Quarterbacks continue along recovery trail

From impressive rookie QBs to the amazing recoveries of a number of injured signal callers, John Clayton checks in with some observations.

Updated: August 24, 2006, 3:29 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Patience eventually settles everything, so it's only fitting that Ashley Lelie was traded by the Denver Broncos on the eve of the third week of preseason games.

Lelie went to the Falcons in a three-way deal that sent halfback T.J. Duckett from Atlanta to Washington and Redskins draft picks to the Broncos. The pick could be a straight third-rounder or could involve swapping first-round picks and other picks.

More than anything else, the deal signifies that teams truly are getting into their regular-season mind-set. Other than Deion Branch's holdout, this was only a modest year for contract holdouts. Only 18 draft choices reported late, and Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart was the only healthy draft choice to miss more than two weeks of camp. Holdouts didn't impact too many camps.

Two waves of cuts are coming as teams set their rosters for the start of the regular season. There are just six teams (Giants, Bills, Steelers, Raiders, Seahawks and Saints) still training away from their home facilities, and all of them will return home by the end of the week.

Here are my 10 main observations from training camps and preseason action:

1.
This might be a better class of quarterbacks than originally thought. As many as six of the 12 drafted quarterbacks could end up as primary backups. Jay Cutler of Denver appears to be the most advanced. He already looks like a starter with the way he comes to the huddle and runs Mike Shanahan's offense. Jake Plummer doesn't face a threat to his job this season because Shanahan's mind is set on going to the Super Bowl and he needs a veteran quarterback to get him there. But Cutler looks great and will be the Broncos' quarterback of the future.

Vince Young of the Titans has a lot of work to do with his game, but he will be used as Billy Volek's backup and should get a series or two in early regular-season games. Jeff Fisher loves his mobility and accuracy in what will be a running offense. Despite Leinart's holdout, he has picked up the offense enough to be Kurt Warner's backup. The guy was given the freedom to call audibles in minicamp. He's that smart.

The big surprises have been Kellen Clemens of the Jets, Tarvaris Jackson of the Vikings and Bruce Gradkowski of the Buccaneers. Patrick Ramsey really has to pick up his game to beat out Clemens to be the Jets' No. 2. Jackson moves the offense smoothly with a strong arm and good legs and is jumping ahead of Mike McMahon. Gradkowski is the ultimate surprise and looks like a good fit in Jon Gruden's offense.

Quarterback
Cincinnati Bengals

Profile
2005 SEASON STATISTICS
Att Comp Yds TD Int Rat
509 345 3731 32 12 101.1
2.
The miracle comebacks at quarterback are right on schedule. Carson Palmer of the Bengals should find out this week whether he's up to the challenge of coming back from a January '05 knee reconstruction. Sure, he's nervous. He knows he won't be back to his old, athletic self until January '07. But if he can do well this week and play in Cincinnati's preseason game Monday against the Packers, Palmer has a chance to play in the opener. The Bengals really need to find out what Palmer can do before the season starts. Their opening schedule is tough -- at Chiefs, versus Browns, at Steelers and versus Patriots -- and they obviously want Palmer to play, but he has to be ready for them to throw him into the action. He looks good in practice. He's two months ahead of schedule. The opener against the Chiefs is eight months to the day from the time of his injury against the Steelers, so it would be only fitting for Palmer to come back.

Although there are still some questions about Palmer's status, the other quarterbacks with injury questions seem to be answering them. Daunte Culpepper seems to have fully recovered from his triple knee ligament surgery. Drew Brees of the Saints and Chad Pennington of the Jets are back from their shoulder surgeries in starting roles. Brian Griese is back from his knee reconstruction and has looked better so far than projected Bears starter Rex Grossman. Ben Roethlisberger shows no side effects from his motorcycle accident and is expanding the passing playbook in the Steelers' offense.

It has been an amazing offseason for quarterback comebacks.

3.
One big surprise is that there have been fewer quarterback controversies. One might be brewing in Chicago, where Grossman is still the starter despite two poor showings in the preseason. While Grossman has struggled, Griese has been able to step in and run the offense smoothly. Although Griese's performance shows what a smart move the Bears made to sign him this offseason, it has Bears fans wondering when -- and whether -- Grossman ever is going to take control of the offense as the starter. Lovie Smith wants him to be the starter for Week 1 (at Packers), and he's not going to let a quarterback controversy ruin his preparation for the season opener. But it's time for Grossman to step up.

J.P. Losman has all but won the Bills quarterback job. That's not a surprise. He is faster and has better arm strength than Kelly Holcomb and Craig Nall. Plus, new offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild wanted a stronger-armed quarterback for his version of the Rams offense.

As for the Raiders, it's hard to call their quarterback situation a controversy. Neither quarterback is lighting it up. Aaron Brooks probably will win the job because he's more mobile, but he completed only two passes in his first two starts before rebounding with a 10-for-17 effort in Oakland's third game. Former Raider Jerry Rice said this past weekend that Brooks doesn't have any chemistry going with Randy Moss and needs to get something going. But Andrew Walter has been just as inconsistent. Brooks wins by default.

4.
The first-time coaches ran the hardest training camps. Rod Marinelli easily won the prize for having the toughest camp. It seemed as though each practice got harder either physically or mentally. Those practices have produced a harder-hitting Lions defense. Marinelli is trying to shake up the country club atmosphere in Detroit. With new coach Scott Linehan and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett trying to raise the pace in practice, the Rams were flying around on defense. Gary Kubiak seems to have installed better timing and coordination in Houston's run blocking. Finally, Texans backs are finding a few holes to run through.

5.
The Ravens, Giants and Dolphins look like the three most-improved teams at the quarterback position. Steve McNair is the perfect quarterback for the Ravens. He has done a nice job of completing the short passes to move the offense, but he also still has the mobility to buy time to get the ball downfield. Plus, he has his go-to receiver in Derrick Mason. The two are fourth on the list of active quarterback-receiver tandems.

Quarterback
New York Giants

Profile
2005 SEASON STATISTICS
Att Comp Yds TD Int Rat
557 294 3578 24 17 75.9
Eli Manning looks much better on the short passes, which somehow held him back last year and limited him to a 52.8 percent completion percentage. Manning has a good deep arm. He should have the ability to get his completion percentage into the 60s by adding more short completions. He looks great. And how can anyone doubt Culpepper? He's a quarterback with the ability to throw 30 touchdown passes in a season, and he has shown great command behind center so far in Miami. It's hard to tell he even had a knee injury.

6.
I've never seen this much blitzing in the preseason, and it tells me to expect a year of weird, wacky defenses. Normally, defenses are pretty basic in the first two preseason games. Not this year. Defensive coordinators are testing the timing of their blitzes. It's not that they are going with a lot of exotic stuff, It's just that they are sending extra defenders. What's really noticeable is how much more they are doing it on the running downs. The tendencies have been to see teams blitz more on first and second down and rush only three or four on third down, dropping more defenders into coverage. The ability to blitz is causing more teams to have hybrid defenses. Several 4-3 defenses, such as Baltimore, the New York Giants and Miami, have an end standing up and either rushing or dropping into coverages.

7.
Because the NFL is a copycat league, more teams are incorporating no-huddle concepts into their offense. Roethlisberger and the Steelers unveiled the no-huddle last week. The Rams plan to use it a couple of series a game with Marc Bulger. Mixing in some no-huddle is a good move for teams with quarterbacks smart enough to run it. First, it limits defensive substitutions. Second, it tires out defenses as long as the quarterback moves the chains. Third, quarterbacks love it, and it's always good to find new ways to get quarterbacks excited. The Colts are still at the forefront of no-huddle offensive game plans, but the Bengals are catching up and other teams are following suit.

8.
Offensive line is probably the biggest concern throughout the league. Can the Chiefs survive without Willie Roaf on the left side of their line? The organization still is trying to talk him out of retirement. Most stops along my training camp tour this summer had concerns here. The Cowboys, Cardinals, Raiders, Chargers, Ravens, Bucs and a number of other teams could see their playoff hopes answered or dashed by the play of their offensive lines. The Packers are hoping to keep Brett Favre upright with two rookie guards -- Tony Moll and Jason Spitz. The thought going around the league is that just having an average offensive line would put you in the top 10 in the NFL. It's a big concern.

9.
The Bears should enter the season with the NFL's best defense. But the two biggest challengers are the Cowboys and the Panthers. The Dallas defense looks remarkably fast. Running backs can't get to the outside on their fast linebackers. Bill Parcells probably has put together his best defense since his Giants days. It's a 3-4 scheme with great athletes and proven tacklers. The Panthers are healthy again along the defensive line, and that secondary they built the past few years gives them the ability to blitz more because they can play more man coverage. Another defense on the radar is the Chargers'. Led by linebacker Shawne Merriman, this defense won't back down to anyone.

10.
Surprise teams might be hard to find because so many of the bottom teams are still in the early stages of rebuilding. The Jets are in a complete rebuilding phase under Eric Mangini. The 49ers have done a nice job of rebuilding their offense, but they still have a lot of work to do on the defense. The Saints have issues along their offensive line, and their defense probably will struggle. The Titans should start off slow because of a tough schedule and a young team, but they could be a tough team to deal with by the second half of the season. The Raiders need the quarterback position to be stabilized before they can make any noise. The Cleveland Browns are building things correctly, but injuries keep slowing their development.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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