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Monday, August 16, 2010
Rookies drawing rave early reviews

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

Suh/McCoy
High picks Ndamukong Suh, left, and Gerald McCoy are already proving they belong.

So what did we learn from the first full weekend of preseason football?

The 2010 rookie class accounted for itself very well. Thirty-three rookies started in the 15 games played between Thursday and Sunday and many did well.

What has to make coaches happy is the good play of most of the top-10 picks. Ndamukong Suh of the Lions, Gerald McCoy of the Bucs, Trent Williams of the Redskins, Eric Berry of the Chiefs, Russell Okung and Earl Thomas of the Seahawks, Rolando McClain of the Raiders and Ryan Mathews of the Chargers all started and did well in their first games.

Among the non-first-round picks who excelled were defensive end Lamarr Houston of the Raiders, linebacker Koa Misi of the Dolphins, inside linebacker Brandon Spikes of the Patriots and safety T.J. Ward of the Browns.

The likely loss of running back Ben Tate for the season was a big blow to a Houston Texans team that just doesn't seem to have any luck fixing the running back position. Wasn't it fitting that Steve Slaton had yet another fumble near the goal line? And the surprising part about Sam Bradford's debut was how the Rams' offensive line collapsed in front of him.

Of the next group of quarterbacks, Jimmy Clausen of the Panthers did the best. Tim Tebow of the Broncos was up and down. Colt McCoy of the Browns struggled and was injured when he hit his hand on a helmet. McCoy won't be a factor this season, and Tebow will be a work in progress.

Inside linebacker Daryl Washington of the Cardinals didn't start, but he sure made a case that he should. A part of a linebacking corps that sports four starters in their 30s, Washington was all over the place making tackles.

From the inbox

Q: With some uncertainty about the pass-rushing capabilities of outside linebackers (not named Clay Matthews) on the Packers' roster, why am I not hearing any rumors about efforts to sign Aaron Schobel?

Joe in La Crosse, Wis.

A:
That one is pretty easy: Schobel was going to end up in Houston as a 4-3 defensive end. He apparently decided Monday that he's going to retire instead of playing football this year. Clearly, he wasn't going to make a move to a team that has a 3-4. You saw how Aaron Kampman struggled in his transition to the 3-4. Kampman was professional about it, but you could tell it was a bad fit. The fact Matthews was a first-year hit with 10 sacks was a big plus. Dom Capers will have to develop someone from the roster to be the second pass-rusher.

Q: Will the Ravens' problems in the secondary really cost them first place in the division? Sufficient cornerbacks seem to be a dime a dozen. I don't care what Saints fans say, their CBs weren't all that great and the Ravens have better safeties than they do … and New Orleans won a Super Bowl!

Danny in Hollywood, Fla.

A:
I think it could cost them the AFC North. Before seeing them and before the Domonique Foxworth injury, I thought the Ravens would win 11 games and the division. The cornerback situation has caused me to switch to the Bengals, a team with a top-five defense and plenty of offensive weapons. Lardarius Webb is a good potential starter, but I don't think he will be ready for the season opener and he might need the full season to get back to full speed after offseason knee surgery. Sure, the Ravens can get good pressure with the front seven, but that's a heavy burden for the group to carry over 16 games. The key to the division race is how the Ravens do in Week 4 in Pittsburgh. If the Ravens can win that game against a Steelers team without Ben Roethlisberger, they can get a sweep of the Steelers and maybe get to 10 or 11 wins. If they lose, it will be more difficult and the cornerback situation will make it tougher for the Ravens.

Q: The Bucs have an improved defense with Gerald McCoy and offense with Mike Williams. Josh Freeman has entered his second season and will be more comfortable, and the Bucs will have the Wildcat formation going with Josh Johnson. My friends and I made a bet that the Bucs would make the playoffs. Do you think a 10-6 season is possible?

Matt L in Palm City, Fla.

A:
I hope you didn't bet a lot. The Bucs have a long way to go and privately they will admit it. As thrilled as I was with their first four draft choices, they need another draft or two and another year or two to get to the eight-win level. I love the fact that Freeman has a chance to grow with young receivers. The problem with youth is there will be mistakes and it will take time for the offense to win, particularly in a division that includes the Falcons and Saints. You can see the improvement but it may not translate into many more wins this season.

Q: Why are so many people down on the Giants? The defense has more depth. The power running game will return. Eli Manning has confidence in his receiving corps. Keith Bulluck provides leadership on the defense. Are they better than 6-10 or 7-9?

Colvin from Columbus, Ga.

A:
I think they are better than 6-10 or 7-9, but I still favor the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC East. The key for the Giants is getting better play out of their defense. Leadership is a big question mark. Bulluck should help if he is healthy. Injuries hurt the team last year and you still worry what happens to the secondary if Kenny Phillips and Aaron Ross don't bounce back from injury-plagued seasons. Manning is now a 4,000-yard passer, and I can't imagine the running attack being as bad as it was last season. I think they are better than a .500 team.

Q: You wrote that Calvin Johnson is one of three receivers who will have a harder year than last year?? Johnson had a good year on an awful team last year with no other playmakers in sight. This year the Lions have Jahvid Best, Nate Burleson, a re-charged Bryant Johnson, Tony Scheffler and Brandon Pettigrew, not to mention Kevin Smith, a better offensive line, and a more mature Matthew Stafford. Please explain how that will make this season harder for Johnson?

Forrest in Indianapolis

A:
Scheffler is going to help Johnson out the most, but defenses will still commit to covering Johnson. I think Stafford is going to be better, but he's still a young quarterback with only 12 games of experience. I'm not sold the offensive line is that much better. Best is exciting but he's only a role player at the moment. The Lions will be better on offense, but clearing out room for Johnson to do his thing is one of the keys to the season.

Q: What is the rule that would allow Vincent Jackson to return after 10 weeks? Couldn't the Chargers suspend him for the season by that time? I don't understand why players would be able to come back at a certain time so late in the season.

Jack in Iowa City, Iowa

A:
The rule is more of a benchmark. A player needs to be on a roster for six games to get an accrued season. That's why a holdout can wait for 10 games to elapse before reporting and still get credit for the season. If Jackson's holdout goes past this Friday, he will be placed on the exempt list and be ineligible for the first game, which doesn't mean much because he's suspended for three games. If this goes beyond Aug. 20, I think the Chargers will shop Jackson in a trade.

Q: Why are teams allowed to have 53 players on their roster, but only 45 may dress for game day? What happens if you have a third-string QB inactive for game day, and your top two QBs go down? I take it you would just have to throw someone else in there, and not the actual QB.

David in Cincinnati

A:
The reason teams dress only 45 is the conservative belief from older owners that having 53 active players will destroy competitive balance. They believe a team coming off a bye week with a healthy roster could destroy a team that carries eight or nine injuries. They also feel as though the better teams would have a big advantage because they would have more role players to use. If a team uses a third quarterback in the first three quarters, the top two quarterbacks can't play the rest of the game.

Q: Over the past few years we have seen a change in schemes -- for offense the scheme is from running to throwing; for defense it's going from a 4-3 to a 3-4. What do you see happening over the next 8-10 years?

Jamin in Winnipeg, Manitoba

A:
I think the offense swing will continue to grow. Look at next year: There are four potential good quarterbacks if Andrew Luck turns pro early and joins Jake Locker, Ryan Mallett and Christian Ponder in the draft, as all four are quarterbacks prospects who will only make passing better. Stafford looks better, and I think Bradford will be a star. We're in a golden era of quarterbacks, and I don't see any slippage in the next few years.

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