Cowboys need greater depth, insurance at WR
In his latest mailbag, John Clayton tackles questions on the Cowboys' WR situation, Jared Allen, Julius Peppers, the Chargers' health and more.
Timing is everything. Free agency produces fewer and fewer starting replacements because teams can prevent their top starters from leaving. That reality raises the price of acquiring a veteran starter with Pro Bowl experience. We'll see how this affects Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers. Without a bidding war among teams, Favre's trade value at the moment is probably a fourth-rounder. But if one or two teams lose a quarterback to injury during training camp, his value could shoot up to a second-rounder.
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Three months ago, Bill Parcells could do no better than a Jacksonville third-round choice for Taylor. The NFL trade market is like the stock market -- all over the place.
Q: How effective will Minnesota be in stopping the pass now that it added Jared Allen? Does the Vikings' assumed improvement make them a favorite in the division?
Jeff in Seattle
A: Allen could be one of the biggest impact acquisitions of the season, but his impact may show up on first and second downs more than you might think. Teams don't run on the Vikings because of Kevin and Pat Williams. Why try two runs and set up third-and-8? Instead, the opposing game plan is to try more early-down passes. If Allen can disrupt the quarterback with his pass rush, the secondary will benefit. His rush should take some of the pressure off cornerbacks because they won't have to stay on their routes as long. One early-down sack should kill a drive because opponents are so one-dimensional against the Vikings. It's hard to overcome a second-and-13.
Q: The Chiefs had a good amount of draft picks this year. How long will it take Kansas City to start winning?
A: Place the Chiefs, Dolphins and Falcons in a three-year rebuilding mold, looking to rise from the ashes by 2010. That last playoff trip for the Chiefs (in 2006) was fun, but it was costly because the team got too old. Of the three teams, the Chiefs did the best job of drafting potential first-year starters. It wouldn't surprise me if the Chiefs come out with four new starters from the Class of 2008, giving them the best building block of the three teams. Like everything else, though, quarterbacks drive the success or failure of teams, so this is an important year for Brodie Croyle.
Q: Do you agree with Jerry Jones' statement about the draft that there were no wide receivers on the board past the first round that were better than what the Cowboys already had on the roster? Do you think Terry Glenn contributes at all this year? In your opinion, do the Cowboys need to look for a preseason trade or should they stick to the plan? Do you think any of the lesser-known WRs on Dallas' roster (Patrick Crayton and Miles Austin) will emerge as reliable threats to pair with T.O.?
Dave in San Francisco
Erik in Pittsburgh wonders if Peyton Manning has a serious chance of catching Brett Favre for the all-time touchdown pass record. The answer is yes -- if Favre ever retires. It won't happen if Favre flip-flops his way to staying in the league past the age of 40. Rico from Baltimore thinks the NFL should give teams salary cap breaks if players stay with teams a long time -- basically an incentive for teams to stay together. Not a chance if it takes money away from the players. An e-mailer from Reading, Pa., thinks Joe Flacco's $25 million contract is too much for an unproven starter. Remember, those types of contracts require him to be a starter to get the big money. If he's not a starter, his average salary is $1.95 million, which is cheap backup money. I think he's the starter by Week 8. To Brennen in Pittsburgh, Chad Pennington should beat out Kellen Clemens because Pennington gives the Jets a better chance of winning. Coleby in Clio, Mich., shouldn't expect RB Kevin Jones to win the starting job in Chicago. I think he will play behind Matt Forte while he regains explosiveness following his knee reconstruction. Sorry to Gene in New York, and sorry to T.J. Houshmandzadeh. I don't think the Bengals will give him a long-term contract because he's older than 30. I do think he will be a big player in free agency next season, though. To Richard, Keenan McCardell will be a veteran added to a roster in August to a team feeling as though it is short on experienced receivers. Robert in Largo, Fla., thought I made an error in saying the Patriots have the NFL's easiest schedule. He has the combined winning percentage of New England's opponents as .479. Remember, Robert, you have to count the AFC East teams twice. They play only five teams with .500 records or better.
A: I agree with Jones that there were no first-round values among the wide receivers this year, but I can't agree that the 10 receivers taken in the second round weren't as good as the Cowboys' receiving options after Terrell Owens. The NFL is in a down cycle for developing starting receivers. Most teams really don't have a No. 1, and only six Pro Bowl receivers have been developed since 2002. Blame underclassmen coming out too early and failing to live up to expectations. The Cowboys are an injury away from disaster at wide receiver. If Owens misses a game or two with an injury, it could paralyze the passing offense. The Cowboys need to be in the market for receiver help.
Joe in San Diego
A: Center Hardwick is the only Charger expected to miss the season opener. Rivers has made an amazing comeback from ACL surgery, but we've come to expect that from pocket-passing quarterbacks. Donovan McNabb and Carson Palmer set the standard. Tight end Gates has all summer to get up to speed from his toe surgery. The Chargers covered themselves at center by signing Jeremy Newberry. He should be able to get them to October when Hardwick should be ready, but don't automatically count out Hardwick for the opener. Young players tend to run ahead of schedule in recovering from injuries.
Q: John, I have been looking over the NFC as a whole, and it looks like this year could be really interesting. Who do you think will make the playoffs? Who do you think will make it all the way?
A: Three playoff teams could once again come out of the NFC East, but I wouldn't be surprised if two come out of the NFC South, knocking out one of the teams from the East. The Panthers are my surprise team if Jake Delhomme is healthy, and the Saints have a great chance to win the division. In the North, it all comes down to QB Tarvaris Jackson. If he limits his turnovers and produces more touchdown passes -- he had nine last year -- the Vikings will give the Packers a good run for the division title.
Q: The Titans were heavily criticized for not taking a receiver in the first round. However, this year I expect them to go far in the playoffs. They have a great defense with a strong D-line. They also signed TE Alge Crumpler, so they should be set to make a run in the playoffs, and maybe finally take the Colts out of first place in the AFC South.
The Titans did draft a receiver in the first round, but he was disguised as a running back. Chris Johnson, the Titans' first-round pick, will be used like a slot receiver, taking advantage of his speed and playmaking ability. Like many, I'm not sold the Titans have done enough to improve the passing offense, but maybe this wasn't the year to do it. Face it, there were no first-round receivers, and the free-agent options were risky. I'm a big believer in Vince Young. The guy is a winner. He vowed to complete more than 60 percent of his passes last year and he did. Still, I wish he had a deeper group of outside threats, but Johnson and Crumpler will help move the chains.
Q: There is no question LaDainian Tomlinson is the best back and player in the league. That being said, I think everyone is waiting to see what Adrian Peterson does in Minnesota this year. The question is: Does Brad Childress give him the ball 300-350 times this year? I'm a die-hard Eagles fan, and Childress (a former Eagles assistant) was never one to push the ball on the ground.
Matt in Delhi
A: That's where you don't get Childress. Remember, he also comes from a running offense at the University of Wisconsin. In Philadelphia, it was Andy Reid who detested the run. Now, you are seeing Badger Brad more than Eagle Brad. Clearly, you could target Peterson for about 310 carries. With so many two-back systems, only one or two backs will get more than 325 carries in a season. Peterson has improved his pass blocking, so he should be on the field for more third-down plays. It may mean fewer carries for Chester Taylor, but Peterson is clearly the next top running back superstar in this league.
Q: John, with the offseason acquisition of Justin Smith and Manny Lawson returning to health, do you think the 49ers have a chance to be a top-10 defense? Also, is Patrick Willis the best linebacker in the NFL after only one season?
A: Chris, I think they could be in the top 15, but it's still hard for me to put them in the top 10 until I see a nose tackle who can draw double-team blocks. The key to any 3-4 is the nose tackle. Mike Nolan is building a good defense, but it's a nose tackle away from taking that next step. I wouldn't call Willis the best linebacker in the league, but clearly, he's going to put a string of five or six Pro Bowls together. He has great range, instincts and leadership.
Q: Do you think Julius Peppers will rebound this season? How much do you think his poor performance last year can be attributed to the decline of Mike Rucker on the other side, or did Peppers really lose a step?
Dan in Greenville, S.C.
A: Peppers should bounce this year for a couple of reasons. First, it's a contract year. Big money is waiting for him if he can get 10 or more sacks. Second, the league revised the officiating looks along the offensive line after tackles got away with too much holding last season. Now, the ref will watch the left side to make sure the right defensive end isn't held as much. Athletic defensive ends such as Peppers suffered the price of not having those holding penalties called. It allowed the hustling defensive ends such as Allen and Patrick Kerney to be among the sack leaders.
Q: John, the Rams' five offensive line starters last year missed 47 of 80 games, and the team never had more than three starters in any single game. No wonder St. Louis finished 3-13. But will better offensive line health alone -- plus Al Saunders as offensive coordinator -- be enough to get the Rams back to .500 or better?
Will in Boston
A: I think it gives them a chance. Having a healthy line should at least improve them by four games. Marc Bulger was an easy target because of all the line injuries. The Rams' offense was shot by the first game because of the injuries. Like many top quarterbacks, Bulger lacks mobility. His game is being accurate and releasing passes quickly. There's no greatest show when your quarterback is buried in the turf.
John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
TRAINING CAMP 2008
Commentary/featuresWarner proves he has future
The Cardinals gave Kurt Warner the chance to compete with Matt Leinart for the starting spot, and the 37-year-old quarterback made the most of the opportunity. John Clayton
Pennington's learning curve
It seemed the Jets could not help Chad Pennington pack his bags fast enough. Now the most experienced QB on the Dolphins, he's relishing the chance to excel again.
• Kreidler: Future still promising for 49ers' Smith
• Clayton: Injuries impact preseason
• Seifert: A new approach in Detroit
• Smith: Favre drama a reality check for McNabb
• Kuharsky: Titans focused on defense
• Sando: Running key for Holmgren's swan song
• Mosley: Giants hope history teaches well
• Garber: Coughlin distances from SB win
• Williamson: Chiefs engergized by youth
• Chadiha: O-line might hold real keys for Jets
• Wickersham: Three tips for Favre
• Mosley: Giants done with celebrating
• Naylor: Canadian divide on NFL invasion
• Graham: Sleeper Bills | Blog: Yo, Canada
• Seifert: For a change, no distractions for Vikes
• Mosley: McNabb confident Eagles among elite
• Kuharsky: Garrard taking control
• Mosley: Eagles poised to return to prominence
• Clayton: Young on his way to elite status
• Kuharsky: Garrard ready to lead Jags
• Chadiha: Delhomme determined to seize moment
• Yasinskas: Smith's approach suits Falcons
• Mosley: Zorn's coaching desire finally fulfilled
• Williamson: Young Raiders share Kiffin's hunger
• Graham: Jets wiping slate clean
• Chadiha: Turner ready to lead Falcons
• Clayton: Vikings firmly in Jackson's corner
• Walker: Tough schedule awaits Steelers in 2008
• Mosley: Favre is QB turned ringmaster
• Clayton: 5 reasons Favre would start for Pack
• Graham: Patriots not dwelling on past
• Sando: Rams optimistic despite questions
• Williamson: Shanahan points to playoffs
• Walker: Bengals look to move past chaos
• Yasinskas: Delhomme, Peppers must step up
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Camp Confidential training camp tourA breakdown of our annual camp tour:
• Wednesday, July 30: Chargers, Cowboys
• Thursday, July 31: Texans, 49ers
• Friday, Aug. 1: Patriots
• Saturday, Aug. 2: Bengals, Panthers
• Sunday, Aug. 3: Broncos
• Monday, Aug. 4: Rams
• Tuesday, Aug. 5: Steelers
• Wednesday, Aug. 6: Jets
• Thursday, Aug. 7: Raiders | Redskins
• Friday, Aug. 8: Falcons
• Saturday, Aug. 9: Jaguars
• Tuesday, Aug. 12: Eagles | Vikings
• Wednesday, Aug. 13: Bills
• Thursday, Aug. 14: Chiefs
• Friday, Aug. 15: Giants | Seahawks
• Saturday, Aug. 16: Bucs | Lions
• Sunday, Aug. 17: Browns
• Monday, Aug. 18: Titans
Video• NFL Insiders on Bills, Broncos, more
• Rachel Nichols on Favre, Jets
• NFL Live dissects ESPN.com power rankings
Audio• Podcast: Biggest questions
Scouts Inc.• Camp outlook: AFC Q&A on X's and O's
• Camp outlook: NFC Q&A on X's and O's
• Notable quarterback battles