Every NFL Team's To-Do List Heading into Training Camp
The OTAs and minicamps for NFL teams are officially over, leaving about a month before training camps get underway. The offseason featured many transactions that will impact your favorite team's season, but whether that move was one your team made or a division rival remains to be seen.
This article will look at three goals for every team to accomplish in their respective training camp. Every goal is geared toward success in 2014, as NFL coaches and players can never take the upcoming season for granted.
Is this the year your favorite team makes a deep playoff run? Check out its to-do list, and learn the keys to victory for your rivals while you're at it.
How do you think your team will finish in 2014? Leave your thoughts in the comments section and we can discuss your team's situation.
All stats used are from Pro Football Focus' Premium Stats (subscription required) or sports-reference.com. All combine and pro day info is courtesy of ESPN.com. All contract information is courtesy of Spotrac.com.
Determine the Starting Right Tackle
Arizona general manager Steve Keim addressed Pro Football Focus’ worst rated pass-blocking offensive line by signing former Oakland Raider Jared Veldheer to play left tackle, and the unit also gets 2013 first-round pick Jonathan Cooper back from an injury that cost him the entirety of his rookie season.
However, right tackle is still a major question mark heading into training camp.
The battle is between Bradley Sowell and Bobby Massie, and the team brought in veteran offensive tackle Tyson Clabo for a visit, though it hasn’t signed him yet. Sowell spent 2013 at left tackle for 12 games after the team moved Levi Brown to the Steelers, but PFF graded his season-long performance as the worst by an NFL offensive tackle in 2013 (subscription required).
Massie hasn’t been able to impact the Cardinals to this point, but Keim had this to say about the third-year tackle on Arizona Sports 98.7:
Both those guys have been battling hard...Bobby actually showed some real strides as we got to the middle of OTAs and our final minicamp. He did a nice job. He's got all the physical tools.
Figuring out the right tackle position is critical for the Cardinals to reach the playoffs in 2014.
Get Kevin Minter Prepared to Fill Daryl Washington’s Role
Between losing Karlos Dansby to free agency and Daryl Washington to a season-long suspension, Kevin Minter has tremendous pressure to become a better player in his second year. After registering just one snap in 2013, Minter now must become a leader for the Cardinals and replace the 75 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions and 11 passes defensed that Washington recorded a year ago.
Steve Keim didn’t sound too concerned in a statement on Washington’s suspension:
…our approach is the same as it’s always been: next man up. We talk a lot about how critical depth is to a team because situations always arise where you lose players, whether by injury or other circumstances such as this one. One player’s absence is another’s opportunity. That approach has served us well in the past and we will rely on it now.
For the Cardinals to again be an upper-echelon defense, Minter will have to be ready for increased responsibility.
Give John Brown His Opportunity to Shine
Third-round pick John Brown injects a lot of speed into a receiver corps headlined by stars Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, and his impact could be similar to how well T.Y. Hilton has played for the Colts. The 5’10” receiver from Pittsburg State (KS) ran a blazing 4.34 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, and he’s doing his best to learn as much as possible from the surrounding veterans (h/t to Bob Baum):
I follow Larry, I follow Michael...I ask a thousand questions. Those guys, they give me information, and everything they do, I follow their footsteps. If I don't understand, I ask him.
Brown will have to beat out veteran Ted Ginn Jr. for the slot position, but as Tyson Langland of Bleacher Report has touched on before, Brown is comparable, if not better than Ginn already. If he can get the bulk of opportunities in training camp, Brown could improve on the production former Cardinals receiver Andre Roberts had in years past.
Reestablish Matt Ryan As An Elite Quarterback
The Falcons' 4-12 record in 2013 certainly wasn’t all on quarterback Matt Ryan, but his decrease in passer rating (99.1 to 89.6) cannot continue to happen if Atlanta wants to regain control of the NFC South division.
Why Ryan struggled last season is fairly easy to point out: His offensive line was in shambles, allowing 44 sacks and innumerable pressures. His two best receivers, Julio Jones and Roddy White, combined to miss 14 games, and 2013 free-agent running back Steven Jackson mustered up a pedestrian 543 yards on 157 carries.
To cure the Falcons’ offensive woes, the team drafted offensive tackle Jake Matthews sixth overall and signed guard Jon Asamoah in free agency. Their line of thinking is clear: Keep Ryan clean in the pocket and he will produce once again. Ryan believes his line is progressing quite well (per Daniel Cox of atlantafalcons.com):
I think our offensive line has done a really nice job during the OTA period as well as during minicamp...From a communication standpoint, we’ve got a few changes from what we’ve done around here in the past and those guys are working through those changes. I think one of the big things that Mike preaches is communication at the line of scrimmage. You can hear those guys talking a bunch and making sure they’re on the same page.
Maximizing his abilities has to be top priority for Atlanta as it looks to rebound this year.
Find a Linebacker Who Can Fill Sean Weatherspoon’s Role
When Sean Weatherspoon ruptured his Achilles tendon, one of the league's shallowest positions got even less experienced. Of course, experience doesn’t always mean a player will perform well, so the Falcons will have to find the best player to fill the weak-side linebacker role.
Second-year linebackers Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu will have the biggest advantage due to familiarity, but don’t be surprised if rookies Prince Shembo or Yawin Smallwood earn extended playing time eventually. Both guys played a lot for Notre Dame and Connecticut, respectively, and have the physical upside to become productive starters in the right scheme.
The recent news, per Vaughn McClure, is that Shembo is in fact moving inside, giving him an opportunity to play a lot early in the season. Here is what defensive coordinator Mike Nolan had to say about the move:
We had a position move [from outside linebacker to inside]. I think it helps us and it helps him. I think he's better suited to play the inside more than he is the outside. His skills are more for the inside than the outside.
The more options the better for the Falcons, who need to improve their 27th-ranked defense in 2013.
The Falcons invested heavily into their defensive line as they transition to a hybrid defense with more 3-4 fronts.
In total, the team spent about $62 million by signing defensive linemen Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai, and then selected Ra’Shede Hageman in the second round of the draft. Those are high-quality players, but none are pass-rushers, and the group returning from the 2013 roster is nothing to be encouraged about.
The group of Jonathan Babineaux, Osi Umenyiora, Corey Peters and Jonathan Massaquoi produced only 84 quarterback hurries and just 18 sacks in 2013. The Falcons passed on adding potential pass-rushers in the draft and free agency, so they might have to rely on scheme to manufacture more pressure on opposing signal-callers.
Become More Efficient Passing the Ball
One year after having a record-breaking playoff run, quarterback Joe Flacco suffered the worst statistical season of his career, and the Ravens failed to finish above .500 for the first time since he was drafted in 2008. Flacco completed only 59 percent of his passes, and threw for more interceptions (22) than touchdowns (19) in former offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell’s offense.
Insert Gary Kubiak as the new offensive coordinator, and the Ravens are hoping a new approach on that side of the ball brings fewer turnovers and more efficiency. Kubiak’s offense in Houston in 2013 averaged the eighth-best time of possession despite having less overall talent than the Ravens, who were 20th in the league. By stressing the running game and higher percentage passes than the more vertical offense of Caldwell, the Ravens are hoping to control the ball
Flacco told ESPN's Jamison Hensley that he's gotten comfortable in Kubiak's offense during OTAs:
I've been able to get really, really comfortable and kind of just get back there, go through my reads, and have a lot of fun...I think we look good; it's been a lot of fun. Like I said, I think everybody has put a lot of hard work in, and because of that we've been able to go out there and work on some of the little things and really get better.
Training camp is where a majority of playbook installation occurs, so Flacco and Kubiak will have to be on the same page to get this offense back on track.
Find the Answer at Running Back
The Ravens running back situation is one filled with question marks: Ray Rice seems likely to continue his downward spiral and could be suspended. Bernard Pierce is coming off shoulder surgery and averaging just 2.9 yards a carry last season, and rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro has already been charged with a misdemeanor in the first month of his career.
The good news for the Ravens is that Rice has lost 15 pounds, per Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun:
Rice has since lost 15 pounds, getting down to a leaner 210 and now working toward a goal of reporting at 205 for next season, according to his Timonium-based trainer, Kyle Jakobe of Sweat Performance.
"Ray's body composition has completely changed since the end of the season," Jakobe said. "He has lost 12 to 13 pounds, 12 to 13 bad pounds, and essentially replaced a lot of that body composition with lean muscle. You can see the difference in his face and his body. He has cut down his weight and you can see it in how he moves. He's added lean muscle.
"Outside of the eyeball test, Ray has looked explosive and is cutting on a dime. We haven't seen that since the the third week of last season. Ray played last year at 10 to 16 pounds over where we like him. We usually try to send him into camp at 205 pounds, because that's where he plays his best football. Last year, he came back a little heavier. Ray was hurt and he played at a fraction of what he could normally play at."
Whether or not Rice reverts to his old, productive form, the Ravens have to find a reliable back somewhere on the roster. Kubiak’s offense is predicated on consistent gains to make third downs more manageable.
Get the Defense Ready to Swarm
Because of new faces at every level of the Ravens' defense, the 2013 unit didn’t have the same tenacity that NFL fans had grown accustomed to seeing.
But the real storyline was the ineffectiveness of the two star pass-rushers during the second half of the season. Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs combined for just two sacks after Week 10, but had totaled 18 in the first nine games.
Dumervil suffered an ankle injury down the stretch, and Suggs got fat, so the Ravens will be reliant on unproven players like Courtney Upshaw and Pernell McPhee to create extra pressure throughout the 2014 season. Dumervil and Suggs could return to form, but each is over 30 years of age, and that’s when players tend to break down.
The secondary is a strong point of the team, but there are potential issues. Cornerback Lardarius Webb has played only a complete season twice in his five-year career. Jimmy Smith played fairly well in 2013, but he had bouts of inconsistency and is far from proven. The safety positions should be in great hands if rookie Terrence Brooks can beat out Darian Stewart, while Matt Elam had a solid rookie season in 2013.
Get EJ Manuel to Find His Rhythm
Manuel’s rookie season with the Bills was rough, as he completed just 58.8 percent of his passes and ended with a 77.7 passer rating in 10 games. His injury problems caused the Bills to start backups Jeff Tuel and Thaddeus Lewis. At times, Lewis looked like the best quarterback on the roster.
The Bills cannot afford for that to happen again in 2014.
With his offense boasting one of the more talented groups of playmakers in the NFL, Manuel must become proficient passing the ball to his wide receivers. First-round pick Sammy Watkins, second-year receivers Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin and newly acquired Mike Williams bring a variety of skill sets that should allow this offense to become one of the best in 2014, but Manuel has to be more accurate and read defenses quicker.
According to A.J. Devine of buffalobills.com, Manuel has been working this offseason to do just that:
The most important part of improving for Manuel has taken place in the film room and in front of his playbook. After a rookie season having to pick up offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett’s system on-the-fly, Manuel has now been able to dedicate a full four months and counting to mastering the offense since. Because I’ve been doing so much studying, I feel like I can pretty much go out and call whatever I want to call,” Manuel said. “We were playing around with audibles and changing up some of our verbiage and stuff like that to work on in the OTA’s when we get back out on the practice field.”
Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett talked about his increased repetitions and how that has helped Manuel grow as a player, according to the team's website (h/t to Pro Football Talk):
He’s doing a very good job. He’s put in a lot of work, all the quarterbacks are. They’re understanding the system, understanding what we’re trying to get...It’s nice to see him make plays within the pocket, step up, find his check downs, throw the ball down the field a couple times. He’s really starting to get it all. It was funny, when he came into minicamp he was like, ‘Alright, no more new installs, let’s work on what we’ve been doing.’ I think that’s a refresher for a quarterback that he knows what he’s doing right now with what we’ve got in.
Adjust to the 4-3 Defense
Under former defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, the Bills finished 2013 as the 10th-best defense in the league. Moving to a 4-3 base defense could provide challenges to a unit that proved to be effective last year in the 3-4 system.
New defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz will have to prepare the strong-side players for roles at which they are unproven: Defensive end Jerry Hughes hasn’t played defensive end since college, and Keith Rivers hasn’t been reliable since 2010, missing significant snaps every season since.
Hughes saved his career in 2013, totaling 10 sacks as an edge-rusher, but 2014 will be a new challenge, as he will have to set the edge against the run more often than he ever has before. If he cannot, will Manny Lawson be able to make the switch? Lawson is also moving to defensive end for the first time in his NFL career. Each player is facing a major change midway through their career, so the Bills will have to get them ready in training camp to make an impact.
Keep Everyone Healthy
The Bills' 2013 season was derailed due to injuries to key players, but overall this roster is filled with impact players that just have to stay on the field. Mike Rodak of ESPN noted all of the injury concerns the team already has:
Defensive tackle Kyle Williams, wide receiver Mike Williams and running back Anthony Dixon were not spotted at Monday's practice after participating in the final session of last week. Tight end Tony Moeaki spent practice rehabbing from an undisclosed injury.
Linebacker Kiko Alonso (hip), cornerback Leodis McKelvin (hip), cornerback Stephon Gilmore (hip), and wide receiver T.J. Graham (hip) all sat out team drills. Defensive end Mario Williams saw some limited action in those drills.
For training camp, the Bills have to ensure their roster limits the number of injuries that occur so they can stay in the mix for the AFC East. If Manuel can make the next step and be a solid quarterback, I would argue this is the best roster in the division.
Staying healthy is crucial for a team with such a severe injury history.
Find Some Receivers
After losing veteran leader Steve Smith, Ted Ginn Jr. and Brandon LaFell, the Panthers rebuilt their receiving corps by selecting Kelvin Benjamin in the first round of the NFL draft and signing veteran castoffs Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery.
Cotchery and Avant are known as possession receivers, and they do both run precise routes and showcase reliable hands. But they are so similar, it is hard to see them sharing the field at the same time. Defenses will stack the box and dare them to go deep.
Avant seems confident that he will take the top spot for the Panthers, according to Scott Fowler of The Charlotte Observer:
As you get older...if you’ve been playing the game the right way and doing the small things, you don’t age as fast. You don’t have to try to reinvent yourself. There are a lot of fast guys who lose a step and then they can’t get open anymore because they’ve been playing with speed. I haven’t depended on speed so it doesn’t affect me. You see Tim Duncan at age 38 still being able to play at such a high level because he’s been a great fundamental player his whole career.
Avant seems to be aiming a little high, considering his career accomplishments to this point, but this is an opportunity for him to redefine his career. The Panthers must hope that he or one of the young receivers lower on the depth chart can become a legitimate option for quarterback Cam Newton.
Figure Out the Cornerbacks
The projected starting cornerbacks for the Panthers are Melvin White and Antoine Cason, who will be challenged by Josh Norman and Josh Thomas. That group combined for a measly 1,240 snaps last year, and more than half were from White.
For a division champion with a target on their backs, that’s not the position you want young, inexperienced players at.
Cason really struggled to get on the field for the Arizona Cardinals last season, but now he’s likely to start for the Panthers. According to Joseph Person of The Charlotte Observer, the coaches think he’s going to be ready for the challenge:
Cason has never been to a Pro Bowl. But the former first-round pick of the Chargers was a reliable corner during his three years as a starter in San Diego, averaging nearly three interceptions and 13 pass breakups from 2010-12.
Rivera and Panthers secondary coach Steve Wilks have ties to Cason from their time with the Chargers and believe a change in scenery will benefit Cason after he spent last year as an extra defensive back for the Cardinals.
Rivera mentioned Cason as someone who caught his eye following one of the first OTA (organized team activities) practices last month.
Cason has been working with the first team during OTAs opposite second-year corner Melvin White, who started 10 games last season after the Panthers signed him as an undrafted free agent from Louisiana-Lafayette.
They had better be right. Otherwise, NFC South quarterbacks Drew Brees and Matt Ryan will be tearing them apart in 2014.
Training camp must prove to be a productive one for the Panthers' cornerbacks.
Unleash the Linebackers
Star linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are poised to have another fantastic year for the Panthers, and they need to be in a position to be great. Davis is shedding the knew brace he wore for three seasons, and the prognosis on his knees is all positive, according to Bryan Strickland of panthers.com:
"I have no concerns about his knee and the stability of his ACL," head athletic trainer Ryan Vermillion said. "He's always had great strength, but I still wanted to protect his knee for the first couple of years back. But now we've got two-plus seasons under our belt, and he's confident and has great stability and strength in his knees, so he's able to pull it off now. He's super-happy about that."
While Davis has never hidden his disdain for the brace, he said there's no way he'd take the field without it if the training staff didn't approve. With the nine-week offseason workout program ending this week, Davis' top priority for the team is to take a safety-first approach.
"Really, the most important thing that can come from these three days is guys staying healthy," Davis said. "We've installed a bunch of our defense and offense, and guys know what to do. "Now it's all about coming out here, being smart, taking care of your body and making sure you're healthy going into training camp."
The Panthers' front four return from 2013, so we should expect the linebackers to be able to roam freely. Keep Kuechly and Davis upright and focused on destroying opponents that cross the middle of the field, and this defense could once again star.
Determine the Linebackers
Stalwart weak-side linebacker Lance Briggs is entrenched at the position entering 2014, but what will the Bears do at the other two spots? Right now, the leaders are Shea McClellin at the strong-side position and D.J. Williams in the middle, according to head coach Marc Trestman, per Larry Mayer of ChicagoBears.com:
I’m just hoping he can be 100 percent. He’s had an offseason to work. He’s been out there competing hard, and when he’s playing well, it’s visibly noticeable in terms of what we can do with the middle linebacker position. But we have competition there. He’s certainly the lead dog there, but we do have competition.
His main competition is Jon Bostic, and linebackers coach Reggie Herring seems excited about him, per Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune:
Jon Bostic is really having a great (offseason)...He shows that he has great range and cover skills. He’s explosive. He is an exciting young player that is getting better. The experience of last year is paying off. I don’t think there is any doubt that Jon Bostic is one of our better cover guys, if not the best we have.
The Safety Battle
Despite having a solid projected defense after upgrading the defensive line in the offseason, safety is a position of question marks. At free safety, rookie Brock Vereen is battling Chris Conte. As of now, Vereen has the upper hand, per Adam Jahns of the Chicago Sun Times:
The Bears’ competition at free safety remains wide-open — “We’re not going to anoint anybody yet,” coach Marc Trestman said Wednesday — but there’s no disputing that Vereen has stood out. He has surpassed former Packer M.D. Jennings while Chris Conte recovers from shoulder surgery.
“I feel like a rookie,” said Vereen, a fourth-round selection the Bears traded up to draft. “But there’s definitely a sense of confidence.”
In my scouting report of Vereen, I noted how he has some upside due to his speed and ability to play the ball, but he is raw as a technician and still lacks the natural instincts to become more than a replaceable safety. Training camp is where the Bears can get him ready to be a respectable starter.
This defense feeds off turnovers and has to get close to the 28 takeaways it produced in 2013, so Vereen or Conte must step up in a big way and help cornerbacks Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings and Kyle Fuller.
Establish Marquess Wilson
The second-year receiver is as physically gifted as any slot receiver in the NFL, but he lacks the game-time reps to be polished. His huge frame meshes well with outside receivers Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall, so quarterback Jay Cutler should enjoy throwing to him.
Without much competition to push him, the Bears have to challenge Wilson to become better. Between Matt Forte getting a lot of touches and alpha receivers Marshall and Jeffery being targeted so much, there might not be many passes left over for Wilson, but if he can show his immense talent in training camp, Cutler will find him.
This is a great opportunity for the young Bears wide out.
Replace Michael Johnson’s Pass Rush Production
When the Bengals allowed defensive end Michael Johnson to depart via free agency, they were betting they could replace his 3.5 sacks and 41 hurries. Although the sack number isn’t impressive, the pressures are more indicative of his actual impact.
So how will the Bengals replace Johnson? Likely by rotating a group of players.
Between Carlos Dunlap, Wallace Gilberry, Margus Hunt and Robert Geathers, the Bengals will be versatile in their rotations, but they must still determine who will get a majority of snaps. According to Cole Harvey of ESPN, Hunt seems to be earning his share of snaps:
Hunt spent much of the spring practices working out at the left defensive end position, but like all of Cincinnati's ends he got moved around during the workouts to other spots. He spent time at the right end spot; other days he received action on the line's interior as a tackle in the team's nickel package.
And Hunt discussed the benefit of relying on rotations:
It makes us more versatile...We don't have guys to have to play that one position [they're normally at]. We have guys who know what they have to do everywhere. That makes it so much easier. So if someone goes down or if someone gets tired or whatnot -- you never know what happens in the games -- we're going to go in and be able to know what's going on.
Having depth along the offensive line is always a great thing, and for the highly talented Bengals roster, that will be a fierce competition.
Move Away From the Law Firm
Second-year running back Giovani Bernard and rookie Jeremy Hill have been added over the past two drafts to challenge BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and now it’s time to use the uber-talented backs in favor of the veteran.
After running for just 3.4 yards a carry in 2013, there’s not much of an argument as to why Green-Ellis should continue getting carries.
Bernard had a great rookie season, ranking as PFF’s 10th-most elusive back in the league despite getting only 170 touches. His speed and open-field ability creates opportunities for chunk plays, and his receiving skills were good enough for a PFF fifth-best ranking among backs.
Jeremy Hill cannot be forgotten, either. In fact, he’s already getting first-team carries, according to ESPN’s Cole Harvey:
It's clear after the first two open OTAs that they are trying to see whether he'll be ready to be used regularly this fall. So far, Hill has gotten his share of hand-offs with the first-team unit alongside Bernard. The two have been in the backfield at the same time, in addition to trading roles as the lone back in single-back sets that get called.
The "Law Firm" should continue to feel the squeeze throughout training camp, as his skill set and physical abilities just aren’t on par with the Bengals’ young backs.
Determine the Depth Chart at Cornerback
Although it is one of the most talented cornerback depth charts in the league, the Bengals' group is aging quickly
Star cornerback Leon Hall is one of the best at his position, but he is recovering from another Achilles tear and is almost 30 years old. Though head coach Marvin Lewis said on Tuesday that if training camp began today, Hall would be in uniform, per Coley Harvey of ESPN.com, it's hard to ignore the fact that he's suffered significant injuries in recent seasons.
The team also has veteran Terence Newman as a penciled-in starter. The 35-year-old played very well in 2013, with PFF ranking him the league's 19th-best corner (subscription required). Newman continues to show great technique and ball skills despite his advanced age.
Former first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick is really struggling to earn his keep on the roster, as Harvey noted he was beat repeatedly by Brandon Tate, a mere depth player for the offense.
Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick struggled to break up passes both deep and short against him. Kirkpatrick also seemed to struggle with figuring out exactly where Tate was going when he made a move. Perhaps it's simply springtime adjustments, but Kirkpatrick certainly will be one to keep an eye on as Cincinnati continues tweaking its deep cornerback group.
It’s possible Kirkpatrick is taking himself out of the equation in Cincinnati at this point. He’s been unable to positively impact the Bengals in his two seasons with the team.
As noted by Harvey, first-round pick Darqueze Dennard is getting on the field, a positive sign for the team as it looks to inject youth and a more physical nature to the position. Adam Jones is another talented cornerback for the team, but his role should be locked in. As PFF’s 28th-ranked cornerback, Jones hasn’t lost a step and continues to be a valuable player. Expect another productive season out of the former reclamation project.
It’s Next Man Up at Receiver
Before a decision can be made on whether Browns receiver Gordon will miss at least a full calendar year, an appeal hearing must be held. Before an appeal hearing can be held, it must be scheduled.
That hasn’t happened yet.
Whether or not Gordon is punished for the entire season, the Browns must take the “next man up” approach at receiver. The team signed veterans Miles Austin, Nate Burleson and Andrew Hawkins in free agency, but it’s unlikely the trio could combine to match the production of Gordon. Austin and Burleson haven’t been noteworthy contributors in all but one of the last three years. (Austin’s posted decent numbers with the Dallas Cowboys in 2012.)
That leaves a lot of pressure on the diminutive Hawkins, a slot receiver who can cause havoc for defenses on third down. He’s a nice complementary piece, but not the answer in Cleveland.
The rest of the depth chart is filled with unproven players who are recovering from injury or went undrafted. It’s possible that either Chandler Jones or Willie Snead will contribute, as they were productive players in college, so the Browns will likely give each the opportunity to thrive.
Establish a Dominant Offensive Line
Now that the team has signed second-round pick Joel Bitonio, a guard from the University of Nevada, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan should prioritize developing a line that already has two All-Pro caliber players in Joe Thomas and Alex Mack.
The offensive line in 2013 couldn’t create running lanes despite the presence of those two because of the lack of athletic ability at the guard position. Right tackle could also improve, as the team brings back third-year tackle Mitchell Schwartz, who will battle Paul McQuistan.
Zone-blocking lessens the pressure on individual blockers, so the scheme alone should help bolster the strong side for the Browns.
Keep Johnny Focused
The Browns' quarterback situation will be closely monitored throughout training camp, as Brian Hoyer tries to fend off first-round pick Johnny Manziel. Lindsay Jones of USA Today conveyed this message from head coach Mike Pettine about the quarterback battle:
Brian is securely ahead of him right now. But we will compete, and we'll decide. The issue for us as a staff will be finding the right time to name a starter. If you wait too late, then no one is ready for the opener. If you do it too soon, was it a true competition?
The Browns are trying to give Hoyer every opportunity to earn the starting job, but Manziel is the guy whom many fans want to see. The problem with Manziel is he has shown great hypocrisy so far this offseason. Prior to the draft, Manziel said this about his off-the-field lifestyle, per Nate Ulrich of Ohio.com:
I believe whenever I decided to make this decision to turn professional, it was a time to really put my college years in the past...This is a job now. There’s guys’ families, coaches’ families and jobs and all kinds of things on the line. For me it’s nothing. It won’t be a hard thing to kick or anything really a hard deal to not do. I’m extremely focused on whatever organization I’ll be at and really pouring my heart out trying to be football 24/7 with that team.
Then, he said this after being drafted:
I know I need to put all my time right now into maintaining my life in football and trying to be as good of a quarterback as possible...Everything else is extra and really there’s not time for it right now. I’m very committed to expanding my knowledge of the game and getting better as a quarterback. That’s my focus right now.
After partying for five consecutive weekends, it’s time for Manziel to get down to business. Some may argue that he’s just behaving like any 21-year old does, but he’s the face of his franchise and was given an $8.25 million dollar contract. If he wants to be the franchise quarterback he desires to become, he should act like one, or at least not let videos like this slip out.
Unleash DeMarcus Lawrence
The 2014 second-round pick has to fill the shoes left behind by DeMarcus Ware, but he’s off to a good start in Dallas. As he battles with Tyron Smith every day, he’s refining his technique, as he noted to Nick Eatman of DallasCowboys.com: "I think that's really helped me. He's a great player...Guys like him have seen everything when it comes to moves. So you have to work harder to be better."
I had Lawrence as a top-20 player in the 2014 class, so the Cowboys did well to grab him. He’s a explosive edge-rusher with a nice bend who displays strong hands at the point of attack. All things considered, he should be a very good player for the Cowboys in 2014 and for years to come.
Here is what draft expert Rob Rang of CBSSports.com had to say of Lawrence:
Like the 6-foot-4, 258-pound Ware, Lawrence (6-foot-3, 251) is an explosive pass rusher, whose speed off the edge helped him rack up 20 sacks over his two seasons at Boise State. He is hardly a one-trick pony, however, demonstrating an impressive repertoire of pass rush moves to go along with strength and savvy. Lawrence is flexible and instinctive enough to drop back into coverage on occasion.
Take Advantage of the Talented Offensive Line
After selecting an offensive lineman in the first round of the past three drafts, the Cowboys have one of the best fronts in the league. Of course, it isn’t the status of being a first-round pick that makes these linemen talented, but rather, their on-field abilities.
Rick Gosselin of The Dallas Morning News had this to say of the group:
No question right now this is the strength of the team. That's saying a lot from where they were at this point last year. With three No. 1 draft picks, they are also high on Leary and Free had a resurrection year last season. It's a strength of this team. They are going to be able to block for the running back and protect the quarterback. They are going to have to find a way to hold on to the ball for over 30 minutes and this offensive line gives them a chance. There is a lot of talent there. Tyron Smith is a present, current, and future Pro Bowler. There is a lot of good players in place there.
Now the team has to run the ball more effectively, which this line should easily support. Quarterback Tony Romo will also benefit from such a good unit.
Create Depth on Defense
The Cowboys starting 11 on defense looks to be good enough to win the division, but if one of their top players gets hurt, we could see a repeat performance from 2013’s last ranked defense.
Defensive linemen George Selvie and Henry Melton, linebacker Bruce Carter and cornerback Brandon Carr must play up to their talent levels for this defense to be effective. Behind them is a group of young, inexperienced players who have to develop in training camp.
The positive news is that there is talent to be worked with. I believe fourth-round pick Anthony Hitchens will be a valuable role player, as he was the best defensive player on a good Iowa Hawkeyes defense last year. DeVonte Holloman flashed talent in his rookie year in 2013. And, as already mentioned, I really like Lawrence’s ability to impact the Cowboys this season.
Developing rookies and second-year players isn’t as easy, but it is a priority for the Cowboys as they look to make the playoffs in 2014.
Create a Cohesive Defense
The Broncos spent about $115 million and their first-round pick in the draft to improve the NFL’s 19th-ranked defense, and training camp should be used to get everyone working in harmony with defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio.
Cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby, safety T.J. Ward and pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware are expected in 2014 to justify their price tag, which could help relief the pressure on the Broncos’ prolific offense. As Troy Renck of The Denver Post has mentioned, Ware is already improving the Broncos defense:
Alone, the scene speaks about Ware's intentions, his drive to leave the Cowboys' puzzling mediocrity in his past and reach the postseason. He helps everyone. Defensive end Derek Wolfe calls him a coach on the field, pointing to assistance provided in simple drill work. Miller joked that Ware is a "like a psychic because he already knows what I am asking before I ask it."
It’s early, but that impact is what the Broncos wanted when they signed him to a three-year, $30 million deal.
Get Cody Latimer and Emmanuel Sanders Up to Speed
The Denver Broncos didn’t hesitate to let receiver Eric Decker leave in free agency. To replace him, the Broncos signed Emmanuel Sanders and drafted Cody Latimer in the second round, giving quarterback Peyton Manning even more weapons to use.
Despite undergoing foot surgery in January, Latimer took part in OTAs, and will be healthy in training camp. According to Renck, both new receivers are performing well:
Manning and receiver Emmanuel Sanders continued working on their timing after practice. Manning corrected Sanders on a route during 11-on-11s, and they connected on a pass moments later, with the quarterback praising the free-agent replacement for Eric Decker.
Rookie receiver Cody Latimer, who had been limited because of Jan. 19 surgery on his left foot, caught a touchdown pass in goal-line work.
Offensive coordinator Adam Gase will be focused on getting the new additions on the same page as Manning. For the offense to replicate the insane production as 2013, they’ll have to be.
Solidify the Offensive Line
With Orlando Franklin moving to left guard, the Broncos have to find their right tackle for 2014. The good news for the team is Franklin has impressed at left guard, per Jeff Legwold of ESPN:
Orlando Franklin will be a powerful presence at left guard and it will be a surprise if the Broncos are not a more efficient running team on the inside this season, especially in the scoring zone. And if they can force defenses to commit more resources to defend the middle of the field, quarterback Peyton Manning will have more room to pick away on the outside in the play-action game.
Right tackle, however, needs answers.
But the right tackle job still looks plenty open. Veterans Winston Justice and Chris Clark got most of the looks with the regulars in the open sessions of the OTAs and minicamp. It still remains to be seen if the Broncos are going to give the rookie a shot – third-round pick Michael Schofield – once training camp begins.
Creating running lanes for running back Montee Ball and keeping Manning upright is the most important task for the Broncos, so training camp must produce a quality right tackle.
Get Career Seasons Out of Players in Contract Years
With star defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley in contract seasons in 2014, each should be properly motivated to perform. I’ve named Fairley as a breakout player for 2014 already, as he’s dedicated himself to be in shape and play at a more consistent level. According to Nate Williams of Detroit Jock City, Fairley has already lost his extra weight:
With Lions general manager Martin Meyhew’s intentions clear, Fairley rededicated himself in the offseason, staying on a workout plan that allowed him to drop his weight to 295, or 27 pounds lighter than where he finished last season.
“I’d say I’m back to my Auburn ways, I feel like back when I was at that national championship, and you know how that year went so looking to repeat it.”
That’s great news for the Lions defense, which needs another playmaker.
As far as Suh, he’s averaged nearly 10 sacks a season in his career, so the Lions expect him to be primed for a monster season. He’s already had preliminary talks about a new contract, but even if that is finalized, he has many doubters to prove wrong.
Develop Eric Ebron
The Lions surprisingly took another receiving threat with the 10th overall pick in the draft, going with tight end Eric Ebron. Ebron was a tremendous playmaker at North Carolina, and might be the best tight end prospect since Vernon Davis.
That being said, there is plenty for him to improve upon, as Jeff Seidel of the Detroit Free Press addressed:
It is easy to like Ebron and his attitude. He is funny and outgoing and wants to get better. I would hate for a first-round pick to think he knows everything. And it is encouraging how this new Lions coaching staff is harping on the little things.
But it also underscores a bigger issue: the urgency for him to produce.
The Lions took a huge gamble by drafting Ebron. Many, including myself, wanted them to draft a defensive back. And the secondary became an even bigger concern after the team lost Chris Houston to a toe injury, eventually cutting him.
Now, it is up to Ebron to earn that big paycheck, to validate that he was worth the No. 10 overall pick in the draft. And he needs to perfect his craft.
The Lions have to get Ebron to be an instant contributor, as they passed up other solid prospects to get their hands on him.
Find the No. 1 Cornerback
Despite being graded by PFF as one of the worst cornerbacks in the NFL, 2013 second-round pick Darius Slay is the most talented corner on the Lions roster. Physically, he has all of the tools to become a solid player, but in 2013 he struggled with technique and his confidence was broken.
As Kyle Meinke of mlive.com noted, Slay has put in the work to be vastly improved:
Slay was dreadful for much of his rookie season, and his confidence was shaken during one particularly bad stretch in October and early November. But it's clearly not broken.
He finished last season on a high note, playing his best games on Thanksgiving against Green Bay and in the season finale against Minnesota.
Then he flew across the country to Pleasonton, Calif., to pore over his film with Hall of Famer Rod Woodson.
Slay has reworked his game, focusing on being more aggressive at the top of routes, as well as not looking too much at quarterbacks. And he's used those lessons to turn in some wonderful performances during OTAs and again this week during mandatory minicamp.
He's been sticky with most receivers not named Calvin Johnson, and he's even had a few nice moments against the superstar.
"It's hard to catch a ball on me," Slay said. "It's a good week. Things have been pretty good."
Perhaps most impressive is his burst. Slay's ability to make up ground on a receiver is next-level.
The Lions don’t have much outside of Slay at the position, so they have to work extensively with that group to improve the position.
Green Bay Packers
Embrace Being Physical
The additions of Eddy Lacy and David Bakhtiari to the roster in 2013 proved to be invaluable, and that they could actually change how the Packers play from this point forward demonstrates the value of their impressive rookie campaigns.
Bakhtiari added strength so he can endure 2014 and finish stronger than last year. Lacy's physical running game gives this offense a balance that could in turn benefit Aaron Rodgers and the Packer passing game.
The Packers won’t suddenly run I-formation 30 times a game, but their demeanor is about to look much more fierce, as Aaron Rodgers talked about (via Rob Demovsky of ESPN):
I think we're a bigger, more physically intimidating team...We haven't had the kind of physical talent as far as size here in a while. I think there's been times -- I think back to playing Jacksonville in '08 in Jacksonville [a 20-16 Packers' loss], some of the battles we've had with our division teams at times -- where you walk on the field and feel like you're kind of a JV team."
We've still won a lot of games looking like that, but it's fun when you walk around the locker room and you've got guys like [Julius] Peppers, [Adrian] Hubbard, Datone Jones and then with Derek [Sherrod] back with his size, adding size at receiver, tight end with Richard Rodgers. We just haven't had guys in some of these positions with those body types, and that's exciting.
Replace Jermichael Finley
For the first time in six years, Jermichael Finley likely won’t be starting at tight end for the Packers this fall, as he recovers from spinal fusion surgery. He still isn’t cleared to play, so that opens the door for what has been called the deepest wide receiving group in the Rodgers era.
I agree with that assertion, as the Packers have a legit six solid receivers at the position. Add in Andrew Quarless getting more reps at tight end this offseason, along with the potential that Richard Rodgers and Colt Lyerla bring to the position, and the future looks bright for the Packers. Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel expanded on the outlook of the position:
For now, Green Bay must move on. Team doctors have not cleared Finley to play. And while a Finley-less tight end group could be a point of concern—it hasn't always been pretty in the past when Finley was absent—the group was the highlight of spring camp. Third-round pick Richard Rodgers made at least one or two head-turning catches a day.
Bostick is back from foot surgery. Even Ryan Taylor, a special-teamer and blocking tight end to date, had multiple receptions deep down the seam. Expect a wide-open competition in a month.
Find a Spot for Ha Ha
The Packers' first-round pick hasn’t been able to break into the starting lineup yet, per Tyler Dunne. Micah Hyde has been playing well in the free safety role, meaning he might not let go of the starting job:
Micah Hyde, not Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, worked most with the No. 1 defense next to Morgan Burnett. And after the final practice, McCarthy said the second-year defensive back looks "very comfortable" with everything he's been asked to do. But let's also remember Alex Green started at running back this time last year. This is likely Green Bay wanting to get Hyde acclimated to the position more than a sign that Hyde will start Week 1. Dom Capers said coaches actually wanted to get him safety reps last year but couldn't due to injuries.
Clinton-Dix was the first-round pick brought in to reinvigorate a sagging position. He'll need to pick the defense up fast when players reconvene. It was a fairly quiet spring for the Alabama safety, one that included a rookie moment last week when Brandon Bostick plucked a touchdown over his head in the corner of the end zone.
Unlike last season, Green Bay could use two interchangeable safeties. Clinton-Dix has that potential.
Clinton-Dix certainly has the ability to impact the Packers, whether it be starting or in nickel packages, but he has to get more reps.
Prepare De’Andre Hopkins
The Texans didn’t add a significant piece to their receiving core this offseason, sticking with their group that includes future Hall of Famer Andre Johnson and second-year player De’Andre Hopkins. Hopkins flashed potential for dominance during 2013, but his abysmal quarterback play limited his opportunities to gain consistency.
As Johnson contemplates his future with the organization, the Texans should act as if Hopkins will be their top receiver for the next few years. It’s unlikely Johnson leaves, as he has two more years on his contract and has no leverage, but Hopkins is the future for the team, and Johnson, at 32, is on the downside.
According to Houston cornerback Kareem Jackson, Hopkins has already looked better in OTAs, per Drew Dougherty of houstontexans.com:
“He has great size,” Jackson said. “He has great hands. He’ll definitely make the tough catches. He’s proven that. He’ll definitely be an exciting player and definitely be able to help us.
Hopkins has practiced with the first-team offense, which meant he and Andre Johnson were the starting receivers. The veteran and team-captain also believes Hopkins is well on his way to contributing.
"He’s picking up everything pretty well,” Johnson said after Monday’s practice. “He went and made some plays today and that’s a good thing. I think day-by-day, he’ll continue to get better and better.”
Hopkins has the ability to become a No. 1 receiver, and getting him there should be the Texans focus in training camp.
Help Jadeveon Clowney Adjust
Whether or not Clowney is back from sports hernia surgery in time for the start of training camp, all eyes will be on the first overall pick. As he transitions to a 3-4 defense, his lack of experience dropping back in coverage and pass-rushing could be exploited, so Texans defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel will have his work cut out to get him as comfortable as possible at the position.
Help Brooks Reed’s Transition
With Brooks Reed moving to inside linebacker in the 3-4 defense, the former pass-rusher has to learn a new skill set to become effective next Brian Cushing. The pressure is high, as the linebacker group was abysmal after Cushing went down for the season midway through 2013. Deepi Sidhu of houstontexans.com talked with Reed on the transition:
“They are pretty different positions in the 3-4 (defense), that is,” Reed said. “But it’s something that I can do and that I’ve done in the past minimally but it’s something that I’m up for if that happens.”
If Reed does finally make the move for good to inside linebacker, he feels confident under the supervision of Crennel and Mike Vrabel, the former All-Pro linebacker-turned-position coach.
“They are pretty tremendous,” Reed said of Crennel and Vrabel. “They know a lot about the game. Not only that, they are great teachers of the game as well and they just want the players to learn and hold us responsible.”
Overcome the Suspension of Robert Mathis
The Colts' star pass-rusher had a tremendous 2013 season, totaling 19.5 sacks on a defense that lacked a lot of overall talent. Now, with Mathis being suspended for the first four games of 2014, this defense must find another answer.
2013 first-round pick Bjoern Werner is now in the spotlight.
After grading out as one of the worst pass-rushers amongst all rookies by PFF (subscription required), Werner has a lot to prove, but a major opportunity to do so. With Mathis out, the Colts don’t have another legitimate option to replace that pressure.
Hopefully for the Colts, he’s improved his execution and ability to find the quarterback.
Improve the Running Game
When the Colts traded their 2014 first-round pick for Trent Richardson, they didn’t expect their new running back to play so poorly in his first season with the team. Now, entering his third season overall, Richardson's battling Ahmad Bradshaw and Vick Ballard for the starting job. Regardless of whether he is named starter, Richardson will have get better in the passing game—a demand that backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck says Richardson seems to be fulfilling, according to Craig Kelley of colts.com:
What’s great with Trent and all the running backs is we’ve given them some points of emphasis this off-season...After just two days, you see it show up on film. We really want those guys to show up more in the passing game...We want to give Andrew checkdowns and outlets and what we call ‘sack-beaters.’ Trent and all those guys have done a great job of getting out quickly. It’s a great start.
No matter who starts, the team must improve its ability to establish the running game. Too much pressure was on Andrew Luck, and that’s not a recipe for success.
Develop More Receivers
We know Reggie Wayne is an incredible player when healthy, but after tearing his ACL last season, he might not regain his form at age 35.
That realistic scenario is what led the team to sign Hakeem Nicks in free agency and draft Ole Miss receiver Donte Moncrief in the third round. The new weapons for Luck should improve the passing efficiency of the offense, as once Wayne went down, T.Y. Hilton became the primary target every play, and the Luck’s completion percentage fluctuated due to the lack of competent players around him.
To avoid that scenario, Nicks needs to return to his 2011 form and be a dominant receiver again, and Moncrief will have to make an early impact. Expect the team to focus on rapidly getting its new receivers up to speed throughout training camp.
Continue with the Youth Movement
After the Jaguars released Jason Babin, it was clear they would continue with their roster turnover. Only two players on the starting defense, Chris Clemons and Red Bryant, are 30 years or older and each of them came to Jacksonville from Seattle for big paydays.
There’s plenty of talent on that starting 11, so head coach Gus Bradley is looking to build a sustainable, deep defense like that he helped mold in Seattle.
One the offensive side of the ball, only current starting quarterback Chad Henne doesn’t fit into the team's future, but he’s holding the position for Blake Bortles in 2015. That’s the smart move, as Bortles isn’t ready yet. As Jim Corbett of USA Today wrote, that was always the plan.
Jacksonville Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell and head coach Gus Bradley remain steadfast in saying their ideal plan is to let Bortles watch and develop during a redshirt rookie year, apprenticing behind Henne.
But that doesn’t mean the third overall draft pick and the highest drafted quarterback from the 2014 class won’t get his share of repetitions with the first team come training camp when the pads are on.
Search for Hidden Gems
The Jaguars have turned over all but 26 players on the 90-man roster in the two years this regime has been in place, and that has led to finding some very good players from unexpected sources.
Take cornerback Alan Ball, for example.
Once a castoff from Dallas and Houston, Ball was ranked as the 19th-best cornerback by Pro Football Focus (subscription required), but is now one of the best cornerbacks in the league.
For Bradley, building his roster will be a long process, but he appears to have faith in that process. The Jaguars' day is coming sooner rather than later.
Rely on Toby Gerhart
When the Jaguars signed running back Toby Gerhart, he received the richest contract given to a running back in 2014 despite having only 36 carries last year. A big reason for the commitment is that Gerhart, because he spent the bulk of his career backing up Adrian Peterson in Minnesota, isn’t worn down as much as other backs his age.
But he can expect his workload to increase dramatically this season.
Head coach Gus Bradley had this to say about Gerhart in an interview with PFT:
He has the ability to play all three downs...How many carries he gets — we would like to run the ball over 40 percent of the time. There might be 28-30 carries in a game and there aren’t more running backs that carry more than 20 times a game.
If he’s a guy that is carrying it 15-16 times and with third-down reps, 18 times. That’s feasible. A strong possibility.
Gerhart, the former Stanford All-American and Heisman Trophy finalist, is in line for a big season with the Jaguars if he is the talent they believe he is.
Kansas City Chiefs
Take Pressure Off Jamaal Charles
One of the best running backs in the NFL, Charles has averaged over six yards a carry and a touchdown on 3.61 percent of his total carries since 2011. Those are numbers greater than any other running back in the league during that span. To help prevent Charles from being overused, either backup Knile Davis will need to be used more, or quarterback Alex Smith will have to become a bigger playmaker.
Smith is ranked as PFF’s 17th quarterback with a passer rating of 85.08, largely due to not having a big-time downfield threat on the outside and his preference for working shorter and intermediate routes in Andy Reid's offense. But that tendency leads to more defenders in the box and more pressure on Charles.
If the Chiefs want to replicate their playoff run from 2013, Charles will have to get more help.
Find an Explosive Receiver
Dwayne Bowe is a good possession receiver for the Chiefs, but the rest of the receiving corps is embarrassingly bad. Donnie Avery is another possession guy who cannot stretch the defense vertically, and below him are guys that don’t deserve to be on an NFL roster.
Whether the Chiefs scour the waiver wire during training camp or via a trade, this roster needs an injection of speed from someone.
Prepare Dee Ford for a Major Role
The Chiefs’ first-round pick has gotten high praise recently from teammates, being compared to former Chief and Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas, as well as Denver's Von Miller, one of the top players at his position in the league.
Those praises seem to be hyperbole, as Ford was a little-known prospect before he broke out as a senior at Auburn, but he still figures to be a quality contributor.
With star pass-rusher Justin Houston missing camp due to a contract holdout, Ford is going to spend a lot of time on the field in pass-rushing situations. Known for his quick first step and strong hands, Ford has the ability to make an impact right now for a contending Chiefs team. Training camp should be used to prepare him for the intricacies of the position.
Finalize the Offensive Line
The Dolphins invested tremendous resources into re-making their porous offensive line this past offseason, including $52.5 million to free agents Branden Albert and Shelley Smith. The team also used their first-round and third-round picks on the offensive line, a right tackle and guard, respectively. And with 2013 third-round pick Dallas Thomas entering 2014 in much better shape and stronger, per ESPN's James Walker, he’s a potential starter for the team.
Even with the latest news of center Mike Pouncey undergoing hip surgery, he could be back and only miss a game or two to start the season. Some might panic, but the reality is that backup Nate Garner is perfectly capable to fill in for a few games, as Omar Kelly of the Sun-Sentinel explained:
Garner's experience level is why I'm confident he's the most realistic option to replace Mike Pouncey as the Dolphins' starting center while the 2013 Pro Bowler spends the next three months recovering from a hip procedure he had done on Monday.
Garner, who started five games for the Dolphins last season, spent most of this offseason working as a backup tackle, which happens to be the position he played at Arkansas. But he's been kept around for situations like this.
Kelly is right. Pouncey has tremendous physical gifts, but he is not an elite center. Even if he were, the Dolphins still need to focus on upgrading and developing other spots along the line.
Determine Who Lines Up opposite Brent Grimes
After a spring that pointed to Cortland Finnegan potentially starting as a boundary corner, second-year CB Jamar Taylor has seemingly caught up to the veteran. Taylor, who suffered from multiple injuries in 2013, has his 4.4-speed back and should be a tremendous schematic fit for the Dolphins defense. Adam Beasley of The Miami Herald reported this of Taylor:
On Tuesday, he intercepted Ryan Tannehill. On Wednesday, he broke up a deep pass down the left side. For the offense to complete a pass against him, it took a Randy Moss-like leaping effort out of Armon Binns.
Taylor’s play hasn’t gone unnoticed. Dolphins coach Joe Philbin has singled him out as one of two players to make a big leap forward this spring (guard Dallas Thomas was the other).
“We’re just giving him opportunities to get on the field and compete for playing time,” Philbin said. “... See how he plays press man, see how he plays cloud corner, see how he plays off, see how he plays the fire zones. And get a look on tape, and see how he moves and is competing.”
That shouldn’t have anyone down on Finnegan, though. The reviews have been positive on him as well, per Beasley:
Finnegan has worked as the Dolphins’ first-team cornerback throughout the spring, and was part of a unit that won the day during Monday’s open practice. Focusing on red zone and goal line, the Dolphins’ offense struggled to get open, and passes were batted down (or dropped) as often as caught.
That end of the field was a strength for the Dolphins’ defense in 2013, allowing just 17 touchdown passes – third fewest in football. And if Finnegan, 30, can again play at anywhere near the level that he did five years ago, it could be even better.
“I think he’s caught onto the system well,” said Dolphins coach Joe Philbin. “He’s a bright guy. Every system has its own techniques and fundamentals. He’s kind of kept an open mind to doing things the way we want them done.”
More Quick Decisions
Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s new offense stresses tempo and quick decisions, putting more pressure on Ryan Tannehill to develop into a franchise quarterback. With a much-improved offensive line that should also help the running game, there’s no reason to think he won’t get there.
As for the offense, Tannehill likes it a lot, per Barry Jackson of The Miami Herald:
It’s been great. Just the difference from last year, moving guys around, is huge. Just being comfortable with moving, shifting tight ends and backs. It’s challenging. But it’s going to create a lot of mismatches on offense. We’re going to put people in positions they don’t want to be on defense, get the ball to our playmakers all over the field.
Get Teddy Ready
Many draft analysts, including Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller and NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah, had Teddy Bridgewater as their top quarterback in the 2014 NFL draft. It seems as if the Vikings agree, as for the most part they’ve given the reins over to the polished rookie since drafting him, per Ben Goessling of ESPN:
Bridgewater received more snaps than any other quarterback during the Vikings' three-day minicamp, though Matt Cassel got most of the first-team work. The rookie finished 50-for-57 in 11-on-11 work during the minicamp; all three quarterbacks were relatively accurate during the minicamp, and it's dangerous to put too much emphasis on performances in non-padded practices, but Bridgewater at least looked up to the task at this point, throwing a better deep ball than many expected and showing he had a solid command of the offense so far.
"It's amazing that I've been able to learn so much in the six weeks that I've been here," Bridgewater said on Wednesday. "I've just been gaining that confidence every day. Just feeling really comfortable right now and knowing that I still have room for improvement and a long way to go to be where I want to be. I'm feeling confident and comfortable right now, but I still have more to learn."
Head coach Mike Zimmer expressed that he isn’t afraid of starting a rookie at any position, and that includes Bridgewater. Based off talent alone, it’s not going to be a tough battle for Teddy to beat out incumbents Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder.
Free Cordarrelle Patterson
One season after allowing Patterson to only be on the field for 446 snaps, it’s time to let the explosive playmaker to use his immense speed to create for the offense.
I wanted him to know that, coming in, the expectation of you is no longer 'rookie.' It's, 'You gotta go. We saw what you can do. We're gonna showcase this.'...For me, it was making sure that he understands that he has to be a professional. He has to be a pro's pro when he steps foot in this building, because we're expecting (him) to give us what we've seen you put out there.
More touches for Patterson will never be a bad thing, as it should lower the number of defenders Adrian Peterson will see in the box.
Get Linval Joseph Healthy
Free-agent acquisition Linval Joseph figures to be a major contributor for the Vikings after he exploded with a tremendous 2013 season as a member of the New York Giants. He enters camp months after having shoulder surgery in January. Brian Hall of Fox Sports learned this about Joseph's recovery:
Joseph said he doesn't feel behind, despite the missed time. With Zimmer instituting a new defensive scheme, all the players are learning at the same time and Joseph says there are similarities to the defense he was in last year with the New York Giants.
"I think it's the best situation ever for me, because right now its new to everybody," Joseph said. "I feel like some of the stuff I already know is going to help me because they're running it here. Just the alignment, some of the schemes, stuff like that, I already did it, so it's already given me a little head start. I really feel like I'm not too far behind."
The Vikings defensive front will be helped in a major way with Joseph, so they must get him back to full strength as soon as possible. Missing time when a new system is being installed is never a positive, but it is better he is out now rather than later.
New England Patriots
Establish Outside Receivers
With many of the Patriots receivers being in their first few seasons, there is room for improvement. According to Ben Volin of The Boston Globe, their young guns are doing just that:
There was a lot of talk about guys “playing faster” now that they’re in their second year with the Patriots — Danny Amendola, Kenbrell Thompkins, Josh Boyce, and Jamie Collins. Amendola and Thompkins, especially, were impressive. Amendola looks to be developing a good rapport with Tom Brady, and Thompkins was sometimes dominant in drills, getting the better of new cornerback Brandon Browner several times.
The young receivers will need to translate their early success into a better finish in 2014, as Thompkins and Amendola really fell off in the second half of 2013. Don’t be surprised if Boyce eventually takes on a major role, as he earned valuable playing time late last season.
Get Brandon Browner Back into His Groove
After being suspended four games in 2013 and narrowly missing being suspended for 2014 due to a technicality, Brandon Browner hopes to show he isn’t just a product of Seattle’s tremendous defense. Lining up on the other side from Darrelle Revis, he’s going to be targeted a lot, so his opportunity is huge. Defensive back Devin McCourty talked to Mike Reiss of ESPN about how each fit with the team:
...throughout the league that are probably certain guys that won't fit in. But a guy like Revis who came in, he fit in right away. The same thing with [Brandon] Browner, whose been in our secondary now. They've both fit in very well and have picked up things, and now it's going out there and competing trying to bring wins.
For the Patriots, they will be elated if Browner brings intact his skills from Seattle, where he dominated playing on the opposite side of Richard Sherman.
Keep Pressure Off Brady
As Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus (subscription required) wrote, Tom Brady is in decline, and his inability to handle the pass rush is becoming magnified as he ages. He’s simply not as accurate or cerebral when his passing window is closing.
Brady finished as PFF's 20th best quarterback under pressure, completing just 46 percent of his passes and having a 1-1 touchdown to interception ratio when pressured.
I noticed the same things that Sam did when I broke the Patriots film down last season. He’s still a great quarterback, but no longer the same. At 37, that’s not an insult. It just means the Patriots must protect him better by continuing to run the ball and pass protect effectively.
New Orleans Saints
Remove Pressure from Brees’ Shoulder
The easiest way to lower the workload the 35-year-old Brees carries each week is to bring in more playmakers around him so he doesn’t have to throw for 300-plus yards a week. The Saints have attempted to help him by retaining most of their offense from 2013, with the exception being Darren Sproles, who signed with the Philadelphia Eagles.
To fill his shoes, the team drafted weapon Brandin Cooks from Oregon State. The small but explosive receiver didn’t take long to impress teammates, per Kevin Patra of NFL.com:
"I called him 'lightning,'" Lewis told The Times-Picayune's Christopher Dabe last Friday. "A (defensive back) might be in his back pocket and the next thing you know he's 50, 60 yards down the field."
According to Dabe, Lewis was struck by Lightning Cooks during Thursday's practice. The 5-foot-10 pass-catcher with 4.33-second 40-speed took a reverse handoff and raced down the sideline. Cooks appeared to pull up to play with defenders, like Lewis, tracking him. Then the rookie shifted back into high gear, sprinting away.
That’s the impact the Saints need to lower the burden on Brees. Factor in another season of experience for a deep and talented running back group, and Brees could post another incredible season and lead the Saints back into the playoffs.
Get Jimmy Graham Back
Whether it be via a one-year deal or a long-term pact, the Saints absolutely need Jimmy Graham. The team would certainly love to sign him to a long-term deal, but with July 15 being the deadline to get him locked up for more than one year, it is unlikely that happens.
What will it mean for the team if Graham holds out?
A greater emphasis will be put on an aging Marques Colston and Robert Meachem, but youngsters Kenny Stills and Brandin Cooks will also be forced to step up. This offense could struggle to consistently move the ball as easily as it has in years past, as Graham is by far the most productive tight end in the league and would be difficult to replace.
Develop Stanley Jean-Baptiste
The signings of Keenan Lewis and Champ Bailey in the free-agent period allowed the Saints to draft one of the biggest project players in the class in Jean-Baptiste. He has tremendous upside, but as I noted before, he has a ways to go and shouldn’t be relied upon in 2014.
According to Andrew Lopez of NOLA.com, Jean-Baptiste has been in the rotation of corners, and the rookie says he's banking on making a contribution this season, saying, "My expectation is to hopefully make an impact somewhere on the field, somewhere on the defense and hopefully become a starter."
Jean-Baptiste has gotten some run with the first-team defense throughout the OTAs and minicamp. But he's also done a lot of watching and learning.
New York Giants
Reestablish JPP as a Premier Edge-Rusher
Jason Pierre-Paul struggled with injuries the last two seasons, causing the Giants defense to slip from the fearsome unit that produced 48 sacks in their 2011 championship season. Without major production from JPP, the Giants will struggle to create pressure, like what happened in 2013.
The good news for the team is that Pierre-Paul is prepped for a healthy bounce-back season, per Dan Graziano of ESPN.com:
Jason Pierre-Paul continually proclaims himself fully healthy for the first time in nearly two years and says he's ready to do incredible things at defensive end for the New York Giants this year. Their hope and belief is that he's right, and as long as he is they'll stick him at right defensive end and assign him the task of whipping left tackles and making life miserable for quarterbacks.
Sort Through the Clutter at Running Back
Since David Wilson is still not cleared to play due to a neck injury, the Giants will enter training camp with Rashad Jennings to do most of the heavy lifting, but the rest of the depth chart is unproven. The Giants haven’t been able to build a sustainable running attack in years, so developing a respectable offense is a huge priority.
According to CBS Sports, New York general manager Jerry Reese doesn’t seem to worried:
We brought in Rashad Jennings and he’s definitely a bell cow type of a running back – he can run it, he can catch it, he can block, he can do everything with it...David Wilson is an explosive player, but first and foremost we’re concerned about his health. We do think all systems are go pretty much for him to be healthy and ready for contact during training camp. We held him out for spring, no contact at all, but unless he has a setback we expect to release him for full contact during the fall. Any time he touches the ball he can go the distance. In this West Coast Offense, we’ll try to get them ball to him in different ways and obviously he’ll help in the return game.
Jennings was a nice player for the Raiders and Jaguars in his previous stops, but he is far from a bell-cow back. Hopefully fourth-round pick Andre Williams can make an early impact and help this offense get more balanced.
Help the Offensive Line Jell
Quarterback Eli Manning struggled for many reasons in 2013, including his own personal regression, but his offensive line—ranked 31st by Pro Football Focus (subscription required)—didn’t help at all.
By signing guard Geoff Schwartz this offseason, and with the rest of the line getting healthy, the Giants offense is looking to be more productive in 2014. Second-year tackle Justin Pugh should get better after a full offseason, and veterans such as Chris Snee and Will Beatty can make an impact.
Hopefully training camp proves to be much better than the 2013 season for the Giants' big men up front.
New York Jets
Stick with Geno
Geno Smith struggled dearly in 2013 as a rookie, but there were factors outside of his own weaknesses that caused this.
With his best receiver quite possibly being Jeremy Kerley, it’s easy to say that Smith didn’t have the support around him that was needed to be successful. The Jets' front office took steps to improve his surroundings this past offseason, and now their second-year QB should reward its efforts.
By signing receiver Eric Decker, drafting Jalen Saunders, Shaq Evans and Quincy Enunwa, and adding tight end Jace Amaro, the team finally has some real talent in the passing game. Sure, it’s tough to depend on rookie receivers, but at least these guys have NFL talent.
Michael Vick was brought in to be the backup to Smith, not to really compete, and it doesn’t sound like he’s been able to capitalize off practice struggles anyways, per Rich Cimini of ESPN.com:
One day after his coaches lavished praise upon him for a terrific offseason, Geno Smith ended on a down note, throwing two interceptions in team drills. One was an ill-advised throw, a pass into double coverage. He was looking for Eric Decker, who was covered by CB Dee Milliner, and it was picked off by rookie S Calvin Pryor. Later, Smith (2-for-6 in team drills) was intercepted by Milliner on a deep ball that went off the hands of Decker. It's important to keep this in perspective. Two turnovers on the final day of minicamp doesn't change anything. As Marty Mornhinweg indicated Wednesday, it's Smith's job to lose. Michael Vick was 2-for-7, with a couple of overthrows.
Keep the Defensive Line Hungry
The Jets have a terrific nucleus along their defensive line, including second-year end Sheldon Richardson and fourth-year tackle Muhammad Wilkerson. Those two combined for 15 sacks and 56 quarterback hurries, which is an incredible number for 3-4 defensive linemen.
According to Darryl Slater of The Star-Ledger, Richardson doesn’t plan on hitting a sophomore slump:
While not straying too far from his usual routine, Richardson is sure that one thing will not be on his mind – a sophomore slump.
“That sounds like a rookie wall, something I never hit,” he said. “It sounds a lot like it to me.”
Richardson knows himself well enough to understand that he needs to continue his physical conditioning and workout regimen during this next month.
“For me, I like to just stick with it, because when I stop, I’m kind of a guy who really shuts down everything, so I just keep going,” he said. “I’m going to get away from football, but as far as working out, nah, I’m going to stick with it.”
Wilkerson is eligible for a contract extension, but until J.J. Watt gets his new deal in Houston, it might not happen. His contract runs through 2015, and Jets general manager John Idzik is a tough negotiator, so this could keep Wilkerson hungry in 2014.
Shore Up the Secondary
Veteran cornerback Dimitri Patterson was brought in to start across from second-year corner Dee Milliner, but Patterson has had difficulty staying healthy in the last few years of his career, missing 13 games in two seasons with the Dolphins. When he plays, he’s pretty good, especially as a No. 2 cornerback. But keeping him on the field is difficult.
Dexter McDougle was one of my favorite picks of the draft, as he can impact the Jets early, so don’t be surprised if he surpasses Kyle Wilson and Darrin Walls in training camp for playing time.
Establish the Run
The Raiders invested heavily into the offensive line with their massive amount of resources this past offseason, signing Donald Penn, Austin Howard and Kevin Boothe, and then drafting Gabe Jackson in May. Those investments will pay off for the team in many ways as it looks to build a play-action-based offense that will alleviate the stress on quarterback Matt Schaub.
The running backs will return to form, says new running back Maurice Jones-Drew, per Scott Blair of CSN Bay Area:
The Raiders hope to get production from both in a scheme that prefers tough running to set up the passing game. The Raiders haven’t put pads on yet and won’t until training camp, but these rushers sees production ahead, and has no problem saying so.
“We hold ourselves accountable to whatever we say, whatever we do,” Jones-Drew said. “Talking with the guys here, we feel like we have something that we can build on. I know what I did last year wasn't nowhere near what I'm capable of doing and so this year I'm doing everything I can to get back to the form I'm used to, and I know Darren is as well.”
Improved health and a stronger group of linemen will make this Raiders offense more formidable in 2014.
Help Matt Schaub Succeed
In his final year with the Texans, Schaub might’ve been the NFL's worst starting quarterback in 2013. But expect the Raiders to cater to his abilities, allowing him to be more confident.
Per Blair, the early returns are very good:
Timing and ball placement are key to a functional offense, especially without dominant playmakers on the outside. Hiccups in timing can limit production or lead to a negative play. That's why Schaub has worked so hard in practice and in film study to figure out exactly how his receivers play.
“I try to understand everybody’s strengths and body movements, so I can let it go maybe a split second before I want to but I know how he comes out of his route, he’s going to be able to get there. All that stuff you develop right now.”
While the passing game had some rocky moments during OTAs, receivers are adjusting to Schaub’s fastball. The 32-year old has adequate zip, but his precision has impressed receivers most.
“He throws the ball on time,” wideout Andre Holmes said. “It’s nice to be able to run the route and know the ball’s going to be there, that’s he already thrown it. He puts it in a nice spot. It’s been great.”
Some of that talk could be regular offseason optimism, the stuff that gets fans feeling better about the circumstances surrounding their team.
Nonetheless, with receivers James Jones, Rod Streater and Denarius Moore, the Raiders have some pretty good options for Schaub to target. Expect him to play better if he can create chemistry with his receivers.
The linebacker out of Buffalo is being thrown the proverbial kitchen sink in Oakland right now, as his immense abilities excite the defensive staff. According to NFL.com's Kevin Patra, expect to see Mack line up all over the field to increase his production and versatility:
In the Raiders' 4-3 defense, Mack is expected to primarily play strongside linebacker, but the skilled 6-foot-3, 248-pounder is likely to see time in multiple spots, including edge rusher in passing situations.
During offseason workouts, coach Dennis Allen and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver have been experimenting with Mack in different packages to see where he will excel. In the process, the coaching staff is throwing a lot of information at the rookie.
"We've got his head spinning right now," Allen said with a wry smile, per CSN Bay Area. "That's a good thing. We're going to try to throw as much at him as we can throughout the rest of this offseason and really even into the early part of training camp, and then at some point we'll settle down to the things that we can execute as a team and execute at a high level."
Mack said he is taking on the challenge of being the team's wild card and understands that the coaches are trying to put him in a position to make plays. However, the rookie said he's learning the transition to the NFL is no walk in the park.
Mack is a promising talent who should become one of the better defensive players in the NFL with his skill set and work ethic. This training camp will see him star.
Starting Wide Receivers
Because they are more familiar with Chip Kelly’s NFL playbook, the early favorites are Maclin and Cooper, but as Bleacher Report’s Brad Gagnon examined recently, Matthews has been impressive in his time thus far in Philadelphia.
Rookie receivers don’t often make huge impacts for winning NFL teams, but this could be an exception to that trend. The Eagles’ wide receiver battle will be one of the most intriguing of training camp.
Who Plays Edge-Rusher?
Third-year end Vinny Curry seems to be making an impact for the Eagles, as he’s adjusting to standing up as a linebacker in Philadelphia's hybrid front. Curry is a big guy, but he has the skills to win in space.
As Jeff McLane of The Philadelphia Inquirer noted, he’s starting to come into his own:
There was a rare chance to watch Vinny Curry line up as a 4-3 defensive end. The Eagles second team defense had its nickel package on the field and Curry was on the left edge in a three-point stance. He zoomed around right tackle Andrew Gardner and shot to quarterback Mark Sanchez. The play continued, of course, but Curry would have sacked Sanchez. Curry was perhaps the Eagles’ best passing down rusher last season, but he did most of his damage from inside. I wonder if Bill Davis and Jerry Azzinaro will try to get him in more one-on-one situations on the outside where he was originally drafted to play. Curry was one of the few players the Eagles could have traded this offseason and gotten decent return. But only half the league runs a 4-3 base defense, so it must have been hard to get offers. Curry has to learn to play in the Eagles’ hybrid, 3-4-leaning front, but it would be nice to someday see what he would be capable of doing as a full-time 4-3 end.
He isn’t short of competitors, though. First-round pick Marcus Smith is explosive off the edge and will be a very good player in time, and Brandon Graham could improve as he enters his fifth season in the league.
The Eagles have acquired enough talent at cornerback to be a reasonably deep team, but how that depth turns into playing time is very important. Cary Williams was one of the worst cornerbacks in the NFL last year, landing 92nd in Pro Football Focus’ coverage rankings (subscription required).
Among Bradley Fletcher, Nolan Carroll and possibly rookie Jaylen Watkins, the Eagles should easily be able to get Williams out of the starting lineup. The slot position is firmly locked down with Brandon Boykin, who had a fantastic 2013 season.
Mesh the Old with the New
The Steelers defense has undergone a lot of changes since the 2013 season.
The defense aged seemingly overnight, which prompted the Steelers' front office to replace former All-Pro players. The emphasis for the team was to add more speed to the roster, allowing Pittsburgh to create much more pressure on a consistent basis.
According to Judy Battista of NFL.com, the upgrade in team speed was a much-needed move:
While Polamalu was quick to caution against the enthusiasm for pure speed -- he noted that putting Usain Bolt on the field would not necessarily make the Steelers a good team -- it is obvious that getting faster was a key component of Pittsburgh's offseason plans. LeBeau believes a team can never have too much speed, because the faster defenders are, the more mistakes they can make up for. He predicts that the Steelers' defense will be fast enough to catch the ball on interception opportunities -- provided they can get everyone going in the right direction.
Wide Receiver Depth Chart
By adding Lance Moore, Markus Wheaton, Justin Brown and Martavis Bryant in the past two offseasons, the Steelers' unit could be a strength of the team, according to ESPN.com’s Scott Brown. Of course, that group has a lot to prove on the field this fall, but the talent is high, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will have a lot of speed to utilize.
According to Brown, offensive coordinator Todd Haley agrees the Steelers have a lot of talent at the position. “It’s as deep a group as I’ve been around from top to bottom,” Haley said near the end of offseason practices. “I think some guys that are pretty good football players probably won’t make the team.”
If the young talent is ready to perform on Sundays, the Steelers could become one of the best offenses in the league.
Keep the Offensive Line Healthy
The Steelers had a terrible time protecting Roethlisberger last season due to injuries along the offensive line, but now that David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey are healthy, the Steelers have much more talent ready to impact the ground game and keep Big Ben upright.
Of course, keeping Pouncey happy was key, and the team rewarded him with a $44 million extension. He had this to say about his recovering knee, per Brown: "No problems at all. I was able to block guys and finish on some plays. It was pretty awesome."
San Diego Chargers
By selecting Jason Verrett in the first round of the draft and signing Brandon Flowers in free agency, the Chargers addressed their biggest area of concern this offseason: cornerback.
Before the draft, I examined Verrett’s 2013 season at TCU and found him to be an excellent blend of athletic ability and technical skill. He should start immediately for the Chargers.
Flowers, signed Tuesday, could be a major steal for the team, as PFF tweets: "2013 was a disappointment for Brandon Flowers (-8.7 coverage) but prior to that earned a top 10 coverage grade every year from 09-12."
If he can overcome his subpar 2013 season, he, Verrett and Eric Weddle could form one of the best starting secondaries in the NFL.
Replicate Rivers’ Success
2013 was a renaissance season for quarterback Philip Rivers, when he showed he still has the ability to be a top-five quarterback in the league. His Comeback Player of the Year award was well-deserved, as head coach Mike McCoy helped bring confidence to the signal-caller.
The emergence of legitimate contributors to the Chargers offensive attack will continue to help Rivers, too. Keenan Allen enters his second season, and the running back position is even deeper than it was in 2013, after the team signed Donald Brown.
All of that adds up to big numbers for Rivers and a potential playoff berth.
The Emergence of Ladarius Green
The third-year tight end broke out at the end of 2013 and now figures to split snaps with veteran Antonio Gates. Being a better blocker than Gates and more of a downfield threat, he's better at helping the Chargers stretch defenses between the 20s.
Bleacher Report’s Dan Pompei mentioned how the team plans to use him this season:
Ladarius Green showed some flashes in San Diego minicamp this week, and the plan is for the Chargers to involve the third-year tight end in the offense more this season. That means more personnel groups that include Green and more opportunities for him to make big plays. The coaching staff believes Green has the size, speed, reach and athleticism to be an impact player, especially if he gets the right matchups.
San Francisco 49ers
Wide Receiver Depth
Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Stevie Johnson, Bruce Ellington, Quinton Patton, Brandon Lloyd and Kassim Osgood make up the deepest group of receivers in the league. Each can fill a specific role, giving offensive coordinator Greg Roman the ability to confuse any defense on what play is coming.
In determining the depth chart after Crabtree and Boldin, the 49ers should keep an open mind. Ellington was a great downfield slot threat at South Carolina, while Johnson and Patton are more horizontal threats. There’s a lot of talent at this position, so training camp and preseason will be a key stretch in terms of player evaluation.
All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman talked about his recovery on SportsCenter in April, saying his timetable is more toward the middle of 2014 (h/t CBS Sports' Will Brinson):
Feeling good, feeling good. I'm blessed to be walking. I put the hard work in already, playing through the pain, trying to get the knee straight. But it's coming along...I hope to be ready when they expect me to be ready. They're not going to rush me. Probably about the middle of the season.
That leaves the 49ers to choose from among Michael Wilhoite, Nick Moody, Blake Costanzo, Chris Borland or Shayne Skov—less-than-stellar names to be replacing an All-Pro, to be sure. Head coach Jim Harbaugh hinted that Borland has the upper hand in that race after OTAs, per Taylor Price of 49ers.com:
Rookie linebacker Chris Borland also broke up passes from Blaine Gabbert and Josh Johnson, respectively. “He’s probably leading the team right now in deflections and interceptions,” Harbaugh said of the third-round linebacker drafted out of Wisconsin. “He’s been around the ball all spring. He’s doing a fine job.”
Losing Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers was a big loss for the 49ers, and now they’re relying on the unproven Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver. Brock was graded higher from PFF than both Brown and Rogers in his 678 snaps last season, but playing the outside cornerback position is much more difficult.
The 49ers have to settle the position before they try to dethrone the reigning Super Bowl champion Seahawks, so expect a heated battle throughout training camp.
Right Tackle Battle
The Seahawks allowed 2013 starter Breno Giacomini to leave via free agency, and now the position will go to either 2013 seventh-round pick Michael Bowie or surprise second-round pick in 2014 Justin Britt, according to Bob Condotta of The Seattle Times:
Second-year player Michael Bowie and rookie second-round pick Justin Britt pretty much traded off playing there during OTAs and mini-camps, and they’ll begin training camp likely considered equals at that spot.
It’s hard to see the Seahawks upgrading the position in 2014, but the rest of the line is so good, one fairly weak spot isn’t a big setback. Training camp should offer valuable experience for each player in the competition.
Beyond star cornerback Richard Sherman and fourth-year corner Byron Maxwell, the Seahawks are relying on Tharold Simon. Playing with the front seven that the Seahawks possess will always help the secondary, as opposing quarterbacks have less time to read the defense.
Simon, though, is an interesting case. He was a lowly regarded prospect coming out of LSU, but his 6’3” frame compelled the Seahawks—who love bigger corners—to draft him.
Now, the hype is coming hard for Simon, via Condotta:
“Sometimes they might tell you something that throws you off a little bit,” Simon said with a smile about the constant coaching he received from Sherman and Earl Thomas, who each stayed on the sideline as younger players got the work instead. “But most of the time it helps you out.”
Simon showed impeccable timing not only on each play, each leaping grabs in which his 6-foot-3, 202-pound frame was put to full use, but also in simply making the plays themselves.
Until the last few weeks, Simon loomed as one of the team’s biggest mysteries. Taken in the fifth round of the 2013 draft, Simon missed all but a handful of workouts and practices last season while dealing with separate injuries to each foot.
It’ll be interesting to see if Simon can continue playing well in pads at training camp.
Get the Rookies Involved at Receiver
The great news for the team, according to ESPN.com’s Terry Blount, is that the first-year receivers have won over quarterback Russell Wilson, who can't say enough good things about their play thus far:
They don't look like rookies...Norwood played at Alabama in some big, big games. He has great hands and great body control. Paul has electric speed and he going to make some plays for us.
St. Louis Rams
Get Greg Robinson Acclimated
Amid a recent report that the No. 2 overall pick in May is struggling to adjust to the NFL, Robinson will be the focus of the Rams coaches to get him ready for a difficult schedule in 2014.
One of the best physical specimens to come along at the offensive tackle spot in years, Robinson will struggle only due to his technique, which we knew was raw during the draft process.
Robinson had this to say about his adjustment, per Nick Wagoner of ESPN.com:
I didn't know what to expect, honestly. I put a lot of pressure on myself because I like to challenge myself. It's something I want to do and just stand out to the coaches and let them be comfortable with their choice.
It's just everything happens faster inside. Outside you have a little more time to kick. The guys are faster but these guys are just quick and trained to rush the passer. It's just about keeping my feet working and knowing when to pull.
Right now it's a lot of thinking going on, it causes me to move a little slower. Once I get up to speed, I can move with the snap count and stuff like that.
The quote seems to have unsettled some among the St. Louis fanbase, but it’s not really a big deal for a rookie to realize he’s a little behind.
His transition should be difficult, as Auburn rarely passed the ball in 2013, so there's plenty of room for growth in that area.
Increase Tavon Austin’s Touches
Austin struggled early in his rookie season with drops, but he also had huge plays sprinkled in, giving hope that he will be worthy of his top-10 draft status.
With Austin entering his second year, the Rams are trying to expand their use of the speedster, giving him more ways to be effective. Per Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer says he wants to take advantage of Austin's versatility and current comfort level with the offense:
Moving him around to a lot of different spots...You’ll see us hand him the ball, do some different things. He’s playing so much faster just because he knows what we’re doing. He has the system down cold.
Find the Perfect Split at Running Back
Once the Rams drafted Tre Mason in the third round of the draft, speculation began that he could overtake Zac Stacy as the feature back.
When looking at the depth chart, it is more likely that Mason takes carries from the other backs, due to his playing style. Mason and Stacy complement each other well, meaning each could get more than 40 percent of the carries.
For now, Schottenheimer wants to promote competition for all of the running backs, per Wagoner:
Well right now, competition is for who’s the starter...We’re just going to let them all roll and see what happens. You saw some guys that worked with the young guys today. Zac’s obviously a really, really good player, but we’re going to create competition for all the guys. That’s a long way off, but we know we have a good stable group of backs and they all have different skill sets, which we’ll try to use throughout the course of the year.
Competition is a term used often this time of year, but it really doesn't apply too much to St. Louis' running back battle. Training camp will likely show which running backs will lose carries to the Stacy-Mason combination but not much else.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Determine the Starting Quarterback
The Bucs have seemed to cater to free-agent signing Josh McCown this offseason, getting another big wide receiver in Mike Evans to replicate the Bears’ approach with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey. That being said, the team seems to believe Mike Glennon has long-term upside, according to Scott Smith of Buccaneers.com:
Josh McCown is expected to start at quarterback this season, and Mike Glennon has been pegged by Smith as the team’s quarterback of the future. Glennon, of course, will continue to compete in an effort to try to win the starting job back this year, and that outcome isn’t completely out of the question.
It would be strange for the Bucs' coaching staff to write Glennon off as the starter in 2014, as relying on McCown is dangerous. Playing for nine teams in 13 seasons strongly indicates that he’s just not that good, and maybe his 2013 campaign was a fluke.
Training camp should be huge in determining the winner of the battle.
Surround the Stars
The Buccaneers have a lot of talent on their defense, but it is headlined by linebacker Lavonte David and Gerald McCoy. According to Sander Philipse of Bucsnation.com, Warren Sapp compared them to another great Bucs duo:
[Lavonte David] and Gerald McCoy are the Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp of the new Tampa Bay Buccaneers Cover 2 that they're about to play, and these two will be an intricate part of if this team goes anywhere.
That’s steep praise of the two young Tampa defenders, but each is an elite player at his position for a reason. With their immense talent and instincts, they could continue improving in 2014. That means the Bucs need to surround them with capable complementary pieces.
If the investment in defensive end Michael Johnson pays off as hoped, he’ll be yet another productive player for the Bucs defense, along with defensive end Adrian Clayborn, linebacker Mason Foster and a great, young secondary.
Return of the Muscle Hamster
2013 was a difficult year for Doug Martin, as his production severely dipped before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 8. Martin was incredibly productive as a rookie in 2012, but his position as the starter could be in jeopardy, as his backups Bobby Rainey and Mike James proved to be worthy players as well.
If Martin is healthy, expect him to get the first crack at being the lead back, but if he struggles to find running lanes, training camp could prove to be damaging to his chances of claiming the starting spot.
Support Jake Locker
The fourth-year quarterback made great strides in 2013 before getting injured and missing nine games. His accuracy, decision-making and confidence was improving, but as his reputation started to turn, he fell victim to a Lisfranc injury.
New Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt is surely hoping the good attributes will continue to develop during training camp, and he’s ready to support Locker in 2014, according to Paul Kuharsky of ESPN.com:
Jake is very decisive, that’s the kind of guy he is and that’s how he’s been playing. He’s not hanging on anything and then late getting to everything else. Which is a better way to go. If you ever come off of something a hair too quick and you missed it, you’re better off doing that than being a guy who hangs on it, hangs on it and then really the rest of the play is lost.
I think that’s the most impressive thing I’ve noticed with him, he’s picked up the progressions well and he’s been very decisive working through them.
Get Akeem Ayers Back into Form
After having surgery on both knees, linebacker Akeem Ayers is ready to improve upon his worst career statistical season in 2013, where he posted 56 tackles and one sack.
According to John Glennon of The Tennessean, Ayers believes he’s getting back to form, saying,
Every day it's getting better and better. I'm just learning how to deal with it and constantly treat it to make sure it won't get any worse. I'm excited to be able to hit the field and be at 100 percent and be at the best of my abilities. Last year wasn't at the best of my ability.
Whisenhunt is also sounding optimistic, via Glennon:
Guys do that all the time. That's part of the business. We've got a good training staff...The NFL isn't about patience, especially when you're a player going into your fourth year. There are some good players that are competing for spots, so he's got to step his game up.
He's an athletic guy that can do a number of different things, but he's just got to do it more productively and consistently. That's what I assess from what I've seen on tape.
Build Around the Offensive Line
The Titans have fully rebuilt their offensive line into what is potentially the best line in the entire league.
2014 first-round pick Taylor Lewan might not start right away, as he’s behind Michael Roos and Michael Oher, but he says he's starting to feel ready for the position battle in training camp, per Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean:
I am really starting to get it...Everything has slowed down for me, but some of the things these guys know and get, and all the intricate little details...I know I still have some things to learn, but I am starting to figure things out. The mental aspect has been the toughest part, but I am getting there.
Whether Lewan can crack the starting lineup, the Titans must get back to running the ball effectively and protecting Locker. The years of building and devoting resources to the positional group is about to pay off, as the line is healthy and in a better scheme with Whisenhunt at the helm.
Offensive Line Starters
To keep quarterback Robert Griffin III healthy and effective, the Redskins have to promote competition among their offensive line. For some reason, the team signed former Browns guard Shawn Lauvao, despite the fact that he was one of the worst in football last year, with a Pro Football Focus (subscription required) grade of minus-15.7 in just 11 games. His inability to seal run blocks crippled the Browns offense.
For the sake of the Redskins offense, hopefully former Nebraska Huskers lineman Spencer Long is recovered from a knee injury that caused him to fall to the third round of this year's draft. A healthy Long should be a much better player than Lauvao.
Currently the projected starters for the Redskins are Perry Riley and Keenan Robinson. To give an idea of their effectiveness, Riley ranked as PFF’s 46th-best inside linebacker in 2013, and Robinson missed the entire season due to torn pectoral muscles.
Though Robinson did not play last season, fellow Washington linebacker Brian Orakpo is high on him and his potential, per Brian McNally of The Washington Times:
Keenan’s doing a phenomenal job. I always knew Keenan was going to be great...You look at his size, he can run, he can hit, he can cover any tight end in this league. And he’s a player that I feel like is gonna have a breakout season and surprise a lot of guys.
The Redskins were able to sign star receiver DeSean Jackson and stud slot man Andre Roberts in free agency, bolstering a position that was thin in 2013.
Now, there’s no shortage of talent, which means longtime ‘Skins player Santana Moss could be on the roster bubble. The veteran does add leadership and has an existing relationship with Griffin, so he could be safe with a good training camp. But for the offense to flourish and become as explosive as 2012, the focus has to be on the top-three receivers working with Griffin.