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ProFootballTalk: Smith wants to see consistency in Dallas
In a loaded NFC West, the St. Louis Rams have been quietly going about their business. The Rams have watched their division rivals deal with season-ending injuries (Darnell Dockett, Kendall Hunter), contract disputes (Marshawn Lynch, Alex Boone) and off-field issues (Aldon Smith, Daryl Washington).
Outside of the loss of reserve running back Isaiah Pead, the Rams have been steadily preparing for the start of the season without many bumps in the road.
St. Louis has won seven games in each of the last two seasons under head coach Jeff Fisher. Here are five questions that will determine if the Rams will improve that total this year.
1. Can Sam Bradford finally put it all together?
Sam Bradford is entering his fifth NFL season and last under his rookie contract with the Rams. He’s healthy once again after a knee injury last season. The Rams receiving corps appears to be the most talented group of Bradford’s tenure and the offensive line no longer appears to be a significant liability.
It’s now time to see if Bradford can live up to the lofty expectations of a former No. 1 overall draft pick and guide the Rams to the postseason for the first time since 2004.
Bradford had completed 61 percent of his passes last season with a 14-4 touchdown to interception ratio in seven games before going down with a torn ACL. It was a promising sign that Bradford may still have it in him.
2. Just how good can the Rams front seven be?
Robert Quinn and Chris Long combined for 27.5 sacks last season for St. Louis. Michael Brockers added 5.5 sacks from the defensive tackle position and the team went out and added Aaron Donald with second of two first-round draft picks. With William Hayes, Eugene Sims and Kendall Langford still as rotational players, the Rams defensive line could be one of the league’s most formidable units.
Add in James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree at linebacker and the front seven for St. Louis looks like the strength of the team. Is it enough to vault the Rams defense into the conversation of the league’s best? That will rely on the answer to our next question.
3. Will secondary play be St. Louis’ Achilles heel?
As strong as the front seven is for the Rams, the secondary has its question marks. With Cortland Finnegan gone, the Rams are relying on Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson to take hold of the starting jobs at cornerback. At safety, Rodney McLeod and T.J. McDonald were shaky at times last year too.
Rookies Lamarcus Joyner at cornerback and Mo Alexander at safety could help stabilize the back-end of the defense. The dominant pass rush should give the secondary a hand as well by putting repeated pressure on opposing quarterbacks. However, the Rams defense will likely only reach its ceiling if the play from the secondary can be adequate.
4. Do the Rams finally have a competent receiving corps?
The Rams have thrown draft pick, after draft pick, after draft pick at the receiver position in hopes of improving a group that has been perpetually lacking in St. Louis. Five receivers have been selected in the first four rounds in the last three years: Tavon Austin (1st round, 2013), Stedman Bailey (3rd round, 2013) Austin Pettis (3rd round, 2011), Brian Quick (2nd round, 2012) and Chris Givens (4th round, 2012). They also signed former Tennessee first round pick Kenny Britt this offseason.
Finally, the group may be good enough to give Sam Bradford the weapons he needs offensively. Austin caught 40 passes as a rookie to lead the Rams receivers. Britt looks to restart his career after a disappointing season where he fell out of favor in Tennessee. Quick, Givens, Pettis and Bailey give St. Louis capable depth.
A strong year from the receiving corps could help get the Rams over the hump.
5. Can Michael Sam make the roster and can he contribute if he does?
As detailed earlier, the Rams defensive line is loaded with star talent and quality depth. It makes it a difficult task for Michael Sam, a seventh-round pick out of Missouri attempting to become the first openly gay player to make an active NFL roster, to earn his way onto the squad.
Sam has held his own and picked up a sack last week against the Green Bay Packers. The battle for the final roster spot along the defensive line appears to be between Sam, Sammy Brown, Matt Conrath and Ethan Westbrooks. If he doesn’t make the final 53-man roster, the Rams could put Sam on their practice squad to develop.
If he does make the roster, Sam will likely be a deep reserve option only at the outset unless he can find his way onto the field in a special teams role.
With Andy Dalton taken care of, the Bengals are moving on to other business.
The next in line is weakside linebacker, who has agreed to a multi-year extension with the team, according to Adam Caplan of ESPN. Adam Schefter says it’s a four-year, $20 million deal, with $7.6 million this year.
He was entering the final year of his contract, but would have been a restricted free agent next year.
While many were scared off of Burfict before the draft because of off-field concerns, the Bengals rolled the dice and found a consistent performer after signing him as an undrafted rookie in 2012.
Now he’s been rewarded, and they continue to lock up the core of a good, young team.
The Falcons haven’t had running back Steven Jackson on the practice field in almost a month because of a hamstring injury suffered early in camp, but one of the remaining Hard Knocks episodes may feature the veteran’s return to practice.
Coach Mike Smith said Wednesday that Jackson has stepped up his rehab work with the team’s trainers and could be ready to take the next step and practice with his teammates soon. Smith even left open the possibility that Jackson could play in the team’s final preseason game.
“We are encouraged by what he has done over on that side with athletic performance,” Jackson said, via the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “It’s going to depend on the individual in terms of how he feels and once the doctor gives him the clear to go, then he will go.”
The Falcons generally haven’t played starters in the final preseason game and Smith said Jackson was on track to play in the regular season opener, so it might prove to be more risk than reward to get Jackson snaps in the preseason.
The Cardinals aren’t done trying to bolster their defensive line.
The 30-year-old McBean hasn’t seen the field in a regular-season game since 2011, when he played all 16 games for the Broncos. In 2012 he signed with the Ravens in the offseason but didn’t play for them in the regular season.
The Cardinals have been trying to beef up their defensive line since losing Darnell Dockett to a torn ACL. Sopoaga and McBean may provide some veteran depth, but neither player will come close to making up for the loss of Dockett.
If at first you don’t succeed, try to find a defensive tackle who played on the other end of Pennsylvania.
Sopoaga had a long run with the 49ers, and was an early free agent pickup by the Eagles last year. But he didn’t make it through the season, making an appearance with the Patriots as well.
The 32-year-old is more of a nose tackle, and not a comparable player to Darnell Dockett, who was lost to a torn ACL.
The Cardinals tried to bring longtime Pittsburgh defensive end Brett Keisel in before he signed to return to the Steelers.
Word from Denver was that wide receiver Jordan Norwood had done enough this summer to have a firm grip on a roster spot as the team’s punt returner and sixth wideout, but that status changed on Wednesday.
Norwood injured his left knee while running a pattern during the team’s joint practice with the Texans and Mike Klis of the Denver Post reports that Norwood has suffered a torn ACL. If that becomes a confirmed diagnosis, Norwood won’t play this season.
Norwood didn’t play in the NFL last season and played 16 games for the Browns in 2011 and 2012 before a foot injury knocked him out in his final year with the Browns. He caught 36 passes for 405 yards and a touchdown. He had four catches for 54 yards and two punt returns for 37 yards for the Broncos in their first two preseason games.
If Norwood’s out of the picture, undrafted rookie Isaiah Burse could have an improved chance to make the team as he’s also seen time on punt returns. The Broncos could also opt to use Wes Welker or look at other options, however, so Burse will have to impress if given more opportunities in the wake of Norwood’s injury.
The Bengals are about to get one of their best players back on the field.
According to Coley Harvey of ESPN.com, defensive tackle Geno Atkins is scheduled to play a few series Sunday against the Cardinals.
Atkins, who tore his ACL on Oct. 31, was activated from PUP at the start of camp but didn’t play in the first two games.
“Having him back’s a huge deal for us,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “It’s good to see him back. It definitely means a big deal to us.
“I’m sure he’s ready to get back and get his confidence up. I’m sure he’s anxious to get back in there and play with the guys.”
Atkins was off to another great start last year, with 6.0 sacks before going down with the knee injury in Week Nine. Getting him back will obviously be a big boost for the Bengals defense, as few players can create the kind of interior push Atkins can when he’s well.
Tom Pelissero of USA Today reports that the Rams have waived-injured Pead on Wednesday. Should Pead clear waivers, he can revert to the Rams and go on injured reserve for the entire season or reach an injury settlement that makes him a free agent.
With 17 carries for 75 yards and 14 catches for 94 yards, Pead hasn’t lived up to what the Rams hoped they’d be getting when they made him the 58th overall pick in the 2012 draft. He was highly regarded coming out of Cincinnati, though, so there may be another team willing to roll the dice on a player who is signed to his rookie contract through next season.
With Pead out of the picture, rookie Tre Mason and Benny Cunningham are behind Zac Stacy on the running back depth chart with the Rams. Things probably wouldn’t have looked much different if Pead had remained healthy, so he may not have much of a future in St. Louis even if he does clear waivers.
A medical evaluation given to Bills quarterback Jim Kelly on Tuesday found “no evidence” of cancer, a doctor at the Manhattan hospital where Kelly has been treated said Wednesday afternoon.
“The great news is that upon physical examination, there is no evidence of the cancer,” said Dr. Peter Costantino, the executive director of the New York Head and Neck Institute at Lenox Hill Hospital, in a statement issued by the hospital. (A hat tip to ESPN’s Mike Rodak for pointing this out.)
Kelly has been battling oral cancer and underwent chemotherapy earlier this year. According to the hospital, Kelly will continue to be evaluated and will undergo more tests.
“It is possible that no further treatment will be required, and the testing over the next week will define this issue,” Costantino said.
Surgery and “highly focused” radiation treatment would be options for Kelly if needed, the hospital said.
Kelly has responded well to the care he’s received, Costantino said.
“The treatments so far have completely eliminated Mr. Kelly’s pain and his level of function has essentially returned to normal,” Costantino said.
The 54-year-old Kelly was able to attend the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony for teammate Andre Reed earlier this month.
The sight of ice bucket challenges has become common across NFL training camps, but in Tennessee, it had a little more meaning Wednesday.
Former Titans linebacker Tim Shaw was there for it, a day after announcing he had been diagnosed with ALS in April.
“I would never say I am not afraid of anything,” Shaw said, via Jim Wyatt of the Tennesseean. “If you look at what ALS has done to people, that is a scary process. So I am not scared to die, but the process is a little daunting.”
The 30-year-old Shaw was visibly emotional while describing the process, as he said he could tell he was losing athletic ability and his muscles were twitching long before the diagnosis, which he called: “the hardest thing I’ve ever had to hear.”
“Every thought runs through your mind, but as a man you have a choice,” Shaw said. “What are you going to do? Are you going to stand up and fight for your life? Or are you going to accept what someone else tells you is reality and just fade away? As staggering as that news was and as shocking as it was to hear and to say, I made that choice to stand up and live life to the fullest like I believe I always have.”
Along with former Saints safety Steve Gleason, that’s the kind of face ALS needs, to inspire others to fight one of the most despicable diseases known to man.
Well, this is interesting.
Earlier Wednesday, the Eagles said they were waiving Fluellen, a Toledo product. And the Colts, for their part, had announced Tuesday evening they would be parting ways with Parkey, who played collegiately at Auburn.
In the end, both clubs struck a deal rather than placing the players on waivers.
And in the end, it might be a good fit for both players, especially Parkey, who will have a chance to compete with Alex Henery, whose performance reportedly has come under some scrutiny.
On Tuesday, special teams coordinator Dave Fipp indicated the club would be evaluating both Henery and other potential kicking competitors, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“All options are available. We’ll look at everybody, and we’ll continue to watch Al. The biggest thing is we hope to get Al a bunch of work in these next two games, and we’ll find out,” Fipp said, per the Inquirer.
Fluellen joins a crowded backfield in Indianapolis, which has six healthy tailbacks on the roster. However, the Colts liked him enough to trade for him as opposed to hoping he could be landed on waivers.
The Browns officially named Brian Hoyer their starting quarterback for the first week of the regular season on Wednesday, leaving first-round pick and 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel to serve as the No. 2 quarterback to start his first year in the NFL.
Browns coach Mike Pettine said, via Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, that Manziel reacted “as expected” because he’s “a competitor.” He also said that he didn’t question Manziel’s dedication to the game after an offseason that had some wondering whether Manziel’s fondness for the good life would have the Browns doing just that.
For his part, Manziel said he felt he got a fair opportunity to win the starting job and that “I don’t feel like I would’ve gone back and done anything differently” over the last few months. Instead, he put the focus on his own performance and said he didn’t “necessarily” feel like he was ready to get the nod from Pettine.
“If I would’ve come out and played better, I think it would’ve been a different outcome,” Manziel said.
It’s probably a fair assessment of the situation. Hoyer didn’t set the world on fire this summer, so it’s hard to feel that all of the rolled up dollar bills, drinking on inflatable swans and extended middle fingers in the world would have stopped Manziel from getting to the top of the depth chart if he’d been the clearly superior player on the field.
We now know that Brian Hoyer will start Week One for the Browns. We don’t know how long beyond Week One he’ll keep the job.
The hot spot seems to be Week Five, after Cleveland opens against Pittsburgh, New Orleans, and Baltimore — and then has a Week Four bye. After the Sunday off, owner Jimmy Haslam takes his football team back to his home state of Tennessee.
Which could coincide with Haslam bringing his new car out of the garage and showing it off.
Provide your own answer below, and join Kevin Gilbride, Ross Tucker, and yours truly at 6:00 p.m. ET to see what everyone thinks.
We’ll also address five questions regarding offensive line play, and we’ll play the “Analyze This” game with recent comments from J.J. Watt and Tony Gonzalez.
The Bills were dealt a heavy blow this summer when linebacker Kiko Alonso tore his ACL while working out before training camp.
That injury will keep Alonso out for the entire season and the Bills announced Wednesday that he’ll have some company in the linebacker section of injured reserve. They have placed Stevenson Sylvester on injured reserve because of what Mike Rodak of ESPN.com reports is a torn patella tendon.
Sylvester, who spent the last four years with the Steelers, signed with the Bills in July after Alonso was hurt and was part of the mix of players looking for snaps at outside linebacker.
Nigel Bradham, another one of those players and the one pencilled into Alonso’s spot in the starting lineup, will serve a suspension in the first week of the regular season. With Sylvester out of the picture as a possible replacement, Preston Brown is the likeliest candidate to be in the starting lineup against the Bears come September 7.
While Lions defensive tackle Nick Fairley has lost his starting job, one of the club’s stars still has hope he can find his way.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, fellow defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh indicated Fairley’s skill set remains strong — and that now is the time to show it.
“I haven’t said this a lot or to many people, more or less, but Nick is more athletically gifted than me, and he has an opportunity to be better than me, and that’s what I want to see out of him,” Suh said Wednesday, according to Ashley Dunkak of CBS Detroit.
The Lions’ 2011 first round pick, Fairley has shown intriguing ability in his NFL career. He recorded a half-dozen sacks a season ago — an impressive total for an interior lineman.
However, it’s clear Fairley still has something to prove to the Lions. The club didn’t exercise an option to extend his contract through 2015, and he was demoted from the starting lineup last week in favor of C.J. Mosley.
According to CBS Detroit, Fairley told reporters Wednesday he wants to shed 10 pounds from his current weight of 315. He also indicated he believes he’ll be starting by the regular season opener vs. the Giants.
Fairley said Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin wants him to “play consistent.”
“That’s just something I’ve got to do this season,” Fairley said, per CBS Detroit.
And time is of the essence for Fairley, with unrestricted free agency around the corner.