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 Post subject: Opposing Camp Primers
PostPosted: Fri Jul 12, 2013 2:13 am 
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Opposing Camp Primer: New Orleans Saints
July 9th, 2013
Aaron Freeman

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports1
Not sure Rob Ryan will be all smiles after checking out the Saints D
I wanted to look at all 13 opponents the Falcons would face this year and give a preview of what these teams will be looking for in their upcoming training camps as well the upcoming 2013 season. Let’s start things with the New Orleans Saints, who the Falcons will open their season against.

The big question mark about the Saints going into this summer will be their defense. They have a new defensive coordinator in Rob Ryan, fresh from a two-year stint in Dallas that did not net ideal results.

Like Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, Ryan is an aficionado of multiple fronts and given that the Saints still retain key personnel from their 4-3 days (such as end Will Smith) but have also acquired players more attuned to the 3-4 (e.g. Kenyon Coleman, Victor Butler) indicate that they will be a multiple-look defense.

One of the key questions about the Saints’ new-look defense will be their ability to generate pressure. While affecting the quarterback wasn’t a major obstacle for the Saints in their two matchups against the Falcons last year, it was something they struggled with throughout 2012.

They brought in Victor Butler from Dallas for this reason, but he went down with a season-ending ACL tear last month, and it will be on players like Smith, Junior Gallette, and Martez Wilson to step up and fill the void. Wilson was a player I liked a lot coming out of Illinois, and he flashed potential in limited reps last year (3 sacks), so he could become an X-factor for them. A strong camp from him or one of the others could be indicative of success for the Saints.

But if we’re talking about Ryan’s “failure” in Dallas, the primary culprit was their secondary which gave up a ton of big plays (25th most in the league), didn’t get stops (31st in terms of passing 1st downs allowed), and created few turnovers (7 interceptions were tied for lowest in the league). Ryan inherits a Saints defense that gave up more big plays (28th), was the only team that allowed a higher rate of 1st downs than the Cowboys pass defense, and their 15 interceptions were only averaged (14th ranked).

The Saints brought in first round safety Kenny Vaccaro and free agent Keenan Lewis from Pittsburgh to help improve in these areas.

Personally, I thought Vaccaro was one of the more overrated of the first round prospects in this past year’s draft. But he features good speed and range, and he’s an above average cover safety having been tasked with covering slot receivers while at Texas. Ryan will likely task him to take over for Roman Harper who is a liability in coverage, and they’ll try to take advantage of Vaccaro’s versatility and utilize him all over the field in coverage, run support, and as a blitzer.

Lewis had no interceptions last year, but did break up 23 passes, which ranked near the top of the league. His size and length (6-1/208) will be counted on heavily to match up against the Falcons newly featured No. 1 wideout in Julio Jones.

But keys for the Saints will be getting improved production from incumbent starters like Jabari Greer and Malcolm Jenkins. Greer’s age, 31, is starting to catch up to him. He’s proven himself to be an effective matchup against Roddy White, but some cracks are beginning to show. Jenkins was one of the better cover safeties in the league his first two years at the position, but really struggled last season. He’s already been limited somewhat this off-season with a hamstring injury. If the Saints defense expects to make a dramatic turnaround this year, then both of them will need to step up their game.

Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports
Sean Payton qualifies as biggest addition the Saints made in 2013
But the truth is that the Saints don’t need to be a great defense to return to their winning ways in 2013. Much of their success will still be contingent on their offense. With the return of head coach and play-caller Sean Payton, there is no reason to expect the Saints offense to not improve from a group that even without Payton was arguably a Top 5 unit in 2012.

There will be a few changes, notable is that long-time vertical threat Devery Henderson is gone after a lackluster 2012 campaign. He’ll be replaced by whomever emerges from the group that includes Joe Morgan, Nick Toon, and rookie Kenny Stills. Morgan has speed to burn and certainly has the potential to fill Henderson’s shoes as a vertical threat. Toon missed last year with a foot injury, and is more of a sure-handed possession receiver. Stills was highly productive at Oklahoma and offers comparable skillset to No. 2 receiver Lance Moore.

If the Saints can get adequate production from any or all of that trio, it’s only going to make their offense more potent. Drew Brees is arguably the best in the business at distributing the ball to multiple receivers, and giving him more tools to play with doesn’t bode well for opposing defenses.

But the biggest question mark facing the Saints offense will be their offensive line. They have a vacant spot at the left tackle position, where Charles Brown and rookie Terron Armstead are expecting to compete. They managed to get by for years with middling Jermon Bushrod at the spot, so it’s not as if they need either player to be the next Willie Roaf. But if that spot proves to be a liability, it will be troubling for their offense especially for a player such as Osi Umenyiora, who regularly preys on weak tackles. Across the line, injuries limited right tackle Zach Strief last year. The team brought in Jason Smith, former top pick and bust with the Rams to solidify depth. That remains to be seen, and if the Saints can’t get consistency from either position, it could spell trouble for their offense.

Another key position battle will be for the backup quarterback spot. Brees has been as durable as they come the past six years in New Orleans, so it’s unlikely to impact their season, but it’s a potential problem area. They will feature a competition between former Falcon Luke McCown and Seneca Wallace. McCown spent time briefly with the Saints last summer before joining the Falcons, and Wallace was out of the league last fall after being released by the Browns. Regardless of who wins, the last thing the Saints want to see is anyone not named Brees in the lineup under center.

Overall, the Saints will need a few players to emerge from some key position battles, but the core of the Saints team is well intact and eyeing a spot in January. The positive for the Saints is that their defense really has nowhere to go but up in 2013. That coupled with one of the league’s most consistent offensive attacks should net them much-improved results this fall, potentially competing for the NFC South crown.

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 Post subject: Opposing Camp Primer: St. Louis Rams
PostPosted: Fri Jul 12, 2013 2:14 am 
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Opposing Camp Primer: St. Louis Rams
July 10th, 2013
Aaron Freeman

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
Jeff Fisher hopes to avoid scrutiny from zebras by instilling discipline
After checking out the Falcons season-opening opponent in the Saints yesterday, it’s time to check out their Week 2 matchup against the St. Louis Rams and many of the questions they face headed into training camp.

The Rams could prove to become one of the most interesting stories of 2013. They featured the best record within the NFC West division, which featured two of the teams that many believed were the best in the conference last year in Seattle and San Francisco. They proved to be the team most effective at thwarting Colin Kaepernick last year, primarily because of their ability to get pressure with just four rushers.

That Rams defense was in the running last year with Arizona and Cincinnati for the most underrated unit in the league that few had seen outside their respective markets.

It will feature many of the same cast of characters, helmed up front by defensive end Chris Long and middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, and anchored on the back-end by cornerback Cortland Finnegan. Their biggest addition is first round linebacker Alec Ogletree, who they moved back to get when they swapped picks with the Falcons.

Ogletree is an elite linebacker prospect when it comes to his coverage potential, which was a problem area for the Rams last year with Jo-lonn Dunbar garnering too many snaps on third down akin to the Falcons own Stephen Nicholas. Ogletree’s draft stock fell due to off-field issues and questionable instincts. How quickly he can transition to the NFL and impact could have a big impact on whether the Rams defense goes from very good to elite.

They’ve had some success with players of questionable character, including cornerback Janoris Jenkins last year. Jenkins had his brilliant moments last season, taking three picks to the house, but that masked the fact that he was highly inconsistent in coverage. They’ll need him to become more consistent this year to take that next step.

If there is a major question mark for the defense it lies at the safety position where starters Craig Dahl and Quintin Mikell both departed. Mikell still remains unsigned and a possibility to return, but at this point in the summer seems unlikely. That leaves the quartet of Darian Stewart, T.J. McDonald, Matt Daniels, and Rodney McLeod competing at the position.

All are short on NFL experience, with Stewart being the most experienced. He started 13 games in a lackluster 2011 campaign, and is expected to win the strong safety spot. He’s being pushed by Daniels, but both players struggled to stay healthy last year. That hasn’t changed thus far during the off-season. Stewart missed the last two weeks of OTAs with a calf injury, and Daniels hasn’t shown he’s 100% recovered from off-season knee surgery.

That leaves a lot of pressure on third round pick McDonald, and special teamer McLeod to pick up slack at the other spot. McDonald is a hard-hitter but a bit stiff in coverage. McLeod led the Rams in special teams stops last year, but was very undisciplined (8 ST penalties was second-most in the league), which probably doesn’t bode well for being a disciplined starter on defense.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
It’s nothing short of a make or break year for QB Sam Bradford
Speaking of discipline, the Rams where very much the embodiment of the opposite last year, pacing the league with 129 penalties (per NFL Penalties.com). In fact, the Rams had as many pre-snap penalties (60) than the Falcons did overall. To make improvements from a team vying for a division crown to a team that wins a division crown, that will need to change. Pacing the team was none other than franchise quarterback Sam Bradford with 8.

While Bradford had a strong rookie campaign in 2010 to help take the Rams out of the cellar they had been stuck in for years, in the years since he has been at best an average quarterback. This year will be the big year in which the Rams will need Bradford to take a step forward. He’ll get his second year with offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, a measure of continuity he lacked in his first three seasons in the NFL. That should help Bradford, who has struggled when pressured as he becomes too inefficient under pressure and takes too many sacks.

Thus why the position battles up front will play a key part to the Rams’ success in 2013. With the introduction of center Scott Wells into the lineup down the stretch, the pass protection saw improvement with a sack rate that was nearly cut in half over the last six games (3.93%) as opposed to the first ten (7.2%). The Rams also brought in Jake Long to solidify the left tackle position, which should move Rodger Saffold to the right side, where he’s better suited. That should also help their discipline as his number of false starts (16 per STATS, LLC) over his three-year career dwarf say a player like Sam Baker (2) in that span.

They have a battle brewing at left guard beside Long with Rok Watkins, Shelley Smith, and Chris Williams competing for the spot. With Watkins expected to serve a one-game suspension, the Rams will open the season with either Smith or Williams in the lineup. The goal will be for one to clearly emerge during training camp so they don’t have to deal with a musical chairs act that will undermine continuity during the regular season. They don’t want to be in a position where rookie Barrett Jones’ recovery from off-season foot surgery plays a significant factor in their 2013 success.

Another key battle will be at the running back position, where second-year players Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead will be battling to replace new Falcon running back Steven Jackson. Richardson spelled Jackson last year on the majority of passing downs, surpassing second-round pick Pead last summer, who struggled to pick up the offense. After years of relying on the powerful legs of Jackson, they will hope the more explosive pair of Richardson and Pead can provide a spark to the offense.

And the spark, or rather the big play is what the Rams hope to be the hallmark of their 2013 offensive attack. Their offense may be built around top pick Tavon Austin, who is expected to be a Percy Harvin-esque weapon in the slot right away. How quickly Austin gets up to speed could essentially make or break the Rams offensive attack this year. The inability of departed slot receiver Danny Amendola to stay healthy the past two years is a big reason for Bradford’s regression, as he relied heavily on the quick, timing throws to Amendola as a rookie in 2010. Austin will be counted on to be a similar possession threat, but coupled with elite speed and ability after the catch that could spell trouble for opposing defenses.

Young receivers like Chris Givens and Brian Quick will also be counted to step up and become more potent weapons on the outside. Like Austin, Givens also has plenty of speed and flashed big play potential last year. Quick had a quiet rookie campaign in 2012, but with his size and long strides could offer a competent third option in their passing attack akin to former Falcons receiver Michael Jenkins.

Another new weapon that the Rams will be reliant upon is tight end Jared Cook, who’s blend of size, speed, and athleticism are reminiscent of Antonio Gates. But Cook has never developed into a consistent weapon after four years in Tennessee. Head coach Jeff Fisher hopes to get more out of him in St. Louis than he did with his former squad. If he can, then it will add another potent weapon to the Rams offensive mix.

The Rams are a young team that will be heavily reliant on young players to step up and become more consistent playmakers in 2013. If several rookies like Austin, Ogletree, and McDonald can hit the ground running, players like Bradford, Jenkins, and Cook can become more consistent, and top playmakers like the two Longs, Laurinaitis, and Finnegan maintain the status quo they will be a formidable team this year. Discipline and consistency are the buzz words for the Rams in 2013 and if they follow through they could potentially surprise teams with a wildcard spot, or dare I say a division title.

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 Post subject: Opposing Camp Primer: Miami Dolphins
PostPosted: Fri Jul 12, 2013 2:15 am 
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Opposing Camp Primer: Miami Dolphins
July 11th, 2013
Aaron Freeman

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Brent Grimes hopes to pick up in Miami where he left off in Atlanta
After checking out the Falcons first two opponents of the year in the New Orleans Saints and St. Louis Rams, let’s look at their Week Three opponent in the Miami Dolphins and what things will be happening in South Florida this summer.

The Dolphins are a team in flux hoping that their second year under head coach Joe Philbin will lead to greater success than the 7-9 finish in 2012. They spent quite a bit of money this off-season to bring in new starters at several positions on both sides of the ball and are hoping it pays immediate dividends. The main thing people watching Dolphins camp will be looking for this summer is how things gel with all the new faces.

Much of the focus is going to center on second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill, as many are expecting big things from him this season as he matures into a more consistent passer. Tannehill has skills to be a very good quarterback in the NFL, showcasing all the physical tools you want. Despite limited experience playing at both the collegiate and professional levels, he shows a relatively strong mental grasp for the position which indicates that with added experience the sky could indeed be the limit for how good a player he matures into. But there were too many times he was erratic last year. And it certainly didn’t help that there were no true weapons for him to throw to last year.

That changes with the free agent additions of Mike Wallace and Brandon Gibson at wide receiver, as well as tight end Dustin Keller. Wallace had a disappointing 2012 campaign with the Pittsburgh Steelers, seemingly due to the uncertainty of his future in that city after two excellent seasons as the league’s most-feared vertical threat. The Dolphins hope that now that he has is sated contractually, he can get back to those former ways. Unfortunately for the Dolphins, history suggests that when free agent wide receivers change teams their level of success with their new teams isn’t very good. The Dolphins hope that Wallace is the exception, rather than the rule.

Gibson will be competing with Armon Binns for the third spot at wide receiver. Philbin wants to incorporate an explosive vertical attack into the Dolphins offense, akin to what he helped build in Green Bay years ago, which will make ample use of three-wide sets. Gibson is a solid possession receiver that was productive in St. Louis over the past few years. Binns has good size and many observers are suggesting his strong off-season will cause him to win the job this summer. If either one can become the underneath option for Tannehill while Wallace and Brian Hartline continue to do what they do best on the outside: stretch the field, then it should give the Dolphins a major upgrade in their passing attack.

But one of the key areas of competition this summer on offense will be at the running back position. Gone is Reggie Bush, with his backups in Daniel Thomas and Lamar Miller competing for the starting job. Miller is expected to win the job and certainly will enter camp as the starter. Thomas had a few moments last year, where his size and inside rushing ability could prove to be an effective change of pace to the quicker, more explosive Miller that is better rushing on the edge. Depending on how strong a summer Miller has could determine just how much balance the Dolphins have this season. And despite roots in Green Bay, Philbin being a former offensive line coach is not going to run an offense that throws the ball every down. How much success they have on the ground will be a key factor in taking pressure off Tannehill to be able to better pick and choose his spots in 2013.

Speaking of the offensive line that might be where most of the big questions lie. The team picked up former Falcon Tyson Clabo to play right tackle, formerly helmed by second-year player Jonathan Martin. He moves to left tackle where he replaces long-time Pro Bowl fixture Jake Long. Martin protected Andrew Lucks’ blindside at Stanford and filled in at left tackle down the stretch in 2012. He was serviceable there, looking much more comfortable there than he did earlier in the season on the right side. But for the most part, Martin’s rookie season would be considered more of a disaster than a success. How he adjusts to playing the left side could determine how effective the Dolphins offense and especially their passing attack is this season. The last thing you want is for the left tackle to be the liability up front.

Defensively, the Dolphins have revamped some positions and have the makings of what can be a solid unit. They are anchored up front by defensive end Cameron Wake who is without a doubt the league’s most fearsome edge rusher off the left side. He will be joined by top pick Dion Jordan in the hopes that their speed off the edge creates havoc for passers, especially one Tom Brady up in New England. However, Jordan’s off-season hasn’t been great. He’s been recovering from a February shoulder surgery and missed all of OTAs due to the league’s rule about players being unable to participate until their college class graduates. He’ll have to quickly get up to speed when camps start later this month. If he gets off to a slow start this summer, then slack must be picked up by Olivier Vernon who has been working in the starting lineup in Jordan’s absence. He flashed some things as a rookie (a 2-sack effort vs. St. Louis), and they hope he can start to put it all together this year to give them a more complete rotation.

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports
Dolphins hope Tannehill makes next stride forward
The Dolphins added free agent linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler to replace the aging Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett, respectively. Dansby and Burnett were solid last year and leaders on their team. This year their replacements will be asked to fill those same leadership roles and also be upgrades on the field. Ellerbe is already bringing a bit of swagger to the unit with recent comments involving the vulnerability of the New England Patriots. They will be joined by Koa Misi at strongside linebacker, and how quickly that unit gels could determine if it remains a strength defensively.

Another big addition came at the cornerback position where former Falcon Brent Grimes is expected to be their top cover man. Grimes is coming off an Achilles tear suffered in the Falcons season opener last season, but all reports indicate that he is 100% recovered and ready to go this summer. The main thing for Grimes won’t be proving he’s healthy, which he already has, it will be proving he can remain healthy this year. And if he does and returns to a level comparable to where he was in 2010 and 2011 with Atlanta, he will once again be among the top corners in the league. But he’ll also get help from rookies like Jamar Taylor and Will Davis. If either can hit the ground running this summer in camp, that could allow them to limit other starter: Richard Marshall more to a role in the nickel which is where he is ideally suited. He too is coming off an injury-plagued 2012 season and will need to prove this summer that he’s ready to contribute.

Safeties Reshad Jones and Chris Clemons are underrated players that are both coming off solid first seasons in the starting lineup and with the additions made at cornerback hope that leads to even greater success. If the additions of Ellerbe, Wheeler, Grimes, and Jordan work out it should give the Dolphins one of the league’s better defenses. How good will largely depend on just how good those players are in their first seasons in Miami.

Another key position battle will come on special teams where kicker Dan Carpenter is competing with rookie Caleb Sturgis. Carpenter has been one of the league’s best kickers the past few years, but with the selection of Sturgis in the fifth round this past April he appears to be on the outs. If that proves to be the case, then Sturgis is going to have to try and pull a page from players like Blair Walsh (Vikings), Kai Forbath (Redskins), and Justin Tucker (Ravens) all of whom were excellent last year in their rookie seasons.

Overall, the Dolphins don’t have a ton of unsettled position battles. Most of their camp will be devoted to the new additions such as Wallace, Ellerbe, Jordan, and Grimes as well as players at new positions like Martin or new roles like Miller settling in at their respective spots. Without the distraction of HBO’s cameras looming all over the place, it should help things settle down a bit. They hope the gains that Tannehill makes this summer will spearhead them to make their first playoff appearance since 2008, and only their second in over a decade.

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 Post subject: Opposing Camp Primer: New England Patriots
PostPosted: Fri Jul 12, 2013 11:39 pm 
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Opposing Camp Primer: New England Patriots
July 12th, 2013 Aaron Freeman Edit Leave a comment Go to comments
The Sun Chronicle/Pool Photo via USA TODAY Sports

Hernandez headlines a tumultuous off-season for the Patriots

Nobody has had a more fascinating and interesting off-season than the New England Patriots, as we take a look at the Falcons fourth opponent in the 2013 season to see what to look for this summer as training camps loom.

First, their most potent offensive weapon (besides quarterback Tom Brady of course) in tight end Rob Gronkowski went through a series of surgeries. Most came on his injured forearm which developed an infection during the off-season and kept him out of OTAs. But the fifth came in June, and may be the most important because it puts his 2013 season in jeopardy. Gronkowski is such a potent piece of the Patriots offense. Not only is he the only tight end in the NFL that is without question better than the Falcons own Tony Gonzalez when healthy, but he creates so many opportunities for other options in the Patriots offense by being the focal point of coverages. Gronk has recently begun rehab for his back, but there is no exact timetable for his return to the field. Initial projections from his mid-June back surgery indicate he would be out three months which certainly would put his ability to compete against the Falcons in Week Four in potential jeopardy. But because of other events that have occurred this off-season for the Patriots, they probably don’t want to rush him back as it will be more important to have him at 100% rather than risking re-injury with him at less than that.

While Gronk is the Patriots most potent weapon, the team also lost Brady’s favorite target in Wes Welker. He didn’t get the offer from New England he wanted, and went across the country to Denver where he’ll be catching passes from Peyton Manning. The Patriots replaced him with Danny Amendola, who offers a very similar skillset. But Amendola has struggled to stay healthy the past two years in St. Louis. That will be the big question for him this year, and whether he and Brady can gel quickly as he will be carrying a big load.

That load got only heavier in the past month due to the issues surrounding tight end Aaron Hernandez, who has been arrested for alleged murder. The team already cut ties with him, even going so far as to allow fans to exchange their jerseys to do their best to wipe the slate completely clean. Hernandez was the “joker” of the Patriots offense, the wild card that had to be accounted for every play because of his ability to line up in the backfield, in the slot, or on the outside as a hybrid player at tight end, wide receiver, H-back, and fullback. They have no one else on the roster capable of filling such a role. Currently Jake Ballard, Michael Hoomanawanui, and Daniel Fells are their remaining tight ends expected to fill in for Gronk and Hernandez. All three are capable blockers. Ballard was productive as the New York Giants starting tight end in 2011, but he certainly wasn’t a player that created mismatches. He benefited more from the presences of players like Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks than they did from him.

All of these developments put added pressure on Tom Brady to get the passing game clicking with so many new faces. Replacing Brandon Lloyd on the outside at wide receiver is expected to be rookie Aaron Dobson. The Patriots offense is notorious for being hard to pick up even for veteran receivers (see Chad Ochocinco) and getting on the same page with Brady is something that rookies historically have struggled to do (see Taylor Price and Chad Jackson). Dobson offers good size and vertical potential on the outside, but it will be a tall order for him and fellow rookie Josh Boyce to impact quickly.

The Pats did bring in Donald Jones and Michael Jenkins as veterans. Jones is quick and explosive and probably the most polished of the group. He is coming off a 41-catch in Buffalo, but he too has had his share of run-ins with the trainer’s table. Jenkins is a shell of the player he was three years ago in Atlanta, and being asked to be more than a fourth option at this point in his career is asking too much. They do have Julian Edelman still, which gives them insurance in case Amendola goes down with another injury. But as long as Amendola is healthy and producing, he’ll struggle to find a role outside of special teams.
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Brady will be reliant on backs like Stevan Ridley in 2013

All that means that the Patriots probably will have to lean heavily on their ground attack in 2013. It was an underrated unit in 2012, helmed by a committee of backs led by the powerful Stevan Ridley. Ridley has reportedly added more muscle this offseason, which should help as they may lean on him more in the early going. He’ll get help from the super quick Shane Vereen as a change of pace runner. Brandon Bolden was also productive despite limited workload last year. The team also picked up former Tampa Bay Buccaneer LeGarrette Blount, hoping a change in scenery does wonders to re-spark his career. Blount is another bruiser, but will be hard-pressed to shine in New England due to his limitations in pass protection.

And right now keeping Brady upright is their only chance to compete without their weapons on the outside. They’ll be helped in that regard by returning all five starters up front and hope injury-prone starters like left guard Logan Mankins and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer can make it through the entire season.

The last thing the Patriots want to see is someone other than Brady lining up under center, which brings us to the last big off-season move they made: picking up quarterback Tim Tebow. Tebow will compete with Ryan Mallett for the backup position behind Brady. Mallett has been a disappointment thus far in his development in the pros. While he possesses a cannon for an arm, his footwork, pocket presence, and mobility have looked erratic on a handful of garbage time and preseason reps. The best case scenario for the Patriots this summer is Tebow’s presence inspires Mallett to step up his game, and that will give them the chance to redshirt Tebow in 2013 to try and work out some of the issues with his own mechanics in the hopes they can start to incorporate him offensively in 2014. But the talk of Tebow’s potential conversion to tight end is a pipe dream. While Ballard, Fells, and Hoomanawanui are by no means superstar tight ends, all are way more polished and able to contribute rather than Tebow who has shown no inclination for playing the position the way it needs to be played.

All the questions surrounding the offense makes the Patriots defense by comparison relatively settled. But in reality it is anything but. The defense, particularly the secondary has been a liability in recent years. The Patriots hoped to address that by shuffling around their roster and depth chart there. They picked up veteran safety Adrian Wilson from Arizona. Wilson is slowing down a bit, but is a really smart player that should be a much more consistent leader on the back-end than Patrick Chung was. Devin McCourty will move full-time from cornerback to free safety, where he was solid as a situational player in 2012. The Patriots are hoping that Aqib Talib, who they acquired at mid-season via trade will be able to take the flashes he showed last year and become the consistent No. 1 caliber corner that he was at times in Tampa Bay. That will be a tall order given that Talib doesn’t have the best head on his shoulders and off-field issues cost him in Tampa. If he can go back to being the type of corner that can go up against receivers like Roddy White and hold his own, it will be a huge boost to the Patriots secondary. Lining up across from him will be either Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, or rookie Logan Ryan. Dennard has had his own off-field incidents this year and may face suspension. Arrington is ready to step in as he’s done in recent years, although he’s ideally suited for the nickel spot rather than being a full-time starter.

Relative to the offense and secondary, the Patriots front seven is fairly settled. They added defensive tackle Tommy Kelly from Oakland to try and provide more pressure beside Vince Wilfork. He’ll replace Kyle Love, who was a solid run-stuffer but was released allegedly because he was suffering from Diabetes. The big key up front will be whether second-year defensive end Chandler Jones makes strides forward. They relied heavily on his ability to generate outside pressure last year and will do so again in 2013. He is joined by Rob Ninkovich, who is a Kroy Biermann-esque complementary rusher that is by no means special, but makes plays when they need him to (led team with 8 sacks in 2012). The big question will be which young players can also step up behind them and create a role in their rotation. Jermaine Cunningham, Jake Bequette, Justin Francis, Marcus Benard, and rookie Michael Buchanan will be in the mix. Cunningham and Bequette appear to be the front-runners. Cunningham is in a make or break season, finishing with 2.5 sacks in 2012 despite being sidelined with a four-game suspension late in the year. Any contributions he or any of the others can make to the pass rush will greatly help as it can take pressure off an unproven secondary.

At this juncture, the big questions for the Patriots tend to loom on the offensive side of the ball and which of their untested set of receivers and tight ends can emerge to become primary playmakers for Brady. Hernandez is gone, and Gronkowski’s status is up in the air. Players like Amendola, Dobson, Ballard, and Donald Jones will be counted on to quickly get on the same page with Brady to help bridge the gap between now and the eventual return of Gronk.

That will put more pressure on the Patriots’ running game and their defense to pick up the slack. While the running game seems capable with a strong stable of backs and continuity in their front five, the defense remains a work in progress. But if players like Chandler Jones and Talib can step up, coupled with additions like Kelly and Wilson making their presences known, the Patriots defense has a chance to actually be an asset in 2013. If that is the case, the Patriots will continue to be the front-runner in the AFC East despite the upstart Dolphins, and won’t be counted out of the mix to win the AFC if things are clicking by December.

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 Post subject: Opposing Camp Primer: New York Jets
PostPosted: Sun Jul 14, 2013 1:54 am 
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Opposing Camp Primer: New York Jets
July 13th, 2013 Aaron Freeman Edit Leave a comment Go to comments
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A good summer could push Geno Smith into starting spot

Following the heels of the New England Patriots, the Falcons face the New York Jets in Week Five of the 2013 season, another team that has a lot of questions going into their training camp this summer.

A word that rhymes with “fluster cluck” comes to mind when thinking about the Jets and what has happened within that organization over the past year and change. Their struggles in 2012 are well-documented and questions abound going in 2013 on whether they can find any answers. The Jets will feature competitions at nearly every position group on offense, as well as relying on a bevy of new faces to restore a defense that was formerly among the league’s best.

The biggest question on the team is none other than the quarterback position. Mark Sanchez returns for a fifth season after an abysmal 2012 campaign where he seemingly lost all of his confidence and continued to make mistake after mistake, including the infamous butt fumble (I’ll never get tired of watching that!). To add to his worries, the team drafted Geno Smith in the second round in April. While Sanchez remains confident he’ll open the season as the starter, the tide of change seems to favor Smith. Neither emerged as a clear-cut front runner during OTAs but the inability of Sanchez to separate himself from Smith does not bode well for him. Sanchez at this point is a reclamation project, and one that Jets fans certainly have no patience for. Assuming Smith isn’t terrible this summer and shows improvement over the course of camp, he could easily wind up opening the season as the starter. But without a strong camp from either one of them, things won’t bode well for the Jets.

Rex Ryan’s success in New York has been built off strong defense and a steady running game. That latter aspect has been missing in recent years. And the Jets brought in former New Orleans Saints Chris Ivory alongside ex-Oakland Raider Mike Goodson to try and restore the ground attack. Ivory has been productive player when he played with the Saints, but those opportunities were sporadic over the years. He’ll hope to prove that he can carry the load in New York as they will rely heavily on him given Goodson’s off-field issues and the fact that Bilal Powell is seen more as a quality No. 2 than a full-time starter.

Helping to make that possible will be the Jets offensive line, which in their heyday of rushing success was one of the best in the league. This year’s group will feature two new starters at guard as gone are Matt Slauson and Brandon Moore. They will be replaced by Willie Colon and either Vlad Ducasse or Stephen Peterman, respectively. Colon is a good player, but is injury prone and hasn’t made it through a full season healthy since 2009. Ducasse has thus far shown he’s nothing more than a bust, and while Peterman was solid at times with the Detroit Lions over the past six years, he is by no means an upgrade over a fixture like Moore at right guard. The Jets also drafted Brian Winters in the third round and given the questions surrounding the starters, it wouldn’t be a surprised if he is the mix to play with a strong summer.

The tight end position is fairly wide open as well as the team picked up Kellen Winslow last month to compete with Jeff Cumberland. Winslow however has struggled with injuries as he has the knees of a 62-year old man and may not make it through camp unless he can rewind the clock. That leaves Cumberland as the likeliest candidate to open the season as the starter. Cumberland has good size, hands, and blocking ability but he is by no means a threat in the passing game.

Any the Jets field on offense will come with their trio of receivers, which happens to be the most secure position on offense. Santonio Holmes is the No. 1 option and hopes to rebound off an injury-shortened 2012 season. But Holmes is consistently inconsistent in terms of being engaged in the offense. And given the Jets questions at quarterback, if they cannot reliably get him the ball it may not matter whether he’s healthy or not. Opposite him will be second-year receiver Stephen Hill. Hill was raw coming out of Georgia Tech last year, but hopes that he can take a page from former Yellow Jacket receiver Demaryius Thomas and show tremendous growth in his second season. Hill’s size and athleticism make him an intriguing matchup problem on the outside, but he needs to polish his route-running and refine his overall game if he wants to make bigger contributions than the 21 catches he had in 2012. In the slot, Jeremy Kerley is coming off a breakout 2012 season where he emerged as their top receiver. Kerley is quick and flashes similar big play potential that Holmes does on his best days. The hope for the Jets is that one of the quarterbacks this summer can be competent enough to get this trio of weapons, their lone proven assets offensively the ball.

Defensively, the Jets are solid. Although they aren’t the elite defense they were a few years back when they were making deep runs in the playoffs. They suffered a huge loss last year with the injury to Darrelle Revis, and owner Woody Johnson opted to ship him to Tampa Bay rather than face the possibility of paying him another premium contract next year. The Jets used their top draft pick on Dee Milliner to replace him. He joins an already solid group of corners headlined by Antonio Cromartie. Cromartie’s play stepped up significantly last year in Revis’ absence, becoming their de facto shutdown guy thanks to good size and ball skills. Kyle Wilson should continue to man the nickel spot with Milliner on the outside. If Milliner can hit the ground running this summer, it should continue the Jets success in coverage.

But questions remain at safety. The team picked up Dawan Landry to replace his brother LaRon at strong safety. Dawan played for Rex Ryan in Baltimore and should be capable. But the other safety spot is up in the air. Josh Bush, Antonio Allen, and Jaiquawan Jarrett are competing for the spot. Bush is the front-runner, but largely was a special teams player in his first season with the Jets in 2012. He’ll be asked to work mainly as a centerfielder in their defense. He’ll need to have a strong camp to inspire confidence with this group.

In the front seven the Jets will have a few new faces. They drafted Sheldon Richardson in the first round this past April, and added Antonio Garay to replace Sione Pouha at nose tackle. The Jets would like to feature a few more four-man fronts this year rather than their traditional 3-4 looks. That will likely put Richardson inside beside Muhammad Wilkerson with Quinton Coples and as of yet to emerge player at the end spots. Coples will be asked to play more of a stand-up linebacker role this year, which will be a transition for 290-pound end. He does possess the athleticism to do so, but how quickly he adjusts to his new role will determine whether the Jets pass rush will finally be dangerous after a long drought since the departure of John Abraham in 2006.

The team also brought in Antwan Barnes, who has been very productive in recent years as a situational rusher, and Calvin Pace returns for another year to compete for that yet to be determined spot opposite Coples. Garay will be competing with Kenrick Ellis, a massive nose tackle prospect that has been disappointing thus far in his two seasons in New York. Garay is nearly 34 and at this point is more of a rotational player, so getting both of those players going this summer will be a priority.

Also in their front, they’ll be asking second-year linebacker Demario Davis to step in to Bart Scott’s vacated weakside linebacker spot. Davis is definitely an upgrade on speed and athleticism, but is largely untested on defense and certainly is a question mark in terms of instincts and toughness, ares where Scott was certainly not lacking. He’ll play beside David Harris, who hasn’t been the force in the middle that he was earlier in his Jets career. He’ll need to step up this year to shoulder more of the burden.

If they can see increased production from a player like Coples, and young guys like Richardson, Milliner, Bush, and Davis can step up, the Jets defense will once again be a tough and formidable unit. That will need to be the case given the questions offensively. But at least in the case of Geno Smith and Chris Ivory, there is at least much more reason to have hope for improvement in New York this summer. While they aren’t expected to be in the mix for the division title, they could become a tough out if their ground attack can get on track and whoever emerges at quarterback can provide the occasional spark in the passing game.

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 Post subject: Opposing Camp Primer: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
PostPosted: Sun Jul 14, 2013 3:11 pm 
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Opposing Camp Primer: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
July 14th, 2013 Aaron Freeman Leave a comment Go to comments
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Josh Freeman has a lot on his shoulders this year

The Bucs have interesting competitions across their roster and will be focused on getting certain things settled this summer in training camp.

The big concern for the Bucs heading into 2013 starts with Josh and ends with Freeman. All eyes are on Freeman and questions about on whether or not he’s going to take that next step and become a more consistent and efficient passer.

It’s not a lack of talent holding Freeman back, as one can see with his size, arm strength, and the occasional money throw he can make in crunch-time situations. It really is about being more consistent with those situations. Too often he’ll miss open receivers and makes too many mental mistakes. It doesn’t appear that the game is slowing down for him as much as it should for a player that has started 56 games and is entering his fifth season in the league. It’s really a make or break year for Freeman.

And the Bucs haven’t been silent about it. They used their third round pick on quarterback Mike Glennon, and head coach Greg Schiano has made it no secret that Glennon could push Freeman. Now, Schiano has since backed off a little. Probably because he realizes that he doesn’t want to ruin Freeman’s confidence. But if Glennon comes into this summer and plays well, and Freeman not so much it could create a quarterback controversy. One that could potentially undermine the entire 2013 season for the Bucs. So Schiano himself is going to have to do his best to manage this situation carefully. But things will be so much easier to manage if Freeman just shows up and plays his tail off in preseason.

The Bucs made a number of low-level additions on their offense in the off-season, but the two biggest gets were the healthy returns of guards Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph. Joseph went down before the 2012 season started, and Nicks was on injured reserve by Week 9. Both have the potential to form one of the league’s elite pair of guards, and will be tasked with clearing holes for second-year tailback Doug Martin. The Bucs believe they can take a lot of pressure off Freeman if they can commit to a physical, smashmouth ground attack. If so, that can suck up defenders and leave players like Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams in one-on-one situations on the outside, scenarios that big receivers like them can exploit. A key competition will be for Martin’s backup, with rookie seventh rounder Mike James expected to win the job. Martin was a bit overused last year with 319 carries and if the Bucs intend to make a playoff run, lessening his load to keep him fresh could be important.

Speaking of the wide receiver position, there is an open competition for the third slot receiver spot. Tiquan Underwood is the incumbent and emerged under his former college coach Schiano last year in that role. But the Bucs brought in Cowboys receiver Kevin Ogletree to compete for the spot. Ogletree emerged during last year’s season opener against the Giants, but then was very quiet from that point on. It’s Underwood’s job to lose, but if they can get good production from Ogletree as well, it will give them a more well-rounded passing attack.

Tight end is also an area of concern. Luke Stocker is expected to win the job, but how productive he is in 2013 is up in the air. Stocker is a capable blocker with good size and athleticism, but certainly not to the level where he can be a weapon to exploit down the seam. The Bucs are hoping he can function like a poor man’s Jason Witten, as both hail from Tennessee, and he can provide value as a blocker and help move the chains on the third downs in the passing game. He’ll be pushed by ex-Packer tight end Tom Crabtree.

Another battle on offense will be at right tackle, where incumbent Demar Dotson will be pushed by Gabe Carimi. Dotson is a plus-athlete but needs to refine his skills. Dotson is expected to win the job, but he can’t slack in camp with Carimi pushing behind him. Carimi struggled in Chicago at right tackle thanks to injuries and slow feet. He seemed much more at home playing inside before they shipped him off this off-season for a sixth round pick, after being a first round pick in 2011. If he adjusts well to the change in scenery he could open the season and give the Bucs a very good run blocker on the right side to team with Joseph.

Defensively, the main issue the Bucs are facing is finding someone to emerge up front alongside Gerald McCoy. McCoy is the anchor of the Bucs front, and when healthy is one of the best interior presences in the league. But the Bucs want more production from the edges, and namely that will come with Da’Quan Bowers and Adrian Clayborn. Both players are coming off injury-plagued seasons. How good they look this summer could determine what sort of success they have in 2013. Bowers is the more talented of the pair and is looking to break out with a strong season.

Beside McCoy is expected to be rookie nose tackle Akeem Spence. The team brought in veterans like Gary Gibson and Derek Landri to compete for the spot, but it’s Spence’s to lose. How quickly he adjusts to his new position could also be a factor in determining if the Bucs defensive line becomes a strength.

Strongside linebacker is unsettled with the speedy Jonathan Casillas competing with Dekoda Watson. Watson isn’t very big, but shined as a pass rusher in his days at Florida State. Casillas is one of the rangiest linebackers in the league due to his plus speed, but he has never been a consistent starter. Whoever emerges in that battle will simply have to be decent beside Mason Foster and Lavonte David, two solid young linebackers.

The secondary also has some question marks, although most of them center on the knee of Darrelle Revis. Revis is expected to set up “Treasure Island” in South Florida this year, and will be counted on heavily to slow down players like Julio Jones and Roddy White this year for the Bucs. At the other corner spot the team is bringing back Eric Wright, who appeared to be on the outs earlier this off-season. They also picked up rookie Johnathan Banks with their top pick, and along with Leonard Johnson they will compete for reps with Wright and potentially in the nickel. Banks has good length and ball skills, but isn’t the quickest or fastest corner. Wright can play in the slot and has been effective there in the past. He had a poor 2012 campaign, and they hope that he plays at a level comparable to the 2011 season he had which prompted them to sign him in the first place.

DaShon Goldson was picked up to solidify the free safety spot, and they hope his leadership and ball skills will fix a problem area from last year’s squad: one of the league’s worst pass defenses. Mark Barron had an up but mostly down rookie year, and they hope he can continue to improve in his second season. Potentially they have a pair of active and playmaking safeties, and the presence of Revis plus improvement from Wright should make their jobs much easier.

Overall, a lot of attention will be paid upon Josh Freeman offensively. Defensively, the Bucs are optimistic that a player like Bowers can emerge to help improve their pass rush. How effective Revis is coming off his ACL tear will also be a big factor on whether the Bucs defense is significantly improved from a year ago. The Bucs have the makings of a team that could certainly push for a wildcard spot and potentially challenge for the NFC South crown if all things go their way. But they will need players like Freeman, Bowers, and Revis to play at high levels coupled with some of their young players and rookies stepping up.

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 Post subject: Re: Opposing Camp Primers
PostPosted: Mon Jul 15, 2013 5:42 pm 
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Opposing Camp Primer: Arizona Cardinals
July 15th, 2013 Aaron Freeman Edit Leave a comment Go to comments
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Palmer and Fitzgerald hope to connect a lot in 2013

The Cardinals enter the summer of 2013 trying to find a way to become relevant now that the NFC West appears to have quickly reversed it’s fortunes from three years ago as clearly the league’s weakest division to among the league’s best. They have a new head coach and quarterback which certainly is a good starting point.

Head coach Bruce Arians takes over for Ken Whisenhunt, after a year in which he earned NFL Coach of the Year honors as essentially a “backup,” replacing Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis as the interim head coach after he was diagnosed with cancer. The Colts had great success under Arians, and he hopes to mirror that in Arizona.

Whisenhunt was fired basically because the Cardinals quarterback situation became a giant quagmire since Kurt Warner opted to retire after the 2009 season. They now hope the veteran Carson Palmer can establish some stability at the position after cycling through bums over the past three seasons.

Palmer should work in Arians’ vertical pass attack. The very same worked well for both Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh and Andrew Luck in Indianapolis. Palmer doesn’t have quite the arm he once did, but he’s a quarterback that is not afraid to pull the trigger down the field, an essential trait to work in Arians’ offense. And unlike in Oakland, he’ll have at least one major upgrade at wide receiver.

Larry Fitzgerald has struggled to produce over the past three years mainly because the quarterbacks have struggled to get him the ball. But he’s still one of the elite receivers in the league, and Palmer isn’t going to hesitate to get him targets in 2013. How quickly they can build a rapport will be a key point of their summer and shouldn’t be a major obstacle. Fitzgerald is also expected to get reps in the slot as it worked wonders for Reggie Wayne last season, and should have a similar impact for Fitzgerald.

Lining up across from Fitzgerald will be Michael Floyd, who had a disappointing rookie season a year ago. He too is a player that if he can get on the same page with Palmer quickly, it should give Arizona two solid weapons at the position and the means to attack defenses in 2013 like they haven’t been able to since Warner’s days.

But the big key if the Cardinals offense wants to take that next step is going to be what happens up front. One of the deficiencies of Arians’ offense is the fact that it has a tendency to give up a bunch of sacks due to the deeper drops of the quarterback trying to make throws down the field. That initially doesn’t bode well for the Cardinals because they had the league’s worst offensive line in 2012. The hope is that the healthy return of Levi Brown and the selection of Jonathan Cooper at the top of the draft will provide the necessary boost.

Brown, while not an ideal left tackle, certainly is a significantly better option than D’Anthony Batiste, who was the team’s first option to replace him last year. But he ranked at the bottom of the league in Pro Football Focus‘ pass blocking rankings in both 2010 and 2011. He’ll have to improve quite a bit upon that if the Cardinals expect to take a significant leap forward. He’ll be pushed by Nate Potter this year, who reports indicate will get a legit opportunity to unseat Brown. Potter was adequate last year down the stretch, considering he might be a more natural fit at guard. It’d be an upset if Brown loses the battle, but he’ll need to have a good summer or the leash could be short under Arians.

Cooper should be an upgrade on the interior at left guard. Daryn Colledge has been more serviceable than good in his seven-year NFL career, but is a fairly known quantity. Center Lyle Sendlein is similar to ex-Falcon Todd McClure, and will need to bounce back from a year that saw him end up on injured reserve with a knee injury. Bobby Massie, struggled early in 2012 as a rookie, giving up 12 sacks in the first seven games (per Pro Football Focus). But he finished strong with 1 sack in the final nine games. He’ll need to pick up where he left off.

While the Cardinals starting five likely won’t have too much competition this summer, it will be paramount that they can quickly gel as a unit and try to be a stable force for the offense. They aren’t certainly going to be a strength compared to most NFL lines, but if they put together a decent year it could be key for the Cardinals to add more wins to their total of five from a year ago.

That will also help out the Cardinals on the ground. Rashard Mendenhall was signed to be the starter and enters camp atop the depth chart. He’s well-versed in Arians’ offense from his days in Pittsburgh. He’ll replace Beanie Wells, whose constant injuries forced the team to let him walk this past off-season. Mendenhall also needs to avoid the injury bug, and become more consistent. He washed out of Pittsburgh also because ball security became an issue over the past few years, beginning with his infamous fumble in the Super Bowl a few years back.

Competition at running back behind Mendenhall will center on who can steal reps on third downs, an area where Mendenhall has been less than stellar. The top candidate may be Ryan Williams, who has flashed potential but also struggled to stay healthy. Williams missed all of his rookie season with an injury, and only played in 5 games last year. He is an explosive runner, but might suffer from Jerious Norwood Syndrome in that he simply may not possess the body to hold up at the NFL level.

The team also drafted a pair of rookies: Stepfan Taylor and Andre Ellington, to join incumbent William Powell. Powell flashed ability in a few opportunities last season. Ellington is very explosive, while Taylor provides power between the tackles. Whoever can show they are trustworthy in pass protection should emerge by the end of summer as the No. 2 rusher.

Defensively, the Cardinals may have suffered their biggest loss of the off-season by losing coordinator Ray Horton, now in Cleveland. Essentially the only reason why the Cardinals managed to win five games in 2012 was because their defense ostensibly won them. They were among the league’s best and most underrated units, and their quality is something that Matt Ryan can certainly attest to.

Despite the loss of Horton, the majority of their starters from a year ago return. Their biggest losses come in the secondary, where Horton featured a lot of nickel throughout the year. Only one each of their top three corners and safeties return: Patrick Peterson and Rashad Johnson. Gone are stalwart safeties in Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes, who had three excellent years together.

Replacing the corners are pickups Jerraud Powers from Indianapolis, Antoine Cason from San Diego, and Javier Arenas from Kansas City. Powers and Cason are expected to compete for the spot opposite Peterson, but both were average in their previous stints. The Cardinals hope a change in scenery propels them to new heights. Arenas was also a disappointment in Kansas City after being selected with the pick that the Falcons sent away as part of the Tony Gonzalez trade. He’ll be expected to play in the slot and will be pushed by rookie Tyrann Mathieu, who is also in the mix to earn reps at safety.

Joining Johnson in the starting lineup at safety will be Yeremiah Bell, picked up from the New York Jets. Bell is a very good run defender that is smart, but he’s certainly not Wilson. Johnson has been only a part-time player during his four-year career in Arizona, and the team is optimistic he can put everything together this season as a full-time starter.

Up front, the Cardinals lost another player at least for a portion of the season in linebacker Daryl Washington. He will miss the first four games due to a suspension after being arguably their best defender a year ago. The team picked up Karlos Dansby and Jasper Brinkley in free agency, and drafted Kevin Minter to add depth at inside linebacker. Dansby was a star in Arizona a few years back, and hopes to rediscover some of that mojo. Brinkley is a decent run stuffer, but is limited in coverage. Between the three of them, they should be able to keep the defense afloat while Washington is out.

More importantly for the Cardinals defensive success in 2013 will be finding players that will emerge at outside linebacker to pressure the quarterback since Washington led the team with 9 sacks last year. Last year’s outside trio of Sam Acho, Quentin Groves, and O’Brien Schofield each had 4 sacks. Groves is gone, replaced by Lorenzo Alexander, who made more impact on special teams than as a pass rusher with the Redskins over the past six seasons. Thus rookie Alex Okafor might be their saving grace. Okafor was productive at Texas, and hopes to go the way of ex-Longhorn Brian Orakpo rather than Acho in terms of becoming a top-tier NFL pass rusher. How he fares this summer will determine that.

Thus the brunt of the Cardinals pressure might once again fall on their front. Calais Campbell is one of the league’s best 3-4 ends and has averaged nearly 7 sacks per year in each of his four seasons as a starter. Darnell Dockett, his counterpart, struggled last year, with his sack total dropping to 1.5 in 2012. His production there has dropped steadily over the past four years, and it’ll be critical for him to bounce back given the circumstances surrounding Washington and question marks at outside linebacker.

The team did add ex-Raider Matt Shaughnessy in free agency. But he too is coming off a lackluster season as a pass rusher (3.5 sacks in 2012) and will try to produce when the Cardinals feature a four-man front in the nickel. More four-man fronts could benefit Dockett, who like Shaughnessy may be better suited to being a situational rusher at this point in his career.

It will be paramount for new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to get all these new players and whatever changes he features to the scheme to gel quickly this summer. Bowles looked out of his element when he finished the year as the Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator, managing to find a way to look less competent in that role than infamous Juan Castillo.

All in all, the Cardinals are optimistic that they can steal a page from division rival, San Francisco, and hope that the introduction of a new coaching staff can inspire confidence to this group to play significantly better than they did a year ago. They certainly added their fair share of new players, particularly on defense, and should also get some upgrades at key positions on offense. Whether it results in a playoff berth remains to be seen, but should at least earn a few more wins if things fall into place this summer.

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 Post subject: Re: Opposing Camp Primers
PostPosted: Wed Jul 17, 2013 11:32 am 
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Opposing Camp Primer: Carolina Panthers
July 16th, 2013 Aaron Freeman Leave a comment Go to comments
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Pressure is on OC Mike Shula to get more out of Newton

After breaking down the Falcons first seven opponents including a pair of division rivals, it’s time to look at the last NFC South opponent in the Carolina Panthers to see what battles are raging this summer in camp.

With a few exceptions on the defensive side of the ball, the Panthers look to feature essentially the same starting lineup from 2012 to 2013. Their focus will be on individual players and units improving, and head coach Ron Rivera and his staff finding a way to inspire those players to new heights this summer.

Like the Buccaneers, much of the focus will center on quarterback Cam Newton. Newton has flashed the ability to be a potent weapon at the quarterback position, leading the team in rushing last year with their ample use of the read-option. But offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski took the top gig with the Cleveland Browns and will be replaced by former quarterbacks coach Mike Shula. Shula intends to keep the read-option as a potent addendum to the offense, but may not feature it as much as Chudzinski. The Panthers moved away from the read-option to a more conventional rushing attack down the stretch, and it appeared to pay dividends. Shula also intends to employ a simplified, more up-tempo attack to try and match wits with offenses like the Saints and Falcons.

DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, once considered to be among the league’s top pair of running backs hope that this lesser emphasis on Newton’s running will propel them back to being among the league’s top rushing group. They are joined by fullback Mike Tolbert and rookie speedster Kenjon Barner this year to provide more talent at the position. With a more traditional rushing attack, the Panthers should be able to get their ground game back on track and then focus their passing attack on what Newton does best: attack down the field via play-action.

Helping him do that is Steve Smith, still one of the league’s elite receivers. Greg Olsen emerged with a career year in 2012 as one of the league’s premier vertical tight ends as well. The Panthers however need to see someone else step up. Brandon LaFell is their top option, as he’s flashed the ability to make plays down the field. But he needs to be more consistent this season, and that starts in training camp. He’ll be joined by speedsters in Ted Ginn, David Gettis, Domenik Hixon, Armanti Edwards, Joe Adams, and Kealoha Pilares. Most of those players have had far greater impact on special teams than offense over the years, but if one can emerge as a viable fourth option to stretch the field it will round out what could be a potent play-action based attack in Carolina.

Up front, the Panthers should get a boost from the healthy return of Ryan Kalil, who missed all of last year with a foot injury. He joins left tackle Jordan Gross as the stalwarts up front. But the Panthers will need some of their younger players to step up. Byron Bell has been mediocre at right tackle, and Amini Silatolu was the same as a rookie left guard last season. At right guard, Geoff Hangartner is expected to start. He’s better suited to being a swing guard and backup center than a starter. He’ll be pushed by rookie Edmund Kugbila. But Kugbila is coming from a Division II school in Valdosta State, traditionally is a tough transition for rookie linemen as the team saw last year with Silatolu. So unless he can buck that trend this summer, it seems that the Panthers are stuck with the merely serviceable Hangartner, thus putting more pressure on Kalil, Silatolu, and Bell to provide the necessary boost.

Defensively, the Panthers feature a few changes, particularly at defensive tackle. They used their top two picks at that position, taking Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short to fix a position that has been a problem area since the heyday of Kris Jenkins. Lotulelei is a powerful tackle that should beef up their run support which was markedly improved in 2012 after a horrid 2011 season. Short is more of a disruptor, but they hope he can hit the ground running after many questions were raised about his motor at Purdue.

They’ll be joining an already solid group of linemen that shined in the nickel last year. Charles Johnson (12.5 sacks), Greg Hardy (11 sacks), Dwan Edwards (6 sacks), and Frank Alexander (2.5 sacks) formed a solid quartet on passing downs, dominating the Falcons in both outings last year. Hardy functioned much like Justin Tuck did with the Giants in years past playing both inside and outside, and had similar impact. If both rookies shine, the Panthers defensive line potentially could class the division as the best in 2013.

The defensive improvement last year was lead by middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. Kuechly began the year on the outside before making the switch inside following the season-ending injury to Jon Beason. Beason returns to play the weak side, while Thomas Davis will man the strong side. Davis had a good year, managing to play in 15 games with 12 starts, after missing a combined 39 games due to successive ACL tears the three previous years. It will be important for him to remain healthy again in 2013. Beason too has been bitten by the injury bug (missing 27 games over the past two years), and needs to come back healthy. But the Panthers depth should be decent with newcomer Chase Blackburn capable of playing both inside and outside, and rookie A.J. Klein having similar value.

Cornerback is the other position that features some changes. Gone is long-time starter Chris Gamble, who had an injury-shortened 2012. The team added veteran Drayton Florence to replace him. Florence has been a serviceable starter in the past, but has been exposed in recent years when asked to be more than a nickel back. He’ll be competing for reps with youngsters like Josh Norman, Josh Thomas, Captain Munnerlyn, and fellow newcomer D.J. Moore.

Norman and Munnerlyn are the incumbents, starting a combined 23 games last year. Norman has the most upside of the group, flashing ball skills but for the most part struggling as a rookie. Munnerlyn has shown value in the nickel, but is a questionable full-time starter on the outside. He may not be 100% for when camp starts later this month. Thomas started the final four games after Norman was injured and was decent. He’ll need to step up this year. Moore struggled to earn consistent reps in four seasons with the Bears. Someone will have to emerge to replace Gamble as the team’s top corner to try and slow down the likes of Julio Jones, Roddy White, Vincent Jackson, and Marques Colston within the division.

Safety is even more of a problem area as the team may be headed for another year with Haruki Nakamura manning a starting spot. He’ll be competing with ex-Raider Mike Mitchell, D.J. Campbell, and rookie Robert Lester to start opposite Charles Godfrey. Godfrey relative to the others is a proven player, but by and large is just an average safety on his better days. The team has shown interest in veteran free agent Quintin Mikell, and if signed before camp would be a great pickup to stabilize the position. Otherwise, the Panthers could be in for a long year given the youth, inexperience, and general lack of quality of their secondary.

That puts more pressure on their offense and running game to be more sustaining to keep their weak pass defense from getting exposed. Essentially, Rivera will have to try and pull a page from Mike Smith, and similar to the 2010 Falcons try and be a ball-control offense. But considering their passing attack is more geared to being explosive, it may not be the ideal recipe for success. How Rivera deals with this conundrum will determine whether he’s still coaching the team come 2014.

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PostPosted: Wed Jul 17, 2013 11:33 am 
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Opposing Camp Primer: Seattle Seahawks
July 17th, 2013 Aaron Freeman

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Ex-Vikings star Percy Harvin joins the Seahawks

Last January, expectations were that the ascending Seattle Seahawks would come into the Georgia Dome and take down the favored Falcons. And they nearly did, except for giving up a last minute play to tight end Tony Gonzalez that set up Matt Bryant’s game-winning field goal. The Seahawks will get their chance to avenge their defeat in 2013, facing the Falcons in Week 10 of the upcoming season. Considering the Seahawks were considered by some to be a Super Bowl favorite in the NFC last year, they don’t enter 2013 with very many questions that need to be answered in training camp.

Only a pair of starting offensive positions appears to be open for real competition, that being either guard spot where the team has featured a revolving door of starters over the past year. The incumbents are James Carpenter on the left and John Moffitt on the right. They will be pushed presumably by Paul McQuistan and J.R. Sweezy, respectively.

Carpenter is coming off a knee injury that limited him to only seven games in 2012, and also limited him during the off-season. McQuistan finished the 2012 season as the starter and was serviceable in that role. That gives them insurance in case Carpenter can’t prove to be durable again this year. The Seahawks really like Carpenter’s upside after making him their top pick in 2011 but he has yet to really play at a high level. They hope that this is the year he finally does, and it begins with a strong training camp and remaining healthy.

The other guard spot is fairly wide open with both Moffitt and Sweezy earning first team reps in the off-season. Moffitt was a third round pick in the same class that netted Carpenter. But Sweezy emerged as a rookie last summer to win the starting right guard spot after converting from defensive tackle. But he got worked over by Darnell Dockett in the season opener and quickly lost his job. Head coach Pete Carroll is known for placing a high value on competition, so the best man will certainly win regardless of draft position. But Moffitt should have the edge given his experience at the position.

Carroll believes in competing and unlike most teams it’s not all talk. Sweezy and quarterback Russell Wilson last summer proved that the best man will win the gig. But assuming that certain veterans don’t come in and have a disappointing preseason, they should win and/or keep their respective jobs.

Thus, much of the focus this summer will be integrating incoming wide receiver Percy Harvin into the offense. There has been talk of Harvin having a similar role in Seattle as he did in Minnesota, which was primarily a slot receiver, but also would line him up in the backfield and across the field to create matchup problems for defense.

Harvin likely will become the focus of the Seahawks skill position players, joining Sidney Rice and tight end Zach Miller as Wilson’s top targets. But the 2013 Seahawks offense will still center around their running game led by Marshawn Lynch. One of the interesting battles to come this summer will be for his backup between Robert Turbin and rookie Christine Michael, their top pick this past April. Turbin didn’t get a ton of reps last year, but mixing in either him or Michael more this year could help keep Lynch fresh down the stretch, something he was not in that Falcons loss last January. They have made efforts to limit his reps during the off-season and that should continue into training camp, thus giving both Michael and Turbin opportunities to step up this summer.

Defensively, most of the question marks center on the new faces up front. Chris Clemons tore his ACL in the Seahawks opening playoff win over the Washington Redskins, and his absence was felt grievously against the Falcons. He is expected to return at some point this season, but when remains to be seen. Talk of him being ready for the season opener remains alive, but he should certainly be back for the Falcons-Seahawks rematch in November. Either way, the Seahawks don’t need to rush the MVP of their defense back thanks to some off-season pickups and lineup tweaks.

The team signed Cliff Avril ostensibly to replace him in the lineup until he’s ready. Avril has one of the better first steps off the edge in the league and should help bolster that position where Bruce Irvin failed last year. But Avril too has been limited this off-season with a foot injury, although he is expected to be healthy when camp opens up later this month.

Irvin may be looking at playing more on his feet this year. He shined early in the year as a situational rusher off the edge across from Clemons, but lacks the size to hold up against the run at end. He’ll begin the 2013 season with a four-game suspension, thus he’ll need to hit the ground running this summer with the conversion to his new position. Irvin is expected to continue putting his hand in the dirt as a situational rusher, but his conversion to linebacker could help mask his deficiencies against the run.

It’s another reason why the team opted to bring in former Buccaneer defensive end Michael Bennett along with Avril. Bennett likely will replace Jason Jones as the team’s interior specialist in nickel situations once Clemons, Irvin, and Avril are fully integrated into the lineup. But should also earn reps at defensive end given the uncertain statuses of those guys at the start of the year. The team’s normal starter on the outside on run downs is Red Bryant, a massive run defender that in 2012 wasn’t quite the immovable object he was the year before. Replacing Alan Branch inside is likely to be newcomer Tony McDaniel or incumbent Clinton McDonald who will play alongside nose tackle Brandon Mebane. With promising rookies Jordan Hill and Jesse Williams, the Seahawks will feature a heavy rotation of players. Which ever foursome can emerge this summer as the most potent group will be counted on to pay similar dividends until Clemons’ healthy return.

Long-time starter Leroy Hill is out at linebacker, and will be replaced by Malcolm Smith. Smith is undersized, but he won’t be asked to play much as the majority of the reps will go to returning starters K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner, both coming off strong 2012 seasons. He will also lose reps to Irvin when he returns. But they would like to see him have a good summer to help bridge the gap until then.

The Seahawks also made an addition in the secondary by bringing Antoine Winfield aboard from the Vikings. Despite turning 36 this past June, Winfield was still the Vikings top corner a year ago. He is undersized, but one of the league’s best run support corners of his era and should be an upgrade over the declining Marcus Trufant who served in the nickel last year. The team also expects Walter Thurmond back this year, after missing most of the past two years with injuries. He was considered a future starter when Carroll first arrived in 2010, and could push things forward via competition.

Another position to watch will be the Seahawks’ special teams, which was among the league’s best a year ago. But they dumped returner Leon Washington in the off-season following the acquisition of Harvin. That should clear the road for Harvin to take over kickoff return duties. Golden Tate, displaced by Harvin on offense probably will return punts. Tate handled those duties as a rookie in 2010, and it will be worth watching if he takes well to his return to the position. Otherwise, the team may have to settle for a player like Will Blackmon or go out looking for another player.

For the most part, the key for the Seahawks this summer will be getting players healthy. They have some question marks on the defensive line for those very reasons and several players will be vying for reps atop their rotation. They will also have a heated competiton on the offensive line, with both projected starters Carpenter and Moffitt also trying to prove they can stay healthy. But the Seahawks retain much of their 2012 personnel, and with additions like Harvin, Bennett, and Avril should be enhanced in a lot of key positions to make another potential run at a title in 2013. That is unless the Falcons have something to say about it.

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Opposing Camp Primer: Buffalo Bills
July 18th, 2013 Aaron Freeman Leave a comment Go to comments
Timothy T. Ludwig-US PRESSWIRE

Jairus Byrd is one of many question marks entering Bills camp

The Buffalo Bills have a new head coach in former Syracuse head man Doug Marrone. Marrone also was the offensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints for the first three years of Sean Payton’s tenure there. And he hopes to end the Bills’ league-leading playoff drought by building a dynamic offense similar to what he helped design in New Orleans.

In order to that, he’ll have to start with the quarterback position. The Bills will feature an open competition between veteran Kevin Kolb and first round pick E.J. Manuel. Kolb received the majority of reps during OTAs, but the team did dump Tarvaris Jackson in June, which clears the way for Manuel to win the job. While it’s possible that Marrone could opt for the veteran in Kolb to start the season, by the time the Bills face the Falcons in Week 13, it seems likely that Manuel will be the starter.

One reason for that is the lack of durability that Kolb has shown in the past. Injuries cost him starting jobs in both previous stints in Philadelphia and Arizona. Injuries and inconsistency. Kolb simply doesn’t have the upside that Manuel possesess, with his superior size, arm strength, and athleticism drawing comparisons to Cam Newton during the lead-up to this past April’s draft.

Not to mention that of the fifteen first round quarterbacks selected since 2008, only two of them were not the starters by Week 8 of their rookie seasons (Tim Tebow and Jake Locker). So even if Manuel doesn’t win the job during camp, odds are that he’ll get his opportunity in 2013, assuming history repeats itself in regards to Kolb’s ability to maintain a hold on the starting spot.

Bills training camp will also feature an open competition at the wide receiver position, where a number of young receivers will be competing to be the complement to Stevie Johnson. Second round pick Robert Woods is expected to win the starting job, due to his polished ability. But T.J. Graham has had a strong off-season and has bulked up to add to his already excellent vertical speed. And regardless of who wins the matchup, Marrone’s offense likely will feature a number of three wide receiver spots. Also competing at the spot will be rookies Marquise Goodwin and Da’Rick Rogers. Rogers may be the most talented of the group, but he’ll be on a short leash given his off-field baggage.

The tight end position could also see some shakeup. Starter Scott Chandler is recovering from an ACL tear and has been limited in the off-season. That has given athletic rookie Chris Gragg an opportunity to shine. If he can come in and have a strong camp, he may steal the job right from under Chandler.

Up front, the Bills will feature competitions for two starting spots. Right tackle will feature a competition between Erik Pears and Chris Hairston. Hairston has the upside, but has struggled in the past at left tackle, but should fit better on the right side where his power and size can impact on the ground game. Inside at left guard, Colin Brown appears to be the front-runner for the starting job at that position. But he’ll see competition from Doug Legursky, Sam Young, and Zebrie Sanders. Brown was an effective starter late at center and offers good size. A starting five that features Brown, Hairston, alongside Cordy Glenn at left tackle, Eric Wood at center, and Kraig Urbik at right guard gives the Bills a large offensive line. They will be asked to clear running lanes for what will be the focus of their offense: their running game. C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson are expected to share the load. Spiller is coming off an outstanding 2012 campaign, and if he can pick up where he left off he could potentially be the top back in the league in 2013.

Defensively, new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine will be installing a hybrid 3-4 and 4-3 scheme to try and create confusion. The centerpiece of the new-look Bills defense will be Mario Williams. Williams had a lackluster 2012 year, but only a player of Williams’ talent can be considered lackluster when he records 10.5 sacks. Williams will be used as a movable chess piece, able to play both defensive end and outside linebacker. Williams will need to have a good summer to shake doubts about him being overpaid after a shaky off-season where he created mini-controversies due to guns and lawsuits.

Also adding versatility up front will be Kyle Williams, Marcel Dareus, and Alex Carrington with the Bills planning on using all three at multiple positions. Williams and Dareus are arguably the most talented pair of defensive tackles in the league. But Dareus will be pushed for his starting job, on the hope that the added competition will inspire him to have a stronger 2013 season.

Providing pressure off the edge will be Mark Anderson, Jerry Hughes, and Manny Lawson. Anderson struggled with injuries last year and they hope he can come back strong in training camp. Hughes had three underwhelming seasons with the Indianapolis Colts after being a top pick in 2010. He was traded to the Bills with the hope that the change in scenery will jolt his career. He and Anderson will be asked to line up across from Williams to try and pressure the quarterback. Lawson will play strongside linebacker, the same role he played for the San Francisco 49ers under Mike Nolan. Lawson has never been known for his pass rush ability, but the Bills hope that he can emerge in that arena at age 29.

Inside at linebacker, rookie Kiko Alonso and second-year player Nigel Bradham are expected to man the middle and weakside positions, respectively. They’ll be pushed by Arthur Moats, who has flashed potential as a pass rusher in limited opportunities in the past.

In the back end, questions abound at the safety position. Top free safety Jairus Byrd received the Franchise Tag this off-season, but held out. He didn’t get the contract he wished and has yet to sign his tender. Questions remain on when Byrd will sign his tender and report to the team. He may opt to skip camp, but it doesn’t seem likely that his holdout will loom beyond the start of the regular season. In his absence the Bills safety position appears wide open. Da’Norris Searcy is expected to win the starting strong safety spot, but will face competition from Duke Williams. Replacing Byrd is potentially Aaron Williams, who is being converted from nickel cornerback. Rookie Jonathan Meeks and Mana Silva will also be competing for reps. In the end, the Bills will hope the contract impasse with Byrd ends since none of those players come close to his play-making ability.

Leodis McKelvin was re-signed this off-season to man the starting spot opposite Stephon Gilmore. He has struggled to garner playing time beyond being the team’s nickel cornerback. They will need him to come in and have a good summer given the uncertainty at safety.

The Bills will also need someone to quickly step up at the nickel spot. Williams could move back to that spot if Byrd reports early. But in his absence, Ron Brooks appears to be the front-runner in that competition.

The Bills also will feature open competitions at both the kicker and punter spots. Rian Lindell is being pushed by sixth round pick Dustin Hopkins. Lindell has been a fixture for a decade, but he’s starting to decline at age 36. He has showcased his accuracy throughout the off-season, but Hopkins has impressed with his youthful leg strength. The Bills might consider keeping both players on the roster if neither distinguishes himself in camp.

At punter, Shawn Powell unseated long-time Bills punter Brian Moorman last summer. But he’ll face competition from undrafted rookie Brian Stahovich and again the best man will win the battle this summer.

The Bills will be hopeful that despite the numerous open competitions across their roster, things will start to gel for them as the season progresses. If they can get their young players like Manuel, Woods, Graham to join playmakers like Spiller and Johnson, they have explosive offensive potential. And if they can get talented defenders like Mario Williams, Dareus, and Byrd to step up in their new-look defense, they could potentially be a dark horse to challenge the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins for the lead in the AFC East.

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Opposing Camp Primer: Green Bay Packers
July 19th, 2013 Aaron Freeman Leave a comment Go to comments
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Marshall Newhouse will be tested this summer with a switch in positions

Like the Falcons, the Green Bay Packers are in Super Bowl or bust mode. They want to get back to the championship level with a pair of disappointing losses in the playoffs the past two years to San Francisco and New York since their Super Bowl win in 2010.

The Packers offense is one of the most prolific in the league, but there are ways they can get better. One of the key things will be adding more balance to the offense, by establishing the running game.

The team used a pair of draft picks on Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin to bolster their rushing attack. The Packers are bringing both rookies along slowly, with incumbents Alex Green and James Starks taking most of the first team reps during the off-season. Neither Green nor Starks are locks to make the team, and the team is optimistic that via an open competition this summer that someone can emerge for the gig. Also in the mix is DuJuan Harris, who had his moments down the stretch last season. But he’s probably more of a third down back rather than a lead one. Green dealt with injuries last year, and Starks has been a non-factor since shining in their run to the Super Bowl two years ago. So much so that he was briefly on the trade block this off-season. The Packers would really love the powerful Lacy and Franklin to emerge. Lacy has the size and power to be more of a workhorse, but Franklin is quick and explosive and shined in a zone-blocking scheme during his college days. They might employ a committee system early in the season, hoping that if someone doesn’t emerge in camp that over the course of the year the cream will rise to the top.

Helping the Packers reestablish the ground game will also be some revamping of their offensive line. Or perhaps better put, a shuffling of their offensive line. They are essentially flipping their line, with right guard Josh Sitton and right tackle Bryan Bulaga flipping to the left side. Bulaga is coming off a hip injury, and they hope he does a better job protecting Aaron Rodgers’ blindside than Marshall Newhouse the past two years. Newhouse will move to right tackle and will be pushed by Don Barclay, Derek Sherrod, and rookie David Bakhtiari. Barclay had his moments down the stretch replacing the injured Bulaga on the right side. Sherrod has been a disappointment since being drafted with their top pick in 2011. Right tackle is the only spot up front that will feature competition given that Evan Dietrich-Smith and T.J. Lang are settled in at center and right guard, respectively.

They will need the added protection and boost to the ground game since they lost some weapons at wide receiver. Gone are long-time fixtures in Greg Jennings and Donald Driver. The top three wideouts: Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and James Jones will return and be expected to step up their produxtion. Cobb, who led the team in receiving last year, is expected to make the next leap forward in the hopes that he might become a dynamic and versatile weapon akin to Percy Harvin. Competing for the wide open fourth spot will be a number of unproven young receivers. Jarrett Boykin and Jeremy Ross are second-year players competing with seventh round rookies in Kevin Dorsey and Charles Johnson. Boykin is big and physical with good hands, but lacks ideal speed and quickness. Ross has those things, but his best shot of making the team might be working on special teams in the return game given that the team expects Cobb to be more of an offensive factor.

Defensively, the focus for the Packers will be improving their pass rush. Clay Matthews is a monster, but when he’s out of the lineup they have nothing. The team is putting a lot of stock in last year’s top pick Nick Perry as they didn’t bring in any real competition for him. They hope that he just naturally takes that step forward to try and complement Matthews. Inside at linebacker, Brad Jones and A.J. Hawk will man the starting spots. Jones is a decent player, but lacks impact playmaking ability. Hawk is a poor man’s Keith Brooking, a fixture as a starter, but someone that has never ever been a top player.

Up front, the Packers hope to get more consistency from their front three. B.J. Raji got more looks at defensive end and started to play well down the stretch. They hope he can pick up where he left off and have the monster season that has been missing since their Super Bowl run. Top pick Datone Jones is being fast-tracked into the starting lineup where he will join Ryan Pickett at the nose. Mike Neal flashed ability in limited duties last year, but he needs to stay healthy since Jerel Worthy is questionable to return at some point this year after tearing his ACL last December. The team is welcoming back Johnny Jolly who hasn’t played since 2009 due to suspensions from off-field issues. If they can get any production from him, it will be a bonus.

The strength of the Packers defense has been their secondary play. They lose Charles Woodson, arguably their best defender since Reggie White. They recently rewarded free safety Morgan Burnett with a contract extension. Competing to replace Woodson at the other safety spot will be M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian. Jennings had his moments when replacing an injured Woodson last year, but it’ll be a wide open competition.

Casey Hayward had a standout rookie season in 2012 as their nickel back, and they hope that with more reps as a potential starter can fill some of that void left by Woodson. They also hope that Tramon Williams and Sam Shields can have stronger seasons to help him out some. Williams turned 30 this off-season so age may be catching up to him. Shields finished the year strong, but opted to skip OTAs due to his contract situation.

On special teams, kicker Mason Crosby is coming off his least productive season. He’ll be pushed by street free agent Giorgio Tavecchio in the hopes that he can bounce back.

Like the Falcons, the Packers are expected to be in the mix vying for a Super Bowl. Whether they get there will depend on a lot of the same improvements that the Falcons are hoping to make. They will hope they get more from their running game, and hope that shuffling their offensive line leads to improvements there. They also will be hoping that young players like Jones or Perry can step up and improve the pass rush on defense and hope their secondary can continue to play at a high level.

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Opposing Camp Primer: Washington Redskins
July 20th, 2013 Aaron Freeman Leave a comment Go to comments
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

RG3 may be the biggest story in the league this summer

It’s time to look at the Washington Redskins, the Falcons twelfth opponent in 2013, and what things to watch in their camp. The Redskins camp will be in a new place this year, as the team moves to Richmond, Virginia to hold it’s summer session.

The Redskins off-season, training camp, and frankly their 2013 season really centers around one player: quarterback Robert Griffin III. All eyes will be focused on Griffin this summer to monitor his recovery from a knee injury he suffered in the playoffs last year.

There appears to be near universal praise for Griffin’s recovery and the expectation that he will suit up for the season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles. But recently questions have been raised on how the Redskins may opt to bring him long, which may be slow and steady this summer akin to Vikings running back Adrian Peterson last summer. Peterson did not play in the preseason, and as a cautionary measure Griffin’s work this summer may also be very limited.

In Griffin’s absence, the Redskins won’t be too concerned with their backup quarterbacks as they have a lot of confidence in Kirk Cousins and Rex Grossman to get the job done.

The other big concern on offense will be at wide receiver, where top wideout Pierre Garcon is recovering from injuries. He had minor shoulder surgery following the year, but opted not to have surgery on his toe that caused him to miss a third of the 2012 season. There are questions whether or not the toe will hold up in 2013. His return down the stretch was a key reason why the Redskins won their final seven games of 2012 to make the playoffs.

Opposite him, the competition will be centered on trying to find another playmaker. Josh Morgan is expected to start with Santana Moss serving as their primary slot receiver. But the team would love to see one of the young players in Leonard Hankerson or Aldrick Robinson step up. Robinson has explosive vertical potential that could surpass Moss and has had a good offseason thus far. The team did bring in veterans in Donte Stallworth and Devery Henderson to compete, but both players appear to be shells of their former selves.

Tight end is also a concern as Fred Davis has been limited in his recovery from Achilles tear. The team got solid production from backup blocking tight end Logan Paulsen last year, but Davis’ recovery will be a key to success in 2013. He was pacing the team in receptions and yards prior to his injury in Week 7 last year.

Up front, the only battle will be at right tackle where Tyler Polumbus is coming off a poor 2012 campaign. But the team is confident that Polumbus will improve with a full off-season of work at the position. They brought in veterans Jeremy Trueblood and Tony Pashos to push him.

Defensively, the Redskins also have a lot of questions when it comes to players coming off injuries. Most notable of them is their top playmaker in outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, who suffered a torn pectoral muscle at the outset of the season. Orakpo appears to be looking good this off-season and is in line for a big contract extension after the year. The team likely wants to wait and see him return to the field before negotiations pick up. Ryan Kerrigan stepped up his production last year in Orakpo’s absence with a team-leading 8.5 sacks. They hope his production only improves in 2013.

Inside at linebacker, leader London Fletcher returns for his sixteenth season. Fletcher’s age got the better of him last year, and the team is hopeful that 2012 fourth round pick Keenan Robinson can step up this summer and hopefully earn a bigger role, potentially subbing for Fletcher. Like Orakpo, Robinson is also coming off a pec injury.

Up front, the Redskins will feature a battle at left defensive end, where Adam Carriker is trying to hold off Jarvis Jenkins. Although Carriker is recovering from a knee injury, so much so that whether or not he is available at the outset of training camp remains in doubt. Jenkins has been coming on strong since missing his rookie year with a knee injury, and probably is the favorite to swipe the job out from under Carriker this summer with a solid camp.

The biggest concern for the Redskins defense this year will be improvement in the secondary. Starting cornerbacks DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson are expected to return in the same roles, but there will be a lot of competition behind them. Top pick David Amerson will compete with free agent E.J. Biggers for the nickel job. The team won’t rush Amerson, but they would love to see him have a strong summer as his size and ball skills could be a big factor in any improvement for a pass defense that ranked 30th last season.

At safety, there are no set starters as of yet, although Brandon Meriweather will likely open the season at one spot, most likely strong safety. He had a run of bad luck last year, missing the early part of the season with a sprained left knee before finally being sidelined for the year with a torn ACL in his right knee after a single appearance in Week 11. It will be critical for him to have a strong camp and show he’s fully recovered. Two rookies will be competing for starting jobs in Phillip Thomas and Bacarri Rambo. The team expects at least one of them to start, with Thomas being listed as a strong safety and Rambo at free safety. But the team views either spot as interchangeable, which means the best man should win. Reed Doughty is a steady veteran that is a reliable insurance policy in case neither rookie steps up.

For the most part, the key with the Redskins will be getting players healthy. Their two best players: Griffin and Orakpo are both coming off injuries, but appear poised to be ready when the regular season starts. Bigger question marks center on Fred Davis, Pierre Garcon, who they will need this year in the passing game to try and complement the running game led by back Alfred Morris. And the battles in the secondary could be critical to strengthen that unit and the defense overall. If things go their way and key players can stay healthy, the Redskins appear poised to defend their NFC East title.

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Opposing Camp Primer: San Francisco 49ers
July 21st, 2013 Aaron Freeman Leave a comment Go to comments
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Colin Kaepernick will be looking for a new option besides Crabtree this summer

It’s time to wrap up the look at the Falcons thirteen opponents and what to watch this summer. That means we’re now on the San Francisco 49ers, who the Falcons will face in Week 16 of this upcoming season in the hopes of avenging their NFC title game loss from this past January.

Most of the stories centering on the 49ers this summer will be finding players that can replace many of the players they lost this off-season that helped them reach the Super Bowl last season.

Chief among them was wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who could be lost for the year due to an Achilles tear he suffered in June. Crabtree might be able to return in the second half of the 2013 season a la Terrell Suggs a year ago, but in training camp the concern will be finding a suitable replacement.

Crabtree was the 49ers’ top wideout, and the only real target that Colin Kaepernick could connect with consistently last season. Not only will the focus be on finding a suitable replacement for him in the starting lineup, but also whether incoming wideout Anquan Boldin and/or tight end Vernon Davis can build a strong rapport with Kaepernick. Boldin isn’t a dynamic threat, but is a very reliable set of his hands that can be a good security blanket for the young quarterback. Davis is a more dynamic option at tight end that has the potential to pick up the slack lost from Crabtree in terms of big plays. Ideally for the 49ers, between the two of them they can form the bond with Kaepernick missing from Crabtree’s absence and will need to show that in camp.

Competing to replace Crabtree will be several players and it will frankly be an open competition. Unlikely to be among them will be Mario Manningham, who suffered a knee injury at the end of last season and is not expected to be cleared to start camp. The 49ers will probably hope to work him in as the regular season progresses.

However Kyle Williams, who also is coming off a knee injury, is expected to be cleared for the start of camp. He’s the most experience of the candidates, and offers explosive potential in the passing game. But his absence in the off-season has given the team a chance to give A.J. Jenkins, Quinton Patton, and Ricardo Lockette longer looks. Jenkins should have the leg up among the trio given this is his second season after a disappointing rookie campaign. He was taken at the top of the 49ers draft last year but hardly played even as injuries mounted last season for the team. Patton has been impressive this off-season and is more of a possession receiver than a dynamic threat. But the same thing was said about Crabtree prior to last year, and it didn’t stop him from being a force in the 49ers’ offense. Lockette has speed to burn, giving him an opportunity to shine this summer, but might be better suited to a special teams role than a starting spot.

The 49ers offensively will also be seeking to replace tight end Delanie Walker, now with the Tennessee Titans. The team used a second round pick on Vance McDonald, an athletic specimen out of Rice. It would be an upset if he doesn’t earn the spot behind Davis, but how effective he will be in 2013 will depend on what sort of camp he has.

Running back Kendall Hunter is coming off his own Achilles injury suffered last season. He’ll be competing for reps with starter Frank Gore and LaMichael James. Gore is getting up in age, and James came on strong at the end of the season in Hunter’s absence. James will be competing for reps as the team’s return specialist however, which puts more pressure on Hunter to return strong. Hunter is ahead of schedule on his recovery, and a healthy return could allow the 49ers to try and put more on the plate of the running game to pick up the slack lost from Crabtree’s absence.

One player that likely won’t help the 49ers out this summer is rookie running back Marcus Lattimore, who like Manningham is expected to miss most or all of camp as he recovers from his own knee injury. Lattimore may ultimately “redshirt” the 2013 season, especially if Hunter proves to be 100%.

Most of the other questions the 49ers face this summer will be on the defensive side of the ball, a unit that has been among the league’s best the past two seasons.

Firstly, the 49ers must find a suitable replacement for nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga, who departed this off-season to join the Philadelphia Eagles. Competing for that spot will be incoming free agent Glenn Dorsey and Ian Williams, with the former expected to start. Known for his pass-rushing prowess at LSU, Dorsey has morphed himself into a solid two-gap run defender. Williams received a contract extension this off-season, suggesting the team likes him. More than likely, both players will split reps to try and make up for Sopoaga’s solid contributions against the run.

Another player to watch up front this summer is rookie defensive end Tank Carradine. Carradine suffered a knee injury last fall at Florida State, preventing him from being a first round pick this past April. He has been held out of the off-season thus far, but should be ready to go when camp opens later this month. He is expected to get reps on passing downs if/when the 49ers pull Dorsey/Williams off the field and slide end Justin Smith inside in four-man fronts. How strong a summer he has could impact how much better an already formidable 49ers pass rush could be in 2013.

The 49ers are strong at linebacker, with arguably the best foursome in the league featuring Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman inside, with Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks on the outside. The former three are coming off Pro Bowl seasons.

But there are question marks in the secondary, which appeared to be the closest thing to a weakness if one could find one on the 2012 49ers defense. It was certainly exploited to the tune of nearly 400 yards passing by the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game.

The 49ers recently shipped a conditional 2014 draft pick to Tampa Bay for veteran corner Eric Wright. He joins ex-Eagles corner Nnamdi Asomugha as their pickups at the position this off-season. They will be competing for reps with holdovers Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, and Chris Culliver. Brown emerged as their top cover corner last year, and Culliver had his moments as a nickel option. That leaves Rogers as the most vulnerable this summer. Like him, both Wright and Asomugha are experienced at playing inside in the slot. Rogers had an excellent 2011 campaign with the 49ers, but his play dipped last year. And the acquisition of both veterans is a shot across the bow for him. It’s doubtful all three will begin the season with the 49ers, and whoever emerges this summer will open the season as a starter.

The safety position also has some question marks, as DaShon Goldon left for Tampa Bay. The team used their top pick on Eric Reid to replace him. Reid is expected to win the job but he’ll be pushed by Craig Dahl and C.J. Spillman. Dahl was serviceable as a starter in St. Louis, but is better served as a versatile reserve than a starter. Spillman has stood out on special teams in recent years, but would be a longshot to win the starting spot given Dahl’s experience and Reid’s upside.

Another question that needs to be answered in camp will be at kicker. After an abysmal year from David Akers, the team brought in Phil Dawson to replace him. Dawson has been highly consistent and accurate for the past fourteen seasons in Cleveland, but is the same age as Akers. At some point that age will catch up to him as it did Akers a year ago, and Dawson will have to show that is not the case summer.

While the loss of Crabtree is potentially a huge blow to the 49ers passing game, the strength and foundation of their offense still remains intact: their running game. Their defense also appears to be improved with new additions to their pass rush, and competition in the secondary that could produce better results. Questions loom on whether veterans like Boldin and Davis can pick up Crabtree’s slack, or whether any of the young guys like Patton and Jenkins can step up to fill that void. If so, then there’s no doubt the 49ers will be back in the mix to win the NFC in 2013.

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 Post subject: Re: Opposing Camp Primers
PostPosted: Mon Jul 22, 2013 12:12 pm 
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great read. you should save this thread for next offseason for reference! :up:

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 Post subject: Re: Opposing Camp Primers
PostPosted: Mon Jul 22, 2013 1:06 pm 
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You can bookmark this topic. Just go to the top of the page, and under the "new topic" "post reply" buttons, click Bookmark the topic.

Then you can go to your user control panel (linked at the top of the page under the forum's banner), and under the Overview Options on the left side, you can click "Manage bookmarks" and it will have a link to all of the threads you've bookmarked for easy access to revisit.

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