing play. Somebody step up and make a play.'

“That was me [Sunday].”
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Outside linebacker Ashlee Palmer missed practice with an ankle injury according to the Detroit Lions' official practice report Thursday.

He was one of four Lions to miss practice, joining defensive tackle Nick Fairley (shoulder), right tackle Jason Fox (groin) and safety Don Carey (hamstring).

If Palmer were to miss Sunday's game, he would likely be replaced by veteran Rocky McIntosh, although Tahir Whitehead is listed as his backup on the unofficial depth chart.

McIntosh was the fourth linebacker used in Detroit's 34-24 win over Minnesota on Sunday. It also means the Lions now have five healthy linebackers on the roster: starters Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy, McIntosh, Whitehead and Travis Lewis.

Detroit coach Jim Schwartz declined to discuss the injuries to Fairley and Palmer, although he did not Fairley did finish Sunday's game.

Safeties Louis Delmas (knee) and John Wendling (ankle) were limited Thursday. Running back Reggie Bush and defensive end Jason Jones practiced fully.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The first time Willie Young faced Minnesota in his rookie season, the defensive lineman lined up opposite the offensive tackle. The ball was snapped.

But before he could even make a move and touch the offensive lineman, his entire focus changed. It was too late.

Adrian Peterson, the top running back in the NFL -- the player Detroit’s front seven will be doing everything it can Sunday to at least contain, if not stop -- already had the ball and would make anything Young was about to do useless.

“A lot of other backs, it’s almost like there’s a slight bit of hesitation when those running backs get the ball,” Young said. “In this case, this scenario, as soon as [Peterson] gets it, there are instances where before I engage with the offensive tackle, he’s already got the ball and I’m already in pursuit.

[+] EnlargeAdrian Peterson
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesLions players marveled at Adrian Peterson's ability to leave defenders behind before they even know it.
“And I didn’t even touch the tackle yet.”

What he is saying is not any different than what others have said about Peterson in the past. He is that difficult to stop. He’s the top running back in the league, a guy who gained more than 2,000 yards last season, for a reason.

It is that speed and ability, Detroit linebacker Rocky McIntosh said, that makes Peterson different from other backs. From the very first step he takes on any carry, Peterson believes he can score. From anywhere. In that single step.

It leaves opponents with a mix of determination, fear and excitement. Determination because shutting down Peterson could make a name for yourself. Fear because of what he could do. Excitement because if you can tackle him or stop him, you can say you hit a surefire Hall of Famer.

Everyone has a different opinion, too, about what makes Peterson as tough as he is. Some, like Young, point to his speed. Others see what he does with his eyes.

“The vision he has,” Detroit rookie cornerback Darius Slay said. “He has this vision where he can bounce it inside between the tackles and he can outrun you on the edge. He has great speed, great size.

“Ain’t too many people that’s bred that way. He’s got the whole package of the complete running back.”

Somewhat surprisingly, Detroit hasn’t fared too badly against Peterson in the past.

In 11 career games against Detroit, Peterson has averaged 105.9 yards a game and scored nine touchdowns. It may seem like a lot of yards, but consider this -- he has actually averaged more yards against both Chicago (108.5) and Green Bay (120.2). So, relatively speaking, 105.9 yards is decent.

Yet Peterson is still one of the few players in the NFL who can destroy any defense at any time.

“They’ve got that kingpin, 28, back there,” Detroit defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham said. “And he makes me not sleep very well at night.”

The Lions added size on the defensive line this offseason, drafting 6-foot-5, 271-pound defensive end Ziggy Ansah in the first round of April’s NFL draft and signing 6-5, 276-pound Jason Jones and 6-6, 275-pound Israel Idonije as defensive ends in the offseason to go with tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley.

So there is some size there to pressure the Minnesota offensive line and attempt to get in the backfield to thwart Peterson before he starts getting comfortable.

Detroit’s containment strategy when it comes to Peterson is to attack him early. If he starts off with a few big runs, he has already found his confidence and at least one hole in a game plan, so it would likely be a long day for the opponent.

This, of course, is extremely difficult to accomplish. Yet for any team to beat Minnesota, it almost has to happen.

“Literally,” McIntosh said. “The game is on you.”

The Lions seem to know that. Because with Adrian Peterson, everyone knows to expect an elite level of play every week. Whether it's a game-breaking play or the quest for another 2,000-yard season, anything is possible for Peterson.

The thing is -- sometimes, every once in a while -- he can give even more than that. It’s why even in a room full of elite athletes, Peterson can still produce awe. It’s something you can see from the start.

“It’s obvious,” Young said. “He’s the top running back in the NFL.”
ESPN colleague Mike Sando's annual age analysis of NFL rosters found that the Detroit Lions have the oldest roster in the league.

That designation might seem odd when you consider the relative youth of the Lions' primary players. You also might not be interested in a ranking where the full range of age differences is only a few years. In sifting through the Lions' roster, however, the culprit -- if you consider an "old" roster a bad thing -- is a big group of veteran backups.

By my count, the Lions have nine projected reserve players whose ages range between 30 and 33 years old. Six are newcomers to the roster and three -- defensive tackle Justin Bannan, linebacker Rocky McIntosh and defensive back Rashean Mathis -- were signed two weeks ago.

On the one hand, it makes sense to have veteran backups when you have some young starters. If right guard Larry Warford struggles, the Lions could replace him with Dylan Gandy (31) or even Leroy Harris (29). If Darius Slay needs more seasoning, the Lions could replace him with Mathis (33).

McIntosh (30) is available to spell any of the Lions' three starting linebackers. Israel Idonije (33) will back up rookie defensive end Ziggy Ansah, while Bannan (34) and C.J. Mosley (30) will provide depth for Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley.

On the other hand, we discussed earlier the Lions' draft issues in the past five years. One of the reasons they needed veteran depth is the inability to develop it on their own. Signing veteran backups also makes it difficult to plan long-term and orderly transitions at certain positions.

Regardless, the team the Lions have on the field at any given point will be a nice blend of young and middle-aged players. If you look at their starters on offense, defense and special teams, you really only see five who are 30 and older. Three of those are on special teams -- place-kicker David Akers (38), long-snapper Don Muhlbach (32) and returner Micheal Spurlock (30).

So I'm not sure there is reason to panic here. But if nothing else, now you know why the Lions rank atop Sando's age rankings.

*Update: The Lions released McIntosh, slightly lowering their composite team age, to make room for safety DeJon Gomes, who was claimed on waivers from the Washington Redskins.

Detroit Lions cut-down analysis

August, 31, 2013
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Most significant move: There were no surprises for the Detroit Lions and, really, there were few big decisions. We noted earlier that the team decided to preserve a roster spot for No. 3 quarterback Kellen Moore, so the most significant move they did make was placing rookie tight end Michael Williams on injured reserve. The Lions had substantial plans for Williams this season as the third tight end in the jumbo package that lineman Riley Reiff filled last season. They also hoped to develop his receiving skills as veterans Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler enter contract years. Williams had surgery last week to repair a hand injury, and though coach Jim Schwartz said the team had no long-term injuries, Williams is in fact lost for the season. (NFL teams can't start placing players on short-term injured reserve until next week.) As a result, rookie Joseph Fauria -- a much better receiver but less of a blocker than Williams -- is on the 53-man roster with Pettigrew and Scheffler.

The dominoes: The Lions apparently chose veteran Michael Spurlock as their kick returner, necessitating the release of rookie Steven Miller, who could return on the practice squad. Spurlock is also a receiver, and for the now he is one of six on the roster, presumably because of Ryan Broyles' sore knees. The release of veteran Matt Willis means Kris Durham is the sixth receiver. You wonder if the Lions would change directions soon in that regard. The Lions sifted through their big group of veteran defensive backups by tapping Rashean Mathis as a swing cornerback/safety and Rocky McIntosh as a backup linebacker while releasing the rest. John Wendling and Don Carey are the backup safeties for now.

What's next: According to multiple reports, the Lions will place running back Montell Owens on short-term injured reserve. That can't happen until next week, so for now he is part of the 53-man roster. He must miss at least six weeks of the regular season. You would think the Lions will bring back a number of the players they cut Saturday for their practice squad, and it's worth remembering that they are No. 5 in priority for NFL waiver claims. Sunday could be a busy day.

List of players cut: WR: Corey Fuller, Matt Willis. RB: Steven Miller, Shaun Chapas. OL: Rodney Austin, Kevin Haslam, Darren Keyton, Jake Scott. DL: Andre Fluellen, Ogemdi Nwagbuo, Xavier Proctor, Jimmy Sadler-McQueen. LB: Brandon Hepburn, Jon Morgan (waived/injured) Chris White. CB: Ron Bartell, Chris Greenwood. S: Amari Spievey, Tyrell Johnson, Martavius Neloms (waived/injured) P: Blake Clingan.
In the past two days, the Detroit Lions have signed a 34-year-old defensive tackle and a 30-year-old linebacker. They've also made plans to work out a soon-to-be 33-year-old cornerback while also signing a rookie defensive lineman whose checkered past left him unsigned when training camp began.

What in the name of panic is going on here?

I guess the easy answer is that the Lions are disappointed with their defensive personnel at certain positions and have called in reinforcements. In reality, the Lions have essentially acted on contingency plans they put in place before the start of training camp.

Defensive tackle Justin Bannan visited the team in July, as did linebacker Rocky McIntosh. In the interim, the Lions haven't had someone step up as a backup defensive tackle behind Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. And the two young challengers to the strongside linebacker job, Tahir Whitehead and Travis Lewis, have both looked overmatched in preseason games.

Bannan is likely to have a backup role along with C.J. Mosley, while McIntosh gives the Lions an option besides Ashlee Palmer at that third linebacker spot. And in veteran cornerback Rashean Mathis, who was scheduled to visit Saturday, the Lions could see an option to incumbent Ron Bartell, who has struggled with injuries and has been pushed for playing time by rookie Darius Slay.

*Update: The Lions announced that Mathis signed a contract after his visit. He was set to participate in Saturday's practice in Allen Park, Mich.

Finally, rookie defensive tackle John Drew agreed to terms about a month after the New England Patriots reportedly pulled their contract offer to him. Drew finished his college career at North Carolina Central University after he was kicked off the team at Duke because of a gun-related arrest. The Lions obviously wanted to evaluate their own depth first before signing him.
Kevin from Los Angeles suggests the San Francisco 49ers could "easily" use their NFL-high 14 draft choices this year to leverage higher-round picks in future drafts.

"It seems like a team desperate for bodies this year would gladly give up future picks," Kevin writes via the NFC West mailbag. "With the glaring needs of some teams, wouldn't it be possible for them to go into the 2014 draft with six or seven picks in the first three rounds, or even the 2015 draft with 10 such picks?"

Sando: I think the 49ers would like to use some of those 14 choices to set up future drafts. Eleven of the 14 picks are eligible for trading. The three compensatory choices are not.

The chart shows which picks the 49ers hold at present. The 31st or 34th choices come to mind as ammunition for landing a first-round choice next year. A look back at recent drafts could provide some precedent.

In 2009, the Seattle Seahawks sent the 37th overall choice to the Denver Broncos for a 2010 first-round pick. This trade worked out great for Seattle. Denver used the 37th pick for Alphonso Smith, who lasted one season with the team. The pick Seattle got from Denver wound up being 14th overall. The Seahawks used that choice to select Earl Thomas, who has become a Pro Bowl safety.

The Broncos made that trade with Seattle in part because they had an additional 2010 first-round choice acquired from Chicago in the Jay Cutler trade. The 49ers' division rival, St. Louis, has an additional first-rounder in 2014. I don't think the Rams will be trading that pick to San Francisco.

In 2007, the New England Patriots traded the 28th overall pick to the 49ers (used for tackle Joe Staley) for the 110th pick and a first-rounder the next year.

In 2006, the New York Jets traded the 35th pick to the Washington Redskins for the 53rd and 189th choices, plus a second-rounder the next year. The Redskins made that move because they wanted Rocky McIntosh.

Those are a few examples of teams acquiring future picks. The 49ers are in prime position to do the same. They appear to have more picks than available roster spots. There are no guarantees another team will play along, however.

2013 UFA counts for NFC West teams

March, 12, 2013
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The NFL has released its official list of restricted and unrestricted free agents.

The chart breaks down the UFA counts by team in the NFC West.

A quick look at the lists, which include a couple players who have already reached agreement on new contracts:

Arizona Cardinals

UFA offense (4): D'Anthony Batiste, Pat McQuistan, Rich Ohrnberger, LaRod Stephens-Howling

UFA defense (8): Michael Adams, Nick Eason, Quentin Groves, Vonnie Holliday, Rashad Johnson, Paris Lenon, James Sanders, Greg Toler

RFA: Brian Hoyer, tendered to second-round pick.

Note: The Cardinals announced Johnson's agreement to a three-year contract.

St. Louis Rams

UFA offense (8): Danny Amendola, Kellen Clemens, Brandon Gibson, Steven Jackson, Barry Richardson, Steve Smith, Robert Turner, Chris Williams

UFA defense (6): Craig Dahl, Bradley Fletcher, Mario Haggan, William Hayes, Trevor Laws, Rocky McIntosh

RFA: Darian Stewart, tendered to right of first refusal.

Note: The Rams announced Hayes' agreement to a three-year contract.

San Francisco 49ers

UFA offense (4): Leonard Davis, Ted Ginn Jr., Randy Moss, Delanie Walker

UFA defense (6): Dashon Goldson, Tavares Gooden, Larry Grant, Clark Haggans, Ricky Jean-Francois, Isaac Sopoaga

RFA: Tramaine Brock, tendered to right of first refusal.

Note: Walker has reportedly agreed to terms on a contract with the Tennessee Titans.

Seattle Seahawks

UFA offense (2): Cameron Morrah, Frank Omiyale

UFA defense (5): Alan Branch, Patrick Chukwurah, Leroy Hill, Jason Jones, Marcus Trufant

UFA special teams (2): Steve Hauschka, Ryan Longwell

RFA: Clint Gresham and Chris Maragos, tendered to right of first refusal; and Clinton McDonald, tendered to seventh-round choice.
The St. Louis Rams' defense could not stop the Green Bay Packers or New England Patriots from flourishing on third down.

Those teams converted 16 of 27 chances in recent victories over St. Louis.

Early downs could present the biggest challenge for the Rams against San Francisco in Week 10. The 49ers like to line up with multiple backs and/or tight ends to stress opponents' base defenses. That will be a key matchup Sunday at Candlestick Park.

As the chart shows, the 49ers are averaging 6.3 yards per carry and 9.2 yards per pass attempt against 4-3 defensive personnel on early downs. Those figures both rank third in the NFL.

The Rams allow 4.0 yards per rush and 7.9 per pass attempt from their 4-3 defense in those situations. League averages are 4.4 and 7.8, respectively, for the 20 teams regularly running 4-3 alignments as their base defenses. Those are respectable figures overall, but a look inside the numbers reveals some inconsistencies.

The Chicago Bears, playing without Matt Forte, managed only 2.8 yards per carry on 20 first- and second-down rushes against the Rams' base defense. Advantage, Rams.

The Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins fared better. Seattle carried 23 times for 141 yards while also averaging 8.2 yards per pass attempt in these situations. Washington used play-action from regular personnel to strike for a 68-yard touchdown when the Rams' base defense stacked eight in the box on first-and-10.

Former NFL assistant Rick Venturi, in grading the Rams' defense for 101ESPN St. Louis, gave high marks for linebackers Jo-Lonn Dunbar and James Laurinaitis. But that was only part of the story.

"The SAM backers, whether it was [Rocky] McIntosh or [Mario] Haggan, have just been a wash," Venturi said. "They've been totally mediocre, but they don't play very much. Very few people play 21 or base personnel [frequently] any more. That is going to change this week in San Francisco. Those guys are going to have to earn their money."

The 49ers have executed 65.6 percent of their first- and second-down rushes from two-back sets. They have averaged 5.5 yards per carry when doing so.

Wrap-up: Redskins 17, Rams 10

October, 2, 2011
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A few thoughts on the Washington Redskins' Week 4 victory over the Rams in St. Louis:

What it means: The Redskins have a ton of depth at running back, and Mike Shanahan likes to show it off. After not getting a single carry in the first two games while Tim Hightower started and Roy Helu backed him up, Ryan Torain went off in this Week 4 game to the tune of 135 yards on 19 carries. Hightower and Helu combined for 59 yards on 16 carries as the Redskins' offense for most of the game looked like something out of Mike and Kyle Shanahan's dreams. The Redskins are 3-1 for the first time since 2008, when they started 4-1 but fell apart in the second half of the season and finished 8-8.

Rex remains a potential problem: Quarterback Rex Grossman's two late-game interceptions allowed the Rams back into a game the Redskins should have put away. The Redskins' offense relies on the run in part because it's a way to limit Grossman's ability to get them beat with big mistakes. Fortunately for Washington, this year's schedule affords the Redskins more opportunities to play that way.

Kerrakpo: The outside linebacker tandem of Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan combined for 3.5 sacks as the Redskins' defense got plenty of pressure on Rams quarterback Sam Bradford and smothered the Rams' offense all day. Inside linebacker Rocky McIntosh also played an excellent all-around game, and Stephen Bowen and Adam Carriker contributed pressure from the interior of the defensive line.

What's next: The Redskins will take a week off, as Week 5 is their bye week. That will give everyone two weeks to speculate in vain on the running back rotation. Washington returns to action on Sunday, Oct. 16 with a home game against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Camp Confidential: Redskins

August, 6, 2011
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ASHBURN, Va. -- This will be Brian Orakpo's third year in the NFL, but the Washington Redskins' linebacker finds himself in an unusual position. There are only 16 players in camp who have been with the Redskins longer than Orakpo has. Only five of those 16 are starters and only three play defense. This puts Orakpo, who turned 25 last week, in the position of having to help a lot of new guys learn the way things work around Redskins Park.

[+] EnlargeBrian Orakpo
AP Photo/Evan VucciEntering just his third season in the league, Brian Orakpo is already one of the longest-tenured players on the Redskins' defense.
"It's very odd, man," Orakpo said. "I'm only going into my third year and already guys are looking at me as being a veteran on the team. So it's a different era, where we're at right now, but I'm excited for the opportunity."

Last year's plan didn't work. Donovan McNabb flopped as the quarterback. The 4-3 defensive personnel didn't fit into new coach Mike Shanahan's 3-4. And Shanahan decided, one year later, that the best thing would be to bring in new players: Barry Cofield, Stephen Bowen, Josh Wilson, Chris Chester, Tim Hightower and a slew of rookie receivers. A couple of quarterbacks, John Beck and Rex Grossman, who were on the team last year now find themselves competing to be the starter at the most important position.

"The plan, at least the plan in free agency, was to get people who are solid football players but solid people as well, and who are young," Shanahan said. "The second year, you always have a good feel for what type of people fit into your scheme and what type of people you want to have on your football team. If the nucleus of your football team is guys with character who can play, you've got a good chance."

Most of the new additions are in their mid- to late-20s -- players who are already established in the league yet young enough that they can continue to grow as the team does over the next several years. They're men and players, Shanahan says, that he specifically targeted for that reason and for those he listed above. And the feeling around training camp is that this is a group of people looking to build something together.

"Of course, right now we're looking to win, but you want to build something with longevity," said safety O.J. Atogwe, a graybeard among the new additions at the ripe old age of 30. "We want to have something that's sustainable, and I believe that's what Coach Shanahan is doing, getting good character guys in here, younger guys. You're building the nucleus of a team that can be a contender for years and years to come."

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Who's the quarterback? Shanahan surprised a lot of people by not taking a quarterback in the draft. He surprised a lot more people shortly thereafter, when he declared that he believed Beck, who was already on the team, could be the starter. He has since moved to include Grossman as a candidate for that spot, but neither has inspired much confidence outside of the Redskins' offices.

Shanahan and his son, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, insist that they loved Beck when he was coming out of college and was picked 40th in the 2007 draft. They believe he continues to show the same qualities they liked when they watched him then -- athleticism, mobility, quick release, natural leadership ability -- and that the only reason he hasn't had NFL success is because he hasn't had NFL opportunity. They insist they like Grossman, who operated their offense last year at least as well as, if not better than, McNabb did. The sense I got from hanging around the Redskins for a few days is that the coaches are more concerned about the pieces around the quarterback -- the line, the receivers, the backs -- than they are about the quarterback position itself. Speaking of which...

[+] EnlargeSantana Moss
AP Photo/Evan VucciSantana Moss returns, but the receiver depth chart behind him is a bit muddled.
2. To whom will that quarterback throw? Santana Moss is back, and the team added veteran wideouts to the mix in Jabar Gaffney amd Donte' Stallworth. But in order to be successful, the Redskins' offense must get a jolt from one or more of the inexperienced receivers on the roster. Anthony Armstrong showed something late last year, and he'll be pushed by rookies Leonard Hankerson and Aldrick Robinson, as well as by holdover Malcolm Kelly, a 2008 second-rounder. Running back Hightower can be a weapon in the passing game, and the best receivers on the roster outside of Moss may be tight ends Chris Cooley and Fred Davis. But because of concerns about the offensive line and whether it can come together in short order, those guys may end up doing a lot of blocking.

3. Do they have the defense down yet? Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said last year that it would take two years for the 3-4 install to work because it takes that long for players to re-train their minds and bodies around it. Adding in players better suited to the 3-4 than the people they had here last year should help, but new players such as Cofield, Bowen and rookie Ryan Kerrigan are experiencing the defense for the first time. The Redskins have a lot of talent on the defensive side of the ball and could be good there in short order. But they're still in a learning process, and how good they are on defense this year will depend on the speed with which they learn it.

ADDITION BY SUBTRACTION

The story of last year's Redskins training camp was disgruntled defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and his distaste for what he believed would be his assignment in the new 3-4 defense. Haynesworth's refusal to be open to the switch led to a drawn-out confrontation between him and Mike Shanahan, the conditioning-test mess and a feud that lasted all the way through the season. Trading Haynesworth to New England (and McNabb to Minnesota) was one of the first things the Redskins did when the lockout ended, and the main reason they did it was because they were determined not to let last year's problems infect this year's training camp. It hasn't. Without naming names, London Fletcher laughed when I told him Cofield, who played in a 4-3 in New York, had told me he was excited to make the switch to a 3-4 nose tackle.

"That's good, to hear that he's excited about it," Fletcher said, chuckling. "I want a nose that's excited about playing that position."

EXTRA PREPARATION

Fletcher, Beck and Lorenzo Alexander organized some of the most frequent and best-attended player workouts of any team during the lockout. Fletcher said the three of them divvied up administrative responsibilities such as calling guys to make sure they were coming and reaching out to local schools to see about the use of fields. Fletcher said there was one time he flew in the day before one of the workouts and went over on a whim to check out the high school field on which they were scheduled to practice only to find it unacceptable and have to make a last-minute change.

"We had some great turnout, got some great work in," Fletcher said. "Obviously it's not what we're getting here now, but it was important for us. What upsets me a little bit is when we have something that we did in our player-only camps, and we don't cover it correctly out here. I'll see somebody do something wrong and I want to yell out, 'Man, we worked on that!'"

Maybe, but the coaching staff appreciates that the players took the time to work out together while they weren't permitted to work out with coaches at the team facility. Kyle Shanahan said he notices it with those young wide receivers.

"We weren't able to work with them, so that was one of the positions I was worried the most with," he said. "And I could tell that Rex and John had gotten with these guys and given them some stuff, and I could tell these guys had put in their work before they got here, so we weren't just speaking Chinese to them."

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Alexander is an extremely valuable guy to the Redskins' defense. He has lined up at all four linebacker spots, could start the season on the outside if first-round pick Kerrigan isn't ready and has been lining up inside next to Fletcher as well. Even with the return of Rocky McIntosh, expect Alexander to find his way onto the field a lot.
  • Tim Hightower isn't here just for depth. I believe, after talking to Mike Shanahan, that Hightower is the clear front-runner for the starting running back job as long as his fumble problems don't follow him to Washington from Arizona.
  • Ryan Torain, at least before he hurt himself, seemed to be working on his role in pass protection, which was something he didn't do much of last year. He'll have to if he wants to keep up with Hightower, for whom that's a strength.
  • Second-round pick Jarvis Jenkins has been one of the eye-openers in camp and should fit nicely into the defensive line rotation. "He's learning so fast," offensive tackle Trent Williams told me, "it's almost scary."
  • Beck may look good to the coaches who loved his college tape, but if you were out there watching the first week of practice, you saw a lot of receivers reaching behind themselves to catch his passes and a lot of wobble on the deep downfield throws. He does look good when he scrambles and runs, but as a passer, he looks as if he needs more camp.
  • Trent Williams looks slimmed down from last year and has looked good in his win-some, lose-some battles with Orakpo in early drills.

Redskins back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
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Readiness factor: The Redskins held a ton of player-organized workouts, and they seemed to go very well. Organized by defensive leaders London Fletcher and Lorenzo Alexander and inspired by the camps the Redskins teams of the past ran to great effect during labor stoppages, the Redskins' workouts were well-attended and well-directed. There were days when Fletcher would call plays from a piece of paper he kept in his pocket, trying to help the defense run some of the 3-4 looks that were installed (but not quite mastered) last year. They brought fans out of the stands to run drills with them and generally just had a good old time. It'll be interesting to see if all of that lockout-time bonding pays dividends once the games start to count.

Biggest challenge: Figuring out the quarterback situation. Donovan McNabb is surely gone as soon as they can move him. They didn't draft a quarterback in April, and shortly after the draft head coach Mike Shanahan said he liked the idea of John Beck as his starter. Whether it's Beck or Rex Grossman, who ran the offense late last year when the McNabb plan blew up, the Redskins will be going with an imperfect solution at the most important position on the field. Will it be a season-long nightmare that forces them to draft a quarterback high in next year's draft? Will it be a revolving door with one guy starting one game and the other the next? Will the defense play well enough to overcome it? Will Beck surprise and play better than everyone (except, apparently, Shanahan) thinks he can? Many questions, still no answers yet. At least soon they can start running drills and see what they actually have back there.

Haslett's second season: Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett came to town with Shanahan last year and converted the Redskins from a 4-3 defensive team to a 3-4. It was not an easy transition, and many of the pieces that were in place didn't fit well into the new scheme. Now, every coach who knows about it says it takes two years, not one, to fully transition to the 3-4. So we should see improvement in the way the Redskins play defense in 2011. They still need to add some pieces on the line, find a cornerback or two, and they may need a linebacker if Rocky McIntosh leaves and Alexander can't be a full-time starter on the inside. But the pre-lockout addition of O.J. Atogwe at safety and the drafting of outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan in the first round were good moves. Along with the year of experience the returning guys got last year, they could help the Redskins put together a respectable defense sooner than you might expect.

Key players without contracts for 2011: OT Jammal Brown, CB Phillip Buchanon, DE Kedric Golston, QB Rex Grossman, CB DeAngelo Hall, LB Rocky McIntosh, WR Santana Moss, C Casey Rabach, CB Carlos Rogers
Hey, we're not talking about the 1985 Bears here, OK? Only one team in the league gave up more points last year than the Cowboys did. Only one team in the league gave up more yards last year than the Redskins did. (In both cases, it was the Broncos, by the way. You wanna talk about bottoming out?) It's safe to say that both Washington and Dallas had higher defensive expectations in 2010, even though the Redskins were switching to a 3-4 and their highest-paid player didn't want to play.

[+] EnlargeRob Ryan
Andrew Weber/US PresswireThe Cowboys brought in Rob Ryan to invigorate a defense that finished a disappointing 23rd in the league in 2010.
It's also safe to say that both the Cowboys and the Redskins expect to improve -- and improve a lot -- on defense in 2011. The Cowboys hired Rob Ryan as their new defensive coordinator, hoping he could get the defense back to its late-2009 performance levels. The Redskins drafted Ryan Kerrigan in the first round to play outside linebacker opposite Brian Orakpo and hopefully offer one of the most fearsome young pass-rush combinations in the league. Washington also signed free-agent safety O.J. Atogwe prior to the lockout, and the safety duo of Atogwe and LaRon Landry looks as if it will be a strength of the Washington defense.

There's work yet to do in both places. The Cowboys need to address safety (and maybe cornerback), and the Redskins need a nose tackle and likely will have to replace Carlos Rogers at cornerback and Rocky McIntosh at inside linebacker. But my debate question for you this Friday is this:

Which defense will have a better 2011 season? The Cowboys' defense or the Redskins' defense?

It's not as crazy a question as you might think. Washington does need the nose tackle, but as of right now I think they're ahead of Dallas in the secondary. And while the mere presence of DeMarcus Ware on the roster gives the Cowboys the edge at linebacker, I'm not sure how far behind the Redskins are at the position overall. Orakpo is an emerging force and London Fletcher and Lorenzo Alexander are strong, steadying presences. If Anthony Spencer plays the way he did in 2009, this is no contest. But at this point that's a big "if," and the linebacker comparison between these two teams could come down to Kerrigan vs. Spencer. If the rookie has a big year and Spencer disappoints again, we might be sitting here this time next year saying the Redskins have the better linebackers.

Might even be saying the Redskins have the better defense.

I'm going to pick the Cowboys in this debate for now, but I think it's close. I'm going to give the benefit of the doubt to Ryan and his ability to rejuvenate the good veteran personnel they have there, and I'm going to assume they upgrade at safety. I think Bradie James and Keith Brooking still have plenty to offer, and I think Spencer and Mike Jenkins will bounce back.

But if I'm wrong on any of that, I'm not going to be surprised if the Redskins end up with the better defense. The second year is a big one, coaches say, for making strides in the 3-4 defense. The Packers, who just won the Super Bowl in Year Two of Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme, are the best recent example of that. The Redskins don't have as many star-caliber defensive players as Green Bay has (nor do they have a quarterback), so there's no reason for Redskins fans to get their hopes up too high. But I don't think Washington's defense is too far away from challenging for a spot as the best in the NFC East.

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