Patriots coach Bill Belichick is renowned for his ability to challenge his team early in training camp and motivate his players to prepare for the upcoming season. It remains to be seen what message he will attempt to use to light a fire under his team, but Belichick isn't without concerns as training camp approaches.
His No. 1 obstacle is overcoming the loss of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, and creating stability with the re-organized coaching staff. That staff will have the league's best talent to work with, but that likely will not include two long-time Patriots stars in free agent cornerback Ty Law and linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who is expected to sit out the season following a stroke.
Of course, Belichick and the Patriots front office had a very strong offseason in which they brought in a slew of talented players to add depth and help soften the blow if Law and/or Bruschi are not with the team this season.
Where Belichick saw a hole, he seemed to add five players to help fill it. That's a luxury rebuilding teams like San Francisco don't have.
New 49ers coach Mike Nolan has to figure out who is part of the future and who is in the starting lineup, much less who the backups and the backups' backups will be. He has a rookie quarterback in Alex Smith who, if he begins the season as a starter, will play behind a very questionable offensive line. And it's not certain who he would hand off to -- underachiever Kevan Barlow or rookie Frank Gore -- or who he would throw to.
San Francisco's defense has more proven playmakers, but is switching to a 3-4 scheme and has precious little depth.
Nolan would love to have Belichick's problems -- essentially fine-tuning a well-oiled machine -- but in the parity-driven NFL, it doesn't take much to climb from cellar dweller to playoff contender.
Just ask the Chargers, who just 12 months ago were ready to jettison quarterback Drew Brees and coach Marty Schottenheimer's job was hanging by a thread. Entering training camp this time around, Brees is coming off a Pro Bowl appearance and Schottenheimer's team is a trendy pick to give the Patriots a run for their money in the AFC.
The Broncos have several issues they plan to address in training camp.
1. Find a nickel cornerback. The Broncos have plenty of candidates to be their nickel cornerback, and none of them are a sure thing.
The Broncos lost Kelly Herndon in free agency because they didn't want to give the restricted free agent the $1.43 million tender to be a nickel cornerback. A rookie or a second-year player will most likely end up with the job.
Denver drafted three cornerbacks with its first three picks this year: Darrent Williams, Domonique Foxworth and Karl Paymah. The Broncos also have three second-year players that will get the chance to compete for the nickel spot: Jeremy LeSueur, Roc Alexander and Jeff Shoate.v Alexander has the most experience after spending the final few games of the season in the nickel cornerback role. LeSueur, who is converting to safety, is intriguing to the team because he has the size to be a safety but played most of his college career at cornerback. The rookies are all exceptionally fast.
The Broncos felt strongly enough that one of the young players will take control of the job that they traded veteran cornerback Willie Middlebrooks to San Francisco.
2. Figure out who will back up Jake Plummer.
The Broncos have veteran Danny Kanell, who didn't take a snap last season. They also have second-year players Matt Mauck and Bradlee Van Pelt, either of whom could wrest the backup job away from Kanell with a strong camp.
Mauck and Van Pelt each have intriguing qualities. Mauck picked up the offense very quickly as a rookie last year, and had a good training camp. Van Pelt has a great work ethic and is the most athletic quarterback on the roster, and the Broncos' offense accentuates mobile quarterbacks.
Kanell is the frontrunner for the No. 2 quarterback job but the coaches have let it be known that the spot is wide open heading into the training camp. Denver chased free agents Jeff Garcia and Gus Frerotte this offseason, sending the message that they wanted an upgrade behind Jake Plummer.
The Broncos didn't use their backup quarterback once last year, but two years ago an injury to Jake Plummer might have cost them a chance at a division title. Plummer missed four games with shoulder and foot injuries and the Broncos went 1-3 in his absence.
3. See if the Cleveland guys can play.
Gerard Warren, Ebenezer Ekuban, Courtney Brown and Michael Myers all come from Cleveland to Denver with varying degrees of uncertainty about them. Warren, Ekuban and Brown were all first-round picks, but didn't pan out with the teams that drafted them.
The Broncos are counting on Brown and Warren to start for them. Ekuban and Myers could be a big part of the defensive line rotation. Brown and Ekuban were limited most of the offseason because they were recovering from surgery, so their health will be watched closely through camp.
Broncos coaches and players have all had positive reviews on Warren, who was an underachiever in Cleveland. Warren said he is motivated being in a winning situation, after mostly losing seasons with the Browns.
Myers has gotten very little attention because the other three former Browns are high profile former first-round picks, but he could be a solid acquisition for the Broncos. Myers should end up being a solid run-stuffing defensive tackle in Denver's rotation.
--Broncos teammates Rod Smith and Keith Burns flew to Las Vegas to cheer on Shannon Sharpe, the former Denver tight end who played in the World Series of Poker.v Smith said he won when he, Burns and Sharpe played a warm-up match before Sharpe went to the World Series.
"We had a rubber band we got off a newspaper, that was our World Series bracelet," Smith said. "I beat him but he took it off my wrist and took it back to Atlanta."
--The Broncos coaches take a few weeks off before training camp starts, not returning until the week camp begins.
"You have to get mentally ready and mentally sharp and I think our coaches do a good job of that," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Broncos traded a player at one crowded position, and added a player at an equally jammed position.
Denver sent cornerback Willie Middlebrooks to San Francisco, and in exchange they got defensive end John Engelberger. Middlebrooks became expendable when the Broncos drafted three cornerbacks in April.
Engelberger will be one of many defensive linemen in camp, but felt better about the situation after he had a talk with Broncos general manager Ted Sundquist right before the trade was finalized.
"He's excited not only about the system but the organization and its history," Engelberger's agent Robert Lattinville said. "He's really happy."
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