Notes: Wilkerson is no holdout

July, 23, 2014
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CORTLAND, N.Y. -- New York Jets DE Muhammad Wilkerson arrived at the Jets facility this morning to take his conditioning test and make the trip to training camp despite ongoing negotiations toward a new contract.

There was some question whether he'd show up, if only because the Jets have had high-profile holdouts recently, notably former cornerback Darrelle Revis,

Wilkerson
"Holding out was never an option for me,” Wilkerson said. “I'm one of the leaders on this team. That wouldn't be a good thing to do. That's not the way a leader should lead his team. On the business side of things, everything will be handled when the time comes. Right now, if anybody has any other contract questions, I would say [Jets general manager] John Idzik is the man to ask."

Wilkerson, drafted in 2011, has two years left on his contract, making $1.2 million this year. Under the CBA, a player is subject to a $30,000-a-day fine if he stages a contract holdout.

At 6-foot-4 and 315 pounds, Wilkerson is one of the best players on the team and anchors what is considered a strong defensive line with players such as Sheldon Richardson. His compensation however, lags when compared to others at his level. The Panthers franchised Greg Hardy this year for a little over $13 million.

PUP talk: Jets coach Rex Ryan commented on the two players added to the PUP list early in the day, DL Antwan Barnes and OL Willie Colon, saying that he wasn’t concerned about their availability later on despite the tag.

“Well, Antwan will be on PUP right now; we are going to be smart with him,” Ryan said. “In fact he passed his conditioning test. Willie Colon also will be on PUP, and he passed his conditioning test. We’re just going to be smart and we’ll see how it plays out.”

Rain on a parade: The Jets opening pep rally in Cortland got off to a damp start. The bus of rookies arrived a half-hour behind schedule, and just after they arrived a lightning storm had cleared out a lot of the fans who had come to say hello. After the deluge, about 150 fans were still around to greet Ryan and the players who rode up on the buses. Ryan put a good face on it though, saying he would take the rain as a good omen.

Long haul: Training camp is one place where grown men making good bank have to room with each other like they’re back in college. Some tolerate it, some dislike it, but just about everybody has a roommate.

This year, LB David Harris and LB Calvin Pace are in a room, while QB Michael Vick and RB Chris Johnson will share space. Asked who he is rooming with, rookie S Calvin Pryor said he’s with a kicker. “I know, I was pretty surprised too,” Pryor said.
CORTLAND, N.Y. -- The New York Jets' quarterback "competition" (Rex Ryan's word) is officially underway. It's frontrunner Geno Smith versus Michael Vick, who supports Smith but considers himself an elite player.

"I still feel like I'm a premier quarterback in this league," Vick said Wednesday after reporting to training camp.

This will be a fascinating dynamic because Vick is a more accomplished player than Smith, but Smith is the likely opening-day starter. Ryan, taking the politically correct approach, said he has two starting-caliber quarterbacks. But, at some point over the next few weeks, he'll have to pick one. Ryan wouldn't give a timetable, saying a decision will be made at the "appropriate" time.

Vick, entering his 12th season, acknowledged this situation feels different because he's entering camp as the presumed backup. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said recently that Smith will get 70- to 75-percent of the first-team reps, a clear indication that it's Smith's job to lose.

"The thing that popped up when I heard that is, it's going to be very important for me to get mental reps," Vick said. "For any athlete out there in the country, when you're not getting the reps with the 1s, mental reps with the 2s are just as important. I can't lose sight of that."

Vick, who has all but conceded the job to Smith, said the key to handling the No. 2 job is finding "an inner peace. I have to find things that keep me stimulated and motivated on the football field."

On Day 1, Smith didn't make any bold statements. He said recently that he expects "big things" out of himself in 2014, but he stayed humble as he spoke to a pack of reporters outside the team's dorm. He knows the drill when it comes to positional battles.

"I mean the names are different, but honestly it doesn’t" feel different than last year, said Smith, who won the job by default last summer when Mark Sanchez was injured.

Actually, it is different. A lot different. The coaches won't be as patient with Smith when he makes mistakes, especially with Vick at the ready.

"He's head and shoulders above where he was last year, I don't think there's any doubt about that," Ryan said of Smith.

Ryan called this the "strongest quarterback situation" he's had in six years as the head coach. It's hard to dispute that.
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Geno Smith

CORTLAND, NY -- On the first day of NFL training there are 32 playoff teams and no one can disprove a single claim to the postseason. The New York Jets, of course, have done their fair share of talking this season.

Yet, as the team arrived at the SUNY College at Cortland campus for the start of training camp, some dialed back talk of playoffs and Super Bowls, starting with Jets coach Rex Ryan.

[+] EnlargeGeno Smith, Michael Vick
Noah K. Murray/USA TODAY SportsQuarterbacks Geno Smith (left) and Michael Vick are exuding a quiet confidence as the Jets get ready to start training camp.
“We understand there’s so many steps we have to take to get there,” Ryan said. “We have to improve as a football team. If we could talk about it and get there it would’ve already been done.”

Ryan has been talking about the playoffs since the January 2009 day that he took the Jets head coaching position, when he predicted the team would meet just-elected President Barack Obama in the White House when he hosts the Super Bowl victor.

It hasn't exactly happened like that, but each season offers a new opportunity to say, like Jets WR David Nelson did to the New York Daily News, that the Jets are a playoff team.

Quarterback Michael Vick, who played for a Philadelphia Dream Team that didn’t turn out to be one, said he doesn’t think preseason talk is a problem. Those intra-squad pep talks are just a way of communicating.

“I don’t think there’s any danger in having confidence,” Vick said. “That’s an emotion that we all have, we all want to exuberate at some point -- this is the time to do it. In football you have to have confidence, you have to toe the line between confidence and arrogance, and this team has felt for a long time like they can get it done, and that’s the right mind set. That’s how we feel, and that’s how we want to approach the season.”

And the truth is that individual players on the Jets have noticed the chance in the atmosphere this year, privately saying that the offseason workouts produced a lot of team unity already.

Second-year quarterback Geno Smith, who will get about 70 percent of the snaps at training camp over the more-experienced Vick, isn’t one to join in the predictions, but he can appreciate it.

“I love the confidence, we all love confidence,” Smith said. “We’re confident in ourselves and we’re confident in our team, but today is day one. It takes step by step, you can’t take the elevator up.”

And this was how, on the eve of training camp, the Jets began to quiet the big talk and consider how it would translate into what they could do on the field in the next few weeks.

“We know we’ve got a pretty good team, but we know that we’ve still got to take one step at a time, and that’s getting training camp out of the way and start winning games,” running back Chris Johnson said. “We can’t just jump to the playoffs or straight to a Super Bowl. We’ve got to take it one game at a time.”

Passing the conditioning test Wednesday morning was just the start.

Expect Gronk to be eased in

July, 23, 2014
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Wednesday’s news that New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski has been cleared by doctors was a significant step, as it means he will not begin training camp on the physically unable to perform list.

It’s now in the hands of Bill Belichick and the coaching staff to determine how quickly they want to work Gronk into the mix. It’s a football decision rather than a medical one at this point, and that’s good news for Patriots fans.

So when can we expect to see him practicing with his teammates? He’ll likely be out there for Thursday’s first practice, which will be held without pads. The first real question comes Saturday, when the team is scheduled to be in pads for the first time.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Gronk is eased in rather than going full bore from the get go because you are talking about a player who had surgery for a torn ACL less than seven months ago. They’re going to want to bring him along slowly.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It's never too early to get into nitty-gritty football talk, and with that in mind, one area that has been pinpointed by players to improve is defending the screen pass -- especially on third down.

The New England Patriots ranked 26th in the NFL on third down last season, with opponents converting 42.2 percent of the time, and screens on third-and-long were a notable part of the problem.

"One of the big things is just getting to the ball. You try to get the linemen to rush up the field, guys are dropping in coverage, so just effort and everything on that simple basis can help improve the screen game," safety Devin McCourty said.

[+] EnlargeDevin McCourty
AP Photo/Jim MahoneyDevin McCourty says the Patriots should pay close attention to screens on third-and-long in order to improve from last season.
The process of hopefully turning things around has been ongoing.

"That started in the spring, trying to develop those things and look at them, just so all the players can be aware of what hurt us last year and what we need to be ready for this year," McCourty said. "Third down is always a key. A lot of times it comes down to your season."

A few more sound bites from McCourty:

If he now considers himself solely a safety: "I still try to look at myself as just a football player. I always feel like you never know what can happen. Being able to play safety and corner has helped me in my career so far, so I don't think I should ever get to the point where I just lose one of them. In the offseason, I'm always doing drills for both so I can be a complete football player."

Training for a few weeks with Darrelle Revis in Arizona before training camp: "A lot of that stuff we did was working on technique, working on your conditioning, being ready for training camp. It's not as much when we're up here going over scheme and all of that. I think it's always good when you work out with your teammates. You just develop a stronger friendship, a stronger bond. It was really good for all of us to be out there [Revis, McCourty, Logan Ryan and Tavon Wilson] because we all got to work hard together and get better as player and doing it together as teammates."

On third-year safety Tavon Wilson: "I'm excited for him. I think sometimes guys get killed from the outside view and they're still putting in the work. That's why I'm excited. Tavon never budged at any second and just got down on himself and stopped working. This offseason in the spring time he's been working incredibly hard just to get out there and play more. Each year guys come in and it's a new year. You have new opportunities, new chances to get out there and play more. He's just one of those guys that have come in here and I think he's put himself in pretty good position to come in here and compete and try to get on the field."

On second-year safety Duron Harmon: "Same thing [with] Tavon, a younger guy who works incredibly hard, too. From the spring time until now going into training camp, he's pushed himself, he's done everything he could do just to be in this position and get himself a chance to be on the field as well. A bunch of guys on this team come back ready because they know if you don't go out there and work hard, there's somebody else on the team that's working hard to get on the field. I love this time of year. It's going to be so competitive at camp each and every day, not just one position, but really every position across the board. Guys want to get out there and play. I'm ready and I think Duron along with Tavon and other guys on the team have pushed themselves to be ready for training camp."

Ninkovich: 'Going to be a better defense'

July, 23, 2014
Jul 23
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Defensive end Rob Ninkovich recognizes that the rest of the NFL knows the New England Patriots should have a better defense this season. But with training camp set to start on Thursday morning, Ninkovich is ready to put the work in with his teammates to accomplish that.

With the signings of cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner and veteran defensive end Will Smith, the focus has been around the new additions to the defense. Even Ninkovich cannot ignore that having a player like Revis gives the team the ability to shut down any receiver it wants.

Ninkovich
While the Patriots added key players this offseason, they also lost a significant number of players to injury in 2013, especially along the defensive line. Ninkovich is looking forward to having his teammates healthy around him to start training camp.

“Last year it was tough when we lost [Jerod] Mayo and Vince [Wilfork] and Tommy [Kelly],” Ninkovich said. “Having those guys next to you definitely gives you more confidence.”

The injuries hurt the depth of the line, which contributed to Ninkovich playing more than 90 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. Only teammate Chandler Jones took more defensive snaps among all defensive linemen in the NFL last season. Ninkovich has nine years of experience, but he is still feeling young after a long 2013 season.

“Whatever it is, I’m going to be out there,” Ninkovich said of his playing time. “If it’s 90, 100, if it’s 80, I’m going to be out there playing just as hard.”

The Patriots will need Ninkovich as the team looks to improve on third down and get off of the field. After ranking 26th in the NFL in defensive third-down conversions last season, Ninkovich emphasized working together in coverage and the rush, especially in third-and-long situations.

As a returning veteran, Ninkovich knows what to expect at camp after going through the hard days.

“This is where you kind of set the tone for the season,” Ninkovich said. "I think that the NFL knows we’re going to be a better defense. But we have to put the work in."
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – It’s hard to believe that it’s been 10 years since offensive lineman Logan Mankins arrived at Gillette Stadium for the first time, the New England Patriots’ top draft choice in 2005 having grown up on a cattle ranch and buying his first business suit for the occasion.

Mankins
The fit, all around, has been a good one. Now the question is how much longer the 32-year-old plans to stay in the football business.

“That’s a good question. It depends on health, I think, and if they want to keep me around here still,” Mankins said Wednesday morning. “I just want to play until I think I don’t feel good. If I can’t do it, I don’t think I’ll keep going once I don’t think I’m playing the way I want to.”

Mankins, a perennial Pro Bowler, obviously hasn’t reached that point.

“I feel great right now,” he said, before considering the grind of training camp ahead: “I’m sure in a few days, I’ll feel like crap.”

A couple of soundbites from Mankins:

On new offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo: “It’s been great. Googe is a good guy, a hard-working guy, he’s very loud and he gets his point across well. He’s funny. Once the pads come on, we’ll really see how he wants things done and the way he coaches. We haven’t experienced him in a game situation yet. We’re still getting to know him, he’s still getting to know us, and that’s what all these practices are for.”

Despite continuity, no guarantees on the offensive line: “We do have a lot of veterans returning. We have some new young guys that are fitting in nicely so far. It’s always good to know the guys you’re with that you can trust them. This is the time of year you’ve got to go out and prove it. You’ve got to earn your job. That’s what training camp is for.”
Rex Ryan showed his new boss last season that, even when speaking softly, he still carried a big enough stick to squeeze eight wins out of a team with modest talent. The New York Jets' coach received a well-deserved contract extension.

Now, with the Jets reporting to training camp Wednesday in Cortland, New York, for Year 2 of the Ryan-John Idzik era, we start to learn a lot more about the other half of the leadership tandem, the quiet man who prefers to stay out of the spotlight.

This is Idzik's time.

[+] EnlargeMilliner
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesDee Milliner is one of John Idzik's draft picks that needs to produce for the Jets.
It's impossible to evaluate a general manager after one season, especially in a rebuilding situation, but the landscape changes after two drafts and two rounds of free agency. In the NFL, that’s enough time to get a team from the 6-10 mess that Idzik inherited into the playoffs.

Idzik's predecessors, Terry Bradway in 2001 and Mike Tannenbaum in 2006, reached the postseason in their first seasons as GMs. Go back further, and you will remember that Bill Parcells made it to the AFC Championship Game in his second year as the GM/coach.

Even though Idzik is operating on a long-term plan, evidenced by his emphasis on the draft and his deliberate approach in free agency, an 0-for-2 start wouldn't look good on his résumé. He shouldn't be on the New York Mets' Sandy Alderson timeline, meaning he has to move faster than a glacier. It's just the way of the NFL.

Idzik has been around long enough to put his stamp on the team. He signed, re-signed and drafted most of the projected starters. In fact, only seven starters can be considered true holdovers from the previous administration: D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Nick Mangold, Muhammad Wilkerson, David Harris, Damon Harrison, Quinton Coples and Demario Davis.

It's easy to notice they're the best guys on the team, Tannenbaum guys. Idzik needs to get some of his guys on that list. He already has Sheldon Richardson. By the end of the season, the list of top homegrowns should also include Geno Smith, Dee Milliner and Calvin Pryor. If Smith and Milliner are missing, the Jets will miss the playoffs for the fourth straight season, which won’t bode well for Ryan's job security.

Idzik has the Jets pointed in the right direction, and the strides they made last season can't be dismissed. But let's be honest: They overachieved. They were one of the softest 8-8 teams in history, and you can look it up. Their point differential was minus-97, the largest since the 1970 merger for any team with at least eight wins.

The talent base should be improved this season, especially with the additions of Eric Decker and Chris Johnson. Decker was Idzik's one big splurge in free agency, his one Tannenbaum-like move. Johnson and Michael Vick will be one-and-done players, worthwhile Band-Aids who won't ruin the master plan if they fizzle. The offseason proved, once again, that Idzik won't deviate from his script no matter how much salary-cap room he has at his disposal. For the record, there's about $22 million as of today.

Idzik is doing it the right way, avoiding the temptation of the quick fix. That will pay off in the long run, but there will be problems along the way. For instance: Failing to sign a top cornerback in free agency was a mistake that could be exposed early in the season, when they face several elite quarterbacks. The cornerback issue will be exacerbated if Milliner fails to develop as hoped.

The Jets believe Milliner, drafted ninth overall, will be a special player, basing much of their opinion on his strong finish. The same theory can be applied to the quarterback situation with Smith. They're placing a lot of weight on those last four games, and that can be dangerous when you consider the competition. They beat three also-rans, three teams with mediocre (at best) quarterbacks: the Oakland Raiders, Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins.

Now, after seven months of positive mojo, the Jets can prove it wasn't a mirage. If Idzik's investments mirror the stock market, they'll be a playoff team. If it goes the other way, he'll hear the criticism, good and loud. The honeymoon is over. This is Idzik's time.

Quick hits around the Patriots

July, 22, 2014
Jul 22
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Some quick hits around the New England Patriots:

Finch not expected to be sidelined for long. Rookie running back Roy Finch, the undrafted undersized jitterbug who looked shifty in spring camps, landed on the active/non-football injury list Monday but isn't expected to be there for an extended period. There has been no serious injury with Finch from the time he participated in spring camps to when rookies reported Sunday. This adds some context to his inclusion on the injured Patriots players list from Tuesday morning.

Fan lottery for those interested in Washington-New England joint practice. When the Patriots travel for joint practices with Washington, it will be a ticketed event because of limited space at the team's practice facility. Those considering a trip would need to enter the lottery by July 25.

ESPN is scheduled to be at Patriots practice Friday. ESPN will have a live television set at Patriots training camp on Friday, with Hannah Storm and Tedy Bruschi leading the coverage.

Updating the roster with Manumaleuna and Byham. Jersey numbers for defensive lineman Eathyn Manumaleuna (64) and tight end Nate Byham (84) have been issued.

Another No. 4 power ranking. Pete Prisco of CBSSports.com puts together his power rankings and has the Patriots fourth, which is the same spot as ESPN.com and Pro Football Talk. "Don't buy the idea that Tom Brady is running out of time. He is still playing at a high level, but just needs a little more help," Prisco writes.

Count Outsiders among Mallett fans. In putting together a list of 25 "breakout prospects" on ESPN.com, Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders lists Patriots quarterback Ryan Mallett among the group. Safety Duron Harmon lands in the honorable mention category.

Bills Camp Report: Day 3

July, 22, 2014
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PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Buffalo Bills training camp:
  • After weather-related delays kept him in Alabama through Monday night, defensive tackle Marcell Dareus returned to St. John Fisher College on Tuesday afternoon. Coach Doug Marrone said earlier in the day that Dareus would immediately begin working with the strength and conditioning staff. It's unclear when Dareus will re-take his conditioning test. The Bills practice at 8 a.m. Wednesday, and it's highly unlikely Dareus will join his teammates on the field at that time. They have a day off Thursday before returning to practice Friday evening.
  • Tuesday was the Bills' first padded practice, and it proved problematic for the offensive line. They allowed at least five sacks, while EJ Manuel had several other throw-aways and scrambles. Moreover, Manuel struggled with his accuracy as the Bills transitioned into third-down situations during team drills. Manuel was first to the podium after practice and was immediately asked to sum up what a reporter called a "rough" day. "No, it was a good day," Manuel responded. "I thought we had a good day." Minutes later, Marrone came to the podium and was asked a similar question. "Yeah in the beginning [it was sloppy]," he said. "They finished strong, but it was not what we wanted." I don't think the difference in assessments represents as much a disconnect between head coach and quarterback as much as it does a difference in approaches. Manuel has been even-keeled with the media since arriving last season and tends to present hiccups as part of a process in getting better. Marrone, especially after some losses last season, typically expresses a greater sense of urgency. It's better if both are on the same page, but both leadership philosophies have their benefits.
  • We've seen both Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel take reps with the second team in team drills through the first few days of training camp. Lewis was the clear-cut No. 2 quarterback last season, but his status his now in doubt. "We have a battle for the second team quarterback," Marrone said Tuesday. "We’re trying to find out who it’s going to be, and Jeff did a nice job in OTAs and he’s earned himself some more reps." This could be more important than the backup battle on most teams. Manuel missed six games last season, allowing Lewis to start five games and Tuel to start one. The Bills decided not to bring in another experienced quarterback to compete this offseason, so it will be either Lewis or Tuel again this season if Manuel suffers another injury.
  • Rookie offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson left the field with trainers following practice and looked to be dealing with heat-related issues. Alone that's not a major problem; several players have cramped up over the past few days. But Henderson is under increased scrutiny given his issues at the University of Miami. He cut short his pro day because he was "overheated," while he also had some issues with the heat at one point during OTAs. He passed the conditioning test, but is Henderson in his best possible shape? If the Bills offense wants to up the tempo, they'll need their offensive linemen to be mobile. Any long-term absence from Cordy Glenn could thrust Henderson into the starting lineup and bring his physical condition into further focus.
  • The Bills made a pair of minor roster moves Tuesday. They signed undrafted rookie linebacker Xavius Boyd out of Western Kentucky, who was in spring camps with the Baltimore Ravens. To make room for Boyd on the 90-man roster they waived/injured rookie linebacker Darrin Kitchens, who was carted off the field Monday with a "lower body" injury.
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PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- In his prime, Randy Moss made it look easy.

With long arms, big strides and blazing speed, Moss both towered over defenders and blew past them. He had a way of making downfield catches seem effortless, the football equivalent of Yao Ming grabbing a rebound.

Through three training camp practices, I can't help but think of Moss when I watch Buffalo Bills wide receiver Sammy Watkins.

Physically, Moss had the edge. He's 6-foot-4, while Watkins is 6-foot-1. Moss ran a 40-yard dash in 4.25 seconds; Watkins checked in at 4.46 seconds.

But when Watkins cut through three defenders with the stride of a gazelle during Monday's practice, I saw Moss. When Watkins had three steps on cornerback Leodis McKelvin on a fly pattern Monday -- and again Tuesday -- and reached out, snagged the ball and walked into the end zone, I saw Moss.

If Watkins keeps that up, it will be a much-needed shot in the arm for an offense that scored just 16 passing touchdowns last season, tied for second-worst in the NFL.

One of many culprits of the offense's ineptitude last season, quarterback EJ Manuel has looked his best when throwing to Watkins this week. It's not quite Moss catching passes from Daunte Culpepper, but the potential is there.

The rookie receiver and second-year quarterback were shaky at the end of spring practices, but Manuel has been nearly perfect on passes intended for Watkins this week, whether they've been short, deep or anywhere in between.

[+] EnlargeSammy Watkins
AP Photo/Bill WippertThrough three training camp practices, Buffalo Bills first-round pick Sammy Watkins has excelled on the field.
That's been a high point of Watkins' performance thus far. He doesn't just excel at catching flashy deep balls. The Bills have sent Watkins across the middle and he's executed in that part of the field, using his long arms and soft hands to reel in one pass over a linebacker on Monday.

"He's made a very good career for himself, in college, being able to go over the middle. That's always a big test when you get to this level to make sure you can come over the middle," coach Doug Marrone said. "He’s a fearless player and, again, at the same time you have to be smart when you do that."

Later on Monday, Watkins came over the middle again, leaping to grab a tipped pass and coming down hard. He was slow to get up, and teammates quickly surrounded him. He came off the field with a trainer and was down on one knee on the sideline.

As it turned out, he was poked in the eye. Crisis averted.

But for those few minutes, the crowd at St. John Fisher College was silent. Twitter was buzzing. Marrone walked over to check on his first-round pick.

That's the impact Watkins has brought to the Bills. Losing him to an injury would be catastrophic.

"He's made plays in this camp," Marrone said Monday. "I think a lot of people are excited."

While Watkins' play early in camp has been reminiscent of Moss, his persona off the field hasn't. Moss was one of the more quotable players in recent NFL history, drawing attention for often the wrong reasons.

Watkins' approach has been different.

"There's a gentleman on that (Clemson) staff that I worked with that I have a great amount of respect for," Marrone said Monday. "He said to me that, '[Watkins] is one of the most humble superstars that I've been around.' "

There is a long way to go -- most teams haven't even started training camp yet -- but the early returns on Watkins have been decidedly positive.

He's been making it look easy.
You know the drill. The New York Jets' training camp opens Wednesday, which means there are questions. We've got answers.

1. When will Rex Ryan name his starting quarterback?

Smith
Technically, we've been waiting 11 months, but that is an old story and this is no time to look back. The conventional approach is to name the starter after the third preseason game (Aug. 22 against the New York Giants), but it wouldn't be a surprise if Ryan moves up the timetable. It all depends on Geno Smith, the front-runner. If he plays lights-out in the first two games and gets the nod over Michael Vick versus the Giants, it will be a fait accompli. Memo to Ryan: The health of your quarterback is more important than the Snoopy Trophy.

2. Are there any injured players that bear watching as camp opens?

Yes, three in particular: Running back Chris Johnson (knee), right guard Willie Colon (knee/biceps) and linebacker Antwan Barnes (knee). Obviously, Johnson's health is a big key to the Jets' season, so you can count on his surgically repaired knee being a topic of conversation throughout camp. The plan is to put him on a modified practice schedule, building toward the Sept. 7 opener. It will be interesting to see how they use him in the exhibitions. Johnson likes his touches; he's had anywhere from 19 to 33 carries in the preseason over the course of his career. It wouldn't be a shock if Colon and/or Barnes begin camp on the physically-unable-to-perform list as they work their way back into shape. It will be a breath of fresh air, not having to chronicle the "will-he-or-won't-he?" whims of Santonio Holmes and his damaged wheel.

3. Is there strength in numbers at wide receiver?

Decker
The Jets have seven receivers with NFL experience, including marquee newcomer Eric Decker, plus three draft picks. Not one of them, however, is a true game-changer. You can still win with solid, dependable receivers (look at the Seattle Seahawks), and the Jets have three in Decker, Jeremy Kerley and David Nelson. You will read a lot this summer about Stephen Hill, who almost certainly will make the all-Cortland team, as usual. The question, as usual, is whether he can sustain it for the regular season. If you are looking for a dark horse, keep an eye on veteran Greg Salas, who impressed the coaches in minicamp.

4. Which returning starters are in danger of losing their jobs?

Not counting Smith, who will be "pushed" by Vick (that is the oft-used company line), the players facing the most competition are Colon, tight end Jeff Cumberland and safety Dawan Landry. In each case, there is a young player in the picture battling for playing time. Chances are, the tight-end situation will be a time-share between Cumberland and second-round pick Jace Amaro, whose role will hinge on how quickly he can absorb the offense. Based on minicamp, it will take some time.

5. Is there anything to worry about on defense?

The secondary is the No. 1 concern. This probably will be the youngest defensive backfield of the Ryan era, with a second-year cornerback (Dee Milliner), a rookie safety (Calvin Pryor), a third-year safety (Antonio Allen) and a rookie cornerback (Dexter McDougle) projected to play prominent roles. Can you say "growing pains"? If veteran corner Dimitri Patterson gets hurt, which he tends to do, it will put a strain on this rebuilding unit.

6. What's the deal with all the playoff chatter? Is the optimism justified?

Sure, why not? 'Tis the season for happy talk. The Jets finished 8-8, added some talent and lost only two players that played more than 500 snaps last season -- right tackle Austin Howard and cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who stunk. Expressing confidence is fine as long as it doesn't cloud their minds with unrealistic expectations.
Geno SmithGrant Halverson/Getty ImagesGeno Smith expects "big things" from himself in 2014, and the Jets will need that to be successful.
Geno Smith heard Michael Vick's name more than a few times last season in the New York Jets' offensive meeting room. Occasionally, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg used Vick as an example when explaining to his quarterbacks how he wanted a particular play to be run.

The name-dropping was understandable. After all, there was history between Mornhinweg and Vick. Smith soaked it up, taking copious notes as he navigated a winding rookie season.

This season, the real Vick, not the ghost, will be sitting alongside Smith in the meeting room. That can be a good thing -- Smith can learn straight from the source -- or a bad thing if he becomes unnerved by Vick's presence. If Smith is bothered by the situation, he's not letting on. He sounds like a proven veteran, not a second-year quarterback who endured one of the worst statistical seasons in recent times.

"I don't want to make any statements or put anything out there, but once the season comes, I mean, I expect big things," Smith told ESPN.com in a recent interview. "I believe fully in myself. I have the utmost confidence in myself. I know I have the ability to play in this league."

There are doubters, to be sure, but Smith's conviction was steeled by his encouraging finish last season. His teammates and coaches saw it in the offseason, with the decisiveness he showed in the huddle in spring practices and the self-confidence he demonstrated in the locker room. That was one of the biggest takeaways from the offseason: the New Geno.

It has to be a new Geno if the Jets hope to snap their three-year playoff drought. Right now, the Jets have eight-win talent, but that modest number jumps to double digits if Smith improves as much as they believe he can.

[+] EnlargeGeno Smith, Michael Vick
Noah K. Murray/USA TODAY SportsWill Michael Vick's presence be a good thing or a bad thing for Geno Smith?
"We're not playing yet -- we're not in the stadium yet, people aren't in the stands -- but Geno is a strongly improved player at this point," quarterbacks coach David Lee said.

Thousands of words will be written and spoken this summer about Eric Decker and Chris Johnson, the Jets' marquee additions, but 2014 is all about Smith, whom the Jets expect to be their season-opening starter.

They say he's stronger and faster. As part of his offseason regimen, Smith trained with a speed parachute, proudly texting photos of himself to Lee.

They say his footwork now comes naturally. A year ago, he was so unfamiliar with the Jets' offense that he counted steps in his head.

They say his command of Mornhinweg's system has improved to the point where he's self-sufficient. As a rookie, Smith leaned heavily on center Nick Mangold, who did more hand-holding than a lovestruck teenager.

"It's gotten away from me telling him exactly what to do," Mangold said. "Now it's more of a two-way discussion."

They say Smith is more of a leader than last year. Let's be clear: He's not a fiery, in-your-face kind of quarterback, but there are indications that he wants to make it his team.

In March, when he learned of the Decker signing on ESPN's Bottom Line, Smith immediately texted general manager John Idzik, asking for Decker's number. He reached out to his newest receiver, welcoming him to the team, discussing places to live in New Jersey and asking Decker about his favorite pass routes.

Smith tried to do that with every newcomer, even draft picks, taking ownership in the team. A year ago, he kept to himself, trying to fit in.

"I didn't want to come in as that guy who thinks he knows it all," Smith said. "I feel like I had to earn my stripes, and I feel like I've done that to a certain extent.

"But I'm still learning, still growing. I still listen to the vets, but it's a different level of leadership from me. Last year, I was a vocal guy when I needed to be, but it wasn't as much as I'm going to show this year."

Smith threw 21 interceptions, and that was a source of frustration for coaches and players alike, but they maintained their support because they respected his work ethic and mental toughness. No matter how bad it got, he refused to fold.

"He went through everything a rookie quarterback could go through," guard Willie Colon said. "Now he's like, 'All right, it's time for me to step up.' He's embracing the challenge. We all know Geno is feisty. He's strong-minded. He has the ability to fight. We believe in him."

[+] EnlargeGeno Smith
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY SportsAs a rookie, Geno Smith passed for 3,046 yards with 12 touchdowns and 21 interceptions.
Former Jets quarterback Brady Quinn, a member of the team for the first half of the season, marveled at Smith's resilience. He pointed to the early-season win over the Atlanta Falcons, when Smith rallied the Jets in the final two minutes on a Monday night stage -- one week after an absolute stinker against the Tennessee Titans.

"Every time Geno felt challenged, whether it was in the press or by anyone else, he usually responded and played a great game," Quinn said. "I think he had five come-from-behind wins. Those are powerful statements."

Quinn came away impressed with Smith, who he believes has "a ton of arm talent." Unfortunately, there wasn't much talent around that arm, resulting in one of the worst offenses in the league. That should change with Johnson in the backfield and Decker on the perimeter.

It's all there for Smith in Year 2, but there still are plenty of critics. In a recent ESPN.com poll of 25 personnel executives and coaches, he was rated the worst starting quarterback in the league.

Do the Jets know something that no one else does? Maybe they do. Mornhinweg and Lee are widely respected offensive minds, so their opinions carry weight. Their jobs, along with that of Rex Ryan, could be riding on Smith. If he backslides or fails to show improvement, it'll be a costly setback for the organization.

Smith's biggest challenge is reading defenses, according to people who have studied him on tape. He was a one-read quarterback at West Virginia, so it was a difficult transition to Mornhinweg's version of the West Coast offense, which is predicated on multiple reads and exact timing.

There were long stretches last season in which Smith showed questionable instincts for the position, making poor decision after poor decision. The Jets expect that to get better with experience.

The new variable for Smith is the Vick factor. This is a different ballgame for Smith, who didn't have to worry last season about losing his job. Even though Vick claims he will embrace the mentor role, he's a direct threat to Smith. One or two bad games, and the masses will be screaming for a change.

You could certainly argue that Vick, 34, is better than Smith and deserves a fair shot at the starting job, but the powers-that-be have decided to stack the competition in Smith's favor, making it his job to lose. They won't hand it to him. He'll have to earn it, staving off a player he grew up admiring. It's a fascinating dynamic, especially with the Mornhinweg factor. Smith is battling his role model for a role.

"I don't feel any pressure at all," Smith said. "Maybe, in the outside world, people might think that way. If I do hit a rough patch, I fully expect Mike to pick me up. If it was the other way around, I'd do the same for him because that's the way we are. We're friends and we're teammates."

They're close. Soon, we'll find out if it's too close for comfort.

Bills Camp Report: Day 2

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
8:30
PM ET
PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Buffalo Bills training camp:
  • There has been a throng of national media watching Bills camp through two days and they've seen Sammy Watkins put on a show. After catching every pass thrown his way in Sunday night's practice, Watkins continued to impress on Monday. He strode past Leodis McKelvin for a would-be touchdown grab early in practice and made a catch over three defenders look effortless later on. It's not just the deep game, either: he used his long arms to snag a pass on a crossing pattern, through traffic at one point as well. Watkins has that rare size and speed combination that can make him a dangerous weapon against opposing defenses. His height, long arms, and make-it-look-easy strides remind me of Randy Moss.
  • Speaking of height and speed, I've been impressed with Bryce Brown thus far in camp. The 6-foot running back has long legs and shows some burst getting into the second level. The Bills coveted Brown for more than a year before acquiring him in May. It remains to be seen how many carries the Bills can siphon from C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson to Brown, but he adds depth to a backfield that didn't have much of it last season.
  • Nigel Bradham continues to see first-team reps at linebacker, a surprise given how his role virtually evaporated under defensive coordinator Mike Pettine last season. Even coach Doug Marrone has noticed a change in Bradham's work ethic. "Honestly, I think last year Nigel struggled at times with us," Marrone said Monday. "I saw a change, more of a commitment from him when we came back, which I give him a lot of credit for." The Bills are giving Bradham the first crack at replacing Kiko Alonso and he seems to have impressed the coaching staff. The issue with Bradham may be his abilities in stopping the run: The Bills turned to Arthur Moats last season against heavier offenses and rookie Preston Brown is knocking on the door for playing time on defense. It's a battle we'll continue to monitor closely.
  • After missing all of organized team activities and minicamp, T.J. Graham is back practicing this week. The results have been up-and-down. He made the play of Sunday's practice when he caught a deep bomb from Jeff Tuel, but in one of his first routes Monday he had a pass fall right through his hands after beating a defender on a similar deep route. Graham is the top "bubble" player for the Bills and can't afford those sort of plays.
  • Cordy Glenn remained out of practice Monday and the Bills are still mum on what landed him on the non-football illness list. "It’s a medical condition. I’m preparing to go on as if he’s not playing, which he’s not," Marrone said. "I’m just waiting for the doctors and I can’t speak about the condition because it’s something that happened outside of football. I’m planning on playing and right now he’s not there, so I have to play with him not being there. When they tell me he’s there then obviously we’ll plug him back in."
PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- A hush went over the crowd.

After jumping up to catch a pass and coming down hard, Buffalo Bills wide receiver Sammy Watkins was slow to get up following a play late in Monday's practice.

[+] EnlargeSammy Watkins
Bill Wippert/AP PhotoBills trainer Bud Carpenter tends to receiver Sammy Watkins during Monday's practice.
Watkins' teammates called for trainers, who escorted him to the sidelines. Coach Doug Marrone even went over to check on his first-round pick.

As it turned out, Watkins simply had his eye poked.

He was back into practice soon after but it was the sort of moment that captured fans' attention both at St. John Fisher College and across social media.

Watkins' scare was the highlight of Monday's practice, one that also included linebacker Brandon Spikes leaving for apparent heat-related issues. Spikes removed his gear and was placed in a cooling tent about halfway through practice.

Meanwhile, rookie linebacker Darrin Kitchens was carted off during a special teams drill, while cornerback Brandon Smith limped off the field in a subsequent drill.

The back-to-back injuries are a reminder that the Bills, with the NFL's longest training camp, will have to endure the summer. An injury to Watkins -- or second-year quarterback EJ Manuel -- will be a major setback. The Bills dodged a bullet with Watkins on Monday.

Fortunately for the team, they had two more players avoid serious problems after leaving Sunday's practice. Wide receiver Marquise Goodwin, who dealt with complications from sickle cell anemia on Sunday, was back practicing Monday, as was Seantrel Henderson, who left Sunday's session with a hip injury.

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