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Monday, May 4, 2009
Curry, Raji among minicamps' stars

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

The first weekend after the draft is always the biggest for minicamps.

Twenty-six teams held either full or rookie camps to orient their draft choices and get a read on how they did over the two-day draft in New York City. It's hard to make conclusive judgments on selections. Players aren't allowed to wear pads. No hitting is allowed. Rookies' heads are swimming with the overload from the new playbook being thrown at them.

Still, any time you can put 26 coaching staffs on a field with new players, things can be learned. Here are eight things we learned from this weekend.

1. Mark Sanchez is destined to be the starting quarterback of the New York Jets in Week 1. Politically, the Jets did the right thing by having offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer say Kellen Clemens was ahead of Sanchez. Clemens is entering his fourth season. He has eight NFL starts. He should be ahead of Sanchez. But anyone doubting Sanchez' ability to win over the coaching staff and Jets fans is wearing a blindfold. Sanchez showed everyone at the minicamp that he can make all the throws. More than that, he showed leadership. The story of how he got a good portion of the offense together at the hotel Thursday night to go over the playbook is a classic example of how Sanchez's head might be more important than his arm. It's pretty clear what direction the Jets are heading. Head coach Rex Ryan is going to try to run the ball 35 times a game in order to give Sanchez light throwing days during the regular season. Of all the draft choices working this weekend, Sanchez was probably the biggest winner.

2. Matthew Stafford isn't going to be rushed into service as the Detroit Lions' starter.
General manager Martin Mayhew concluded the Lions' minicamp by saying he trusts Daunte Culpepper as a starter and he'd like to sign a veteran backup. The Lions' roster isn't like the Jets. The Lions are coming off an 0-16 season, and they don't have the offensive line or two-back combination to run the ball 35 times a game. Despite playing only 16 games as a collegian, Sanchez was supposed to be more prepared to play earlier in the NFL than Stafford. Minicamp proved that. Stafford unleashed incredible throws, but he's still a work in progress. That's not to say Stafford won't play this season. The plan is for Stafford to work with the coaching staff. When he's ready, he will play. The Lions are handling Stafford's entry into the NFL the right way.

3. Seattle Seahawks coach Jim Mora wasted no time making Aaron Curry his starting strongside linebacker. Curry was one of the stars of the Seahawks' minicamp. He's 15 pounds heavier than traded linebacker Julian Peterson, but he moves so well and has such a natural instinct for moving to the ball. Middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu marveled at how naturally Curry fits into the defense during his first weekend. With Curry, Tatupu and Leroy Hill, the Seahawks have one of the best linebacking corps in football.

4. The Washington Redskins have a completely different plan for first-round choice Brian Orakpo than some people expected. At the Redskins' minicamp, Orakpo was used as the starting strongside linebacker. The plan is for him to blitz from the strong side on first and second downs. On passing downs, he will line up at right defensive end next to Albert Haynesworth, the former Tennessee Titans star who appeared dominating at his first Redskins camp. Orakpo was drafted to rush the passer. The surprise is that he won't just be doing it from a defensive end position.

5. Linebacker Shawne Merriman served notice that he plans to be a dominating force again this season for the San Diego Chargers. "Lights Out" knows the spotlight is on him. He missed all but one game of the 2008 season because his knee needed surgery. He also knows management is looking at him with a judgmental eye. The Chargers drafted Larry English as a possible replacement if Merriman doesn't come back and dominate. Merriman is in the last year of his contract. English, though not tall, showed a relentless pass-rushing style. He's not ready to unseat Merriman, who questions those whom he said questioned his "football-hood."

6. The Carolina Panthers liked what they saw from second-round choice Everette Brown, who cost them a 2010 first-round pick to acquire in a trade. Coach John Fox knows the importance of getting a pass rush, and Brown, a defensive end, showed he can help. Everyone noticed his first step and how he can get an edge on a blocker with that first step. One of the knocks on the pass-rushers of this draft is their lack of height compared to previous crops. For whatever reason, scouts feel more comfortable using first-round choices on pass-rushers who stand 6-foot-4 or taller. On the Panthers' official roster, Brown is listed as 6-1, but he showed he can get around blockers. Julius Peppers wasn't at the minicamp because he hasn't signed his franchise tag. He probably will miss a good portion of training camp, but management feels he will be there for the regular season. In the meantime, the plan is to develop Brown as a rusher.

7. Even though Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy plans to have Ryan Pickett as the starting nose tackle, it's pretty clear the 3-4 defense is being built around first-round choice B.J. Raji. The former Boston College star didn't disappoint. For a while, Raji was practicing as the first-team nose tackle and second-team defensive end. He moves well for his size. He also seemed to fit in well with his teammates.

8. The Philadelphia Eagles' draft for offense looked even better on the field because fifth-round choice Cornelius Ingram did well over the weekend. The 245-pound tight end is coming off ACL surgery, yet caught the ball well and moved well. He left camp with the thought that he could be in the playing mix this year. The team is also cautiously optimistic about the first-year impact of first-round draft pick Jeremy Maclin. Head coach Andy Reid warned it might be hard for Maclin to match DeSean Jackson's 62-catch rookie season because Maclin played in a spread offense at Missouri. Jackson played in more of a West Coast offense at Cal; the Eagles also run a West Coast offense. Reid said the intermediate routes are different in the spread because spread receivers run downfield or break shorter routes. Fortunately for the Eagles, Maclin seemed to pick up the intermediate routes well over the weekend.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.