This story appears in the Aug. 8, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
NFL FRIENDSHIPS TOOK ON NEW ROLES during the lockout. We couldn't use team facilities or talk to coaches and trainers, so we helped each other by finding the right training partner, organizing workouts or sending texts to make sure guys stayed focused. But being away from the facility made scouting tough. That's why I put my new reporting skills to work and called five guys I knew would give up the goods.
Sidney Rice, WR / Free Agent
Sidney Rice is my closest friend in the league. We met before my rookie season at Athletes' Performance (AP) in Arizona and later became teammates and road roommates in Minnesota. Sidney's situation is unique because as a free agent the lockout kept him from signing with anyone. He's going to be fine, though. Sidney can make plays the average receiver can't. His body is so flexible; he can adjust to back shoulder passes or those that are too high. He's a quarterback's dream.
Q: You were frustrated being on the sideline last season with your hip injury. How are you feeling now?
A: Really good, man. I went back to the trainer I had before my big year in 2009 (83 receptions, 1,312 yards, 8 touchdowns), and I think we're on the right track. I've actually been doing some MMA training.
Q: Did you adjust your training to improve your durability?
A: I'm eating a lot better. I'm doing some stretching and core work. For my conditioning, the mixed martial arts has really helped. I see a difference in my speed and instincts already.
Q: I know the burn you're feeling, brother, but it'll pay off. Are you at all concerned about not having had an official off-season?
A: My biggest concern is the rookies. A lot of things are riding on those guys, and when you don't have that off-season, you can't learn your playbook or get to know all your coaches and teammates, things like that. So it's going to be tough. A lot of guys are depending on rookie quarterbacks to come in, and I feel like they're really going to be upset.
Q: When are you going to take me up on my one-on-one hoops challenge? Are you scared?
A: AD, you are one of the most competitive guys I know and I respect that, but you have no chance against me on the court. No chance.
Ndamukong Suh, DT / Detroit Lions
At the 2010 draft, Ndamukong Suh told me he admired the way I played, which is a huge compliment from someone I watched tear things up at Nebraska. We've become friendly even though he came after me hard last year. And it wasn't a hit that caused a fumble. I was going to hit the linebacker. Suh was trailing him and caught me off guard. I tried to push him, and he pushed me a little harder. There's a lot of force behind Big Suh.
Q: The Lions definitely had some quality picks. The addition of you transformed your D, and this year you have Nick Fairley coming in. You're making the rise. How do you feel about that?
A: It feels good. We've got a great nucleus. Now we can grab some depth. A lot of people see us stockpiling on the defensive front. But it's all on paper. We haven't proved anything. We haven't done anything yet.
Q: You had an awesome first year. Are you concerned about maintaining your momentum?
A: I just want to continue to play with reckless abandon. I know that's what our coach wants. But I had surgery on my shoulder in January, and I haven't talked to my coach or been able to work out the way I did last year when I was learning the defense. So I'm slowly focusing on getting stronger and faster.
Q: I completely agree with that. Did anybody step up as a leader this summer and organize workouts?
A: We have some strong natural leaders in defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch and Dominic Raiola, our center. They arranged two workouts for us. It was good to get together and see the guys, but like I said, we haven't talked to our coaches to see what they have planned, so we've been in no-man's-land.
Q: Thanks for the scouting report. I'll definitely be bringing that back to Minnesota. Are you looking forward to chasing me around again this fall?
A: I don't know about chasing, but I'm looking forward to tackling you.
Sam Bradford, QB / St. Louis Rams
A lot of people don't realize that Sam Bradford and I overlapped in 2006. He was a redshirt freshman during my last season as a Sooner, and he got my attention during practice. When the media questioned his potential before last year's draft, I knew he'd prove them wrong. At Oklahoma, he was skinny and his arm strength wasn't where it needed to be. But he had incredible accuracy. And I knew that with the strength and conditioning program at OU, he'd transform. I told my teammates, "I'm not biased, but this guy is going to come in and tear it up."
Q: What part of the game did you work the hardest on this off-season and why?
A: I've kind of changed my body, and I feel that I'm a lot stronger going into this year. I spend quite a bit of time on my computer watching film, just working on the mental aspect of the quarterback position. I definitely see a lot more things that I didn't see last year.
Q: Is there anything else you did differently with a year under your belt and a lockout to contend with?
A: Not being in St. Louis with my receivers wasn't ideal. I've gotten together with them four or five times, which isn't as much as I'd like, but we have been able to get work done and stay on the same page.
Q: It's important for you as a quarterback to take that power role with the whole team. Did any other guys pitch in?
A: Linebacker James Laurinaitis and corner Ron Bartell rallied the defense. It's tough for us to ask guys to go hard seven-on-seven with insurance in doubt, but I'm very proud of how the players on this team have worked out.
Q: Our fellow Sooner, Mark Clayton, joined the Rams in 2010. Has he helped you settle in as the starter?
A: We had a young receiving corps last season. Danny Amendola is only 25, Danario Alexander and Brandon Gibson are 22 and 23. Mark's experience was invaluable. His knowledge of that position and his willingness to talk with us about technique helped a ton.
Q: What's your goal for the season?
A: I'm just trying to be like you.
Q: Oh, you keep it up, keep it up.
Patrick Willis, LB / San Francisco 49ers
I'd have a hard time picking a linebacker in the NFL I respect more than Patrick Willis. We met while training at AP before our draft in 2007, and he impressed me. The guy will eviscerate me on the field one second and make a joke the next. He got the best of me once, and he just said, "It's not going to be All Day today." It's always that way with us.
Q: Did you shift your focus this off-season and take a different approach to training?
A: I really dug in on the mental side of the game. Going into my fifth year, I don't want to just rely on my athletic ability. To get better I need to be smarter, so I've been reading, watching tape and concentrating on mental toughness.
Q: Are you having any nightmares about how this year will go without required workouts? Is anything weighing on your mind?
A: I hope each member of the team has acted professionally and maintained his body. The definition of character is how we behave when no one is watching. In terms of my role as defensive captain, I get kind of stressed because we have a new defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio, and none of us has his playbook.
Q: I feel you there. We all need to be accountable. Have you tried anything new in your workouts since you don't have as many demands?
A: I've logged a lot of quality pool time. I can swim a little, but it's a great way to take some pounding off my knees.
Vince Young, QB / Tennessee Titans (For now)
Vince Young and I got familiar with each other during our college days when he was at Texas and I was at Oklahoma. The Red River Rivalry is as nasty as advertised. We took them down in 2004, and they got us back in 2005. Back then we didn't care for each other, but now we train five hours a day together in Houston. It's easy to put aside a rivalry when you respect someone's work ethic.
Q: What part of your game have you been focusing on the most this summer?
A: I've been doing a lot more with my legs and core than in previous years. I want to improve my explosiveness, along with trying to get more accuracy on the ball.
Q: I can definitely attest to that. I've seen it with my own eyes. Did you approach your training differently because of the lockout?
A: I had to take it easy. I'm trying to get back stronger from my ankle sprain as well as a torn tendon in the thumb on my throwing hand. So I had to take my time.
Q: No one knows your body like you do. Do you have any concerns, though, since we've never had a dead off-season?
A: I hate not being at the facility and having all the technology to do film work. In the past, I've been able to get a head start on teams by watching lots of tape and getting some extra film work with the offensive coordinator.
Q: I second that. I've missed being at our spot too. Did you get to have a little more fun this year since you had added freedom?
A: I've played more golf. Once I win a Super Bowl and retire someday, I'm going to need to feed my competitive side, and I can do that with golf. I've also started a record label, Next Level, and a food company, Vince Young Foods. It's definitely been nice to give those some attention this summer.
Q: Final question, Vincent: Oklahoma or Texas this year?
A: Y'all are going to look like chumps.