NFL Nation: Shaun McDonald

 
  Rick Stewart/Getty Images
  Limas Sweed hauls in one of his two receptions in Thursday night's game.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was pleased with his team's preseason debut, and his satisfaction went much deeper than the final score.

The Steelers defeated the Arizona Cardinals, 20-10, in a Super Bowl rematch at Heinz Field. The game doesn't count in the standings but it did provide some insight into what to look forward to in the coming months.

Here are five observations:

1. Sweed up to speed

Perhaps the biggest winner in Pittsburgh's preseason opener was second-year receiver Limas Sweed. After struggling with drops and concentration during his rookie year, Sweed has a lot to prove this summer as he tries to fill a role in the Steelers' offense.

Sweed made an early and convincing claim for the vacant No. 3 receiver spot by recording two catches for 56 yards. Both were difficult receptions, as the first was leaping over the middle in traffic and the second was a 45-yard reception where Sweed made a late adjustment.

"Just like in practice," said Sweed, who has made plays throughout training camp. "I saw the ball, got it at the highest point and made a play."

2. Rookies are productive

When you think of high-profile draft classes, the Steelers are not the first team to come to mind. Coming off a Super Bowl victory, they had the final pick in most rounds and made just one selection on the first day.

But Pittsburgh's 2009 rookie class looked strong against the Cardinals. First-round pick Evander "Ziggy" Hood recorded a sack in the second half. Third-round receiver Mike Wallace caught two passes for 35 yards and returned a kickoff for an additional 35 yards, and rookie cornerback Joe Burnett intercepted a pass that set up a fourth-quarter touchdown.

"I feel like I did pretty good," Wallace said of his NFL debut. "But I still missed a couple things. I need to go back to training camp in Latrobe, watch this film, learn from it and not make the same mistakes next week."

3. Sepulveda boosts special teams

 Sepulveda

Punter Daniel Sepulveda was all smiles after being back on the field for the first time in about 20 months with a knee injury. The home crowd of 58,330 was excited, too. Sepulveda received one of the biggest ovations of the night when he stepped on the field.

"It's nice to be well-received liked that," Sepulveda said afterwards. "But I'm surprised they didn't wait until after the kick."

Sepulveda stayed busy during his first game back with six punts averaging 49.5 yards per attempt. Two of his kicks were placed inside the 20. It was the type of punting not seen in Heinz Field during last year's Super Bowl run.

4. Offensive line still looks shaky

Although the offense played just two series, that was long enough to see a few missed assignments on the offensive line. Arizona's starting defense was able to get decent pressure on Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who finished 4-for-6 for 33 yards. He wasn't sacked but had to scramble on occasion.

"We still have some things to work on," Pittsburgh left tackle Max Starks said. "We need to shore up some protection things."

The running game also didn't look stout early as Rashard Mendenhall had nine carries for 24 yards (2.7 average) with the starting offense. On several of Mendenhall's carries, he was hit at or behind the line of scrimmage.

5. Dixon gets extended look

It was obvious that Pittsburgh's coaching staff wanted to get an extended look at second-year quarterback Dennis Dixon. He played nearly three quarters and finished 10 of 19 for 112 yards.

Dixon showed some good things. He had good chemistry with backup receiver Shaun McDonald (six catches, 69 yards) in the second half. But it's clear Dixon still has some work to do if he wants to be the No. 2 quarterback this season.

Veteran Charlie Batch was 1 of 2 for 45 yards and has the edge right now to backup Roethlisberger. Batch played sparingly Thursday after throwing in his first game since breaking his collarbone last season.

 
  Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
  Veteran receiver Hines Ward promises the Steelers will stay focused this season.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

LATROBE, Pa. -- University of Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari knows a title contender when he sees one.

Fantasy Football: 32 Questions
ESPN.com fantasy expert Christopher Harris wonders why the Super Bowl champs don't have more fantasy stars. Story
Calipari, who has led two different programs to the Final Four, was in Steelers training camp this week to see what he could incorporate into his program.

"They are a championship organization because of the people," said Calipari, a native of suburban Pittsburgh. "That means the people that own it, the people that manage it and the people that coach it. They make sure the players are quality people and they take care of everybody. That's why they are what they are."

After returning 20 of 22 starters, Pittsburgh is in a prime position to become the first group since the 2003-04 New England Patriots to win back-to-back Super Bowls. But it won't be easy.

They have a shot if they can answer "yes" to these key questions.

Camp Confidential: AFC North
Bengals: Sun., Aug. 2
Steelers: Fri., Aug. 7
Browns: Mon., Aug. 17
Ravens: Sat., Aug. 22
Training Camp index

Key questions

1. Will the offensive line improve in 2009?

The knee injury this week to guard Darnell Stapleton already hurts the depth of a unit that has struggled in recent years. Stapleton, who started in the Super Bowl, will have arthroscopic knee surgery Friday and will miss a good portion of the preseason.

Pittsburgh's offensive line remains one of the team's few glaring weaknesses. The Steelers have allowed quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to be sacked an astounding 139 times the past three seasons. The running game, normally a Steelers staple, stalled in 2008.

Knowing that Roethlisberger cannot continue to take a pounding at this clip, the Steelers have been working on improving pass protection this summer. Although Stapleton is injured, the Steelers return all five starters from the Super Bowl and hope another year together improves chemistry and helps the line's overall performance.

Pittsburgh also has backups who have the potential to contribute, including versatile guard/tackle Trai Essex and rookies Kraig Urbik and A.Q. Shipley, who were taken in the third and seventh rounds, respectively.

2. Can Pittsburgh handle distractions?

In terms of distractions, the Steelers did not get off to a glowing start. About a week before camp opened, Roethlisberger was hit with a civil lawsuit alleging sexual assault in Nevada. Pittsburgh's offseason was relatively quiet up until that point, and Roethlisberger apologized to his teammates and the organization last week for shifting the attention from football.

Whether the Steelers learned anything from 2006 remains to be seen. That was the last time the Steelers were coming off a Super Bowl victory, and the wheels came off quickly and completely as distractions, injuries and poor play led to a 2-6 start and an 8-8 finish.

But this group seems very business-like in its approach. Key veterans such as receiver Hines Ward, linebacker James Farrior and safety Troy Polamalu were also on that disappointing team in 2006 and claim to have learned from that humbling experience. Training camp practices have been crisp and players, including Roethlisberger, appear focused.

3. Will the special teams be good?

The Steelers don't have many holes, so we're just nitpicking. But Pittsburgh's special teams were the weakest of the three units (offense, defense, special teams) last season.

  Reed

Kicker Jeff Reed, in the final year of his contract, is solid. But beyond that, Pittsburgh's special teams were weak.

The Steelers are trying to find a boost in the return game. In camp, Pittsburgh is working out several new players at returning kicks, including former CFL running back Stefan Logan and receiver Shaun McDonald. The goal this year is to take every-down players such as Santonio Holmes off special teams to help the offense.

Perhaps the biggest addition to special teams will be the return of punter Daniel Sepulveda, who missed all of 2008 with a torn ACL in his knee. Pittsburgh's punting was one of the league's worst last year and Sepulveda should change that. The team also is giving Sepulveda an occasional day off from punting in camp to make sure he doesn't rush back.

Market watch

Second-year receiver Limas Sweed was an enigma last season. First, he couldn't find his way on the field. Then when his number was called late in the year, Sweed wasn't ready.

But last season's disappointment led to Sweed become one of the hardest-working players on the team this offseason. In camp, the former second-round pick looks more confident and continues to make plays.

Sweed has the inside track to open the season as Pittsburgh's No. 3 receiver and knows his number will be called early if he holds onto the job. This time Sweed believes he's prepared to produce.

 
  AP Photo/Michael Conroy
  Rookie defensive tackle Evander Hood should have time to prove himself this season.

Newcomer to watch

The Steelers do not often take defensive linemen high in the draft, but they broke that mold with first-round pick Evander "Ziggy" Hood.

Pittsburgh likes Hood's motor and versatility. He is expected to spell both starters at defensive end and possibly play some nose tackle.

The three starting defensive linemen for the Steelers are all over 30, so it will be vital for Hood to provide depth and inject some youthful exuberance. The fact that he's not expected to start puts him in a good spot to produce without the normal pressures of a first-round pick.

Observation deck

Roethlisberger is struggling with his arm strength early in camp. After taking a pounding and playing so deep into the postseason, Roethlisberger didn't do any throwing independently away from the Steelers this offseason, choosing to rest instead. But many of his deep throws are coming up short and intercepted. With the preseason starting next week, it will be interesting to see how long it takes for Roethlisberger to regain his form. ... Tailback Rashard Mendenhall appears to have recovered from his season-ending shoulder injury. The former first-round pick lost significant weight in his upper body last year because he was unable to lift weights after surgery. But he has regained his bulk and looks more sure of himself in his second training camp. ...Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is using inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons in a variety of ways now that the former first-round pick is a full-time starter. Timmons has great range to patrol the middle of the field. But LeBeau also likes Timmons' skills as a pass-rusher and has been turning him loose in pressure packages. ...Look out for rookie receiver Mike Wallace. The third-round pick from Mississippi is making a good impression in camp. Teammates are already calling him one of the fastest players on the team.

 
  ESPN.com Illustration
  Who should be No. 1 heading into the season: the reigning Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers or perennial contenders the New England Patriots? Our bloggers debate.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker and Len Pasquarelli

When it comes to NFL dominance and consistency, few teams rival the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers. With five Super Bowl titles between them since 2000, they're the two contenders for the mythical title of "Team of the Decade."

But which franchise deserves top billing heading into the 2009 season?

Does the return of superstar quarterback Tom Brady from a knee injury make New England the early favorite? Or should the defending champion Steelers, who return 20 of 22 starters, be considered the team to beat until proven otherwise?

To debate these topics and more, we bring in ESPN.com NFL writers Len Pasquarelli and James Walker.

In ESPN.com's May Power Rankings, the Steelers topped the poll of our experts -- despite a No. 9 overall ranking from Pasquarelli. He deems the Patriots the best team entering the season.

Who is the favorite heading into the 2009 season and why?

 
  Donald Miralle/Getty Images
  The Steelers return 20 of 22 starters from last year's Super Bowl team, including receiver Santonio Holmes.
James Walker: Not much has changed since Pittsburgh hoisted its sixth Lombardi Trophy in February. The Steelers were the NFL's best team just three months ago and still deserve top honors as the preseason favorites.

Pittsburgh lost just two starters from its championship team, and a strong case can be made that replacements Lawrence Timmons and William Gay will be more productive than their predecessors, linebacker Larry Foote and cornerback Bryant McFadden. Key Steelers such as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, receiver Hines Ward and tailback Willie Parker are healthy again. Second-year players Rashard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed appear primed to make contributions in reserve roles, which didn't happen last season.

The few weaknesses from last season also have been addressed. Pittsburgh punter Daniel Sepulveda is returning from injury and will be a major upgrade in the kicking game. Rookie first-round pick Evander Hood should provide youthful depth for an aging defensive line, and the team now has a plethora of speedy kick returners competing to fill that role.

If Pittsburgh stays healthy and the offensive line jells in 2009, as the coaching staff suggests, you'd be hard pressed to find a glaring weakness with the defending champs.

Len Pasquarelli: As an old Chuck Noll disciple, I still believe that many games are won at the line of scrimmage. And the Patriots averaged the second most points per game in the league in a season when the NFL's best quarterback, Tom Brady, played less than one full game. Perhaps more importantly, the Pats also have an edge up front on both offense and defense. From 2005-2007 -- Brady's last three full seasons in the league -- he was sacked only 73 times. That's 66 fewer times than his counterpart, Ben Roethlisberger, was sacked over the same span. Pass protection is a synergistic thing, as dependent on the quarterback unloading the ball as it is on the linemen blocking. Still, the New England offensive line, under the direction of Dante Scarnecchia, is one of the best in the league, with standouts like left tackle Matt Light, left guard Logan Mankins, and center Dan Koppen.

But the area where the Patriots own the biggest edge is on the defensive front. Both teams employ the 3-4 scheme, and the Pittsburgh line is both experienced and good. Still, their New England counterparts can be downright dominating at times. The Patriots almost always seem to choose a defensive lineman high in the draft, and that has paid off handsomely for them, with players like Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, and Ty Warren. Remember the old adage from cigarette commercials: "It's what's up front that counts?" New England coach Bill Belichick is a proponent of building a team from the inside out, kind of in the Noll image, and he has assembled terrific up-front units on both sides of the ball. Players at the skill positions aren't bad, either, but the Pats generally own the line of scrimmage, and that's a big plus for them.

Both teams are proponents of the 3-4 defense. How can New England's defense be any better than Pittsburgh's unit, which led the NFL in 2008?

 
  AP Photo/Stephan Savoia
  Patriots coach Bill Belichick will figure out how to make New England's defense competitive.
Pasquarelli: Gra
nted, the Patriots' secondary was shaky in 2008, and allowed a ton of touchdown passes. Add to that the fact that New England has lost both starting cornerbacks (Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs) the last two offseasons, and that safety Rodney Harrison might not return for 2009. Yeah, the Pats have to "scheme up" a pass rush, since they don't really have an upfield force off the edge.

But with apologies to Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, the Pats have Belichick, and he is a master at switching his fronts and disguising coverages. There aren't many 3-4 linemen who can take over a game, but as noted above, the Patriots have three of them. Certainly the performance of the Steelers' unit, which defends every blade of grass like it's their fortune, is an admirable outfit. But their secondary problems aside, the Patriots are still plenty good enough, particularly if the offense removes some of the pressure by scoring big.

Walker: Len, Pittsburgh had the NFL's best defense in 2008 and the Patriots were No. 10. I don't see a comparison.

Sure, both teams run 3-4 defenses. But when you look at every component -- be it yards, points allowed, or sacking the quarterback -- it wasn't even close. For instance, New England had 31 sacks as a team last year. Pittsburgh outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley combined for 27.5 sacks and the Steelers amassed 51 sacks total. The Steelers simply play defense on a much higher level.

In fact, New England's defense has been somewhat overrated in recent years. Brady's ability to put up points offensively, particularly in 2007, made a lot of opponents one-dimensional and easier to defend. If you noticed without Brady last year, the Patriots dropped six spots defensively in 2008 from No. 4 to No. 10.

Speaking of Brady, does his return shift the balance of power to New England?

Pasquarelli: Brady and Roethlisberger are both members of a small subset, the truly elite quarterbacks in the game. But as noted above, Brady is afforded better protection, and his playmakers are much more explosive. In his last three seasons before the knee injury, Brady threw 100 touchdown passes and only 34 interceptions. In his past three seasons, Roethlisberger has 67 touchdown passes and 48 interceptions, and has been sacked an incredible 139 times.

New England finished fifth in the league in total offense in 2008, second in scoring, and won 11 games, despite playing most of the year with an inexperienced backup quarterback in Matt Cassel. It would be naïve and foolhardy to think they won't do even better with their main trigger man back in the lineup. Of the Patriots' five defeats last season, two came by seven points or less, and Brady will take care of that small difference.

Walker: Anyone who automatically makes New England the Super Bowl favorite in May is making a bold assumption that Brady is 100 percent recovered from major reconstructive knee surgery. But many questions remain.

Will Brady be protective of his surgically-repaired knee? Will rust be an issue and cause Brady to get off to a slow start? How will he respond to getting hit? These questions will not be answered until months down the line. But you know exactly what you're getting from Roethlisberger and the Steelers, which is why you have to make them the favorites.

Keep in mind, Brady suffered his knee injury in the opening game last year against the Kansas City Chiefs. Therefore, he hasn't played in a full game since February of 2008, a Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants. With such an extended layoff, I doubt we're going to see the 4,800-yard, 50-touchdown version of Brady this year, and even that version wasn't good enough to win New England a Super Bowl.

Will Pittsburgh and New England meet in the AFC Championship game?

Pasquarelli: After a year out of the playoffs, New England will be poised to try to regain a title that almost seemed like its birthright. Pittsburgh faces a tough haul in its own division from Baltimore. One of the two teams won't make it to the conference championship game and -- hometown loyalties notwithstanding -- we're betting it's the Steelers who will be absent.

Inarguably, these are two of the finest organizations in the NFL, even if one is old-guard authorship and the other is new-age, and the two have terrific front office personnel. Both rely on preparing young players to step into roles as starters or contributors, as Pittsburgh will with linebacker Lawrence Timmons and cornerback William Gay, and New England will with linebacker Shawn Crable and cornerback Terrence Wheatley.

But the Patriots' veteran free agents -- guys like tailback Fred Taylor, tight end Chris Baker, wide receiver Joey Galloway, and cornerbacks Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden -- will have more of an impact in 2009 than the Pittsburgh additions of spare parts like wide receiver Shaun McDonald and cornerback Keiwan Ratliff.

Walker: Although I easily could see other talented teams such as the Indianapolis Colts, Baltimore Ravens or Tennessee Titans spoiling the party, Pittsburgh and New England are currently the beasts of the AFC. In fact, these have been the top two teams in the NFL this decade, and they have the five combined championships over that span to prove it.

It would be fitting for these two franchises to settle this debate on the field for the right to advance to Super Bowl XLIV, and perhaps, solidify the title of "Team of the Decade." Pittsburgh and New England will not meet in the regular season in 2009. But if the Steelers and Patriots avoid the injury bug and play up to their talent levels, I have a feeling they could cross paths at some point in the postseason with a lot at stake.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers opened their first full-squad, mandatory minicamp Friday to kick off the 2009 season.

Here are some notes and observations:

  • Inside linebacker Larry Foote was the only no-show Friday. Foote stated publicly that he wants to be released. The team has the option of fining Foote approximately $9,000 for missing this weekend's practices. But Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said that will not be the case, because Foote has remained in constant contact with the team.

"We will not fine Larry," Tomlin said. "He and I agreed mutually that it was best for all parties involved for him not to be here this weekend."

  • Second-year players Limas Sweed and Rashard Mendenhall looked pretty good on the first day of minicamp. Sweed, a second-year receiver, made several nice catches Friday while Mendenhall's quickness and vision are still apparent. Mendenhall said he's now able to lift weights again to regain some of the muscle mass he lost while sidelined with a shoulder injury.
  • Another player in the final year of his contract, starting tailback Willie Parker, said he's not going to cause a scene this offseason. Parker plans to show up for all the camps, and said he's disappointed with his performance and various injuries last year.

"I got to make the best decision, and I think the best decision is to be around the team and help the best way as possible," Parker said.

  • To help prevent injuries Parker said he spent this offseason doing Pilates, which he deemed "kind of girly" but helpful at the same time.
  • A funny play happened in team drills Friday when undrafted rookie receiver Steven Black of Memphis went across the middle against the first-team defense. Backup quarterback Charlie Batch hit Black right in the numbers when a hard-charging James Harrison scared Black so much that he dropped the ball. Even in non-contact drills, the Pro Bowl linebacker can intimidate.
  • Pittsburgh made an interesting signing Friday in veteran receiver Shaun McDonald. The seven-year veteran could push Sweed for the No. 3 receiver spot. McDonald was most productive in 2007, when he caught 79 passes for 943 yards and six touchdowns.

"We desire to create competition," Tomlin said. "The only way that we're going to be a really good football team is if we have really good competition and guys competing."

  • Finally, for those interested in rookie jersey numbers, notables include first-round pick Evander "Ziggy" Hood (No. 96), third-round pick and cornerback Keenan Lewis (No. 20) and Penn State rookie center A.Q. Shipley (No. 61).
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Rick Telander of the Chicago Sun-Times addresses the delicate topic brought forth by Tuesday's Pro Bowl selection announcement: Despite strong popularity with fans, Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher is no longer regarded as a top middle linebacker by his peers in the league.

Urlacher finished second in fan voting among NFC middle linebackers, which counts one-third of a player's total vote. The other two-thirds comes from other players and coaches. While we don't know where Urlacher ranked in those votes, it was low enough to finish the overall voting as the NFC's third alternate.

Writes Telander:

But it is also possible, likely even, that Urlacher is simply reaping the reasoned deflationary status he deserves -- and maybe has deserved -- as a highly hyped and highly paid poster boy in the historic City of Middle Linebackers. Though he was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2000 after being snatched out of New Mexico by the Bears in the first round of the draft, Urlacher almost immediately made some folks feel he was being overly promoted because he held down the sacred spot once worked by legendary Bill George, Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary.

Urlacher has had a solid season in 2008, but you need more than solid from a middle linebacker in a Tampa-2 system -- especially when your contract was upgraded by $18 million this summer. Urlacher has always been about making big plays, but this season he has two interceptions, no forced fumbles and no sacks. Outside linebacker Lance Briggs, the Bears' lone Pro Bowl selection, has nearly 40 more tackles than him.

Is it time for the Bears to start a search for a new middle linebacker? Telander:

Every year, a fresh crop of young savages comes out of our colleges, lurching toward the NFL like zombies smelling blood. One day soon, the Bears will be looking at an Urlacher replacement. It is time to see a re-emergence of this city icon, a final late surge, guided perhaps by offseason frenzy from the potential Hall of Fame man in the middle. Either Urlacher does that, or the Pro Bowl kid from the high desert drifts into the sunset.

Continuing around the NFC North on a Wednesday morning:

  • Briggs on his status as the Bears' top defensive player: "I do feel like ... obviously after four Pro Bowls, I'm definitely a big piece of what we do. Whether it's my defense or whose defense it is, that's not necessarily for me to decide right now. I do think that my role, as far as what we do, is definitely bigger." Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune has the story.
  • Bears tailback Matt Forte isn't worried about his injured right big toe, writes Bob LeGere of the Daily Herald.
  • Green Bay cornerback Charles Woodson said Tuesday it is "disappointing" that the Packers defense hasn't played better considering its talent level. Woodson and safety Nick Collins were named to the Pro Bowl. Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette has details.
  • Collins was at an ultrasound appointment with his wife when he learned the news, writes Jason Wilde of the Wisconsin State Journal.
  • Minnesota linebacker Ben Leber has stepped up in the absence of E.J. Henderson, writes Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune.
  • Receiver Bobby Wade has been the Vikings' leading receiver since joining the team in 2007, writes Sean Jensen of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
  • Detroit placed three more players on injured reserve Tuesday: Receiver Shaun McDonald (ankle), safety Dwight Smith (ankle) and cornerback Keith Smith (groin). John Niyo of the Detroit News has details.
  • Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com to the Lions fans base: "I firmly believe that once you start rooting for your team to lose, you're no longer a fan."
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

DETROIT -- Greetings from a hushed Ford Field. We have a few of lineup changes to bring you as players start warming up:

DraftRoundPickTeamRookie WRStartsRec.Yds. TD
2003254ARIAnquan Boldin161011,3778
200413ARILarry Fitzgerald 16587808
2003117ARIBryant Johnson8354381
20025149ARIJason McAddley8253621
20057226ARILeRon McCoy4181911
20034124SFBrandon Lloyd 1142122
20034106STLShaun McDonald110620
20075142ARISteve Breaston08920
2004131SFRashaun Woods071601
20076197SEACourtney Taylor05380
2003374STLKevin Curtis14130
2007376SFJason Hill0160
20055174SFRasheed Marshall01-10
20076210SEAJordan Kent0000
20077249STLDerek Stanley0000
2006384SFBrandon Williams0000
20065144STLMarques Hagans0000
20067218ARITodd Watkins0000
20067249SEABen Obomanu0000
20056192STLDante Ridgeway0000
20057223SFMarcus Maxwell0000
2004377SFDerrick Hamilton0000
20045157SEAD.J. Hackett0000
20036197SFArnaz Battle0000
20037224SEATaco Wallace0000
2002395STLEric Crouch0000

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

I put together this chart as a companion to the earlier entry on rookie receivers. This shows rookie stats for every receiver NFC West teams have drafted since 2002. Eighteen of the 26 started zero games as rookies. Only four reached 20 receptions as rookies. Arizona has been the only team to draft productive rookie receivers with any consistency.

A quick look at the NFC West's rookie receivers and their likely prospects for 2008:
  • Arizona: Injury problems prevented third-round choice Early Doucet from seriously challenging for the No. 3 job vacated by Bryant Johnson. Doucet should play in a reserve role. Undrafted free agent Lance Long appears headed for the practice squad if he doesn't earn one of the final roster spots. Long has impressed in camp.
  • San Francisco: Sixth-round choice Josh Morgan has been the surprise of camp. He could figure into the rotation if the 49ers continue to suffer from injuries. Undrafted free agent Cam Colvin appears headed for the practice squad.
  • St. Louis: Second-round choice Donnie Avery and fourth-rounder Keenan Burton should play more than most rookies at the position. Avery adds value as a return specialist. Undrafted free agent Matt Caddell has one catch for 5 yards during preseason.
  • Seattle: Undrafted free agent Michael Bumpus has played well enough to land on the practice squad if, as expected, he misses the cut.
The receiver position in general has confounded NFL teams. John Clayton explored some of the reasons in a previous column. As Clayton discovered, NFL teams have developed only six Pro Bowl receivers since 2001.
 
 Kevin Terrell/Getty Images
 Wide receivers Calvin Johnson (81) and Roy Williams (11) will be happier with a balanced offensive attack in Detroit.

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Calvin Johnson nodded his head vigorously. Roy Williams brought up the subject before we could ask. Yes, in a twist of intuitive irony, the Detroit Lions' big-time receivers couldn't be happier about the team's decision to re-emphasize the running game this season.

More than anything, Lions coach Rod Marinelli envisions the shift as a vehicle for toughening his team. But a natural by-product, both receivers said, should be more opportunities for big plays in the passing game. If all goes well, Williams figures the change will help he and Johnson form one of the top-three receiving duos in the NFL.

Detroit Lions 2007 regular season
Rushing attempts per game20.25
Passing attempts per game36.7
Detroit Lions 2008 preseason
Rushing attempts per game32
Passing attempts per game27.3

"My thing this whole preseason is just for us to run the football," Williams said by phone this week. "I just want us to get that ground game established so we can finally pull the safeties down into the box and give us some chances. In recent years, nobody has ever done that because we couldn't run the ball. That wears on you."

Yes, Williams faced more than his share of double teams in two years under former offensive coordinator Mike Martz. Things fell far out of balance last season, when the Lions attempted the fewest number of running plays (324) in the NFL while throwing the fourth-most passes (587). That combination made them easy to defend despite the gaudy passing numbers Martz's offense produced.

Even with 4,216 passing yards last season, the Lions ranked 16th among NFL teams in points per game (21.6) and 19th in total yards per game (322.9) Neither Williams nor Johnson so much as led the team in receiving, as opponents paid them premium attention while taking their chances with Shaun McDonald (79 receptions) and Mike Furrey (61).

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Had a nice chat Friday night with Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf before his team's preseason opener at the Metrodome. Wilf committed some $70 million in guaranteed money during the Vikings' preseason shopping spree, and he was eager to see the first game action of the summer.

Although some might view the Vikings' moves as a quick-fix approach to building a contender, Wilf's philosophy has been to focus on winning now and in the future. He has charged Rick Spielman, vice president of player personnel, with assembling personnel behind the current veteran base to provide seamless transition of talent.

I didn't bother asking Wilf about the elephant in his suite: The Vikings' long-running, and still-unsolved, quest for a new stadium. Wilf and the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission are revising a proposal for downtown Minneapolis that was once priced at $954 million. They hope to bring it before the Minnesota state legislature in 2009 -- but the Vikings' lease at the Metrodome expires in 2011 and they are on most observers' short list for relocation to Los Angeles.

Wilf de-leveraged himself soon after buying the team in 2005 by saying he would never move it. He continues to follow that rhetorical path, and is instead relying on Minnesota state leaders to salvage a community asset before the NFL steps in and forces his hand.

In an extended profile of Wilf in Sunday's Star Tribune, reporter Judd Zulgad broached the topic. Wilf repeated his mantra: "I'm not considering moving [the team.] I'm not considering selling it."

In other, somewhat lighter news around the NFC North:

  • The Vikings are giving a long look to their last link of the 2005 trade that sent receiver Randy Moss to Oakland. Sixth round draft choice Jaymar Johnson is working as a punt returner and receiver. The Vikings received the pick from the Jacksonville Jaguars in exchange for receiver Troy Williamson, whom the Vikings originally drafted in 2005 with one of the two draft picks they received from the Raiders for Moss. (English majors, go ahead and diagram that sentence.)
  • In a Q&A with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Green Bay Packers General Manager Ted Thompson said he didn't anticipate signing a veteran quarterback to back up starter Aaron Rodgers. Currently, Rodgers' backups are rookies Brian Brohm and Matt Flynn. "We feel pretty comfortable where we are," Thompson said. "And I understand the risk involved. But our coaches like our guys."
  • The Chicago Bears hadn't changed the configuration of their offensive line in time for practice Saturday night. In the wake of presumptive left tackle Chris Williams' back surgery, the Bears kept John Tait at right tackle and John St. Clair on the left side. There has been some discussion of moving Tait back to left tackle.
  • Tom Kowalski of MLive.com cleans up some pending roster moves for the Detroit Lions: Cornerback Stanley Wilson will miss the season because of a torn Achilles tendon. Placekicker Jason Hanson will rest his strained left leg for at least a week, leaving kicking duties to Dave Rayner. The Lions also plan to remove tight end Dan Campbell and receiver Shaun McDonald from the Physically Unable to Perform list on Monday.

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