What I learned at camp this summer
I always loved summer camp.
But bug juice has been replaced with cheeseburgers and brats from Curly's inside Lambeau Field and Doug’s Fish Fry in lovely Cortland, N.Y.
I try to make it a goal not to overreact to a day or two with NFL clubs in August, but here are my pressing takes, SCHEIN 9 style, on what I learned at summer camp.
1. The Packers offense will be the best in the NFL
Aaron Rodgers looks bigger than he did last year. When I talked to the quarterback at length, Rodgers said he learned a lot about leadership, accuracy and "availability to his team" from working with Drew Brees. The Packers' pass protection, the lone weakness of the offense, is going to be better with first-round pick Bryan Bulaga starting at left guard. And Rodgers said he spent the offseason pouring over film with Mike McCarthy, going over how he can do a better job getting rid of the ball quicker. He’ll be my preseason pick for league MVP this year.
The Packers have outstanding depth and talent 1-through-5 at receiver, highlighted by Greg Jennings and Donald Driver, but the biggest difference will be the presence of Jermichael Finley, who predicted he’d amass 1,200 receiving yards this year. Rodgers smiled when informed of that goal. Finley has that type of upside, especially now that he’s completely dedicated to football and not prone to off-field distractions.
McCarthy, for one, would love to be a bit more balanced on offense this year, which should equal 1,350 yards for the strong and steady Ryan Grant.
2. The Packers defense is more comfortable, even with key injuries
Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins was refreshingly candid when I asked him when the club finally felt comfortable last year in Dom Capers’ 3-4 defense. Collins said: “At earliest, I would say midseason.” It was a sentiment backed up by linebacker Nick Barnett later in the day. Not bad, considering the Packers finished second in the league on defense. But the Pack is collectively chapped about the late-season breakdowns against Pittsburgh and Arizona, with the later coming in the postseason.
Sure, Al Harris is hurt. So is Atari Bigby. Pro Bowler Aaron Kampman is no longer in Green Bay, though he clearly wasn’t a fit in Capers’ system. Johnny Jolly is suspended for the year. But this team now fully comprehends what the coordinator wants. Plus, Clay Matthews had a fantastic rookie season and isn’t worried about a minor hamstring injury. He’s only getting better. B.J. Raji held out last year, then got hurt. He’s a huge key to the Green Bay success. Tramon Williams filled in capably for Harris last year.
And whenever you have reigning Defensive Player of the Year Charles Woodson looming at the back end, you feel good.
3. The Packers special teams scare me
On a blazing hot Thursday morning, nobody felt the heat worse than Mason Crosby when the Packers kicker blew an easy kick. McCarthy screamed. The fans booed. And flashbacks to last season’s struggles came flooding back.
You saw my NFL on FOX video this offseason. I’m picking Green Bay to make the Super Bowl, but Crosby has to be better. McCarthy is personally involved in special teams meetings and thinks the issue on the coverage teams was simply holding penalties. The coach says the punting will be better.
4. Michael Vick impressed me
I’m on record. I’ll never get over what Vick did to those poor dogs. I wouldn’t want him on my team. I wouldn’t have batted an eye if Roger Goodell suspended him for life. I called for a lifetime ban.
For the sake of fairness, when I talked to Vick about how someone like me can’t get over the past, he didn’t go into excuse mode. Vick talked about how he has made changes in his life, how sorry he was for what happened and how he continues to speak to kids about how to avoid going down a similar path.
And Andy Reid told me he truly thinks Vick is a good person who was surrounded by people who led him down the wrong road.
On the field, don’t be surprised to see more of Vick this year for Philly, and don’t be surprised if this is his final year in Philly and he’s competing for a starting job somewhere next season.
I’ll never support Vick, but his approach, and the support of one of the great men and coaches in the NFL in Reid, went noted.
5. The Eagles linebackers are better than you think
Stewart Bradley’s back from ACL surgery that cost him his entire season last year and having a great camp. When the club let Brian Dawkins go last offseason, it was banking on Bradley becoming the pulse of the defense. That got flushed away early when he never even made it to the second week of camp. Joe Mays and company were subpar replacements. Bradley is an athletic freak with an instinct for making plays.
And Ernie Sims fills a major void at weak-side linebacker, a position that seemingly has been a revolving door for 10 years. Sims is a strong player, a great athlete and says he's reborn by joining an elite organization in the NFL after languishing in the environment of the rebuilding-since-1957 Detroit Lions.
6. Antonio Cromartie will become a star again
This isn’t an overreaction to an August visit with the Jets in lovely Cortland. My trip to Jets camp confirmed what I thought after Mike Tannenbaum pulled off the heist of trading for Cromartie this offseason.
Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine says no player on the Jets defense worked harder and studied more this offseason, and the maximum effort carried over to training camp. Cromartie’s teammates, most especially defensive leader Bart Scott, raved about how the former Pro Bowler is committed to getting back to that level. Rex Ryan raved to us about Cromartie’s tackling in camp. This is the same Cromartie who badly whiffed on a key tackle against Shonn Greene in the Jets' win over San Diego in the playoffs.
Cromartie felt the Chargers defense became too passive over the past few years. Pettine and Ryan put pressure on the quarterback. Darrelle Revis or no Darrelle Revis in the Jets secondary, watch Cromartie morph back into his 2007 form, when he picked off 10 passes.
7. LaDainian Tomlinson has more than a little something left
We interrupt the Shonn Greene hype to bring you this bold prediction: Tomlinson will have a bigger impact on the Jets this year.
Tomlinson dominated the Green and White scrimmage, hauling in a Mark Sanchez bomb. Look for L.T. to be on the field for every third down and become a weapon for the young quarterback catching it out of the backfield.
To the eye, Tomlinson looks spry. When I asked Ryan if L.T. lost a step, Rex said: “No way. And let’s say he did, for argument's sake. Let’s say he is a notch down from the Hall of Famer, one of the greatest to ever play. I’ll take that guy.”
Remember, Greene had a huge fumble against Miami last year and was last seen getting hurt in the AFC title game. And Tomlinson has a huge fan in his offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, reunited from their days together in San Diego.
8. The Saints unknown: Being the hunted
The Saints rightly celebrated a Super Bowl victory like nobody ever before. This win meant so much to New Orleans, to Louisiana, to the entire Gulf Coast region and the scores of diehard fans who never thought they’d see the day.
The Saints will tell you the leadership is there to regain focus. Sean Payton, Drew Brees and Jonathan Vilma are central cast members to the cause, but the mentality of 2010 represents unchartered territory for the Saints.
9. Remember the Giants
I like to ask players and staff to give me surprise picks for the upcoming season. The team people in the game think will bounce back and make the playoffs this year? How about the New York Giants, with individuals citing new defensive coordinator Perry Fewell and defensive newcomers Antrel Rolle and Keith Bulluck.