NFL Nation: Shawn Springs
Taylor's memory will be at the Super Bowl with Seattle's Kam Chancellor. He's a Virginia native who played for Virginia Tech. (He was in college at the time of Taylor's death; in case you missed it, there was news regarding his killer Thursday.)
Here's what Chancellor told the Seattle Times earlier this month about Taylor:
Chancellor has patterned his game after Taylor's for a long time. Like Taylor, Chancellor is a big safety. When Taylor was in the secondary group, he looked like a linebacker at 6-foot-2 and 212 pounds. He was an intimidating force in the secondary, though he was best as a playmaking free safety. Chancellor is a strong safety capable of damage in the box. At 6-foot-3 and 232 pounds, his size and instincts allow him to be highly effective in this area.
“He was a big safety, the prototype guy for the position,” Chancellor once told the Roanoke Times about Taylor. “I'm a big safety, too, and I've just always wanted to be just like him. I don't necessarily say I can be Sean Taylor before it's over, but I think I can be just as good.”
“When I first took the job, I hadn't seen anybody that big, that fast, that athletic since Sean Taylor,” Seahawks defensive assistant Marquand Manuel, a former NFL free safety, told Seahawks.com.
Amazing to think that Chancellor was a fifth-round pick. Again: draft and develop. Chancellor has a skill that Seattle has allowed him to unleash. And often times that skill results in violent collisions against players such as San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis.
Obviously the Redskins could use such an enforcer in the back end. But there's another quote from Chancellor that caught my eye. This, too, is something the Redskins need. And it's something they haven't had enough of because of injuries and bad personnel decisions.
Here's Chancellor's quote on the Seattle secondary:
“I think it started clicking a lot more this year. I think it was starting to happen towards the end of last year, but this year sometimes man it's like we don't even say anything, but the movements are just right. It's like you can feel one another out there on the field, or out here at practice, especially with me and Earl with the way that we funnel the ball to each other. We always talk about that. We always talk about both of us running to the ball. If you miss it, I'm going to make it. If I miss it you're going to make it. That's just the mentality we have.”
It's not one Washington has had in recent years. It's a subtle, but huge difference. If a corner knows how a safety likes to play a certain look, he can adjust his coverage accordingly. If the free safety knows what to expect from the strong safety, he can compensate. It's not always about scheme. Could Phillip Thomas develop into such a player? No idea; we barely saw him last summer. Could Bacarri Rambo? I'd be shocked if that happens based on what we saw this season, especially late in the year.
This isn't about finding the next Sean Taylor. He wasn't hard to identify when he first came out; anyone could see his talent. Chancellor is not Sean Taylor, and was not expected to be coming out of college considering where he was drafted. But he developed into a Pro Bowl player. But Seattle also had a clear vision in what it wanted from its defensive backs: big, physical corners and punishing safeties. Earl Thomas is more a ball-hawking safety, but he's the best at his position right now.
The Seahawks have a secondary that everyone would want now. They also have a defensive front that complements this group. The Redskins had it in 2007 with Taylor, corners Shawn Springs and Fred Smoot and rookie strong safety LaRon Landry. They need to find a way to get that back. It's great that they have money to spend, but there are other ways to accomplish this goal. And doing so would help the Redskins not only return to respectability but, perhaps, finally stick around.
It’s never been done before. In the modern era, Shawn Springs was the earliest-drafted cornerback and that came when Seattle took him at No. 3 in 1997. But lots of experts are saying Peterson might be the best overall player in this draft and the Panthers certainly have been doing their homework on him.
They attended his pro day and Peterson and coach Ron Rivera had a private meeting over dinner. Rivera also said during Tuesday’s NFL owners meeting the Panthers will start bringing in draft prospects for official visits in about a week and it seems likely Peterson is on that list.
But one league source said Peterson might be driving down his draft stock by privately telling some teams he’s not crazy about performing return duties in the NFL. The source said his team was told Peterson doesn’t want to handle kickoff returns or punt returns.
When meeting with reporters at his pro day, Peterson publicly said that at least is partly true.
"I don't want to play kick (off) returner in the NFL -- too much exposure,’’ Peterson said. “So I believe I'll be better and more of a threat at punt return. Obviously, that's where I scored twice this year. No kickoffs."
I asked Rivera this morning if Peterson’s return abilities are a factor in Carolina’s thought process and if the issue had been discussed with Peterson.
“You’ve got to take everything into account and what else does he do for you,’’ Rivera said. “Is he a guy that could potentially play offense? Is he a guy that could potentially play defense? Is he a guy that could potentially return? If he impacts you in more than one way, yeah, certainly it helps. We’ve had an opportunity to listen to him talk about it and he’s talked about his return ability.’’
Most teams do their homework very thoroughly and show up at workouts of guys they never draft and interview players they don’t end up picking.
However, when you’re talking about the No. 1 overall pick, I think you can at least gather a little about what the team holding it is thinking by its actions. This year, it’s the Carolina Panthers and coach Ron Rivera showed up at LSU’s pro day, largely to see cornerback Patrick Peterson. Actually, Peterson didn’t do any of the timing drills, but he did some position work in front of Rivera, other coaches and scouts. Peterson was happy with his times at the combine.
Perhaps more importantly, Rivera and Peterson had dinner together Sunday night. That’s a pretty strong indication that Peterson’s on that list of about eight guys the Panthers are considering.
Still, the age-old rule in the NFL is that you don’t take a cornerback No. 1 overall. It hasn’t been done in the modern era, and the earliest cornerback ever drafted was Shawn Springs by Seattle in 1997 at No. 3.
In case you missed it, I explored why the unwritten rule is not to take a cornerback at the top of the draft in this piece from a few days ago. I also had some former NFL personnel guys emphatically saying that Peterson is the best overall prospect in the draft. But even those two guys couldn’t agree if Carolina should take Peterson.
A cornerback has never gone first overall in a draft.
Pat Yasinskas' piece on the matter got me thinking about the Arizona Cardinals' and San Francisco 49ers' outlook for the position this year. Arizona picks fifth. San Francisco picks seventh. A cornerback could stand as the highest-ranked player available when the Cardinals and 49ers choose. San Francisco in particular has a clear need at the position.
Let's set aside quarterback for the sake of this discussion. The 49ers and Cardinals both need one. Both would have to strongly consider drafting one in the first round if they had one of the prospects rated highly. Let's assume, for our purposes, that they head in another direction near the top of the draft.
Scouting reports on Peterson suggest he's a special talent, not only at cornerback but as a returner. The 49ers could use his services in both capacities.
The Cardinals have more pressing needs in other areas. Their new defensive coordinator, Ray Horton, is a former secondary coach and NFL cornerback. He'll have a strong opinion on Peterson, but he also badly needs pass-rush help at outside linebacker. If the Cardinals have an outside linebacker rated nearly as high as Peterson, they'll have to consider upgrading their pass rush.
A quick look at the eight cornerbacks drafted among the top seven overall choices in the past 15 drafts, ordered by overall position:
Shawn Springs, Seattle Seahawks (1997): Springs picked off 33 passes and went to one Pro Bowl in 13 seasons. Injuries dogged him. He started 10 or fewer games six times. Springs also served a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on steroids and anabolic substances. Springs was a good player for a long time, but his raw talent suggested he would make a greater impact.
Charles Woodson, Oakland Raiders (1998): Woodson is a seven-time Pro Bowl choice. He was the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 2009. He played a key role in Green Bay's development into a Super Bowl champion. Woodson has 47 interceptions and has returned 10 of them for touchdowns. These are the sorts of credentials that will make Woodson a candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Terence Newman, Dallas Cowboys, 2003: Newman has two Pro Bowl appearances in his past four seasons and 28 career interceptions. He has started 16 games six times in eight seasons. The Cowboys signed Newman to a lucrative extension in 2008. They like him. Newman is a very good player. Sometimes that is good enough, even for prospects drafted this early. The two players drafted immediately after Newman -- Johnathan Sullivan and Byron Leftwich -- make the Cowboys' decision look quite smart by comparison.
Bryant Westbrook, Detroit Lions, 1997: Injuries derailed Westbrook's career, preventing complete analysis. Westbrook suffered a torn Achilles' tendon in his fourth season and another one in his sixth season. He was out of the league by age 28. Westbrook picked off 13 passes and bounced back from injuries admirably, but they caught up to him in the end.
Quentin Jammer, San Diego Chargers, 2002: The Chargers named Jammer one of the 50 greatest players in their history despite perceptions that he hasn't quite lived up to expectations. Those perceptions could be misguided. Jammer is not flashy, but he is a good, durable cornerback. Nnamdi Asomugha and Champ Bailey have overshadowed him in the AFC West and made it tough for Jammer to earn Pro Bowl recognition.
Pacman Jones, Tennessee Titans (2005): Off-field problems ran Jones out of the league. He returned with Cincinnati but has not come close to meeting expectations.
Joe Haden, Cleveland Browns (2010): Haden picked off six passes during his rookie season. It's too early to size up his career, obviously, but Haden is off to a promising start.
Champ Bailey, Washington Redskins (1999): Ten Pro Bowl appearances and shutdown coverage skills make Bailey an obvious choice for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Not much more to say.
Peterson is challenging the age-old law that you simply don’t take a cornerback with the first pick in the NFL draft. It’s never been done before, at least not in the modern era. In fact, case law shows that a cornerback never has been chosen earlier than Shawn Springs when Seattle picked him at No. 3 in 1997.
But the people at Peterson’s table can put any number of guys on the stand and make a case that it’s time to change the law.
“I honestly think he’s the best player in the draft,’’ said Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson, a former NFL front-office worker. “He’s as clean a prospect as there is coming out in this draft. There are no character flaws or physical problems. I don’t know that there is a single thing you can put down about him that’s a negative.’’
“Peterson is the best player in this draft, period,’’ said Tony Softli, who worked as a high-ranking personnel official for the Carolina Panthers and the St. Louis Rams. “There’s nobody who’s even close.’’
Plenty of draft gurus agree and consider Peterson the best player in the draft. But those same guys are putting out mock drafts, and almost none of them puts Peterson as the first pick.
That pick belongs to the Panthers, and they’ll be the ultimate judge on whether it’s time to rewrite the draft rules to say it’s not a crime to draft a cornerback first -- especially one with the ability to return kickoffs and punts.
Will they do it? That’s anybody’s guess. The Panthers, coming off a 2-14 season and beginning the tenure of Ron Rivera as coach, are methodically working their way through the process. Rivera has said there are as many as eight players being looked at as options with the pick.
It’s safe to assume that defensive linemen Da’Quan Bowers, Nick Fairley and Marcell Dareus are under Carolina’s microscope. Same goes for quarterbacks Cam Newton and Blaine Gabbert, and they’re being examined under a more powerful lens. But what about Peterson, the guy you can look at from 50 yards away and see is basically flawless?
That’s where Rivera, general manager Marty Hurney and even owner Jerry Richardson are going to have to make one of the most interesting calls in recent draft history. There’s no doubt the Panthers need a quarterback, but Newton and Gabbert come with questions. There’s a big need for help in the middle of the defensive line, and Fairley or Dareus could fix that. Even though the Panthers have talent at defensive end, they almost have to give some consideration to Bowers, who is a game changer at a position where teams aren’t afraid to use high draft picks. But each of the defensive linemen comes with some questions.
“Why would you not take this kid?’’ Softli said.
Well, that answer is buried deep in minds around the NFL, and traditions can be hard to break.
“The logic is that if you have one of those guys at one corner, he’s going to be marginalized because people are just going to attack the other corner all day,’’ Williamson said.
Softli echoes that and points to baseball, where the theory is you build up the middle with good pitching, a catcher, shortstop and center fielder. In other words, you don’t build a baseball team around a left fielder or a first baseman.
“The philosophy is that you build from the inside,’’ Softli said. “On defense, you build around the defensive line or the linebackers. On offense, you start with the quarterback or the running backs or the guys that block for them. The last piece you put in an offense is a wide receiver or a tight end. The last piece you put on a defense is a cornerback. It’s because those guys are on the outside.’’
We’ve heard all the glowing testimony on Peterson, and we’ve heard why the current law is in place. Everyone seems to agree on all of that. But ask what the Panthers should do with the first pick, and that’s where reasonable minds disagree.
“They have to get a quarterback,’’ Williamson said. “I take Gabbert over Newton because there’s less downside. Look at the rest of Carolina’s roster. They’ve got running backs and I like their young wide receivers, Brandon LaFell and David Gettis. They’ve got a good offensive line. This isn’t the Houston offensive line when David Carr was coming in. They need a quarterback and this is an exceedingly friendly time to do it. Apologies to Patrick Peterson, who I think the world of, but they have to go with a quarterback.’’
Richardson and Hurney are traditional guys, but Softli has some advice for his former bosses.
“They can get a transition guy at quarterback,’’ Softli said as he pointed to quarterbacks such as Carson Palmer, Donovan McNabb and Kevin Kolb, who might be available via trade or free agency. “They can get their quarterback in another year or two when there’s more of a can’t-miss guy. Why not just take the best player in the draft? You can’t go wrong on that.’’
Carolina already has cornerbacks Richard Marshall and Chris Gamble, who have played at high levels in the past. Captain Munnerlyn also has shown signs he can be a solid starting cornerback. Marshall got into the bad graces of the front office last year, and Gamble fell out of favor with former coach John Fox last season. It’s possible one of those guys could go, but the other could stay and team with Peterson as the starters and Munnerlyn as the nickel. That would leave the Panthers with second and third cornerbacks who aren’t all that easy to pick on.
That might help bend the law in the Panthers’ eyes, and Softli points to the franchise’s past for more support. He remembers 2002, when defensive end Julius Peppers was in a draft class that featured Carr and Joey Harrington. The Panthers held the second pick in that draft and Softli remembers sitting in pre-draft meeting rooms with Hurney, Fox and college personnel director Jack Bushofsky.
“We were all sitting there hoping that Houston wouldn’t take the best player,’’ Softli said. “They took Carr and we could have had Harrington, but we wanted the best player. Peppers was the best player, and history has shown that. Harrington’s out of the league and Carr’s a third-string quarterback.’’
The verdict won’t come until the Panthers make their pick in late April. But they have to at least look at Peterson and wonder whether the guy with no questions would make it worthwhile to break the law.
They've been in big games before, and frequently, thanks largely to shrewd drafting.
This is the Steelers' third Super Bowl appearance in the last six seasons.
The team made available James Farrior, Flozell Adams, Hines Ward, Brett Keisel, Ben Roethlisberger and LaMarr Woodley during its initial media session Monday -- just the opportunity I needed to produce an item corresponding to the one titled, "Draft hindsight: Aaron Rodgers and beyond".
The idea: to examine a Super Bowl team's featured players -- in this case, the ones made available Monday -- with an emphasis on draft status and the decisions NFC West teams made in the same rounds. Not every team held a choice in every featured round.
The Arizona Cardinals had a shot at Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, but they came out OK.
Here goes ...
1997 Draft: James Farrior, LB, Virginia
Round: First (eighth overall, by the New York Jets)
NFC West spin: Farrior is a two-time Pro Bowl choice, but the NFC West offers no apologies for passing over him. Orlando Pace and Walter Jones became perennial Pro Bowl tackles. Jones became the best player in Seahawks history, in my view. Shawn Springs made one Pro Bowl trip and picked off 33 passes during a 13-year career. The Cardinals had no shot at Farrior. They chose Tommy Knight one pick later. He started 54 games in six NFL seasons. Rumor says the 49ers selected a quarterback in the first round of this draft.
First-round selections in the division:
- Rams (first overall): Pace, T, Ohio State
- Seahawks (third overall): Springs, CB, Ohio State
- Seahawks (sixth overall): Jones, T, Florida State
- Cardinals (ninth overall): Knight, CB, Iowa
- 49ers (26th overall): Jim Druckenmiller, QB, Virginia Tech
Round: Second (38th overall, by Dallas)
NFC West spin: Adams became a five-time Pro Bowl choice with Dallas. His career appeared finished, or close to it, until injuries led the Steelers to call on him this season. Arizona passed on Adams twice. Safety Corey Chavous, chosen five spots before Adams, went to a Pro Bowl with Minnesota. He was a productive player for roughly a decade. Tackle Anthony Clement, chosen two spots before Adams, started more than 100 games for three teams.
Second-round selections in the division:
- Cardinals (33rd overall): Corey Chavous, SS, Vanderbilt
- Cardinals (36th overall): Anthony Clement, T, Louisiana-Lafayette
- Rams (37th overall): Robert Holcombe, FB, Illinois
- Seahawks (47th overall): Todd Weiner, T, Kansas State
- 49ers (58th overall): Jeremy Newberry, C, California
Round: Third (92nd overall, by Pittsburgh)
NFC West spin: The Rams and Seahawks found Pro Bowl-caliber players when they passed over Ward in the third round. Seattle gave up on Ahman Green prematurely, however, after coach Mike Holmgren grew weary of early fumble problems. The 49ers missed on tackle Chris Ruhman three choices before Ward went to Pittsburgh. Ruhman played in six games with the 49ers, starting none. He played in 11 NFL games with two starts overall. The 49ers passed on Ward even though Jerry Rice had suffered a devastating knee injury in the 1997 opener.
Third-round selections in the division:
- Rams (65th overall): Leonard Little, DE, Tennessee
- Seahawks (76th overall): Ahman Green, RB, Nebraska
- 49ers (89th overall): Chris Ruhman, T, Texas A&M
Round: Seventh (242nd overall, by Pittsburgh)
NFC West spin: The 49ers drafted longtime starting guard and center Eric Heitmann three spots before the Steelers found Keisel. Pittsburgh could use Heitmann this week after the Steelers' starting center, Maurkice Pouncey, suffered a severely sprained ankle during the AFC Championship Game. Keisel became a Pro Bowl choice for the first time this season, distinguishing him from 2002 NFC West seventh-rounders. The Rams found their mainstay snapper in this draft. Keisel was gone when the 49ers found guard Kyle Kosier, who started 29 games for them and remains a starter with Dallas.
Seventh-round selections in the division:
- Cardinals (223rd overall): Mike Banks, TE, Iowa State
- Seahawks (232nd overall): Jeff Kelly, QB, Southern Mississippi
- 49ers (239th overall): Heitmann, C, Stanford
- Rams (243rd overall): Chris Massey, LS, Marshall
- 49ers (248th overall): Kyle Kosier, G, Arizona State
- 49ers (256th overall): Teddy Gaines, DB, Tennessee
Round: First (11th overall, by Pittsburgh)
NFC West spin: The Cardinals passed over Roethlisberger and came away with a potential Hall of Fame receiver. No complaints there, even though quarterbacks are more valuable than receivers. None of the other NFC West teams had a shot at Roethlisberger. Seattle and St. Louis were set at quarterback, anyway.
First-round selections in the division:
- Cardinals (third overall): Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Pittsburgh
- Seahawks (23rd overall): Marcus Tubbs, DT, Texas
- Rams (24th overall): Steven Jackson, RB, Oregon State
- 49ers (31st overall): Rashaun Woods, WR, Oklahoma State
Round: Second (46th overall, by Pittsburgh)
NFC West spin: The Cardinals could certainly use Woodley now, and badly, but they had already invested millions in the position heading into the 2007 draft. Free-agent additions Chike Okeafor and Bertrand Berry had combined for 14.5 sacks during the 2006 season. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, they haven't gotten enough from their second-round investment in Alan Branch.
Second-round selections in the division:
- Cardinals (33rd overall): Branch, DL, Michigan
- Rams (52nd overall): Brian Leonard, FB, Rutgers
- Seahawks (55th overall): Josh Wilson, CB, Maryland
OK, all done, and just in time. ESPN.com teammates Mike Reiss, Kevin Seifert and I are heading out to the Packers' media session next. Seifert is driving and he doesn't wait for anyone. Gotta jam.
The Patriots released Springs on Tuesday and signed sixth-round draft choice Ted Larsen, an offensive lineman from North Carolina State.
The Patriots previously re-signed last year's starter on the right side, Leigh Bodden. If Bill Belichick doesn't switch him over, then left cornerback becomes New England's biggest battle of the summer.
As ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss wrote Monday, the Patriots have a crowded depth chart at cornerback. Several are recent draft choices. In 2008, Terrence Wheatley was a second-round pick and Jonathan Wilhite was a fourth-rounder. Darius Butler was a 2009 second-round pick. Devin McCourty was selected 27th overall last month.
Wilhite and Butler both started games at left cornerback last year.
Springs, who signed a three-year contract a year ago, and joins a sizable list of failures from last offseason (receivers Greg Lewis and Joey Galloway, tight ends Chris Baker and Alex Smith).
ESPN's Adam Schefter suggested the Patriots might re-sign Springs, which would make sense. If Springs was good enough to start at left cornerback down the homestretch and into the postseason, then he should be good enough to remain on the roster for less money in 2010.
Springs missed four games with an injury but finished with 39 tackles, an interception and four passes defensed.
But in reviewing ESPN analyst Todd McShay's pre-draft video breakdown, it doesn't sound like the Patriots should have trouble finding ways to get McCourty on the field. McShay called McCourty a "special-teams demon" who blocked seven kicks at Rutgers, and his coverage skills are elite.
"What you can't coach is his athleticism, instinct and his overall ability to turn and run in coverage," McShay said. "This is one of the most fluid cover corners in the 2010 class. He has great top-end speed, and eventually he should develop into a No. 1 cornerback at the next level."
The Patriots have veterans Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs and recent draft picks Jonathan Wilhite, Darius Butler and Terrence Wheatley.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick was big on McCourty as a "four-down football player" who can play in any defensive situation and then contribute on special teams.
"It's hard for me to picture a player who can do more than that," Belichick said. "There aren't too many players that can really impact the game on first, second, third and fourth downs. I think that he can be a player that can contribute in all four of those areas, and I think that gives him a lot of versatility and a lot of value. You may disagree, but I don’t see it that way."
Why the Patriots took him: You never can have enough cornerbacks, and the AFC East is turning into an aerial division. The New York Jets will field an offense that features Braylon Edwards, Santonio Holmes and Jerricho Cotchery. The Miami Dolphins recently added Brandon Marshall.
Where McCourty fits on roster: He joins a crowded depth chart. The Patriots re-signed Leigh Bodden and have Jonathan Wilhite (fourth round in 2008), Darius Butler (41st overall last year), Terrence Wheatley (62nd overall in 2008) and Shawn Springs.
Scouts Inc. says: Seasoned and savvy. Understands routes concepts and get into proper position in zone coverage. Flashes anticipation in man-coverage but needs to show more consistency in this area. Plays bigger than size suggests. Displays good short-term memory to move on once beaten. ... Willing and active in run support. Sound overall tackler. Does not have a lot of ammunition in holster but not afraid to throw weight around when filling on the perimeter. Does a good job of anticipating and is effective going down low to knock bigger ball carriers off feet. Uses hands well to disengage from blocks by can be controlled by bigger receivers on occasion.
1. New York Jets
A lot has been written about Darrelle Revis. Like many, I put him at the top of the cornerback list. He would have been my NFL Defensive Player of the Year for 2009. But he can cover only one receiver at a time.
I contend that New York’s biggest offseason need is a starting cornerback opposite Revis. Donald Strickland, Lito Sheppard and Dwight Lowery are all best suited for third cornerback duties. Lowery is my favorite of these three, but he has physical limitations.
Jets head coach Rex Ryan obviously expects a lot out of this position and an upgrade could make an excellent defense even better. Strong safety Jim Leonhard is a personal favorite of mine. The guy has some limitations of course, but he just makes plays -- especially as a coverage player. Free safety Kerry Rhodes took some criticism during the 2009 season, but I contend that he is a well above average all-around safety. Year 2 in this defense could really yield dividends for Rhodes. Backup free safety Eric Smith could leave via free agency, but he was a liability for most of the season.
Overall, the Jets get the edge as the best secondary in the division weighted heavily on what Revis brings to the table.
2. New England Patriots
While I give the Buffalo Bills’ set of safeties the nod as the division’s best pair, I’m high on the Patriots’ Brandon Meriweather. He’s the best safety overall in the AFC East. As good as he is at strong safety, Meriweather and the Patriots would benefit from an upgrade at free safety. Brandon McGowan is a force against the run, but is too often exposed in coverage. Fellow free safety James Sanders is too ordinary in both facets.
At cornerback, veterans Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs caught way too much heat for New England’s pass defense issues. Remember, this is a defense that lacks much of a pass rush. These two are still starting caliber, particularly Bodden (an unrestricted free agent).
The younger guys are the problem. Surely they will improve, but Darius Butler, Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite collectively did little to get excited about in 2009. If Bodden is retained, the Pats squeak ahead of the Bills as the second-best secondary in the division. Without Bodden, Buffalo has a distinct advantage.
3. Buffalo Bills
When evaluating the safeties in this division, I think you have to give that position to the Bills. In 2009, safety Jairus Byrd obviously made a ton of impact plays as a rookie and was an extremely pleasant surprise. His ability to play the ball and his coverage abilities overall are very strong, but when it comes to playing the run, let’s just say that isn’t his specialty. I am a big fan of safety Donte Whitner, too. Last season wasn’t his best campaign, but he is very talented and versatile. Fellow safeties George Wilson and Bryan Scott are not household names, but both are very solid players who deserve playing time, though Scott might leave via free agency. I still have hope for Leodis McKelvin to develop into an upper-tier cornerback. Overall, the threesome of McKelvin, Drayton Florence and Terrence McGee was underwhelming in 2009.
4. Miami Dolphins
Vontae Davis and Sean Smith get a lot of ink as the Dolphins’ starting rookie cornerbacks. Smith began the season strong, but his unusual body type and struggles flipping his hips always might hold him back. To me, he finished the season as a somewhat overrated player.
But Davis could be on the verge of stardom. Like Smith, he made some rookie mistakes, but this kid has it all physically. He will be a true No. 1 cover man -- maybe as soon as next season. Third cornerback Will Allen is serviceable, but not dynamic.
Gibril Wilson and Yeremiah Bell are both average starting caliber strong safeties. But the problem in Miami is that neither has the skill set for deep patrol. The lack of a true free safety-type hurt this pass defense and is a clear offseason need.
Left tackle Matt Light will play tonight after missing five games games with a knee injury, but rookie Sebastian Vollmer, who was playing very well in Light's absence, is out. He suffered a head injury in last week's victory over the New York Jets.
Running back Sammy Morris also returns to help out Laurence Maroney and Kevin Faulk in the backfield. He sat out four games with a knee injury.
Linebacker Junior Seau has been deactivated for the first time since signing with the Patriots.
Rookie slot receiver Julian Edelman will dress, but as the third quarterback. That means he cannot step on the field until the fourth quarter without disqualifying quarterbacks Tom Brady and Brian Hoyer for the rest of the game. Edelman played quarterback at Kent State before the Patriots converted him.
The Patriots' total inactive list as follows:
Action should be plenty heated when the rivals kick off at 4:15 p.m. The Patriots want to avenge that Week 2 loss at the Meadowlands and are coming off a foul-tasting defeat to the Indianapolis Colts. The Jets need a victory to salvage their drain-circling season.
The Patriots have some interesting inactives. Left tackle Matt Light remains out, but right guard Stephen Neal will join him because of the head injury he suffered in Indy. Running back Sammy Morris will be held out again after speculation he would play.
Most notably scratched for the Jets is outside linebacker Vernon Gholston, the sixth overall pick in last year's draft. Gholston has been benched for two straight games.
All of Sunday's inactives are below:
New York Jets
- Quarterback Kevin O'Connell (third quarterback)
- Quarterback Erik Ainge
- Guard Matt Slauson
- Defensive end Ropati Pitoitua
- Linebacker Vernon Gholston
- Linebacker Ryan Fowler
- Linebacker Kenwin Cummings
- Cornerback Justin Miller
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
Five nuggets of knowledge about this weekend's games:
|Doug Benc/Getty Images|
|Jake Long will have his hands full with All-Pro defensive end John Abraham.|
Miami Dolphins left tackle Jake Long will have his hands full against the Atlanta Falcons. Long, last year's No. 1 draft pick, was a Pro Bowl rookie. His preseason performances, however, haven't been up to par. Now he gets to rumble with All-Pro right defensive end John Abraham in the Georgia Dome. Long gave up only a couple of sacks last year, but Abraham set a Falcons record with 16.5 sacks and has the ability to make linemen look foolish on any play.
Can Shawn Springs and Jonathan Wilhite contain Terrell Owens? With the Buffalo Bills' offensive line in tatters, the only fathomable way they can outscore the New England Patriots on Monday night is through the air.
Owens, making his Bills debut, will be a chief concern. Springs has missed significant preseason time with an undisclosed injury, but he and Owens have engaged in some great battles over the years. (Owens' infamous Sharpie touchdown came against Springs.) They've been in the same division since 2002. If Springs isn't ready, then the job will fall on Wilhite, who started four games as a rookie last year. Wilhite would be overmatched.
Mark Sanchez will have a better performance than Trent Edwards. While Edwards has the receivers for the bigger stats, Sanchez has two significant edges: a cement wall in front of him and Brian Schottenheimer talking into his headset. Schottenheimer will be an NFL coach within the next couple of years. Bills offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt hasn't called a play since 2005 for the Frankfurt Galaxy. The Jets probably won't win in Reliant Stadium, but I'm predicting the rookie will look better than Edwards.
Don't expect Jon Runyan to play for the Bills on Monday -- and probably not ever. The veteran right tackle visited the Bills for a workout Friday. But there's a belief his interest in playing for them is limited, that he's making the rounds in hopes of motivating his old team, the Philadelphia Eagles, to bring him back in light of right tackle Shawn Andrews' injury. Runyan has started 144 straight games for Philly, not counting playoffs, and could play in Andy Reid's offense without much adjustment.
Runyan is said to be in great shape, but even if he does sign with the Bills, inserting him in their no-huddle offense Monday night with one practice to prepare would be too much to ask. Plus, the Bills would be wise to wait until after Week 1 to sign him. Players on the active roster for opening day have their contracts guaranteed. Those signed after do not.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
How tedious was the game? The highlight was a second-quarter extra point.
Let's take a look at a few items that stood out:
|Greg M. Cooper-US PRESSWIRE|
|Patriots quarterback Tom Brady bounced right back from his first contact of the season.|
But defensive end Robert Geathers delivered the hit everybody had been waiting for later in the first quarter, bolting untouched past right tackle Nick Kaczur and into the pocket and flattening Brady, who landed directly on his rebuilt left knee. How did Brady respond? He scrambled to his feet and immediately signaled the next no-huddle play. That's a great sign for Patriot Nation.
Uncommonly sloppy performance for the Patriots. It could be said about any unit from the first-stringers to the deep reserves. There were a slew of missed tackles (cornerback Shawn Springs badly whiffed to give up a 13-yard Cedric Benson catch and run on a third-and-27 play in the first quarter), a touchdown allowed on a fourth-and-17 play (Chris Henry over Terrence Wheatley late in the second quarter), nine penalties for 96 yards, four sacks allowed and a pair of fumbles.
Wheatley's timing couldn't have been worse. Cincy's touchdown wasn't the only play Wheatley will want to forget. One play earlier, Bengals receiver Jerome Simpson beat Wheatley for a touchdown but was called for pushing off -- apparently before they reached the end zone because replays showed Simpson didn't make contact there.
A lackadaisical effort allowed Chad Ochocinco to pick up 35 yards on an earlier second-quarter series. Wheatley, a 2008 second-round draft pick, had his bad performance on a night when rookie Darius Butler started at left corner and Springs finally got on the field.New England threw it around the yard. Randy Moss didn't catch a pass, yet the Patriots still completed passes to 13 different receivers. They targeted 15, with Moss and tight end Alex Smith being thrown to twice without a connection.
Fred Taylor and Wes Welker made their preseason debuts. Neither played in Philadelphia, but both were in the starting lineup Thursday night. Taylor ran hard, getting seven carries for 26 yards. He also made a nice spin move for extra distance on a 12-yard pass play. Welker had a 32-yard catch and dash.
|AP Photo/Stephan Savoia|
|Quarterback Tom Brady hopes to test his knee early and often in preseason games.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The folks residing in Patriot Nation find it unfathomable their team is not returning to the Super Bowl.
Any team coached by Bill Belichick and with Tom Brady throwing passes to Randy Moss must be a Super Bowl favorite, right? There's no other conceivable prediction for fans who harbor blind faith after so many years of being rewarded.
Yet there's a different mood at Patriots training camp this year. They're not the defending champs -- league, conference or division.
The Patriots have something to prove in 2009.
There's a sense of optimism around Gillette Stadium, to be sure. But last year -- following their reality-check loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII -- was a stern reminder nothing should be taken for granted.
How will Brady respond to a live pass rush?
This question cannot be answered as long as Brady's clothed in a red, do-not-touch practice jersey.
But the eventual answer will indicate whether the Patriots should be considered legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
Those who've crowded around the upper practice fields to watch Brady work out can't tell he underwent reconstructive surgery -- save for the black brace that clasps his left knee. His throws have the same zing. He's accurate. His command during two-minute drills is obvious.
That's all well and good, but if he gets jumpy in the pocket, there will be trouble. What has made Brady a future Hall of Famer is his pocket presence. He has been unflinchingly willing to take a hit to give his receivers one more half-second to separate.
|AP Photo/Robert E. Klein|
|Leigh Bodden is one of the early candidates to start at right cornerback for the Patriots.|
We don't yet know how he will react when defenders start falling at his feet, lunging for his legs, dragging him down.
Brady has stated his desire to play as much as possible in the preseason. He knows he'll need to face a few live opponents to see if the mental side of his rehabilitation is on par with the physical part.
What will the revolving door at cornerback turn out next?
Seven players have started at cornerback over the past two years. The Patriots will have at least one more new starter this year, possibly two.
Before we try to get a feel for how Belichick will handle one of the game's most important positions, remember that Fernando Bryant was the first-team left cornerback throughout 2008 training camp and the preseason. Then Belichick cut him before the regular-season opener.
For now, it appears free agent Leigh Bodden is the right cornerback. The left corner could come down to a pair of second-year pros: Jonathan Wilhite and Terrence Wheatley. The Patriots also added veteran free agent Shawn Springs and drafted Darius Butler in the second round.
First-team reps have gone to Wheatley while Wilhite, who replaced Deltha O'Neal for the final four games last season, has missed practices with an injury.
"Certainly, based off the offseason, both of those players have made significant progress," Belichick said, "and hopefully they'll be able to carry that onto the field and into training camp and build on it and have strong seasons. Their offseason has been good. They are way ahead of where they were last year."
Will the Patriots regret not bringing in veteran help to replace Mike Vrabel at outside linebacker?
Neither has much experience. Woods, undrafted in 2006, has made three starts. All of them came last year in place of an injured Adalius Thomas.
Crable, a third-round pick last year, is a somewhat unknown. Crable didn't play a game last year because of a shin problem and opened camp on the physically unable to perform list.
Unless the Patriots eventually do bring in help, it would appear to be Woods' job to lose.
Rodney Harrison's age and health weren't the only reasons the Patriots declined to bring him back for another season at strong safety. Brandon Meriweather's performances in Harrison's place truly nudged them forward.
Meriweather, the 24th overall draft pick in 2007, has been elevated to starting strong safety and should be ready for the job.
He started only the final 10 games after Harrison suffered a career-ending quadriceps injury. That was enough time for Meriweather to make more tackles (79) than Tedy Bruschi, record as many sacks (two) as Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren and lead the team with four interceptions.
Newcomer to watch
The Patriots welcomed back four capable running backs, but Belichick felt the need to enlist more help. Fred Taylor, with his 11,271 career rushing yards, has joined the crew.
How the 33-year-old Taylor's role develops will be an interesting storyline. There's enough depth at the position that Belichick won't need to lean heavily on Taylor, who gained the nickname "Fragile Fred" for the various injuries he endured in 11 seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Taylor already has dealt with a wrist injury since signing with New England, but in all fairness, he generally has been reliable over the past seven years, missing a dozen games.
Observation deckBelichick has been turning over the roster since camp began a week ago. The most interesting moves have occurred at backup quarterback, where Belichick obviously isn't happy. Third-stringer Matt Gutierrez was cut and former Oakland Raider Andrew Walter brought in to compete with last year's third-round draft pick, Kevin O'Connell, who seems to have lost reps to undrafted rookie Brian Hoyer. ... Greybeard receiver Joey Galloway is running just fine. A foot injury kept him off the field for all but nine games last year with Tampa Bay. ... Mammoth offensive lineman Sebastian Vollmer, viewed by many to be a reach as the 58th overall draft pick in April, has been impressive. The 6-foot-8 German émigré could push veteran Nick Kaczur to be the starting right tackle. ... Julian Edelman always seems to be on the field. The Patriots drafted the Kent State quarterback in the seventh round and are converting him into a receiver/punt returner/gadget guy. Edelman's often compared to Wes Welker, but they've been on the field together quite a bit with the first team. ... Oft-injured back Laurence Maroney is running with conviction. He's coming off a broken shoulder bone and looks powerful.