Training Camp Opens and the Storylines are Plentiful

Training Camps from Wisconsin to Lehigh have either opened up or will be opening up shortly. The NFL season is upon us and so are the story lines. It is amazing that I am now busy 52 weeks a year covering the NFL. Old-timers used to tell me that the NFL was a 6 month league, where it shutdown in January and the spring and summer were quiet. Well I guess that was before sports talk radio, the internet age, draft hysteria, fantasy football, and any other any morsel related to the league that astute fans are consuming year round.

The Top 15 story lines that I will be following during training camp:

1. Michael Vick Dog Fighting Soap Opera – What started out as a minor distraction for the Falcons has now morphed into a national story that surrounds the entire NFL. Round one of the story was the indictment of Vick and three others on July 17th, which included gruesome allegations included in the indictment. This past week amidst protests by PETA and other animal rights groups, we had round two of the Vick dog fighting case as Commissioner Roger Goodell informed the star quarterback to not report to Falcons training camp. The Commissioner did the move so that he and special NFL investigative attorney Eric Holder could gather as much detail as possible regarding the case. The public also found out that Falcons owner Arthur Blank was also going to suspend him for 4 weeks for misconduct (Keyshawn rule), but the Commissioner told him to wait. The NFL is trying to ensure that they have covered all of their bases regarding the Vick case, before I believe they will issue the inevitable year long suspension that we know is coming. The NFL cannot afford to come down lightly on Vick despite him being only being charged and not convicted at the moment. The league has already set a precedent by suspending Pacman Jones for a year without a conviction and now you are talking about one of the games biggest stars. Vick, who pleaded not guilty in court on July 26th and is now awaiting a November 26th trial, would be best served to strike a deal with Blank on a leave of absence with pay, so he and his high powered attorney Billy Martin can concentrate on his court battles where he is facing six years in prison and fines of up to $350,000 dollars. If he doesn’t cooperate with Blank and the NFL, you could see Vick released ala Tank Johnson with Falcons eating $6 Million dollars in 2007 and $15 Million in 2008 on the salary cap. With all the Vick goings on, it has to make you wonder if the Falcons did the right thing trading valuable backup QB Matt Schaub to the Texans. BTW: Vick had to surrender is passport so the CFL is out of the question.

2. Larry Johnson’s Contract Situation – This is a situation that has carried on since the 2006 season ended and screams “buckle” yourself in. Unfortunately we are probably going to see a training camp holdout, because on one side of the table you have a small market franchise, who typically will not pay over the top for players and on the other side you have a 28 year old running back, who feels he deserves to get paid like NFL super back LT (21 Million Guaranteed). Johnson is a 2-time Pro Bowl player and is the physical down hill runner that Head Coach Herman Edwards loves. Edwards believes in grinding the clock and LJ is his sledgehammer. After a great season in which he set an NFL record with 416 carries and having healthy a 4.3 ypc average (1789 yards w/ 17TDs), you would think Johnson would be in the proverbial cat-bird seat. But the Chiefs really don’t seem that anxious to give into Johnson, because of his age, mileage, and he is already under contract for this year ($1.9 million broken down into $1.7 million base salary, plus a $200,000-plus for incentives achieved) with the possibility of them “franchising” him after the season. Johnson’s current deal is not “chump change”, but it is not LT money and he will not settle for less. The Chiefs believing that they need a happy Johnson have countered with an offer of guaranteed money somewhere between $11 and $14 million, which is on the level of the bonus money paid to Seattle’s Shaun Alexander, who received $13.5 million worth of guaranteed money in 2006. I believe that the Hunt family and GM Carl Peterson will be content to let Johnson wait around until he comes to his senses. Johnson stands to lose more than $111,000 per game and the Chiefs could also opt to fine him $14,000 for each day he is not at training camp and pursue a pro-rated portion of his initial signing bonus that could amount to as much as $660,000. With the team already have Michael Bennett and the recently recovered Priest Holmes on the roster, there really is no immediate need for the Chiefs to pursue Johnson like there is no tomorrow. We will have to wait and see who blink first in this million-dollar poker game.

3. Other Unhappy Veterans and Possible Holdouts – One thing is for certain in the NFL when one player gets a shiny new contract five other players at his position are saying they deserve equal or more, because they are better players. I have found most players talk tough about holding out until the prospect fines (up to $14,000 daily) for missing camp and missed game checks come into play. If a player does hold out usually they report before Week 10, because that is the cut off for receiving credit for a season in the NFL’s free agent system. Last year we saw former Patriots WR Deion Branch holdout until Sept. 11th when he was traded to the Seahawks (Missed out on 1 game check of $65,625 dollars and had to pay fines for missing training camp). One player that has been extremely vocal about his displeasure with his current contract is Pittsburgh Steelers Pro Bowl G Alan Faneca. Faneca recently watched as lesser players like Leonard Davis (Cowboys – seven-year, $49.6 million w/ 18.75 Million guaranteed) hauled in large signing bonuses while he has been embattled with the Steelers. With the Steelers signing S Troy Polamalu to four-year extension worth $30.19 million that makes him the highest-paid player in team history , don’t for Faneca to get a new deal anytime soon. (Other holdout candidates: Jets G Pete Kendall, Giants DE Michael Strahan, Bills DT Darwin Walker, and others)

4. Injury Comebacks – The NFL is a league where having good health on your roster is paramount. For injured players whose teams went on without them last season, they know that training camp is the best place to show their coaches and teammates that they are ready to contribute again. One of the bigger player comeback stories is Cleveland Browns C LeCharles Bentley (Knee). After coming over to his home town team, Bentley who was 2006 top free agent tore his patellar tendon during 2006 training camp and had to endure four surgeries including several to battle a staph infection. Bentley recently got the go ahead from his doctors that he could play again and it ended a long and arduous path that almost ended his career. If healthy, Bentley will be asked to anchor a remade O-Line that needs to get 2007 free agent RB Jamal Lewis going. The Browns will take Bentley’s re-entry into the lineup slowly (no contact until September), but here’s hoping the story ends well for him. Other training camp injury comebacks include Detroit Lions RB Kevin Jones (Foot – Lisfranc), Dallas Cowboys LB/DE Greg Ellis (Torn Achilles), Carolina Panthers LT Travelle Wharton (Knee), Seattle Seahawks RB Shaun Alexander (Foot), Randy Moss (Ego) and others.

5. “Franchised” Players – The NFL’s version of “Decision Day” took place on July 16th as players that were ‘franchised’ needed to decide if they want to accept their 1 –year offers or not. If a player failed to sign a long-term contract extension by that date, NFL rules stipulated that the only deal a franchise-tagged player could sign was the tender offer from their own club. The contract tender is a minimum of the average of the top five salaries at the player’s position as of April. In the past we have seen franchised players miss all non-mandatory off season training activities and report late or holdout of training camp (ex. Seattle Seahawks Offensive Tackle Walter Jones in 2004 & 2005). This year’s list of franchised players was led by all-world DE Dwight Freeney of the Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts. The Colts and Freeney avoided a holdout by signing him to a six-year, $72 million contract that includes a NFL Record $30 million signing bonus. Freeney did well working with the franchise tag, but two other players Chicago Bears OLB Lance Briggs and New England Patriots CB Ashante Samuel (Tied for NFL lead in INTs with 10) are still trying to work with their teams while being franchised. Briggs decided that he wanted to be in camp and signed his 1 –year deal worth 7.2 Million including stipulations that the Bears could not tag him again if he reaches certain incentives (75 percent of the team’s defensive snaps). Samuel has been offered the franchised amount (1 yr, $7.79 million), but remains unsigned and wants a contract similar to 49ers F\A signee CB Nate Clements, who signed a $80 Million Dollar deal with a 20 Million plus signing bonus. He may be in for a long battle as the Patriots seem willing to wait him out. Other franchised player Lions DT Cory Redding will be in Lions training camp after signing a seven-year, $49 million deal including $16 million guaranteed.

6. Donovan McNabb’s Comeback Story – Everywhere that I go Eagles fans want to know will McNabb be healthy and ready this season. Too often I have been hearing impatient whispers that McNabb is washed up after being hurt 3 out of the last 5 years, ending two on I/R. Unfortunately for McNabb the NFL is a “what have you done for me lately” league, where people forget 2647 yards and 18 TD’s in 10 games in 2006 too easily. Even after 104 games, 22,080 yards passing and 152 TDs with the Eagles, his career with the franchise is on the line. He is above the Birds’ magical 30 year old mark, he has an injury history, and the Eagles drafted “quarterback in waiting” Kevin Kolb (Signed to four-year contract that included $2.62 million worth of guaranteed money). No one has a crystal ball, but I have a feeling that McNabb will answer his critics and he should have a lot of help from RB Brian Westbrook who now seems to be the focal point of the Eagles new “Ground Marty” game plan, but Big 5 needs to stay healthy for the entire season.

7. Rookie Holdouts – The annual “last rookie into camp” watch starts once again as teams report to training camp. Most rookies cannot afford to miss large amounts of time in camp, because the learning curve is very steep going from college to the pros. Slotting definitely is a big factor as no player wants to sign before a player in front of him, but contracts usually come in around 10% higher than the previous year’s similar draft spot. We have seen in past rookies like Akilli Smith never recover from lost time in training camp. Last year Eagles DT Broderick Bunkley never seemed to get out of the team’s doghouse for missing the first two weeks of training camp. With the Browns signing 3rd overall pick Joe Thomas OT from Wisconsin to 6-year deal on July 26th, maybe more draft picks will sign and be in camp on time. As of July 27th picks JaMarcus Russell (Raiders, 1st Overall), Calvin Johnson (Detroit – 2), Levi Brown (Cardinals – 5), LaRon Landry (Washington – 6), Adrian Peterson (Minnesota – 7), Patrick Willis (49ers – 11), Darrell Revis (NYJ – 14), Justin Harrell (Green Bay – 16), Jarvis Moss (Denver -17), Leon Hall (Bengals – 18), Brady Quinn (Browns – 22), and Jon Beason (Panthers – 25) remain unsigned. Quinn, who’s agent is Tom Condon seems to be the most logical choice among media and fans as a possible lengthy contract holdout victim. Quinn is rumored to be asking for a contract and signing bonus similar to higher drafted quarterbacks and not what his No. 22 pick slotting usually pays (Ben Roethlisberger’s 2004 11th overall pick deal seems their starting point: six-year contract worth $22.26 million in salaries and bonuses, with an additional $17.73 million in incentives).

8. Should the Patriots Already be Hoisting the Lombardi Trophy – Throughout the entire off-season, I have had one prevailing thought, the Patriots returning from the sour taste of losing to their archrival the Colts and watching them win the Super Bowl, are loading up. In what maybe New England Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick’s last season (Has two years and $8 million remaining), Owner Robert Kraft and Personnel Head Scott Pioli have gathered an influx of scary talent (WR Randy Moss, WR Donte Stallworth, WR/KR Wes Welker, DB Tory James, TE Kyle Brady and others) to an already talented Patriots roster. With Tom Brady throwing to additions Moss, Welker, Stallworth, and Kelly Washington instead of underachievers Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell the Patriots offense will be explosive. The only two apprehensions I have is whether the core of the Patriots defense (LB Bruschi, LB Vrabel, S Harrison, LB Seau, LB Chad Brown) are too old to last through the grind of an NFL season including the playoffs and if malcontents Moss and troubled draftee S Brandon Merriweather can fit in and behave in the locker room.

9. When will Pacman Jones Resurface? – The NFL’s poster player for continued misconduct has been suspended for the entire 2007 season. “Hang’em High” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell already denied Titans cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones’ request to join his teammates in training camp and you can almost book it that the reduction language (10 games for good behavior) was just a misnomer and Pacman will not be seen until 2008. He has been arrested a total of six times since being drafted including recently being charged with two counts of felony coercion stemming from a Las Vegas strip club fight on NBA All-Star weekend, which left a man paralyzed. The Las Vegas case is one of three still pending on Jones, including charges in Georgia and Tennessee. Titans coach Jeff Fisher said, “We’ve moved on. We’re looking forward to filling the holes. We feel like we’ve done so with the roster. Now we need to do so with production on the field.” Look for the Titans to leave Jones on their roster and try to recoup the 2007 portion of Pacman’s signing bonus (approximately $1.9 million) in signing bonus.

10. Who will the surprise team be? – Whenever I touch base with my readers, they always want to know if there’s a team in the NFL that’s going to surprise everyone like the Jets and Saints did in 2006. The Jets went from 4-12 to 10-6 making the playoffs as a Wildcard team and the Saints had the best turnaround going from 3-13 to 10-6 including winning the NFC South division. To be a surprise team you definitely would have had a .500 or lower record from the year before. A safe bet will be that the “surprise” team will come from the NFC as in the past three years 13 of the NFC’s 16 teams have made the playoffs at least once. That shows that the NFC is wide open and teams move up and down each year more than the AFC, which we know features dominant teams the Patriots, Steelers, Colts, Ravens, Colts and Chargers. The first thing I like to look at when deciding who can jump from the pack of mediocrity is schedule. An easy schedule during the regular season is a key component to a turnaround season as we saw last year with the Jets, who only beat one winning team (Patriots). If that is the case then the Cardinals, who have historically been underachievers have a good chance in 2007 with an opponents wining percentage of 46%. The other factor I like to look at is how a re-building or young team did in the draft adding to their nucleus. The up and coming teams that I thought did the best in the drafter were the 8-8 Carolina Panthers (Added LB Beason, WR Jarrett, C Ryan Kalil and others) and the 7-9 San Francisco 49ers (Added OT Joe Staley, LB Patrick Willis, and others) With that said I will throw the 49ers, Cardinals, Panthers, and AFC team the Steelers (8-8 in 2006) in as my teams that will surprise in 2007.

11. Will this be the year that Brett Favre finally says goodbye to the NFL? – I know better to try and predict what the most unpredictable player in the NFL’s future will hold, but I do know that Favre has not endeared himself to Packers GM Ted Thompson and Head Coach Mike McCarthy by waiting until the last minute in 2006 to say he was coming to training camp. Entering 2007, Favre, who is fully recovered from ankle surgery, looks like he and the Packers have a chance to get back in the thick of things in the NFC North. The Pack had 4 game winning streak to end the 2006 season with Favre throwing a career high 613 passes with 18 TDs and 18 INTs. The key to Favre wanting to continue to play is the Packers establishing a running game and their young O-Line protecting the 38 year old quarterback (237 Consecutive Starts). With Ahmad Green leaving for the Texans, the running game will be manned by RB Vernard Morency and Rookie RB Brandon Jackson. The combination is unproven so I am sure pressure will be placed on Favre to force passes into his non-descript receiving core. My feeling is Favre will know by game 10 whether this team is as talented as he says they are and if they have a chance to contend. By that point I believe he will realize that this team is still two or three years away from contention and call it quits at the end of 2007, but who knows I could be wrong again about #4.

12. Where will Daunte Culpepper Land? – After being released by the Dolphins on July 16th , I figured that at least three teams (Falcons, Ravens, and Jaguars) would be lined up to sign this two-time Pro Bowl quarterback. In the past few days each of those teams have given their own reason for not signing Culpepper. The Jaguars long rumored to signing Culpepper have decided that Byron Leftwich, David Garrard, and other quarterbacks that they have in camp are enough. I thought the Falcons coming off the Michael Vick case would take a look at Culpepper, but they as well are content with their group led by Joey Harrington. With those teams leaving the running for Culpepper, the prospects of him getting a shot to be a starter this season are getting slimmer. The Buccaneers have had Culpepper in for a visit, but I believe that is more of John Gruden’s obsession with quarterbacks than them having a legitimate job for him. I think the best bet for Culpepper will be to sit out until the end of training camp and into the regular season to see the health of other quarterbacks around the league. You never know who is going to be injured and thus an opportunity will present itself. However It is hard for me to believe that no team is willing to sign a player, who has achieve 40 combined TD’s (running and passing) in a season twice to a veteran minimum contract. The fact that he is his own agent, that he may still not be recovered from his 2005 knee injury (ACL, PCL, MCL) and that he has a blog that routinely leaks information may also be reasons why teams are backing off.

13. Who is my breakout player? – Whenever a fantasy football player or a fan looking for the next big thing asks me “who is next”, I point to Atlanta Falcons 2-year RB Jerious Norwood. Norwood reportedly has bulked up in the off-season (5-11, 220) so he can stay on the field longer. As a rookie out of Mississippi State Norwood exceeded everyone’s expectations by tallying two 100-yard games and averaging over six yards per carry. He possesses a dazzling combination of speed and quickness and has the big-play ability where he can take it to the house early and often. He was a three-year starter at MSU where he tallied 3,760 all-purpose yards ranking him third in school history and he holds the school’s career-record rushing record with 3,222 yards on 573 carries (5.6 avg) with fifteen touchdowns. With Warrick Dunn being shelved by neck surgery and Michael Vick tied up in his mess look for new Falcons Head Coach Bobby Petrino to lean on Norwood early and often.

14. Will the Cowboys take care of Tony Romo? – After a magical 2006 season where he passed for 2903 yards with 19 TDs and went to the Pro Bowl after starting the season as an unknown from Eastern Illinois, Romo is back and looking for his payday. The nation (Jessica Simpson an /or Carrie Underwood) fell in love with the 27 year old phenom, but going into his second season as a starter some are questioning is he the real deal. Romo struggled in his last two regular season games losing on Christmas Day to the Eagles and losing to the basement dwelling Lions to end the season and let’s not even bring up the playoff loss to the Seahawks, which feature Romo bobbling a game winning field goal snap. Since last season ended, Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys have hoped to hammer out a contract extension, however they have never gotten past the talking stage. Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones seems ready to sign Romo, but the question is will it be at Romo’s Agent Tom Condon’s price. Condon just got Rams QB Marc Bulger a 6-year, $65 Million Dollar extension with $29 Million guaranteed. I am not sure that I would invest that kind of money in a player, who could just be a flash in the pan. With those kind of numbers out there expect Jones to let Romo play out his current contract that pays him $ 3.9 Million this year. You cannot blame him as we have seen many quarterbacks rise quickly and fall just as fast in recent NFL seasons. Plus I am sure the NFL will now want to see what Romo is made of as defensive coordinators have studied the way Eagles Defensive Coordinator Jim Johnson defended and put pressure on Romo in the Eagles 23-7 shellacking last December

15. Coaches on the Hot seat – Every year certain coaches and their teams know that the head man better get off to a good start and win or it will be curtains. With Super Bowl Champion coach Bill Cowher lurking in the weeds, coaches in tenuous situations better watch their back. Any coach on a hot seat list must start with Browns 3rd year Head Coach Romeo Crennel. Crennel came from a winning background in New England, but he has yet to add any of the Patriots magic to the hapless Browns. His record stands at 10-22 and GM Phil Savage and Owner Randy Lerner have given a win or leave ultimatum. In Crennel’s defense he has had to battle injuries and ineffective play at the quarterback position. Two other coaches that have experienced some playoff wins, but are now on the hot seat for not living up to expectations are Carolina Panthers Head Coach John Fox and New York Giants Head Coach Tom Coughlin. Fox needs to get his aging team back to the playoffs after failing to post a winning season in 2006 (8-8) and Coughlin must silence a combustible group, who is missing their leader with the retirement of Tiki Barber. Also keep your eye on Tennessee as Titans Head Coach Jeff Fisher coming off an improbable 8-8 record in 2006 is entering the final year of his contract. Most expect Fisher to sign a new deal, but you never know if he has had his fill of the Titans after 13 seasons and possible plum opening at the end of the season. Also keep an eye on the Washington Redskins as there have been rumors of Joe Gibbs leaving after 3 disappointing seasons since unretiring in 2004.

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One Response

  1. Generally I do not post comments on a person’s blog, but I’d just like to say that this article has forced me to do so! Thanks for your insightful post.

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