Hope springs from minicamp
Arrival of new talent has improved outlook for Buccaneers, Lions and Rams
Although the St. Louis Rams, Detroit Lions and Tampa Bay Buccaneers may be another draft or two away from being truly competitive, their first minicamps of 2010 -- three of the 25 full or rookie minicamps conducted over the weekend -- gave fans hope.
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The most interesting might have been Tampa Bay's. Second-year Bucs coach Raheem Morris debuted the new interior of what should be a good defensive line. Gerald McCoy and Brian Price lined up as the team's new defensive tackles, and although it was a downer that Price tweaked a hamstring, the Bucs' defense appears to have a new foundation. Third-round pick Myron Lewis, drafted as a safety, could help as a third corner and may be a starter down the line.
The biggest reason for optimism came from the Bucs' receiving corps. Two rookies -- second-rounder Arrelious Benn and fourth-round pick Mike Williams -- are potential starters. Second-year QB Josh Freeman might have gotten his wish of acquiring new young weapons to help the passing offense. The Bucs could get four or five starters from this draft.
In St. Louis, Sam Bradford did enough to show he could be in competition for a starting job in Week 1. To help Bradford make the conversion from Oklahoma's spread offense, Rams coaches kept him behind center in each of the practices. He did well. Second-round pick Rodger Staffold worked as a backup left tackle, third-round pick Jerome Murphy showed he might help as a third corner and fourth-rounder Mardy Gilyard showed flashes at wide receiver.
Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was as dominant as billed, but the excitement out of Lions camp was running back Jahvid Best, whom the Lions traded up to acquire in the first round. The Lions want Best to be a starter if Kevin Smith is slow coming back from knee reconstruction, but the plan is to use him as a pass-catcher and breakaway runner.
Besides the influx of new players, the schedule also offers hope for these teams. The Bucs (.394), Rams (.431) and Lions (.438) have the three easiest nondivision schedules in football, each with five games against teams that had losing records in 2009. All three teams might not be good enough to win many division games, but if some of these rookies come through, they could move out of the basement of the NFL.
From the inbox
Q: I just noticed the Steelers have no prime-time games in the first six weeks of the season, when they'll supposedly be without Ben Roethlisberger. But then they will play in prime time from Weeks 8-10. How can the commish claim that the suspension and schedule release had nothing to do with each other?
Ethan in College Station, Texas
A: Roger Goodell's hands are clean on this one. The suspension was decided just as the schedule had been completed. You have to figure that Roethlisberger will do everything possible to be back after four games, not six. The main attractions for Pittsburgh in the first four weeks are home games against Atlanta and Baltimore, and there were more attractive prime-time options in the first four weeks of the season. I don't see any conspiracy theory here.
To Joe in Columbia, S.C., when you last asked about how the Steelers and Ravens matched up last fall, I said the Steelers were the better team. Pittsburgh faded down the stretch, and now Baltimore holds the edge in their matchup. The Ravens have a great chance at winning 11 games this season, particularly if they win their September road game in Pittsburgh when Ben Roethlisberger is serving his suspension. Sean in Vallejo, Calif., is a high-level manager who trains employees on interviewing techniques. Sean notes that asking Dez Bryant if his mother was a prostitute is illegal and could be vulnerable to a lawsuit. Bryant is ready to move on from the story, but the Jeff Ireland incident is a good education for all interviewers: Don't ask such questions. Mike in Wantagh, N.Y., even if JaMarcus Russell is released by the Raiders, I'd still say Ryan Leaf goes down as a bigger bust. Coming out of college, Russell looked like a young John Elway. Leaf seemed more ready for the NFL than Russell, which puts Leaf at the top of my bust list. With Russell, you knew there was some work needed. Mike in Lewisburg, W. Va., did some numbers-crunching on the second-year starting stats for Russell and Jason Campbell and found they were comparable. Russell had 2,423 yards, 13 touchdowns, eight interceptions and a 77.1 quarterback rating. Campbell had 2,700 yards, 12 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and a 77.6 rating. But you have to go beyond the stats. Campbell could get the ball to his wide receivers. Russell couldn't look off corners when throwing to wide receivers and had either incompletions or interceptions. It was time for a change. To fix the Seahawks' needs at defensive end, Kyle in Seattle proposes a trade for Osi Umenyiora. It would be a no-brainer as far as filling a need, but the price might be a first-round pick and the Seahawks won't do that. They need young players to build. Sunil in San Mateo, Calif., wonders if Marc Bulger is done. Although the market for him is slow, he's still smart enough and talented enough to earn a shot if a quarterback gets injured in training camp. Teams don't think he's done. Jezer in Houston asks if the Texans' additions make them wild-card contenders. The Texans were wild-card contenders last year and are again this year. As you note, it will be interesting to see how Ben Tate fits into the running game with Steve Slaton. Jason in Salinas, Calif., I don't think the Eagles will regret trading up for Brandon Graham and not taking safety Earl Thomas. You can never go wrong when you draft a talented defensive end who can rush the passer. The Eagles have enough safeties. The Seahawks had only two safeties on their roster, so they needed Thomas. Both teams won. Adam in Columbus, Ohio, heard Mike Holmgren say the Browns won't play Colt McCoy this year, but he wonders how Jake Delhomme can do. Delhomme will be solid as long as they don't ask him to throw 30 passes a game. His record in 30-plus-pass games is horrible. Delhomme needs a running game to survive. Peter in Wichita, Kan., I have no problems with the Chiefs' offensive line now that they added Ryan Lilja and Casey Wiegmann because I believe Branden Albert is a solid left tackle. My concern is in the receiving corps. Dexter McCluster offers yards after the catch from the backfield or from the slot, but the Chiefs need more players who can run after the catch to make Matt Cassel effective. Nema in San Francisco is pretty astute. He wrote before the Raiders' minicamp that the young players drafted by the Raiders could allow them to switch to a 3-4. With Kamerion Wimbley and Rolando McClain added to the linebacking corps, it is an option. They probably will stay as a base 4-3, but they could become hybrid as the season goes on. Good call by you.
Q: I guess I don't understand how the Redskins are supposed to be so much better with Donovan McNabb than Jason Campbell while the Raiders are also supposed to be better with Campbell. If Campbell is so good and it truly was just a line issue, then how is McNabb going to do so much better? Am I missing something?
Jeremy in Seattle
A: Follow my thinking. With JaMarcus Russell, the Raiders were getting nothing out of the quarterback position. They averaged 12.3 points a game last year. Russell couldn't get the ball to the wide receivers. He didn't run the offense very well. Nothing worked. Putting Campbell on the Raiders gives them a functional, accurate quarterback. The Raiders play in the AFC West, where Philip Rivers is the only elite quarterback at the moment. Campbell can compete against Kyle Orton and Matt Cassel and has a chance to win those games. If Campbell can take the Raiders' offense to 18 points a game, the Raiders can go from being a five-win team to one that wins seven or eight. In the NFC East, Campbell was always facing an uphill battle going against McNabb, Eli Manning and Tony Romo. Campbell was the fourth-best quarterback in the division. Now the Redskins have one of the best quarterbacks in the division. In 52 starts, Campbell had 39 games decided by a touchdown or less. McNabb can add enough points to win some of those close games. That's the logic I'm using.
Jimmy in Emmaus, Pa.
A: The Giants are taking a gamble at linebacker, but they believe they can get by. We'll see. I don't fault them, though, for drafting a pass-rusher as talented as Pierre-Paul. They have to decide whether to give a big contract to Kiwanuka or Osi Umenyiora, and you figure Umenyiora is the odd man out there. Pierre-Paul can be groomed to move inside. Still, the middle linebacker position is a concern.
Q: Jimmy Clausen wasn't the only quarterback the Panthers took in the draft. Tony Pike from Cincinnati was also picked by the Panthers. If Clausen doesn't do well in training camp, would he be in jeopardy of losing the No. 2 spot to Pike?
Adam in Cincinnati
A: I doubt it, but it is possible. Brian Brohm was a second-round quarterback taken by the Packers and he ended up losing a backup chance to Matt Flynn. Gus Frerotte was a seventh-round choice in Washington and he looked better than Heath Shuler in his first training camp. Based on the minicamp over the weekend, Clausen didn't fall into the trap that caught Brohm and Shuler. Clausen looked better than Pike, which doesn't mean Pike won't have a great career. Matt Moore is currently No. 1, but I believe Clausen will win the starting job and Moore will be the backup. Pike should end up as the third quarterback. What's great for the Panthers is that they have three young quarterbacks and are much more talented at the position than they were a couple of weeks ago. It was a great draft for the Panthers.
Q: You recently said running backs don't return good value in trades. Is that because running backs break down quickly? You'd think a team like the Pats would be much more balanced and scary with a good RB and that they'd therefore be willing to pay for one.
Ben in New York
A: Running backs lose their value once they get to the ages of 28 or 29 or get 1,600 carries under their belts. The other problem is the volume of running backs on current rosters. Teams have been stockpiling two- and three-back rotations for the past couple of years and are looking more for role players than for workhorse backs. It's now rare for a back to garner more than a fourth- or fifth-round pick in return. Facts are facts: In the past three years, no team has received better than a fifth-round choice for a running back.
Q: As a Seattle fan I'm ecstatic about the draft and the trades the Seahawks have made this offseason. Regardless, the glaring gap at DE has me concerned. Is there anyone the Hawks can pick up before the season, or are they stuck?
Kevin in Honolulu
A: It should concern you, but Pete Carroll has to live with it. The Seahawks had more needs than draft choices and could only take care of so much in one draft. They fixed the backfield, drafted a left tackle, bolstered the safety position and drafted Golden Tate at wide receiver. They gambled that Charlie Whitehurst could eventually replace Matt Hasselbeck. Unrestricted free agency offers only defensive ends in their 30s. They might have to wait until next year to get the defensive end help. They will monitor what might become available, but don't hold your breath.
Q: John, I'm sure Trent Edwards will win the Bills' starting QB job this year. If he plays like he did in the beginning of the 2008 season, do the Bills have a chance to contend for the AFC East?
Drew in Boston
A: If he plays like he did at the beginning of the 2008 season, the Bills would have a chance to contend, but the situation isn't close to being the same. Edwards and the Bills had an easy schedule at the beginning of 2008. It isn't that easy this year. Secondly, the Bills' offensive line isn't close to being as good at it was back then. Finally, the receiving corps has regressed talent-wise.
Q: I'm a Jaguars fan and I love our draft. I'm self-educated on each of the players the team drafted. Gene Smith didn't reach for anyone because he stayed true to his board. We tried to trade down out of the No. 10 spot and couldn't, but the word around the league was that Tyson Alualu would be gone soon and other teams, including Miami, would have selected him as well. Our other players were from small schools and people have criticized that as well, which makes no sense.
Jordan in Charlotte, N.C.
A: I think Smith is one of the best new GMs in the league. There is no question he drafted Alualu higher than anyone expected. Most teams had a second-round grade on him, but I am going to give him some slack. Last year, cornerback Derek Cox, a third-rounder, and Terrance Knighton, a third-rounder, were two of the better rookies in the league. Alualu is an overachiever and should be a great addition to the Jaguars. I was asked on "SportsCenter" last week which first-rounder could be a surprise. I pointed to Alualu because the expectations of the other 31 teams might not be as high.
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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