Camp diaries: Chicago Bears

<p> One interesting observation I made while attending the Chicago Bears’ training camp on Monday was that former Carolina Panther Jimmy Clausen was running ahead of Jordan Palmer in the quarterback rotation during practice. Does this mean that Clausen is the favorite for the backup quarterback job in Chicago? No, it simply means that Clausen got more reps on Monday.</p> <p> While in Carolina, Clausen struggled with his decision making and had that proverbial “deer in the headlights” look in game situations. That was not evident in practice on Monday. Clausen looked poised, was able to go through his progressions and consistently made good decisions.</p> <p class="co_image co_image_right inline_right"> <img alt="Jimmy Clausen" src="" /><span>ICON</span>Former Panther Jimmy Clausen looks to catch on in Chicago.</p> <p> In the two minute drill that concludes practice, Clausen led the second unit to a touchdown in four plays, completing every throw including a touchdown pass. Palmer, on the other hand, looked indecisive with his decision making. He was slow finding an open receiver and often just threw to a check down.</p> <p> Rookie David Fales looked good. He made quick decisions, got the ball out of his hand quickly and was accurate. Being that Monday was only the second day in pads, it’s still way too early to say that Fales will challenge for the backup quarterback job. But Monday’s practice sure didn’t hurt his chances.</p> <p> <strong>Checking in with the backfield</strong></p> <p> Obviously, Matt Forte has a firm hold on the starting running back jog. But the question is who will serve as Forte’s primary backup? Second-year man Michael Ford has good run skills and can catch the ball out of the backfield. The concerns about him are whether or not he can pass block and produce on special teams. We won’t find out about that until the pre- season games start in another ten days.</p> <p> The same holds true for draft choice Ka’Deem Carey. On Monday, Carey was quick to the hole and made some nice cuts. He also caught the ball very well and was able to get up field quickly after the catch. As with Ford, Carey is going to have to prove he can be trusted in pass protection during the pre-season games.</p> <p> <strong>The receiving unit</strong></p> <p> Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery are clearly the top two receivers. The question that has to be answered in camp is who will serve as the third receiver? Through the first part of camp, second-year man Marquess Wilson is the favorite. Wilson added strength in the off-season and looks to have improved his route running. He catches the ball cleanly and has good run after catch skills. At over 6’3”, Wilson gives the Bears another big target to line up with Marshall and Jeffery.</p> <p> Two others who jumped out at me were former Canadian league star Chris Williams and veteran Eric Weems. Williams doesn’t have much size, but he is both quick and fast and finds a way to get open. He has also caught the ball very well in camp.</p> <p> Weems doesn’t have the speed and quickness that Williams has, but Jay Cutler seems to have confidence in him, as he threw Weems a number of passes during team work on Monday.</p> <p> <strong>In the trenches</strong></p> <p class="co_image co_image_right inline_right"> <img alt="Lamarr Houston" src="" />Houston notched 6.0 sacks with the Raiders last season.</p> <p> This might be the most talented Chicago defensive line I have seen in years, as all the new free agents jumped out at me. Lamarr Houston is a lean 280 pounds with a quick first step. He plays the game with an aggressive attitude.</p> <p> Former Detroit Lion Willie Young has very quick hands and an explosive punch. He shows a consistent ability to jolt the blocker with his punch. With his length, Young seldom lets the blocker into his body.</p> <p> Jared Allen was impressive with his initial quickness, fast hands and redirect skills. Like Young, Allen does an excellent job keeping blockers off his body.</p> <p> The two defensive line draft choices also stood out. Ego Ferguson is a load inside. He is strong and powerful and consistently gets penetration to disrupt. Will Sutton has a quick first step, stays low and uses his hands well for a rookie.</p> <p> If practice is a good indicator, the Bears have eight players they can use in a defensive line rotation. That will only help their performance, as key players will get ample opportunity to rest and stay fresh.</p> <p> <strong>Follow Greg on Twitter:</strong> @<a href="" target="_blank">greggabe</a></p>

Team preview: Kansas City Chiefs

<p> In 2012, the Kansas City Chiefs finished the regular season with a 2-14 record, good for worst in the National Football League. Under new head coach Andy Reid and general manager John Dorsey in 2013, the Chiefs turned that lackluster effort around and improved to 11-5.</p> <p> Critics will say it was the easy fourth-place schedule that served as the catalyst for Kansas City’s quick turnaround. I disagree. Having known John Dorsey for almost 25 years and having worked with Reid for one year, I know better. Both are outstanding leaders and did what was necessary to bring confidence to an already talented roster.</p> <p> The Chiefs got to the playoffs a year ago, but blew a 28-point lead in the second half of their wild card game at Indianapolis and wound up losing by a point. A loss like that can either demoralize a team or motivate them. I am betting that the loss will motivate the Chiefs to try and equal or surpass what they did a year ago.</p> <p> <strong>Quarterback </strong></p> <p> Alex Smith struggled for a good part of his time in San Francisco. Many labeled him a “bust” as Smith didn’t live up to being the first player picked in the 2005 NFL draft. Be that as it may, Smith still played very good football last year in Kansas City. He has matured as a player and become a good leader. While Smith isn’t in the same category of quarterbacks like Manning, Brees, Brady and Rodgers, he is a solid winning NFL quarterback.</p> <p class="co_image co_image_right inline_right"> <img alt="Alex Smith" src="" />Smith threw a career-high 23 touchdown passes last season.</p> <p> For the season, Smith completed 308 of 508 passes for over 3,300 yards, 23 touchdowns, with only seven interceptions. With 2014 being Smith’s second year in Reid’s system, I expect him to show improvement in all areas. Being that he is only 30-years-old, his best football is still in front of him.</p> <p> In Chase Daniel, the Chiefs have one of the best backup quarterbacks in the NFL. Daniel is capable of winning any time he steps on the field. In the fifth round, the Chiefs stole Aaron Murray from Georgia. Had it not been for a torn ACL, Murray would have gone much higher in the draft. 2014 will be strictly a developmental year for him.</p> <p> <strong>Running back</strong></p> <p> <a href="" target="_self">Armed with a new contract extension</a>, Jamaal Charles is ready to continue as one of the premier running backs in the NFL. While Charles isn’t one of the league’s biggest backs, he is one of the fastest and most explosive players in the game. He is a threat to make a big play any time he touches the ball.</p> <p> Rookie De’Anthony Thomas from Oregon is a smaller version of Charles. He has great breakaway ability and is very reliable catching the ball. Knile Davis and Cyrus Gray are two talented, but unproven backups.</p> <p> Fullback Anthony Sherman doesn’t get much publicity, but he is excellent at what he does. Sherman is a premier run and pass blocker and while he only touches the ball about once a game, Sherman averages almost eight yards per touch.</p> <p> <strong>Receivers and tight ends</strong></p> <p> The Chiefs need more production from their wide receiver unit. Dwayne Bowe had the most receptions among wide receivers last season with 57. Next was Donnie Avery with 40 catches.</p> <p> Bowe has reportedly lost weight and is in excellent shape. He needs to up his production by at least 20 percent and Avery needs to nearly double his production. Former 49ers wideouts Kyle Williams and A.J. Jenkins need to come on as the third and fourth receivers. If Jenkins doesn’t improve, his days in the NFL could be over. Junior Hemingway is a good special teams player and has excellent hands, but needs to develop his route running.</p> <p> At the tight end position, injuries just about wiped out this group in 2013. Anthony Fasano, the top tight end, missed seven games. When healthy, Fasano is a reliable receiver who can also block. Last year’s third-round pick in Travis Kelce missed most of last year with a knee injury. He functions like a big wide receiver and can create mismatches.</p> <p> The blocking tight end, Sean McGrath, retired and the Chiefs will need to find a strong blocker to replace him.</p> <p> <strong>Offensive line</strong></p> <p> The offensive line is a position group that is in transition and line coach Andy Heck has his work cut out for him. The Chiefs lost some players on the O-Line during free agency. That will hurt the depth, but perhaps not the efficiency.</p> <p> Last year’s first overall draft pick in Eric Fisher moves over to left tackle. While Fisher struggled some on the right side as a rookie, he is a natural left tackle and after a year in the league, knows what is expected of him.</p> <p> The right tackle will be Donald Stephenson, who was the third tackle a year ago. This is Stephenson’s third year and he is ready to be a starter. There will be a battle during training camp for the third tackle spot between Ryan Harris and J’Marcus Webb, who have both been starters in the league and have had their moments. The winner will be the one who can play both tackle spots with consistency.</p> <p> The fourth tackle will be rookie Laurent Duvernay-Tardiff, who played his college football in Canada. Laurent has the physical traits, but is raw and will need a year to develop and get used to the speed of the NFL. The Chiefs have to keep him on the 53-man roster because of his talent and upside.</p> <p> At left guard, Jeff Allen returns. While he had some games where he struggled in 2013, he is very talented as well as athletic and will settle down in 2014. Who plays right guard will be determined in training camp. Right now, three players are fighting for the job. Rishaw Johnson started the final game last year and had his moments. Rookie Zach Fulton is strong and looked good during OTA’s and camp to date. Free agent Jeff Linkenbach, who the Chiefs signed away from Indianapolis, can play guard or tackle and will be a valuable reserve if he doesn’t start. The player with the most upside is Fulton.</p> <p> The center position is in good hands with steady Rodney Hudson, the Chiefs’ second-round pick from 2011.</p> <p> <strong>Defensive line</strong></p> <p class="co_image co_image_right inline_right"> <img alt="Justin Houston" src="" />Linebacker Justin Houston has notched 21.0 sacks over his last 27 regular season games.</p> <p> People questioned the Chiefs when they selected Dontari Poe in the first round of the 2012 draft. The good news for Kansas City is that they are laughing last, as Poe has turned into the best nose tackle in football. While most nose tackles can only stop the run, Poe can also rush the passer. What the Chiefs need is a solid backup so Poe can come off the field. He played 95 percent of the defensive downs last year.</p> <p> The starting ends should be Vance Walker and Mike DeVito. Walker, who was a free agent signee from the Raiders, has better pass rush skills than last year’s starter Allen Bailey. DeVito also is strong versus the run, but has to get better rushing the passer.</p> <p> To play in the rotation, the Chiefs have Bailey and second-year man Mike Catapano. Catapano ha
s put on 20 solid pounds and is more ready to play and it is hopeful he can provide some pass rush. Two others who figure into the rotation will be Kyle Love and Jaye Howard. Love started 25 games while with New England and could be the guy who gives Poe a break.</p> <p> <strong>Linebackers</strong></p> <p> This is one of the stronger units on the club. Inside is Derrick Johnson, who has been a steady player for ten years. In free agency, the Chiefs signed Joe Mays away from the Texans. While pass coverage is the best element of Mays’s game, he is also a sound run defender. Nico Johnson, a fourth-round pick a year ago, also figures into the equation inside.</p> <p> Outside, the Chiefs are very good. On one side is consistent Tamba Hali, who still is strong in his ninth year, with 11 sacks a year ago. The starter on the other side is Justin Houston, who is also an excellent pass rusher. Houston missed five games yet still notched 11 sacks in 2013.</p> <p> In the first round of May’s draft, Kansas City added Auburn defensive end Dee Ford. Ford will convert to linebacker, but will still be playing down in pass rush situations. He was one of the top pass rushers in college football last year and is easily athletic enough to play on his feet.</p> <p> <strong>Secondary</strong></p> <p> The Chiefs recently decided it was time to part ways with long-time starting corner Brandon Flowers. Flowers signed with San Diego and will be a huge upgrade for the Chargers at the position.</p> <p> With the Chiefs wanting to play a lot of press man coverage, the need is for tall corners. The man who is in good position to replace Flowers is Marcus Cooper, who is in his second year from Rutgers. Cooper is 6’2” and has the press skills that the Chiefs are looking for. The other corner will be veteran Sean Smith, who is also a tall and long athlete. His specialty is press coverage.</p> <p> A rookie who will get a long look will be Phillip Gaines from Rice. Gaines is long and can run and like the others, can play press. Ron Parker will also get a look and played well in OTA’s. Chris Owens, a free agent who was with the Dolphins, can play inside on the slot. This group is young and inexperienced and needs to step up to the plate if the Chiefs are going to be successful.</p> <p> At safety, Eric Berry is one of the best in the business. He can cover like a corner and is excellent in run support. The other safety will be Husain Abdullah, who gets his chance to start after being a backup last year. He replaces Kendrick Lewis, who was not a fit in defensive coordinator Bob Sutton’s scheme. Jerron McMillian and Sanders Commings should be the primary backups.</p> <p> <strong>Outlook</strong></p> <p> With the Chiefs winning 11 games a year ago, a lot is expected entering the fall. Kansas City has some question marks in that the offensive line and the defensive backfield have a lot of new faces and they have to come of age very quickly.</p> <p> Still, Andy Reid is one of the best in the business and he will have his team ready to play come the first week in September. Having worked with Reid for one year and played against him for many, I know you can never sell his team short. They come to play every week.</p> <p> My feeling is the Chiefs may not have enough to beat Denver for the division, but should once again be a wild card team. The key will be how they perform during the season series with rival San Diego.</p> <p> <strong>Follow Greg on Twitter:</strong> @<a href="" target="_blank">greggabe</a></p>

Team preview: San Diego Chargers

<p> There weren’t a whole lot of people who expected much from the 2013 San Diego Chargers, as the Bolts were coming off a 7-9 season and had hired a new head coach in Mike McCoy and a new general manager in Tom Telesco. When the team was 5-7 through 12 games, very few were surprised.</p> <p> But then the Chargers flipped the script by winning their last four games and earning a wild card playoff spot. Not only did San Diego qualify for the postseason, they beat Cincinnati in a wild card game before losing to eventual AFC Champion Denver. In that game, the Chargers gave the Broncos all they could handle.</p> <p> Coming off the success of 2013, much more is expected this season. Does San Diego have enough to overtake Denver? Let’s take a look.</p> <p> <strong>Quarterback</strong></p> <p class="co_image co_image_right inline_right"> <img alt="Philip Rivers" src="" />Rives bounced back in a big way last season. But can he maintain?</p> <p> In Philip Rivers, the Chargers have a very good NFL quarterback. He isn’t one of the four true “franchise” quarterbacks (Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers), but Rivers is in the group at the next level. If there is a problem, it’s that I feel Rivers has already played his best football. With this being his 12th season in the NFL, I don’t see him getting any better than he already is. Still, his play is good enough to lead the Chargers to the playoffs. I just don’t see him as a Super Bowl-type quarterback.</p> <p> Behind Rivers the Chargers brought in former Rams backup Kellen Clemons. While Clemens isn’t quite good enough to be an NFL starter, he is a quality backup who can win some games if Rivers gets injured. Second-year man Brad Sorenson is still developing and not yet ready to assume the backup role.</p> <p> <strong>Running back</strong></p> <p> Ryan Mathews is a quality starting back. This being his fifth season, he still has some good years left. He has the size and power to run inside and the burst to turn the corner. Mathews is also a reliable receiver.</p> <p> In Danny Woodhead, who just recently received a two-year contract extension, the Chargers have a quality backup with a style that is complementary to Mathews’. During free agency, the Chargers signed Donald Brown away from the Colts. Brown has talent, but has never lived up to his first-round draft status.</p> <p> <strong>Receivers and tight ends</strong></p> <p> Being injured at the combine and not running well during pre-draft workouts hurt Keenan Allen’s draft status. That turned into a huge win for the Chargers. Allen, who was a first-round talent, fell to the third round, but he played like a first-rounder. He finished his rookie season with 71 receptions for over 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns. The sky is the limit as to how good he can become. Most receivers begin to break out during their second year. The good news for San Diego is that’s already happened with Allen.</p> <p> Opposite Allen should be fourth-year man Vincent Brown, who needs to have a good season if he expects to stay a Charger. The slot receiver will be Eddie Royal, who is coming off his best season since his time in Denver.</p> <p> It will be interesting to see how well Malcom Floyd comes back from a neck injury. If he is back in top form, he brings quality depth to the position. A rookie to keep an eye on is seventh-round pick Tevin Reese from Baylor. The speedster has looked good early in camp.</p> <p> The tight end is old reliable Antonio Gates, who seems like he has been around forever. While Gates isn’t what he was five or six years ago, he is still a quality receiver. The other tight end is third-year man Ladarius Green, who started to come on last year. He figures to keep improving.</p> <p> <strong>Offensive line</strong></p> <p> The Chargers didn’t lose any of their offensive line starters from last year and that should help the cohesiveness of this unit.</p> <p> The tackles are veteran King Dunlap on the left side and D.J. Fluker on the right. Dunlap played well last year, but has a history of inconsistent play. Fluker is just beginning to scratch the surface of his potential. He could be a future Pro Bowler.</p> <p> At the guard spots are Chad Rinehart, who is a tough brawler, and Jeromey Clay. Rinehart got a new contract after his play last year and Clay looked good inside after previously being a tackle. Rookie Chris Watt from Notre Dame will challenge for playing time. He is tough, strong and athletic and can play either guard or center.</p> <p> The San Diego center is Nick Hardwick, now in his 11th season. He is an excellent technician and still plays at a high level.</p> <p> <strong>Defensive line</strong></p> <p> The Chargers would have liked better play from their defensive line last year, but you have to factor in that Corey Liuget was playing hurt. He is healthy now and has Pro Bowl-level talent. The other end is Kendall Reyes, who came on in his second year. He should keep getting better.</p> <p> At the nose will be Sean Lissemore, who surged during the second half of last year, and rookie Ryan Carrethers. If Carrethers plays as expected, the Chargers could have an ideal rotation at the nose.</p> <p> The main backup at the end position will be Guy Lawrence, who played well when called upon in 2013. Don’t be surprised if the Chargers look for some veteran depth during training camp.</p> <p> <strong>Linebackers</strong></p> <p class="co_image co_image_right inline_right"> <img alt="Eric Weddle" src="" />Weddle has notched 12 interceptions over the last three seasons.</p> <p> If the linebacker unit can stay healthy, the Chargers have a strong group here. The leader is inside backer Donald Butler, who was re-signed in the off-season and is capable of making a lot of plays. 2013 second-round pick Manti Te’o played inured much of last year, but is now fully recovered. Now that he is healthy, Te’o should be much improved.</p> <p> Outside linebacker Melvin Ingram was not fully recovered from ACL surgery a year ago. He too is now completely healthy and that means the pass rush will improve. The other outside linebacker is 12-year vet Jarrett Johnson. While he still has some gas left in the tank, I fell rookie Jeremiah Attaochu will challenge him for playing time. Attaochu is an excellent pass rusher coming off the edge.</p> <p> <strong>Secondary</strong></p> <p> The Chargers need to get improved secondary play in 2014. First-round draft pick Jason Verrett should help. If Verrett had been an inch taller, he would have been a top-15 pick in the draft. He is a tenacious cover guy and will support the run.</p> <p> Going into camp, the starters at corner on paper are Shareece Wright and Richard Marshall. They will be pushed by Verrett and last year’s fifth-round pick Steve Williams, who missed his rookie year with an injury. The two youngsters provide much needed speed and talent to the position.</p> <p> Eric Weddle is in his eighth year and is the leader of the secondary at free safety. He lines everyone up and on top of that plays excellent football. Marcus Gilchrist moved to strong safety a year ago and his play was inconsistent. The hope is that in his second year at the position, he will begin to come on strong. If not, Jahleel Addae, who is a second-year m
an from Central Michigan, needs to show that he is ready to contribute. Having seen him in college, I know what a big hitter he is.</p> <p> <strong>Outlook</strong></p> <p> On paper, the Chargers are a better team than a year ago. This is their second year in McCoy’s system and everyone should feel more comfortable.</p> <p> Still, the Chargers play in the AFC West, which produced three playoff teams a year ago. Denver is still strong and Kansas City is improved. I doubt we will see three teams from this division make it back to the playoffs.</p> <p> Going into the season, Denver has to be the favorite with San Diego and Kansas City fighting it out for second and maybe a wildcard berth.</p> <p> <strong>Follow Greg on Twitter:</strong> @<a href="" target="_blank">greggabe</a></p>

Team preview: Tennessee Titans

<p> The Tennessee Titans finished a disappointing 7-9 last year and, as a result, changes were made. Head coach Mike Munchak was let go after he refused to make adjustments to his coaching staff. Now at the helm is former San Diego offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and the hope is that Whiz can get the Titans back to being a consistent playoff contender.</p> <p> Also gone is running back Chris Johnson, who ran for over 1,000 yards in each of his six seasons with the Titans. Over the last few years, Tennessee had over-relied on Johnson to be their main offensive weapon. Whisenhunt will implement a more diversified system.</p> <p> Ray Horton, who worked well with Whisenhunt in Arizona, will be the defensive coordinator. Horton has always coached an attacking style of defense, so don’t expect anything different this year.</p> <p> The main difference on defense will be the scheme. The Titans have been a 4-3 unit for years but now will be more of a 3-4 hybrid scheme. How the players react to the change will have a lot to do with their win/loss record in 2014.</p> <p> <strong>Quarterback</strong></p> <p> Jake Locker was selected during the first round of the 2011 draft to bring stability to the position. Now in his fourth year, the jury is still out as to whether or not Locker is a winning NFL quarterback.</p> <p class="co_image co_image_right inline_right"> <img alt="Jake Locker" src="" /><span>ICON</span>This season looks like it's now or never for Jake Locker in Tennessee.</p> <p> Locker had problems with accuracy in college and that has carried over to the NFL. The hope is that Whisenhunt, who has a reputation of working well with quarterbacks, can get Locker moving in the right direction.</p> <p> The Titans don’t have much behind Locker. Former Charger Charlie Whitehurst is the veteran backup, but he hasn’t thrown a pass during the regular season in three years. The Titans drafted LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger in the sixth round. I was not a fan of Mettenberger’s in college and I don’t see him becoming more than an adequate backup-type in the NFL. One of Mettenberger’s biggest flaws is he has virtually no mobility and, coming off an ACL injury, may now have even less than before.</p> <p> <strong>Offensive line</strong></p> <p> The key to winning football games is to have a productive quarterback as well as strong offensive and defensive lines. While Tennessee can’t say they have a top quarterback, they do have a very good offensive line.</p> <p> The left tackle spot in Tennessee has been held by the same player for years. Michael Roos, now in his tenth season, has been the epitome of consistency. During free agency the Titans signed Michael Oher away from Baltimore to play right tackle. Oher has trouble with pass protection at times but is an outstanding run blocker.</p> <p> Last year’s first-round pick in Chance Warmack played every snap in 2013 and should come on even strong in his second year. Andy Levitre, a big free agent signing in 2013, did not play as well as anticipated last year, but is still an upgrade. The center is second-year man Brian Schwenke, who is as tenacious as they come.</p> <p> What will be interesting to see is where first-round pick Taylor Lewan lines up. Lewan is a big, athletic and talented guy who will start somewhere. With this being Roos’ final year under contract, could he be traded if Lewan is ready to play right away? I can also see Lewan or Oher moving inside to guard if Levitre doesn’t play any better.</p> <p> <strong>Receivers and tight ends</strong></p> <p> Tennessee’s top three wide receivers are good, but this group lacks depth. Kendall Wright is going into his third year and is the main man, having caught 94 passes a year ago. Veteran Nate Washington holds down the other spot. He finished 2013 with 58 receptions.</p> <p> 2013 second-round pick Justin Hunter is the third receiver. While Hunter is an excellent deep threat, he needs to improve his route-running. He spent much of the off-season trying to get stronger, which will enable him to do a better job of getting off of jams. For depth, there is the well-traveled Brian Robiskie and oft-injured Marc Mariani.</p> <p> At tight end, the lead man is former 49er Delanie Walker. Last year in his first season with the Titans, Walker notched 60 receptions and six touchdowns. Standing 6-1, Walker is better off as a move type tight end. The blocking or “Y” tight end is Craig Stevens, who can be a good receiver, but wasn’t used in that capacity a year ago.</p> <p> <strong>Running back</strong></p> <p class="co_image co_image_right inline_right"> <img alt="Bishop Sankey" src="" /><span>US PRESSWIRE</span>Rookie Bishop Sankey has the chance to win the starting gig during training camp.</p> <p> With Johnson gone, there will be a new lead back in Nashville. Looking at the roster, I can see a rotation featuring second-round draft pick Bishop Sankey from Washington and 2013 free agent signee Shonn Greene. Greene is an inside banger but had injury woes last year. Sankey lacks great size at 5-10 – 210, but he is an excellent all-around back who can run inside and outside as well as catch out of the backfield.</p> <p> The player signed for spot duty is Dexter McCluster, who was with Kansas City last season. McCluster can be used as a running back or a slot receiver, but he lacks the size and durability to get more than 10-12 touches a game. That said, he has the talent to make some big plays with those 10-12 touches.</p> <p> <strong>Defensive line</strong></p> <p> With the scheme being changed from a 4-3 to a 3-4, Ray Horton has to get everyone lined up in the right positions.</p> <p> The leading candidates to play on the nose are Sammie Hill and Antonio Johnson. They have the size and girth to occupy blockers and be disruptive. Another candidate for the position is free agent Al Woods, who comes over from Pittsburgh. While Woods is primarily a nose, he can also play as a 5-technique.</p> <p> The ends should be Jurrell Casey and Ropati Pitoitua. Casey is a natural 4-3 tackle but can play the 5-technique. There are many pro scouts that feel he can be an outstanding player. For depth there is last year’s fifth-round pick in Lavar Edwards, who is very athletic, and this year’s fourth round pick DaQuan Jones. Jones can play inside or outside and moves well for a 320-pound man.</p> <p> <strong>Linebackers</strong></p> <p> With the scheme change, some players who were defensive ends are now outside linebackers meaning their primary job will still be rushing the passer, although they will have to drop into coverage at times.</p> <p> Going into camp the starters look like Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley. Wimbley has experience on his feet. The position will be new to Morgan, but he has the athletic traits and instincts to make the switch.</p> <p> The backups at the outside positions should be Akeem Ayers, who also has experience playing on his feet, and Shaun Phillips, who is a proven pass rusher.</p> <p> Inside, free agent Wesley Woodyard, who was with Denver last year, will be one of the starters. The other could be Zach Brown, who has been inconsistent during his career to date. For depth, there is Moise Fokou and Colin McCarthy. Both have starting experience but may not be perfect fits in t
he new scheme. A player to keep an eye on is second-year man Zavier Gooden. Gooden is a rare athlete, but his instincts are questionable.</p> <p> <strong>Secondary</strong></p> <p> The big loss in the secondary is cornerback Alterraun Verner, who signed with Tampa Bay during free agency. He will most likely be replaced by Coty Sensabaugh, who was the nickel back in 2013. The other corner is steady James McCourty. The nickel corner goes to second-year man Blidi Wreh-Wilson who is very talented, but raw. He should really come on in 2014.</p> <p> The strong safety is Bernard Pollard, who is very physical, and the free is Michael Griffin. Griffin is a rangy player with good ball skills. Rookie Marqueston Huff from Wyoming can play safety or corner. He is a talented kid who will work his way into the lineup.</p> <p> <strong>Outlook</strong></p> <p> The AFC South is without question the weakest division in the AFC. Indianapolis is head and shoulders better than Houston, Tennessee and Jacksonville, who are all in rebuilding mode. The key to Tennessee having a good season will most likely be related to how well Jake Locker plays. With Locker going into the final year of his rookie contract, he has to come on strong or the Titans will be looking for a quarterback in next year’s draft.</p> <p> If Locker plays well, I can see Tennessee improving to 8¬-8, but I doubt they make a run at the playoffs. With a new defensive scheme and players in new positions, this is a tough team to handicap. We will all have a much better feel after the first month of the season.</p> <p> <strong>Follow Greg on Twitter:</strong> @<a href="" target="_blank">greggabe</a></p>

Team preview: Arizona Cardinals

<p> In January of 2013, Steve Keim was promoted to general manager of the Arizona Cardinals. His first order of business was to hire a head coach and he immediately brought in Bruce Arians. Since then, a lot has gone right for the Cardinals.</p> <p> Arizona finished the 2013 season with a 10-6 record which, in most seasons, will get a club into the playoffs. But that wasn’t the case for the Cardinals, who unfortunately missed out on a playoff berth. Still, the Cardinals went 7-2 over their last nine games and have a lot of momentum going into 2014. Their main problem is that they play in the ultra-competitive NFC West which, right now, is the best division in the NFL.</p> <p> Can Arizona reach the playoffs in 2014? Let’s look at the roster.</p> <p> <strong>Quarterback</strong></p> <p> Carson Palmer is the man in Arizona. He had one of his best seasons as a pro last year, throwing for over 4,200 yards and 24 touchdowns. Still, he needs to improve, as Palmer threw 22 interceptions as well. That number has to come down.</p> <p class="co_image co_image_right inline_right"> <img alt="Carson Palmer" src="" />Does Palmer have enough gas left in the tank to get the Cardinals to the playoffs?</p> <p> Since this is Palmer’s second year in Arians’ system, he should feel more comfortable. The only things working against him are age (he is 35 this season) and the lack of mobility he had as a younger player.</p> <p> The backup will be nine-year veteran Drew Stanton. While Stanton has talent, he hasn’t thrown a pass other than in the pre-season in three years. The Cardinals drafted Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas to be a developmental guy, but I don’t think you will ever see him as an NFL quarterback. He lacks the instincts to play the position in the pros. Still, with his size and arm strength, Thomas will get every chance to succeed.</p> <p> <strong>Offensive line</strong></p> <p> With Palmer lacking any kind pf mobility, the offensive line will play a key role in the Cardinals’ success. The have to give Palmer time to throw.</p> <p> The key addition for Arizona during the off-season was the signing of Jared Veldheer away from Oakland to play left tackle. Veldheer is just beginning to come into his own as a player and gives Arizona a quality left tackle.</p> <p> Who plays right tackle will be determined during training camp. Three guys are battling for the job, with Bradley Sowell leading the pack entering camp. The others in contention are Bobbie Massie and third-year man Nate Potter. What hurts Potter is a lack of natural size, but he has the athleticism to also play inside.</p> <p> Last year’s first-round pick in Jonathan Cooper missed his rookie season with a broken leg. He is healthy and will give the Cards a very strong and athletic left guard. The right guard should be second-year man Earl Watford. Like Cooper, Watford is very athletic and explosive. At center is the consistent Lyle Sendlein, who is the group leader and makes all the line calls. Brought in to compete at center and guard is Ted Larson, who was with Tampa Bay last year.</p> <p> <strong>Running back </strong></p> <p> Earlier this spring, leading rusher Rashard Mendenhall retired. Also, former second-round disappointment Ryan Williams was cut. With those players gone, the lead running back becomes second-year man Andre Ellington, who ran for 652 yards as well as a 5.5-yards per carry average last season. While Ellington isn’t built to be a 20-carry per game guy, he just may have to assume that role, as there is not a lot of depth at the position.</p> <p> The two backups will be Stefan Taylor, who is an explosive inside runner, and free agent Jonathan Dwyer. Both Dwyer and Taylor are similar in that they are inside pounders. Ellington is the more elusive big-play threat with speed to get outside and the hands to be a factor in the passing game.</p> <p> <strong>Receivers and tight ends</strong></p> <p> Even though Larry Fitzgerald’s production has slipped a bit over the last couple of years, he is still one of the most respected receivers in the game. He caught 85 passes and notched ten touchdowns a year ago.</p> <p> Opposite Fitzgerald is third-year man Michael Floyd. Like many receivers, it took Floyd a year to get acclimated to the NFL. Last he finished with 65 receptions for over 1,000 yards. He is just beginning to scratch the surface of what he can be.</p> <p> The slot receiver should be the speedy Ted Ginn, who was signed away from Carolina. He is also a respectable return man. Keep an eye on rookie John Brown from Division II Pittsburg State. Brown has 4.3 speed, but will need to adapt to the NFL. He may be a year away from being a big contributor.</p> <p> At the tight end position the Cardinals brought in John Carlson from the Vikings. Carlson is a very steady, consistent player who is good as both a blocker and receiver. In the second round, Arizona took Notre Dame tight end Troy Niklas, who only played the position for two years. He was previously a defensive player. Niklas is an outstanding blocker, but is raw as a receiver. He missed a lot of practice time during OTA’s after having sports hernia surgery in the spring.</p> <p> <strong>Defensive line</strong></p> <p> Arizona has a strong defensive line and after the draft they have enough solid contributors to play a rotation. The starting ends are Calais Campbell, who is entering his seventh year and keeps getting better, and Darnell Dockett, who has been a consistently good player for over ten years.</p> <p class="co_image co_image_right inline_right"> <img alt="Patrick Peterson" src="" />Peterson has become one of the best cornerbacks in the game.</p> <p> The depth at the end position comes from rookies Kareem Martin and Ed Stinson. Stinson, who played at Alabama, is a perfect 5-technique type. Martin is an athletic pass rusher and may also play on his feet at time.</p> <p> At the nose tackle position is starter Dan Williams, who is a tough run stopper, and Alameda Ta’amu, who is coming off ACL surgery. Frostee Rucker is a valuable veteran reserve on the D-Line.</p> <p> <strong>Linebackers</strong></p> <p> The linebacker unit has to overcome two huge losses. Karlos Dansby left via free agency and Daryl Washington <a href="" target="_self">has been suspended by the league</a>. One of the new starters will be 2013 second-round pick Kevin Minter. Minter has the physical tools to be outstanding, he just has to settle down and play.</p> <p> The other starter inside may be free agent Larry Foote. While Foote’s best football is behind him, he still has the experience to play a mistake-free game.</p> <p> On the outside, one starter will be old pro John Abraham. Abraham may be 36-years-old, but he went to the Pro Bowl last season. On paper, the other starter outside is Sam Acho, who is coming off an injury. He will be challenged by Matt Shaughnessy, who contributed after being signed as a free agent away from Oakland last year. The other player who will challenge is Lorenzo Alexander, who is more known for his special teams play.</p> <p> <strong>Secondary</strong></p> <p> When you talk about the Arizona secondary, the first playe
r who comes to mind is All-Pro corner Patrick Peterson. Peterson is entering his fourth year in the league and is already one of the premier players at the position.</p> <p> The other corner will be Antonio Cromartie, who is a tall shut-down CB who can be very physical. With the signing of Cromartie, last year’s starter in Jerraud Powers figures to be the nickel corner. Those three give Arizona a very strong corner group.</p> <p> Who starts at safety is still a question mark. Tyrann Mathieu played great football as a rookie, but suffered a knee injury late in the season and might not be ready to go at the beginning of camp.</p> <p> First-round pick Deone Bucannon should be the other starter. While I agree that Bucannon is talented, I didn’t see him as a first-round pick. The depth at safety is Tony Jefferson and Rashad Johnson.</p> <p> <strong>Outlook</strong></p> <p> If the Cardinals played in any other division besides the NFC West, they may very well be a favorite to win the division. The problem they have is that both Seattle and San Francisco are not only in their division, but they are two of the best teams in the NFL. That said, Arizona has to work just to be a wild card selection.</p> <p> If the Cardinals find stability at the linebacker position, Arizona could very well duplicate last year’s 10-6 record. That should get them a spot in the playoffs.</p> <p> <strong>Follow Greg on Twitter:</strong> @<a href="" target="_blank">greggabe</a></p>

Team preview: Cincinnati Bengals

<p> It wasn’t all that long ago when the Cincinnati Bengals were viewed as one of the most poorly run franchises in the NFL. While that may have been the perception, it was never actually true. I have known some of the Brown family for close to 30 years and I have nothing but the utmost respect for them and their organization.</p> <p> The Bengals may do things a little differently than many NFL clubs, but the fact of the matter is that they have been extremely stable for over a decade. Marvin Lewis is going into his 12th year as head coach and while Cincinnati hasn’t been to a Super Bowl, they have become consistent playoff contenders. The Bengals have been in the playoffs in each of the last three seasons as well as four of the last five years. That is consistency.</p> <p> <strong>Quarterback</strong></p> <p> Andy Dalton gets some unnecessary heat from people who don’t really know what they are talking about. In each of his first three seasons as an NFL quarterback, Dalton has led the Bengals to the playoffs. There are not many NFL quarterbacks past or present who can put that on their resume.</p> <p class="co_image co_image_right inline_right"> <img alt="Andy Dalton" src="" />Dalton threw for a career-high 4,293 yards and 33 touchdowns last season.</p> <p> Yes, Dalton has failed to win in the postseason, but is that all on him? The last time I looked, it was a team game.</p> <p> Dalton is still a young player with lots of upside. He will keep getting better and as he improves, so will the Bengals.</p> <p> Behind, Dalton reside two interesting players. This spring, the Bengals signed Jason Campbell, who is now in his tenth year. While Campbell hasn’t had great success in the league, he gives the Bengals a veteran presence at the most important position.</p> <p> In the fifth round of the draft, the Bengals selected A.J. McCarron from Alabama. Getting McCarron in the fifth round was an outright steal for Cincinnati, as the former Crimson Tide signal-caller has the talent to be a winning starter in the league. As McCarron develops, it will put pressure on Dalton to play well. Competition makes everyone better.</p> <p> <strong>Running back</strong></p> <p> While the Bengals don’t have a proven “bell-cow” type of back, they have a group of runners that many clubs would love to possess.</p> <p> Last year’s second round pick in Giovani Bernard is the ideal rotation back. He lacks the size to play every down, but he averaged better than four yards a carry running with the ball and caught 56 passes. Bernard has excellent big play ability.</p> <p> BenJarvus Green-Ellis might be nearing the end of his career, but he is still a reliable inside runner who can move the chains. The guy that excites me is rookie Jeremy Hill, who just may have been the most complete running back in the 2014 draft. Hill is a “bell cow&rdquo; type of back and when he gets a little experience, he and Bernard will give the Bengals one of the best running back tandems in the league.</p> <p> <strong>Receivers and tight ends</strong></p> <p> The Bengals’ receiving unit is excellent. They are led by fourth-year pro A.J. Green, who is one of the premier receivers in the game. Green caught 98 passes a year ago.</p> <p> Marvin Jones came on strong in his second year to become a very solid complement to Green. He finished with 51 receptions and 10 touchdowns last season. The third receiver is Mohamed Sanu, who is very talented, but has to become more consistent.</p> <p> The tight end duo is as good as there is in the league. Jermaine Gresham has the size and blocking skills to play at the “Y” position and is athletic enough to split out. Second-year man Tyler Eifert can be a future Pro Bowl-type of player. He has wide receiver speed and athleticism to go along with excellent size and strength.</p> <p> <strong>Offensive line</strong></p> <p> You can’t talk about the Bengals offensive line without first talking about their line coach. Paul Alexander has been with the Bengals for over 20 years and is one of the most highly respected line coaches in the NFL. He does an outstanding job developing players.</p> <p> The line will look a little different in 2014 as Anthony Collins signed with Tampa Bay as a free agent and long-time center Kyle Cook was not brought back.</p> <p> Team leader Andrew Whitworth will replace Collins at left tackle. Whitworth has experience playing on the left side. At right tackle is the big and very consistent Andre Smith.</p> <p> Third-year player and former first-round pick Kevin Zeitler struggled a bit last year, but was suffering from foot problems. The good news is that Zeitler is healthy and should improve. The other guard should be Clint Boling, assuming he is recovered enough from late-season ACL surgery. If he isn’t ready to go, Mike Pollack and rookie Russell Bodine should line up at guard and center. Another player to keep an eye on is free agent signee Marshall Newhouse, who has started games at Green Bay and played with Dalton at TCU.</p> <p> <strong>Defensive line</strong></p> <p> The Bengals have had one of the better defensive lines in the NFL for the last few years. The unit is led by defensive tackle Geno Atkins who, until last year when he suffered a knee injury, had become a Pro Bowl talent. Atkins is still young and will improve, which is not good news for Bengal opponents.</p> <p class="co_image co_image_right inline_right"> <img alt="Geno Atkins" src="" />Geno Atkins anchors a defensive line that lost Michael Johnson during free agency.</p> <p> The other inside player is nine-year vet Domata Peko, who is a consistent run stopper and a team leader. On the outside, the Bengals lost a top player in free agency when Michael Johnson signed with Tampa Bay. However, the Bengals were figuring on his loss and are well stocked at the defensive end position.</p> <p> The two ends who will most likely start the season are Carlos Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry. Dunlap is a solid pass rusher who also does a good job getting his hands up to bat down passes at the line of scrimmage. Gilberry doesn’t have the greatest physical traits, but he plays hard and has the skills to play inside and out.</p> <p> Two young reserves who will challenge for playing time are Margus Hunt and rookie Will Clark. Hunt is in his second year and is an exceptional athlete, but raw. He is expected to show a great amount of improvement. Clark is a natural pass rusher with bend who needs to learn how to play the run a little better. Both young guys have a lot of upside and will see a lot of action in the D-Line rotation.</p> <p> <strong>Linebackers</strong></p> <p> On paper, when you look at the pedigree of the Cincinnati linebackers, they don’t look that impressive. Two of the starters were undrafted college free agents.</p> <p> Vontaze Burfict had character concerns and a slow 40-time coming out of college, which is why he was not drafted. Since coming into the league, Burfict has played with a chip on his shoulder and has become a top outside linebacker. He was invited to the Pro Bowl following last season.</p> <p> Emmanuel Lamur, an undrafted free agent who is a gifted athlete, is the starter at the other outside spot going into camp. He will be challenged by Jason Dimanche, a third former undrafted free agent, and Sean Porter
, who missed his rookie season due to injury.</p> <p> In the middle is veteran Ray Maualuga. Maualuga is a natural Mike linebacker and has very good instincts. His backup will most likely be Ray Vincent, who always plays well when called upon.</p> <p> <strong>Secondary</strong></p> <p> At the corner position, age is beginning to become a concern. Terrence Newman is in his mid-30s and Adam Jones is 31. While they still play solid football, the Bengals have to get younger at the position. To do that, Cincinnati drafted Darqueze Dennard, who is a talented press corner, in the first round. Dennard will challenge to start as a rookie and, worst case scenario, he is the nickel corner.</p> <p> Leon Hall is coming off an Achilles injury and should be ready to go at the beginning of camp. With his return, the Bengals will have four solid corners. Dre Kirkpatrick, who was a first round pick in 2012, has to come on. He has been a disappointment to date and this might be his final chance to prove he is worth keeping.</p> <p> Reggie Nelson is an outstanding free safety who has the knack of coming up with big plays. At strong safety, George Iloka is coming off his best year. He has a physical presence about him and is always around the ball. His main problem is dropping too many potential interceptions. The Bengals signed Danieal Manning during free agency. He can play either strong or free and has very good ball skills. He is also a top kickoff returner.</p> <p> <strong>Outlook</strong></p> <p> The other day <a href="" target="_self">when I wrote up Baltimore</a>, I said the Ravens will come on strong after an off year in 2013. While I believe that, the Bengals will give Baltimore all they can handle. The key will be how much better Dalton plays at quarterback.</p> <p> While I feel the Bengals are a lock to be a wild card playoff team, steady improvement by Dalton could give the Bengals the AFC North title. The head-to-head matchups with the Ravens will be the key. If one of those two teams sweeps the series, that team will win the division.</p> <p> <strong>Follow Greg on Twitter:</strong> @<a href="" target="_blank">greggabe</a></p>

The key to success

<p> With NFL training camps opening their doors, I thought now would be a good time to remind fans of what the key is to becoming a top NFL player. Yes, talent has a lot to do with it. But there are many talented players who fail to live up to expectations and disappoint their teams every year.</p> <p> The players who are at the top of their games, year after year for a long period of time, are the players who have a high degree of football character.</p> <p> <strong>What is character?</strong></p> <p> When scouts go out on the road every fall to evaluate the players in their area, they are looking for three different things that go into the makeup of a top player. The first, obviously, is talent. A player has to have the traits to play the game at a high level. Second, he has to have personal character. When a scout looks for personnel character, he is looking at how the player lives his life. Is he a good person? How does he get along and relate with people both inside and outside of football? Is he involved with community service? How important is school to him? What kind of teammate is he? What kind of personality does he have? When away from football, does he always do the right thing and stay out of trouble? Is he a drug abuser? Where does he come from? What was his family life like? Does he have a support system?</p> <p> A scout must have answer for all of those questions and more as it relates to a prospect’s personal life.</p> <p> <strong>What is football character?</strong></p> <p> The third component that goes into the evaluation process is a prospect’s football character. Football character is related to personal character, but they are not the same.</p> <p> There are many factors that go into the makeup of a player’s football character. These factors include his love and passion for the game. Is the game important to the player and will he do everything that is possible to make himself a better player? No matter how talented a player is, if he doesn’t love playing the game it will eventually catch up to him. He may be successful for a short time, but it won’t last.</p> <p class="co_image co_image_right inline_right"> <img alt="Jadeveon Clowney" src="" />All eyes will be on Jadeveon Clowney this season to see if his character matches his talent.</p> <p> Next, the player has to have a strong desire to be great. If he is satisfied with how good he is now and lacks the drive to become even better, he will never improve. He will reach a plateau and level off. A player’s work ethic has to be at a consistently high level.</p> <p> A player who has strong football character is usually a highly competitive type of person. He hates to lose at anything and when playing in the game, he goes all out every play. You seldom, if ever, see this type of player take a play off. He is usually a physical, aggressive player who wants to win every battle over the course of the game.</p> <p> A player with top football character can take and accept different types of coaching. Every coach has his own style on how to manage the game. Some are tough taskmasters, others are more cerebral. No matter the style, the player accepts it and tries to improve.</p> <p> Another component of football character involves a player’s smarts and instincts to play the game. I’m not saying that every top player has to be a great student. But what I am saying is that he must have a strong desire to learn the mental part of the game. If he has limitations with learning, he will do whatever it takes to know and understand the scheme he is playing in. It is tied in closely with the player’s dedication and passion for the game.</p> <p> <strong>Are football character and personal character tied together?</strong></p> <p> This can be a hard question to answer, but in many cases, yes, the two are tied together. There are many players who, because football is important to them and they never want it taken away, will lead good lives and stay out of trouble.</p> <p> There are players who were brought up in difficult environments who overcome that situation because their drive to be a great player won’t let them do the wrong thing. The game and the benefits of playing the game are just too important.</p> <p> There are players who have outstanding personal character who just don’t love football and lack a desire to be great. These types of players usually fail early in their careers. When I was with the Bears, we selected a player very high in the draft who was a great kid and excellent student, but he really didn’t love the game of football. He played in the league for a few years, but never lived up to his talent level because of that lack of desire. Like most in this category, he was labeled a bust.</p> <p> There are other players I have been around who, mainly because of their love of the game, stayed out of the trouble that was always around them.</p> <p> The player who has talent but lacks a high degree of both football and personal character will never have a chance. That type of player might not make it through college let alone get to the NFL.</p> <p> <strong>The great players</strong></p> <p> When we study players like Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, J.J. Watt, Frank Gore and Charles Tillman, we see a common denominator in all of them. They not only are top citizens, but they also have outstanding football character, which has led to long and successful careers for each.</p> <p> We can look at a player like Cleveland’s Josh Gordon and, while his natural talent is rare, he lacks the drive to stay away from the things that will keep him out of football. If he had stronger football character, Gordon’s drive to be one of the best would keep him away from substance abuse.</p> <p> The first player selected in this year’s draft, Jadeveon Clowney, has rare talent. He has the natural talent to be one of the greatest players ever at his position. As rare as that talent is, he did not show it during the 2013 college season, but we did witness this talent in 2012. It remains to be seen what kind of pro Clowney will become. What you also have to look for is not only how he plays in 2014, but what happens going forward. Assuming he stays healthy, will he dominate for years, or will he become “just another guy.”</p> <p> <strong>Follow Greg on Twitter:</strong> @<a href="" target="_blank">greggabe</a></p>