EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- After the New York Giants announced Tuesday that they had hired former wide receiver David Tyree as their director of player development, I wrote this, saying I thought it was a bad hire because of Tyree's publicly expressed views on gay marriage and homosexuality in general. I stand by what I wrote because professional sports teams operate in public and need to be cognizant of perception.

[+] EnlargeDavid Tyree
Tom Berg/NFLPhotoLibraryFormer Giant David Tyree was hired Tuesday as the team's director of player development.
Hiring a player development director with such potentially harmful views as the ones Tyree expressed three years ago was an odd choice. That job puts Tyree in a position of influence and authority over players who might have legitimate fears about going to him for guidance, given his public comments. For that reason, I disagreed with the decision to hire him and still do.

Contrary to much of the breathless overreaction my post has received, nowhere in it did I call for Tyree's firing. Tyree has the right to pursue his career, the Giants have the right to hire the people they want to hire, and I have the right (actually, the professional obligation) to write critically about the things the Giants do when I disagree with them. I will continue to do so.

All of that said, anyone who cares about this issue on either side should absolutely read this story by Michael O'Keeffe in the New York Daily News. O'Keeffe spoke with Patrick Burke, the president of You Can Play. Burke told the Daily News that Tyree recently met with the organization's executive director, Wade Davis, and would continue talking with Davis in the future:
"There is nothing that can excuse the stuff he said three years ago," said Burke, whose organization battles homophobia in sports. “But we try to have conversations behind closed doors. Wade is impressed with David’s growth."

I'm all for growth. That is the point of what I wrote Tuesday and anything I've ever written about this issue. I think any conversation that helps move us in the direction of improved decency toward fellow human beings is one worth having, and kudos to Davis and Tyree for having such discussions.

On Tuesday, ESPN.com reached out to Tyree to offer him an opportunity to defend himself against the criticism, and he declined to do so. I don't want people to think we're not playing fair here. I also do think that, if Tyree's views have evolved in a more tolerant direction, it would be helpful to the overall discussion for him to express that as publicly as he once expressed his original views. But that's just my feeling on it, and he obviously isn't obligated to do so.

But he does have some work to do behind those closed doors of which Burke speaks.

If I were the Giants, I would think the important thing would be for the players with whom Tyree is working to know how he feels on these issues. If his views have evolved, he will need to find a way to make sure players who might not have felt welcome in his office based on his 2011 comments know they can feel welcome now. The job for which he was hired will put him in direct and important contact with a wide variety of young men, and if any of them had reason to feel that the team's director of player development was angrily prejudiced against them, that would be a shame.

But it sounds as though Tyree is working to make sure that is not the case, and if so, that's excellent.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- This summer, Pro Football Focus ranked the NFL rosters from one to 32 and drew the ire of St. Louis Rams fans for placing the team at No. 31 in the league.

In part, that ranking was the result of the fact that much of the team's roster is young and largely unproven. On Wednesday, the Football Outsiders offered the opposite side of the PFF coin when they revealed their rankings of the team's with the most under-25 talent in the league. You didn't have to look too far to find the Rams in Football Outsiders' rankings as they topped the list Insider on the ESPN Insider post.

Quinn
The rankings of the teams with the most young talent in the league were based on a number of factors, including the number of games started by players under 25 in 2013, relative positional value of the young players playing those games and snaps, the expected number of key starters and reserves under 25 projected for the 2014 season, and the team's recent track record of developing young players.

With the Rams at the top, Football Outsiders pointed to the big trade they made with the Washington Redskins in 2012 as giving them a leg up on adding top young talent. From the Insider piece:

"The real reason behind what powered the Rams to the top here: There may not be a better front seven in the league. ... It was really (Robert) Quinn's All-Pro season with 19 sacks that edged St. Louis to the top. There are several players with great potential here, but Quinn's the one to actually have started building a track record. If more Rams can follow his lead, then this team will compete in the tough NFC West."


In some sense, it should be no surprise to see the Rams at the top of this list solely based on how they fit the criteria. They have been the youngest team in the league each of the past two years and could be again this year. Coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead have been unafraid to not only devote resources to young players, but also give them ample opportunities to play.

The hope is that those young players will turn that youth and potential into production, something the Rams have targeted for the 2014 season since Fisher and Snead arrived.

Put simply, it's nice to have a lot of young talent so long as it develops. Some of it, especially Quinn, has taken off under the guidance of this coaching staff, but there are plenty of others who still have a lot to prove. If the bulk of the young players in prominent roles take the next step, this roster can move from topping lists based on potential and climb on lists about actual production.

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- AFC West

July, 24, 2014
Jul 24
11:00
AM ET
video
It seems like a football eon ago that then-Denver Broncos coach Josh McDaniels sized up the potential AFC West race and called the San Diego Chargers “kind of the measuring stick.”

That statement came before the 2010 season as the Chargers had won the previous four division titles. It’s also right about the time the winds of change began to roar in earnest in the division, when the foundation was set for what has happened since.

The Kansas City Chiefs won the division in '10. Broncos owner Pat Bowlen fired McDaniels after a 4-12 season marred by Spygate and hired John Elway as the Broncos’ top football executive.

Since then, the Broncos have won three consecutive division titles, one featuring the national phenomenon that was a Tim Tebow-led read-option offense, and two with future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning. And the Broncos' crushing February Super Bowl loss notwithstanding, they are coming off a record-setting 2013 with Manning returning and a free-agency haul that included pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib, safety T.J. Ward and receiver Emmanuel Sanders. The Broncos are poised to be in the league’s championship conversation again.

The Chiefs think they are ready for more, the Chargers were the only team in the division to beat the Broncos last season, and the Oakland Raiders, after a flurry of offseason moves, believe -- at least LaMarr Woodley believes -- they can be a playoff team.

NFL Nation reporters Jeff Legwold (Broncos), Eric D. Williams (Chargers), Adam Teicher (Chiefs) and Paul Gutierrez (Raiders) look at how the AFC West division race will shake out this season.

First Down

What will the Broncos' record be and why?



Jeff Legwold: Look at the Broncos' depth chart, and on paper -- yes, the dreaded "on paper" distinction -- they are better than they were when they finished 13-3 and played their way into Super Bowl XLVIII last season. After the crushing loss in the title game, they didn't go quietly into the offseason. They put together a solid draft class with two potential immediate contributors in cornerback Bradley Roby and wide receiver Cody Latimer. They were also one of the most aggressive teams in free agency, reeling in Ware, Talib, Ward and Sanders. If Ware and Talib, in particular stay healthy (Talib has never played 16 games in a season), Denver's defense will be vastly improved alongside a record-breaking offense that figures to again pile up points. The Broncos finished with five defensive starters on injured reserve last season, and many of the players who were starting on defense down the stretch will be backups this season. Their trek through the NFC West to go with road games against the Patriots, Jets and Bengals gives them a potentially brutal schedule. They could be better than they were last season and not have the record to show for it. That is why 12-4 would be a quality piece of work.

Eric D. Williams: Denver will take a natural slide from its impressive 2013 campaign, but still come out on top of the AFC West at 11-5. Like the rest of the division, the Broncos face a much tougher schedule, with the season opener at home against Indianapolis and games at Seattle, at home against San Francisco, at New England, at St. Louis and at Cincinnati all potential losses outside the division. Though the defense should be better, free-agent additions Talib, Ware and Ward still have to mesh with the rest of that unit. Offensively, Denver's revamped line must do a better job of protecting Peyton Manning.

Adam Teicher: 12-4. It's a bit much to expect the Broncos to match their 13-3 record of last season. A schedule that includes two games against the Chiefs and Chargers and singles against all teams from the NFC West plus New England, Indianapolis and Cincinnati almost guarantees that Denver won't get to 13 wins. But a slightly diminished regular-season record doesn't mean the Broncos won't win the AFC or play in the Super Bowl again. From this vantage point, it's an upset if any team but the Broncos represents the AFC in the Super Bowl this season.

Paul Gutierrez: Sure, no one takes a Super Bowl beating like the Denver Broncos, whose five losses on Super Sunday are by a combined score of 206-58. But in the modern world of the rich getting richer, the defending AFC champs simply got better. Adding a trio of big-name free agents in Ware, Talib and Ward will only make the defense more sound. And the addition of Sanders, who will replace the departed Eric Decker, should help the Broncos' record-setting offense continue to hum along under the direction of Manning. The Broncos are primed for another division title with a 12-4 record, with tough games at Kansas City, at San Diego (the Chargers won in Denver last season), at New England (the Patriots won in OT last season) and at Seattle (remember that 43-8 pasting the Seahawks put on the Broncos in the Super Bowl?).


Second Down

What will the Chiefs' record be and why?



Legwold: There is an air about this team; the Chiefs seem comfortable with where the roster was at the end of the 2013 season going into 2014. They were not all that active in free agency, though they took some swings at a wide receiver or two, including Emmanuel Sanders. If they are the team that went 9-0 before the bye last season, then standing pat is just fine, but if they are the group that went 2-5 down the stretch, then they are not catching the Broncos. They have shuffled the offensive line and seem likely to lean on running back Jamaal Charles again on offense, but they lack pop on the outside, especially if receiver A.J. Jenkins can't lift his game. The defense is solid in the front seven, but in a division with quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers, cornerback Brandon Flowers' release might be the move that eventually stings the most, especially if young cornerback Marcus Cooper, a player Manning targeted repeatedly last season, is not up to the challenge. It all has the look of a step back from last season's 11-5 to 9-7 with the NFC West on everybody's schedule in the division.

Williams: I predict Kansas City falling to 8-8 in 2014 for a couple reasons. The Chiefs lost two of their five starters along the offensive line in Branden Albert and Geoff Schwartz to free agency -- a position group that depends on continuity. Kansas City could struggle to protect quarterback Alex Smith, along with getting enough push to spring loose the talented Charles. Second, look at this season's schedule. Last season, Kansas City vaulted to a 9-0 record in part by facing backup quarterbacks like Jeff Tuel, Case Keenum and Terrelle Pryor. This season, four of Kansas City's first six games are on the road, including stops in Denver, Miami, San Francisco and San Diego. The Chiefs will be fortunate to be at the .500 mark after that treacherous stretch.

Teicher: 8-8. Kansas City faltered down the stretch last season, winning two of its final eight games. The Chiefs then watched several significant regulars leave through free agency. The Chiefs have holes at wide receiver and in the defensive backfield that they failed to adequately address. That doesn't mean they won't be playoff contenders. Despite the lousy record, the Chiefs quietly finished last season as one of the NFL's better offensive teams. They might be able to score enough points to overcome a shaky defense that couldn't hold a 28-point lead in last season's playoff loss against Indianapolis.

Gutierrez: Are the Kansas City Chiefs the team that made history by becoming the first in NFL modern annals to follow up a two-victory season by winning its first nine games the following season, or are they the club that lost six of its last eight, including a heartbreaking 45-44 wild-card loss to the Indianapolis Colts? Momentum being what it is, and with the Chiefs having a so-so draft coupled with departures of the likes of Albert, defensive end Tyson Jackson and receiver/returner Dexter McCluster, plus a tough schedule, they seem to be on the way back down. As in a 7-9 record. Tough stretches that include games at Denver, against New England, at San Francisco and at San Diego early, and against Seattle, at Oakland, against Denver, at Arizona and at Pittsburgh late will truly tell the Chiefs' tale, even as Charles continues his ascent as one of the game's best all-around backs.


Third Down

What will the Chargers' record be and why?



Legwold: In his first year as Chargers coach, Mike McCoy helped get quarterback Philip Rivers back on track -- though Rivers never really conceded to being off track -- and the Chargers were able to fight through injuries, hand the Broncos their only home loss of the season, and earn a playoff spot. McCoy figures to try to keep Rivers cocooned in a low-risk approach on offense -- their leading receivers in terms of catches last season were a tight end (Antonio Gates) and a running back (Danny Woodhead) -- with a heavy dose of starting running back Ryan Mathews if he can stay healthy. Defensively, new cornerbacks Jason Verrett and Brandon Flowers should help the secondary. As they continue their makeover in the second year of the current regime, most personnel people in the league believe the Chargers are still lacking enough athleticism, especially on defense, to make a significant push in the division race. Add up four games against the NFC West to go with New England and Baltimore and it looks like a 7-9 campaign.

Williams: If they can stay relatively healthy, the Chargers should finish at 10-6 and return to the postseason for a second straight season. San Diego is the only team in the AFC West projected to have all 11 starters on offense return in 2014. Rivers will be given even more freedom to call plays at the line of scrimmage and run the no-huddle offense, which should result in more favorable matchups for the Chargers. But we know San Diego's offense can put points on the board. The key for the Chargers will be improved play in a revamped secondary that includes first-round selection Verrett and free agent Flowers, along with a more potent pass rush with the healthy return of Dwight Freeney and Melvin Ingram.

Teicher: 8-8. The Chargers might be the division's most interesting team. San Diego is the team most capable of catching the first-place Broncos, but also has the best chance of getting caught by the last-place Raiders. If Rivers plays as well as he did last season, it's not out of the question that San Diego wins the AFC West. Like Denver, San Diego might have a better team than it did last season. Signing Flowers filled a big need. But a tougher schedule will keep the Chargers out of the playoffs this time.

Gutierrez: San Diego, under a rookie head coach in the offensive-minded Mike McCoy, won four straight games to end the regular season and sneak into the playoffs at 9-7, and another 9-7 campaign seems to be in the works, even if the Chargers look to be better in 2014. Some of McCoy's moves did have many fans scratching their heads, but there is no debating he was instrumental in Rivers' NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award-winning season. The Chargers added bruising running back Donald Brown to join lightning-quick Ryan Mathews and are excited to see what their receiving corps, highlighted by second-year wideout Keenan Allen, can do if Malcom Floyd is healthy. No, it's not the halcyon and high-flying days of Air Coryell, but with tough games at Arizona, Oakland, Denver, Baltimore and San Francisco, and with New England coming to San Diego, the Chargers will take it.


Fourth Down

What will the Raiders' record be and why?



Legwold: Rookie linebacker Khalil Mack has the look of a potential foundation player in the Raiders defense. If things go as the Raiders hope, he should be in the running for Defensive Rookie of the Year because he's going to get plenty of snaps. But overall this team has put its immediate fate in the hands of veterans with far less of their career in front of them than in their past, led by quarterback Matt Schaub. Raiders coach Dennis Allen keeps saying Schaub is a top-10 passer in the league, but Schaub has always seemed to lack that kind of confidence in himself. But front-seven additions LaMarr Woodley and Justin Tuck, and running back Maurice Jones-Drew are certainly risk-reward moves the Raiders need to work. Tuck is 30, Woodley is 29 and Jones-Drew, who has missed 11 games combined in the past two seasons, just turned 29. The depth chart is still thin, particularly on defense, and an injury or two will have a ripple effect. The schedule's second half also includes two games against the Broncos, two against the Chiefs, and games against the 49ers and the Rams. It all looks like a potential 5-11.

Williams: With the addition of several quality veteran players in free agency on both sides of the ball, Oakland has a chance to reach the .500 mark for the first time since 2011, but I have them finishing 7-9. With an emphasis on running the football led by backs Jones-Drew (who is returning home to Oakland) and Darren McFadden, Schaub should play better. Defensively, with the addition of first-round selection Mack and veteran defenders Antonio Smith (defensive line), Tuck and Woodley, the Raiders should be improved. The concern for this veteran team will be how consistently it finishes teams in the fourth quarter in order to preserve wins in close games.

Teicher: 6-10. The days of hopeless desperation are coming to an end in Oakland. The Raiders won't be the pushovers they were last season. But they are still not ready to compete with their AFC West rivals. Schaub won't be the answer at quarterback. Instead, he will be another in a long line of failures. Going to rookie quarterback Derek Carr won't solve their problems, at least not this season. By 2015, the Raiders will be a factor in the AFC West race. But despite a major free-agent spending spree, they will still drag the bottom in 2014.

Gutierrez: In the immediate aftermath of the NFL schedule being released back in April, I saw a 5-11 season for the Raiders. Now, after the draft, organized team activities and minicamps? I'll go 6-10. Doesn't sound all that impressive, I know, but it would, technically, be improvement for third-year coach Dennis Allen after consecutive 4-12 seasons. Yes, the Raiders did rebuild both lines with talent and, on the defensive side of the ball, championship pedigree. And they are going with a new quarterback in the battle-tested Schaub. Plus, the veterans Oakland brought in via free agency all have chips on their shoulders. Truly, this is the most talent Allen has had at his disposal. Still, Oakland has the toughest strength of schedule in the NFL, and until it proves differently, it's hard to imagine the Raiders winning more than six games. Where might they scratch out six victories? Let's start with home games against Houston, Miami (in London), San Diego, Arizona, Kansas City and Buffalo and go from there.

.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – A few takeaways from Bill Belichick’s morning news conference on the first day of training camp, and a quick practice note:

Revis
Impressed with Darrelle Revis. A reporter from the New York Post asked Belichick to share his thoughts on cornerback Darrelle Revis. “He has worked hard. Smart guy. I’ve been impressed with him. Very professional. Has a good understanding of the game. He’s a smart player. He has a real good focus and instinct. He’s a smart player scheme-wise, but he knows how to play. He’s a very instinctive player. … On a personal level, I never really had a personal relationship with him. So I’ve enjoyed that part of it.”

Reflective entering his 15th season. Belichick was reflective in his opening remarks, thinking back to his first year in 2000 when the team trained at Bryant College and played at the old Foxboro Stadium. In doing so, Belichick noted some capital improvements made at Gillette Stadium this offseason to expand the team’s coaching offices, meeting rooms, training facilities and weight room, crediting owner Robert Kraft for his commitment. “Robert has given us a great opportunity to field a competitive team,” he said. “With some of our new facilities in place, it’s kind of the start of a new year here. We’re excited to get going.”

Historical view of training camp and the game. Belichick had detailed remarks on how the game has changed over the years – from X’s and O’s, to the size of rosters and coaching/athletic training staffs. Specialization was also part of the discussion. For the real football junkies, we’ll circle back and link those remarks when they are transcribed.

All players in the house. No surprise, but Belichick confirmed that every player under contract has reported for camp.

Finch on the field. Rookie running back Roy Finch has been removed from the active/non-football injury list, as he was spotted at the start of practice today.
Denver Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas will not be on the field Thursday when the team opens training camp at its Dove Valley complex.

Thomas was excused until Monday by the Broncos' coaching staff to attend funeral services for his grandmother in Georgia. The Broncos Pro Bowl wide receiver did attend a team meeting Wednesday, shortly after he reported and took his arrival physical, as did the Broncos' other players.

On a morning radio appearance, Broncos head coach John Fox said Thomas "is where he needs to be, (our) prayers are with him."

Thomas has had back-to-back 90-catch, 1,400-yard seasons with Peyton Manning at quarterback, and the Broncos are currently negotiating a long-term deal with Thomas' representatives.

Thomas is expected to return for practice Monday.
By most statistical measures, 2013 was the best regular season for offenses in NFL history. Eventually, however, traditionalists exacted some balance. Teams with the top five defenses all reached the playoffs, and the best -- the Seattle Seahawks -- won Super Bowl XLVIII in a rout.

That disparate backdrop looms over the opening of training camp, where teams annually implement plans to best capitalize on the state of the league. As it turns out, they are due for an unexpected twist.

The NFL has instructed its officials to include two defensive penalties -- both of which restrict contact by pass defenders -- among their major points of emphasis for the 2014 season (according to Mike Pereira, the NFL's former vice president of officiating who now works for Fox Sports). Historically, points of emphasis can lead to at least a temporary spike in penalties as players adjust. In this case, it would be reasonable to conclude that defenders will have even less margin for error in stopping offenses that already are operating at historic levels.

The league has not yet confirmed this development publicly, but officials will soon begin communicating it with coaches, players and media members during camp visits. Pereira first revealed the information after attending the league's annual officiating clinic last week.

I know it seems that officials are always calling these particular penalties (defensive holding and illegal contact), but in reality they occurred on 1.6 percent of passes in the 2013 regular season, according to ESPN Stats & Information (285 calls in 18,136 attempts). The chart, meanwhile, shows the range of those penalties per team. The Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs each were called for 16, while the New Orleans Saints had only two against them. (The Seahawks were among five teams with 12.)

In the process, NFL teams set these league records:
  • 46.8 combined points per game
  • 697 combined yards per game
  • 471.2 combined passing yards per game
  • 1,338 touchdowns
  • 86.0 average passer rating
  • 804 touchdown passes
  • 24 games with a 400-yard passer

We haven't yet heard from officials on how they will apply these points of emphasis, but typically the presumption is that they will be called more strictly than the previous season. Hopefully, consistency is also a part of their charge, but regardless, it appears pass defenders will face a choice of increased penalties or providing less resistance to receivers.

For those who need a refresher: Regarding illegal contact, defenders are not allowed to use their arms or hands to restrict receivers when they are 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, as long as the quarterback is in the pocket with the ball. Defenders also can't hit receivers in the back within that 5-yard zone. Violation of these mandates leads to a 5-yard penalty and an automatic first down.

Defensive holding, meanwhile, refers to a defender grabbing an eligible receiver or his jersey with his hands, and also prohibits defenders from using their arms to cut off the receiver or guide him in another direction. Like illegal contact, it carries a 5-yard penalty and an automatic first down. We can probably expect officials to apply special focus to grabbing jerseys, a move crafty cornerbacks have learned and refined in order to hide it from officials.

A third point of emphasis might serve as partial balance. Officials have been asked to pay attention to offensive pass interference (OPI), especially when receivers push off defenders at the top of the route. Last season, OPI was called only 74 times leaguewide and no more than six times against any one team. It was also one of the most inconsistently called penalties in the NFL; since-retired referee Scott Green's crew recorded almost twice (12) as many as the next-most frequent group.

It's easy to conclude that the NFL wants to maintain and perhaps enhance the advantages it has given offenses in recent years. All indications, after all, are that high-scoring throwing offenses are more entertaining to the masses than physical pass defenses. I hope it's not that simple.

It would be nice to think that at least part of this initiative is to secure consistency where it's available. There isn't as much judgment involved in illegal contact or defensive holding as, say, defensive pass interference. The rulebook allows for some incidental contact beyond 5 yards, but otherwise the stipulations are clear: Hands off after that 5-yard marker and don't grab receivers during the route.

What players and coaches want most from refs is clarity: What are you and aren't you going to call? In theory, teams will adjust accordingly. We'll see.
PITTSBURGH -- He still uses his GPS to make his way around Pittsburgh, but rookie inside linebacker Ryan Shazier didn’t need nearly as much navigational assistance when he was on the Pittsburgh Steelers practice fields in late May and June.

Shazier started alongside Lawrence Timmons from the outset of offseason practices, and he looked anything but lost despite learning a new defense on the run.

[+] EnlargeRyan Shazier
Joe Sargent/Getty ImagesRookie linebacker Ryan Shazier was a star in minicamp, but will his progress continue when the pads come on?
“He understands concepts very well,” linebackers coach Keith Butler said of the Steelers’ first-round draft pick. “He reminds me a lot of Larry Foote in terms of football intelligence, and he’s a very sharp guy.”

Not that Shazier will be exempt from the requisite rookie growing pains. Or that Butler wouldn’t prefer the Steelers easing the former Ohio State All-American into the NFL.

That is not an option in large part because Shazier’s speed and playmaking ability are both badly needed on a defense that slipped appreciably last season. Shazier, the Steelers’ most significant addition during the offseason, made it look easy at times during offseason practices. He turned in a couple of breathtaking plays, including a leaping interception of a pass that backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski thought he could throw over Shazier in the middle of the field.

The caveat with how good Shazier has looked: the 6-1, 237-pounder has only practiced with the Steelers in shorts. That changes Monday, when the Steelers don the pads at training camp following two non-contact practices.

If Shazier makes the same kind of progress at camp as he did during offseason drills he will start Sept. 7 in the season opener against the visiting Browns.

Here are the four other significant additions that the Steelers made during the offseason.

Offensive line coach Mike Munchak. The Steelers have too often fielded suspect offensive lines under coach Mike Tomlin, though constant injuries up front haven’t helped. A line that came together in the second half of last season will start a pair of former first-round draft picks and two second-round selections. Nobody is more qualified to bring the group together then Munchak. There are no excuses this season -- unless mass injuries consistently scramble the line.

S Mike Mitchell. As with Shazier, the Steelers added speed and a playmaker when they signed Mitchell to a five-year, $25 million contract in March. They badly needed both elements on the back end of their defense, and Mitchell will be a significant upgrade over Ryan Clark at free safety. He has aspirations of becoming one of the best safeties in the NFL, and the Steelers would love to see Mitchell achieve that goal in Pittsburgh.

RB/WR Dri Archer. The Steelers added a bolt of lightning to their offense when they drafted the ultra-fast Archer in the third round. He will return kickoffs and could allow the Steelers to relieve Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown of his duties as the primary punt returner. Archer’s speed and versatility gives offensive coordinator Todd Haley the kind of player he can use to exploit mismatches. If Archer is Chris Rainey 2.0 the Steelers will be more than happy with the investment they have made in the former Kent State star.

OLB Arthur Moats. The former Buffalo Bill has starting experience and versatility and gives the Steelers a promising option should there be injuries or ineffective play at outside linebacker. Moats can also play inside, though the Steelers are pretty deep there, and he is expected to establish himself as a core special-teams player. The importance of depth in the NFL can't be overstated, and the Steelers improved themselves in that area with the signing of Moats.
video
With the crew of HBO's "Hard Knocks" set to dissect the Atlanta Falcons' every move during training camp, the team avoided adding unnecessary drama to the equation.

In signing veteran wide receiver Roddy White to a four-year extension that includes $10 million guaranteed, the Falcons kept themselves out of a potentially messy situation.

Although White said Thursday, "I don't think I would have held out" and missed the start of training camp on Friday, the Falcons certainly didn't want the extension to be any type of distraction. The Falcons need White to be a happy camper, and need everyone to be on the same page going into such a critical season. They are trying to make last season's 4-12 implosion a distant memory, and the last thing the team needed was for one of its most respected players to feel disrespected.

White
White
"Where our football team is now, if we all stay healthy, we can win football games. That's the most important thing," White told ESPN.com on Thursday.

White, a four-time Pro Bowl receiver, expected all along to be a Falcon for life, particularly after the team expressed its desire to keep him in the fold. He simply wanted the organization to keep its word and follow through with what he anticipated would happen after the draft.

Extension talks hadn't even started until this week. The initial process was put on hold as White mourned the loss of his younger brother, who was shot to death in South Carolina in May. The team gave White his space as he grieved.

Negotiations heated up Tuesday with some concern that a deal wouldn't get done. Then White's agents flew in to meet with the team Wednesday night, and the sides obviously worked diligently to get matters resolved before reporting time.

White brings levity to the locker room, along with a swagger. His vibe rubs off on the younger players. And, by the way, White can play a little bit, too. Although he turns 33 in November, his production toward the end of last season showed he has plenty left.

If White remains injury-free -- he was hampered by ankle and hamstring problems last season -- he should be ready for a productive season with tag-team partner Julio Jones (foot surgery) back in the fold.

"As long as I can stay healthy, I'll be a successful football player in this league," White said. "I don't feel like I'm down a step or I can go out there and play. I've watched guys like Reggie Wayne before his knee injury and he'd go out there every year and have 1,000-yard seasons. That's how I see myself, as that type of player.

"If I don’t get hurt, I feel like I can always be an elite wide receiver in this league -- especially for the next two or three years."

Things are looking up for the Falcons. Let's see how the rest of the drama unfolds.

Cowboys look to help McClain

July, 24, 2014
Jul 24
9:00
AM ET
OXNARD, Calif. -- There are three good reasons why twice-retired, thrice-arrested linebacker Rolando McClain was worth the risk for the Dallas Cowboys.

First, as owner/general manager Jerry Jones frankly said, the Cowboys had a major need at middle linebacker after Sean Lee's season-ending knee injury suffered on the first day of organized team activities in May.

[+] EnlargeRolando McClain
AP Photo/Kevin TerrellThere was little risk for the Cowboys in trading for Rolando McClain, as his talent is worth the low price tag.
Second, the Cowboys didn’t give up much in the deal with the Baltimore Ravens, who won’t receive any compensation if McClain doesn’t make the Dallas roster. At most, the Cowboys would send their sixth-round pick to Baltimore for the Ravens’ seventh-rounder.

Finally, McClain is a phenomenal talent, a former eighth overall pick who just turned 25 years old.

Head coach Jason Garrett distinctly recalls a visit to the Alabama campus when McClain was a sophomore. Alabama coach Nick Saban gushed to Garrett that McClain “might be one of the best players I ever coached.”

“When a guy like that says that, who’s been around for as long as he has and has so many good players, it kind of gets your attention,” Garrett said. “So I can remember watching him in college and certainly we evaluated him very closely coming out. He was a top-10 pick by the Raiders when he came out of school and someone who has an immense amount of ability and, more than that, production. He was a really, really good college player and I think people have a lot of hopes for him as a pro player.

“Certainly he’s had some issues since he’s been in the NFL -- played a couple of years, retired, unretired -- and the research that we did, the due diligence we did, both with Coach Saban and other people who have been around him, we felt like with his ability with the kind of person he’s demonstrated himself to be in the past, maybe we can help him through some of these issues he has and get this guy back playing at the level we all thought he was capable of playing.”

In case the Cowboys needed any reminder of the red flags regarding McClain’s character, he will miss Friday’s practice to return to Alabama to attend his trial on April 2013 charges of resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. Garrett said the Cowboys expect McClain to return to camp over the weekend.

McClain came out of retirement to join the Cowboys, who signed him to a one-year deal with no guaranteed money. At the time, agent Pat Dye said the big-hitting linebacker “sounds as excited about football as I’ve ever heard him.”

Jones hinted that McClain’s financial situation could serve as strong motivation for fulfilling his football potential. The Cowboys clearly hope that the third time is the charm for McClain’s NFL career.

“I have a known a lot of people, a lot of successful people, that quit and then got it together and turned it around and came back and really made something of what they quit actually, in many cases,” Jones said. “I've seen it happen several times in sports. Certainly I have seen it happen in short periods of time with frustration.

“I have a little empathy. He’s got a very plausible experience as to what has impacted him off the field. We all say that you’ve got to be a pro and work through that stuff. I, too, have first-hand seen people that have worked through things better than others. If you get behind them, they can go on to very productive. So based upon his background, his story, based upon the nature of why he’s here -- his health, which is good—all those things, in my mind, he’s a great opportunity for our team.”
RICHMOND, Va. -- One word jumped out to Washington Redskins coach Jay Gruden when discussing what Robert Griffin III needs most.

“Repetition,” Gruden said. “Reps, reps, reps.”

And then Gruden added:

“You can never have too many reps.”

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
AP Photo/Richard LipskiThis offseason has provided Robert Griffin III the necessary reps he didn't get last year while recovering from injury.
Apparently not. Reps are exactly what Griffin needs after not getting many last summer, and certainly none before that point. For a young quarterback, and Griffin is only entering his third season, nothing is bigger than, well, reps.

Griffin spent all offseason working on his fundamentals and learning Gruden’s offense. But there’s more for him to do.

“The more you see that play against different defenses, the more you see the blitzes that he has to handle from a quarterback position, step it up in the pocket, his fundamentals, his footwork,” Gruden said. “It’s very difficult to miss an entire training camp and a preseason and come in Week 1 and say, ‘Here’s the ball. Go play’ It’s very difficult, so all quarterbacks need the reps. They desire the chance to compete not only on Sunday but every day during the week, and Robert is an ultimate competitor.”

Gruden made it clear, just in case it wasn’t, that Griffin is the best quarterback in camp -- by a good amount. Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy are the backups. Of course, the Redskins have made it a point to make life more comfortable for Griffin after a rugged 2013 season. Griffin was heavily involved in recruiting players from other teams; his happiness in public or private conversations was evident. He has a new lease with a new coach and no knee injury to worry about.

The coaches have been pleased with how Griffin has handled himself mentally, saying he’s doing a great job with the command of the game, his progressions, his audibles to runs. More is needed.

“He’s got a long way to go. He understands that,” Gruden said. “The preparation -- both physical and mental preparation -- he’s got a great understanding and a great feel for that already as a young guy and the maturation process that he has to have.

“The ability to make mistakes, learn from mistakes, take criticism -- it makes you a better person and a stronger man, and he’s realizing that, and he’s just going to continue to get better. He’s got all the talent in the world, there’s no question about it, so we’ve just got to get it out of him each and every day. He’s going to come to work and try to be a great player.”

Another obvious storyline is Gruden and Griffin’s relationship. Gruden did say “The big thing is not to make it so much about Robert, but make it about the Redskins.”

But Gruden also said when it comes to their situation that, “happiness comes with wins.” But Gruden understands a happy Griffin could be a highly productive one.

“Nobody’s going to be happy if we’re 2-14,” Gruden said. “Our whole goal is to make sure we make him as comfortable as possible with this system and that when he’s out there on Sundays, he’s comfortable and feels good about the direction we’re going offensively. And if we can make him feel comfortable and put him in a comfort zone and a place where he can succeed, then I feel like we’ll have a much better chance with this franchise to be successful.”
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- We’ve made the point that the New England Patriots' hopes for a Super Bowl championship are most tied to defense. So what about the offense? Have they done enough to surround quarterback Tom Brady with quality weapons?

Those questions are pertinent as well, and as the team hits the field for its first training camp practice Thursday morning (9:45 a.m. ET), there is no shortage of offensive storylines.

Most of the faces are the same, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing considering the Patriots averaged more than 70 plays per game last season (only the Broncos had more), ranked second in total first downs, and third in points scored.

[+] EnlargeRob Gronkowski
AP Photo/Steven SenneRob Gronkowski is healthy again, and the Patriots are much more efficient in the red zone when the big tight end is in the lineup.
But the struggles, as we remember, came in critical situations that often decide games -- third down (16th) and in the red zone (15th, 36 touchdowns in 65 trips).

So why might 2014 be different?

Tight end Rob Gronkowski is a good place to start, and the Patriots already received good news this week as he has been cleared to play by doctors. It is no longer a medical decision with Gronkowski, but instead a pure football one and it will be interesting to see how Bill Belichick brings him along in camp.

It’s easy to forget that Gronkowski was one of the Patriots’ most durable players in his first two seasons (2010-2011), never missing a practice as a rookie and playing in every game. The past two years haven’t been as kind to him (18 of 32 games played because of knee and arm injuries) and the complexion of the Patriots’ offense changes dramatically with his presence -- especially in the red zone.

This stat says it all: When Gronkowski was playing last season (weeks 7-14), the Patriots had a 69-percent efficiency rate in the red zone. When Gronkowski wasn’t playing -- from weeks 1-6 and 15-17 -- it was 43.5 percent.

So if Gronkowski can turn back the clock to his first two years in the NFL, look out.

But relying on that comes with risk, and it’s why some have rightfully asked if the Patriots are better equipped to play without Gronkowski in 2014 than they were in 2013 when they also weren’t expecting to be without tight end Aaron Hernandez.

Fair question, and also fair to have doubts at this time that they are.

Outside of Gronkowski, there are no other tight ends on the roster that put stress on an opposing defense.

The receivers are the same as last season, with one notable addition: Free-agent Brandon LaFell of the Carolina Panthers, a bigger target at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds who lines up all over the formation and probably would best be described as a No. 3-4 type of option with potential added value in the red zone. Thus, the Patriots are banking on the development of their second-year receivers Aaron Dobson (active/PUP list, recovering from March foot surgery), Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce, as well as the health of Danny Amendola.

The running back group is also mostly the same. What the Patriots have essentially done is redistribute things a bit more evenly between their bigger power backs (Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden) and passing backs (Shane Vereen, rookie James White), with big bruiser LeGarrette Blount departing in free agency to Pittsburgh. The selection of White in the fourth round now gives them a second shiftier back adept in pass protection in the event Vereen (26 of a possible 48 games played over three seasons) isn’t available because of injury.

We have talked plenty about elite status and the quarterback spot this offseason, which leads us to the final area that could ultimately determine if the Patriots’ offense will soar in 2014: The up-and-down offensive line. All five starters return, but some of the best competitions in camp are expected at center and right guard with incumbents Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly looking to hold off a hungry group of youngsters. There is also the significant change on the coaching staff with Dante Scarnecchia retiring and local guy Dave DeGuglielmo taking over.

The offensive line is usually in the far corner at training camp, the greatest distance away from where spectators and media members watch, which makes this a good year to upgrade the binoculars.

We did just that, most interested to see how this offense looks when it comes into sharper focus.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said this season was "Super Bowl or bust" earlier this month, that was one thing.

After all, folks all over the region are thinking the same thing as they look over the Broncos' depth chart that still includes Peyton Manning at quarterback with a fairly young roster around him and one of the league's biggest hauls in free agency as well.

But now new arrival DeMarcus Ware has brought another goal into the conversation. Asked about the expectations of the team's defense, Ware said he hopes the Broncos go to uncharted ground when it comes to the franchise's history.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware
John Leyba/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesDeMarcus Ware says the Broncos want their defense to play as well as their offense.
"We are trying to be a force to be reckoned with this year and you already talked about us being an offensive team, but at the end of the day, we are trying to be [No.] 1 and [No.] 1," Ware said. "The best offense in the league and the best defense in the league."

That's not just a lofty goal, but something the team has never done in five-plus decades worth of football business. The team has been to seven Super Bowls -- six of those on Pat Bowlen's watch -- and won two title games. But the Broncos have never finished a season with the No. 1 defense in yards allowed per game, which is what the NFL uses to statistically rank defenses each year.

The Broncos' best season in scoring defense -- when they allowed a franchise low 148 points in a 14-game season -- was 1977. They finished ninth in yards allowed and were third in scoring defense, behind the Los Angeles Rams and Atlanta Falcons. Former Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan routinely has said a team will almost certainly be in the Super Bowl conversation with a top-five offense to go with a top-five defense.

Then, Shanahan has said, it comes down to playing your best when the lights are brightest. But even that will be no small chore for these Broncos. Overall the Broncos have had only four seasons when they even finished in the league's top five in yards gained per game on offense and yards allowed per game on defense -- again that's how the league ranks them each year.

In those four seasons -- 1996, 1997, 2004 and 2012 -- the Broncos won the Super Bowl only to close out the 1997 season. They were upset in the playoffs, at home, to close out both 1996 and 2012 and were thumped by Manning in the wild-card game to close out 2004.

But Ware has again raised the issue many of the Broncos defensive players, most notably defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, have touched on throughout this offseason. That it's great Manning and the offense can pile up the touchdowns, but the Broncos want, and need, to be known for something on the other side of the ball.

If the team can't win the Super Bowl in a year that they scored more points in a season (606) than any team in history, then it's clear the Broncos need to bring a little something more than offensive pizzazz to the table.

But the difference in saying you want a top defense to go with the top offense and actually doing it is galactic in size. Especially in the salary cap era, when many teams find themselves picking sides when they're doling out the contract cash. And that was something John Elway was trying to avoid this past offseason when he was waving Bowlen's checkbook around in free agency, securing players such as Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward for the team's defense.

"I think that we've got to get to be where we're a complete football team," Elway said Wednesday. "We can't rely on [No.] 18 to win it because he can't win it by himself."

The 2013 season will always have its place in the team's lore as Manning threw for more touchdowns on his own (55) than the 31 other teams each scored. But the team never, whether it was because of injuries, mistakes or simply a lack of personnel, showed it had a Plan B for the days when the offense and Manning couldn't pull the team through -- like the day Super Bowl XLVIII was played, for example.

The Broncos didn't run the ball well enough not to have to throw it all the time and they didn't play defense consistently well enough to close the deal. Although the Broncos defense may have actually had one of its better days against the Seahawks in February until things got out of hand.

"To win a world championship, you have to be a great football team and you have to be well rounded," Elway said. "I think we've moved closer to that. Seattle was a tremendous football team. But this is a new year and we've got to go out and we've got to play the best football that we can play, and do what we do best. And how the coordinators put our guys in the best situations to be successful and we'll create our own identity. I think if we continue to do that with the people that we have, we're going to be able to compete for a world championship."

"I think this is going to be a night and day defense from last year," Ware said. "You had guys that were hurt [last year], and have the opportunity to not have any holes in your defense … So I think the sky is the limit for us."

Jets camp report: Reporting day

July, 23, 2014
Jul 23
9:30
PM ET
CORTLAND, N.Y. -- A few hot topics from Wednesday at the New York Jets' training camp:

You can't have too many pass rushers: The Jets made a smart move, signing the well-traveled Jason Babin to a two-year contract -- assuming the money isn't ridiculous. Obviously, the 34-year-old Babin is on the downside of his career, but he led the Jacksonville Jaguars in two important categories last season -- sacks (7.5) and snaps among the defensive linemen (772). One of the Jets' goals this summer was to identify another edge rusher to add to Calvin Pace, Quinton Coples, etc. If healthy, Antwan Barnes would be that guy, but he's not close to returning from last year's knee surgery. Rex Ryan, explaining the importance of pass-rushing depth, mentioned two recent Super Bowl champions, the Seattle Seahawks and New York Giants. Yep, it's a copycat league. That the Jaguars cut Babin three months after giving him a $500,000 signing bonus is a bit curious, but that's hardly a concern for the Jets.

CJ2K is back: The most important development of the day, though not surprising, was Chris Johnson's proclamation that he's been cleared by Dr. James Andrews to participate in training camp. He spent the last month training in Orlando and showed up Wednesday in terrific shape, "flying" in the conditioning run, according to Ryan. I've said this before, and I'll say it again: Of all the new additions on offense, Johnson is the one with the potential to make the greatest impact. When healthy, he's one of the fastest running backs in the league, and the Jets need speed in the backfield.

Where have you gone, Joe McKnight?: Apparently, there are no McKnights on this season's roster. You might recall that McKnight started to play his way off the team last summer by flunking the mandatory conditioning run. This year, no one failed the test, according to Ryan. That, he said, never happened before in his head-coaching tenure. Presumably, this means the Jets reported to camp in tip-top shape. Barnes and guard Willie Colon (knee) passed the conditioning test, yet they still landed on the physically-unable-to-perform list. Don't worry about Colon; he's not that far away from being activated. Barnes? That could take some time.

The anti-Revis: Not that there was any doubt, but defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson did, in fact, report to camp, backing up previous statements in which he vowed not to stage a contract holdout. He said he never considered a holdout for a second, claiming he wouldn't be acting like a team leader if he pulled a no-show. Truth be told, he doesn't have much leverage to get a new contract, considering he's signed through 2015 and the daily fine would've been $30,000. But give him credit for taking the high road, trying to be a team player -- something Darrelle Revis never did in the past. Now we'll see if Wilkerson's anti-Revis approach has any sway with the powers-that-be.

Notes: Wilkerson is no holdout

July, 23, 2014
Jul 23
9:11
PM ET
CORTLAND, N.Y. -- New York Jets DE Muhammad Wilkerson arrived at the Jets facility this morning to take his conditioning test and make the trip to training camp despite ongoing negotiations toward a new contract.

There was some question whether he'd show up, if only because the Jets have had high-profile holdouts recently, notably former cornerback Darrelle Revis,

Wilkerson
"Holding out was never an option for me,” Wilkerson said. “I'm one of the leaders on this team. That wouldn't be a good thing to do. That's not the way a leader should lead his team. On the business side of things, everything will be handled when the time comes. Right now, if anybody has any other contract questions, I would say [Jets general manager] John Idzik is the man to ask."

Wilkerson, drafted in 2011, has two years left on his contract, making $1.2 million this year. Under the CBA, a player is subject to a $30,000-a-day fine if he stages a contract holdout.

At 6-foot-4 and 315 pounds, Wilkerson is one of the best players on the team and anchors what is considered a strong defensive line with players such as Sheldon Richardson. His compensation however, lags when compared to others at his level. The Panthers franchised Greg Hardy this year for a little over $13 million.

PUP talk: Jets coach Rex Ryan commented on the two players added to the PUP list early in the day, DL Antwan Barnes and OL Willie Colon, saying that he wasn’t concerned about their availability later on despite the tag.

“Well, Antwan will be on PUP right now; we are going to be smart with him,” Ryan said. “In fact he passed his conditioning test. Willie Colon also will be on PUP, and he passed his conditioning test. We’re just going to be smart and we’ll see how it plays out.”

Rain on a parade: The Jets opening pep rally in Cortland got off to a damp start. The bus of rookies arrived a half-hour behind schedule, and just after they arrived a lightning storm had cleared out a lot of the fans who had come to say hello. After the deluge, about 150 fans were still around to greet Ryan and the players who rode up on the buses. Ryan put a good face on it though, saying he would take the rain as a good omen.

Long haul: Training camp is one place where grown men making good bank have to room with each other like they’re back in college. Some tolerate it, some dislike it, but just about everybody has a roommate.

This year, LB David Harris and LB Calvin Pace are in a room, while QB Michael Vick and RB Chris Johnson will share space. Asked who he is rooming with, rookie S Calvin Pryor said he’s with a kicker. “I know, I was pretty surprised too,” Pryor said.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- So halfway through the New York Giants' training camp practice Wednesday, the whole team left the field, walked over into the field house and stood there for five minutes before coming back out and finishing practice.

Yes, it was odd.

What they told the fans as it was happening was that the team was going inside for a "cool-down break" and would return, which as I said it did. After the practice, coach Tom Coughlin confirmed that's what it was. He said that because four players had to leave Tuesday's practice due to issues with the heat, he promised he'd build a break into Wednesday's practice -- even though he didn't think it was as hot Wednesday.

"Today we had a breeze and we had cloud cover," said Coughlin, who stayed outside and talked to former Giant Shaun O'Hara instead of partaking in the shade himself. "But I said I was going to do it, so I did it."

Coughlin said he might keep doing it, in fact. Liked some things about it even other than the health benefits.

"If I keep it, it would be because of the heat we experienced [Tuesday], and there's nothing wrong with that," Coughlin said. "It gives them a sense of first half/second half. It gives them an opportunity to cool a little bit and come back ready to go. It gives me an opportunity, too, because after they've had the break they should be flying around."

For the record, not one Giants player left Wednesday's practice due to a heat issue. And all of those who left Tuesday's returned and practiced in full Wednesday.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider