AFC East: Closer Look at Roster Issues

Notes from around the AFC East. The Bills added another linebacker to the mix as they hope to rebuild the Buffalo defense. The Dolphins acquisitions of Culpepper and Harrington may be the moves they needed to make to compete for the division. The Patriots swapped a receiver for a DT they hope to convert into a productive player. The Jets future appears to be tied to Chad Pennington's health again.

Bills :: Jets :: Dolphins :: Patriots

    BUFFALO BILLS     Bills :: Jets :: Dolphins :: Patriots

The Bills have added linebacker Courtney Watson to their training camp roster, yet another case of general manager Marv Levy and coach Dick Jauron hoping to strike it rich on a lost player in need of a road map.

Watson, a second-round draft pick in 2004 out of Notre Dame whose career became sidetracked in New Orleans, was acquired in a trade this week for tight end Tim Euhus, a fourth-round pick in that same draft class out of Oregon State.

It's a value move for the Bills. They needed depth at middle linebacker behind London Fletcher and they had a surplus of tight ends after obtaining free agent Robert Royal during the offseason. Second-year pro Kevin Everett is also looking strong after knee surgery and second-year pro Brad Cieslak had also jumped Euhus on the depth chart.

Watson was the 60th overall pick in 2004; Euhus was the 109th choice.

A three-year starter for Notre Dame, the 6-1, 245-pound Watson started eight games as a rookie making 71 tackles with two sacks. He started six games last season, making 44 tackles.

A bit undersized for the middle, Watson could not hang onto the starting job with the Saints and went on injured reserve late last season with a torn knee ligament. The Bills are hoping he's a good fit for their Tampa Bay defense, which puts a premium on speed and running to the ball.

"The first thing is getting out here on a football field. I haven't been on a field since I got injured last October so this is fun for me," said Watson after taking part in his first practice during an organized team activity at Ralph Wilson Stadium. "Then to be somewhere where I want to be, the coaches want me to be a part of the team, you can't ask for more than that in any job but especially this job."

Watson has been a bit of a vagabond this spring. He was first traded to Miami, Buffalo's AFC East rival, but that deal fell through when the other player involved in the trade, linebacker Eddie Moore, failed his physical.

Watson knew it was just a matter of time before the Saints' new coaching staff would try again to move him.

"I felt the decision was made early on with me. They've been moving a lot of guys there," he said.

So has Buffalo. The Bills under Levy have added 40 new players counting draft picks while dumping veteran starters Eric Moulds, Sam Adams, Mike Williams, Lawyer Milloy and Mark Campbell off a 5-11 roster.

Watson joins Anthony Thomas, Peerless Price and Aaron Gibson as new Bills looking for fresh starts.

A native of Sarasota, Fla., he said playing for the Dolphins would've been nice, but it's nicer that the Bills wanted him.

"It's warmer than Buffalo but I don't care," he said. "I'm happy to be here. It's a football town. It's taken me back to college, a town where they love football. I can't complain about that. I can deal with the weather."

    MIAMI DOLPHINS     Bills :: Jets :: Dolphins :: Patriots

Judging by his first public practice, expect quarterback Daunte Culpepper under center when the Dolphins open the regular season Sept. 7 at Pittsburgh.

Culpepper showed how far along he is in his rehabilitation from three torn knee ligaments during the opening session of a three-day minicamp last Friday at team headquarters. Although not yet at full speed, Culpepper looked fairly smooth dropping back to pass and drew cheers from the fans in attendance by sprinting downfield on a scramble after being unable to find an open target.

"He's doing very well physically," Dolphins coach Nick Saban said of Culpepper. "You're going to ask me if I'm surprised by what he's doing. I'm not surprised. You might be surprised, but I'm not surprised because I see him every day."

Saban, though, still wasn't prepared to say whether Culpepper would get the start against the Steelers.

"Does he still have work to do? Absolutely," Saban said. "Are we ready to make any predictions about his future? Not really, because that's all day-to-day and week-to-week. Hopefully, he'll continue to make the kind of progress that he's made. If he does that, we can be optimistic about what his chances are early in the season."

If Culpepper isn't ready, Joey Harrington will get the starting nod to open the season. The Dolphins acquired Harrington last month in a trade with Detroit.

"Joey is a very bright guy and has been able to learn the system and execute fairly well," Saban said. "He's pretty decisive in what he's doing and that's been a real asset. But I think the leadership on offense is better. The maturity level is better. We have been executing extremely well, especially throwing the football."

Saban was asked why he traded a conditional 2007 sixth-round pick to Detroit for Harrington when the Lions were expected to release him anyway in mid-June.

"We thought the practice time was important, but we also thought that there was no guarantee that if they cut the guy that we'd get him," Saban said. "I just think rather than taking such a risk on how it might affect the season by not having a veteran experienced quarterback to be our backup quarterback, it was worth what we had to give up."

 NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS     Bills :: Jets :: Dolphins :: Patriots

One man's trash is another man's treasure. At least that's what the front offices in New England and New Orleans are probably telling themselves after last week's trade in which the teams swapped disappointing 2003 draft picks -- wide receiver Bethel Johnson and defensive tackle Jonathan Sullivan.

Beyond being disappointments in their initial NFL homes, both players wore on their respective coaching staffs with similar problems revolving around desire, work ethic and putting in the requisite personal investment in order to get on the game field and achieve expected success.

In three seasons in New England after being selected as the team's second-round pick in 2003, Johnson played 39 games with only seven starts and recorded just 30 receptions for 450 yards and four touchdowns. Blessed with elite speed, Johnson led the AFC in kick returns as a rookie, but even his production in that area decreased as his career "progressed" and he worked his way further into Bill Belichick's doghouse.

Likewise, Sullivan had his best season as a rookie in New Orleans after the team traded up to select the Georgia star with the sixth selection in the '03 draft. He started 13 of 14 games played as a rookie, recording 42 tackles and one sack on his way to a variety of all-rookie team type honors. But over time his weight, he was listed at 6-feet-3, 315 pounds last season, ballooned up to around 350 pounds. His reputation began to suffer and he was inactive for nearly half of his sophomore season. In all he played in 36 games with 17 starts for the Saints, totaling 102 tackles, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. He did appear in 15 games last season, although he didn't start a single game.

Sullivan had the opportunity to start fresh with a new coaching staff led by Sean Payton this spring. But despite showing up at mini-camp having lost 20 pounds to get down to 328, he struggled with the heat and his conditioning. Apparently Payton saw enough to ship him out of town just a day later in exchange for another similarly disappointing player like Johnson.

Sullivan won't carry the expectations of being the sixth overall pick with him to New England, where he'll be asked to be nothing more than a backup on a strong defensive line that includes starters and former first-round picks Richard Seymour, Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork. Sullivan actually played with Seymour for a season in 2000 at Georgia, and is a guy the Patriots targeted in the 2003 first round when the team ended up trading up one spot to select Warren with the 13th overall selection.

In the end, the swap of disappointments was about teams rolling the dice on a pair of guys who clearly have raw ability, but for whatever reason have never been able to get on the field consistently and put the potential to use at the NFL level. Maybe the Saints found a guy to stretch the field as a third-type receiver who'll be another explosive weapon at Drew Brees' disposal alongside Reggie Bush, Deuce McAllister, Joe Horn and Co. The Patriots doubt it. And maybe the Patriots got another young, talented defensive lineman to add to an already solid group and give the team more flexibility to play 4-3 fronts or at the very least spell Wilfork as a backup nose tackle. The Saints probably doubt it.

 NEW YORK JETS     Bills :: Jets :: Dolphins :: Patriots

From the way he talked after a voluntary mini-camp, it appears quarterback Chad Pennington isn't as confident as he was before about the progress of his surgically-repaired right shoulder.

Weeks before the Jets' "organized team activities," Pennington had said he was "throwing every route in the playbook" and that he was "full go."

But he didn't sound quite as confident when he spoke to reporters at coach Eric Mangini's youth football camp in Hartford on June 3.

"The goal is to be ready by Opening Day," Pennington said. "That's the goal and it's a process ... That's why I'm not trying to rush things. Competitively, I'd love to be in December shape, but realistically, you have to take it one day at a time.

"I'm just trying not to look too far ahead."

Well, in that case, the next item on his docket will be the Jets' three-day, full-squad mini-camp that will begin June 15. The media will be allowed to watch all of those sessions, as per NFL rules.

Pennington said he has recovered physically from the injury, but couldn't put a percentage on his throwing capacity.

When asked if Pennington will be ready for training camp, which begins late next month, Mangini responded, "We're going to monitor it."

Of course, Mangini being tight-lipped is nothing new. If a reporter asked the Bill Belichick disciple what time it is, Mangini likely would equivocate and not give a straight answer for fear of tipping his hand to future opponents. But Pennington's guarded optimism was something different, although he insisted it wasn't a big deal.

"I still have those high goals," he said. "My optimism is up there, but I'm focused on day-to-day. There's a lot of time left and a lot of work to be done." A lot more work, it seems, before Pennington will be ready to assume his place under center for the Jets again. Which means that the upcoming mini-camp will be crucial for former Redskin Patrick Ramsey, as his helmet definitely has been thrown into the ring as a potential starter.


Related: Bills Report | Jets Confidential | Dolphin Digest | Patriots Insider


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