- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
- 0 Shares
Finally, NFL coaches get to do some real coaching.
Organized team activities got underway this week for franchises that hired new coaches. Oakland, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay assembled their full squads on a voluntary basis this week. The Dolphins, under new coach Joe Philbin, opted to join the rest of the league in starting next week.
But by next week, most teams will get a look at how their offenses match up against their defenses, giving the coaches a chance to teach changes and upgrades in schemes and techniques.
The new collective bargaining agreement delayed the usual early May start of OTAs until mid-May. Full-squad minicamps are pushed back until June. OTAs have dropped from 14 to 10, so efficiency is going to be the key for team success.
Battles for starting quarterback jobs generate headlines, as do interesting player moves such as Tim Tebow to the New York Jets. "Under the radar'' issues include new priorities that might escape notice or trends that will carry into the season. Let's look ahead to see some of those issues.
1. Vultures circling: The New Orleans Saints' pay-per-hit bounty story has dominated the offseason. Meanwhile, division rivals are quietly making changes to affect the reigning NFC South champions. The Falcons traded for cornerback Asante Samuel to give Atlanta a three-tiered cornerback approach to slow Drew Brees and the Saints. Last year, Brees carved up the Falcons' Cover 2 scheme. Mike Smith is thinking about moving high-priced cornerback Dunta Robinson to cover inside threats and having Samuel and franchise corner Brent Grimes on the outside. Smith will get his first look at the strategy on May 29 when Atlanta OTAs begin. New Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano started looking at his team's secondary upgrades, which include cornerback Eric Wright and safety Mark Barron. The Bucs are expected to use more man coverage rather than just being a Cover 2 team. Panthers coach Ron Rivera will concentrate on getting healthier at linebacker and getting more pressure on quarterbacks such as Brees.
2. Sorting out NFC North backfields: No division in football has more backfield questions than the NFC North. The Packers haven't re-signed starting halfback Ryan Grant and used their draft to fix the defense. The Lions have to determine whether halfbacks Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure will be healthy enough to balance their potent offense. The Vikings are hoping Adrian Peterson can come back from his knee reconstruction. The Bears have unsigned and unhappy Matt Forte out until he gets a new contract and will work with Michael Bush until Forte returns.
3. Super fixes for Super Bowl-caliber teams: Bill Belichick of the Patriots and Mike McCarthy of the Packers loaded up on defensive players in the draft. Starting Monday in OTAs, the coaches will start to see how quickly their draft choices can fix defensive units that prevented them from getting Super Bowl rings. The Patriots added defensive end Chandler Jones, linebacker Dont'a Hightower and safety Tavon Wilson. Belichick's first decision is whether to stay in a 4-3 or switch to a 3-4. McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers will see how quickly first-round pick Nick Perry can adjust to being a pass-rushing linebacker. After that, he will see whether Jerel Worthy can fill the big void at defensive end created last year when Cullen Jenkins left in free agency.
4. Staying with the Patriots: OTAs will give Belichick the chance to look at upgrades to his wide receiving corps. Wes Welker signed his franchise tag, so the Patriots are fine in the slot. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has returned, and the Patriots brought in Brandon Lloyd, Donte' Stallworth, Jabar Gaffney and Anthony Gonzalez. Tough decisions will be needed to determine who makes the team.
5. Copying the Patriots: The OTAs will give the league an idea how many teams will try to copy the Patriots' two-tight end sets that feature Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The Broncos, Colts and Bengals already are adding more two-tight end sets. The Bears, Titans, Chiefs and others may try more, too. The two-tight end offenses seem to be more concentrated in the AFC, but coaches have had an entire offseason to study Patriots tape and determine how the matchup problems for tight ends might fit in their offenses.
6. Filling voids from key injuries: The Ravens have to figure out a way to replace the 14 sacks potentially lost if linebacker Terrell Suggs is out for the season with an Achilles tear. They also have to see whether second-round choice Courtney Upshaw is ready to replace departed linebacker Jarret Johnson. The Eagles signed Demetress Bell to replace left tackle Jason Peters, who is out for the season after tearing his Achilles twice. Bell was previously Peters' replacement in Buffalo but didn't stand out. The Titans are holding their breath hoping Kenny Britt can return from a knee reconstruction and a second surgery. Kendall Wright will be given a chance in the Titans' offense. The Browns will have a hole along their defensive line if Phillip Taylor can't come back from his pectoral tear.
7. Revving up the Jets: Jets coach Rex Ryan has taken on a more hands-on approach, and one of his biggest missions is getting faster. He told his defensive players to come in lighter and faster. The Jets lost speed in their pass rush and their overall defense last season. Ryan is a master motivator for defensive players. But do they have enough pass rush to harass quarterbacks? Ryan will begin to find out next week, when OTAs begin.
8. Dream Team, take two: The Eagles were the winners of the 2011 offseason but losers when they underachieved last season and didn't make the playoffs. The key to OTAs is seeing whether they are going in the right direction on defense. Last year, they brought in man-to-man specialists Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and played them in zone. Andy Reid brought in secondary coach Todd Bowles to help defensive coordinator Juan Castillo sort out the plan in the secondary and see whether the Eagles can match up better with the talent on hand.
9. Recharging the Chargers: Losing receiver Vincent Jackson to Tampa Bay was a big blow. Quarterback Philip Rivers is planning to cut down on turnovers, hoping not to repeat the 20 interceptions he threw last year. The good news is that tight end Antonio Gates says he's healthy. The Chargers added slot receivers Eddie Royal and Roscoe Parrish. The Chargers haven't focused on slot receivers in years. Norv Turner can experiment with his new offensive personnel during the minicamp.
10. Did they do enough in the offseason? The Bucs were criticized last season for being a 10-win team in 2010 and adding only a punter in 2011. The Houston Texans and Detroit Lions ended years of frustration by finally making the playoffs and having playoff-caliber rosters. The Lions lost cornerback Eric Wright in free agency and brought in veteran Jacob Lacey -- their only free-agent pickup -- and third-round choice Dwight Bentley at the position. The Texans brought in only minimum-salary free agents in an offseason in which they lost Mario Williams, Eric Winston and others. In the OTAs, the front offices will have a chance to see if their depth is good enough.
Here are 10 things to watch as new personnel, schemes and trends play out in OTAs, John Clayton writes.