Thursday night marks the beginning of the 2011 preseason. It’s always great to see the return of football, but this year is even sweeter because there was a very real possibility that it wasn’t going to happen at all.
Plus, since the lockout deprived all 32 teams of mini-camps and OTAs, we get the added bonus of watching the camp kinks work themselves out on television.
ESPN’s game tonight is Seattle at San Diego. Each team has it’s own unique storyline as they head towards regular season play.
Seattle has revamped their entire roster and have many new names, new stars and a whole new playbook under new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell.
San Diego took a more conservative approach to the offseason, hoping consistency will drive them through to the playoffs.
There are myriad players everyone will be watching heading into this game.
Tarvaris Jackson as he takes the helm for the Seahawks for the very first time.
Vincent Jackson as he returns peaceably from previous seasons rife with contract drama.
And how will first-round picks James Carpenter and Corey Liuget fair in their first NFL matchup?
It’ll be fun to see those details play out but there are some players for each team that have a more compelling storyline.
Many consider 2009 fourth-overall pick, Aaron Curry, a bust. He's due over $10 million ($5,076,250 in salary plus a $5 million roster bonus) this season, and since they haven't seen Clay Matthews/Brian Urlacher production out of Curry yet, fans are seething.
Curry seems to have struggled with the pace of the game in the NFL. It's become apparent that Curry has trouble reading the play when he's working in coverage and hasn't been able to make plays in space.
Carroll and the Seahawks have recognized the problem and are planning to use Curry more on the line of scrimmage.
Fieldgulls' Danny Kelly illustrates well the difference this may make to Seattle's defense against the run.
With fourth-round pick LB K.J. Wright waiting in the wings for his opportunity to contribute, Thursday night could be among Curry's last chances to prove he can be useful in the NFL.
Brandon Browner (6’4”, 220 lbs) is a giant on the secondary. After an impressive two seasons at Oregon State, Browner entered the draft in 2005 and was eventually signed by Denver as a free agent. He broke his arm in training camp and was released shortly after.
For the past four seasons Browner has been a stand-out cornerback in the CFL. Last year he tied for third overall in terms of interceptions (five in 2010, 12 career).
The CFL is a different level of competition than the NFL, but Browner has shown some promise in training camp thus far. With Walter Thurmond sitting out with a high ankle sprain, Browner has the very real opportunity to compete for a starting job over Thurmond and disappointing sixth-year corner Kelly Jennings.
Third-string quarterback Josh Portis is a part of Seattle's enormous group of rookie free agents. He played (most recently) at California University in Pennsylvania—a D-II school where he holds the single-season record for yards and touchdowns thrown (3,421 YDs, 36 TDs in 2009).
None of this seems very impressive for an NFL prospect. Prior to the draft SI.com gave Portis a grade of 2.09 which, by their grading scale, projected Portis somewhere between free agent and the practice squad.
ESPN's report is no more generous.
But, Pete Carroll seems to have taken a shine to the 24-year-old rookie.
"I am really, really excited about Josh. He's just been a real pleasant surprise, so we're real excited about him being the third guy right now.
He's an extremely big get for us in free agency."
Portis remains listed on the depth chart behind Whitehurst and starter Tarvaris Jackson, but Carroll has indicated that Portis will see ample playing time tonight in San Diego.
Former San Diego running back Darren Sproles made headlines early post lockout with his negotiations with New Orleans. Now he's playing with the Saints, and the Chargers are looking for someone to fill his shoes. To date, Sproles has a career average of 4.6 yards per carry and 9.2 receiving. Last year he led the team in receptions with 59 and pounded out 1,423 return yards.
A possible choice to fill the void is sixth-round pick out of Connecticut, Jordan Todman.
Todman rushed for 1,695 yards and 14 touchdowns last year at UConn and has 924 career return yards (plus one TD).
Sophomore running back of the future Ryan Matthews is unlikely to play Thursday night as he deals with a toe injury. Matthews also illustrated his offseason dedication to the team by failing his initial conditioning test. We should see plenty of opportunities for Todman to show why he was a steal in April's draft.
Second round cornerback, Marcus Gilchrist, will also be competing for return duties.
Linebacker Donald Butler was drafted by San Diego in the third round of 2010's draft. A training camp injury to Butler's achilles tendon robbed him of his rookie season and now, with ILB Kevin Burnett playing in Miami, Butler is looking to make a comeback and solidify his place with the team.
Butler has been learning from 14-year veteran free agent Takeo Spikes and has been working out with the first team this offseason.
Thursday's game play will indicate, both to him and San Diego's coaching staff, just how much last season's injury has affected Butler. Though Butler says the only difference is how sore he is after practice, Norv Turner knows better.
"Thursday night's his first opportunity to play in our defense and go tackle. The game changes a great deal when you're hitting and going up against another team's first unit and recognizing differences in what they're doing. It'll be fun to watch him. He's going to do some good things and he's going to have some struggles. Really, this is his first opportunity to be a NFL player, and I'm excited to see him out there."
Second-round pick Jonas Mouton has also been preparing to fill the position if Butler isn't ready.