Offensive growth gives Bengals hope
Over the past week, I had the pleasure of driving 1,516 miles, visiting the Panthers, Falcons, Titans and Bengals.
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I saw three playoff contenders and one of the league's potential surprise teams. Yes, I'm talking about the Bengals. It's early, but Cincinnati appears to have a glimmer of hope.
Here are some other thoughts about my journey.
Carolina: Coach John Fox has a relaxed confidence about this team. The Panthers run the ball well and play great defense. The drafting of running back Mike Goodson, who has good hands, gives them a three-back rotation. Everette Brown is an interesting pass-rusher who will probably start until Julius Peppers ends what will probably be a holdout into training camp. The Panthers still haven't established a third receiver, but it doesn't matter as much because they like to run the ball.
Atlanta: Matt Ryan looks great. His ability to read defensive adjustments is already at a five-year experience level. The offense will be good, and I was really impressed with the way Jerious Norwood ran. Though there might be some initial growing pains, the young replacements for the five departed starters on defense offer speed and versatility. The Falcons' defense has much better speed up the middle.
Tennessee: The biggest surprise is wide receiver Nate Washington. The former Steelers split end was the No. 1 flanker and was catching short, quick throws with ease. LenDale White, in the 230-pound area, moved well. The plan to replace Albert Haynesworth is to rotate four quality athletes at defensive tackle and keep pressure on blocking schemes. The Titans still have a top-seven defense, despite losing one of the best players in football.
More Clayton Analysis
John Clayton visited four teams on a recent 1,516-mile road trip. What did he learn? Listen
Cincinnati: I might not buy Chad Ochocinco's playoff guarantee, but I guarantee the Bengals will be good on offense as long as Carson Palmer is healthy. Andre Caldwell is showing some promise as a slot receiver. Ochocinco is back to being a top-level receiver after training hard this offseason. On defense, Mike Zimmer has a decent group with good speed and improved ability to pressure the quarterback. My concern might be the offensive line, but that's hard to evaluate until the team is in pads.
Let's go to this week's mail.
From the inbox
Daniel in New York
A: That's not going to happen. Ownership on both sides would prevent that from happening. First of all, Titans owner Bud Adams is a big fan of Texas alums, so he might not be willing to give up on Young this season. San Francisco ownership won't put more money or assets into the quarterback position at this juncture. It has invested a lot in Smith and others. Young would fit the 49ers' running type of offense, but the Titans also operate a run-oriented offense. Nice thought, but it won't happen.
To Dan in Fairfield, Conn., Deion Branch just started to practice in the past couple of weeks and will play a big role in the Seahawks' offense, even though he won't be the No. 1 option. When Branch is healthy, he gets good separation; he will work from the flanker position in the three-receiver set. He's not done yet. Fish in Annapolis, Md., wonders what's happening to former Giants WR Amani Toomer. If he keeps in shape, he could get a minimum-salary deal with a team that loses a wide receiver in the preseason. Unfortunately for him, he doesn't have a team striving to sign him before the start of training camp. John in Virginia admits he remains a J.P. Losman fan because he loves the deep ball and felt he never got a fair shot in Buffalo. I can't believe Losman is not on an NFL roster and could face the possibility of playing in the UFL. Losman has talent. He deserves a shot somewhere. Daniel in Telford, Pa., wonders why the Chiefs didn't go for more defensive players in the draft. Scott Pioli filled some of the defensive leadership needs through free agency. Plus, the Chiefs had a good defensive draft last year. Peter in Seattle wonders if Seahawks cornerback Josh Wilson will be the heart and soul of the team's secondary. Nope. Though he showed great improvement last year, he will be the third cornerback behind Marcus Trufant and Ken Lucas. Paulie in New York hasn't seen or read much about how Vernon Gholston is progressing. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Gholston is a work in progress who might take some time. If he's looked bad, it would be noted more. Watch him closely in the preseason because it's hard to judge 3-4 defensive players until the pads are on. Mike in College Station, Texas is curious why Bears cornerback Charles Tillman is constantly overlooked. He notes that Tillman doesn't get a lot of interceptions because he's so good in coverage. Mike, in part you answered your question. He's also been fighting injuries the past two years. When the Bears win and make the playoffs, he gets noticed. Tony in Yuma, Ariz., what are you talking about? You say I started a recent mailbag by saying Michael Vick should be banned for life. I've been saying he should be reinstated this year. I've made my position clear for months. Matt in Blacksburg, Va., there is a chance that if the Broncos trade Brandon Marshall, he could end up in Baltimore. The problem is, I'm not sold the Broncos will trade him. Of course, I heard from Josh McDaniels' mouth that he wouldn't trade Jay Cutler and he did. Krifstof in Jacksonville, Fla., has been reading stories about the Rams paying so much for offensive lineman Jason Brown. I have no problem with the signing. They are building an offensive line and it could be a good one in a year. You rarely fail in free agency when you sign a top offensive lineman. Mark in Granada Hills, Calif., picked up a little thought I recently had about the Browns' offensive line. To expand on it, left guard Eric Steinbach has been working with the second team because coach Eric Mangini wants bigger, stronger offensive linemen. Steinbach is an athletic guard who's added more than 10 pounds, but that isn't good enough. They have Rex Hadnot running ahead of him at the moment. Floyd Womack has a history of injuries. The line was good, but it now may be in transition.
Q: What is your take on the Redskins? Some say their hopes hinge on Devin Thomas' ability to emerge as a No. 2 receiver. Others say they're still far behind, especially on the offensive line. Where do you stand?
Geoff in Columbia, Md.
A: To me, the Redskins remain a playoff contender. They were last year. They are this year. They do have the easiest schedule in the NFC East. With the additions of Albert Haynesworth and Brian Orakpo, the Redskins will have a top-10 defense. If they can avoid injuries, they could be a top-five defense. Thomas should come on as the No. 3 receiver. He's had a decent offseason. If they can get to 21 points a game, they could have a very interesting season.
Q: The owners want a rookie wage scale, but are they willing to give in return for one? It probably won't be an even trade, but I think all free agency should be unrestricted. No tags, no restricted free agency. Let the owners bid if they want to spend money on veterans. Your thoughts?
Mario in Houston
A: The owners will have to give up something to correct the problems in the rookie wage scale and it will be costly. The easiest thing is guaranteeing more money to veterans. They could do that in a performance pool exclusive to veterans or add it to the veteran minimum salaries. It is a huge chip for the players, but the system needs to be changed because too much money is going to a handful of rookies at the top of a draft. The NFLPA knows benefits will be slashed in an uncapped year and the uncapped year will lead to a lockout. It's one big chip, but it's a chip that could lead to an agreement.
Q: Nice article on Jake Delhomme, but I think it is a bit hypocritical of you to point out Delhomme's struggles when he throws 30 passes while praising Ben Roethlisberger, who also struggles when he surpasses the 30-pass mark. Check it out. Big Ben may have a better record than Delhomme in games in which he throws 30 passes, but there is no question Roethlisberger's numbers dip considerably when he exceeds 30 passes.
Joshua of Mankato, Minn.
A: Thanks for the comments, but the facts are the facts. The formulas in Pittsburgh and Carolina are similar, but Roethlisberger is emerging as a better quarterback when he's asked to throw 30 passes. Trust me. Almost everyone in the Carolina organization will tell you that that 30 or more passes hinders their chances of winning. This isn't a knock at Delhomme. It's a reality. The Panthers don't have a true pass-catching tight end and they haven't had a true slot receiver since Ricky Proehl. Delhomme can win games in the final four minutes because he knows how to run comeback offenses. Roethlisberger is 9-6 in the past two years in 30-pass games. Delhomme is 7-22 over the past five years. Those are the facts.
Q: John, I have had many debates on whether Shawne Merriman will be signed to a $10 million-a-year-plus deal when his contract is up. Do you think he warrants that kind of pay?
Ralph in Chula Vista, Calif.
A: If he has a great season -- which I think he will -- he should get $10 million plus. I think he warrants those numbers because he can be one of the top defensive players in the league. In a good year, he's a candidate for defensive player of the year. The problem facing him in San Diego is team management may be reluctant to give him the money now. First, the Chargers have to take care of quarterback Philip Rivers. They could franchise Merriman, so it's not as though he's certain to leave. But if Merriman doesn't have a great 2009 season, he might have to go elsewhere to cash in.
Q: With the recession, and Buffalo's current economic climate, it seems we can't go six months without reading or hearing some dreadful news about someone looking to buy/move my beloved team. It's a concept that's hard for fans of secure teams to understand, but the threat of movement is very real to Buffalo fans, with regards to both of our teams. If Pittsburgh, Detroit (hockey/basketball) and Cleveland can field winning and financially healthy teams, why can't Buffalo make it work?
Steve in Buffalo, N.Y.
A: The good news is that Ralph Wilson is as firm about keeping the franchise in Buffalo as any owner wanting to keep a team in a city. He's not even asking for a new stadium. The problem facing Buffalo is what happens if Wilson passes. Wilson is not leaving the team to heirs, so it will be for sale, and that could bring in a new owner who might want to move it. I know a lot of people in Buffalo worry that the team could move to Toronto. Buffalo deserves an NFL franchise. I'd hate to see it move.
Q: The Vince Young situation has reached a new level of ridiculousness and it's starting to look like the Titans are going to be stuck in a precarious scenario at the end of this season. With VY's cap number ballooning to around $14 million in 2010, what do you think would be the best solution to the league's loudest backup quarterback? Do we trade him, cut him or restructure him?
Mike G in Nashville, Tenn.
A: Young has a year to win back the locker room. If Kerry Collins stays healthy all season, that might not happen, and Young will be a goner next year. But Young can win back some respect. He can regain the confidence of Jeff Fisher and do some things in Wildcat formation. He can put up big numbers in the preseason. His situation is now the same as Matt Leinart's in Arizona. They are first-round picks who have to hold a clipboard until they get an opportunity. It's hard to project what the organization will think of Collins in 2010. But you are right. At $14 million, it's going to be hard to keep Young next year, but don't count him out yet.
Q: I am a major Titans fan and was wondering what your opinion is on how the wedge ban may or may not affect the team's return units.
Terry in La Vergne, Tenn.
A: I didn't want to do back-to-back Titans questions, but you bring up a topic that has been a staple in my inbox throughout the offseason. On the surface, I questioned the new rule, which prevents more than two players from forming a blocking wedge during kickoff returns. Then I watched film of players who suffered career-threatening neck injuries or serious concussions. Player safety is important, so I believe it is a great rule change. I saw four to five injuries on those films. If you saw them, you would understand.
Q: How different would the NFL be if Randy Moss had been traded to the Packers, not the Patriots?
Sean in Naperville, Ill.
A: What a great question. First, I believe having Moss on the Packers would have convinced Brett Favre to stay in Green Bay. Here's the twist to this story: I don't know if the trade would have changed much for the Packers. They won 13 games and went to the NFC title game in 2007. Maybe the Patriots wouldn't have gone to the Super Bowl without Moss. Clearly, Tom Brady might not have had a 50-touchdown season without him. The bigger effect, though, would have been in 2008. The Packers would have probably still had Favre. History was changed with that trade.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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