Point 1: It looks like the Lions are finally serious about turning their fortunes around.
I really applaud the work that general manager Martin Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz have done this offseason in Detroit. The Lions have released or traded nearly 20 players from the roster of winless players that they inherited while adding roughly 25 new faces through free agency and waiver claims alone. Add in the recently drafted and undrafted players to that mix, and you've got plenty of new talent, new perspectives and new attitudes.
That's not to say that all 20 players lacked talent or were attitude problems, but when times get tough, there's a propensity to develop a deadly groupthink mentality that's hard to turn around without some radical changes.
Some of the moves that will have the most immediate payback will be in the wide receiver corps, where Calvin Johnson will be paired up with former 49ers receiver Bryant Johnson, former Jaguar Dennis Northcutt and exciting rookie Derrick Williams out of Penn State. The addition of Matthew Stafford gives the team hope that they have a potential top-tier quarterback on the roster for the first time in years. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew out of Oklahoma State will provide Stafford with yet another dangerous target. Defensively, former Seahawk Julian Peterson and former Buccaneers corner Phillip Buchanon are going to be valuable additions who will add consistency and veteran leadership.
Don't expect to see the Lions contending for a playoff spot this year, but by midseason, I fully expect that teams won't be taking Schwartz's Lions lightly.
Point 2: Veteran defensive lineman John Thornton isn't expecting his phone to ring, but he'll be ready to go to work if it does.
After completing the final year of a six-year contract with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2008, the free agent veteran knew that if he was going to enjoy an 11th NFL season, it'd be with a new club. While starting in 11 games and making 15 game appearances in 2008, Thornton shared his experience and insight with some of the younger talent that the Bengals had brought onto the roster, fully aware that he was decreasing his own opportunity for a future with the club in the process.
Veteran John Thornton could help mentor a young defensive line.
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
And while training camps are starting to open across the country this week, Thornton is enjoying some quality time with his family.
"I'm not sitting by the phone waiting, but if some people get some injuries, teams may call to see if I'm available," he told me Friday night. "Ty Law was called about eight weeks into the season last year."
And if that call comes, Thornton will be ready if it's the right opportunity.
He continues to follow a regimented conditioning routine.
"I'm always in shape, but I'd probably have to gain about 15 pounds to play," he said. "I'm probably more of a defensive end right now at 275 to 278. When I train, I try to lose body fat more than anything."
Thornton would be able to provide a veteran presence for any team that figures out during camp that their younger players could benefit from his experience. He recently visited with Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz and was close to agreeing to a deal to play there, but he had second thoughts.
"Early in free agency, we got some calls that never materialized," he said. "I knew I was versatile, so I was thinking that it would probably be a 3-4 team because of the way I finished up pretty well at defensive end. But I also played nine-and-a-half years at defensive tackle, so I can play that position as well."
In the meantime, Thornton is mentoring men off the field through his own companies that he's created. Just a few of the services he provides are post-career consulting for professional athletes and one-on-one football training for high school and college players.
Point 3: Sometimes you're better off not going with your initial gut reaction — just ask Steelers cornerback Anthony Madison.
Anthony Madison is glad he chose the Steelers over the Texans.
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Last time I spoke with the personable fourth-year player out of the University of Alabama, he told me that if he had strictly followed the money right out of college, he would have signed with the Houston Texans rather than the Pittsburgh Steelers following the 2006 NFL Draft.
Madison had offers from a few clubs as an undrafted free agent, and the Texans' offer included a signing bonus that was $3,000 higher than any other offer. Being a typical college student who was strapped for cash, he was ready to sign with Houston to give himself a better financial start.
But when he and his agent dove deeper and looked at where his best opportunity would be, he signed with the Steelers instead. As a result, the $3,000 sacrifice paid off with a Super Bowl ring at the end of his third NFL season.
If you ask me, that's a pretty good trade-off.
Point 4: The scheduling change for the NFL Draft is both good and bad.
For years, draft fanatics have rolled out of bed on a Saturday morning at the end of April and donned their NFL gear for gatherings with their friends and families. Hot wings, brats and other assorted artery-clogging grub that could be washed down with a favorite brew was devoured. But with the NFL's move to Thursday and Friday night prime-time slots for the first three rounds of the draft — with the final four rounds scheduled for Saturday morning and afternoon — that's just not going to happen anymore.
I really feel sorry for the NFL fans who live on the West Coast since the first round kicks off at 4:30 in the afternoon on Thursday and at 3:30 on Friday for them. That just seems wrong.
Imagine sitting at your desk or being out and about earning your paycheck knowing that the Commissioner has just received the card with the name of your favorite team's top draft pick. And you're covertly peaking at a Web site or desperately trying to track the picks on a mobile phone while working just so you can see the name of the player picked in real time — all the while remembering the good old days when you enjoyed the spectacle, analysis and hoopla on TV from the comfort of your home.
Roger Goodell and Michael Crabtree during the 2009 NFL Draft.
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
"We continue to look for ways to make the draft more accessible to more fans," said Commissioner Roger Goodell. "Moving the first round to prime time on Thursday night will make the first round of the draft available to fans on what is typically the most-watched night of television."
I understand the move from a business perspective for the NFL and don't begrudge the league at all for pursuing it. They must be figuring that draftniks who faithfully follow the NFL's annual plucking of the top talent from the collegiate ranks will continue to find a way to do so. It's obvious that they're trying to engage the more casual fans with this strategy. You know who they are — they're the ones who don't watch preseason football and stop right after the Super Bowl, the ones who might stop channel-surfing on a Thursday night if they happen to stumble across the NFL Draft broadcast while trying to decide what to watch that evening. And if the league can engage more of those fans during the offsesason, they create more buzz and advertising revenue for a sport — and business — that has already become a year-round fascination for hardcore fans.
One benefit for all fans is that the media will be able to provide more in-depth coverage of each pick and will have time to do more speculation of what's going to happen the next day with the draft chopped up in smaller bites. You'll see more thorough articles on each team's top pick on Friday morning. You'll be debating the previous night's first-round selections with your co-workers and speculating about Friday night's action. And while second- and third-round picks may have gotten brief mentions in features in the past, you'll see more in-depth information about them on Saturday. On Sunday, you'll have more time to review analysis of the players that were selected on Saturday in the final four rounds.
So, what's next? Well, if this is successful, maybe we'll eventually see NFL Draft Week in prime time with the first round split across Monday and Tuesday with only 16 picks per night, and the second through fourth rounds each having their own nights from Wednesday through Friday so that West Coast fans are no longer missing out on some of the action. Then the league can broadcast a Saturday morning finale of the final two rounds and a wrap-up day on Sunday.
Crazier things have happened.
Point 5: Keep an eye on linebacker Larry Grant during the Rams' training camp.
While plenty of fans will be focusing on rookie middle linebacker James Laurinaitis when the Rams open their camp, second-year linebacker Larry Grant will be locked in a battle for the right to line up next to him at the strongside position.
Former Ohio State LB Larry Grant has been getting some opportunities with the first-team in St. Louis.
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
During OTAs, Grant saw some work with the first unit, so the former Ohio State teammates are excited about the possibility of working together again.
"To see him here with me is awesome because he's helping me out with some things in the defense," Laurinaitis said during a press conference.
"We're doing things here that we'd been used to doing at Ohio State — staying after, watching film on our own, trying to get things down.
"I think with Larry you get a guy who's extremely good with his hands, and he makes some plays. I think if he gets the chance to play football, he's going to show some people that he's going to be a pretty good linebacker."
And Grant's admiration for Laurinaitis was readily apparent when I talked with him this week.
"I've got a lot of faith in James. I know he's a great leader, and he's a perfect fit for this team," he said. "He's going to help this team a lot. And I hope this is going to give us the opportunity to play together for years."
Grant reassured me that things are turning around in St. Louis under new head coach Steve Spagnuolo and that the mood of the team is very upbeat. And he likes how his role is shaping up under the direction of the new coaching staff and the defensive scheme.
"It seems like in this defense, they're giving us a little more freedom to play off the ball and do things that exploit my talents and the talents of the others," he said. "They're still trying to figure out who will play which position the best right now, but the competition is going to be high. We've got a bunch of high-quality players, and I'm really excited about my opportunity."
Point 6: I wasn't initially sold on the Bills moving Nic Harris to linebacker, but it's making more sense.
Harris was successful as a safety for the Oklahoma Sooners, and even though clubs took a look at him at linebacker during Senior Bowl week, I thought he'd be better off continuing to work in the secondary at the next level.
But the Buffalo Bills are having him compete for an outside linebacker job. And the fifth-round draft pick, who signed his contract this week, told me why during a phone conversation.
Nic Harris is ready to tackle a big challenge in Buffalo.
Rick Stewart/Getty Images
"I feel they want me to cover the tight ends, using me more as a cover guy," he said.
Making the transition from the college ranks to the NFL is a daunting task for any rookie, but with a position change as well, the challenge becomes an even bigger one for the 6-foot-2, 232-pound linebacker.
"It's like starting all over, it's a real challenge, especially when you're making a change like this at an elite level," he said. "But for me, the motivation is in telling myself, 'If not me, then who?' So I might as well take advantage of it and do what I need to do."
Harris is both mentally sharp and tough, a young man who is up to the challenge. A fifth-round selection, he'll likely be plugged in as a role player initially within the Bills' defensive scheme while making an impact on special teams. But his goal is to become one of the premiere players in this league. And he's getting some help from some talented mentors.
"Three guys have been instrumental in helping me so far: Keith Ellison, Leodis McKelvin and Kawika Mitchell," he said. "Those guys pretty much latched onto me and took me under their wing. I know they see me as a rookie, but I think I'm gaining their respect."
Point 7: Chargers wide receiver Chris Chambers needs to dramatically improve his performance in 2009.
After a fast start in 2008, catching five touchdown passes during the first five weeks of action, Chambers failed to score again as a nagging ankle injury limited his productivity. He finished the year with just 33 catches for 462 yards.
Entering the final year of his contract, the soon-to-be 31-year-old receiver has to stay healthy and put up some big numbers since it's almost guaranteed that he won't be a Charger in 2010. The team has a number of high-priority players with contracts expiring this year, including quarterback Philip Rivers and linebacker Shawne Merriman, so they aren't likely to have the cash to throw at an aging wide receiver.
Chambers will pocket a $4.55 million salary in 2009 and his total cap hit this year will be higher than that of the Cardinals' Anquan Boldin, the Redskins' Santana Moss and the Patriots' Wes Welker. That's a high price to pay if Chambers doesn't step it up this year when you consider that Welker grabbed 111 passes in 2008, Boldin caught 89 and Moss snared 79 while he posted a mere 33. There's no way he'll see that kind of money in 2010 from another club unless he, at minimum, doubles his productivity in 2009.
As a result, that additional pressure on Chambers should benefit the Chargers' offense. The veteran won't even have time to ramp up his performance. He's going to have to hit the ground running the first day of training camp. The team's depth of talent at the position is improving as younger receivers are beginning to hit their stride.
In addition to fifth-year pro Vincent Jackson, who posted the first 1,000-yard season of his career in 2008, fourth-year receiver Malcolm Floyd is developing into a playmaker in his own right with eight of his 27 catches last season moving the ball more than 20 yards downfield while catching four touchdown passes. And Legedu Naanee, a third-year receiver out of Boise State, is a player who could raise some eyebrows during training camp this year.
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