QBs put Packers, Bears in the running
The training camp trip started a week ago in Green Bay and has proceeded with a team a day.
I've put more than 2,000 miles on two rental cars, but the trip has given me plenty of time to reflect on teams and the things we've learned.
Let's spend a few minutes discussing a few things that have either slipped under the radar or that keep buzzing in my mind as I'm staring down the highway.
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The trip through the NFC North was the most fascinating. The Vikings have the best talent in the division, but they don't have the best quarterback. Jay Cutler and Aaron Rodgers look great, and give the Bears and Packers a chance to challenge for the division title. If Rod Marinelli can shape up the Bears' defensive line and if Mike McCarthy's switch to the 3-4 improves the Packers' run defense, Vikings RB Adrian Peterson's advantage in divisional games won't be as substantial as it was a year ago.
With the Packers, I think it might take two seasons to successfully adjust the linebacking corps. The Packers have two great athletes at inside linebacker -- Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk -- but they don't have that run-stopping thumper at inside linebacker. The good news is how well Ryan Pickett is adjusting to nose tackle.
Reflecting on the Bears for a second, tight end Greg Olsen will be the team's best receiver. Cutler thinks Olsen will have a Pro Bowl season. Judging by the way the Bears are using him in practice, Olsen has become the main target of the offense. He's not just a tight end. He's a 6-foot-5 target with 4.5 speed who is being moved around in the scheme to take advantage of his abilities.
Here are some final thoughts: Pierre Garcon does indeed have the lead to become the Colts' third receiver. The temporary loss of Donnie Avery in St. Louis is devastating. Avery had a huge gap on everyone else at flanker. At split end, though, Laurent Robinson, who came over from Atlanta in a trade, is better than I expected.
The Steelers might have the best linebacking corps in the league if Lawrence Timmons, who has unbelievable range, plays like a Pro Bowler. LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison get the sacks, and James Farrior steadies the defense at inside linebacker.
As for the Browns, I see progress on defense and offense, but I was stunned at the crowd in Cleveland Stadium for the Brown and White scrimmage. The announced crowd was 15,000, but in reality it was closer to 5,000 on a 95-degree Sunday afternoon. The Browns weren't charging. Coach Eric Mangini was offering a simulated game. I thought that would draw 20,000, knowing the passion of the Browns fans.
Let's go to the mailbag.
From the inbox
Q: I'm sure a form of this question has been asked before but, why hasn't Cleveland traded Derek Anderson or Brady Quinn to one of the several teams in desperate need of a top-of-the-line QB? Is Cleveland asking too much? Does Cleveland just want to hang on to both of them? It's very confusing to me.
Aaron in Portland, Ohio
A: It's pretty simple. The Browns need at least a second-round choice for Anderson, but they haven't gotten that type of offer. There is nothing wrong with keeping two quarterbacks and having some competition. Anderson has been to the Pro Bowl. Quinn has the looks of a quarterback who can manage games well. Until the right offer is there, the Browns will keep both quarterbacks this season. Clearly, after the season, one has to go, and it most likely will be Anderson.
Aki in Newark, Del., asks how long the Panthers can afford to wait on drafting a quarterback. You are correct in the sense they are treading on dangerous territory, having not found a long-term replacement for Jake Delhomme. Matt Moore is an interesting project for the future, but there is no guarantee he can be a starter. The Panthers would have jumped on Matt Ryan last year, but they had no chance to get him. Randy in Seattle wonders why teams with receiver needs such as the Bears and Ravens didn't contact New Orleans and Arizona. I'm sure the Ravens, Bears and Jets did their due diligence in calling around, but you need two teams to make a trade. The price of getting a receiver might be a round or two higher in draft choice compensation than teams are willing to spend. Sam in Winchester, Va., wants me to pick the Ravens' most talented running back. Willis McGahee has more talent than Ray Rice, but durability is starting to pull down McGahee. That's why I wouldn't be surprised if Rice gets the starting job. Matt in Poway, Calif., hears the talk about the Bengals being the surprise team of 2009 but he can't believe it. Schedule is everything. I predicted last year that most of the AFC East teams would make big jumps because of the schedule. The Dolphins improved by 10 games. The Jets went to nine wins. With their schedule and a healthy Carson Palmer, the Bengals have a chance to get to around eight wins. Lynn in Dallas asks if the Cowboys have any interest in wide receiver Matt Jones. Of course they do. They are moving slowly in signing him because they want to see how their current crop of receivers does in camp. Plus, any team has to be wary of his off-the-field problems. Damian in Fairfax, Va., asks a blunt question: "When are the Redskins going to improve the quarterback position." You sound like Dan Snyder. The Redskins explored acquiring Jay Cutler but couldn't get him. If Jason Campbell doesn't work out this season, the Redskins will be a big player in the quarterback market. Jacob in Chapel Hill, N.C., brings up a great question about the worst-to-first scenario. I keep mentioning that the Dolphins could drop three games from last season because they went from worst to first and now have a tougher schedule. He brings up the fact the Falcons and Ravens aren't brought into the conversation. The easy schedule and Joe Flacco should prevent that big of a fall for the Ravens. Ryan should prevent a huge drop-off for the Falcons. Jeff in Silver Springs, Md., isn't buying the hype about the Redskins. On paper, the Redskins' defense should be better with Albert Haynesworth, Brian Orakpo and a full season with DeAngelo Hall. The offense should be better, too. The question remains where they finish in the NFC East. On paper, the Giants and Eagles are better.
Q: Do you think that the lack of a premier receiver in Baltimore hinders the Ravens' chances to get to the big game? Derrick Mason puts up consistent numbers, but he is not someone who strikes fear into an opponent.
Mark in Lexington, Ky.
A: Quite possibly. If the Ravens were in the NFC, the story might be different. The Eagles have been criticized for years for not having enough receivers, but Donovan McNabb has been to a Super Bowl. The Bears made it without great receivers. In the AFC, though, you have to beat the Patriots, Steelers, Colts or Chargers to get to the Super Bowl. You need the most you can get in clutch moments from receivers. Mason is a good receiver who can catch 80 passes, and his decision to unretire was critical. Joe Flacco looks to be the type of quarterback who can get the franchise to the Super Bowl at some point, but I don't know if there is enough there right now for that to happen.
Q: I have been a Broncos season-ticket holder my whole life. No one ever gives the AFC West credit, yet someone from the division always seems to surprise. Can you please comment on this? Take the 2005 Broncos for example. Who predicted they would host the AFC Championship Game?
Derek in Knoxville, Tenn.
A: Derek, until the construction signs are removed in Denver, Kansas City and Oakland, it's hard to forecast surprise teams coming out of the AFC West. I'm not saying good things aren't happening in those processes, but you have to admit, the division is being rebuilt. All three of these teams have new head coaches and rosters being overhauled. It may take a year or two before the good days return to this division. Give it some time and have some patience.
Q: Kyle Orton should have a decent year considering he has a new O-line, new WRs and an offensively minded coach. Do you think Denver will re-sign him?
Scott in Tripoli, La.
A: Orton should be solid. He doesn't have the potential for greatness that Jay Cutler offered, but the guy has been a winner when he has a good running game and a solid defense behind him. The problem in Denver is the defense. The Broncos gave up 28 points a game last year and I don't see them being much better in 2009. The Broncos should re-sign Orton. They gave away their first-round pick in next year's draft, which might hurt their chances of getting a top quarterback. Orton is the man and the team needs to grow with him.
Q: What happens when a rookie hurts himself during organized team activities following the draft but prior to training camp, as was the case this year with Tyrone McKenzie of the Pats? How will the injury impact his leverage in negotiating and how his will his agent and the Pats approach the situation?
Chris in Indianapolis
A: There are four rookies who suffered season-ending injuries. and they are all being handled the same way. The Patriots, like the other three teams, are going to sign McKenzie sometime in mid or late August, giving the roster spot to another player trying to make the team. Players such as McKenzie don't have much leverage, but the Patriots and the other three teams will probably give them a signing bonus that would fit within the slot in which they were drafted. For the most part, these players are taken care of.
Q: Over the past couple of years, the Chargers have had as much talent as anyone, yet they tend to lose games that they should win. What's keeping the Chargers from being a great team instead of just another good team?
Bruno in Encinitas, Calif.
A: What's keeping the Chargers from going to the Super Bowl are Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. You have to beat the Patriots, Colts and Steelers to go anywhere in the AFC, a tough conference with tough teams. The Chargers can play the perfect game for three quarters, but Brady, Manning and Roethlisberger can beat them in the final two minutes. Philip Rivers is talented enough to compete with these quarterbacks, and he's won three playoff games. Rivers and the Chargers must prove they can win three games in the AFC playoffs to get to the Super Bowl. It's not easy.
Q: Why is it that each and every year teams go into camp without their first-round picks signed? Agents and teams have plenty of time from the end of the draft to the beginning of camp to get contracts in place, yet it rarely happens.
Jeff in Minneapolis
A: Why is it that a good portion of the country does its tax returns on April 15? Why is it that students do their term papers at the last minute? Sports are deadline-oriented. Each side waits the other out and hopes to get leverage. Leverage for an agent is if the team suffers a serious injury at a position his draft choice plays. Leverage for the team is having a player whose draft spot is lower than his agent's expectations. Starting early would be nice, but human nature takes over and it goes down to the deadline every year.
Q: I was just mulling over the career passer rating standings and was pretty surprised to see Jeff Garcia ranked 11th all time ahead of Marino, Farve, McNabb, Aikman, Kelly, etc. We are talking about an undersized, undrafted QB who put up those numbers on some pretty average or poor teams. What does this guy have to do to get some respect as being one of the most consistent QBs over the past decade?
Dominic in Calgary, Alberta, Canada
A: Garcia is respected, and he's still in the league. Age isn't his ally anymore, which is why he has to move from city to city to get jobs -- it's hard to build an offense with a quarterback in his late thirties. What Garcia has become is a hired gun: any team looking for a one-year fix at quarterback will put Garcia high on its list. My vibe, though, says it's not going well for him in Oakland because he's not going to get a chance to start.
Q: I want to ask you about the Jets' QB situation. Do you see Kellen Clemens winning the job?
Josh in Philadelphia
A: I thought going into camp, everything was set up for Mark Sanchez to win the job. Now, I'm not certain. Sanchez needs work. Kellen Clemens is probably going to enter the season with the job unless Sanchez starts lighting it up in the preseason. Maybe it's because he's thinking so much, but Sanchez doesn't look totally comfortable yet. The biggest mistake would be rushing him into the starting job if he isn't ready. Still, there are four preseason games to test him.
Q: Is K.C. still going use single-back sets? It sure doesn't help to fool opponents.
Buster in Cheyenne, Wy.
A: Having just been to Chiefs camp, I think they might do more two-back sets with a fullback leading the way for Larry Johnson. The Chiefs trimmed their offense down to about three or four running plays last season. Johnson said there has been a significant increase in the number of running sets. They've added traps. They've added more outside plays. Coach Todd Haley is still trying to figure out what he has on offense. He'd like to spread the field, but he doesn't have the receivers to do too many spread sets. If the passing offense doesn't look explosive in the preseason, the Chiefs probably will settle into a running attack.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.