The NFL season opens Sunday, with the usual suspects -- Indianapolis, New England, San Diego, New Orleans and Dallas -- expected to stick around in January. But that's too far ahead for me to care at this point. For the moment, I want to concentrate on the summer we've just been through and what I learned from the training camps I visited.
|Joe Flacco gets better receivers and could post much bigger numbers. (Getty Images)|
Five guys ready to break out
Malcom Floyd, WR, San Diego: With Vincent Jackson on the shelf, the Bolts look to Door No. 2 for their next best receiver, and you're looking at him. Floyd is big (he's 6-5), with soft hands and a knack for the ball. Once upon a time he was overshadowed by Jackson, but not anymore. "As far as a big guy who goes up and gets the ball," said teammate Quentin Jammer, "I don't think there's anybody other than Randy Moss and Larry Fitzgerald who can do what he does, which is adjust to the football." I don't know, but I might throw Calvin Johnson in that roll call, too, but you get the idea. Floyd is better than most people know. "I know I have ability," he said. "I've been getting opportunities year after year, and this is just another year where I can get more playing time and more looks my way."
Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore: I like everything about this guy. His demeanor. His arm. His accuracy. His toughness. And now I like his receivers. A year ago we said he didn't have enough of them. Then the Ravens added veterans Donte' Stallworth, Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and, just like that, Air Harbaugh is cleared for takeoff. I can't imagine the personality of this team changing, but I can imagine Flacco making a difference. Look for his numbers to jump across the board.
Kevin Kolb, QB, Philadelphia: This is the reason coach Andy Reid was willing to deal Donovan McNabb. The Eagles adore Kolb and believe his accuracy helps receivers in yards after catches which, of course, helps the Philadelphia passing attack. Obviously, there will be a learning curve, but Kolb started twice last season -- including once against New Orleans -- and threw for over 300 yards both times. Tell me that didn't get Reid's attention. He loves to throw the ball, only now he'll love to throw it more.
Shonn Greene, RB, N.Y. Jets: No longer Thomas Jones' understudy, Greene gets the bulk of the carries -- and judging from his performance the last five games of 2009 that could be good. In those games he ran for 461 yards (including 304 in the playoffs), averaged 5.5 yards a carry and scored twice. The beauty of the "Ground and Pound" approach was that the Jets didn't have to rely on Greene. They had the AFC's second-leading rusher in Jones and gave him the ball enough that he scored 14 times, tied for fourth-best in the NFL. But Jones is gone, and veteran LaDainian Tomlinson is here ... which means the Jets lean heavily on Greene, now more than ever.
Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit: There has been one Pro Bowl quarterback in Detroit in the last five decades, but Stafford might just be the guy to end the drought. Maybe not this year, but soon. The Lions did the smart thing and surrounded him with playmakers galore, from Calvin Johnson to Nate Burleson to Jahvid Best to Brandon Pettigrew to Tony Scheffler, and now Stafford has a chance to show off his right arm. What you saw in that come-from-behind win over Cleveland last season was a guy with an abundance of talent, courage and smarts. He only gets better.
Five rookies to like -- a lot
C.J. Spiller, RB, Buffalo: He was the best running back in the draft, and the Bills figured they couldn't live without him. So they chose him with the ninth overall pick, and good thinking. With Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson sidelined, Spiller responded this summer with three touchdowns and a zillion swerves. The Bills lacked breakaway threats in 2009, but you're looking at one now. He can score from anywhere, and that includes kickoff or punt returns -- with Buffalo loaded in that department. Looking for a reason to visit Niagara Falls? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you C.J. Spiller.
Kyle Wilson, CB, N.Y. Jets: Just my opinion, but Joe Haden wasn't the best cover corner in the draft; Wilson was. So he lasts until the 29th pick, where the Jets take him, and the rich just got richer. The club that last season had the league's best pass defense but not enough defensive backs to cover Indianapolis' receivers just added Wilson and Antonio Cromartie. Now you know why Rex Ryan is so sure he's going the extra mile this season. If you're in the same division with Tom Brady you better have quality cornerbacks, and Wilson fits the description. Consider him a steal at the 29th spot.
Ryan Mathews, RB, San Diego: He plays for Norv Turner, and if you know Norv you know he loves to run the ball. So Mathews should have a ton of carries, and, presumably, he does more with them this season than LaDainian Tomlinson did last. "I know I'm coming in after L.T. and everything," said Mathews, "but it's a new year and a little bit of a different team and the running game is going to be fine. I have an excellent, excellent line in front of me, and they're going to help me carry the load."
Dexter McCluster, WR/RB, Kansas City: One of my favorite picks of anyone's drafts. McCluster is instant offense, a guy who can play outside, inside or behind your quarterback, return kicks, return punts or run the Wildcat. In short, he's the playmaker the Chiefs haven't had lately -- someone in the Darren Sproles mold, only ... dare I say this? ... more electrifying. OK, so he's small. So is Sproles. And both are dynamic. "When you're looking at a guy like McCluster," said coach Todd Haley, "your mind is racing with possibilities."
Jahvid Best, RB, Detroit: Another team short on playmakers last season, Detroit traded up to acquire Best for one reason. "He was my favorite offensive player in the draft," said coach Jim Schwartz. I can see why. He's fast. He's quick. He rips through holes, and he turns corners in a blur. Plus, he can catch. The knock, of course, is durability, with Best suffering a season-ending concussion last year. Concussions with running backs make me nervous, but Best insists there are no lingering effects. If he's OK so are the Lions.
Five guys to pull for
Mike Williams, WR, Seattle: He was the 10th pick of the 2005 draft, and he was a bust -- so bad that he was cast out of pro football, where he stayed the past two years. Then he decided to recommit himself, get in shape and take another stab at the game. He not only made the Seahawks; he's in the starting rotation. In fact, he's the reason the Seahawks moved on without T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and let's hear it for those who wait. "I remember when I first stopped playing the game," Williams said. "I didn't want to watch football. If football was on TV, I'd change the channel and leave the room. Now I'm back in the swing of things where I'm watching football -- and, if I'm not, I'm asleep. It's a good feeling to have put the time and the work in and to see the things I want to get accomplished open up. But not by any stretch will I say I did it all. Everyone here has been great, from the front office to the coaches to the coordinators, as well as many family and my friends, so I wouldn't for a second say I did it alone. I have a lot of things in the backpack that I'm wearing that I have to get done. So we're just going to keep running."
Victor Cruz, WR, N.Y. Giants: He's an undrafted free agent who wasn't supposed to make the Giants ... and when he did he cried. That was poignant, but making the G-Men was no surprise. Cruz tied for the league lead in preseason touchdowns and led it in yards receiving, proof that he must be doing something right. Plus, Domenik Hixon and Sinorice Moss weren't around to entangle the situation at wide receiver. Even if they were, Cruz deserved to make somebody's team. He worked hard. He played hard. And he produced. Granted, he won't push Steve Smith, Mario Manningham and Hakeem Nicks, but he proved you don't have to be a high draft pick -- heck, to be a draft pick, period -- to make it in the NFL.
Brandyn Dombrowski, T, San Diego: Why? Because he steps in for Marcus McNeill, who joins Vincent Jackson in Career Counseling. McNeill didn't sign the Chargers' one-year tender, thinking it was unfair. So the Bolts moved on, while McNeill refused to budge. Good for him. Because the Chargers won't either, and if McNeill thinks this is a game of cat-and-mouse he doesn't know GM A.J. Smith. Without McNeill, the Bolts go with Dombrowski, and while he's a natural left guard he proved last season he could play right guard or right tackle effectively. So why not left tackle? Dombrowski is a solid run blocker -- maybe better than McNeill -– but must polish his pass-protecting skills. Give him time. He will.
Roscoe Parrish, WR, Buffalo: For years I questioned former head coach Dick Jauron on Parrish, wondering why the Bills couldn't get him the ball in space. After all, he's one of the game's best punt returners. So he must know how to operate in traffic. Well, the Bills never figured it out ... until this summer when, under new coach Chan Gailey, Parrish suddenly became a weapon ... on offense. All Parrish needs is a chance. Here's hoping he finally gets one.
Jake Delhomme, QB, Cleveland: He's in the toughest of all situations: He starts for a club that is a dead-bolt cinch for last, whose coach could be in trouble and whose roster is short of playmakers. Yet he's somehow supposed to do for Cleveland what he did for Carolina, and good luck. I like Delhomme because he's tough, resilient and knows how to win. What I don't like is that he put so much on his plate the past year that he became a turnover machine, and that won't fly in Cleveland. It can't. The Browns just aren't that good to overcome mistakes.
Coach in the toughest spot
Cleveland's Eric Mangini: He has a new GM who just happens to be an old head coach ... and a head coach, no less, who went to the Super Bowl three times. The minute the Browns stumble, fans will call for Mike Holmgren to step in -- and here's hoping he resists the temptation. It won't be easy. Look at the Browns' schedule from Week 3 through Week 10: Of the seven teams they face, five are playoff clubs -- including New Orleans in New Orleans -- and all are potential land mines for Mangini.
Coach in the best spot
San Diego's Norv Turner: He has the best team in the AFC West. He has one of the best schedules on earth, with the AFC West and NFC West featured. And he lives in San Diego. What more can you ask for? Well, since you asked, this: A Super Bowl. Turner is 18-0 in December with the Bolts, so he knows how to win meaningful games, but he lost three of his last four playoff starts. He has the team to go the distance. So go.
Most ingenious coaching drill I've seen in years
Congratulations to Kansas City Chiefs' assistant head coach Maurice Carthon, who came up with the idea of having players sit -- full uniform and all -- for a post-practice pass-catching drill in the most unusual of places. Would you believe ... a Porta Potty? Carthon would put players inside an unused unit, shut the door, then have someone open it as a pass was thrown inside -- with the idea ... I think ... to improve a pass catcher's concentration. "I've never seen anything like it," said McCluster. "When he said something about it we all laughed and joked, ‘Are you serious about it?' And he said, ‘Yeah, we're going to do it.'" And they did, with players convinced it was worthwhile. "It's a great drill," McCluster said. "You're sitting in there, and it's dark -- then they open the door, and the ball's coming at you. It's good for hand/eye coordination, getting ready for the ball and how quickly you see it." Now, I know what you're thinking: It's not the first time this team has been in the outhouse, but let's hold the punch lines.
Five guys I worry about
|Mark Sanchez will bear lots of pressure for a second-year QB. (Getty Images)|
Trent Edwards, QB, Buffalo: I think he has a chance under Chan Gailey, but I worry what happens if ... when ... the Bills get off to a rocky start (three of their first four opponents are playoff teams). The club kept two veterans behind him, and there will be a temptation to call on one (Ryan Fitzpatrick?) if Edwards struggles. I like Edwards, and I thought he had a bright future. But that was two years ago. He's been through a lot the past two seasons -- including offensive coordinators -- and patience with him is running out. So are receivers. Terrell Owens is gone, leaving ... Steve Johnson? Chad Jackson? David Nelson? … as the next best option, and no wonder Edwards looks for the checkdowns.
LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, N.Y. Jets: I'll be honest: I don't think L.T. has much gas left in the tank, but teammates tell me I'm wrong. So do his preseason numbers. But this is September, fellas. Wait until we get to November and December, and Tomlinson's 31-year-old legs start aching and stop moving. At least, that's my expectation. I saw too much of him last season to believe he has much left. He had career low numbers, with the most compelling a 3.3 yards-per-carry average. An encore performance will have Monday morning quarterbacks wondering why letting Thomas Jones walk was such a good idea.
Donovan McNabb, QB, Washington: This has nothing to do with his injured ankle and more to do with his new offensive line. There's a rookie at left tackle and a guy at right tackle coming off a serious knee injury. That's not how you protect a franchise quarterback. Knowing Mike Shanahan, the Redskins will try to protect McNabb with an effective running game -- only how effective will they be with a revamped offensive line and veterans Clinton Portis and Larry Johnson as backs? We're about to find out.
Justin Forsett, RB, Seattle: He's the go-to guy here, which is good, but the offensive line in front of him just lost Alex Gibbs as its coach ... and that's not good for anyone but opponents. Seattle wants to improve on its 26th place ranking in rushing last season, and look for Forsett to absorb the bulk of the carries. But how he fares depends on the guys in front of him, and not having Gibbs around for support is a disturbing sign.
Five guys with something to prove
Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota: He has the strongest handshake on earth, yet he hasn't figured out to hold on to the football. Not yet, at least, and I don't get it. Neither do the Vikings, who put Peterson through all sorts of ball-security drills this summer, hoping to reduce or eliminate the yips that plagued him and the Vikings in last year's conference championship game. "Really," said Peterson, who fumbled seven times during the regular season, "my thing is all mental. On the majority of my fumbles, I'm going down and I find myself putting the ball out and bracing myself. So I just have to be more cautious about that, and keep it high and tight." Peterson is a marvelous back, one of the two best in the game, but he must clean up the fumbling for Minnesota to go forward.
Osi Umenyiora, DE, N.Y. Giants: Once he was a premier pass rusher, producing a team-record six sacks in one game against Philadelphia. But he swooned so much last season (though he still led the team in sacks) the Giants had him running behind Mathias Kiwanuka in training camp. Granted, they're loaded with pass rushers, but Umenyiora doesn't usually sit behind anyone. Nor should he. "Last year wasn't the way we like to play football," he said, "and I don't think I played as well as I could have." He didn't. But this is a different season with a different defensive coordinator. Umenyiora has something to prove to a lot of people, including himself.
Antonio Cromartie, CB, N.Y. Jets: OK, I get it. He whiffed on Shonn Greene's touchdown run in last season's playoffs. But, as Rex Ryan said, the Jets aren't paying him to tackle; they're paying him to cover receivers. Cromartie is a gifted athlete who has had as much trouble weeding out his personal life as he did tackling Greene, but the Jets hope a change of scenery and a little financial help will keep him focused. If they do, they have themselves a top-shelf cornerback. If they don't, they have an unreliable player who can become a distraction.
Shawne Merriman, LB, San Diego: Like teammates Marcus McNeill and Vincent Jackson, he's an unhappy restricted free agent. Unlike McNeill and Jackson he signed his tender and reported to camp. Now we find out what he has to offer because the guy who produced 39.5 sacks in his first 42 games has four the last two seasons. Merriman swears he's ready for a break-out season, but he missed the last two games of preseason with an Achilles injury that may sideline him for the season opener and that has critics wondering if it's the beginning of another setback.
Matt Cassel, QB, Kansas City: Basically, he must prove he's the franchise quarterback the Chiefs think he is. They pay him top dollar to do something more than throw as many interceptions as touchdown passes. Cassel was underwhelming a year ago, but he didn't have much around him. Now the surrounding cast has improved. Cassel better, too.