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Summer two-a-days


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Summer two-a-days:

AFC East, NFC West

Peter Schrager, FOXSports.com


AFC East


1. Tom Brady's back, there were veteran offseason free agent signings all over, and the Patriots are the Vegas favorites to win Super Bowl XLIV. Are there any areas of concern in New England?


Scott Pioli and Josh McDaniels may be gone, but it seems like the ship just keeps on sailing in New England. When quarterback Tom Brady went down with a season-ending injury in Week 1 against Kansas City last year, the skeptics balked and ruled New England out as a contender. Then they went 11-5. Oh yeah, with a quarterback that had never started an NFL — or college — game in his career. And now, they get Brady back? Wow.


The Patriots also added Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden, two veteran corners looking to show they've still got some good football in them. Fred Taylor and Joey Galloway (and their 24 years of NFL experience and combined 70 years of age) add depth to the Patriots' already loaded offense, as well. New England had a fantastic draft, scooping up potential steals in second-round picks Darius Butler and Patrick Chung.


They're loaded. And if we haven't mentioned it yet, Brady's back.


Did we say that Tom Brady's back?


So, is there anything to be worried about? Well, Brady going down, for one. The Patriots were fortunate last season. Matt Cassel had an MVP-caliber season and — after a shaky start — found his groove. But second-year man Kevin O'Connell is the back-up this season. If Brady were to go down, there would be the same feelings of uncertainty and mass hysteria after Week 1 last year — only O'Connell wouldn't have the good fortune of having Josh McDaniels in his corner, guiding him every step of the way. For as little experience as Cassel had on the field, he was a legitimate NFL backup and a veteran quarterback. O'Connell's still a young kid.


The only real potential "trouble" spot for the Patriots defense is the outside linebacker position, which has been manned by Mike Vrabel for the past eight years. Pierre Woods and Shawn Crable have both been champing at the bit for more playing time, and in 2009, they will get their respective shots. With Adalius Thomas, Teddy Bruschi and Jerod Mayo suiting up at the other linebacker positions, they should have a strong support system.


But let's not minimize Vrabel's role, not only on the field but off it as well. One of the true leaders of the team, Vrabel was a major force and figure at OLB and in the locker room. He'll be missed.


"You always have new faces, and old faces leave," Thomas said earlier this week. "We'll definitely miss him in the locker room and on the field, but other guys will step up and fill the shoes."


"Like I said, Mike is a great friend of all of ours," Brady added. "We miss him, and I know he misses us. But if we ever play Kansas City, we want to beat the crap out of him."


Thus is the NFL. Life goes on.


And for Patriots fans, life's been pretty darn good for pretty darn long. That shouldn't change in '09.


2. No NFL team has been out of the playoffs longer than the Buffalo Bills. Is this the year they finally return to the postseason?


I'd argue that Bills fans have had it even worse than Lions fans over the past decade. At least the Lions don't provide their fan base with false hope and expectations every year. They stink in Week 1, they stink in Week 10 and they stink in Week 17. Buffalo? They're perennially in the postseason hunt and always seem to come up just short. The Week 17 loss versus Pittsburgh in 2004? Last year's 4-0 start? These are the things that can haunt a football fan's dreams. If you want to talk curses, look no further than Buffalo. The Bills haven't played in the postseason since the 1999 Music City Miracle game.


Yet, like a broken record, I emphasize that there's reason for optimism in Buffalo this year. And though I may sound like some pie-in-the sky Cubs fan, I actually mean it. The Bills return many of the key parts of last year's offense, and they add a Pro-Bowl caliber wide receiver in Terrell Owens. Perhaps even more important for Buffalo is the health of former Pro Bowl defensive end Aaron Schobel. Sidelined for much of the 2008 season with a bad foot, Schobel's back to full health and ready to revitalize a defense that had just 24 sacks last season. Add in promising first-round pick Aaron Maybin, and there actually may be a pass rush in Buffalo this season.


The future sure looks bright in Buffalo.


It always seems to in July.


3. Speaking of the Bills, where exactly is J.P. Losman these days?


Four quarterbacks were selected in the first round of the 2004 NFL Draft. Eli Manning went No. 1, Philip Rivers went No. 3 and Ben Roethlisberger went No. 12. Together, they've combined for five conference championship games and three Super Bowls. Together, they're 3-0 in Super Bowl play.


The fourth quarterback taken in that first round was J.P. Losman out of Tulane. The Bills took the strong-armed Losman with the 22nd pick — and for the first few years, things went fairly well. In 2006, Losman nearly led Buffalo to the playoffs, and he threw more touchdowns than interceptions.


Fast forward three years, and Losman is currently an unsigned NFL free agent. While Kyle Boller, David Carr, Joey Harrington and Rex Grossman all are currently backups across the league, Losman is nowhere to be found on an NFL roster. A 28-year-old man who should be in the prime of his career, Losman is the Pete Best of the 2004 Draft class.


Though there's been news of Losman suiting up for the fledgling UFL's Las Vegas franchise this fall, that's likely not where we'll see Losman next. At least, you'd hope not. If anything, a team will (or should) scoop Losman up as a second- or third-string quarterback in August. Plenty of teams could still use veteran help at quarterback. Losman can fill that role.


Rest assured, J.P. Losman's career isn't over.


It's just kinda sorta on hold, I guess.


4. Who the heck is Anthony Armstrong, and why should the rest of the NFL take notice?


Want a fantasy football "sleeper" this year that not every one of your buddies knows about already? Spend a last-round pick on Miami Dolphins wide receiver Anthony Armstrong. Who the hell is Anthony Armstrong?


Good question.


Though he was a star at tiny West Texas A&M, Armstrong went understandably undrafted by the NFL after college and ended up with the Dallas Desperados of the Arena Football League instead. In Dallas, he became a fan favorite and a breakout star. He caught the eye of current Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland, who was with the Cowboys front office at the time. When Ireland made the move to Miami, he brought Armstrong with him, adding the lightning fast receiver to the Dolphins' practice squad in 2008.


Still a relative unknown to even the Dolphins' rabid fan base, Armstrong turned a lot of heads in minicamps last month. When OTA sessions began in May, he was likely the eighth or ninth receiver on the depth chart. After lighting it up throughout the OTA sessions and in five minicamp sessions in June, Armstrong might very well end up being one of the main go-to wideouts in Miami this season. It's certainly not a given that he'll make the final 53-man active roster. But if he's on the field, watch out.


At 5-foot-11, 175 pounds, he's not a giant. But he's got speed — tons of it. Like No. 1 wideout Ted Ginn Jr., Armstrong's biggest task at hand will be learning to harness that speed, managing it to run precise and timely routes.


Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington spoke about Armstrong's lightning fast quickness with the South Florida Sun Sentinel last month.


"You can really tell the difference from his route-running from a year ago until now," he said. "He understands that his speed is his weapon, but only when he uses it appropriately. He can't just outrun everybody. He has to have proper technique getting off the jam and get good, clean releases. He's done a really good job of that this spring."


Every year, there's a receiver that emerges from nowhere to make an impact. Whether it be Marques Colston or Mike Furrey, these guys work their way up the depth charts and make it impossible for coaches to keep them off the field.


Anthony Armstrong could be that guy in 2009.


Just don't tell your fellow fantasy league owners. You'll want him all to yourself.


5. What can we expect from Vernon Gholston in 2009?


Well, it's tough to have a "sophomore slump" season when your rookie season pretty much ceased to exist.


Though most AFC East fans have used Gholston as the kicker in their punchlines about the Jets' ineptitude down the stretch last season, there's actually some quiet buzz about the progress the second-year man out of Ohio State has made over the past six months.


Jets fans were confused and distraught to see Gholston on the field in only rare instances last season, lining up for rare packages and barely getting in on special teams. Whereas fellow 2008 first-round picks Jerod Mayo and Keith Rivers excelled at linebacker in their rookie seasons, Gholston struggled. Immensely.


After a sackless first year in the league, Gholston has immersed himself into the film room, learning, living and breathing Rex Ryan's complex 3-4 defense. With the recent four-game suspension of Jets linebacker Calvin Pace, Gholston will be forced to step in and deliver right away. Based on his performance this spring, there's confidence in New York that he can.


They'll need him, too. The Jets face a tougher four-game slate to start the season than any other team in the league. Up against Houston, New England, Tennessee and New Orleans — four dynamo offenses — in the first quarter of the season, Gholston's production will be necessary.


As a rookie, DeMarcus Ware struggled in Dallas. Mario Williams had growing pains in his rookie campaign in Houston. Both players emerged during their second years in the league. Perhaps the same will go for Gholston.


And if not? Well, Pace returns in Week 5. Hopefully by then, the Jets aren't already 0-4.


NFC West


1. The defending NFC champions have a new defensive coordinator and a very rare situation in regards to their offensive coordinator position. Are they going to be OK in '09?


Both Todd Haley and Clancy Pendergast will be spending the '09 season in Kansas City, but the Cardinals should be fine. The transition, like the one in Indianapolis, should be a rather smooth one with in-house promotions being the route as opposed to big-time outside hires.


In what should make for a very rare — if not unique — situation, the Cardinals will feature a three-headed monster of sorts manning the offensive coordinator position this season. Russ Grimm, Ken Whisenhunt's longtime colleague in Pittsburgh and three-year assistant head coach in 'Zona, will now be managing the run game of the Cardinals offense, while former receivers coach Mike Miller will handle the passing game. Coach Wiz, of course, will have final say over all decisions. Prior to relinquishing play-calling duties to Todd Haley last season, Whisenhunt called the plays in Arizona. He'll likely be the man doing that once again in '09. Three-headed monster? Hell, with 38-year-old veteran Kurt Warner taking the snaps, you almost have four coaches running the offense. Too many cooks in the kitchen? I don't think so. Grimm, Miller, Whisenhunt and Warner now will be entering their third year working together. This isn't some episode of "The Real World: Arizona Cardinals," where you pair four strangers in a video room and ask for magic. These are longtime colleagues doing what they've been doing — quite successfully, I might add — for several seasons.


The Cardinals promoted from within on the defensive side of the ball, too. Bill Davis takes over as the defensive coordinator and former defensive quality control coach Matt Raich fills in for Davis as the new linebackers coach.


In Davis' first year with the Cardinals linebackers in '07, the unit flourished. All three starting LBs — Karlos Dansby, Gerald Hayes and Calvin Pace — had career years and recorded more than 100 tackles that season. Last year, the Cardinals defense was much improved and reached the Super Bowl.


Davis is a 3-4 guy at heart, but Arizona could end up running a variety of schemes under his guidance. Though his time in San Francisco as a defensive coordinator from 2005-06 was short lived and forgettable, there are high hopes for Davis. He returns most of the same guys he's worked with for three years on that D.


Haley and Pendergrast may be in Kansas City, but don't expect the Cardinals to burst at the seams. Both the offense and the defense are in good — and more important, familiar — hands.


2. At 35 years old and coming off microfracture surgery, is Walter Jones' reign as the best offensive tackle in the NFC officially over?


In the past two years, we've seen Jonathan Ogden retire from the NFL and Orlando Pace released by the St. Louis Rams. If there's a third player in the "greatest left tackles of the past decade" conversation, it's Walter Jones up in Seattle.


Fortunately, he's still with his original team — and for the time being, at least — still manning the left tackle spot for the Seahawks.


After what seemed like close to a dozen years of healthy, flawless football, Jones' knee got the best of him last season, causing him to miss significant time on the field. The nine-time Pro Bowler opted to undergo microfracture surgery this offseason, an interesting decision for a player who's 35 years old.


Yet, here we are in July, and Jones is expected to be starting at left tackle on opening day. During the final afternoon of Seahawks minicamp last week, Jones was running full speed and holding his own. He may be older, but this is still Walter Jones we're talking about. The four-time first-team All-Pro has too much pride to just disappear and fade into the night.


But if Jones isn't the Walter Jones that Seahawk fans have come to know, there's a formidable alternative. Seattle wisely locked up Sean Locklear to a five-year, $32 million deal with the future in mind. He'll be the successor to Jones, whenever Jones decides to hang them up. By passing on Virginia left tackle Eugene Monroe in April's draft, Seattle showed their commitment and faith not only to Jones, the incumbent, but to eventual successor Locklear. You don't need to hire some young stand-up comedian to replace Jay Leno when you've got Conan waiting in the wings.


With six offensive left tackles drafted in the first round of the '08 Draft and four scooped up in the first 32 picks in '09, there's a new fresh crew of OTs making their way into the league. Walter Jones may be the last remaining stalwart of his era.


He's not ready to become a thing of the past just yet. But if those best days are, in fact, behind him, Seattle should be OK.


3. Will you recognize any of the guys playing receiver for the Rams this year?


The 1999 "greatest show on turf" season must feel like 100 years ago to Rams fans these days. Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, Az-Zahir Hakim, Ricky Proehl — these are names that evoke great memories of success and excitement. Four fantastic receivers; four recognizable faces.


As for Donnie Avery, Derek Stanley, Laurent Robinson, Keenan Burton and Tim Carter? Eh, not so much.


No, that's not a list of fraternity pledges at a nearby university; it's the receiving corps in St. Louis this season. Young, bright eyed and completely unproven, Avery, Stanley, Robinson, Burton, Carter and fifth-round draft pick Brooks Foster are the top targets for Marc Bulger in St. Louis this year. The greatest show on turf? More like "a bunch of kids who happen to play football on turf."


GM Bill Devaney and head coach Steve Spagnuolo decided to clean house at receiver this offseason. And boy, did they ever. Torry Holt? Released. Drew Bennett? Gone. Dante Hall? Wasn't brought back. The same went for Dane Looker. What's left are a bunch of kids and journeymen.


Devaney liked Laurent Robinson in Atlanta so he went out and traded late-round draft picks in exchange for him and his 42 career receptions. Tim Carter has bounced around the league a bit and was out of football in 2008. He could get big action in St. Louis.


Marc Bulger will be playing behind a rookie left tackle and passing to a bunch of wide-eyed unknown kids. Good luck.


Rams fans can only hope Steven Jackson has a career year. The Rams may need 3,000 rushing yards from him.


4. Is it time to officially write Alex Smith off as a bust?


No, not at all.


In fact, Smith's offseason progress may very well be the best story around the NFL this summer. All but written off by Niners fans after what can only be described as a nightmarish past two years, Alex Smith is on the comeback trail.




Yes, word out of 49ers camp last month was that Alex Smith — yes, that Alex Smith — was throwing the best looking passes he's thrown during his entire tenure in San Francisco. Though Shaun Hill likely will be the starting quarterback come opening day, it's still an open competition. No one could have expected that much six months ago.


More money, more problems?


Perhaps this was the case for Smith in previous seasons. Weighed down by the enormous contract he signed before his rookie year, Smith restructured his deal this offseason and will be paid back-up quarterback money over the next two years. Perhaps without the pressures and expectations linked to a massive top-pick-overall contract, Smith will play with a clear head and a strong arm from here on out.


Or perhaps his shoulder is finally healthy. After toughing it out and playing with a destroyed right shoulder for three games in December 2007, Smith rushed back from shoulder surgery in the last offseason. The results were hideous. Smith was throwing ducks throughout the preseason and was placed third on the depth chart. Eventually, he just shut it down for the season.


This year's offseason has been a different story. Smith's throwing the ball with zip and confidence. The haunting cloud of Mike Nolan, the coach who he publicly feuded with two years ago, is long gone. And Mike Martz, the offensive coordinator he didn't gel with last season, is nowhere to be found.


His head is clear and his shoulder is fine.


Perhaps Alex Smith's career can be salvaged after all.


5. Which highly touted rookie in the NFC West will make the biggest impact in '09?


With former NCAA offensive superstars Michael Crabtree, Jason Smith and Chris Wells all joining the NFC West this offseason, there should be no shortage of rookie talent in the division.


Alas, all those guys will take a backseat to Seattle's Aaron Curry.


In the past few years, rookie linebackers A.J. Hawk, DeMeco Ryans, Jon Beason, Patrick Willis, Jerod Mayo and Keith Rivers all have emerged to make immediate impacts for the teams that drafted them. Curry should be no different.


That is, of course, unless Curry doesn't play linebacker at all. The guy former NFL GM Charlie Casserly described as the best linebacker to enter the league in 10 years could actually end up seeing some time at DE. Mike Nolan publicly noted how impressed he's been with Curry's pass-rushing skills, and Curry recently told a local Seattle radio station that he plays both linebacker and defensive end. The pass-rushing skills of Curry were critiqued throughout the lead-up to the NFL Draft. Naysayers came out of the woodwork, citing low sack totals at Wake Forest as reasons to be skeptical about Curry's all-around game.


Of course, those very critics didn't take the time to study film or become familiar with Curry's role. Jim Grobe's Wake Forest defense didn't call for Curry to rush the passer, so he rarely did. Instead, he manned the middle of the field from sideline to sideline with a ferocity rarely seen at the college level.


"I say this with reservation because it's not padded practices and it's not live," Seahawks coach Jim Mora said after a June practice, "but Aaron has an aspect of pass rush that we didn't see on the college film, because they didn't ask him to do it. We've asked him to do that a little more here, and he looks like he's a guy that athletically can do that. If he can, then that's a bonus for us."


He can and he will. Aaron Curry's the NFL's next great defensive star.


And that's from whatever spot he lines up at. Watch out for Aaron Curry in '09.


Courtesy of FOXSports.com


© 2009 Fox Sports Interactive Media, LLC. All rights reserved.

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When quarterback Tom Brady went down with a season-ending injury in Week 1 against Kansas City last year, the skeptics balked and ruled New England out as a contender. Then they went 11-5. Oh yeah, with a quarterback that had never started an NFL — or college — game in his career. And now, they get Brady back?


If there was ever a statement that summed up off-season excitement about an upcoming football season, this is it.



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