2009 Training Camp Battles – Defense and Special Teams

LVCorrespondent IJuly 28, 2009

NASHVILLE, TN - MAY 1: Sen'Derrick Marks #72 of the Tennessee Titans sets to run a drill during the Tennessee Titans Minicamp on May 1, 2009 at Baptist Sports Park in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

Tennessee Titans DTs – Jason Jones, Troy Brown, LaJuan Ramsey, Kevin Vickerson, Jovan Haye, and rookie Sen'Derrick Marks (second round – Michigan State)

LV’s Take: The Washington Redskins handed All-Pro defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth a seven-year, $100 million dollar contract, which was great for him but now there's a huge hole on the Titans’ defensive line.

Sure, the Titans still have playmakers in DE Kyle Vanden Bosch, CB Courtland Finnegan, S Michael Griffin, and LB Keith Bullock, but the defensive line gets it all started for Jeff Fisher’s defense. New defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil will need to sort through the remaining defensive line candidates quickly to see who can stop the run and rush the passer—skills that Haynesworth possessed.

Look for Jones and Brown to be the starters—both are veterans who have experience in the Titans system. Eventually, the Titans would like rookie Marks to step up right away, however it is going to take time and as of July 27, the Michigan State rookie is still unsigned.


Houston Texans D-line – DE Antonio Smith (free agent – Cardinals), DT Travis Johnson (former first-round pick – 2005), DT Amobi Okoye (former first round pick – 2007), DE Mario Williams (Pro Bowler, first overall pick in 2006), DE Stanley McClover, DT Shaun Cody (former first-round pick – Lions), DT Frank Okam, and rookie DE Connor Barwin (second-round pick – Cincinnati)

LV’s Take:  After years of using high picks on the defensive line in the NFL Draft, it is time for some of these prospects to live up to their draft grade. Of course Pro Bowl defensive end Mario Williams will be the center piece of the unit—12 sacks and 53 tackles with his best effort (three sacks, one FF) in the Texans’ first ever Monday Night Football game on December 1, 2008. 

But Williams and tackling machine linebacker DeMeco Ryans cannot do it alone, so it will be up to the rest of the defense to help improve upon the 394 points that they allowed in 2008.

It will start with the defensive line as former first rounders Johnson, Okoye, and Cody will have to live up to their draft status. Look for better defensive line play under defensive coordinator Frank Bush with free agent pick-up Smith, Williams, Okoye, and Johnson—last chance—starting. Rookie Barwin, McClover and Cody should help out rushing the passer.


Buffalo Bills DEs – Ryan Denney, Chad Kelsay, Aaron Schobel, Marcus Smith, Copeland Bryan, Chris Ellis and rookie Aaron Maybin (first round – Penn State)

LV’s Take: After two consecutive 7-9 seasons, the Bills and their head coach Dick Jauron are on the clock. Bills owner Ralph Wilson has some high expectations for his 2009 squad and the team needs a strong defensive effort from defensive coordinator Perry Fewell’s group. The Bills allowed 342 points in 2008 and if they expect to make a playoff run they will need to be a better job at stopping opponents.

When talking Bills defense everything begins and ends with pressuring the quarterback. Over the past two seasons, the Bills have had difficulty providing pressure—just 47 sacks in 2007 and 2008 combined. The Bills DE’s are getting older—three are or will be 30 in the near future—and there are lingering questions whether former star Schobel is still the same after a foot injury in 2008. 

To help a defense that only produced 23 sacks last season (Denney and LB Kawika Mitchell led the team with only four sacks), the Bills drafted Maybin in the first round.  The high-energy defensive end is smallish by NFL standards at 6’4", 250 pounds, but he is said to be putting on weight—led the Big Ten with 12 sacks plus he had 20 tackles for a loss in ’08. 

Look for Schobel and Denney to start initially, but eventually Maybin will need to help out. Unfortunately, like most of 2009 NFL Draft’s first rounders, he remains unsigned as of July 27th.

Baltimore Ravens LBs – Ray Lewis, Prescott Burgess, Terrell Suggs, Tavares Gooden, Antwan Barnes, Jarret Johnson, Jameel McClain, Brendon Ayanbedjo; rookies Paul Kruger (second round – Utah) and Jason Phillips (fifth round - TCU)

LV’s Take:  After an offseason where the N.Y. Jets pilfered the Ravens roster including snagging their former defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, former linebackers coach Mike Petitne Jr., linebacker Bart Scott, and others, the Ravens will be looking to keep one of the NFL’s best defenses intact (only allowed 245 points in 2008). 

The Ravens made it to the 2008 AFC Championship Game creating a defensive scheme that thrived on the turnover—forcing a NFL-high 34 turnovers. Veterans Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs are cemented as two of the starters for new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison’s unit. The key will be finding the other two players (one outside and one inside) that will help the two veterans. 

Jameel McClain and Gooden appear to be the two youngsters vying for Scott’s vacated inside linebacker spot and they will have big shoes to fill in terms of reading offenses and plugging holes. Jarret Johnson seems to be coming into his own at the other outside spot, but he will be pushed by emerging Antwan Barnes and rookie Paul Kruger. 

Look for the Ravens’ 3-4 linebackers to be Johnson, Lewis, McClain, and Suggs on opening day against the Kansas City Chiefs with Barnes and the rest of the group excelling on head coach John Harbaugh’s special teams units.


Arizona Cardinals CBs – Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Bryant McFadden, veteran Ralph Brown, rookie Greg Toler (foruth round – St. Pauls, Va.), Michael Adams, and Wilrey Fontenot

LV’s: Take:  You figure that a team that makes it to the Super Bowl does not need much going into the next season…wrong, because the Cardinals defense needs some tweaking.

The Cardinals replaced former defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast after his unit surrendered a whopping 426 points—allowing 26.6 points per game. Many of the plays that contributed to that high point total were via long plays of 20 yards or more. 

The Cardinals already have Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson, but not even he could cover for some of the defensive lapses of this unit. Underachieving corner Antrel Rolle is moving to free safety where he should not be exposed as much thus leaving his cornerback spot open.

The Cardinals hope that free agent pick-up Bryan McFadden is their guy and the current staff knows him well from their days in Pittsburgh and scouting against him for Super Bowl XLIV. McFadden should team with emerging second-year corner Rodgers-Cromartie to form a nice combination for new defensive coordinator Bill Davis. 

With the addition of rookie Toler and veteran Brown still contributing, look for the Cardinals defense to continue to make big plays—scored 6 TDs and recovered 20 fumbles in 2008.


Dallas Cowboys CBs – Terrance Newman, Mike Jenkins, Orlando Scandrick, Alan Ball and rookies Mike Mickens (seventh-round pick – Cincinnati) and DeAngelo Smith (second-round – Cincinnati)

LV’s Take:  It is a make or break season for everyone in Dallas as the Cowboys move into their billion-dollar stadium. The Cowboys limped home in 2008 going 2-3 down the stretch including losing badly in Philly with the playoffs on the line. Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones already relieved former defensive coordinator Brian Stewart of his duties and other changes may soon follow. 

Despite getting 20 sacks from Pro Bowl LB DeMarcus Ware, one of the Cowboys defensive unit’s Achilles Heels in 2008 was their inconsistency in stopping teams down the field. Much of the blame was rightly placed on departed safety Roy Williams, who was a liability, but the Cowboys cornerbacks must also share in the blame. 

The Cowboys DBs were consistently beat on double-move routes and the team knew it as they brought in three players for the secondary in the draft. With 2008 Pro Bowl player Terrance Newman—four INTs (tying career high), three FF, and 23 pass deflections—healthy again after battling a foot injury that limited him to 11 starts, the ‘Boys have to find him a partner.

There is a group of four players vying to team with Newman and any list of candidates to start at the right cornerback position has to start with 2008 first-round pick Mike Jenkins. After a year of learning while playing for often missing corner Pacman Jones, Jenkins seems ready to use his size (5’11", 197 pounds) and coverage skills.

But Jenkins will not be handed the job as secondary coach Dave Campo is also high on second-year player Orlando Scandrick too. You can also throw into the mix third-year player Ball plus rookies Smith and Mickens. 

Look for Scandrick to pull a surprise by winning the starting spot opposite Newman over the more-heralded Jenkins. 

Other Battles to Watch

Chicago Bears SLB – Nick Roach, Hunter Hillenmayer, Jamar Williams and rookie Marcus Freeman

New York Jets CB’s – Darrell Revis, Dwight Lowery, Lito Sheppard, Donald Strickland, Drew Coleman, and Ahmad Carroll

New Orleans Saints CB’s – Jason David, Tracy Porter, Randall Gay, Leigh Torrence, Jabari Greer, and rookie Malcom Jenkins (first round – Ohio State)

Miami Dolphins CBs – Jason Allen, Will Allen, Nathan Jones, Eric Green (F\A – Cardinals), Joey Thomas; rookies Vontae Davis (first round – Illinois) and Sean Smith (second round – Utah)

Jacksonville Jaguars SS – Gerald Alexander, Sean Considine, Chad Nkang, and Calvin Lowry

Philadelphia Eagles Safeties – Quintin Demps, Quintin Mikell, Sean Jones, Rashad Baker, and rookie Victor “Macho” Harris (fifth round – Virginia Tech)

New England Patriots Safeties – Brandon Merriweather, Antwain Spann, Tank Williams, James Sanders, Brandon McGowan, Ray Ventrone, and rookie Patrick Chung (second round – Oregon)

Philadelphia Eagles Kick Returner – CB Ellis Hobbs, WR Jeremy Maclin, and S Quintin Demps

Dallas Cowboys Kicker – Nick Folk (veteran with team since 2007) and rookie David Buehler (fifth round – USC) 


Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)