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7 Points: NFC North has interesting QBs, for once
Point 1: After years of boring quarterback matchups, the NFC North is going to be much more exciting to watch in 2009.
Prior to offseason moves, the NFC North's starting quarterbacks included Daunte Culpepper, Tarvaris Jackson, Kyle Orton and the one legitimate top-tier talent of the bunch, Aaron Rodgers. But then the Lions used the top pick in the 2009 NFL Draft to add Matthew Stafford. Orton headed to Denver in a trade that now gives Chicago a feisty and fun-to-watch Jay Cutler. And Brett Favre is on the verge of a return to the NFC North sporting a purple and white Vikings jersey.
Now that's entertainment.
Should Stafford get the nod as the starter in Detroit, he'll go through the same painful learning curve that even Peyton Manning struggled through during his rookie season. But that doesn't mean that he'll be any less interesting to watch.
Cutler will be playing with a chip on his shoulder after basically demanding a trade out of Denver. A truly good guy who is out of the Favre mold when it comes to his love for the game, Cutler knows that the best way to shed his recent public-relations problem is to be the type of quarterback that Chicago fans have been waiting for since Jim McMahon led the team to a lopsided victory in Super Bowl XX.
Too many people forget that last year was Aaron Rodgers' first year as a full-time starter in Green Bay, yet he managed to throw for 4,038 yards, fourth-best in the league behind Drew Brees, Kurt Warner and Cutler. He also finished fourth in touchdown passes with 28. Expect to see even more confidence and better results from Rodgers in 2009.
And in Minnesota, if Brett Favre and the Vikings seal their pact, he's the missing link that will complement the Vikings' powerful running game and dominating defense that will make the Vikings a Super Bowl contender unless head coach Brad Childress finds a way to screw it up.
Point 2: Chris Johnson is "Every Coach's Dream" and Tennessee's franchise running back.
The second-year Titans rusher mentioned to the media recently that he was divorcing himself from the "Slash and Dash" nickname that was adopted by him and LenDale White last year, opting for a stand-alone moniker of "Every Coach's Dream".
But actually, if you know Chris Johnson and have watched him play, it's appropriate. And to be brutally honest, White doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same breath with Johnson. He was the major presence in the backfield as a rookie that White is still aspiring to become.
Johnson, who garnered first-round recognition as a draft prospect out of East Carolina in 2008 with his speed and work ethic, rushed for 1,228 yards, averaging 4.9 yards per carry during his NFL debut season, scoring nine times in 15 contests. He was also a threat as a receiver, catching 43 balls for 260 yards and a touchdown.
But it's Johnson's explosiveness when he breaks free of the chaos at the line of scrimmage that makes him particularly dangerous. According to STATS Inc., he gained 10 yards or more 36 times last year, fourth-best in the NFL and tops in the AFC.
I don't blame Johnson for wanting to break free from White. They are like night and day when it comes to work ethic and possessing a well-rounded skill set. Johnson is the complete back who exudes a quiet confidence that he backs up with his on-the-field performance. White's career was rejuvenated a bit in 2008 largely due to the presence of the rookie, who often left the field after setting up a short-yardage touchdown run for the 235-pound back. But while White was popular with fantasy football owners due to his 15 touchdown runs, he only averaged 3.9 yards per carry on his 200 touches.
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"I just want my own nickname, that's all," Johnson told Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean. "At the end of the day, you mention all the great running backs, from Barry Sanders to Eric Dickerson, and you don't mention them as a group. You mention them as individuals but they are still team guys. I am a team guy, too."
With a year of experience under his belt, Johnson should see even more carries in 2009, minimizing White to primarily a short-yardage back. And whether or not head coach Jeff Fisher will publicly admit it or not, Johnson is the complete running back he's been dreaming about since the days of Eddie George.
Point 3: Tight end Ben Utecht says there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the Bengals offense this year.
Even though the Bengals finished last in total offense in 2008, the Cincinnati tight end shared his insights and excitement with me during a phone call this week.
"Things are looking good in Cincinnati," he said. "Everybody's healthy, and I think that one of our biggest downfalls last year was that we had 21 guys on injured reserve, and a lot of those guys were starters and big contributors."
Utecht, who was a Bengal for the first time in 2008 after four seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, was bitten by the injury bug as well.
"It was the toughest year so far for me as a player," he said. "I had three pretty serious injuries throughout the course of the season that took me out of half of the games. But I'm 100 percent healthy, practices have gone great and I'm really solid with the offense."
Utecht noted that the return of quarterback Carson Palmer will make the offense much more efficient. And although the team lost star receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh to the Seahawks via free agency, he thinks the wide receiver corps will be tough to cover.
"The team made a great choice when they brought in (Laveranues) Coles, an extremely hard-working player who's got great hands. He's a tough player, so he's going to bring a lot to this team," Utecht said. "Chris Henry is an amazing talent. A few years ago he had some off-the-field instances, but those have ceased and he's really gotten his act together. And man, I've got to tell you, he's been fun to watch."
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Of course, the wildcard of the group in more ways than one is Chad Ochocinco, a player who seems to be the polar opposite of the polite and humble tight end.
"I get along great with Chad," Utecht said. "I came into the weight room early one morning and we started listening to music together and it turns out he's got a bunch of classical music on his iPod. So before everyone got there, we listened to some Pavarotti on the team stereo system."
Say what? Ochocinco working out to Pavarotti? Maybe this is one Bengal who is sporting some different stripes in 2009 after all.
"One of the things I've seen different in him already this season is that he came in a week before minicamp with a different attitude, more about the team," Utecht said. "I think some of that has to do with him talking with Carson and really refocusing his mind and his goals for this year."
In Utecht, Reggie Kelly and rookie Chase Coffman, the team also has plenty of talent at the tight end position. But I told the former Colt that I thought the Bengals rushing attack was going to be the team's Achilles Heel this season with Cedric Benson leading the attack and not a lot of depth behind him.
That didn't dampen Utecht's enthusiasm one bit.
"I'm really excited about seeing what we can do on this team as far as the running game goes," he said. "We've made a lot of moves with personnel to put together a very strong offensive line.
"They brought Cedric in late in the game, but I've to tell you, he is really pouring it on. He was a huge talent coming out of college, and now that he's gotten his act straightened out, he's working real hard for the Bengals right now. Other people might be worried about it, but I'm not. I really think that Cedric is the guy we need to keep and put our trust in because he's a talented runner."
Point 4: If Seattle moves T.J. Houshmandzadeh into the slot in their three-wide receiver set, he's going to create big problems for opposing defenses.
There's been some talk about the former Bengal moving inside to the slot, with Nate Burleson and Deion Branch working the outside lanes when the team puts three wide receivers on the field. If that happens, defenses are going to be forced to defend the Seahawks' three-wide set a bit differently.
Houshmandzadeh presents a larger-than-usual target than the typical slot receiver. At 6-foot-1, 199 pounds and with his upper-body strength, he'll provide a more physical presence inside that will make him tough to bring down after the catch. And he made it clear during a recent media interview that he welcomes the opportunity.
"I love getting on the inside because you get more opportunities to get the ball, but you have to be smart and be able to read the coverage and see what the quarterback is seeing, but there are times where they can take you away inside and that's when you move outside," he said. "Wherever I can help the team and make plays, whether it be on the outside or whether it's in the slot, that's what I want to do."
While other successful slot receivers like New England's 5-foot-9, 185-pound Wes Welker rely largely on their quickness and speed to catch passes underneath the coverage, the new Seahawks receiver will be more easily seen amidst the congestion while running his inside routes, certainly capable of snatching a pass under the coverage or well beyond it to make a play. And that's why teams will have to cover Houshmandzadeh a bit differently than the typical slot receiver.
Point 5: If Denver trades Brandon Marshall, it's not going to lead to more forced defections by other players on the roster.
Back in mid-June, I went on record encouraging Broncos team owner Pat Bowlen to trade his star wide receiver.
"Bowlen would be wise to move Marshall now while he still has some perceived trade value. Because after Marshall's next screw-up, Denver's pool of potential trade partners will shrink even further," I said in this feature at Scout.com.
Since then, others have stated that, on the heels of bowing to Jay Cutler's will and trading him to Chicago, allowing Marshall out of Denver would be a devastating move that would send a message to the rest of the roster that they could demand a trade at will.
Cutler and Marshall have been unique situations. Name one other player who has the established star power, youth and potential to stage a coup of that magnitude in Denver. And it's really debatable whether or not Marshall even has that leverage after his plethora of off-the-field shenanigans that may reflect some deep emotional and maturity issues.
While Cutler may have bullied his way out of Denver, trading Marshall is a strategically smart move, and the Broncos can position it with the team that way once a deal is done and the trouble-magnet has packed his bags. They can make it clear that Marshall didn't force this deal, that they were averting a disaster by unloading a chronic problem player and an ongoing distraction to the team. The rest of the team may even release a collective sigh of relief, just as many of the Cowboys did after Terrell Owens was released.
Right now, Denver has to publicly state that they want to hold onto Marshall to protect whatever trade value remains. But as soon as another team is foolish enough to pony up a future first-round pick or a package of existing talent that includes a capable starter at wide receiver to bridge the team this year, the Broncos should take it and run.
Point 6: NFL fans should add Jim Wexell's Steeler Nation to their summer reading list.
Even sportswriters have favorite sportswriters and Jim Wexell is one of mine. But that's not why you should grab a copy of his book, Steeler Nation. You should get this book because it's written from a rare perspective about football players that will captivate you and will make you laugh out loud.
It's simply that good.
Wexell made the ultimate NFL road trip, traveling 10,000 miles on the highways and small-town roads of the country to talk to the relatives, coaches and friends of current and former Steelers players. He also caught up with Steelers fans along the way, trying to understand their unswerving loyalty to a team that was thousands of miles away from their current homes.
Through Wexell's notes of his adventure, you learn that linebacker James Harrison, one of 14 children, inherited some of his nasty attitude from his mother.
"You be nice to people and they take kindness as a weakness," she told the longtime Pittsburgh sportswriter and publisher of SteelCityInsider.com.
Wexell also talked with Hines Ward's best friend in Atlanta, who was one of the future Hall of Famer's rivals in junior high and high school.
"He never liked a mouthpiece, so you can always see that Cheshire-cat smile, and that just used to always irk me whenever I played against him," Clark Allen said. "Nothing good is coming out of the situation as long as he's smiling."
Read more excerpts about Troy Polamalu, Aaron Smith and former Steeler Greg Lloyd, at www.pittsburghsportspublishing.com and then order a copy. Any NFL fan will enjoy this book that Wexell proclaims to be "70 percent players, 20 percent fans, 10 percent gibberish."
Point 7: Linebacker Darry Beckwith is using a smart strategy as he strives to earn a roster spot with the San Diego Chargers.
The former LSU player was expected to be no worse than a mid-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft based on his field intelligence and his balanced skill set as a tackler and pass defender. But Beckwith's phone didn't ring with an offer from an NFL club until after the conclusion of the draft. It became evident that teams had concerns over his knee problems in his junior and senior year, even though he only missed two contests each year.
"That was the major issue was my knee. Even before the draft that was a concern," Beckwith told me this week. "I'm just glad the Chargers gave me the opportunity, because I know I'm very capable of playing in the NFL and being very successful. I'm 100 percent right now and looking forward to moving on and having a great career."
The 6-foot, 237-pound inside linebacker has buried his nose in the playbook. And he's latched onto a Chargers starter who has already walked the rocky path that Beckwith must travel to earn a roster spot linebacker Stephen Cooper, a seventh-year veteran out of the University of Maine who was undrafted back in 2003. But Cooper has started 28 games over the past two seasons.
"He's a technician. Everything he does as far as the drills is technique," Beckwith said. "That's the thing I will continue to learn, make sure you have your technique right. Everybody in this league is good, and some are better. So if you can get an edge on people with your technique, that will make you more successful."
Whether or not Beckwith earns a spot on the 53-man roster or the team's practice squad this year, he's a well-rounded talent and a mature, confident individual who has the potential to play in this league for years to come. And he fully understands the stakes as he approaches his first NFL training camp experience.
"There's no time for mistakes," he said. "They don't go back and say, 'Hey, re-do a play.' You've got to move forward and take advantage of the rare opportunity that you have."