NFL Nation: Thomas Jones

A look at where Steven Jackson stands

February, 26, 2013
2/26/13
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No NFL player has more offensive touches or yards from scrimmage since 2004 than the St. Louis Rams' Steven Jackson.

That is both good and bad for the Rams' career rushing leader.

Jackson, who plans to void his contract to become a free agent March 12, has accomplished a great deal since entering the NFL as the 24th player chosen in the 2004 draft. He also has high miles as his 30th birthday approaches in July, raising questions about how much longer he can produce.

The two charts show where Jackson ranks in scrimmage yards and rushing yards over the course of his career. Note that NFC West rivals Frank Gore and Larry Fitzgerald also rank among the top five in scrimmage yards over the same period.

Separately, Jackson's rushing total (10,135) is easily best among players who also entered the NFL in 2004. Michael Turner (7,338), Willie Parker (5,378), Julius Jones (5,068) and Kevin Jones (3,176) trail him on that list.

Jackson ranks 26th on the NFL's all-time rushing list after posting his eighth consecutive season with at least 1,000 yards rushing. He needs 509 yards to overtake Ricky Watters for 20th. He needs 1,561 yards to overtake Fred Taylor for 15th. He needs 2,145 yards to overtake former teammate and Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk for 10th on the list.

Jackson would need 3,550 yards to overtake LaDainian Tomlinson for fifth.

The maturation of Jon Baldwin

August, 24, 2012
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Jon BaldwinShane Keyser/Kansas City Star/Getty ImagesJon Baldwin has made highlight-film catches on a regular basis in training camp.

A year ago, the Kansas City Chiefs could have been forgiven if they had buyer’s remorse after drafting receiver Jon Baldwin with the No. 26 overall pick.

The pick was somewhat surprising because the team had other needs and the supremely athletic Baldwin was considered a player who had the potential to be an off-field problem after some issues while at the University of Pittsburgh.

Then, at the end of his first NFL training camp, Baldwin was reportedly involved in a locker-room scuffle with then-Chiefs running back Thomas Jones. Baldwin suffered a broken thumb in the incident, which impacted his rookie season severely. It wasn’t a great start to a career that was being scrutinized anyway.

A year later, however, the Chiefs are not questioning the decision to draft Baldwin. They view Baldwin the same way they did when they drafted him. They think he can be a dynamic player who can make an impact on a varied offense because of his ability as a deep threat.

Most important, the Chiefs like the way Baldwin is developing off the field. Many people in the Chiefs’ camp raved about the improvement in the way Baldwin, who turned 23 this month, is handling himself this year.

“I think he has matured a lot in the past year,” Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel said late in training camp. “I really like the way he has handled himself.”

[+] EnlargeKansas City's Jon Baldwin
AP Photo/Seth Perlman"I think he has matured a lot in the past year," Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel said of Jon Baldwin.
Baldwin took advantage of extra repetitions in the offseason program and in training camp with No. 1 reciver Dwayne Bowe holding out. Bowe reported to the team last Friday and the Chiefs are hopeful he will be ready to make an impact in Week 1. Either way, expect Baldwin to be part of the starting mix when the Chiefs begin the season.

The team was impressed that Baldwin hunkered down and gleaned as much information and knowledge as possible from veteran receivers Steve Breaston and Terrance Copper. They are two of the more respected veterans on the roster because of their professional approach. For a player who needed to gain his team’s trust, it seems Baldwin has done just that this summer.

“Jon has done a great job of taking to the coaching that has been given to him,” Chiefs receivers coach Nick Sirianni said during training camp. “He takes his weaknesses and turns them into strengths. He comes to practice every day, just like all of our guys. He’s a professional trying to improve every day.”

The key to his success, Baldwin said, has been his study habits. He is working at learning the pro game.

“I take a lot of notes at night. I study those notes so that I don’t come back and make the same mistake,” Baldwin said. “That is one thing Coach Nick jars on; don’t make the same mistake twice. Being able to study my mistakes, and come out the next day to execute the mistake that I made the day before. I just make plays, and if there are any corrections needed, I go make the corrections and get better tomorrow.”

Labeled as a “wide target" by quarterback coach Jim Zorn, the 6-foot-4, 230 pound receiver has made highlight film catches on a regular basis in training camp. Baldwin, who showed flashes of brilliance late in his rookie season, has one catch in the preseason, but he hasn’t been targeted much. Still, quarterback Matt Cassel has praised Baldwin for stretching the field and keeping defenses honest in the preseason.

Expect the targets to rise dramatically for Baldwin in September. There is no doubt Cassel, who has taken Baldwin under his wing since shortly after he was drafted, is a Baldwin believer.

“Unfortunately, he was out with an injury for the first six games of the season,” Cassel said. “This year we had a whole offseason to work together and also all of camp. I feel very comfortable with Jon. He’s making a lot of progress himself.”

Baldwin credits a strong relationship with his quarterback for helping him becoming a better player.

“We talk a lot,” Baldwin said of himself and Cassel. “He tells me where he wants me to be on certain things and we talk back and forth. It makes the communication a lot better with him. He understands where I’m going to be on certain routes. I know where he’s going to put the ball on certain routes. That makes it a lot better for the both of us.

“The main thing is trust. One thing I always say to him is that I’m going to try to make every play possible. He understands that and just gives me a chance to make a play. I try to make as many plays as I possibly can for him.”

If the maturation of Baldwin continues, the Chiefs will never regret their once-questioned decision to draft him.

Camp Confidential: St. Louis Rams

August, 2, 2012
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Jeff Fisher experienced plenty during 16-plus seasons as an NFL head coach, but his initial team meeting in St. Louis represented a career first.

The Rams' new leader was addressing a room filled with players he didn't know.

"That was different, but you could tell within the first three minutes of him being up there, with his presence, that the team was his," assistant head coach Dave McGinnis said.

Fisher won over the Rams, and not with a fiery speech or with bold promises.

"It's something that you can't put your hand on and touch it, but it's palpable," McGinnis said.

It's called quiet confidence born of experience, and it's what the Rams needed from their next coach after posting a 15-65 record over their previous five seasons, all under less experienced leadership. There's an authenticity to Fisher that resonates. Quarterback Sam Bradford first saw it during a nearly two-hour meeting with Fisher, conducted before Fisher agreed to take the job.

"I think the biggest thing for me when we met was, there was no nonsense," Bradford said. "Everything that he has said has been valuable information. There is never that talk just to talk. That is what everyone really respects about him."

Thanks to Fisher, the feeling at Rams camp has shifted from "if" the team can right itself to "when" it will happen.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeSam Bradford
Jeff Curry/US PresswireQB Sam Bradford has some new young talent to work with this season at the skill positions.
1. Can the Rams help Bradford? It's easy to forget that Bradford had two 300-yard passing games in his first five starts last season. The high-ankle sprain he suffered in Week 6 changed the trajectory of his season. Bradford wasn't the only one hurting. The Rams suffered more losses to injury in a season than all but one NFL team since 2002, according to Football Outsiders. They had no chance.

The plan this season will be to take pressure off Bradford with a run-first offense. That approach represents a philosophical about-face from the thinking former coordinator Josh McDaniels promoted last season. McDaniels' offense would have worked better under different circumstances. In retrospect, the Rams lacked the personnel to make it work, particularly after losing key players to injury.

The offensive personnel could be better this season. Young prospects at running back (Isaiah Pead) and on the perimeter (Brian Quick, Chris Givens) give the team fresh options. But no one is quite sure what the team has at wide receiver. It's also unclear whether young tackles Rodger Saffold and especially Jason Smith can give Bradford the protection he needs when the Rams do put the ball in the quarterback's hands.

The Rams have additional first-round draft choices over the next couple seasons. There's a good chance they'll use them mostly to bolster the offense. In the meantime, they'll protect Bradford through the design of their offense.

2. Another year, another offensive scheme. The Rams are learning their third offensive system in three seasons. Last season, the idea was for Bradford to help get the Rams into the perfect offensive play for whatever defense the opponent was running. This season, Fisher and new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer want the Rams to run the ball for the sake of running it, even against loaded fronts.

This could be the Rams' most run-oriented offense from a philosophical standpoint since the team moved to St. Louis for the 1995 season. Longer term, it's fair to wonder whether this is the best offense for a franchise quarterback to realize his full potential as a passer. For now, though, the philosophy will play to the team's offensive strength (Steven Jackson) while minimizing a primary weakness (pass protection).

"This offense is ground, pound and we’re in your face," Jackson said. "Regardless of how much a team studies about us, they are probably going to be able to tell, out of this formation, this is what they like to run. So now the mentality has gone from trying to be tricky or crafty to more so, 'This is my hole, this is where I’m going, stop me.' Completely different attitude."

3. Are the Rams OK at outside linebacker? St. Louis is set at middle linebacker with James Laurinaitis, a player the organization wants to build around (expect a new contract for him soon). The question is whether the outside linebackers -- Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Mario Haggan and Rocky McIntosh -- represent much of an upgrade for a team seeking to improve its run defense.

Another question: How much does it really matter? The league isn't exactly brimming with elite outside linebackers in traditional 4-3 schemes. The position has been de-emphasized. The Rams will run their defense through Laurinaitis. Dunbar will remain on the field with him on passing downs.

The Rams could use ascending young talent on the outside. They had too many more important needs this offseason to justify throwing precious resources at a position of lesser value.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeChris Long
Jeff Curry/US PresswireLeft end Chris Long, coming off a 13-sack season, anchors a promising young defensive line.
Head coach and quarterback are the two most important figures in a football operation. The Rams have the right people in those positions. That gives them a chance.

The Rams also have the pass-rushing talent Fisher needs to run his aggressive defense. Left defensive end Chris Long is coming off a 13-sack season. On the right, 2011 first-round choice Robert Quinn is serving notice, at least in practice, that he's the best pure pass-rusher on the team. His ability to close on the quarterback even when off-balance or falling sets him apart from most.

I wondered coming into camp whether last season inflicted irreparable damage to Bradford. That was not the case. There hasn't been a more impressive player on the practice field to this point. It's stunning, in retrospect, that a team with such a talented quarterback could suffer through a 2-14 season. So many things had to go wrong.

Day after day, play after play, Bradford impresses even the most seasoned observers. Receivers coach Ray Sherman, most recently with the Dallas Cowboys, has been around accomplished quarterbacks throughout his coaching career. The list includes Warren Moon, Joe Montana, Steve Young, Boomer Esiason, Randall Cunningham, Brett Favre, Steve McNair and Tony Romo. He used the word "special" to describe Bradford.

"His temperament is just so calm," Sherman said of Bradford. "He has a demeanor about him and Brett was like that -- when he spoke, guys listened. They tune in. They know, 'We take care of this guy, he's going to take us a long way. He's going to do some special things.'"

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Look at the schedule. Road games against Detroit and Chicago in the first three weeks. Green Bay, New England and San Francisco during a three-game stretch at midseason. Four of the final six games on the road. Only seven true home games overall, the New England game having been moved to London.

No one said this job would be easy for Fisher and his veteran staff.

Danny Amendola looks like the best receiver on the team. He's a terrific slot receiver, but with an 8-yard career average per reception, he won't strike fear into opponents. Quick and Givens, though promising draft choices, are rookies nonetheless. It's an upset if either becomes a force right away and a bonus if veteran Steve Smith fights through recent knee troubles to become a factor.

Bradford has the talent to rack up yardage when healthy, but he might not have the weapons to finish drives with touchdowns. Think back to the game at Green Bay last season. Bradford threw for 328 yards with a 64.4 completion rate at Lambeau Field, but the Rams still lost, 24-3.

Also, the Rams are going to a run-first offense at a time when the passing game is king in the NFL.

"Sitting in our first offensive meeting, it was made clear that our identity as an offense, we’re going to be known as being a physical unit that can run the ball versus whatever," Bradford said. "It doesn’t matter if people put 8-9 in the box, we’re going to run the ball. That’s what we’re going to do, and we’re going to pound them and we’re going to wear them out, and then we’re going to take our shots."

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins might already be one of the three or four most talented players on the team. He's starting opposite free-agent newcomer Cortland Finnegan. "He is game-ready," Finnegan said. "I think he’s one of those special guys."
  • Brandon Gibson has been one of the better receivers in camp. That was the case a year ago, and it might have said something about the quality of the position overall. I'm looking at Gibson as a barometer for the position this season. It's good for the Rams if other receivers pass him on the depth chart.
  • The Rams won't know for sure until they put on the pads, but they're hopeful rookie defensive tackle Michael Brockers can be more than just a run stuffer. They need him to factor as an inside pass-rusher as well. Having three relatively recent first-round picks on the defensive line -- Long, Brockers and Quinn -- gives Fisher and the defensive staff talent to work with.
  • Speaking of the defensive staff, I never heard Gregg Williams' name come up once during the first four days of camp. The NFL suspended Williams before he could get much work done as defensive coordinator. Fisher has never been one to panic. He's as cool as they come. The Rams moved on long ago. McGinnis: "I've been with Jeff when we were 10-0, and I’ve been with him when we were 0-6 and came back and won eight of our last 10. He doesn’t change. That type of self-confidence is transferable to a group. It’s transferable to individuals. That excites me."
  • Jackson, down to 235 pounds with 5.1 percent body fat, appears fresh in camp at age 29. Thomas Jones was that age when he rushed for 1,119 yards in Schottenheimer's offense with the Jets. Jones followed up that season with 1,312 yards at age 30, and 1,402 yards at age 31.
  • Rookie running back Pead stands out as an obvious talent. He's shifty. The question is whether he can pick up the offense quickly enough for the team to trust him in pass protection. The academic calendar at the University of Cincinnati prevented Pead from participating in organized team activities. He's behind from that standpoint, but he's got talent, and Schottenheimer likes using two backs. Those Jets teams referenced above had enough carries left over for secondary backs to gain 400-500 yards per season.
  • Long and Quinn had their way with the Rams' offensive tackles in pass-rushing situations. That could change some once players put on pads. Offensive linemen can become more aggressive at that point. I would expect the trend to continue, however. I'm expecting Long and Quinn to reach double-digit sacks.
  • Defensive end Eugene Sims played 25 percent of the Rams' defensive snaps last season. Look for that number to rise in 2012. The Rams' new staff likes his athleticism.
  • Jason Smith needs to become more patient as a pass protector at right tackle. He too frequently wants to bury the opponent. That's not necessary in pass protection. It's dangerous, in fact. Line coach Paul Boudreau went into the archives to produce a highlight reel showing former Rams great Orlando Pace letting opposing rushers come to him. Smith lacks Pace's talent, but if he can emulate Pace's patience, the Rams will have a better chance keeping Bradford upright.
  • "Gee-zee" would be rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein. Some are calling him "Greg the Leg" as well, and for good reason. Zuerlein has been powering through field goal tries from the 60-yard range. He made 23 of 24 attempts at Missouri Western State last season, including all nine tries from 50-plus yards. We'll see how it translates to the NFL. For now, though, the Rams aren't missing veteran Josh Brown.
  • The Rams have the youngest roster in the NFL, including the youngest specialists. They could be counting on a rookie, Johnny Hekker, to punt away from Patrick Peterson. That sounds risky, and it is, but the results can only get better. Peterson returned two for touchdowns against the Rams last season.
Strong safety Adrian Wilson cast his recent contract extension as a move to finish his career with the Arizona Cardinals.

Jackson
A salary reduction for 2012 was also part of the agreement.

Along similar lines, I'd like to know what the St. Louis Rams' Steven Jackson has in mind when he suggests an extension could be in the works for him as well.

Protecting the interests of all parties can be a challenge when great players are nearing the latter stages of their careers. Jackson, like Wilson, would ideally finish his career with St. Louis. He has plenty to offer in the short term, but there's no reason for the Rams to make a meaningful commitment beyond Jackson's current deal.

Jackson is scheduled to earn $7 million in 2012 and again in 2013, the final two years of his contract. He'll be 31 years old when the deal expires. How much longer than that does Jackson plan to play? How much longer than that will the Rams want to pay him? How long can Jackson remain productive?

The market for 31-year-old halfbacks barely exists. Jackson might become an exception, but the Rams should not realistically bet that will be the case.

NFL teams entered Week 1 last season with seven halfbacks age 31 or older at that time: Ricky Williams, Thomas Jones, LaDainian Tomlinson, Chester Taylor, Larry Johnson, Maurice Morris and Derrick Ward. Those players combined for 16 regular-season starts. Retirement awaits some of them now.

Jackson has plenty to offer in the shorter term. Unlike many high-profile players, he has played well enough to justify the high salaries awaiting him late in his contract. His current deal seems appropriate for what Jackson has to offer and what the future probably holds -- a couple more good seasons for the Rams' all-time rushing leader.

Chiefs Camp Watch

July, 25, 2012
7/25/12
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» NFC Camp Watch: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South » Dates

Three thoughts as training camps open around the NFL

One thing I'm certain of: The pressure is on Matt Cassel. The Chiefs enter training camp feeling highly confident after a strong offseason. Kansas City added several key pieces, and even though it has the youngest roster in the NFL, it has one of the best rosters in the AFC.

Yet, they aren’t getting much national attention and it’s because of Cassel. Few folks believe in him. Fortunately for Cassel, some of the people who believe in him are the Kansas City brass. Instead of replacing Cassel, the Chiefs built around him. And the Chiefs expect Cassel to respond with a strong season. It begins in training camp. All eyes will be on Cassel as we wait to see if he will hold Kansas City back or if he will push them forward.

One thing that might happen: We could see major strides made by Jonathan Baldwin. If so, it will erase memories of a horrible first NFL summer for the 2011 first-round pick. Baldwin’s rookie season was defined (and soiled) by a reported late-training camp fight with then teammate Thomas Jones. Baldwin broke his thumb in the reported incident.

Baldwin, who entered the NFL with some red flags, missed the first five games of the season. He ended up with 21 catches and he flashed some of the superior athleticism that got him drafted in the first round. Baldwin had a good offseason and the Chiefs want him to take a major step in training camp. Let’s see if Baldwin is ready to make training camp positive experience this year.

One thing we won't see: The Big Three will not be overworked in training camp. The Chiefs’ 2011 season was ruined by torn ACL injuries suffered by tight end Tony Moeaki, safety Eric Berry and running back Jamaal Charles within a two week period last September.

The Chiefs expect all three standouts to be ready to play this season, but the team will be cautious. So, don’t expect Moeaki, Berry and Charles to practice full go every day in camp. The team will play it smart and have all three players ready for Week 1 of the regular season.
Frank Gore and Marshawn Lynch topped 1,200 yards rushing last season. Steven Jackson (1,145) and Beanie Wells (1,047) also exceeded 1,000 yards for NFC West teams.

With LaDainian Tomlinson set to retire, I've put together a chart showing how many 1,200-yard seasons 10 current and former NFC West backs would need to match him in career rushing yards (13,684).

For example, the St. Louis Rams' Steven Jackson has 9,093 career yards. He would need 4,591 yards to catch Tomlinson. Jackson would need 3.8 seasons (61.2 games) to catch Tomlinson if Jackson were to average 1,200 yards per season from this point forward.

Tomlinson was pretty impressive, in other words.
The Denver Broncos chose Peyton Manning over Tim Tebow and so have NFL fashionistas.

According to NFL.com, the new Denver quarterback’s jersey has been more popular than the former Denver quarterback’s new jersey. From the period of April 1-May 28, Manning’s Denver No. 18 jersey is the biggest selling jersey in the NFL. Tebow’s New York Jets’ No. 15 jersey is the second-best selling jersey.

Denver signed Manning on March 20. The next day, Tebow was sent to the Jets.

The fact that Manning’s jersey is selling better than Tebow's shows substance over style may be winning. Manning is one of the most decorated players in league history, while Tebow has created a stir in the NFL without becoming a true throwing quarterback.

We all know by now who John Elway preferred, and it seems the jersey-buying public agrees.

In other AFC West news:
  • San Diego linebacker Larry English has a groin injury. He should be back next week. Missing OTAs in the late spring is no big deal, but English has to find a way to stay on the field once training camp begins. Thus far, injuries have robbed the No. 16 overall pick of the 2009 draft of trying to have a solid NFL career.
  • Receiver Jonathan Baldwin -- the Chiefs’ first-round pick in 2011 -- has been the talk of the OTAs this spring. I expect to see Baldwin make big strides in his second season. He showed flashes last year after he missed a big chunk of the season because of a broken thumb he reportedly suffered in a fight with running back Thomas Jones.
  • The Chiefs reportedly may host the Arizona Cardinals during training camp.
Ryan Grant, Thomas Jones and Joseph AddaiGetty ImagesRyan Grant, Thomas Jones and Joseph Addai are the top running back options left on the market.

We are in the eighth week of NFL free agency, and the position to which it has been most unkind is running back. Due to the ever-increasing emphasis on passing offense and the punishing nature of the running back position, teams see less and less value in investing big money in the position. So as the calender flipped to May, a number of veteran running backs with pretty good résumés remained on the open market.

All four teams in our division could conceivably still be in the market for a veteran running back. The Washington Redskins continue to negotiate with Tim Hightower, who was last year's starter before he tore his ACL, and would like him to come back to front an otherwise young running back corps that leaned on 2011 draft picks Roy Helu and Evan Royster over the final weeks of the season. The New York Giants, having lost Brandon Jacobs to free agency, picked David Wilson in this year's first round, but given the youth of their backup plans behind starter Ahmad Bradshaw, it wouldn't be ridiculous for them to bring a veteran back into camp.

The Philadelphia Eagles whiffed on Ronnie Brown as LeSean McCoy's backup last year and have plenty of intriguing youngsters at the position now, but they don't know what to expect from Dion Lewis or Bryce Brown or Chris Polk. And even the Dallas Cowboys, with DeMarco Murray as the starter and veteran Felix Jones as the backup, could stand to add some depth.

So here's a look at the top 10 remaining free-agent running backs and what they might bring if one of our division's teams were to sign them.

Ryan Grant. Rushed for a total of 2,456 yards in 2008 and 2009 as the Packers' starting running back, but an injury in the 2010 season opener cost him that whole season. Showed flashes of his old form in 2011, averaging 4.2 yards on his 134 carries, and he's 29 years old. Might be looking to start somewhere. He was talking to the Lions this week.

Thomas Jones. The graybeard of this group, Jones will turn 34 in August, and his days as a full-time starter are behind him. Might still be able to help in the passing game, but as a runner he'd be well down the depth chart. Well-regarded veteran locker room presence who might help the development of the younger guys who are getting the carries in a place like Washington.

Joseph Addai. Another 29-year-old who's struggled with injuries and probably needs a part-time role to better his chances of staying healthy. Even in his prime as an Indianapolis Colt, Addai was never a 20-carry-per-game guy. His value there was mainly as a receiver and as a blocker in the passing game. But there are some teams in this division that might be looking for a part-time guy who's good at that stuff.

Cedric Benson. He topped 1,000 yards in each of the past three seasons as the workhorse back in Cincinnati. Some say he chafed at the part-time role that developed for him as the 2011 season wore on, but at this point in the market he must see that a part-time role is his only option. Has had off-field issues that could scare teams away, but aside from that he might be a nice fit with Bradshaw in New York.

[+] EnlargeTim Hightower
James Lang/US PresswireThe Redskins would likely welcome Tim Hightower back if it weren't for concerns over the knee injury he sustained last season.
Tim Hightower. The Redskins loved him as a runner, receiver and pass-blocker, and would have him back in a second as their starter if they were sure about his knee. But he hasn't signed yet, and a recent visit to New England indicates he's looking for more than the Redskins are willing to offer.

LaDainian Tomlinson. One of the best ever at the position and a possible Hall of Famer, Tomlinson could be looking at retirement as he comes up on his 33rd birthday next month. But if he wants to play and can approach the level he showcased in 2010 with the Jets, he's the kind of guy who'd get a young running back's attention.

Cadillac Williams. Another 30-year-old for whom injuries have been the dominant story in recent years. He can be a more than productive backup with starter potential if he can stay on the field, but he generally can't.

Ronnie Brown. Only twice in the past five years has the 30-year-old Brown had 200 carries in a season. He was never able to assert himself as the starter in Miami, and as the Eagles' backup last year he was pretty much a complete disaster. It's going to be tough for Brown to sell himself as a reliable backup with what he showed in 2011.

Justin Forsett. He's small and quick and doesn't have a lot of miles on him. He won't turn 27 until October. The question is how much you can get out of him, and in what role. He's not a power runner, but he's good at finding holes. He accelerates well but doesn't have great top-end speed. He catches the ball well but isn't much help as a blocker in the passing game. Someone will sign him, and if they find the right role he could be a good change-up back for someone. It just feels as though each NFC East team already has someone like him.

Maurice Morris. Morris is 32 but has never been a regular feature back. He's been under 100 carries in each of the past three years, and of all of the backs on this list he has the most experience in the kind of part-time role we're talking about. He can catch the ball out of the backfield and doesn't mind playing special teams. He will find a home.

AFC West: Free-agency primer

March, 7, 2012
3/07/12
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» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET

Denver Broncos

Key free agents: K Matt Prater (franchised), DT Brodrick Bunkley, S Brian Dawkins, TE Daniel Fells, FB Spencer Larsen, WR Eddie Royal, QB Brady Quinn, DT Marcus Thomas, LB Wesley Woodyard, P Britton Colquitt (restricted).

Where they stand: The Broncos will have plenty of salary-cap room. For a team that went from 4-12 with the No. 2 overall pick in the draft to winning the AFC West and a playoff game in John Fox’s first season as coach, the Broncos are in position to improve through free agency. With Prater franchised, the team’s only priority unrestricted free agent is Bunkley.

What to expect: Don’t expect a huge spending spree. The Broncos are cash conscious and I think the franchise is still recovering from some undisciplined spending during the Mike Shanahan era that ended in 2008. We will see the Broncos try to add several pieces at lower prices. Denver could address needs at safety, running back, receiver, tight end, linebacker and quarterback. Keep an eye on players such as Washington safety LaRon Landry, Seattle tight end John Carlson, quarterbacks Chad Henne (Miami), Dennis Dixon (Pittsburgh) or Josh Johnson (Tampa), running backs Michael Bush (Oakland) and Mike Tolbert (San Diego), and defensive lineman Jonathan Fanene Cincinnati.

Kansas City Chiefs

Key free agents: WR Dwayne Bowe (franchised), CB Brandon Carr, QB Kyle Orton, RB Jackie Battle, LB Jovan Belcher, S Jon McGraw, C Casey Wiegmann, RB Thomas Jones, DE Wallace Gilberry, DT Kelly Gregg

Where they stand: The Chiefs are in great shape on cap space even after signing cornerback Stanford Routt and franchising Bowe. They have already done a nice job in free agency with these two moves and have a good, young roster. Kansas City can become a serious playoff contender with the right moves. It is likely Carr will leave in free agency, but the Chiefs should be able to re-sign most of their other free agents if they wish.

What to expect: I’m not sure we will see the Chiefs break the bank for any of the super-hot free agents, but I expect them to do some significant shopping. I think we could see Kansas City look for help at nose tackle, linebacker, safety, tackle, running back and quarterback. Of course, the intrigue could start if the team gets in on the Peyton Manning sweepstakes. But they could also look at several other quarterbacks, including Orton, Henne, Jason Campbell (Oakland) or even Quinn. They could also be in the mix for Miami nose tackle Paul Soliai, Saints guard Carl Nicks and running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis (New England), Bush and Tolbert.

Oakland Raiders

Key free agents: S Tyvon Branch (franchised), RB Michael Bush, QB Jason Campbell, LB Quentin Groves, C Samson Satele, WR Chaz Schilens, DE Trevor Scott, FB Marcel Reece (restricted).

Where they stand: The Raiders are one of the few teams that must get under the salary cap. Oakland coach Dennis Allen recently acknowledged the team has work to do. The Raiders have some contracts that can be easily restructured, but they also may have to cut some players, particularly on defense. Linebacker Kamerion Wimbley and defensive tackle John Henderson are among the top candidates.

What to expect: The Raiders likely face some limitations once they get under the cap, but they can add two or three starting-quality players under the right circumstances. Their primary needs are on defense, starting at cornerback and linebacker. The offensive line could be upgraded as well. I think they can be in on the second wave of cornerbacks. A player to watch is New Orleans cornerback Tracy Porter, who previously played for Allen. There are some solid second-tier cornerbacks Oakland could be interested in other than Porter. There will be some good players available on both sides of the ball after the initial wave of free agency for short-term deals. Expect the Raiders to do some bargain picking during that time. I think Oakland will be interested in signing several of its free agents, but I expect Bush and Campbell will leave.

San Diego Chargers

Key free agents: WR Vincent Jackson, C Nick Hardwick, RB Tolbert, DT Antonio Garay, OT Jared Gaither, FB Jacob Hester.

Where they stand: The Chargers will be in decent shape and they are getting even better after cutting Luis Castillo, the retirement of guard Kris Dielman and the expected release of tackle Marcus McNeill. But San Diego still has a lot of work to do. They have the most priority free agents of any team in the division. Signing Jackson, Hardwick, Gaither, Tolbert and Garay will be a challenge.

What to expect: The Chargers will likely stick to their usual plan and concentrate first on their own free agents. But they also have other needs and they will likely spend more in free agency than they have done before under general manager A.J. Smith. I get the sense from some agents that the Chargers may spend wildy in an attempt to win back the fan base’s trust after the unpopular contract extensions for Smith and coach Norv Turner. The pair were brought back even after missing the playoffs for a second consecutive season. I also get the sense from inside the organization, however, that the Chargers will not act out of desperation. Look for the team to consider pass-rushers, nose tackles, safeties and offensive linemen if Hardwick and Gaither aren’t brought back. A receiver will also become a major need if Jackson goes. The Colts' Reggie Wayne could be an option in that case. A running back such as Cadillac Williams (St. Louis) reportedly will be in the mix if Tolbert walks. Soliai could interest the team as well. Chicago special teams ace Corey Graham may also be a target. If the Chargers want to make a huge splash, they could try to get in on Houston pass-rusher Mario Williams, who is widely considered the best player on the market.
INDIANAPOLIS – Alabama star running back Trent Richardson is the premier player at the NFL combine at his position.

Richardson
Richardson
However, Richardson is unable to show NFL teams he is ready to be the league’s next great back. Richardson had minor knee surgery after suffering an injury in January. He is not participating in drills at the combine. He will have his pro day late in March where he is expected to be fully healed.

While many top prospects don’t do much at the combine, Richardson is upset he is not getting the chance to showcase his skills in Indy.

“I’m very disappointed I can’t do the stuff here that everybody else can do,” Richardson said. “In college, it irked my nerves when I heard guys say they don’t want to this and that at the combine. That’s something that you dream of and want to do your whole life and being a college football player and a competitor, I always wanted to come to this and show all my skills. That’s what the top guys do.”

If you listen to several league observers, expect the Kansas City Chiefs to have keen interest in Richardson’s workout. Many mock drafts have the Chiefs taking Richardson at No. 11.

In my mind, there are a lot of obstacles in the way of that intriguing pairing. The biggest issue is Richardson’s availability. There is a chance Richardson could go as high as No. 5 to Tampa Bay. If Richardson does drop to No. 11, the Chiefs would have to decide if they want to bypass needs at tackle and linebacker to take Richardson.

Kansas City general manager Scott Pioli said Friday that the Chiefs will look at running backs in the draft and in free agency. Starter Jamaal Charles is expected to be ready for training camp after suffering a torn ACL in his knee in September. Kansas City running backs Jackie Battle and Thomas Jones are free agents, so the position is a need area.

If the Chiefs don’t pursue a running back — New England’s BenJarvus Green-Ellis and San Diego’s Mike Tolbert could be possibilities — in free agency, Richardson could be a target.

The blunt Richardson said he is ready to make an impact in the NFL.

“When it comes down to it, I’ll be the dude that’s on the field and getting the ball on third and three or fourth and one,” Richardson said. “Not to be cocky or anything, but I work on my game every day and even if it’s not physical stuff, I work in the classroom learning plays and learning the defensive line and what the linebackers and safeties are doing so I can pick up my blitzes. I love to block. Everybody knows I can run the ball. I’ve never been caught from behind, so if anyone wants to questions my speed, just look at the tape. When it comes to playing football, any game you want to just look at it a try to find a negative.”

That could turn out to be a positive in Kansas City.

Talking with Scott Pioli

February, 24, 2012
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Kansas City Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli met with the media on Friday afternoon. In addition to talking about the team’s quarterback situation, here are some other highlights:

Pioli said the Chiefs’ three injured stars -- running back Jamaal Charles, safety Eric Berry and tight end Tony Moeaki -- are on schedule to be ready for training camp. All three suffered torn ACLs in their knees in September. Pioli said there aren’t any guarantees that all three will be ready for camp, but the team feels good about each player’s progress.

Pioli said he thinks this is a strong draft overall and he really likes the running backs. I expect the Chiefs to look at a running back fairly early in the draft or in free agency. With Charles coming back from injury and Jackie Battle and Thomas Jones being free agents, the Chiefs will need help there. One possibility, I think, is to sign New England’s Benjarvus Green-Ellis in free agency. Pioli signed him as an undrafted free agent in New England.

Pioli said he believes second-year player Rodney Hudson is ready to start at center or guard. His best bet might be at center. Casey Wiegmann is considering retirement, and the team might be ready to move to Hudson anyway.

Pioli said 2011 first-round pick Jonathan Baldwin has made progress and is expected to be a contributor in 2012.

Pioli reiterated that he wants to keep receiver Dwayne Bowe and cornerback Brandon Carr, who are headed for free agency. With the Chiefs signing cornerback Stanford Routt this week, the odds of Carr's coming back have lessened considerably.

Pioli said he was “heartbroken” to see college scouting director Phil Emery leave to become the Bears’ general manager. Pioli praised Emery extensively and said he will make the city of Chicago proud.

AFC West combine primer

February, 23, 2012
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Let’s take a look at what AFC West each team may be seeking during the NFL combine, which starts Thursday:

Will the Raiders still love speed? It became a combine ritual. The Raiders would draft the fastest, or one of the fastest players, at the combine. It happened several times in recent years: Stanford Routt, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Jacoby Ford and DeMarcus Van Dyke. No team in the NFL valued speed more than Al Davis’ Raiders. Davis died in October. Will the Raiders be married to speed now that Reggie McKenzie is the general manager? I’m sure the Raiders will stick to Davis’ values somewhat, but I think it will no longer be automatic to connect the fastest combine runners to the Raiders.

Will the Chargers get their pass-rusher? The Chargers took defensive end Corey Liuget at No. 18 last year and bypassed several pass-rushers in a deep class. This year’s class is not nearly as deep, but the Chargers still need a pass-rusher. Once again, San Diego has the No. 18 pick.

[+] EnlargeMark Barron
Randy Litzinger/Icon SMISafety Mark Barron is one of several Alabama defenders that AFC West teams may take a look at.
Will the Alabama defense roll into the AFC West? Alabama won the BCS championship last season on the strength of a dominant defense. There are several key Alabama defenders who will go early in the draft, starting with linebackers Courtney Upshaw, safety Mark Barron and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. I could see all three players drawing interest in the AFC West. I think San Diego would jump on Upshaw if he somehow fell to No. 18, and it could take Barron if it doesn’t address safety in free agency. If Kirkpatrick drops, Denver could take him at No. 25.

Will the Broncos look at quarterbacks? Yes, I believe they will, but it remains to be seen whether Denver makes a play for a quarterback in the early rounds. Denver looked at all the top quarterbacks last year, and I think John Elway and his group will do the same this year. In his last mock draft, Todd McShay of Scouts Inc. has Denver taking Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill at No. 25. I’m not sure Denver -- which has committed to Tim Tebow going to training camp as the No. 1 quarterback -- will take a quarterback that high, but there will be interest in the position.

Is Trent Richardson on the Chiefs’ radar? The Alabama star running back won’t compete at the combine because of a minor knee surgery. However, he will be able to run at his pro day next month. Still, perhaps the Chiefs will meet with Richardson. He has been connected to Kansas City in several mock drafts. I’d be surprised if Kansas City ended up with him because of other needs and because the Chiefs have running back Jamaal Charles coming back from a torn ACL. But it is an intriguing scenario.

Chiefs, Chargers looking at the O-line: Both Kansas City and San Diego could use their top pick on an offensive lineman. There are several players who could help their standing with a strong combine. I think Stanford tackle Jonathan Martin will be closely watched by both teams. San Diego could also look at Wisconsin’s Peter Konz if it doesn’t want to re-sign free agent Nick Hardwick.

Watch out for Luke Kuechly: The Boston College inside linebacker has a chance to be a hot name in the top half of the first round if he has a big combine. He was productive in college and his game translates well to the NFL. Kansas City will surely be interested in him and could have competition if Kuechly lights it up in Indy.

Broncos will be watching running backs: The Broncos probably will add a running back early in the draft or in free agency. Denver could use its top pick on the position. It will be closely watching Miami’s Lamar Miller, Washington’s Chris Polk, Virginia Tech’s David Wilson and Boise State’s Doug Martin, among other tailbacks, this week

Is this the time for a tight end in San Diego? I expect the Chargers to look at tight ends this week. This isn’t considered a great class, but the Chargers need to consider getting younger at the position. Antonio Gates will turn 32 in June and has been dealing with injuries the past few years. The Chargers probably would have to commit a second-round pick for the top tight ends, which include Stanford’s Coby Fleener, Clemson’s Dwayne Allen (though, they could both be late first-round choices) and Georgia’s Orson Charles.

Nick Foles needs to show Denver some accuracy: There was talk that the Arizona quarterback could be on Denver’s radar last season. But he had some trouble with interceptions, which may have cooled the team on him. If he can show better accuracy at the combine. Foles could be a mid-round target of the Broncos again.

The Raiders need to pay big attention: The Raiders currently have the smallest draft class in the NFL this season. They have just a fifth- and a sixth-round pick. They will, though, probably get two or three compensatory picks next month. The earliest will be at the end of the third round. But don’t think for a moment that the combine won’t matter to Oakland. The Raiders will have to dig deep and find great value in the mid-to-late rounds to get some something positive from this class. Closely scouting the combine will be essential.

Is Brandon Weeden too old? The Oklahoma State quarterback is one of the more interesting players in the draft. He has skills that translate to the NFL, and some people think he could be a future starter. But Weeden turns 29 in October. There really isn’t much time to groom him. Is it worth spending a premium pick on a player who could be over the hill in five years? I think both Denver and Kansas City could look at him, but they would have to be comfortable with his age.

Will the coin flip the Chiefs’ way? The Chiefs will have a coin flip with Seattle to determine the No. 11 and No. 12 picks in the draft. It is set to take place Friday. If the Chiefs lose and get the No. 12 pick, it will not be the end of the world, but there’s no denying there is more value in having the No. 11 pick.

Will Mercilus impress the Chargers? One player to keep an eye on for the Chargers is Illinois pass-rusher Whitney Mercilus. He came on strong in 2011, but there are consistency questions. If he answers all the right questions on and off the field this week, I could see his being a target at No. 18.

Will Chiefs look at suspect character players? Kansas City has a reputation for taking players with sterling off-field reputations. However, last year, genearl manager Scott Pioli took Pitt receiver Jon Baldwin in the first round and Georgia pass-rusher Justin Houston in the third round. Both had character questions. Baldwin ended up missing a chunk of his rookie season because of a reported training camp fight with veteran Thomas Jones. It hurt his development. However, Houston was outstanding as a rookie. Let’s see whether Pioli takes more risks this year.

Will Broncos add players to aid Tebow? If Denver takes a running back early, adds to the offensive line and beefs up the defense, that means it is doing what it can to build around Tebow. The best way Denver can win with Tebow is with a good running game and strong defense.

Will the Broncos finally draft a defensive tackle in the first round? Denver could take a defensive tackle at No. 25. Among the players it may consider are Penn State’s Devon Still, Mississippi State’s Fletcher Cox and Michigan State’s Jerel Worthy. Denver hasn’t taken a defensive tackle in the first round since Trevor Pryce in 1997.

Will Arizona State linebacker impress the Chiefs or Chargers? Arizona State’s middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict was considered a top-10 pick before the season. But after his production fell off and he had some character issues, Burfict is no longer considered a sure first rounder. I think he could help both the Chiefs and Chargers. His progress this week will be watched by these two teams.

2011 AFC West draft rewind

February, 14, 2012
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As each team in the AFC West prepares for the NFL scouting combine next week, let’s review the AFC West 2011 draft classes:

DENVER BRONCOS

First pick: Linebacker Von Miller , No. 2 overall

Total picks: Nine

Stars: Miller was the shining star of this class. He won the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award and he looks like he will be a dominant pass-rusher for years to come. Right tackle Orlando Franklin, a second-round pick, performed well as a starter and safety Quinton Carter really came on toward the end of the season. Carter was a fourth-round pick.

Dud: There is concern over safety Rahim Moore who regressed as the season went on. The second-round pick was not nearly as far along as Carter at the end of the season. Moore is a hard worker and there is hope for him, but the Broncos expected more from him.

Good start for Elway era: This was the first draft class under new Denver leader John Elway. The Broncos made some good draft decisions and the process seemed very organized. It was the first sign that Elway was prepared for his new role.

What’s the future of this class? This was a good class. Third-round pick Nate Irving will compete to start at middle linebacker and the Broncos are excited about tight ends Julius Thomas (fourth round) and Virgil Green (seventh round). Regardless of what happens with the rest of this class, Miller himself makes this group a winner.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

First pick: Receiver Jon Baldwin, No. 26

Total picks: Nine

Star: The player who created the most excitement was third-round pick Justin Houston at linebacker. He had first-round talent, but character issues dropped him to no. 70 overall. He was a playmaker, had 5.5 sacks and looks like he can be a major star.

Duds: Baldwin wasn’t terrible, but he was a disappointment because he suffered a broken thumb in a camp fight with veteran Thomas Jones. Baldwin didn’t debut until October. He showed flashes and I think he will be a fine player, but he hurt the team by fighting with Jones. It was a terrible start to his career.

Character questions? Kansas City general manager Scott Pioli had a reputation for steering clear of players with character issues. He changed course by taking Baldwin and Houston because of their draft value. It worked with Houston but the Baldwin fight raised more concerns. It will be interesting to see if Pioli takes any chances this year.

What’s the future of this class? I like it. Third-round pick Allen Bailey has a real chance to shine at defensive end and second-round pick Rodney Hudson may have a chance to start at either guard or center this season. Fifth-round pick Ricky Stanzi had a chance to be the backup quarterback this year. It was a good group.

OAKLAND RAIDERS

First pick: Guard Stefen Wisniewski, No. 48

Total picks: Eight

Stars: Wisniewski and fifth-round pick Denarius Moore at wide receiver. Wisniewski looked like an eight-year veteran. The nephew of former Raiders’ star offensive lineman and assistant offensive line coach Steve Wisniewski was born to be a Raider and he looks like a future star. He’s bright, athletic and he has a mean streak. Moore opened eyes in camp and made a lot of plays during the season. There were plays when he simply took over and he ended up with 33 catches for 618 yards and five touchdowns. I wouldn’t be shocked if he doubles those totals in 2012.

Duds: It would be unfair to call the Raiders' third-round picks -- cornerback DeMarcus Van Dyke and offensive lineman Joseph Barksdale (who Oakland traded its 2012 second-round pick to get) -- duds. But neither player made any real impact. They are projects and they have a chance to be good in the future, but they just weren’t standouts as rookies.

End of an era: This was the final draft selected by the legendary Al Davis. I have a feeling Moore may be Davis’ final gift to the Raider Nation.

What’s the future of this class? If Van Dyke, Barksdale, defensive back Chimdi Chekwa and running back Taiwan Jones can become major role players, this will be a great class. If not, Wisniewski and Moore will carry a class that didn’t feature a first-round pick. Quarterback Terrelle Pryor technically wasn’t part of the Raiders’ 2011 class because he was taken in the supplemental draft later in the summer. Drafting him cost Oakland a third-round pick in 2012. He was a rookie last season and it will be interesting to see how he develops. He was a Davis pick and the new regime may or may not like him. Either way, he is still a project.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

First pick: Defensive end Corey Liuget, No. 18.

Total picks: Eight

Stars: Liuget wasn’t great in a class that featured several impact defensive players. But he did look like somebody who will make an impact down the road. Third-round pick, receiver Vincent Brown, also showed nice progress. I think he could end up having a very solid career.

Duds: Second-round pick Marcus Gilchrist struggled at cornerback when he started. Still, his future is not lost. He could be moved to safety or perhaps he could be a nickel. The Chargers waived running back Jordan Todman. The team hoped the sixth-round pick could become the next Darren Sproles. Todman is now with Minnesota.

Back to the future? The Chargers surprisingly took Liuget even though many observers thought that San Diego would take an offensive lineman or a pass-rusher. Now, a year later, the Chargers are looking at offensive linemen and pass-rushers with the No. 18 pick.

What’s the future of this class? I think the other three classes in the division all have better potential. I’m not sure if this will ever be a great class, but Liuget and Brown can really help it. Linebacker Jonas Mouton (second round) missed the entire season with an injury. He will get a chance to play this season.

Wrap-up: Patriots 34, Chiefs 3

November, 22, 2011
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A look at a game in which the visiting Kansas City Chiefs were eventually worn down by the New England Patriots:

What it means: The Chiefs are now 4-6 after their 34-3 loss. They trail the Oakland Raiders by two games in the AFC West. Kansas City is tied with the San Diego Chargers for last place in the division. The Denver Broncos are 5-5.

Team of streaks: The Chiefs are on their second three-game losing streak of the season. They sandwiched it with a four-game winning streak.

Getting tricky: The Chiefs used a lot of fast snaps, they used the Wildcat and they tried an onside kick. In the end, it didn’t matter. But an undermanned team on the road needs to try anything and Chiefs’ coach Todd Haley was up for anything.

Second-half blues: The Chiefs actually led this game in the first quarter 3-0. The Patriots scored all but seven of their points in the final 31 minutes of the game. The Chiefs hung in this game for a while, but the Patriots eventually overtook them in every phase of the game.

Tough start to a tough stretch: It doesn’t get any easier for Kansas City. It entered the week with the toughest remaining schedule in the NFL. It plays Pittsburgh, Chicago, the Jets, Green Bay, Oakland and Denver in the final six games.

Palko wasn’t horrible: Tyler Palko had his issues and he threw three interceptions. But in his first start Palko had his moments, especially early in the game. He didn’t look like a player who was lost. After entering the game with just 13 total NFL passes under his belt, he completed 25 of 38 passes for 236 yards. The left-hander looks like a coachable player who can improve. He’ll get his chance. The Chiefs put starter Matt Cassel on the injured reserve with a broken thumb on Monday. He was injured in a loss to Denver last week. I’m interested to see how Palko responds after getting more practice time. He had a nice chemistry with receivers Dwayne Bowe and Steve Breaston. They had a combined 13 catches for 160 yards.

Jones plays well: Veteran running back Thomas Jones had 48 yards rushing on eight carries. The Chiefs ran for 119 yards on 26 carries.

Getting pressure: The Chiefs sacked Tom Brady three times, all in the first half. Like every other aspect of the Chiefs on Monday night, the pass-rush dwindled in the second half.

Got Gronked: New England tight end Rob Gronkowski lit up the Chiefs. He had touchdown catches of 52 and 19 yards. Kansas City simply didn’t have an answer for him.

Not so special: New England broke the game open with just less than 10 minutes remaining on a 72-yard punt return for a score by Julian Edelman.

What’s next: The Chiefs are on prime time again in Week 12. They host Pittsburgh Sunday evening.

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