Team Notes week 1 2016
NEWS, NOTES, RUMORS AND OTHER GOOD STUFFDirectly from the desk of FlashUpdate Editor Bob Harris. The good; the bad; and yes. ... Even the Bears. There is no better way to jump start your weekend than browsing these always educational -- often irreverent -- team-by-team, Fantasy-specific offerings. ...
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Arizona CardinalsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2016
As ESPN.com's Josh Weinfuss suggested last weekend, the Cardinals will enter this season with the best running game Bruce Arians has seen in his three years as head coach in the desert.
"Better than it's ever been," Arians said.
The reason is twofold. One, he said, the Cardinals improved the right side of their offensive line. Two, the backfield is as deep, talented and experienced as it's been under Arians.
Gone are right tackle Bobby Massie, guards Ted Larsen and Jonathan Cooper, and center Lyle Sendlein. In their places are right tackle D.J. Humphries, right guard Evan Mathis and center A.Q. Shipley.
"That's one thing D.J. brings, he brings great run-blocking ability to run both directions," Arians said. "Evan has been a great run-blocker for a long time. We really upgraded our running game because of our right side of our line."
And it's not like the Cardinals' run game was bad last season. The team finished eighth in the league in rushing with 1,917 yards and sixth with 16 touchdowns.
Had Chris Johnson not fractured his tibia in Week 12, he likely would've rushed for close to 1,200 yards, if not more. As a rookie, David Johnson replaced Chris and was the NFL's third-leading rusher over the last five weeks of the season.
"I'll be a game-time feel, and game planning, making sure we have the best guys in doing the things they do best," Arians said.
Still, David Johnson exhibited a rare combination of power, evasiveness and speed as a rookie. He was dominant when he started the final five games of the season after Chris Johnson was hurt. "I'm definitely ready," David Johnson said, "being smarter, getting in the training room, getting smarter in my nutrition and staying healthy. I feel like I'm ready to take on the load."
With a backfield that had an entire offseason to learn the offensive scheme, Arians sees touchdown potential every time they get a carry.
"The way they keep preparing and going, each time they touch the ball, it looks like they're going to break it to the house," Arians said. "So that's a beautiful thing."
Indeed, the powerful rushing attack has the thinking big. Anything short of a Super Bowl will be disappointment.
"Everybody truly believes that we can be champions," defensive tackle Calais Campbell said.
The starters barely played a half combined in the preseason, and this is a team that knows it's good as long as Carson Palmer stays healthy and Tyrann Mathieu returns strong from a torn ACL.
"I'm pretty sure I know what they can do," Arians said, explaining why the starters played so little this preseason. "It's just a matter of getting them all there to that first game."
Every player who scored a point or gained a yard on an offense that led the NFL with 408.3 yards per game is back.
Palme, returning for his fourth year in the system and coming off career highs in passing yards (4,671) and touchdowns (35), still has multiple talented targets Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, John Brown, Jaron Brown and J.J. Nelson, not to mention an improving tight end group.
Fitzgerald, who just turned 33, caught 109 passes last year for 1,215 yards, breaking the franchise record he set a decade earlier. John Brown topped 1,000 yards receiving, too, and after being sidelined with a concussion most of the preseason, he is expected to be ready for the opener. Floyd returns in a contract year, another big receiver adept at coming down with those 50-50 balls.
Jaron Brown, the forgotten player in this talented group, may have had the best training camp of any Cardinal. And Nelson adds even more speed.
Nelson is dealing with a cracked bone in his thumb, but Arians said he won't hesitate relying on Nelson in Week 1 against the Patriots. "He will move into a splint," Arians said. "He will take the cast off and it should be a whole lot easier for him to catch punts, kickoffs and passes."
On defense, the Cardinals beefed up and added two dangerous pass rushers outside linebacker Chandler Jones, acquired in a trade form the Patriots, and Nkemdiche, whom they plucked late in the first round of this year's draft. Added to a mix that also includes the 6-8 Calais Campbell, a healthy Corey Peters and hard-hitting "money" backer Deone Bucannon, the Cardinals will be on the hunt for quarterbacks all year, beginning with the Patriots' fill-in, Jimmy Garoppolo.
"I'm licking my chops," Campbell, the two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle, said of facing Garoppolo.
If the Cardinals' pass rush can't pester or punish Garoppolo, who is far more mobile and escapable than Brady, Arizona's "No Fly Zone" secondary featuring All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson and the Honey Badger will be there to try and take away the pass.
Williams is raw, but he's a playmaker, Arians said, and since he's bound to get picked on far more often than Peterson, he'll have plenty of chances at interceptions and pick-sixes.
Considering the schedule and the quarterbacks they will face in 2016, there's a chance for the Cardinals to lay down plenty of destruction from all directions.
All that matters in the end, they said, is the Super Bowl, and after getting so close to it a year ago, it's what consumes them.
"It's not going to be easy," Campbell said. "Every team that's won a championship, they had to earn it every week. We're not afraid of the hard work, though.
" ... We've only had a couple of opportunities and really, I feel like this team has the best opportunity out of any of them I've been a part of."
Added Arians: "I can't wait to get started. We know how good we are. ..."
Other notes of interest. ... The Cardinals showed something they've very seldom done before under Arians. They went to a no-huddle offense at times this preseason, something the coach wanted to try on the road. "We finally feel comfortable in it, practiced it a lot," Arians said. "If you can communicate on the road and get the snap counts going, you got a chance with it. I like where that's at."
QBs: Drew Stanton, Mike Glennon, Sam Bradford
RBs: Elijhaa Penny
WRs: Larry Fitzgerald, J.J. Nelson, Brice Butler, Chad Williams
TEs: Jermaine Gresham, Ricky Seals-Jones
Atlanta FalconsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2016
According to Associated Press sports writer Charles Odum, the first four weeks should give the Falcons a good read on their hopes for a winning season.
Three of Atlanta's first four games are against NFC South opponents. Last year's 8-8 finish included a woeful 1-5 mark in the division. Even a modest .500 showing in NFC South games would have given the Falcons the same 10-6 record as Seattle and Green Bay, who were wild-card teams.
The Falcons should have ample motivation for an early schedule that includes a home opener against Tampa Bay, a game at the Saints two weeks later, and another home matchup with Carolina.
"It's going to be awesome," said head coach Dan Quinn. "I love the way that the league has set that up right off the bat. It's an area we didn't do a good enough job last year."
Quinn made division play a big offseason emphasis.
"We know when you get right in your division what that can lead to," Quinn said. "So it's a real priority for us."
The Falcons started 5-0 in Quinn's debut 2015 season. Then turnovers began to mount. Atlanta's 30 giveaways tied for fifth most in the league.
That turnover total included Matt Ryan's 16 interceptions, the second most of his career. The interceptions came with only 21 touchdown passes, his low since his 2008 rookie season, and generated questions about his ability to thrive with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
This will be a key season for both Ryan, 31, and Shanahan.
Some contend that Ryan, who is entering his ninth year, may be fading after a meteoric rise earlier in his career.
Ryan believes that he and the Falcons can return to respectability. He knows that it must start with a win over Tampa Bay.
"We have to create some explosive plays," Ryan said. "We are getting the ball down the field a little bit and that will help us out. We have to be a little bit more consistent. There is no question about that."
Ryan knows the Falcons must cut down on their turnovers. In addition to the 16 interceptions, the QB had eight fumbles.
"We can't turn the ball over in the red area," said Ryan, who had four such turnovers last season. "Those are big things. When we get opportunities to score points we have to take advantage of that."
A turnaround in the NFC South could be tricky proposition for the Falcons.
Fortunately Ryan and Shanahan have some serious weaponry.
Devonta Freeman may have difficulty matching his gaudy numbers from his 2015 breakout season. Freeman ran for 1,061 yards with 11 touchdowns, and had 73 catches for 578 yards and three touchdowns, making him a key to many successful fantasy players. This year, the plan is for second-year running back Tevin Coleman to play a bigger role to keep Freeman fresh.
Fantasy players can draft Freeman in good faith, knowing his dual-threat talents will lead to consistent production, and he'll still be the preferred choice near the goal line.
All-Pro receiver Julio Jones, who missed the final preseason game with an ankle injury, should be ready for the opener.
Jones sprained his ankle in the third preseason game at Miami. Head coach Dan Quinn believed Jones would fully participate on Wednesday but the wideout was instead limited. While he seems likely to play, I'll be following up via Late-Breaking Update as the week progresses. ...
Jones is coming off a huge season. He had the second-most catches (136) and yards receiving (1,871) in a season in NFL history.
Receiver Taylor Gabriel, claimed off waivers Sunday from Cleveland, will compete for the No. 4 receiver's job and play several roles on special teams. The Falcons needed his versatility after rookie Devin Fuller, a seventh-round draft pick, suffered a season-ending shoulder injury a couple of weeks ago.
Chris Chester will start at right guard after beating out rookie Wes Schweitzer, a sixth-round draft pick. Vic Beasley, Paul Worrilow and Sean Weatherspoon will start at linebacker, but rookies Deion Jones, a second-round pick, and De'Vondre Campbell, a fourth-round pick, will play significant roles.
"We'll have certain packages that each of them do," Quinn said. "It's a very deep group. Some will be a bigger factor on first and second downs, some will have a bigger role on third down. All of them will have a big role on special teams."
As the Sports Xchange notes, the Falcons have talked about averaging 30 points per game in their second year under Shanahan. If they can reach that goal, that will allow a young defense to grow. The Falcons believe that a balanced attack is the way to stymie the Bucs and their new defensive coordinator Mike Smith, the Falcons former head coach. ...
Other notes of interest. ... The Falcons elected to keep just two quarterbacks, Ryan and Matt Schaub when they released Matt Simms. Sean Renfree, last season's backup, was released on the cutdown to 75 players. Simms was signed to the practice squad. The Falcons kept four tight ends, which will enable them to run more two-tight end and one-back (21) or two-tight ends and two-back (22) formations.
"It was really just the way the young guys battled their way into the mix," Quinn said. "It was a real credit to (tight end coach) Wade (Harman) to help get those guys available and ready."
With Jalen Collins suspended four games for violating league rules on performance-enhancing substances, former receiver C.J. Goodwin is the No. 3 cornerback behind starters Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford.
Quinn also said that defensive ends Dwight Freeney (back) and Adrian Clayborn (shoulder) were ready to participate fully after missing time in the preseason.
QBs: Matt Ryan, Matt Schaub, Matt Simms
RBs: Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, Terron Ward
WRs: Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Justin Hardy, Nick Williams
TEs: Austin Hooper, Eric Saubert, Logan Paulsen
Baltimore RavensCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2016
Coming off his worst season as an NFL head coach, John Harbaugh really doesn't know what to expect from the Baltimore Ravens this year.
"Either we're going to be good or we're not," he said. "I have reasons for optimism, and I have reasons for pessimism."
As Associated Press sports writer David Ginsburg reminded readers, the Ravens staggered to a 5-11 finish in 2015 after losing quarterback Joe Flacco, running back Justin Forsett, wide receiver Steve Smith and linebacker Terrell Suggs to injury. Harbaugh is still waiting to see what first-round draft pick Breshad Perriman can add to an offense that was without a vertical threat after he tore a knee ligament during his first NFL practice.
Perriman saw his first live action in the final preseason matchup against the Saints and caught two passes for 25 yards.
"It felt real good to get out there, play and contribute," Perriman said. "It felt like a blessing and that's why when I caught the ball I gestured up to the sky and thanked God. It meant a lot to me; especially to be out there and helping my teammates as that's what it is all about."
If Baltimore is to again become relevant in the AFC North, it must cleanse itself of the misery that defined last season.
"We have to get rid of last year's team, last year's feel and everything that went terrible with last year and leave it back there," Suggs said. "We have to be the Ravens that we know we are supposed to be, that we are accustomed to being. That is definitely the No. 1 thing on our list as a motivator."
Back in the days when Ray Lewis roamed the middle of the field and Ed Reed deftly monitored passes deep into the secondary, the Ravens were a defensive force. To become a contender again, Baltimore must improve a unit that last year surrendered 401 points, including 103 in the fourth quarter. Thus, the Ravens lost nine games by eight points or fewer.
The addition of free agent safety Eric Weddle should help, as should the return of Suggs.
"I really feel good about this defense. I did last year, too. We just had a rash of injuries," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "I feel like we're maybe a little faster than we were a year ago. We're going to need to be. I'm very optimistic."
The Ravens' success depends heavily on Flacco, the franchise leader in completions, passing yardage, touchdown passes and 300-yard games. Before tearing the ACL and MCL in his left knee on Nov. 22, Flacco started in 137 straight games (including playoffs).
Flacco acknowledged that he's not back to 100 percent, but his arm is sound.
"He's still elite," tight end Crockett Gillmore said.
The Ravens provided Flacco with two additional targets during the offseason, signing free agent wide receiver Mike Wallace and tight end Ben Watson. But Watson was lost for the year when he tore his Achilles tendon in the third preseason game.
Wallace has been one of the most consistent receivers in practice and had his best game against the Lions, catching three passes for 37 yards.
"Joe is a great guy," Wallace said. "He is a quarterback who has seen all situations. We practice so hard, the games just feel like practice because they slow down. Honestly, when we're out there, it just feels like practice."
The most surprising final cut last week was Forsett, who was a Pro Bowl alternate two years ago after rushing for 1,266 yards. But Forsett was re-signed Monday.
Forsett, 30, was a backup in his first six NFL seasons before blooming into a star with Baltimore in 2014.
Forsett claimed on Wednesday that he's still the starter. But West, who entered this year's training camp fighting for a roster spot, had a strong preseason and is poised to help carry the load in the regular-season opener. West had 25 carries for 101 yards with two touchdowns in three preseason games. He was held out of the final game against the Saints.
West has started only six games over two seasons and is still 96 yards short of reaching 1,000 for his career.
Dixon suffered a knee sprain late in the second quarter against the Lions and did not return. An MRI the following day revealed MCL damage and he will be out for at least four weeks. Dixon finished with 41 yards on six carries and was Baltimore's most effective runner.
For what it's worth, the MMQB.com's Peter King believes Dixon could well be the regular back by the middle of October. "Baltimore loves him," King wrote.
While the return of Suggs and Elvis Dumervil will boost the pass rush, Dumervil told reporters on Wednesday he won't play this week. When they were both fully healthy in 2014, Suggs and Dumervil combined for 29 sacks the most by any duo in the league. Dumervil had foot surgery this offseason and resumed practicing late in August. He said that he suffered a setback on his way back to full health, necessitating the delayed return to game action.
In Week 1, Baltimore will see some familiar faces with the Bills. Head coach Rex Ryan helped the Ravens win their first Super Bowl in 2000 and quarterback Tyrod Taylor was a capable backup to Flacco.
Expect the Bills to aggressively attack the Ravens' offensive line, especially with rookie Ronnie Stanley at left tackle. Buffalo, however, will be without a pair of young playmakers. Rookie linebacker Reggie Ragland suffered a season-ending torn ACL. Fellow linebacker Shaq Lawson, another first round pick, was placed on reserve/physically unable after undergoing shoulder surgery in May.
The Ravens need to get off to a fast start against the Bills and begin to cleanse all of the bad memories of 2015. ...
Other notes of interest. ... The Ravens signed kicker Justin Tucker to a whopping $16.8 million, four-year contract in July. Tucker is the second-most accurate kicker in NFL history, making 87.8 percent of his field goal attempts. He's never missed a conversion and last year scored 128 of the team's 328 points. "Justin has become a cornerstone of our team," general manager Ozzie Newsome said.
The Ravens agreed to a one-year deal with veteran kick returner Devin Hester after he had a successful workout last weekend. Baltimore placed Michael Campanaro on injured reserve for the third consecutive year, leaving an opening for the primary returner. Hester should effectively fill the void if he can stay healthy.
The Ravens got some good news when tight ends Dennis Pitta and Maxx Williams returned to practice Saturday. With Gillmore in the fold, Baltimore will open the season with three tight ends on the 53-man roster. Pitta, however, is trying to come back from two season-ending hip injuries. Nonetheless, Harbaugh is confident Pitta is fully ready to make an impact.
"Certainly, he has to get his timing back and work the rust off, if you want to use that term, and get going," Harbaugh said. "I expect him to be ready to go."
QBs: Joe Flacco, Ryan Mallett, Dustin Vaughan, Robert Griffin III
RBs: Terrance West, Javorius Allen
WRs: Michael Crabtree, John Brown, Willie Snead, Breshad Perriman, Chris Moore, Kenny Bell
TEs: Maxx Williams, Nick Boyle
Buffalo BillsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2016
When explaining how well the Buffalo Bills handled a string of adversity this offseason, head coach Rex Ryan couldn't resist acknowledging how much went wrong.
"We don't want to major in putting hurdles out there," Ryan said during training camp. "But we seem to be doing a pretty good job of it right now."
As Associated Press sports writer John Wawrow put it: "Troubles, the Bills encountered more than a few. ..."
Injuries thinned Buffalo's already young group of linebackers when rookie second-round pick Reggie Ragland and backup IK Enemkpali sustained season-ending knee injuries over an eight-day stretch.
Suspensions became an issue.
Starting defensive tackle Marcell Dareus checked into a rehab facility, and will miss the first four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Second-year running back Karlos Williams, who reported to camp out of shape, faced the same suspension before he was cut three weeks ago.
Then, there was the surprise move made last Friday, when Buffalo released veteran linebacker Manny Lawson, who was initially pegged to start in place of injured rookie first-round pick Shaq Lawson. That job now goes to 10-year journeyman Lorenzo Alexander, who was signed to fill a special teams role in April.
It didn't help that Manny Lawson missed the first two weeks of training camp with a partially torn pectoral muscle, or that the league was investigating whether he violated the personal conduct policy.
This wasn't the type of news Ryan had in mind in June, when he suggested the Bills won the offseason.
Winning the regular season won't be easy, either, for a team seeking to snap a 16-year playoff drought. It's the NFL's longest active streak, and sixth-longest in league history.
Not all the news was bad. Receiver Sammy Watkins is confident his left foot is fully healed after having surgery in April to repair a stress fracture.
The most positive development occurred on Aug. 12, when quarterback Tyrod Taylor signed a six-year contract extension that included a $6 million raise negotiated into the final year of his contract this season.
According to Wawrow, Taylor has been more assertive on and off the field in accepting more of a leadership role a year after establishing himself as a first-time starter. He has also spent time working on making throws over the middle, something the 6-1 player was hesitant to do last year.
Taylor has plenty to prove to earn his new contract. Buffalo has an opt-out clause in each of the first two years of the extension.
A year after being nagged by knee and hamstring injuries, LeSean McCoy is healthy and the offensive line returns intact. That's the good news for a running game that produced an NFL-leading 2,432 yards last season. What's missing is primary backup Williams, who had 517 yards rushing and scored nine TDs, including two receiving as a rookie.
The Bills signed veteran Reggie Bush who, as a result of injuries, has been limited to playing 29 games over the past three seasons. Mike Gillislee, a late-season addition last year, and rookie fifth-round pick Jonathan Williams round out the depth chart.
Ryan took a cautious approach in limiting practice and playing time of numerous starters to have them rested entering the season. Taylor was limited to playing just 35 snaps in three preseason games, and went 11 of 18 for 150 yards and a touchdown.
McCoy was on the field for 21 snaps this August and spent the final two preseason games on the bench. Watkins played 10 snaps in his only preseason action last week before the Bills put him back in a protective bubble.
Ryan noted one reason for his approach is the condensed schedule. Buffalo hosts the New York Jets in prime time on Sept. 15, four days after opening at Baltimore.
For the first time in years, September has rolled into Buffalo without drama. No key injuries, no quarterback shuffling, no bluster from Ryan -- just a suddenly stable team that appears ready for its Week 1 test against the Ravens.
Meanwhile, as the Sports Xchange notes, it's no secret that the Bills are a run-first team; after all, they led the NFL in rushing yards and yards per rush in 2015. Not much will change this year, especially given the fact that McCoy is healthier going into the opener than he was at any time last season. McCoy could be a 20- to 25-touch back this year.
The Bills will look to run, but the Ravens aren't particularly strong in the secondary, coming off a season in which they intercepted a league-low six passes, so Taylor with a better grasp of the playbook will try to exploit Baltimore through the air with Watkins and tight end Charles Clay.
Ravens CB Jimmy Smith can be a boom or bust type of corner, so Watkins may be able to get deep for a big play or two, especially if the Bills establish the run game and draw the safeties into the box. ...
Other notes of interest. ... Marquise Goodwin has cleared the NFL's concussion protocol and should be good to go this week. If he can't play or suffers a setback, Greg Salas likely would be the No. 3 receiver. ...
Veteran wide receiver and return man Brandon Tate signed with the Bills Tuesday. He spent the last five seasons with the Bengals. Tate, 28, was the Bengals' primary kickoff returner from 2011-13 and at least shared the punt return duties in all five seasons.
Ryan is 100 percent comfortable with, and confident in, Manuel as the team's backup quarterback heading into the season.
Manuel was forced to play almost the entire game at Washington on Friday because third-stringer Cardale Jones did not dress due to a shoulder injury, and Taylor played only two series as Ryan bucked the trend of playing starters for a half in the third exhibition. Manuel completed 21 of 39 passes for 221 yards and had the potential game-winning touchdown pass with 10 seconds left nullified by a questionable offensive pass interference penalty on receiver Greg Little.
"I really like the way he played," Ryan said. "I like the way he competes. He has a great look in his face, man, he loves playing. Guys, you know what, sometimes quarterbacks take a little longer to develop, and I think this is the best EJ Manuel that I've seen."
Like Taylor, Manuel has grown into coordinator Greg Roman's offense in year two and feels confident in how he can operate within the system. He also has grown up as a teammate and now feels like he commands a little more respect when he gets into games.
When the Bills signed FB Glenn Gronkowski following the 2016 draft, it looked like more of a public relations move than anything else. Gronkowski, the brother of New England Patriots superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski, had grown up in Buffalo and played high school football in the suburb of Williamsville, so it looked like a nice little story for fans to follow through the summer.
However, Gronkowski caught the eye of the coaching staff with his progress through the offseason, and then his performance in the preseason. When the Bills cut their roster to its initial 53 on Friday, Gronkowski was on their list, while former starter Jerome Felton was not.
QBs: AJ McCarron, Nathan Peterman
RBs: LeSean McCoy, Chris Ivory, Mike Tolbert, Joe Banyard, Taiwan Jones
WRs: Kelvin Benjamin, Zay Jones, Andre Holmes, Corey Brown, Brandon Tate
TEs: Charles Clay, Nick O'Leary, Logan Thomas
Carolina PanthersCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2016
Cam Newton turned in an MVP performance last season while leading the Carolina Panthers to the Super Bowl — and he didn't even have his favorite wide receiver.
So there's plenty of curiosity over what the league's highest-scoring team can accomplish this year with Kelvin Benjamin returning from a torn ACL.
As Associated Press sports writer Steve Reed reminded readers, Benjamin caught 73 passes for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns as a rookie in 2014 before surgery. He's back now, and will start alongside second-year wideout Devin Funchess, who replaces veteran Jerricho Cotchery following an impressive training camp.
"Benji's coming back with a vengeance — and I mean it," Newton said earlier this offseason. "And not only that, he's challenged more so from the production that Ted Ginn has had, the production that Fun (Funchess) has had, that Philly (Brown), that Greg (Olsen), everybody."
The quarterack went on to explain: "We've got something that only God can give us, and that's the three Ss: Size, speed and strength. A lot of guys have speed but don't have size. A lot of guys have strength, you know. To have that blessing to have all three, you have a responsibility to yourself to maximize that."
The point of the talk was to not take what they have for granted. At 6-5 and more than 260 pounds, Newton is one of the most physically imposing quarterbacks the league has ever seen.
At 6-5 and 6-4, respectively, Benjamin, from Florida State, and Funchess, a Michigan man, are among the tallest receivers in the league.
The average NFL cornerback is shorter than 6 feet, so in any given matchup on any given Sunday, both will likely tower over their defender.
As Charlotte Observer staffer Jonathan Jones pointed out, this presents obvious advantages. As NFL rules have given offensive players more freedoms, tall receivers such as Benjamin and Funchess have enjoyed great success.
For all the talk about these two guys, Thursday night's season opener in Denver against the Broncos will be the first time they've ever shared the field during a regular-season game.
At the beginning of camp, Funchess said the team had the best receiving corps in the NFL.
"Y'all aren't going to say it," Funchess said. "I'm not trying to be arrogant but y'all aren't gonna say it. It's about being confident. If we don't go out and say that we have the top offense or top receiving corps, nobody else will give us the credit."
If they're going to be the best, though, Benjamin has to catch up. Funchess is coming off a preseason in which he was clearly the offensive MVP. Benjamin struggled to stay on the field.
Coming off that knee injury, Benjamin labored through the first part of training camp. He gradually got his conditioning up, and the Panthers are eyeing around 35 snaps for him against Denver.
Benjamin got 34 snaps against the Patriots during the third exhibition, but he and Newton were way off on their rhythm. The first two passes to Benjamin were high and wide, the third was called back because of offensive pass interference, and the fourth was intercepted on a bad throw.
"I think we've got to get back in the lab. Just go back to work," Benjamin said after the exhibition. "Just a lot of mistakes and plays that we left out on the field that we usually make that we need to make."
Worth noting, head coach Ron Rivera plans to limit Benjamin to around 35 snaps in Thursday's opener.
Whatever the case, with two tall receivers, the Panthers will force most teams to change their defense. A defense's tall corner will likely be on Benjamin, who can still use his 245-pound body to shield the defender. A defense's faster corner will likely go to Funchess, who has better linear speed than Benjamin but will likely be much taller than the man covering him.
That would allow the Panthers to put a speedster on the field as the third receiver, such as Ginn or Brown. A linebacker can't cover either of those two, so the defense likely will bring in another cornerback and go to its nickel package.
That's a big, dangerous group to play nickel against.
Or the Panthers can come out in their 12 personnel package – one running back (Jonathan Stewart) and two tight ends – (Olsen and Ed Dickson). With Benjamin and Funchess out wide against the opponent's cornerbacks, safety help would be shaded to one side.
That leaves the other safety covering Olsen, and the Panthers have more blockers inside than the opponent has defenders. So what do the Panthers do?
They run the ball.
Stewart returns to anchor a group that has rushed for at least 100 yards in an NFL-best 32 straight games, including the playoffs. Cameron Artis-Payne and Fozzy Whittaker will see action in the backfield along with fullback Mike Tolbert.
Newton, of course, is a threat all by himself.
The Panthers have turned the read-option into a dangerous weapon thanks to their QB. With one more rushing touchdown Newton will move past Steve Young for the most ever by a quarterback.
The Panthers started off 14-0 last season in large part due to their red zone offense, converting 68.3 percent of their attempts into touchdowns — second-best in the league. Newton was near perfect inside the opponent's 20-yard line, tossing 24 touchdown passes with no interceptions.
That number could go up this season assuming the full complement of skill players remain in the locked and upright position. ...
The Panthers will start their season the same way they finished the last. Seven months since that loss in Super Bowl 50, Carolina will travel to Denver for Thursday night's nationally televised NFL opener.
According to the Sports Xchange, offensive coordinator Mike Shula admittedly didn't call his best game in the Super Bowl, but Panthers players didn't play their best game, either. Shula will certainly make sure he accounts for Super Bowl MVP Von Miller this time, but other than some protection changes, Carolina's game plan probably won't be much different than it was in February.
The Panthers are a run-first team that will dictate the tempo with Newton, who's becoming more and more comfortable in the no-huddle. Expect at least 15 carries from Jonathan Stewart and a handful of targets for Benjamin.
The Panthers defense did a good enough job to win that Super Bowl, and now they're going from future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning to the unknown Trevor Siemian. Carolina will try to protect its two rookie cornerbacks by sending plenty of pressure toward Denver's rookie quarterback. The Broncos' run game isn't too concerning, so the Panthers' main goal will be to force Siemian into mistakes.
The Panthers are expected to start rookies James Bradberry and Daryl Worley at cornerback after losing All-Pro Josh Norman to free agency and Charles Tillman to retirement. That's a lot of pressure on young players, considering they will face Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Jameis Winston each twice this season.
Behind middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the Panthers led the league in takeaways last season with 39, with 24 coming on interceptions. The Panthers scored an NFL-leading 148 points off turnovers in 2015, shattering a franchise record.
The takeaways often provided short fields for Newton to work with on the ensuing possession.
One last note here. ... Newton needs 996 yards passing and four touchdown passes to set franchise career records. Nationally, he's the only player in NFL history to record five seasons with at least 3,000 yards passing and 400 yards rushing.
QBs: Cam Newton, Derek Anderson
RBs: C.J. Anderson, Christian McCaffrey, Fozzy Whittaker, Cameron Artis-Payne
WRs: Devin Funchess, Russell Shepard, Torrey Smith, Brenton Bersin
TEs: Greg Olsen
Chicago BearsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2016
The Chicago Bears rebuilt their front seven on defense. They gave their offensive line a makeover, too. And they also got hit with a rash of injuries.
Between players going down and poor play in general, it was a rough preseason for a team trying to pick itself up after finishing last in the NFC North at 6-10.
On the positive side for the Bears? Teams have a history of making big jumps in their second season under head coach John Fox.
Carolina did it. So did Denver. And the Chicago is hoping the pattern holds.
The Bears have been plagued by injuries and at least two important players might be limited or unavailable for the opener at Houston on Sept. 11: star right guard Kyle Long (shoulder) and outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, who had offseason knee surgery.
Besides all that, they released Robbie Gould and ended an 11-year run with the most accurate kicker in franchise history while upgrading their offensive line by signing three-time Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton on Sunday night. Connor Barth replaces Gould.
The 6-3, 216-pound White missed his rookie season because of a stress fracture in his left shin after being drafted with the seventh overall pick. But with his size and physical skills, Chicago is counting on big things from the West Virginia product.
"He's an explosive guy," Cutler said. "You can see he's a physical specimen. So we'll just find ways to get him the ball in space and kind of let him catch and run and use that speed and that burst he's got."
White, who hasn't played in an NFL game, will be going up against Texans CB Johnathan Joseph. While Joseph has been effective enough, he has shown a vulnerability to play-fakes in the past and the Bears should try to exploit this with the 4.3-second 40 speed of White. Until he has more experience quickly analyzing defenses, White's best plays might be the zero route, the bubble screen and the go route.
Jeffery led the team in receiving, but there are questions about his ability to stay healthy, not to mention his future with the club.
Calf, hamstring, groin and shoulder problems limited the former Pro Bowl receiver to nine games last season after he played in all 16 the previous two years. A strained hamstring in training camp only raised more questions.
Jeffery is also playing under the franchise tag after he and the Bears were unable to agree to a long-term contract extension.
Still, as ESPN.com's Jeff Dickerson suggests, if Jeffery can stay healthy, the Bears have a special player at receiver. Jeffery has the ninth-highest number of receiving yards (3,361) since 2013. The perfect storm is brewing for Jeffery to have a monster season, but only if he can avoid injury.
Cutler should be happy after the Bears signed Sitton. After all, Chicago now has two elite guards.
With Sitton at left guard, rookie Cody Whitehair could slide to center. Veteran Ted Larsen, who took over when Hroniss Grasu tore the ACL in his right knee in early August, is another option.
A healthy and effective Long would also take some pressure off new right tackle Bobby Massie as well as the center. Long is back at guard, the position he played his first two seasons, after filling in at right tackle last year. Long will try to go in Week 1 after resting the final two games, but he'll no doubt have his injured shoulder in a harness and will need to gut it out.
As the Sports Xchange understated, facing All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt will only add to a difficult task.
With two-time Pro Bowler Forte and the colorful Bennett gone, the Bears are banking on players who are unproven or have injury histories to fill the voids.
At tight end, the Bears are counting on Zach Miller staying healthy — no sure thing given his history. The veteran earned a two-year contract after he re-established himself last season by catching 34 passes for 439 yards and a team-leading five touchdown receptions. Miller also missed the 2012, '13 and '14 seasons because of injuries and spent much of the preseason in the NFL's concussion protocol.
The Bears maintained some continuity for Cutler when offensive coordinator Adam Gase took the Miami Dolphins' coaching job by promoting quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains. That was hardly a surprise.
Cutler had one of his best seasons for Chicago, posting a career-high 92.3 rating and cutting his interceptions from 18 to 11 in 15 games.
Now, as he looks at the overall level of talent, Cutler sees a team capable of competing in an NFC North with a different landscape after the season-ending injury suffered by Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and the retirement of Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson.
"Personnel's better," Cutler said, comparing the Bears to last year. "I think we've cleaned up some stuff from last year (in the scheme) that either we didn't do well or didn't do enough of it or didn't practice it enough.
"We've pared down a few things, added a few things, did some different packages. I like where we're headed."
The Bears ranked sixth in rushing attempts last year and new offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains can be expected to rely on Langford, Carey and Howard extensively in a ball control attack.
"We're going to try to run the ball, we want to run the ball," Cutler said. "There will be some games it's going to be tougher than others, and we're going to have to lean on the pass a little bit."
Facing a defense with Watt, Benardrick McKinney, Brian Cushing, Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney in the opener will immediately test whether that patchwork offensive line can hold.
"I think our offensive line has improved," Fox said. "I think our running game overall has improved."
The defense hoped to ravage offenses and force mistakes and turnovers to help the offense through potential early problems.
Instead, they've had their own injury problems. The biggest has been the absence of their top pass rusher, Pernell McPhee, due to offseason knee surgery.
With Willie Young and Lamarr Houston over their surgery issues of a year ago, and rookie Leonard Floyd displaying pass rush potential, McPhee's absence for the start of the season might be one the Bears can afford.
"We've got a couple more guys who are more familiar with the scheme this year, including myself and Houston, who obviously got off to a slow start last year," Young said. "But we do have a lot more guys in position who are more familiar with the defensive scheme.
"So it allows you to fill a bit faster, a little more confidence."
Inside linebackers Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman, and defensive end Akiem Hicks appear to have added a physical presence where it was lacking last year.
The defense does need cornerback Kyle Fuller back healthy after preseason arthroscopic knee surgery, and may need to wait a few weeks. Bryce Callahan might need to fill in there, if he's over his own hamstring issues.
"I don't think I've been through many football seasons or football camps where there aren't things you don't have to adjust to," Fox said. "So what we do for a living is about adjusting."
The adjusting is about to begin for the Bears.
A few final notes here. ... PK Robbie Gould was released after becoming the team's all-time scoring leader in an 11-year career. GM Ryan Pace called it an emotional decision but one based on making the team better. Gould, the final member of the team left from the 2006 NFC champions, missed an extra point and had one blocked in the final preseason game. Last year he missed kicks that led to defeats in games with Washington and San Francisco. G
The Bears officially signed Connor Barth Monday as Gould's replacement and Pace indicated it was more a case of wanting Barth more than wanting to dump Gould.
The Bears announced and extension for Long on Wednesday. He is now signed through the 2021 season, which means the extension will kick in after the 2017 season. Long is playing his fourth year in 2016 and will play the 2017 season under the terms of the team option that the Bears exercised on his rookie contract. Long's extension is reportedly worth up to $40 million over the life of the contract. He's scheduled to make $8.821 million under the terms of the 2017 option.
QBs: Mitchell Trubisky, Chase Daniel, Mark Sanchez
RBs: Jordan Howard, Tarik Cohen, Benny Cunningham
WRs: Josh Bellamy, Bennie Fowler, Taylor Gabriel, Dontrelle Inman, Kevin White
TEs: Dion Sims, Trey Burton, Adam Shaheen, Daniel Brown, Ben Braunecker
Cincinnati BengalsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2016
As Associated Press sports writer Joe Key noted, the Bengals are right up there among the NFL's elite when it comes to reaching the playoffs. Once there, they're as bad as anybody in league history.
It's a familiar story, one that fans around town know by heart — and by heartbreak. They had one of the worst meltdowns in postseason history last January while losing to the rival Steelers. And how did they respond? By keeping the team intact, giving the coach a contract extension, and lining up to do it all over again.
Yep. It's become the Bengals way. Great for 16 weeks, very bad for one week.
"There's a little bit of unfinished business that we want to get past," running back Giovani Bernard said.
The Bengals have reached the playoffs a club-record five consecutive seasons. Only New England and Green Bay have longer active streaks, having made the playoffs each of the last seven years. Denver also has made it five years in a row.
"We've had a solid team over the last five years," owner Mike Brown said. "We've gone to the playoffs each of those years. Three other teams have done that besides us. We're in good company."
The company parts as soon as the stakes get high. New England, Green Bay and Denver have won Super Bowls during those impressive streaks of reaching the postseason, with the Broncos getting their title last season. The Bengals have lost in the first round each time, setting an NFL record for futility.
Overall, they haven't won a playoff game since the 1990 season, the sixth-longest streak of postseason futility in league history.
>How did they respond to their last-minute meltdown and 18-16 loss to the Steelers in the playoffs last January? They kept the team together and gave head coach Marvin Lewis — an NFL-record 0-7 in the playoffs — an extra year on his contract.
And there's reason for optimism.
Andy Dalton had his breakout season, leading the AFC in passer rating before he broke his right thumb during a loss to Pittsburgh on Dec. 13. The thumb fully healed and he looked sharp in training camp and limited preseason appearances. If he can have a fitting follow-up to last season — 25 touchdowns, seven interceptions, a 106.3 passer rating — the Bengals will be in good shape to get another playoff berth.
Part of Dalton's success can be attributed to Hue Jackson's creativity. The former offensive coordinator went to Cleveland as the Browns' latest head coach after the season, and Ken Zampese was elevated from quarterbacks coach to coordinator. It'll be interesting to see how he tailors the offense to his preferences.
"The offense as a whole, and schematically, is going to take on what he likes," Dalton said. "We have a lot of guys that have been here a while and understand this offense. He understands the players he has. There are some things similar and some things we'll do different.
The biggest loss in the offseason came in the receiving group. A.J. Green is back, but Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu — the No. 2 and No. 3 receivers, respectively — left as free agents. Cincinnati signed Brandon LaFell as a free agent. Although he was limited for much of the preseason by a hand injury, LaFell opens the season as the starter opposite Green.
Second-round pick Tyler Boyd is set to move into a starting role, but he'll have some growing pains.
And tight end Tyler Eifert — Dalton's favorite target near the goal line — missed all of camp after surgery on his left ankle. Look for them to lean more heavily on their running back tandem of Jeremy Hill and Bernard in the early going.
Eifert hasn't been cleared for practice heading into the opener on Sunday at the New York Jets, the first of several games he's expected to miss as he recovers from ankle surgery.
Bernard in particular is a playmaker out of the backfield and could help loosen up the defense in the absence of Eifert. That said, ESPN.com's Katherine Terrell warned readers not to sleep on Hill. The lack of weapons at wideout might open the door for more of a run-first offense.
Eifert and defensive tackle Brandon Thompson, who is still recovering from a knee injury last season, were the only players working out on a side field during practice on Monday. Eifert had surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left ankle, an injury suffered at the Pro Bowl.
Eifert set a club record for a tight end with 13 touchdown catches last season. The Bengals don't have another tight end that can catch the ball as dependably.
The rest of the team suited up for practice on Monday. Coach Marvin Lewis said a couple of them might not be ready to play on Sunday. Cornerback Darqueze Dennard and tight end Tyler Kroft were among those who missed significant practice time during camp.
"We'll push them through practice this week and see how they are," Lewis said. "Maybe they won't quite be ready this week, but they should be ready for the (following) week."
Right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi missed three preseason games with a toe injury. He said Monday that he could have played in more of the preseason, but the team held him out as a precaution. He expects to start against the Jets, replacing Andre Smith.
Despite some transition and a few injuries in the secondary, Cincinnati's defense largely is intact. The dynamic pass-rushing tandem of Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap are back to cause havoc for opposing quarterbacks.
Veteran linebacker Karlos Dansby signed with the Bengals during the offseason to make another run at a Super Bowl. Dansby turns 35 in November, but the Bengals like what they've seen from him.
"Karlos has been great for us," said linebackers coach Jim Haslett. "He's been smart, he knows what to do, and he knows how to win."
On a less-positive note, linebacker Vontaze Burfict's hit to Antonio Brown's head on an incomplete pass moved the Steelers into range for their winning field goal in the playoff game and drew a three-game suspension from the NFL. The Bengals allowed the second-fewest points in the NFL last season, but will start this one without their emotional and unpredictable playmaker.
Burfict's suspension overlaps a tough opening stretch for Cincinnati. The Bengals open at the Jets, at the Steelers and at home against the Broncos. Following another home game against the Dolphins, they're at Dallas and at New England. The eighth game of the season is in London — their first trip abroad — against the Redskins. They need to get things worked out fast with that passing game.
This week, Cincinnati will try to pressure Ryan Fitzpatrick behind dynamic pass rushers Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap.
Also of interest. ... The Bengals are trying to get third-string quarterback Jeff Driskel up to speed. They waived Keith Wenning and claimed Driskel off waivers from San Francisco on Saturday. Driskel learned about the Bengals' move from the internet, got a call from the team, and then headed to Cincinnati, arriving late Sunday night.
Lewis said the team won't necessarily keep three quarterbacks on the roster for long. In the meantime, they get to see what Driskel can do.
"We thought he was a young, talented player who has a chance to continue to move upward," Lewis said. "He can mature and grow and have an opportunity possibly to become an NFL quarterback. It gives us an opportunity to take a look at him."
QBs: Andy Dalton, Jeff Driskel
RBs: Joe Mixon, Giovani Bernard, Brian Hill, Thomas Jones
WRs: A.J. Green, Brandon LaFell, Tyler Boyd, John Ross, Josh Malone, Alex Erickson, Cody Core
TEs: Tyler Kroft, Ryan Hewitt, C.J. Uzomah
Cleveland BrownsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2016
As Associated Press sports writer Tom Withers framed it: "There are rebuilding projects and then there are the Cleveland Browns, a floundering franchise currently on the wrong end of the NFL's food chain. ..."
Fixing the Browns is a daunting task, some might argue an impossible one. But Hue Jackson, who has gotten a second head-coaching gig after a five-year wait, believes he's just the man for the job.
"I've bit off the apple," he said.
Yeah, and it's pretty rotten.
The Browns haven't been relevant in years. With just two winning seasons and one playoff appearance since 1999, they've spent more time shuffling in front offices, coaches and starting quarterbacks — they're on No. 25 in 17 seasons — than anything else and there is little reason to think the 2016 season will be any different.
Don't tell that to Jackson, who went 8-8 with Oakland in 2011 and is convinced better days are ahead for the brown and orange.
Jackson oozes optimism, even if he knows deep down that Cleveland's return to respectability won't take place without hard work, patience and some luck. He's accepted that Cleveland's new front office of analytical thinkers must gut the framework of the Browns' roster before any true development can occur.
Jackson must now balance the progress he sees in young players with results on the scoreboard.
"It's hard," said the 50-year-old Jackson, who spent the past two seasons as Cincinnati's offensive coordinator. "It's really hard and that's one thing that is new for me. There's a certain result that you are expecting and you've seen and you want to accomplish all the time. But I've learned that there's a process and I'm in the process, the beginning stages of it, but I also know myself well enough to know that we're going to win.
"When that's going to be, I don't know the answer to that, but I know we're going to win."
Cleveland's success this season will hinge on whether quarterback Robert Griffin III can revive his career with the Browns following a freefall with Washington. With Jackson's urging after he worked out the 26-year-old QB, the Browns signed RG3 to a two-year, $15 million contract — a low-risk, high-reward investment that could accelerate the Browns' reconstruction or force the team to use a high draft pick next year on a quarterback.
From his days with the Raiders, Jackson learned he can't do it alone. It takes a village to raise a team, and that no matter how hard he work, how he stays in his office pouring over a game plan or how many times he shows a rookie wide receiver how to run the proper route, things aren't going to go according to plan.
"You've got to have the wherewithal to deal with that," said Jackson, the Browns' fifth coach since 2010. "Some people can and some people can't. I understand that you're not going to win them all and you're not going to lose them all, but somewhere in the middle. But hopefully you win more than you lose."
Worth noting, Griffin showed flashes of his former speedy self in training camp, but he is a far cry from the player whose scintillating skills electrified the league as a rookie in 2012. He can still throw the deep ball, but the Browns need Griffin to be accurate on those intermediate throws and pick up first downs when flushed from the pocket.
Perhaps the most perplexing player in football, wide receiver Josh Gordon will sit out the first four games serving his latest drug suspension. The former Pro Bowler has said all the right things about staying clean to this point, and now the Browns have to trust he'll be true to his word until he's eligible.
Gordon has been suspended for 27 of Cleveland's last 32 games.
Meanwhile, Cleveland Plain Dealer staffer Mary Kay Cabot reports that Jackson isn't worried about Corey Coleman's mental mistake last Thursday night against the Bears or his two shaky preseason outings. He knows that Coleman missed two weeks of team drills and the first two preseason games, and has some catching up before Sunday's opener in Philadelphia.
"It's being in practice every day," said Jackson. "It's the walkthroughs and practice and studying away. Corey will be fine."
Jackson insisted that Coleman's not overwhelmed despite missing such a big chunk of time. He did acknowledge, however, that the offense contains a lot of complex terminology.
"Sometimes when you get down in the scoring zone and all of a sudden the play is called and you don't hear it all or you turn away a little too soon or you thought it was this when it was really that. Those things happen," the coach said. "I don't think Corey's spinning, I don't think there's any issue with Corey whatsoever. It's unfortunate that it happened at that time but he's been outstanding as far as getting lined up and knowing exactly what to do."
Gordon is confident Coleman has the skillset to excel despite his 5-11, 185-pound frame.
"Corey's very strong, that low center of gravity definitely helps," he said. "What (he lacks in size), he makes up in his spirit, his heart. He's one of the hardest workers here. He has the ability to do everything a taller receiver can do. There really is no difference. ..."
Gary Barnidge might have difficulty topping last season when he caught 79 passes for 1,043 yards and nine touchdowns, but he is playing for a coach that loves to use the tight end.
As for the backfield, Isaiah Crowell is going to get the biggest workload between the tackles, as he did last year when he led the Browns in rushing with 707 yards. Duke Johnson is a better receiver, but he also will take handoffs from RG3 because the Browns don't want him to be one dimensional. One of the missions of Jackson is for the running backs to be more decisive when they hit a hole.
Cleveland's schedule is brutal with five road games in the first seven weeks and no bye until Dec. 4. Making matters worse, one of those two home games is Tom Brady's return from his four-game "Deflategate" suspension and the Patriots QB just may take out some pent-up frustrations against Commissioner Roger Goodell against the Browns.
As for this week, the Browns scouting report on the Eagles changed when Philadelphia traded quarterback Sam Bradford to the Vikings on Saturday. Now that they have to prepare for rookie Carson Wentz, defensive coordinator Ray Horton can incorporate more blitzes. Horton likes to send cornerbacks and safeties on blitzes. It's a gamble that could pay off against a young quarterback.
QBs: Tyrod Taylor
RBs: Carlos Hyde, Duke Johnson, Matt Dayes
WRs: Josh Gordon, Jarvis Landry, Corey Coleman, Ricardo Louis, Rashard Higgins, Jeff Janis, Bryce Treggs
TEs: Darren Fells, David Njoku, Seth DeValve, Randall Telfer
Dallas CowboysCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2016
As the Sports Xchange notes, when the Cowboys lost starting quarterback Tony Romo for possibly eight to 10 weeks with a fractured back, it was initially described as a punch to the gut.
Romo's return to health after missing 12 games last year with a fractured clavicle was the foundation of hope for a bounce-back season and playoff run following last year's 4-12 campaign.
Now Romo is out again because of a fractured bone in his back.
But the Cowboys are focused on winning games during his absence behind rookie quarterback sensation Dak Prescott, who will start against the New York Giants in the season opener.
Vice president Stephen Jones still has a good feeling about Dallas after training camp and the preseason.
"I really like our football team," Jones said. "Obviously, no one is naive when you lose your starting quarterback for some time, which it's obviously going to be some time. That certainly wasn't in our plans; you certainly hope something like that doesn't happen.
"Obviously, Dak's emergence makes you feel better about having that happen to you because there is a lot of optimism with Dak. Other than that, our team has exceeded our expectations in training camp and guys have performed well and done a really nice job for us. We really feel good about our team."
The Cowboys are able to move ahead without Romo because of the lessons they learned playing without him last season.
That woe-is-me stuff is out the door, per cornerback Brandon Carr.
The Cowboys are also able to look forward with optimism because of what they have seen from Prescott in the preseason. They know the regular season will be different, but Prescott gives them something to feel good about.
It's not the same uncertainty without Romo as it was a year ago.
"Teams like to game-plan and they scheme against you, so he's going to see some looks he hasn't seen before," Carr said of Prescott. "At the same time, a lot of veteran guys ... will get him well prepared. He's going to see it all. That's part of growing up in this game."
The Cowboys believe they can succeed with Prescott because of the team they have around him the same Romo-friendly set-up that was there to take pressure off of the injured 13-year veteran is there for the rookie. They did sign Mark Sanchez as an experienced backup.
Bryant, the 2014 All-Pro receiver who broke his right foot in the 2015 opener and was never the same last season, caught two touchdowns from Prescott in the preseason. Tight end Jason Witten has been to 10 Pro Bowls.
As Associated Press sports writer Schulyer Dixon notes, Elliott faces expectations that seem to grow daily, even though he missed most of training camp and took just 14 snaps in one preseason game — the same game in which Romo got hurt at Seattle.
"I like where we are with the other parts of the offense, obviously the protections, the running game, all of that," owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. "Some of the other things we can do that we don't have to depend on that experience are there and alive in this team."
The biggest questions remain on defense, where the Cowboys don't have any pass rushers of note because of the suspensions of defensive ends Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence.
Gregory is out four games and possibly more for violating the NFL's substance abuse program. Lawrence will also be sidelined the first four games.
The Cowboys are hopeful they have some players to hold the fort in the interim.
"I will say this we've seen some things in camp that we like from our defensive linemen," Jones said. "I think we're athletic and I think they're going to play hard and (defensive coordinator) Rod Marinelli has coached them up and I think we'll do some good things."
As for Sunday's game against the Giants?
The Cowboys will try to run a ball-control offense and rely on Elliott and the running game to take pressure off Prescott. That said, Bryant will be going up Giants CB Janoris Jenkins. The Giants signed Jenkins to a five-year, $62.5 million contract in free agency. It was also considered a suspect move for a feast-or-famine cornerback. He has given up 22 touchdowns since 2012, per Pro Football Focus.
Bryant will likely prove too much for Jenkins.
Defensively, they must pressure Eli Manning and prevent the big play down the field to Odell Beckham and the other dangerous receivers in the Giants arsenal. The Cowboys can't get in a shootout with the Giants, not with a rookie quarterback.
A few final notes here. ... The Cowboys aren't putting Romo on injured reserve, leaving open the option for him to return. They presumably believe he can be ready faster than eight weeks into the season.
According to Dallas Morning News staffer Brandon George, Darren McFadden, who opens the season on the Non-Football Injury List after breaking his elbow this offseason, may never be able to fully straighten his right arm again. He is not eligible to return until at after Week 6. It's not clear if he'll return at all.
And finally. ... Elliott will not be charged after an investigation into a domestic violence accusation, according to Elliott's father. Stacy Elliott wrote on Twitter Tuesday that his son has been informed there will be no charges. Ezekiel Elliott hasn't commented on the matter today, and authorities have not publicly announced whether or not he will be charged, but Drew Davison of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports that prosecutors will not pursue charges against Elliott.
QBs: Dak Prescott, Cooper Rush
RBs: Alfred Morris, Rod Smith
WRs: Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, Deonte Thompson, Tavon Austin, Allen Hurns, Noah Brown
TEs: Geoff Swaim, Rico Gathers
Denver BroncosCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2016
Trevor Siemian will throw his first pass as a pro Thursday night when the Super Bowl champs kick off the 2016 season against the Carolina Panthers.
Despite his inexperience, he'll have the full playbook at his disposal.
"He can carry a lot of information in a short period of time," head coach Gary Kubiak said Sunday. "Let me explain: he can go in that meeting room for two hours in the morning, walk out here at 11:30 and take it to the field. You can't teach that. Guys can handle it or they can't.
"So, he's handling a lot of information, handling the team, practiced well today. We need to help Trevor all we can but I know Trevor's ready to do his part."
As BlackandBlueReview.com's Bill Voth noted, if you think all that sets up pretty nicely for the Panthers, Sean McDermott disagrees.
"I'll equate it to a baseball analogy where you get a first-time pitcher who's always going to have more success early because people really don't know his stuff as well," Carolina's defensive coordinator says. "Whereas if you get him on tape and there's more eyes on him, scouting reports, so on and so forth, then you get a little bit more familiar with him."
But how much can you really learn from the tape of a quarterback who threw for 285 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions against vanilla game plans in three exhibition games?
"That's the hard part, too," McDermott says. "You'd love to have about three or four games in the regular season and say, ‘OK, we've got him in game five.'"
Both McDermott and Panthers coach Ron Rivera admitted they might pop in Siemian's Northwestern tape, but that's not anything they can game plan around.
"You're going to have to look at what (the Broncos) do," says Rivera.
And if that's anything like what they morphed into once Manning's arm was no longer a downfield threat, the Panthers will again face a run-first offense that won't take many deep shots. With Denver's nasty defense, Peyton Manning was essentially a game manager. It stands to reason the 250th pick of the 2015 draft will be the same.
But here's another example where McDermott's thinking is different.
"I think that's an overused term," he says. "The quarterback position is so important. He's got the ball in his hand every snap on offense. I don't know how you can really say that's a game manager."
As we head into the most anticipated season opening game week in Panthers' history, it's understandable if many outside the building wonder how Carolina could lose to some guy named Trevor Siemian. Inside, McDermott will be consumed by how it could happen.
"Obviously the more you know, the better you feel and the more prepared you are," he says. "We'll do our due diligence and get to know him as best we can."
Of course, Siemian isn't the only new face in Denver's starting lineup.
As Associated Press sports writer Arnie Stapleton reminded readers, Manning and five other offensive starters from the Broncos' 24-10 win over Carolina in Super Bowl 50 are no longer on the roster, a radical makeover for a champion. Neither is Brock Osweiler, who bolted to the Texans in free agency.
The only players returning to their same spots on offense are center Matt Paradis, running back C.J. Anderson and receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas. Another, Michael Schofield, lost his right tackle job to free agent Donald Stephenson but will start at right guard because of injuries to Ty Sambrailo (elbow) and Darrion Weems (concussion).
Two years after revamping his defense in the rubble of Seattle's Super Bowl demolition of Denver, GM John Elway rebuilt his offense in the wake of his team's triumph.
While Elway spent months searching for Manning's successor this offseason, only to find him already on the roster, the Broncos' boss jettisoned both tight ends and three O-linemen who started in the Super Bowl.
Ryan Harris, Lou Vasquez and Evan Mathis are no longer protecting the passer, replaced by Russell Okung, Max Garcia and Stephenson.
Elway also released Ronnie Hillman, the team's leading rusher last season but a non-factor in the Super Bowl, where Anderson rumbled for 90 yards and Denver's only offensive touchdown following Von Miller's second sack-strip of Cam Newton.
Elway said he believes the offense can carry more of its weight this year after relying so heavily on Denver's destructive defense to bring home the franchise's third Lombardi Trophy.
"I'm excited about offense," Elway said. "We're better in the offensive line, especially as we get healthier. Running back, I think we're deeper at running back. Our receivers are still good. I think we have a chance to be better offensively with a good balanced attack and have Trevor come in, play well and do the things that he can do."
Last year, the Broncos put their 39-year-old QB in the pistol or shotgun, which limited their ground game and play-action possibilities. Now, they're back to the run-heavy approach that Kubiak has employed most of his career, one that features roll-outs, bootlegs, sprint-outs and plenty of hand-offs.
"We've got a lot more things that we can do with the running game now," Elway said. "We've got a fullback that can really play in (Andy) Janovich and who does a great job. It gives us a lot of different options."
Elway suggested this new offense will take some pressure off Miller & Co.
"It gives us a better chance to be better on defense," Elway said, "because if we can stay on the field and pick up some third downs and keep those guys rested on the defensive side, we've got a chance to be better there, too."
The biggest change is Siemian under center. The former Northwestern QB beat out Mark Sanchez with steadiness and spunk.
"I'm not trying to be Peyton," Siemian said. "I could probably get in a lot of trouble trying to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer."
Elway said Siemian has the right mental makeup to succeed Manning: "He handles the huddle very well. The guys like him, they respect him and believe in him."
Siemian served as the Broncos' No. 2 QB for the seven weeks Osweiler started while Manning was sidelined in 2015.
"Trevor has a chance to be successful because even though he's essentially a rookie as far as play time, he's got the feel and knows what it's all about," Elway said. "That experience he had last year is going to help him tremendously this year."
As for Thursday night, the Broncos will rely on an equation that involves defensive aggression and limiting offensive mistakes, with effective special teams helping make the difference. Siemian has earned praise for his presence in the huddle and unflappable nature on the field, but he will have a stern challenge from the Panthers' front seven.
It will be crucial for Siemian to trust his receivers against Carolina's inexperienced cornerbacks. If Siemian can show patience under pressure and get the ball up to Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, the two 1,000-yard receivers should be able to win their share of one-on-one battles. That could in turn stretch out the Panthers' defense, forcing a linebacker to drop into coverage, which would open up lanes for C.J. Anderson and give the Broncos the offensive balance they want.
If they do that and if the defense can contain Cam Newton once again the Broncos can win the Super Bowl 50 rematch.
Other notes of interest. ... Receiver Bennie Fowler was ruled out for Thursday's game. Fowler has been out since suffering a fractured right elbow.
With Fowler out, Jordan Taylor should be active.
Second-year tight end Jeff Heuerman missed practice with an injury Sunday and Monday. He has been bothered by a strained hamstring and is listed as questionable. Kubiak said Heuerman would be ready to play by Thursday.
QBs: Case Keenum, Paxton Lynch, Chad Kelly
RBs: Devontae Booker, Jamaal Charles, De'Angelo Henderson
WRs: Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Isaiah McKenzie, Jordan Taylor
TEs: Virgil Green, Jeff Heuerman, Jake Butt
Detroit LionsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2016
According to the Sports Xchange, the Lions head into their regular-season opener Sept. 11 against the Indianapolis Colts with serious questions about their offense.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford, who will play the first season of his career this fall without the security blanket known as Calvin Johnson, was on the field for nine series this preseason and didn't lead a single touchdown drive.
The Lions scored nine points on three field goals on those possessions, had two turnovers and left plenty of people wondering just how explosive this team will be.
Stafford, actually, played better than his preseason passer rating of 73.6 would suggest, and seems a fit for what coordinator Jim Bob Cooter wants to do with his no-huddle offense. He threw just two interceptions all preseason, including in practices, is comfortable calling plays at the line of scrimmage, and has taken noticeably more ownership in the offense than he did under former coordinator Jim Bob Cooter.
But without Johnson at wide receiver, and with questions lingering on the offensive line and in the running game, the Lions lack both the big-play element that's carried them in recent years and a reliable red-zone target who is a matchup problem for defenses.
Stafford probably will not be able to count on a running game to create shorter down-and-distance situations, or to get a tough yard or so on third or fourth down. Detroit ranked last in the league in rushing last season and may struggle to show signs of improvement in the important facet of the game.
Stafford, the No. 1 overall pick in 2009, will have to sling it early and often in a pass-heavy offense that will frequently be in hurry-up mode.
Jim Bob Cooter, entering his first full season as offensive coordinator, has relinquished quite a bit of control to Stafford. The Lions will likely use a no-huddle offense, and Stafford will have plenty of opportunities to call plays at the line.
"It's not about what plays I like the best. It's about what plays the players feel the best about," Cooter said. "I've learned early in my time that if the quarterback really likes a play, he tends to make it work and the same thing works at different positions.
"If a receiver really likes a route, that guy tends to get open on that route."
Golden Tate, who made 189 receptions the previous two years in Detroit, will be Stafford's top target.
Tight end Eric Ebron, who missed the preseason with a lower right leg injury, has the potential to be a breakout player in his third NFL season.
The hope is that Ameer Abdullah has conquered the fumble problems that sent him to the doghouse last year, and the Lions' revamped offensive line improves as summer turns to fall.
Rookie Taylor Decker will start at left tackle and should be a good player in time, but he had some rough moments this preseason and the Lions know to expect some inconsistencies from him throughout the year.
Riley Reiff seems at home in his move to right tackle, but the interior of the line especially the left guard and center spots are still a work in progress.
The Lions open the season with three of their first four games on the road, but this year's schedule is not nearly as treacherous as the one last year that sent them spiraling on a 1-7 start.
The Colts have significant problems at cornerback and on the offensive line, and the Lions have the right talent to exploit those weaknesses.
Stafford threw more interceptions (one) than touchdowns (none) this preseason, but the Lions should be able to attack the Colts through the air on Sunday. Indianapolis finished the preseason down its top three cornerbacks, and even if they get healthy this week, they'll be at a disadvantage against Jones, Tate and Anquan Boldin.
Defensively, the Lions have tended not to blitz top quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers heavily, choosing instead to pressure with their front four and avoid the big play downfield. Given the Colts' problems up front, Ziggy Ansah and Haloti Ngata could have a big day.
Given the relative ease of their schedule overall, a Week 1 win would help stamp the Lions as legitimate playoff contenders and calm some of the concerns their uneven preseason raised.
Also of interest. ... The Lions are excruciatingly thin at the tight end position as Ebron returned to practice Monday for the first time in a month (and followed up by working Wednesday) and top backup Brandon Pettigrew is on the physically unable to perform list recovering from knee surgery. Ebron has been a divisive player since the Lions reached to take him 10th overall in the 2014 draft. He took a step forward production-wise last year, but he still has questionable hands and bouts of immaturity.
This will be a big season for him. It will help greatly if he's on the field to open the season.
QBs: Matthew Stafford, Jake Rudock, Matt Cassel
RBs: LeGarrette Blount, Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick, Dwayne Washington, Tion Green, Zach Zenner
WRs: Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, Kenny Golladay, Jared Abbrederis, TJ Jones
TEs: Luke Willson, Michael Roberts, Levine Toilolo
Green Bay PackersCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2016
"You look at our offense and we're built in a way to have a great year," Cobb said. "It's just going out there and proving it. Going out there and executing to expectations."
That didn't happen last season, when the Packers uncharacteristically struggled with the ball. Their four-year reign as NFC North champions came to an end.
Green Bay still won a wild-card game and took Arizona to overtime on the road before losing in the NFC divisional round.
After the season, Rodgers had minor knee surgery. Rodgers, who turns 33 in December, also altered his diet as he tweaked his offseason conditioning routine.
Nelson only returned with a couple of weeks left in camp after what was described as a minor issue with his left knee; he tore the ACL in his right knee in preseason a year ago.
"I've been giving him a lot of opportunities to work on a couple things, but he looks good," Rodgers said.
So has tight end Jared Cook, an offseason free-agent signee from the Rams. The 6-foot-5 Cook has shown the potential to give the offense the big, athletic playmaking target that the Packers haven't had since Jermichael Finley in 2013.
If things go as planned, Nelson would give Rodgers the missing deep threat, while Cook and tight end Richard Rodgers would offer big targets over the middle. Also, one or more the Packers' corps of young receivers behind Nelson and Cobb would take steps forward in their developments.
The always tough Cobb, who added bulk but didn't appear to lose any quickness, would make catches in traffic. Lacy and James Starks would provide a one-two punch at running back, while the offensive line would stay healthy and keeps Rodgers upright.
"I don't think there's a cap or a limit you can put on it," Cook said about the possibilities for the offense. "Endless, it really is."
Head coach Mike McCarthy said Monday that Nelson won't have any limitations in practice this week and will “be full-bore in Jacksonville."
But given that Nelson did not play a single game snap in the preseason and only returned to full practice drills eight days ago, ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky believes it would be an arduous task to ask Nelson to go the distance.
Of course, McCarthy could have been trying to deke the Jaguars into thinking Nelson will play the entire game in order to throw off their game-planning process.
Last year, the Packers averaged 66 offensive plays per game. According to Demovsky, in Nelson's last healthy season, he played 1,093 snaps -- or 92.1 percent of the Packers' total offensive plays. So under normal circumstances, a full game wouldn't be out of the ordinary.
This, however, is far from normal for Nelson, who hasn't played a down in a game since he tore the ACL in his right knee on Aug. 23, 2015. His return was further delayed by an issue with his left knee before training camp. Nelson suggested earlier this summer that the opener at Jacksonville would be especially taxing on his conditioning given the expected heat in Florida in early September.
Nelson did not talk to reporters on Monday, but said last week he believes he prepared the best he could in light of his late start to training camp.
“I think if everything would've gone smooth coming into camp, we would've been in a different situation,” Nelson said last week. “But it's the situation we're in, and I think we've handled it well. We're where we need to be.”
The Packers kept seven receivers -- an almost unheard-of total -- on their roster this season. Last year, they carried only five into the opener. However, it's not because McCarthy plans to limit Nelson's reps early on. Injuries to Jeff Janis (broken right hand) and Trevor Davis (shoulder) likely will take them out of the mix this week.
“We'll probably be working five receivers this week,” McCarthy said.
Meanwhile, as the Sports Xchange notes, the early forecast for Sunday afternoon in Jacksonville, Fla., is a temperature in the low 90s with high humidity. That's not desired by the Packers, but at least they had plenty of warm days during training camp the last month to get accustomed to the toasty conditions.
The Rodgers-led offense will have to contend with a Jaguars defense that will feature a pair of top-five draft picks end Dante Fowler Jr., who missed his rookie season in 2015 because of a torn ACL, and cornerback Jalen Ramsey, the team's top draft choice this year.
Since Rodgers played only one game (just for two series) in the preseason and the Packers didn't have Nelson on the field in the exhibition games, the passing dimension could need some time to start clicking. That may prompt McCarthy to lean on Lacy early Sunday, as McCarthy did in Lacy's limited preseason action when the rededicated fourth-year back gained 114 yards in just 20 carries.
On the other side of the ball, Green Bay's young secondary will have to contend with the Jaguars' prolific passing attack triggered by third-year quarterback Blake Bortles and the talented trio of young receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns and veteran tight end Julius Thomas. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers must get creative with his deep crew of pass-rushing linebackers to force the issue with Bortles, who completed only 58.6 percent of his passes and threw a league-high 18 interceptions last season.
The defensive backfield has turned into a strength with the drafting of safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and defensive backs Damarious Randall and Quentin Rollins the past few years. Sam Shields is one the NFC's top cornerbacks, and Micah Hyde is a jack-of-all-trades. Safety Morgan Burnett had a back injury in camp, though coaches think be ready for the Sept. 11 opener against Jacksonville.
One last note here. ... QB Brett Hundley is expected to be OK to practice this week. Hundley, a second-year pro elevated to Aaron Rodgers' top backup this year, missed most of training camp because of an injury to his left ankle. Hundley played only one preseason game.
QBs: DeShone Kizer, Brett Hundley, Joe Callahan
RBs: Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones, Devante Mays, Ty Montgomery
WRs: Davante Adams, Randall Cobb, Geronimo Allison, Trevor Davis
TEs: Jimmy Graham, Lance Kendricks
Houston TexansCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2016
Brock Osweiler is comfortable in Houston and ready to show the Texans they were right to invest $72 million in him.
The quarterback, who started just seven games in his four-year career before the Texans lured him away from Denver with that huge contract, has looked good in preseason. On Sunday, he'll get his first test when the Texans host the Chicago Bears.
"My confidence continues to grow every single day," he said. "It definitely grows every single time I step on the game field because you can't really replace anything with game reps, so the more I'm able to (practice) this offense, the more comfortable I become with it."
Head Bill O'Brien is beginning his third year in Houston after building a reputation as a quarterback guru with New England and in his time at Penn State. Last season, he was forced to use four quarterbacks because of injuries and inconsistent play.
As Associated Press sports writer Kristie Rieken notes, despite the revolving door at quarterback, Houston's 9-7 record was good enough to win a weak AFC South and reach the playoffs for the first time since 2012. But Brian Hoyer threw four interceptions in a 30-0 wild-card loss to Kansas City and sent Houston looking for an upgrade at the position.
O'Brien believes he found it in the 25-year-old Osweiler, who started the last seven regular-season games for the Broncos last year before being benched for the playoffs in favor of Peyton Manning. The coach loves the work ethic of his new quarterback and raved about the 12-hour days he has routinely put in so he could master the offense.
"He's come in here and done exactly what we've asked him to do," O'Brien said. "He's worked extremely hard. ... In order to understand our offense basically like a coach does, you have to put in a lot of time. He has certainly done that."
Osweiler didn't play the final preseason game following an impressive performance against the Arizona Cardinals in which he completed 11 of 13 passes for 146 yards and one touchdown with no interceptions for a 139.1 passer rating. In three preseason games, Osweiler completed 27 of 39 passes for 297 yards, two touchdowns and one interception for a respectable 97.9 passer rating.
"I think one of the things that we've seen that, to me, has been very impressive and has to continue during the season is his command of the offense," O'Brien said. "When we watch the tape, one of the things that stands out to me, personally, is his knowledge and his command of the offense. That has to continue to improve.
"We can't take a step back with that, and I think that's something that he does really well. That's what I would like to really see him continue to do when the season starts."
While the centerpiece of the Texans' changes was acquiring Osweiler, they also upgraded their speed by signing former Miami Dolphins running back Lamar Miller and drafting wide receivers Will Fuller and Braxton Miller.
As ESPN.com's Sara Barshop notes, during his four seasons with the Dolphins, Miller was underused, topping 200 carries in a season only once, and was not given the chance to be a three-down back. Last season in Miami, he averaged just 15.06 touches per game. Expect that number to increase as the Texans involve him heavily in their offense, both on the ground and through the air.
Top receiver DeAndre Hopkins was third in the NFL with 1,521 yards receiving despite dealing with near-constant double teams. The Texans looked to take some pressure off Hopkins with the additions of Fuller and Miller. O'Brien has been impressed with their development throughout camp and said the pair will both get plenty of playing time in the opener.
Hopkins has been hard on the pair and loves how they've responded.
"We demand the best out of all the rookies," Hopkins said. "Especially, in that receiving group, I demand the best out of you."
For what it's worth, Fuller was listed as a starter on the team's initial, unofficial depth chart.
The offensive line took a hit when second-round pick Nick Martin, who was expected to start at center, had season-ending ankle surgery. Greg Mancz, a second-year player who appeared in three games last season, took over on a line that could also be without veteran left tackle Duane Brown (quadriceps surgery in January) when the season begins. Brown was also activated from the physically unable to perform list on Saturday, but could still miss the opener. Despite the injuries, O'Brien is confident in the unit.
"I really like that group of guys," O'Brien said. "I think they practice hard. They take it very seriously. Football is very important to them, so I know they'll work hard to get better."
The Texans' revamped offense will attempt to take advantage of the Bears' poor depth at cornerback this weekend.
Defensively, the Texans will look to get quarterback Jake Cutler back on his heels and force him into poor throws behind the pass-rushing tandem of J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus.
Watt passed his physical on Sunday and returned to practice on Monday, a good sign that he'll be ready for Chicago. Watt missed all of training camp and the Texans' four preseason games after surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back in July. The Texans activated him from the physically unable to perform list on Saturday before Sunday's announcement that he passed his physical.
Watt, the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in three of the past four seasons, hasn't missed a game in his five-year career.
The defensive end also sat out the entire preseason in 2012 because of an elbow injury and was able to return for the season opener.
Watt told reporters that he never had any doubt that he'd be ready to go for the first week of the regular season. “I can do anything and everything they ask me to do,” Watt said, via John McClain of the Houston Chronicle. “I'm going to try to play every play. There's no problem whatsoever.”
The Texans are looking for a breakout season from outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney after he failed to make an impact in his first two NFL seasons. Clowney, who was the first overall pick in the 2014 draft, has been plagued by injuries since he was drafted. He got plenty of work this preseason and impressed coaches with his development. He knows the key to success this season is simple.
"Just want to stay on the field all season," he said. "That's it."
QBs: T.J. Yates, Brandon Weeden
RBs: Lamar Miller, Andre Ellington, Alfred Blue, Tyler Ervin
WRs: DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, Braxton Miller, DeAndrew White
TEs: Stephen Anderson, Evan Baylis, MyCole Pruitt
Indianapolis ColtsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2016
As Associated Press sports writer Michael Marot notes, general manager Ryan Grigson spent another offseason investing heavily in Andrew Luck's protection plan.
After four preseason games, it's unclear what the payoff will be.
The problems that ruined last season's big plans resurfaced during an exhibition loss to Philadelphia when Luck was sacked three times and hit three more times in the first half. Fortunately for Indy, Luck avoided getting hurt.
But everyone in the organization knows that must change quickly if the Colts are going to make a playoff push in 2016.
"We've had some line issues. There's nothing that we can do about it," Pagano said after Thursday's preseason finale, referring to injuries. "We have to get healthy, and healthy in a hurry."
There is hope. The Colts expect some growing pains because they've plugged in two new starters — rookie center Ryan Kelly and right guard Denzelle Good, a second-year player.
Meanwhile, right tackle Joe Reitz (back) and left guard Jack Mewhort (knee) have been battling injuries. Mewhort will miss Week 1, but both linemen should be back before the end of September.
The concern is this: If the line doesn't improve soon, Luck could again pay a steep price.
In fact, it might already be an issue as Luck turned up on the team's injury report after being limited in Wednesday's practice due to right shoulder issue.
Pagano, Grigson and team owner Jim Irsay all know that keeping Luck healthy and upright remains the team's top priority, especially after Luck signed a record-breaking six-year, $140 million contract in June. That's why they used four draft picks on linemen, including Kelly in the first round.
Throughout training camp, there were promising signs.
The results, however, haven't changed much. After averaging 3.6 yards per carry in 2015, they averaged 2.7 in the preseason. And after allowing 37 sacks last season, they gave up in the first three preseason games.
While Pagano, Grigson and Irsay cringe with every hit Luck takes, the franchise quarterback doesn't seem to mind.
"I feel like I played a half of football," he said two days after the pounding he took against Philadelphia. "It feels good. I think it's almost important to get hit a little in the preseason for your body to get used to what it's like on a Monday after a game. I feel pretty good."
Meanwhile, with the Colts set to begin the regular season against the Detroit Lions at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sept. 11, the biggest question facing general manager Ryan Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano concerns the team's ongoing injury issues.
Who is going to be available to suit up against the Lions? No one really knows right now. As mentioned above, the offensive line has been hit hard. But so has the defensive line and the cornerback and safety positions.
The injury problems played havoc with the decision making process when it came to trimming the roster down to the regular season limit of 53 players.
"Our No. 1 corner, Vontae (Davis) is out," Pagano said. "And Pat (Robinson) is our No. 2 (cornerback) and he's been out. Jalil (Brown) has been out. You can go on down the line, especially with Tevin (Mitchel) out. And with the chance to evaluate him, he tweaks his hamstring again (against Cincinnati in the final preseason game). Mitchel was placed on reserve/injured in the roster reduction to 53.
"We've had some line issues. There's nothing that we can do about it. We have to get healthy, and healthy in a hurry. Because the 11th is going to be here before we know it. It makes it difficult to get to that 53. We got some guys that we are hopeful that we get back."
Pagano continues to search for answers. And healthy players. Nobody knows for sure who is going to be available.
"Obviously when they are healthy, I know what they are going to look like. I know how they are going to play. I know their DNA, whether they are injured or not. You know that we are going to play for 60 minutes," the Colts head coach said.
"We've got a tough football team. We got to get some guys back, and back on the offensive line, specifically the corner positions."
Otherwise, running back Frank Gore still is steamed he finished last season with 967 yards. Perhaps the Colts should be more upset. Since 2008, Gore has topped the 1,000-yard mark six times — a span in which Indy has produced zero 1,000-yard runners.
Indy also starts this season trying to snap a 50-game streak without a 100-yard rusher — the longest drought in the NFL in nearly two decades. The 33-year-old Gore hopes to defy the odds by ending both streaks this year.
Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski hasn't dropped many hints about the new offense. And while he stayed pretty vanilla in the preseason, the conventional wisdom is the tight ends will play a more prominent role in 2016. That's great news for Dwayne Allen, who signed a four-year, $29.4 million contract in March. Allen has been slowed by injuries during his first four seasons and was overshadowed by Coby Fleener.
With Fleener in New Orleans, Allen becomes the primary tight end — and could have a breakout year. Allen (hip) returned to practice Monday.
But it all starts with Luck.
After three seasons of working with longtime veteran Matt Hasselbeck in quarterback meetings, Luck has become more vocal on and off the field. But what really matters is Luck's play. If the preseason is any indication, the Colts could be in for a big season.
He completed all eight of his passes in his first preseason game against Baltimore and showed he could still take a hit when he was sacked three times and hit three other times in his most extensive action against Philadelphia. He finished the preseason 21 of 26 for 201 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions.
"Really for him being out that long and having the opportunity to get back out there and be with his teammates, and then to play well and have some success is obviously a good thing," Pagano said after the Baltimore game.
Now, Luck must prove he and the Colts can replicate those numbers over a 16-game regular season, and he's eager to get back to work.
"There are steps in every preseason, every offseason, every training camp, every preseason," Luck said. "So now it's sort of the next step and on to Detroit."
For what it's worth, ESPN.com's Mike Wells predicts that Luck will not only rebound from the worst season of his NFL career, he'll throw for a career high in passing yards and touchdowns. That's no mean feat for Luck, who threw for 4,761 yards and 40 touchdowns in 2014.
As for this weekend, the Sports Xchange reports the Colts wants to get off to a quick start offensively in their season opener with Detroit. With Chudzinski's new scheme, Indianapolis wants to work at a faster pace and with a desire to open up the passing game a bit more. Chudzinski is more into timing routes and dumping the ball off to avoid sacks and interceptions.
But the Colts will take their chances down field whenever the opportunity presents itself.
As for the defense, Indianapolis wants to find ways to develop its blitz package and to get more pressure on the quarterback from different areas. Turnovers will be key for the Colts against Detroit.
First-year defensive coordinator Ted Monachino would also like to see the Indianapolis defense play at a much faster and aggressive pace if at all possible. It seems like a reach to believe he has the personnel to get the job done -- at least early on.
QBs: Jacoby Brissett, Scott Tolzien
RBs: Marlon Mack, Christine Michael, Matt Jones, Robert Turbin
WRs: T.Y. Hilton, Ryan Grant, Chester Rogers, Kamar Aiken
TEs: Jack Doyle, Eric Ebron, Ross Travis, Jason Vander Laan
Jacksonville JaguarsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2016
As Associated Press sports writer Mark Long suggested, they've been dubbed "The A-Team," a fitting nickname for more reasons than the obvious.
Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson are one of the best receiving duos in the NFL. They might even be the best in Jaguars history, better than that other tandem that started giving defenses fits two decades ago.
"I have the same feelings about those guys that our fans do," said retired Jaguars receiver Jimmy Smith, a five-time Pro Bowl selection. "We are all hopeful that these guys are the second coming. Let's get it right, though: I don't want these guys breaking my records, but I want them to win. I'm sure Keenan (McCardell) feels the same way."
Smith and McCardell have plenty of breathing room in the record books — at least for now. But if 2015 was any indication, Hurns and Robinson will end up holding many of Jacksonville's receiving marks by the end of their careers.
Hurns caught 64 passes for 1,031 yards and 10 touchdowns in his second season. The Jaguars rewarded him with a four-year, $40.6 million contract extension that included $20 million guaranteed.
Robinson was even better, notching 80 receptions for 1,400 yards and 14 scores. Robinson set a franchise record for TDs by a receiver and made the Pro Bowl in his second year.
Jacksonville hadn't had a 1,000-yard receiver since 2005.
So what will they do for an encore?
The Jaguars aren't even sure, but they won't be surprised by anything. After all, Hurns and Robinson were the most accomplished receiver combination aged 24 or younger in NFL history last season.
"The work ethic and the want-to attitude for those two guys is unbelievable," quarterback Blake Bortles said. "They obviously hear all of the hype and all of this stuff about each other and about themselves individually, and it does not bother them one bit. They come to work every day and want to get better, want to be a part of this team and want to make us successful.
"It's impressive and fun to be around every day."
The A-Team has individual strengths, too.
Hurns, signed as an undrafted rookie from Miami in 2014, is durable, dependable and versatile. He's missed just one game in two years, dropped one pass last season, and plays from the slot as well as he does outside.
"You can run a lot of different routes and you get great, great matchups," Hurns said.
Robinson, a second-round pick from Penn State in 2014, has freakish athletic skills, including the ability to make circus catches near the sideline and outjump defenders downfield.
"He's unbelievable," Bortles said. "He has a mind and a motor that doesn't stop, and even though he put up good numbers last year, he is going to continue to work his tail off and wants to be better each and every year. He is a guy you love playing with, and I definitely love to throw it to him because he is a playmaker."
Bortles ranked second in the NFL (behind Tom Brady) with 35 TD passes last season, but he also led the league in fumbles (14), interceptions (18) and sacks (51). So there's plenty of room for growth. The third-year starter spent a week in California working with mechanics guru Tom House and believes being in the same scheme for a second straight year will help.
"The numbers and stuff that we were able to put up were great, but I didn't think we did it consistently," he said.
Bortles, Hurns and Robinson are Jacksonville's top fantasy plays, but tight end Julius Thomas and running back Chris Ivory should be viable options. Thomas is healthy again after missing much of last season with a broken bone and torn tendon in his right hand. And Ivory, a 1,000-yard rusher for the Jets in 2015, is expected to be the team's short-yardage and goal-line back.
Going up against Green Bay this Sunday, the Jaguars will be looking to put together sustained drives and keep the ball away from the Packers' offense and quarterback Aaron Rogers. Jacksonville's running game has made significant strides from a year ago, especially with the additions of free agents Ivory and Kelvin Beachum at right tackle.
Ivory and T.J. Yeldon give the Jaguars their best 1-2 running punch since the days of Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew a decade ago. Jacksonville will need a productive day from the Ivory-Yeldon tandem in order to make the passing game effective. As the Sports Xchange suggests, the duo will be tested by the Packers' linebackers that are among the best in the league. Led by talented Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews, this group can effectively shut down running games. The Jaguars need their running game to be effective in order for Blake Bortles to have more success throwing the ball.
Worth noting: Ivory turned up on Wednesday's injury report after he was limited in practice by a sore ankle. I'll follow up via Late-Breaking Update as needed in coming days. ...
One other player worth noting. ... As ESPN.com's Mike DiRocco notes, Marqise Lee hasn't produced much during his first two seasons (52 catches for 613 yards and 2 TDs) but that's because he has battled hamstring injuries, missing nine games. However, he was healthy in the spring and was the Jaguars' most impressive offensive player. He had a slight hamstring strain on the first day of camp, and in the past that would have set him back a month, but he was back on the field in 12 days.
Lee's speed is an element the Jaguars' offense is missing, and if he stays healthy he could easily top his totals from his first two seasons.
On the other side of the ball, look for the Jaguars to use rookie cornerback Jalen Ramsey to blanket Packers receiver Jordy Nelson much of the game. It will be a stern test for the first-year player against the veteran receiver.
QBs: Blake Bortles, Cody Kessler, Brandon Allen
RBs: Leonard Fournette, T.J. Yeldon, Corey Grant
WRs: Donte Moncrief, Keelan Cole, Dede Westbrook, Max McCaffrey, Jaelen Strong, Marqise Lee
TEs: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Ben Koyack, Niles Paul
Kansas City ChiefsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2016
Head coach Andy Reid says running back Jamaal Charles is "a stretch" to play in their season opener against the San Diego Chargers following surgery last season to repair the ACL in his right knee.
Reid acknowledged Monday that the four-time Pro Bowl selection is still not ready for game action, even though he's been practicing for several weeks. Charles did not play in any of the preseason games.
The Chiefs kept Knile Davis as their third running back behind Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware over the weekend, giving them insurance if Charles is unavailable. The trio filled in quite admirably when Charles was hurt in a Week 5 loss to the Chicago Bears.
But make no mistake, the one good thing about the Chiefs' backfield is that the pecking order seems pretty clear for at least one week -- with Spencer Ware in line for the leading role.
Ware has been Charles' primary replacement all preseason. And ESPN.com's Adam Teicher said he expects that to continue even if fellow back Charcandrick West returns from a shoulder injury, as expected, this week.
Teicher also pointed out that the powerful 229-pound Ware had 148 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries in two games against the Chargers last year. So Ware would be a smart daily play or an intriguing lottery-ticket pick later in your draft (or check your waiver wire if you've already drafted).
But that's still an awfully crowded backfield.
And things will only get murkier when Charles returns to the lineup. Charles could return to form within a month – or he might never return to form – which has made him into a lottery-ticket pick himself.
It's worth noting the offense was at its best last season with Charles or Ware in their lineup. The numbers got worse for the Chiefs when either Charcandrick West or Knile Davis was their running back.
According to Teicher, with Charles, the Chiefs averaged 5.7 yards per play when he was in the game (and regardless of whether he got the ball or not) and 5.5 yards when he wasn't. The Chiefs were actually better at running the ball when he wasn't in the lineup (4.7 yards per carry) than when he was (4.7). But both their completion percentage (68.6) and yards per pass attempt (7.8) went up when Charles played as opposed to when he didn't (64.2 percent completions, 7.2 yards per pass attempt).
With Ware as their featured back, the Chiefs rushed better (5.5 yards per carry) and threw for a much higher completion percentage (73.8) than they did when he wasn't (4.4 yards per carry, 64.4 percent completions). But their yards per play were about the same with Ware (5.6) as without (5.5).
The Chiefs averaged fewer yards per play with West as their back (5.5) than they did when he wasn't (5.6). They completed a lower percentage of their passes (62.8) and had a lower yards-per-attempt average (7.1) with West than without (68.2 percent completions, 7.7 yards per pass attempt).
The Chiefs ran for 2.7 yards per rushing attempt when Davis was their back and 4.9 yards when he wasn't. They completed just 57.5 percent of their passes when Davis played and 66.2 percent when he didn't.
So the move to Ware -- at least until Charles is back up to full speed -- makes sense.
Running back aside, the Chiefs are as stable, talented and healthy as any time in the four seasons that Reid and John Dorsey have been in charge.
Yes, they will be without their best defensive player, outside linebacker Justin Houston, for at least six weeks as he rehabs a surgically repaired knee. Safety Eric Berry is in the building and ready to play. And they managed to get through training camp and the preseason with minimal physical damage, losing only one starter: inside linebacker Josh Mauga (hip).
Otherwise healthy is the state of the Kansas City offense heading into the game against the Chargers. The most notable is the health of starting quarterback Alex Smith and his chances of staying that way with an improved offensive line. Last season, Smith was sacked 45 times, or once every 10 times he dropped back to pass. Poor pass protection also led to him being among the most productive running quarterbacks in the league, with 498 yards on 84 carries.
"You want him to be a thrower first," co-offensive coordinator Brad Childress said. "He obviously has tools when the pocket breaks down to be able to take off with the football. He has a good downfield mentality where he can hurt you with his feet, but he doesn't immediately tuck the ball and take off running like I've seen some quarterbacks do."
The Chiefs hope there will be less instances of Smith taking off from the pocket, or lack of the same. The addition of Mitchell Schwartz at right tackle solidified the weak spot in the starting group. The other four spots are held by youngsters: Eric Fisher and rookie Parker Ehinger on the left side and center Mitch Morse and right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif. Plus, there is talent and experience among key backups Jordan Devey, Zach Fulton and Jah Reid.
It's a script that sets up a productive situation for the offense and especially Smith. The cliche description of Smith is that he's a game manager. In the last five seasons of his 12-year career, Smith has come to accept and embrace the role, especially when it comes to limiting mistakes.
"All of this stuff just gets banked in there and you just start to accumulate more and more knowledge," Smith said. "All of that stuff helps you on game day. All those little things of managing the game that's where that all comes out to play and the more you play the better you get at it."
Few have been better at it than Smith in the last five seasons, two with San Francisco and the last three wearing a Chiefs uniform. His record as the starter in regular and postseason games is 51-25, a winning percentage of .671. That came with 102 touchdown passes against 31 interceptions.
Also worth noting, the longest regular-season win streak in the NFL these days belongs not to the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos, the NFC champion Carolina Panthers or the perennially contending New England Patriots.
It belongs to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Reid will continue to have the final say on offense, but he'll have new voices helping him out. Offensive coordinator Doug Pederson is now the head coach in Philadelphia, so Childress is sharing duties with Matt Nagy. But both coaches insisted very little has changed.
"There's some staples to our offense, but we grow," Nagy said. "We adapt to the players that we have, and (Reid) is very creative. He does a good job of mixing guys around — mixing and matching. So that's a part of keeping the game fun as well."
The Chiefs finished the preseason with a good idea of where they sit on offense, but there are questions about the defense.
Three new starters are working their way in on that side of the ball, at middle linebacker and right cornerback, and are without Justin Houston at strong side outside linebacker. San Diego presents some familiar faces for the Chiefs to open the season, with quarterback Philip Rivers, tight end Antonio Gates, wide receiver Keenan Allen, linebackers Melvin Ingram and Manti Te'o and former Chiefs cornerback Brandon Flowers all being major contributors to the Chargers.
QBs: Patrick Mahomes, Chad Henne, Tyler Bray
RBs: Kareem Hunt, Charcandrick West, Kerwynn Williams, Damien Williams, Akeem Hunt
WRs: Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, De'Anthony Thomas, Jehu Chesson, Demarcus Robinson
TEs: Travis Kelce, Demetrius Harris
Los Angeles RamsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2016
The Los Angeles Rams' five long weeks in training camp are finally finished. Their busy moving trucks are making their final trip of the year. Even the omnipresent "Hard Knocks" cameras will be gone shortly.
The Rams' epic 2016 road show is almost finished — not counting a little trip to London next month.
It's time for this traveling team to settle into Thousand Oaks and the Coliseum. It's time to start the real work of the Rams' Southern California homecoming.
"I think the organization has done a fantastic job on blocking out distractions in relocating," defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said. "We're going to move three times in five months, and all these guys do is come to practice every day, come to meetings every day. That's their routine. The most calm part of what we do is coming out here on the practice field, coming into the meeting rooms. There's not a lot of new stuff."
The new stuff is mostly over, but the Rams are hoping they won't go back to their old familiar standard of mediocrity this season.
Los Angeles fans who gave up on the team two decades ago might not know the Rams haven't had a winning record since 2003 and haven't made the playoffs since 2004. St. Louis fans know all about the past decade of irrelevance, capped by four straight losing seasons under head coach Jeff Fisher before the move.
The Rams haven't been incompetent in Fisher's tenure, but they haven't been special, either. After making relatively few changes to their roster during their relocation season, it's tough to tell how Los Angeles will see a team that's markedly improved from the club that went 7-9 in St. Louis last season.
Fisher seems confident his Rams can take the next step in a city firmly behind the new faces in those familiar horned helmets.
"You can't help but get a boost from the way we've been supported since we got back here," Fisher said. "I think you'll see that from every guy."
Meanwhile, the Rams mortgaged a chunk of their future to draft Jared Goff, but their rookie quarterback hasn't seized control of the team in the way Fisher cautiously hoped when he was drafted.
In fact, he hasn't seized anything.
Goff, who finished his first preseason as a third-string quarterback, will be inactive during the Monday Night Football opener against the division-rival San Francisco 49ers, Fisher said during a charity luncheon in Los Angeles on Tuesday.
Fisher told NFL Network that punter Johnny Hekker will be the team's emergency backup, with teams hardly ever keeping three quarterbacks active due to the increased need for special-teams players. Case Keenum has maintained his standing as the Rams' starter throughout the preseason and Fisher said after Thursday's finale from Minnesota that Sean Mannion, a third-round draft pick in 2015, is currently his backup.
Goff finished the preseason completing only 22-of-49 passes for 232 yards, with two touchdowns, two interceptions, two fumbles and four sacks.
"Jared's had a great camp; so has Sean," Fisher told NFL Network. "Case is clearly our starter."
Fisher indicated that Goff and Mannion would take turns with scout team reps during practice this week and could potentially switch roles for the home opener against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 2, which would make Goff active and Mannion inactive.
"I just want him to feel and sense and absorb the pressures of Week 1," Fisher said regarding Goff. "He's going to be a great player. As we've said from Day 1, we're not rushing him. We don't have to rush it. I'm really happy with where he is right now. ... Jared is in a good place right now. He's done some really good things, so I'm really pleased with his progress."
Of course, as Associated Press sports writer Greg Beacham notes, the Rams' offense is built around second-year running back Todd Gurley, the NFL's offensive rookie of the year in 2015. A year after missing most of training camp while recovering from surgery, the speedster is fully healthy after barely playing in the preseason and going through most of training camp with his teammates forbidden to tackle him.
Gurley seems eager to carry a heavy load as the biggest star on Hollywood's new team. In fact, ESPN.com's Alden Gonzalez believes Gurley will lead the NFL in rushing.
That's not a reach, considering Gurley finished third in rushing (1,106 yards) as a rookie last season. But consider: Gurley averaged a pedestrian 63 yards per game over his final seven weeks in 2015, with defenses stacking the box to close up his holes. Gonzalez expect the Rams' offense will display just enough of a passing threat to give their star running back the space he needs for big gains.
Even if Gurley isn't crowned the new rushing champion, he'll certainly have plentiful opportunities.
It should be noted the Rams had the NFL's worst total offense and worst passing offense last season. They drafted Goff, receiver Pharoh Cooper and tight ends Tyler Higbee and Temarrick Hemingway, but haven't added much more talent.
Fisher has turned over the offense to coordinator Rob Boras and passing game coordinator Mike Groh, who will work together to coax new success out of largely the same players who struggled mightily last season.
The game plan against the 49ers this week is obvious.
But it will be ball control, field position and rely on the defense to make stops. Get used to that.
QBs: Jared Goff, Sean Mannion
RBs: Todd Gurley, Malcolm Brown, Lance Dunbar
WRs: Robert Woods, Brandin Cooks, Cooper Kupp, Pharoh Cooper, Josh Reynolds
TEs: Tyler Higbee, Gerald Everett
Miami DolphinsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2016
For the Dolphins, the usual optimism of training camp lasted only until the first scrimmage, when a dismal showing by the offense prompted all kinds of dire commentary about how 2016 was going to be more of the same.
Tackle Branden Albert, not one to overreact after nine years in the NFL, suggested waiting a few more weeks before drawing conclusions.
"I don't know why everybody is getting their panties in a bunch," Albert told the Associated Press. "We will see when the time is right."
While Albert preaches patience, long-suffering Miami fans are anxious to know whether things will be different under Adam Gase, the team's ninth coach since 2004.
"He's an expert in pushing guys to reach their potential," Tannehill said, "and I'm excited to have him."
Gase has given Tannehill broader flexibility to change plays, and urged the easygoing Texan to assume more of a leadership role as he begins his fifth NFL season. Tannehill's resume includes 15,460 yards passing and 87 touchdowns while starting every game, but he has yet to lead Miami to a finish above .500, much less a playoff berth.
The biggest thing Gase could to do to help Tannehill is provide him with better protection. Tannehill has been sacked 184 times since 2012, most in the NFL.
As the Sports Xchange suggests, the Dolphins say they are prepared to head into their opener at Seattle, but you sense a bit of shaky confidence with each statement of readiness.
"I think we've grown a lot," Gase said of his team's progress. "I know from the spring, just thinking back to where we were when we started that first voluntary mini-camp, the growth that we had through the spring and through training camp. ... Sometimes you had ups and downs where one guy dominated the other side, and I feel like we're leveling out some."
Perhaps, but the Dolphins might not have leveled off enough to win a regular season game, especially a tough road opener.
The key for the Dolphins against the Seahawks will be finding a way to win because Miami, which wants to be a high-scoring offensive team, hasn't yet found an identity.
As the Sports Xchange suggests, Miami wants to gets its high-scoring offense going to the tune of at least 25 points per game, which will be a challenge against Seattle. The Seahawks own one of the NFL's best defenses and they put pressure on opponents from the front (defensive line) and the back (secondary).
The Dolphins must get their running game going so they can have offensive balance.
But make no mistake, this offense plans on getting its point through the air with quarterback Ryan Tannehill running Gase's up-tempo offense and throwing the ball to tight end Jordan Cameron and wide receivers Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker and Kenny Stills.
If Miami gets behind it'll be tough to catch up because the Dolphins don't excel in a one-dimensional offensive situation.
That said, Miami's no-huddle offense has worked well in preseason, preventing defenses from substituting and giving the Dolphins matchup advantages. But they haven't been able to capitalize enough with touchdowns.
At running back, Arian Foster was listed with the first unit on the Miami Dolphins' depth chart Monday and will start their opener Sunday at Seattle less than 11 months after tearing his Achilles tendon while with the Houston Texans.
Signed by Miami in July, Foster rushed for only 5 yards on seven carries in the preseason, but beat out Jay Ajayi for the starting job.
"A little bit of the reason is experience," Gase said. "He had a really good camp. He did everything we asked him to do as far as what we wanted to see in the preseason, and he has been very consistent in his knowledge of the offense in the short period of time that he was here. It was impressive to watch him and how quickly he picked it up."
Foster holds the Texans' franchise record with 6,472 yards rushing, but injuries have limited him to 25 games in the past three years. He played in just four games last season, averaging 2.6 yards per carry.
The rest of the unit appears limited on the ground and through the air.
Tight end Jordan Cameron has been unreliable in preseason, dropping three passes, and right guard is largely unsettled among Jermon Bushrod, Billy Turner and Dallas Thomas.
Still, Tannehill thinks he sees good things.
"We just have to keep plugging away," he said. "We're on the right track. We just have to keep taking advantage of every day, every practice, pushing ourselves (and) making ourselves get better on the little things. We're in good shape."
Defensively, the Dolphins want to be an aggressive, attacking unit, which they've accomplished at time, but they've also showed vulnerabilities to big plays on the ground and in the air.
It was rare during training camp or preseason that both the offense and defense had good performances. Often when the battle was even it was the result of both units playing at a so-so level.
Miami, in its first season under Gase, enters the opener with major questions, for one reason or another, at running back, tight end, right guard, linebacker and left cornerback.
On the injury front. ... Center Mike Pouncey (hip), Parker (hamstring) and linebacker Jelani Jenkins (knee) all missed practice to open the week. Jenkins is the most likely to be available Sunday, while Pouncey's status remains week to week, Gase said. The coach noted that Parker has had injuries to both hamstrings and in different spots on both hamstrings.
As ESPN.com's James Walker noted, Parker has all the tools but must stay healthy for a full season, which has been an issue. Parker notched 445 receiving yards and three touchdowns in the final six games of 2015, which will provide confidence and momentum for this season. He is also Miami's best deep threat and will get the most opportunities to make big plays.
But Parker (and Pouncey) was held out again on Wednesday. Stills will move into the starting lineup if Parker can't go. Watch the Late-Breaking News section and daily Injury Report updates for more. ...
Isaiah Pead (hamstring) didn't practice Monday and his status for this week's game at Seattle is undetermined although he was on the field Wednesday. Miami has five running backs on it 53-man roster and it's doubtful all five would be on the game day roster, so Pead's injury doesn't appear to be much of a problem right now.
One last note here. ... The Dolphins were surprised receiver Justin Hunter was available on the waiver wire, Gase said. Miami claimed him as a sixth receiver Sunday.
"I didn't think I was going to come here, but I'm happy to be here now," said Hunter, a second-round draft pick by Tennessee in 2013. "It's a whole group of guys, new team, new organization. They believe in me enough to bring me here. I'm honored."
QBs: Jay Cutler, Matt Moore, Brock Osweiler, Brandon Doughty
RBs: Frank Gore, Kenyan Drake
WRs: DeVante Parker, Danny Amendola, Kenny Stills, Albert Wilson, Leonte Carroo, Jakeem Grant
TEs: Anthony Fasano, MarQueis Gray, Gavin Escobar
Minnesota VikingsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2016
As Associated Press sports writer Dave Campbell framed it: "The lore of the Minnesota Vikings, with four losses in four Super Bowl appearances and five NFC championship game defeats since then, is marked by a long list of major letdowns."
This year is no difference.
The latest jarring blow came just before the beginning of this long-anticipated regular season, when quarterback Teddy Bridgewater's left knee collapsed during a routine non-contact drill. The injury caused enough damage to keep him out for the rest of the year and put his 2017 season in question, too.
The massive injury to Minnesota's popular leader was a devastating, emotional setback. Bridgewater's absence hasn't deterred the Vikings from thinking big, though. From head coach Mike Zimmer's inherent defiance to the bold trade made for Sam Bradford, the Vikings haven't given up on their Super Bowl goal. Their window to win it all for the first time in franchise history is still open, albeit not as wide as a week ago.
"We're not going to stick our heads in the sand. We're going to figure out a way," Zimmer said. "Everybody can count us out if they want, but I think that'd be the wrong thing to do."
Zimmer, inspired by the lessons learned from his late father, a long-time high school coach, and mentored by former boss Bill Parcells, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, has always thrived with an underdog mindset.
He didn't get his chance to be an NFL head coach until age 57. As the Vikings stacked up victories on the way to the NFC North title last year, Zimmer frequently mentioned to the team and to the media the external skepticism surrounding their success, even if some of that was simply made up.
So when asked after Bridgewater went down how the leadership void will be filled, Zimmer zoomed right past the accomplished veterans on the roster and wholly embraced the responsibility as his own.
"I'm going to lead them," Zimmer said. "I'm going to make sure that they're paying attention, doing things right. Anytime you have a tragedy or whatever you want to call it, they're going to be looking to somebody for strength and wisdom and all these other things. Part of my job is, and I've already started to do it, to talk to them about the things that I believe we have to do and how we need to move forward. That's why they hired me."
"It's very unfortunate to have the injury happen," Peterson said. "It takes a team to win a championship, so we're still chasing the same thing."
The Vikings gave up a 2017 first-round draft pick, plus another selection in 2018 that could reach as high as the second round based on conditions, to get Bradford from Philadelphia. Clearly, the plan will be to start the 2010 first overall draft pick once he's up to speed with the offense.
Shaun Hill, who backed up Bridgewater last year and has begun his 15th season in the league, will lead the huddle Sunday at Tennessee. According to Ben Goessling of ESPN.com, Hill was working with the ones during the portion of Tuesday's practice open to reporters, ahead of Bradford.
Given the cost of acquiring Bradford, it's clear he's going to play quickly. But the sheer volume of stuff he has to learn might make a one-week turnaround difficult if not impossible.
“That's the goal, to progress to that point to where I feel comfortable enough to get out there and play if I'm needed to,” Bradford said Monday. “But I can't tell you if that's going to be the case or not.”
Still, during his Wednesday meeting with the media, Zimmer said that he won't publicly name a starting quarterback before the start of the game on Sunday.
“If it's Bradford, it's Bradford,” Zimmer said, via Chris Tomasson of the Pioneer Press. “If it's Shaun, it's Shaun. We've got three more days of practice.”
As Profootballtalk.com's Josh Alper suggests, Bradford would have a lot of catching up to do in a short amount of time if he's going to be on the field Sunday. Hill backed up for the Vikings last year, so he knows what is expected from the position -- including being ready for sudden changes in his status.
Stay tuned. I'll obviously have more on the situation in the Late-Breaking Updates section as the week progresses.
While the big news from that depth chart is Hill being listed ahead of Bradford, there are several other items to note.
Charles Johnson and Stefon Diggs, who spent most of the preseason as the top receivers in the Vikings' base offense, will start the season there, with Laquon Treadwell listed behind Johnson at one spot and Adam Thielen, Cordarrelle Patterson and Jarius Wright on the other side. A league source told Goessling last week the Vikings were exploring the possibility of trading Wright, and it appears he could have to push to be active on game days.
The ability of players like Thielen and Patterson to contribute on special teams should put them on the field Sunday against Tennessee.
Working in favor of all the above are the enhancements to an offensive line that has struggled in past seasons. Free agents Alex Boone and Andre Smith have taken over at left guard and right tackle. Joe Berger, who excelled while filling in for John Sullivan at center last season while the six-year starter recovered from a back injury, was good enough that Sullivan recently was let go. Brandon Fusco has returned to his original spot at right guard, and right tackle Matt Kalil has entered the final season of his contract.
After leading the league in rushing in 2015 at age 30, Peterson also ought to benefit from better blocking in front of him. The Vikings have been planning to make versatile running back Jerick McKinnon more of an integral part of the offense, too.
But Peterson is one of only three running backs to lead the league in rushing while in his 30s. He did it last year when he ran for 1,485 yards at age 30. Curtis Martin set the record for oldest back to lead the league in rushing when he did it at age 31 in 2004. Peterson looks like he's 25 and is primed to defend his title with a fourth rushing crown. The Vikings rested him in the preseason, so add fresh legs to his power, quick jump cuts and speed.
With Hill's weaker arm, the offensive line and Peterson have to be especially powerful against Tennessee this week. They have to control and shorten the game.
The defense, which has lacked consistency against the run under Mike Zimmer, will be tested by Tennessee's revamped running game. The key will be stopping that running game so that Zimmer's creative blitz schemes can be used on favorable downs and distances. ...
According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, tight end MyCole Pruitt (knee) and Johnson (undisclosed) were held out of practice on Monday. I'll follow up as needed.
For what it's worth, Bridgewater dislocated his left knee, completely tore the ACL and suffered other structural damage. Surgery was scheduled for Thursday. While the Vikings believe he'll make a full recovery because he's young (23), they also said his recovery time will be "significant" and can't say with certainty that he'll be ready to play by the start of next season.
"I think everybody knows how we feel about Teddy," GM Rick Spielman said. "Going into next year, we'll have two very talented quarterbacks."
QBs: Kirk Cousins, Trevor Siemian
RBs: Latavius Murray, Mack Brown, C.J. Ham
WRs: Kendall Wright, Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, Tavarres King, Laquon Treadwell, Michael Floyd, Rodney Adams, Stacy Coley
TEs: Kyle Rudolph, David Morgan, Blake Bell
New England PatriotsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2016
As strange as it is to say, Tom Brady is not the Patriots quarterback heading into Sunday night's 2016 regular season opener in Arizona against the NFC-finalist Cardinals.
With the preseason games in the history books including Brady starting the finale against the Giants the future Hall of Fame quarterback's four-game Deflategate suspension is underway and head coach Bill Belichick's team opens the new season with someone other than No. 12 under center for the first time since 2001.
But even with third-year former second-round pick Jimmy Garoppolo set to make his first career start in Arizona and hold down the fort for the first month, the Patriots remain the favorites in Las Vegas to win Super Bowl LI next February in Houston.
As the Sports Xchange notes, while Garoppolo is a major unknown at the most important position in the game, New England's favored status is buoyed by the fact that the team is as deep and talented across the board as it's been in quite some time. Belichick raved all summer about his roster, calling the depth of the team at wide receiver, tight end, defensive line and safety as deep as he's had in his time in New England.
Make no mistake, even with Brady out of the picture the Patriots have plenty of elite talent heading into the challenging opener in Arizona. Despite sitting out the summer, Rob Gronkowski is expected to hit the ground running as the centerpiece of the passing attack as Garoppolo's likely top target, but the addition of Martellus Bennett via trade adds another option at the position.
The receiver spot is also deep. Julian Edelman is healthy in his slot role while Chris Hogan joins the mix as a versatile inside-out option. Though pass-catching back Dion Lewis starts the year on PUP, James White is more than capable of picking up the slack as he did over the second half of last season.
Malcolm Mitchell hurt his elbow in the team's first preseason game and Danny Amendola was on the physically unable to perform list until cutdown day as he recovered from surgeries on his ankle and knee. Amendola has been practicing the last few days and says that's enough for him to feel confident that all will be well on the field against the Cardinals on Sunday night.
“I feel good,” Amendola said, via NESN.com. “I've been preparing a lot. I feel strong, feel fast, so I'm ready to roll.”
Amendola's absence this summer meant he missed out on extended time with Garoppolo. Amendola shrugged off concern, saying they will “get out there and practice as much as we can” before the season gets rolling in Arizona.
New England's running back core took a hit with 2015 breakout star Dion Lewis having to go on PUP to open the season as he recovers from a torn ACL suffered last November. LeGarrette Blount is the big back in the mix, although he wasn't as good as his numbers a year ago when he tallied 703 yards, a 4.3 average and six touchdowns before landing on Injured Reserve himself last fall.
He had only an average preseason and was a bit loose with the football, so his hold on the job is tenuous at best.
James White was tremendous filling in for Lewis over the second half of last season in the passing back role as a receiver with 40 receptions and four touchdowns. He's not quite as flashy as Lewis, but has tremendous field vision and elusiveness after the catch. But White has not yet shown the ability as a runner to be a dual-threat out of the backfield.
That could leave an opening for the undrafted rookie D.J. Foster who played both running back and receiver at Arizona State to steal some chances in the Patriots preferred spread attack. Foster showed flashes late in the preseason as both a receiver and ball carrier that make him an intriguing option moving forward.
If there is a major question heading into Arizona, it's a New England offensive line that is in flux dealing with injuries and uncertainty. The unit that was dominated in the AFC Championship loss in Denver has more questions than answers at this point. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is on PUP, former starting center Bryan Stork was cut and left tackle Nate Solder suffered a hamstring injury in the preseason finale.
The return of legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia from a two-year retirement certainly brings more collective confidence and likely improved communication to a front that struggled a year ago, but opening against a Cardinals team that blitzed more than any in the game a year ago will test New England's personnel mightily right out of the gates.
If Garoppolo doesn't get the time and protection he needs, expecting him to flourish in a tough road environment even if the Patriots attempt to simplify things through quick reads and high-percentage throws may not be realistic.
Given all that, look for New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to scheme together a lot of quick, high-percentage passes as well as some screens and draws to try to take advantage of the aggressive Arizona front. It also wouldn't be surprising to see Garoppolo in some form of no-huddle, shotgun attack, a style that suits his skills and seems to get him into the best rhythm on the field.
Defensively, there is as much confidence and expectation in New England as there has been in a decade. Pro Bowlers in linebacker Jamie Collins, cornerback Malcolm Butler and safety Devin McCourty lead a versatile, athletic, ball-hawking crew that appears poised to make plenty of plays after forcing 10 turnovers in preseason action. A unit that ranked in the top 10 in yards and points last season has its sights set on even better thing with another year of experience and offseason additions such as defensive end Chris Long, top pick cornerback Cyrus Jones, and linebackers Shea McClellin and Barkevious Mingo.
In addition to Brady's absence, the Patriots will be without captain and defensive end Rob Ninkovich after he received a four-game ban for violating the NFL's policy on performance enhancing substances. That's on top of the reported triceps issue that sidelined him early during camp.
One of the great questions of the summer in New England is what record the Patriots will have when Garoppolo hands the reins of the team back to Brady on Oct. 9 for the Week 5 battle in Cleveland. Can the inexperienced young passer keep the team afloat with games at Arizona and three straight at Gillette Stadium against the Dolphins, Texans and Bills?
Will Brady take over with a foundation for a title run or trying to dig out of a quarter-pole hole?
Another season begins in New England with the usual high expectations, even if the usual rock that is Brady will be absent from the game plan for the first four weeks.
QBs: Tom Brady, Brian Hoyer
RBs: Rex Burkhead, Jeremy Hill, James White, Mike Gillislee, James Develin
WRs: Chris Hogan, Kenny Britt, Cordarrelle Patterson, Phillip Dorsett, Malcolm Mitchell, Matt Slater
TEs: Rob Gronkowski, Troy Niklas, Dwayne Allen
New Orleans SaintsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2016
According to Associated Press sports writer Brett Martel, optimist that he is, Drew Brees might be the last person to downgrade expectations for a Saints squad coming off a winless preseason.
"I've been part of plenty of preseasons where, man, we looked like rock stars. ... And then we had a slow start" to the regular season, Brees said. "I've also been on teams where we looked awful in the preseason and we jumped out to a fast start. So does preseason perfectly indicate what's going to happen at the start of the season? No."
The Saints are coming off two straight 7-9 campaigns — their first consecutive losing seasons since Sean Payton became coach in 2006.
Other than Brees, right tackle Zach Strief, punter Thomas Morstead and safety Roman Harper (reacquired in free agency), the current Saints bear little resemblance to the 2009 team Payton coached to a Super Bowl title. There is now lots of youth in key positions, which can be a liability, but also can mean there's considerable potential for improvement.
"We've been able to win a lot of games here with a certain formula. I felt like we lost that formula a little bit for the last two years and hopefully we're back on track," Brees said. "I like our team. I like the work ethic. I like the approach of these guys. ... You want toughness, character, guys that love football and that love to compete and I feel like we have those elements, and now it's got to all come together."
At 37, Brees' skills do not appear diminished; he led the NFL in yards passing last season. He also is highly motivated because he is entering the final season of his contract. If his offensive line holds up — which is no guarantee given its preseason form — Brees should have the talent he needs at receiver, tight end and running back to move the ball — particularly with the addition of tight end Coby Fleener.
The Saints have spent the better part of the past six weeks trying to find the right combination on the offensive line, which could be a key to the season opener with the Oakland Raiders. The Raiders have been building on defense under Jack Del Rio and last season they ranked 13th against the run in allowing 104.9 yards per game.
The Saints will need to get something going early on the ground and won't want to be one-dimensional considering the Raiders finished in the top half of the league in sacks and interceptions.
Defensively, the Saints have a new look with former Raiders head coach Dennis Allen moving into the role of coordinator after finishing 31st in total yards allowed the past two seasons. The Raiders rushed for only 91.1 yards per game and 3.9 yards per attempt last season, which would be a good place for the Saints to start. The goal will be to limit Latavius Murray, who still rushed for 1,000-plus yards last season, and try to affect Derek Carr, who had a solid season a year ago with 32 touchdowns and only 13 interceptions.
The Raiders gave up 33 sacks, which could give the Saints hope that they can get some pressure on him despite a lack of a consistent rush the past two seasons.
But it's Brees and the offense fantasy owners are interested in. And if the defense forces the offense to keep putting point on the board, we're all the better for it.
Entering the final season of the five-year, $100 million contract Brees received in 2012, he is still playing at a high level at age 37. Brees has thrown for at least 4,000 yards in all 10 seasons he has been with the Saints and is coming off a year in which he had 4,870 yards, 32 TDs and 11 interceptions while posting a passer rating of 101.5.
Brandin Cooks, the Saints' deep threat, had a breakout season when he showed the skills the Saints thought they had when they traded up in the first round of the 2014 draft to grab him. Cooks snared 84 passes for 1,138 yards and had nine TDs in forming a nice duo with Willie Snead, who won a roster spot after spending time on the practice squad and had 64 receptions for 984 yards and three TDs. Ten-year veteran Marques Colston, the team's career leader in most every receiving category, is gone.
But the Saints think they replaced him with rookie Michael Thomas, a rangy second-round draft pick who has wowed observers in OTAs and training camp in making difficult catches look easy. Payton wasn't inclined to downplay the hype surrounding his newest threat in the passing game. "I don't follow fantasy football, but, shoot, I'd try to have him," Payton said.
After losing Ben Watson following a breakout season, the Saints went out and signed Fleener early in free agency to provide Brees with the vertical target he needs at the position. The Saints are confident that Fleener will move right into the role that Watson filled beautifully after they traded Jimmy Graham. The Saints took a hit in the preseason when Michael Hoomanawanui had to go on injured reserve, but Josh Hill has been a steady receiver and blocker.
The Saints ranked 24th in the league with 93.2 rushing yards per game last season and averaged just 3.8 yards per carry, numbers that have to improve if they want to take the next step and get back in the playoffs. One problem was injuries to Mark Ingram, C.J. Spiller and Khiry Robinson, who is no longer with the team.
Ingram, who has had two consecutive decent seasons and had 769 rushing yards and 405 receiving yards last year before missing the last four games, is a strong inside runner who has the speed to get outside. Spiller is healthy after playing all last season with a bad knee, robbing him of the speed and power he has shown in the past. Tim Hightower and Travaris Cadet are capable backups, and Murphy and Lasco are youngsters who will help primarily on special teams.
The Saints made a last minute change at kicker. ... Connor Barth and Kai Forbath competed for the kicking job all summer and seemed to settle on Forbath as their choice for the job when Barth was released on the way to 53 players. Forbath's name on the roster wasn't written in ink, however. The Saints released Forbath on Tuesday.
As mentioned while discussing the release of veteran cornerback Cortland Finnegan, the Saints signed Wil Lutz to their 53-man roster and he appears set to handle the kicking duties against the Raiders this weekend. Lutz was 2-of-3 on field goals with the Ravens in the preseason and 27-of-39 over the last three years at Georgia State, where he also handled the punting duties. ...
The team also released QB Garrett Grayson, athird-round pick in 2015. The move was made to clear a roster spot for the return of veteran guard Jahri Evans.
And finally. ... According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, the Saints and Brees have agreed in principle to a 1-year extension. Sources tell Rapoport that Brees gets $44.25 million fully guaranteed over the next two years.
Brees initially signed with the Saints in 2006. After the six-year, $60 million contract expired, the team applied the franchise tag. That later became a five-year, $100 million contract. Brees has fulfilled four of the five years, making $80 million more along the way. At age 37, it's unclear how much longer he'll be able to play at a high level; if he continues to do so, he can follow this contract with another one.
I'll have more details on the deal when Late-Breaking Update commence shortly early Thursday.
QBs: Drew Brees, Tom Savage
RBs: Mark Ingram, Jonathan Williams, Alvin Kamara, Daniel Lasco
WRs: Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn, Brandon Coleman, TommyLee Lewis
TEs: Ben Watson, Josh Hill, Michael Hoomanawanui
New York GiantsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2016
According to Associated Press sports writer Tom Canavan, Eli Manning isn't worried about the Giants' offense despite an awful preseason.
The 35-year-old, two-time Super Bowl MVP has been around long enough to know the preseason means nothing heading into the regular-season opener at Dallas against the Cowboys on Sunday.
As far as Manning is concerned, the Giants have practiced well in training camp under new coach Ben McAdoo. It's the same offense that put up big numbers the past two seasons, and the talent is still there, particularly at wide receiver with second-round pick Sterling Shepard and Victor Cruz joining Odell Beckham.
Still, the preseason was ugly, especially the two games in which Manning played. He was on the field for 12 series and hit 14 of 24 passes for 109 yards, one interception and no points.
"Feel good about where we are right now and what we can do," Manning said Monday after the Giants started preparations for Dallas. "So we've just got to go and obviously do it on Sundays and do it when it counts. And so, I feel good about where we are, how I feel within the offense, the players that we have, and I think we'll be able to go out there and move the ball."
While the preseason was awful, Manning said there are playmakers on the Giants who are going to benefit when the team starts game planning.
Beckham has been the Giants go-to guy for the past two seasons, and he should have a chance to be even better if Shepard and Cruz give Manning more options.
Manning laughed about his lack of playing time in the preseason.
"I've got 13 years of a lot of regular-season games and preseason, playoff games," Manning said. "So I've got a lot of snaps under my belt and, you know, you want to get into preseason and get into a little rhythm, but ultimately the goal is to get out healthy and get used to moving in the pocket, those types of things, but yeah, ready to go now."
One thing that has not changed for Manning is the excitement of a new season, one in which the Giants hope to end a four-year playoff drought.
"You don't know what the possibilities are, but everybody starts in the same spot, and we've got a chance to do something special this season, and it starts right here," Manning said. "This week, having a great week of preparation and going to Dallas and playing smart football, and we'll see if we can get a win."
Remember, Manning is coming off a season where he threw a career-best 35 touchdowns. With improved weapons and another year of experience in McAdoo's system, ESPN.com's Jordan Raanan believes there is hope he can continue to trend upward. The Giants are counting on Manning and the offensive scheme to mask some of the deficiencies on the offensive line. A lot will be on his shoulders this season.
The Giants played three wide receivers or more 83 percent of the snaps last season, according to Football Outsiders. That was the second most in the NFL.
It's clear three wide receiver is the Giants' primary formation. Beckham and Shepard have been running with the first team since the start of the summer. Cruz joined them the second he returned to the field from a groin injury.
They are going to log a large majority of the snaps.
In addition, the Giants played a ton of two-tight end sets this summer, in part because they had their tight ends lined up as fullbacks, H-backs and even out wide as receivers. Since they don't have a natural fullback on the roster, Larry Donnell and Will Tye are both going to be on the field plenty, likely even from the start. Jerell Adams is the only other tight end on the roster.
Meanwhile, Rashad Jennings is labeled the starting halfback, even though he will likely split a majority of the playing time with Shane Vereen. They could be considered co-starters. After finishing last season strong, Jennings should receive the opportunity to be the Giants' primary ball carrier. He also appears in line for more goal-line carries after the release of Andre Williams and should easily eclipse the three touchdown runs from last year if he remains healthy.
Vereen's role will be similar to last season, when he caught a career-best 59 passes. Expect his workload to be quite similar.
Defensively, the Giants underwent a massive makeover in the offseason consisting of almost $200 million in contracts handed out during free agency. Throughout the preseason, the results have been promising regarding the potential return on investment.
Defensive end Olivier Vernon is turning out to be every bit the pass rusher the Giants hoped he'd be while defensive tackle Damon Harrison, after a short stay on PUP, has teamed with a healthy Johnathan Hankins to make running up the gut against the Giants to be virtually impossible.
The Giants also beefed up the back end of the defense, adding Janoris Jenkins at cornerback and rookie Darian Thompson at safety. Both have fit in nicely with returning starters Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie at corner and Landon Collins.
Even the linebacker unit looks to be significantly improved against both the run and in coverage, the latter part being a problem.
The coming perception is that the Cowboys aren't going to throw rookie quarterback Dak Prescott to the wolves out of the gate. That's probably not going to be the case, though. Prescott showed in the preseason that he is capable of moving around the pocket. With that said, it's imperative that the Giants find a way to contain Prescott in the pocket and force him to make his throws earlier than he wants to.
As the Sports Xchange notes, the Giants also need to clamp down on the edges against the run. Defensive tackles Johnathan Hankins and Damon Harrison were brick walls against runs that attempted to come up inside the tackle, but the edges were a bit easier for opponents to exploit against the Giants linebackers.
Look for the Giants to potentially deploy a great deal of their nickel package, with Keenan Robinson and Jonathan Casillas as the nickel linebackers. Both have good size to deal with the mini Mack truck that is Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, and both Casillas and Robinson are the Giants' best coverage linebackers.
On offense, the Giants need to set the tempo early, and what better way to do so than to establish the running game? Yes, the starting offensive line and tight ends had trouble getting out of their own way when it came to run blocking, but some strategic game planning featuring some misdirection plays against a makeshift Cowboys defensive front.
QBs: Eli Manning, Davis Webb
RBs: Orleans Darkwa, Jonathan Stewart, Wayne Gallman, Shane Vereen, Paul Perkins
WRs: Sterling Shepard, Roger Lewis, Travis Rudolph, Cody Latimer, Ed Eagan
TEs: Evan Engram, Jerell Adams, Rhett Ellison
New York JetsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2016
As the Sports Xchange framed it, "The Jets got the band back together over the summer and will begin a tour of stadiums on Sept. 11, when they open the regular season by hosting the Cincinnati Bengals. But will this be a Guns N' Roses-sized success, or a Jacksons-style failure?"
The Xchange went on to remind readers the Jets raised expectations for a blockbuster season July 27, when a nearly seven-month standoff with Ryan Fitzpatrick ended with the quarterback signing a contract that guarantees him $12 million this season. With Fitzpatrick in the fold, the Jets could finally envision a robust offense complementing a dominant defense and providing legitimate hope the franchise can end a 48-year Super Bowl drought.
The defense, led by dominant linemen Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson, should be fine, even if cornerback Darrelle Revis is unable to reverse the slide that might have begun last season.
But just what can the Jets expect out of an offensive unit that hasn't really produced a lot of hits? Fitzpatrick, 33, had the best season of his career last year, but he played for a winning team for the first time and evoked reminders of how he's bounced around with six teams when he threw three interceptions in the win-and-in regular season finale loss to the Buffalo Bills.
Wide receivers Brandon Marshall, 32, and Eric Decker, 29, gave the Jets their best 1-2 combination since the days of Wayne Chrebet and Keyshawn Johnson by combining for 189 catches, 2,529 yards and 26 touchdowns. Decker proved he was not a product of a Peyton Manning offense, but Marshall battled a sore hip at the end of the preseason and, like Fitzpatrick, has never played for a playoff team.
Marshall (hip) practiced on a limited basis Monday and Wednesday and is expected to play in the Jets' regular-season opener on Sunday against the Bengals. Marshall sat out the final two preseason games as a precaution, but head coach Todd Bowles said the veteran could have played were it the regular season.
In addition, No. 3 receiver Quincy Enunwa, who served as a de facto tight end last season, hasn't played since suffering a concussion in the second exhibition game -- although the team hopes he can return this week.
According to ESPN.com's Rich Cimini, even though the passing attack will be dominated by Marshall and Decker, Enunwa will pick up enough scraps to become a fantasy factor as he capitalizes on favorable matchups when opponents overplay Marshall and Decker. His role started to expand late last season, and that should continue in 2016.
The Jets added 30-year-old running back Matt Forte, who had eight stellar seasons with the Chicago Bears and is expected to lead a running back by committee.
"One thing you notice about him is he's not going to have many negative-yard runs," Fitzpatrick said. "Going from first-and-10 to second-and-7, instead of second-and-11, is going to be a big thing this year."
And he can catch the ball. In fact, Forte is two years removed from setting an NFL record for running backs with 102 receptions for Chicago, and he should be a nice complement to Marshall and Decker.
But Forte was hampered for much of training camp by a hamstring injury and Bilal Powell, the number two back, has yet to prove he can carry a full load.
With Forte out for the first two preseason games and Marshall out for the "dress rehearsal" third preseason game, the top skill players for the Jets have yet to be on the field at the same time. Fitzpatrick ended the preseason 16-of-29 for 183 yards and one interception unimposing numbers, even in exhibition play.
And the first-team offense is not likely to be unveiled against the Bengals, either: Starting right tackle Breno Giacomini, who missed all of training camp with a back injury, isn't expected to be ready for the opener and could begin the season on the physically-unable-to-perform list.
Fitzpatrick expressed confidence that the Jets would pick up right where they left off last season, when everyone was left to wonder what might have been if they'd just squeaked into the playoffs.
"I think in the long run, that may be something that helps us just with being able to get reps with everybody," Fitzpatrick said. "I don't think we're going to take a step back in terms of where we are with our chemistry."
The success of the Jets' stadium tour depends on Fitzpatrick being right.
Whatever the case, as Associated Press sports writer Dennis Waszak Jr. notes, New York will have a good feel for how its season will go by Week 7.
Five of the Jets' first six opponents were playoff teams a year ago, and six of their first nine games are on the road. After opening against the Bengals, New York is at Buffalo against former coach Rex Ryan, at Kansas City, home against Seattle, at Pittsburgh and at Arizona.
"It doesn't matter who we play," Bowles said. "If you win 10 games or double figures, your schedule is going to be tougher. That's just part of the league."
QBs: Teddy Bridgewater, Bryce Petty, Christian Hackenberg
RBs: Matt Forte, Isaiah Crowell, Bilal Powell, Elijah McGuire, Thomas Rawls
WRs: Robby Anderson, Jermaine Kearse, Neal Sterling, Andre Roberts, Terrelle Pryor, Chad Hansen, ArDarius Stewart
TEs: Eric Tomlinson, Will Tye, Jordan Leggett
Oakland RaidersCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2016
According to Associated Press sports writer Josh Dubow, soon after Derek Carr and Khalil Mack were drafted by the Oakland Raiders in 2014, they got together and vowed to change the culture of a franchise that had only known losing for more than a decade.
With the franchise quarterback and pass rusher entering their third season as pros, that has been accomplished. Now the Raiders have their sights set on larger goals of getting back to the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
"I feel like we're in the midst of a great turnaround, especially when you think of the leadership," Mack said. "Both of us are coming up on our third year, a lot of new faces, a lot of great guys and a lot of guys that want to come in and work hard. That's what you need."
With a core led by perhaps the most talented 25-and-under trio in the league with Carr, Mack and big-play receiver Amari Cooper; key free agent acquisitions Sean Smith and Reggie Nelson in the secondary; Super Bowl champion linebacker Bruce Irvin and imposing offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele; and several other key young contributors, the Raiders have put together a roster with no glaring holes.
That has led to heightened expectations for a team that has spent more than a decade at the bottom of the AFC West, with no playoff berths or winning records for 13 straight seasons.
Oakland took a big step last year, more than doubling the win total from three to seven. Now the task is to get over that next major hump.
"Last year when I got here, I really thought it was important to re-establish expectations, high expectations," second-year coach Jack Del Rio said. "We didn't back down from that. We're always going to make winning our division the first goal; it has to be."
After a dynamic start last season, the Raiders' offense slumped in the second half.
A big reason was a drop in production from running back Latavius Murray, whose yards per carry fell from 4.8 yards in the first eight games to 3.3 in the final eight. Murray had no help last year as Oakland never found a second back to share the load. The hope this season is rookies DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard can do that to give the Raiders a more balanced offense.
"Going into the offseason we were hoping we could develop a running back that could be a really good backup for us and it looks like we have a shot at having one of those guys help us, potentially both," head coach Jack Del Rio said.
Going up against a generous New Orleans defense this week makes for an interesting question: Do they work at establishing the running game as has been a focus of the coaching staff since training camp started? Or go straight to the air and let Carr go pass for pass against Drew Brees?
According to the Sports Xchange, the Raiders will start with the run, but don't expect them to stick with it if Brees is cooking. If Murray and the young runners are gaining ground, it will be a classic power run, play-action approach. Given the presence of Joseph at safety and Nelson at free safety, look for the Raiders to play it fairly conservatively defensively and force Brees to complete as many passes as possible to score rather than hit the quick strike.
That means Mack's pressure from the outside will be vital, with the Raiders needing more of a natural rush than one that is schemed. The Raiders had some issues against the run in the preseason, but New Orleans isn't the big-back power-type offense that should hurt.
Remember, Carr took a major step forward in Year 2 as a starter, throwing for 32 TDs and 3,987 yards last season. But with a second year in coordinator Bill Musgrave's system and nearly all of his key skill position players back, Carr expects even better results this season.
"It's crazy the jump that's it's been each year," he said. "I say it all the time, but 'C-Wood' always told me, from Year 1 to Year 2 is the biggest jump, and then when you hit Year 3, you're just playing ball again. You know, it takes time. It really does."
Also remember: Carr has 53 touchdown passes in 32 games, second only to Dan Marino for his first two seasons.
And he has weapons.
Cooper (72 receptions, 1,070 yards, six touchdowns) had a solid rookie season although he tailed off considerably toward the end of the season in large part because of a foot injury. He also dropped way too many passes as many as 18. He has looked more confident and explosive in Year 2. Michael Crabtree (85 catches, 922 yards, 9 touchdowns) was more reliable in terms of health and practice availability than at any time with the 49ers, and he seemed to flourish with Carr. Seth Roberts (32 receptions, 480 yards) was a surprise emergence as a slot receiver. Andre Holmes has jump-and-catch ability, caught five touchdown passes despite limited snaps, and contributed on special teams. Johnny Holton's speed and raw skill won him the fifth receiver spot. He could return kickoffs.
Meanwhile, tight end Clive Walford will be given every opportunity, should he remain healthy, to get heavy work and develop into a 50-catch tight end capable of big plays in the seam and delivering in the red zone.
Bottom line? Lots of promise here. It's time for Oakland to realize their potential.
QBs: Derek Carr, E.J. Manuel, Connor Cook
RBs: DeAndre Washington, Jalen Richard, Marshawn Lynch, Doug Martin
WRs: Jordy Nelson, Martavis Bryant, Amari Cooper, Seth Roberts, Ryan Switzer, Johnny Holton
TEs: Jared Cook, Lee Smith
Philadelphia EaglesCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2016
That didn't take long. ... Carson Wentz will start Week 1 for the Philadelphia Eagles. Head coach Doug Pederson announced the rookie will make the start Sunday versus the Cleveland Browns.
"We obviously made this decision. And I spent the weekend with my offensive staff..." Pederson said. "Everybody feels like this kid is ready to go and we drafted him to take on the reins and it's something now we are prepared to do."
Wentz played just one preseason game before suffering a hairline fracture after taking a massive blow. Being name the starter signals he's healthy following the injury.
All offseason the Eagles insisted they planned to sit Wentz this season as the North Dakota State product needed time to improve his mechanics, footwork and mental approach to the NFL game. On July 17, Pederson said Wentz would likely be inactive on game day.
Seven weeks later, the Eagles shipped presumptive starter Sam Bradford to Minnesota and will roll with Wentz heading into the season.
"We've got to be smart in how we handle it but at the same time fully expect him to perform how he's capable of performing in what we've seen throughout OTAs and training camp..." Pederson said of Wentz. "What he did in all OTAs, what he's done around this building, the plays he's made in practice, in the one preseason game has given me confidence that he can lead this football team."
Pederson added he's confident in Chase Daniel as the backup and mentor to Wentz. As to the notion that Daniel is disappointed to be leapfrogged by a rookie, the coach said he "hoped" that the vet would have the competitive drive to be bummed, but isn't worried it will affect the team-first approach.
The Eagles need the team to buoy their rookie starter. Wentz jumps from FCS to NFC East starter with 39 snaps in the second-half of one preseason game under his belt. Wentz is just one of two rookies starting under center, neither is the No. 1 overall pick, Jared Goff. Zero people in May would have guessed Wentz and Cowboys fourth-rounder Dak Prescott would be starting Week 1.
"It's something that we believe in, I believe in, this is why we drafted him," Pederson said of reversing course on sitting Wentz. "Would the ideal situation be later than sooner? Sure. But right now, where we are, we got a good football team around him, great defense, special teams. So all the pieces are here for him to be successful and for us to win some games."
The Eagles enter 2016 with a stout defense in Jim Schwartz's first season. It will need to be. The Eagles' offense could be painful to watch. There are question marks along the offensive line (which won't help the rookie's injury), Ryan Mathews hasn't been a healthy workhorse throughout his career and the receiver corps is one of the worst in the NFL.
Wentz has talent, but he's also being tossed into the fire without much offensive backup.
He injured his ribs in his NFL debut and missed the final three preseason games. But coaches were impressed with his workouts and progress in the film room.
"When you meet with (coaches) and you hear their thoughts on Carson and his readiness, mentally and physically, it makes you feel very confident in being able to do such an aggressive move a week before the season starts," GM Howie Roseman, the man responsible for drafting Wentz and subsequently trading Bradford, said.
Philadelphia's offense might not be that much worse with Wentz instead of Bradford.
But it certainly makes the Eagles much more interesting this season. If Wentz can improve as the season progresses, it will immediately justify Howie Roseman's investment in the strong-armed passer.
Wentz will certainly need time to develop. But a revamped defense was impressive under new coordinator Jim Schwartz and the team went 4-0 in the preseason. The 2008 Detroit Lions also were 4-0 in exhibition games before going 0-16. But there's this: Since 1990, 28 of the 53 teams that had an undefeated preseason made the playoffs.
The Eagles finished 18th in the league in run percentage last season, running the ball on just 40.2 percent of their offensive plays. Under Pederson, they plan to be much more balanced, particularly with a rookie quarterback. They also plan to go with a lot of two- and three-tight end sets and use a lot of misdirection and screens.
That means Ryan Mathews is a featured running back again a year after outperforming DeMarco Murray in an odd rotation. Mathews averaged 5.1 yards per carry last season and has twice rushed for more than 1,000 yards, but he has missed 23 games in six seasons. Versatile returner Darren Sproles and Kenjon Barner also will get carries.
Rookie RB Wendell Smallwood practiced Monday. He had suffered a concussion in the Eagles' third preseason game, but cleared concussion protocol.
The Eagles acquired talented WR Dorial Green-Beckham from Tennessee after the Titans gave up on the 2015 second-round pick. Green-Beckham could be a steal if he lives up to his potential. Nelson Agholor, a 2015 first-round pick, has plenty to prove. So does Josh Huff. Jordan Matthews, the team's most accomplished wideout, sat out the preseason because of a knee injury.
Zach Ertz has established himself as one of the league's better pass-catching tight ends. He had 75 receptions last season. In the Eagles' final four games, he had 35 catches for 450 yards. Brent Celek is one of the league's top blocking tight ends and is a reliable receiver. He has missed one game to injury his entire career. Trey Burton is a versatile player who also can line up at fullback or wide receiver and is one of the team's top special teams players.
During camp and the preseason, the Eagles showed some three-tight end sets that they ran and threw out of.
And the defense? According to ESPN.com's Tim McManus, the unit will lead the league in sacks.
McManus backed his contention by noting that Jim Schwartz got his Buffalo Bills unit to do just that in 2014 (54 total sacks) when he was the defensive coordinator there. He allows his players to attack, which should be good news for Fletcher Cox, Vinny Curry, Brandon Graham and company now that he's in Philly.
One last note here. ... The Eagles have extended their kicker for another year. Caleb Sturgis, who beat out Cody Parkey in a training camp kicking competition, has received a contract extension through the 2017 season.
QBs: Nick Foles
RBs: Jay Ajayi, Corey Clement, Kenjon Barner, Wendell Smallwood
WRs: Mike Wallace, Alshon Jeffery, Markus Wheaton, Nelson Agholor, Mack Hollins, Shelton Gibson
TEs: Zach Ertz, Richard Rodgers
Pittsburgh SteelersCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2016
According to Associated Press sports writer Will Graves, Mike Tomlin has confidence in the Steelers secondary. And the linebackers. And the defensive line. And tight end. And everywhere else his team will begin the 2016 season in Washington on Monday with guys atop the depth chart who weren't the guys Tomlin had in mind when training camp began six weeks ago.
Ladarius Green, signed to replace the retired Heath Miller, is on the physically unable to perform list with lingering health issues. Outside linebacker Bud Dupree is on injured reserve with abdominal concerns. Cornerback Senquez Golson's second season is starting a lot like his first: on the sideline as he deals with a shoulder problem. Nose tackle Daniel McCullers is banged up and rookie Javon Hargrave — who is right there in the mix — tweaked a knee in practice on Monday.
Oh, and running back Le'Veon Bell is out until Week 4 while serving a suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. At least he'll play this year. Talented if mercurial wide receiver Martavis Bryant will sit the entire year while serving a drug suspension of his own.
For a team with Super Bowl aspirations, things could be better. Not that Tomlin wants to talk about it. It's September after all. Things change. Players heal. For now he's simply ready to get started. Of course he's optimistic about the defensive backfield even with the last-minute trade with Cleveland over the weekend that brought in underachieving former first-round pick Justin Gilbert.
"We can sit around in these types of settings and scare ourselves with that, or we can sit around in these types of settings and talk about how great the unit is," Tomlin said. "The reality is the tape is going to be their walking, talking, breathing resume."
The resume littered with positive bold-faced bullet points last year when Pittsburgh finished 30th against the pass. While it didn't stop the Steelers from going 11-7 and pushing Denver to the limit in the playoffs, they understood upgrades needed to be made, which is why they took cornerback Artie Burns in the first round and safety Sean Davis in the second. Burns was slowed by a quad injury during camp though Davis has been every bit as adaptable as Pittsburgh imagined. He has the size to cover tight ends and the skill to be effective in the slot as part of the nickel package, where Tomlin believes the Steelers will be able to mix and match personnel depending on the situation.
"We have big-time versatility on the backend, in terms of how we can utilize people, because of the veteran presence of guys like William Gay and Robert Golden," Tomlin said. "And we're going to lean on it."
Pittsburgh will also lean on veteran outside linebacker Arthur Moats, thrust into a starting role while Dupree waits to see if his abdominal injury needs surgery. There's still a chance he could return at some point, but it wouldn't be before midseason at the earliest. So Moats and second-year player Anthony Chickillo will join Jarvis Jones and James Harrison in the outside rotation.
Tomlin declined to provide specifics on how the playing time will be split, wary of an innocuous comment by outside linebackers coach Joey Porter last year in which Porter said the team would try to limit Harrison's playing time. The five-time Pro Bowler ended up carrying a heavy workload at age 37.
Things are clearer at tight end, where Jesse James finds himself the starter until further notice while Green works his way back. It's not the role Pittsburgh had in mind for James, who remains a project as a blocker and hardly provides the downfield threat the Steelers envision for Green. Yet he also caught a touchdown pass in the red zone against New Orleans during the first-team offense's only real extended preseason action.
Consider the other options at quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's disposal Tomlin doesn't think James needs to be Miller 2.0. At least, not yet.
"I know it's something written and talked about because of the retirement of Heath Miller, and because of the unavailability of Green," Tomlin said. "But we're comfortable with where we are and with what they're capable of contributing to us."
Of course, Pittsburgh ranked third in total offense in 2015, even though Roethlisberger and Bell found themselves in the same huddle for less than one full game for a variety of reasons (most of them injury related), there's a very real chance - to borrow Antonio Brown's favorite catchphrase - that business will indeed be "boomin" in 2016.
Not that Roethlisberger wants to talk about it. Potential is one thing. Providence (and a little bit of luck) is another. The Steelers, after all, led eventual Super Bowl champion Denver on the road in the fourth quarter of the divisional round of the playoffs even with Brown, Bell and DeAngelo Williams all out due to injury. One ill-timed fumble by third-string running back Fitzgerald Toussaint and it all went away.
"The key is always staying healthy," Roethlisberger, who was limited to 12 games last season due to knee and foot injuries, said. "We've had a hard time doing that the last few years, but if we can stay healthy and be a selfless team, we'll have a better chance."
Even with some missing pieces, the Steelers have Brown and Roethlisberger.
Indeed, ESPN.com's Jeremy Fowler believes Roethlisberger will make his biggest push yet for a league MVP, and he just might win it.
The veteran QB will definitely have the yards. But as Fowler notes, what the QB needs is more touchdowns (career high is 32). The Steelers have been clamoring for improved red-zone play the past two years, but if Roethlisberger pairs, say, 35 scores with 10 or more Steelers wins, he'll be hard to beat in this category.
He's accurate while taking chances, and he's the glue once again as the offense deals with injuries and suspensions for the second straight year.
Even with Big Ben and Brown leading the way, the Sports Xchange advised readers not to be surprised if the Steelers try to take advantage of a Washington run defense that was porous at times last season. The Steelers are trying to figure out their offensive identity early in the season in wake of injuries and suspension.
The Steelers also have to find out if Sammie Coates and Eli Rogers can work their way into the passing game. Coates didn't play much as a rookie and Rogers didn't play at all because of a foot injury. That's why the Steelers, with a strong offensive line, might try to probe the Redskins with the run. Williams averaged 4.5 yards per carry last season en route to 907 yards and 11 touchdowns.
A few final notes here: DE Cameron Heyward (ankle), RT Marcus Gilbert (elbow) and WR Markus Wheaton (shoulder) are day-to-day and Tomlin believes all three will be available against Washington.
QBs: Ben Roethlisberger, Landry Jones, Josh Dobbs
RBs: Le'Veon Bell, Terrell Watson, Stevan Ridley
WRs: Eli Rogers, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Justin Hunter, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Antonio Brown
TEs: Jesse James, Xavier Grimble, Vance McDonald
San Diego ChargersCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2016
It's on to Kansas City for the San Diego Chargers with one chief concern: Winning a game against an AFC West foe.
As the Sports Xchange notes, if the Chargers are to rebound from last year's 4-12 pileup, getting it right in the division is a start.
"We know how important the division games are," head coach Mike McCoy said.
But the Chargers have an odd way of showing their urgency. They were blanked last year in the six divisional games. And they won just two the year before, both times beating a winless Raiders squad.
"Championships start in the division," quarterback Philip Rivers said. "We've always talked about winning games in the division."
Talk turns to action Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium.
The Chargers enter the regular season after winning just one of four preseason games. It was a slate of contests which were played without defensive end Joey Bosa. The team's top pick missed 31 days of camp and the four exhibitions in a contract snit. All parties are cordial now, but it will be interesting to see if Bosa can have an impact.
The rookie missed practice with tightness Wednesday, putting his Week 1 debut in serious doubt.
But the Chargers are more than about Bosa, although they thirst for his contributions. Once again Rivers is the focal point and if his front line holds up, the Chargers could make a run.
Although there remain questions about a run defense which had an uneven performance in the summer. If that inconsistent tackling leaks into the fall, the Chargers will have a tough time climbing from the AFC West cellar.
Everyone is 0-0 for one more week, but it's imperative the Chargers get off to a fast start. Of their opening six games, three are against AFC West teams. Plus, the team is asking San Diego citizens to raise taxes to build a new stadium, a cause which could get a boost if the Chargers are playing well.
But the players will let others worry about the ballot box. The Chargers are zeroed in on becoming more than a doormat in the AFC West.
"You have to win games in the division," Rivers stressed. "When we have been 3-3 or better, we have had a chance, we've been right there.
"When we are not, we are not even around. We definitely know how important those division games are and we got to get back to winning them."
They're especially important for McCoy, who presided over a nightmarish 4-12 season in 2015 and was rewarded with a contract extension. As Associated Press sports writer Bernie Wilson notes, the front office said it believes in McCoy, who then fired most of his offensive staff, including coordinator Frank Reich.
McCoy is 23-27 in three seasons, including a playoff win and loss in 2013. The Chargers pretty much bottomed out in 2014, including being swept in the AFC West.
After firing Reich, McCoy brought back Ken Whisenhunt as offensive coordinator, the job he held before taking a short-lived head coaching position in Tennessee. In 2013, Whisenhunt helped scheme an offense that allowed Philip Rivers to bounce back from a few rough seasons. It appears Whisenhunt will cut down on the number of times Rivers lines up in the shotgun, hoping that having him under center more will help running back Melvin Gordon.
However, Whisenhunt hasn't ditched the delayed draw on third down, causing some angst among fans.
No one's looking for a bigger bounce-back year than the second-year running back. After starring at Wisconsin, his rookie season was dreadful. He failed to score a touchdown, never had a 100-yard game, was benched twice because of fumbling problems, and then missed the last two games with an injured left knee. He's come back from microfracture surgery and will need some help from the offensive line, which often struggled last year.
Gordon's success needs to be immediate as the Chargers are eager to show off they can run the ball and just maybe that keeps Rivers from harm's way. The health of Kansas City's Justin Houston could be a factor, but there's little doubt the Chiefs will still muster a pass rush from somewhere from somebody in the din of Arrowhead Stadium.
So the Chargers will try, anyway, to establish the running game maybe more than in years past.
The Chiefs can be stingy against the run and the Chargers won't be shy about pulling the plug on that approach if it is not working. But they spent the entire offseason rebuilding their running game and what better place to use it in a venue that makes it difficult to pass. If Gordon can have a big day, that confidence could carry deep into the season.
And if he doesn't?
Allen was headed for franchise receiving records before getting hurt last November, as there was no sophomore slump from his fine rookie year. Allen is primed for a Pro Bowl season, taking advantage of having Rivers and a deep threat in newcomer Travis Benjamin. The Chargers can now stretch the field with Benjamin, a burner. That helps Allen, but also the ageless Gates as he enters his 14th season.
The team is high on tight end Hunter Henry as the rookie is getting high grades for his hands and blocking.
Worth noting. ... Gates has been contemplating retirement more frequently, Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune reports.
"It's getting close," Gates said. "I don't know how close. I think about it more now than I ever did. I talk about it more now than I ever did. Days come up and I'm like, 'Oh man, I don't know.'"
There's nothing imminent here, however. Gates is currently under contract through 2018.
QBs: Philip Rivers, Geno Smith, Cardale Jones
RBs: Melvin Gordon, Branden Oliver
WRs: Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams, Travis Benjamin, Mike Williams, Geremy Davis
TEs: Antonio Gates, Sean McGrath
San Francisco 49ersCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2016
As Associated Press sports writer Josh Dubow noted this week, for Chip Kelly and Blaine Gabbert, this season is about a second chance at NFL success.
After being run off from his first NFL coaching job in Philadelphia, Kelly took over in San Francisco and has picked another reclamation project in Gabbert as his starting quarterback for the 49ers.
Gabbert, who took over as the starter in San Francisco midway through last season, begins a season in that role for the first time since 2013, which was his third and final season in Jacksonville after being the 10th overall pick in 2011.
Gabbert beat out Colin Kaepernick for the job, staying mostly in the background as Kaepernick made big headlines with his protest over the national anthem.
"That's one thing you like about Blaine's makeup, there are not too-high highs or too-low lows," Kelly said. "He's very steady in his approach. You get the same Blaine Gabbert every day and I think that's a good thing, especially at the quarterback position."
The problem for the Niners is that the Gabbert from the last five years has been far from special. He has just an 8-27 record as a starter in the NFL, completing only 55.8 percent of his passes with 33 touchdowns and 31 interceptions.
That kind of play led Jacksonville to trade him to San Francisco three years after drafting him. Gabbert looked a little better last season with the 49ers when he completed 63.1 percent of his passes and posted a career-high 86.2 passer rating in eight starts.
The Niners hope for even better results this season in Kelly's quarterback-friendly system that helped players such as Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez have perhaps their most success as pros. That wasn't enough for Kelly to keep his job with the Eagles, but Gabbert is excited about the opportunity to run that fast-paced offense.
"Coach Kelly puts a lot of trust in us to go out there and make the plays," Gabbert said. "That's what you want as a competitive player. You want to have the ball in your hands. You want to be kind of leaned on to make the plays, score the points for this team. And that's what this offense does. It puts guys in position to have explosive plays."
No matter who is at quarterback this season, finding proven players to throw the ball to will be a problem.
Torrey Smith was the only wideout on the roster with even 40 career catches before a couple of late trades added Jeremy Kerley and Rod Streater. Kerley had just 16 catches last season for the Jets and Rod Streater has only 10 receptions the past two years. Smith has been a good deep threat for much of his career, but the Niners lack a true No. 1 receiver.
Kerley is entering just his second week with the 49ers, but he is already the team's starting slot receiver and punt returner.
Actually, Kerley is the 49ers' only slot receiver and punt returner.
Kerley was acquired last week in a trade with the Detroit Lions for offensive lineman Brandon Thomas and takes over the roles that Bruce Ellington would have filled this season. However, Ellington is on season-ending injured reserve after sustaining a torn hamstring in the 49ers' third exhibition games.
In Kelly's offense, the 49ers list three starting receivers. Smith and Quinton Patton are the other starters in those spots.
Smith is coming off a 33-catch season, but the 49ers will be playing from behind often this year and Smith is the clear No. 1 target.
Given the lack of high-end quality in the wideout group, 49ers tight ends can expect to be busy this season. As they were last year, as well, ranking in the top half of the NFL in catches (83), yards (896) and touchdowns (six). Vance McDonald and Garrett Celek now rate as established NFL receivers.
But the dearth of receiving talent could be good news for Carlos Hyde owners.
As the Sports Xchange suggested, if Kelly could borrow one game plan from Jim Tomsula, it would be for this game. No, not because the 49ers played the Rams in their most recent game. That Rams team was without the franchise, Todd Gurley.
Play conservatively on offense by pounding Hyde at least 20 times, and have NaVorro Bowman shadow Gurley everywhere he goes. Pretty basic, but it worked last September against the Vikings, when Hyde rushed 26 times for 168 yards and two touchdowns in a 20-3 49ers win. Bowman had seven tackles, helping limit Peterson to 31 yards on 10 carries, his second-lowest output of the season.
Hyde showed his potential when he rushed for 168 yards in the opener last season. But he added only 302 more in six games before being shut down with a foot injury. Hyde's downhill running style fits well in Kelly's system.
And this week?
Hyde is still working his way through the NFL's concussion protocol, although Kelly claims he'll be surprised if Hyde isn't ready to go against the Rams Monday night. Hyde was in uniform Wedenesday, cleared for football activity but he was wearing a blue no-contact jersey.
Still, the 49ers signed DuJuan Harris for insurance as a fourth running back on Monday. I'll be following up on Hyde's progress via Late-Breaking Update as needed through Monday night.
QBs: Jimmy Garoppolo, C.J. Beathard
RBs: Jerick McKinnon, Matt Breida, Raheem Mostert, Kyle Juszczyk
WRs: Marquise Goodwin, Aldrick Robinson, Trent Taylor, Kendrick Bourne, Victor Bolden
TEs: George Kittle, Garrett Celek
Seattle SeahawksCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2016
As Associated Press sports writer Tim Booth noted, somewhere between the disappointment of losing in Carolina and the start of training camp, the Seattle Seahawks rediscovered themselves and what they hope will become their place back atop the NFC.
This wasn't based around team building exercises or group gatherings as in the past. Starting individually and growing into a collective, the Seahawks believe the edge that made them the best team in the NFC for two straight seasons — only to dip a year ago — has returned.
"The maturation of our team, we know how to play and we know how to win," Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson said.
Throughout training camp the discussion around the Seahawks has centered on a return to the feeling heading into the 2013 season. That year, the Seahawks were coming off an NFC divisional playoff loss to Atlanta when a late comeback was thwarted, but only after a late-season run that put Seattle into the playoffs.
And it was followed in 2013 by the first Super Bowl title in franchise history.
That scenario played out in similar fashion last year: a late run to get into the postseason, a wild-card round road victory and a disappointing loss in the divisional round.
So, Super Bowl?
"You can see the energy difference from last year," cornerback Richard Sherman said. "You can see the guys moving different, there's more chemistry, there's more unity, there's more continuity as you say it. Our guys are just ready."
But there are issues from a fantasy perspective.
As Profootballtalk.com notes, the Seahawks spent a lot of time talking up running back Christine Michael over the course of the preseason and it looks like he'll get his chance to show he's worthy of it in the regular season as well.
The Seahawks released their depth chart for their opener against the Dolphins this Sunday and Michael occupies the top slot. Thomas Rawls, who spent the offseason rehabbing from a broken ankle, is the No. 2 tailback. He's expected to play this weekend, but head coach Pete Carroll said Monday that he's not ready for a starter's workload.
“He's ready in the next couple weeks to get back in where he can start a game, take a game over and do all of the things that he can do,” Carroll said, via ESPN.com. “It's still time to take care of him as we get him back. He only carried the ball a couple times so far. ... This is his second preseason game in a sense, as far as relative to the other guys. So we'll see how he does. I'd love for him to carry the ball quite a bit in this game, and then we'll know where we stand going into the next week.”
Carroll added to that on Wednesday when said Rawls would be limited in "the amount of plays" he gets. Carroll reiterated that this is like a second preseason game for Rawls, and the team will just have to see how he reacts.
Rawls' workload this weekend will likely give a hint about how the depth chart will look in Week 2, although Michael's performance will surely have something to do with that decision as well.
Michael continues to show maturation and promise as a legitimate NFL running back after three seasons of underachievement. Couple those two with rookies C.J. Prosise and Alex Collins and Seattle has plenty of options to remain a run-first team.
The Seahawks also listed tight end Jimmy Graham at the top of the depth chart. Carroll has said that a decision about Graham's status for Sunday will be made late this week but the coach said on Wednesday the chances of Graham playing "are good."
In addition, Carroll told the Seattle Times that rookie TE Nick Vannett will not play this week. He is dealing with a high-ankle sprain. "We won't play him this week," Carroll said. "But after that, next week he's got a chance." Luke Willson will be the starter unless Graham comes around.
The good news?
Seattle returns the core of a team that has won a playoff game in each of the last four seasons. Russell Wilson looks poised to take another step forward at quarterback. Doug Baldwin was among the most prolific receivers in the league over the second half of the season, catching 34 passes for 530 yards and 11 touchdowns over the final six games of the year.
Wilson is coming off the first 4,000-yard season of his career and tossed 34 touchdowns to only eight interceptions last year. In the final seven games, Wilson threw 24 touchdowns with just interception.
In addition to Baldwin, Tyler Lockett become a big-play threat as a rookie and along with Paul Richardson gives Seattle two high-speed receivers. Jermaine Kearse isn't flashy but makes clutch catches routinely.
The Seahawks begin their 2016 campaign with a visit from an infrequent visitor. The Dolphins have not played a game in Seattle since 2004. The last time the Seahawks hosted the Dolphins, Jerry Rice scored the first touchdown of the game for Seattle. It's been that long since the Dolphins made the longest flight in the NFL to Seattle.
This matchup bears little resemblance to the one played 12 years ago. The Seahawks have played in three Super Bowls since and won their first championship. Miami has made the postseason once.
Seattle will need to control the running game of the Dolphins and not allow Arian Foster and Jay Ajayi to run wild. That will put the game in the hands of Ryan Tannehill with a receiving corps that is ailing with injuries to DeVante Parker and Kenny Stills leaving them in question for the opener.
For each of the past four seasons no defense in the NFL has been tougher to score on than Seattle's. It's a run not seen in the NFL since the Cleveland Browns of the 1950s.
The Seahawks should be able to find success in the passing game against a Miami secondary that features former Seattle cornerback Byron Maxwell.
QBs: Russell Wilson, Austin Davis
RBs: J.D. McKissic, Mike Davis, Eddie Lacy, Tre Madden
WRs: Doug Baldwin, Tyler Lockett, Jaron Brown, Tanner McEvoy, Amara Darboh
TEs: Ed Dickson, Nick Vannett
Tampa Bay BuccaneersCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2016
According to Associated Press sports writer Fred Goodall, Jameis Winston lights up when he talks about his competitive nature.
There's no throw the emerging young quarterback feels he can't make, no drive he can't extend with his feet, and certainly no team the Tampa Bay Buccaneers aren't capable of beating when he's on his game.
Winston wants his teammates to believe, too.
"It's a mentality that you've got to have, and it's an easy choice. ... You've got to want to win," the No. 1 overall pick in last year's NFL draft said.
"As a team, we have to make that choice together. I'm not saying just because I want to win ... someone else wants to win. I'm saying all of us have to be together and be on the same page because if we have the same common goal, the same focus, we're going to win a lot of football games."
The Bucs improved from two wins in 2014 to six a year ago, when Winston took every snap as a rookie and threw for 4,042 yards and 22 touchdowns. That wasn't enough to save head coach Lovie Smith's job, but it was encouraging enough that ownership promoted Dirk Koetter from offensive coordinator to Smith's replacement in hopes it will help Winston continue to grow.
"Before you start winning games, you've got to stop losing them," said Koetter, whose first order of business was to hire one of his old bosses — ex-Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith — as defensive coordinator.
The Bucs also signed pass rusher Robert Ayers Jr. and cornerback Brent Grimes in free agency before selecting cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and defensive end Noah Spence to bolster a leaky defense that allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete opponents to complete 70 percent of their passes and throw for 31 TDs last season.
Still, if the team is going to escape the NFC South basement and contend for its first playoff berth since 2007, Winston likely will have to set the tone — both on and off the field.
Koetter believes the 22-year-old quarterback is up to the challenge.
"Jameis every day asserts himself more and more as a leader," the coach said. "He still has plenty of things he needs to work on as the quarterback, but I love what he is doing leadership wise. ... He is the motivator for our whole team. Heck, he motivates me."
Some other things to know as the Bucs launch their bid to end a string of five consecutive last-place finishes:
Winston joined Cam Newton and Andrew Luck as the only players in NFL history to throw for 4,000 yards as a rookie, helping the Bucs finish in the top five in total offense for the first time. He also proved to be an effective runner, scrambling for six touchdowns, which tied 1,400-yard rusher Doug Martin for the team lead. Teammates rave about the young QB's preparation and knowledge of Koetter's system.
"I said many times, I think there's a little bit of a misnomer out there that there's not a lot on Jameis' plate, or that it wasn't last year," Koetter said. "If you're playing quarterback in the NFL, there's a lot on your plate."
Offensively, Koetter remains the play-caller and the continuity of the offensive system will be key to Winston.
However, the Bucs' offense runs through Martin, the NFL's second-leading rusher who signed a $7.1 million per year contract as a free agent. Martin and backup Charles Sims combined for more than 2,500 yards from scrimmage in 2015.
As the Sports Xchange suggests, Winston needs a strong running game to facilitate his down-the-field throws. He still has a few good targets to throw to in 6-4 receiver Mike Evans, 6-5 receiver Vincent Jackson and 6-5 tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins.
"I will say when you're the head coach and you're the play-caller, you have a license to be a little bit more aggressive," Koetter said. "That's how I was as a high school coach, that's how I was as a college coach. Now, that comes from inside me because you have the power to decide are we going for it on fourth and 1. You have the power to decide do we need to throw it deep four times in a row or give it to Doug Martin three times in a row. You don't have to worry about the head coach second-guessing you. You are the head coach. You make your game plan and you stick to your game plan."
Winston learned quickly he had to protect the football. His first NFL pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by the Titans. But after a four -interception loss to Carolina, Winston went more than a month without throwing a pick.
"I kind of got spoiled a little at Florida State where I had a couple early turnovers but I was able to bounce back and come back and lead us to a victory," Winston said. "But every play matters in football in general but especially in the pros. You never know if you're going to get that drive back. You never know if you're going to score the next time because it's tougher."
When he got to the Pro Bowl, the Bucs quarterback looked soft compared to the hardened physiques of teammates such as Jones and Russell Wilson.
"The first thing I learned is that everybody - they look the part," Winston said. "I was like, 'I've still got this college body. I've got to get this body right.'" So Winston hired Tim Grover, Michael Jordan's trainer, and lost 18 pounds.
But that doesn't mean expectations aren't weighing heavy on Winston in Tampa Bay.
A few more items of interest. ... Tampa Bay sometimes will go to two- and three-tight-end sets. Both TE Cameron Brate and Seferian-Jenkins will be on the field at the same time.
Despite topping 1,000 yards receiving each of his first two seasons, Evans enters his third year feeling as if he has a lot to prove after leading the team in dropped passes and scoring only three touchdowns a year ago, down from 12 as a rookie in 2014.
Wide receiver Cecil Shorts signed a one-year deal with the Bucs on Tuesday. The Texans released Shorts last weekend. He had started four games and played 11 in his only season with the Texans in 2015, but the Texans are going young at the position this season. The Bucs were looking for experience at receiver with Louis Murphy still recovering from a torn ACL.
Shorts, 28, played his first four seasons with the Jaguars. He's started 38 of 61 career games and has 218 career receptions, 14 for touchdowns.
On defense, the Bucs will look different under defensive coordinator Mike Smith, the former Atlanta head coach who clearly has inside information on QB Matt Ryan and the Falcons' offensive personnel. Expect more blitzing and pressures from the Bucs under Smith and an occasional 3-4 front.
One last note here. ... The Buccaneers have waived RB Mike James with the injury designation, per Profootballtalk.com. If unclaimed, he'll revert to IR.
QBs: Jameis Winston, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Griffin
RBs: Peyton Barber, Jacquizz Rodgers, Charles Sims
WRs: Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Adam Humphries, Chris Godwin, Bernard Reedy
TEs: Cameron Brate, O.J. Howard
Tennessee TitansCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2016
Turning around a franchise that has been the NFL's worst over the past two seasons requires an infusion of talent and an attitude change. The Tennessee Titans believe they've done just that on both counts.
As Associated Press sports writer Teresa Walker noted, new general manager Jon Robinson has sifted through the roster, adding 21 new players, revamping the offense through a handful of trades, and showing the door to some high draft picks from the previous regime. His biggest moves landed DeMarco Murray for coach Mike Mularkey's run-oriented offense, and trading the No. 1 overall selection, which netted more picks that helped add Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry.
Mularkey has taken care of instilling a physical approach on the field while demanding attention to detail in meeting rooms.
Now the Titans have to start proving they aren't the franchise that went 5-27 the past two seasons. Safety Rashad Johnson, one of nine veteran free agents signed this offseason who made the roster, knows just how quickly a team can turn from losers to winners from his experience in Arizona.
"Each and every year this league turns around so much there's so many guys in and out of every locker room, it's always a new team," Johnson said.
The Titans still around from last year's 3-13 squad also expect a big improvement from themselves.
"We're going to do our best to live up to those expectations, including myself," quarterback Marcus Mariota said. "I hate just meeting the expectation. I'd rather go above and beyond. Hopefully as a team we can continue to come together and do that this year."
Walker went on to suggest that Tennessee's 32-game drought of not having a running back rush for 100 yards should end quickly.
Mularkey has made it very clear the Titans will run the ball, and they led the AFC in yards rushing per game in the preseason. Murray looks decisive and strong, with his season in Philadelphia a distant memory. He won't have to carry the entire load, which means he might not near the 1,845 yards he ran for with Dallas in 2014 to earn Offensive Player of the Year.
Henry has shown a shiftiness to go with his power, along with very good hands that should make him a reliable target for Mariota.
Indeed, as the Sports Xchange suggests, Sunday's might very well be the shortest game of opening weekend, as the Vikings no doubt want to run the ball with Adrian Peterson. The Titans are also recommitted to the power run game with Murray and Henry.
The over/under on combined pass attempts might be around 50 for this one. Whoever does the best job of running and stopping the run to force the other team out of its game plan will probably come out on top.
That said, Marcus Mariota, the No. 2 pick overall turned in quite the rookie season and there's hope he can build on it. Mariota had a 91.5 passer rating that was second in franchise history to the late Steve McNair during his co-MVP season in 2003 and Hall of Famer Warren Moon. He also had the NFL's longest run from scrimmage, an 87-yard TD.
But he missed two games after spraining each of his knees when hurt in the pocket.
Developing a young quarterback means giving him better targets for his passes. Tight end Delanie Walker led Tennessee with a career-year with 94 receptions for 1,088 yards. Nobody else caught more than 36, so Robinson signed Rishard Matthews from Miami and drafted Tajae Sharpe with the first pick of the fifth round; both are set to start.
They also signed veteran Andre Johnson who's shown this preseason he still knows how to catch passes.
Walker is the Titans' best receiving weapon, having had 94 catches a year ago. Fasano and Supernaw will try to pick up the blocking void created by the sudden retirement of Craig Stevens. Amaro, just picked up off waivers, could be a nice weapon once he learns the system and gets comfortable with Marcus Mariota.
Tennessee made huge strides last season with Dick LeBeau assisting defensive coordinator Ray Horton. Now LeBeau is the coordinator after Horton left for Cleveland after losing the head coaching job to Mularkey. A unit that ranked 12th in yards allowed still has plenty of room for improvement after being 27th in points allowed. Depth behind the starters has improved. Johnson was signed to take over at free safety for Michael Griffin, who was released in February.
Both starting cornerbacks, Jason McCourty and Perrish Cox, finally are healthy and should be together on the field for the first time for Mularkey in the opener.
A few final notes. ... TE Jace Amaro, claimed off waivers from the Jets, is hoping to learn enough of the playbook to be active Sunday. His size (6-5, 265 pounds) can create some mismatches against the Vikings defense. WR Marc Mariani was signed as a free agent, returning to Tennessee after two
Kendall Wright is testing his injured hamstring. Wright missed all of preseason and the Titans feel comfortable with veteran Harry Douglas in the slot if Wright isn't 100 percent. TE Anthony Fasano suffered a hyperextended knee on Monday, but the injury is not believed to be serious.
QBs: Marcus Mariota, Blaine Gabbert
RBs: Dion Lewis, Derrick Henry, David Fluellen
WRs: Rishard Matthews, Eric Decker, Taywan Taylor, Eric Weems, Michael Campanaro, Corey Davis
TEs: Delanie Walker, Luke Stocker, Jonnu Smith, Phillip Supernaw
Washington RedskinsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2016
According to Associated Press sports writer Stephen Whyno, sometime before the Redskins open the season, head coach Jay Gruden may pull out the tape of a first-round playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers to remind players new and old of what went wrong.
"It's something we all learned from, we're all sick about still," Gruden said. "If you're a competitor and you lose at home in the playoffs, it's something that you'll never forget."
The Redskins don't forget the end, and skeptics remember that the team went winless against winning teams last season but still captured the NFC East. Washington isn't any less likely to win the division this season, especially after Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo's injury, yet players still believe they have plenty to prove.
"We've got to show that it wasn't just a one-hit wonder thing last year," linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said. "We've got to show that we can be a consistent winning franchise."
Back-to-back playoff appearances would go a long way toward illustrating that the Redskins are at least building toward consistency. But remaining atop the division will be more of a challenge facing a first-place schedule than it was last year with a last-place schedule.
Still, the Redskins may be better on paper than in 2015 with Kirk Cousins in his second year as starting quarterback, many of the same receivers to throw to and a defense bolstered by the signing of All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman. Continuity has replaced distractions and strong drafts have stockpiled usable talent.
"The job that the front office has done will continually add depth to this team and continually add playmakers and cornerstones to this team," four-time Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams said. "The confidence just comes along with it. We know we're a talented bunch, but at the same time we know that you can't win a game on paper. Our plan is to go out and prove it on Sundays."
Five Sundays — and Thanksgiving — against the Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants could make the difference. Norman signed a $75 million, five-year deal to face the likes of Dez Bryant and Odell Beckham Jr., after Washington ranked 25th in the NFL in pass defense last season.
Cornerback-turned-safety DeAngelo Hall called this secondary "the best group I've ever been around," counting the Oakland Raiders' 2008 group that featured Hall, Nnamdi Asomugha, Gibril Wilson, Stanford Routt and Chris Johnson. Cousins' throwing targets of tight end Jordan Reed and receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon are back, too.
And there's certainly no shortage of motivation for Jackson and Garcon, each in the final year of his contract. Garcon was with the Indianapolis Colts when they were a perennial playoff team and went to a Super Bowl, so he knows it takes more than hunger and desire to win consistently and prove doubters wrong.
"We're putting the pieces together to head in that direction, but we've got a lot of things to work on," Garcon said. "Indy wasn't Indy all in one year. It takes time, just like New England takes time. ... You just have to keep the pieces together and keep them working."
They'll need a fast start. That won't be easy.
After opening at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night, the Redskins still have to visit the reigning NFC West-champion Arizona Cardinals and AFC North-champion Cincinnati Bengals and host the NFC-champion Carolina Panthers and NFC North-champion Minnesota Vikings. Six games against playoff teams, including a rematch against Green Bay, will test Washington all season.
But they have a QB with something to play for beyond the wins.
Cousins was at his best when he was in prove-it mode in college and finds himself in a similar position as the Redskins' new franchise quarterback. A fourth-round pick in 2012, Cousins sat behind Robert Griffin III before winning the starting job a year ago. Cousins is unquestionably No. 1 but didn't get the long-term deal he wanted.
Cousins is playing this season with the franchise tag — which means a "pretty good raise" to $19.95 million — and said he isn't lying awake at night worrying about his future. Instead, he's focused on the next step of becoming more consistent and earning a contract and elite status in the NFL.
"I had a four-year deal as a rookie, but it didn't feel like a four-year deal — it felt like a one-day deal every single day I was here," Cousins said. "I don't think things have changed a whole lot in that regard. I've got to go out there and prove myself each and every game of every season. When you do that, I think the rest will take care of itself."
Others believe in Cousins as well.
ESPN.com's John Keim predicts that Cousins will become the first quarterback in franchise history to throw for at least 29 touchdowns in consecutive seasons.
Keim also believes Cousins throw more than the 11 interceptions he did last season. But with excellent weapons around him, Cousins will have plenty of chances to look good. Beware big plays on first down play-action throws.
Meanwhile, Matt Jones wore a yellow non-contact jersey at Monday morning's practice as a precaution for the starting running back's separated left shoulder, though he was not happy about wearing it.
Jones is adamant that he will be ready Monday night when Washington hosts the Pittsburgh Steelers in the season opener for both teams.
"They gave me this yellow jersey today just to be a little cautious," Jones said. "But next practice I'll be out here full go. I feel great about everything — pass blocking, taking a hit, giving a hit. I'm just ready to be back out there."
Jones was on the field after practice holding a blocking pad while teammate Chris Thompson repeatedly smacked into the pad. It was the first time Jones had joined his teammates on the practice field since sustaining a slight separation of the AC joint in his left shoulder during an Aug. 19 preseason game against the New York Jets.
The team is optimistic enough that Jones can play in the Steelers game that it kept just three running backs on the roster after Saturday's initial cuts. Thompson and undrafted rookie free agent Robert Kelley were the others, while second-year player Mack Brown was cut and signed to the practice squad.
"That's the intent right now," Gruden said of Jones playing against the Steelers. "We're just bringing him along. It's going to be interesting to see how he does Wednesday and Thursday. ... That will tell a lot."
Jones was practicing without the yellow jersey on Wednesday. Expect him to play. ...
The Redskins also welcomed back rookie wide receiver Josh Doctson, who practiced Sunday for the first time since organized team activities on May 25 and was in shoulder pads for the first time Monday. A sore left Achilles tendon has bothered Doctson all offseason.
Washington's first-round pick in 2016, No. 22 overall, Doctson was removed from the physically unable to perform list Saturday, but his status for the Steelers game remains in doubt.
"I'm not going to step foot on (the field) Monday night, put the uniform on, run out there and get myself embarrassed," Doctson said. "We've got guys who are going to get it done. If somebody gets tired I'm going to go in there and help out. That's my position now."
Gruden said Doctson went through individual drills on Monday and did some team drills, too. He also went through individual drills Wednesday. But the coach also wasn't ready to say Doctson will be active against Pittsburgh. His Achilles tendon didn't respond after a month off between minicamp ending in mid-June and training camp beginning in late July.
Trepidation remains that Doctson could suffer a setback.
"The big thing is the more we push him, we've got to see how he recovers the next day," Gruden said. "Tuesday will be a big day for him. They're off, but we'll see how he's doing and push him again Wednesday and see where he's at both physically and mentally. Then we'll make a decision later in the week."
QBs: Alex Smith, Colt McCoy, Kevin Hogan
RBs: Samaje Perine, Kapri Bibbs
WRs: Jamison Crowder, Josh Doctson, Paul Richardson, Brian Quick
TEs: Vernon Davis, Jeremy Sprinkle