After years of success with space-eating interior defensive linemen such as Ted Washington and Sam Adams, who tipped the scales at more than 360 pounds, the Bills are doing a makeover. Buffalo's switch to a Tampa Bay-style defense requires its interior linemen to attack gaps and penetrate, not sit in space and react, and the switch has required the coaching staff to concentrate on athletic players who can move.
Heading into training camp, the Bills interior personnel includes Larry Tripplett (295 pounds), Tim Anderson (304), rookies John McCargo (295) and Kyle Williams (295), and young veterans Lavale Sape (296), Jason Jefferson (310), and LaWaylon Brown (305). Call them lean, mean, fighting machines. Well, pretty lean.
Ex-Bill Pat Williams, who tipped the scales at about 315 but had tremendous quickness, would have fit into coordinator Perry Fewell's scheme very well. Tripplett, the ex-Indianapolis Colt, and McCargo, a first-round draft pick out of North Carolina State, will be the top players for the 3-technique position. That's the tackle that shades the outside shoulder of either guard.
The top candidates for the 1 position -- he plays on the center, shading to a shoulder if desired -- are Anderson, Brown and Kyle Williams, who is likely to bulk up more once he gets under the guidance of Buffalo's strength and conditioning staff. McCargo, 6-2, is already listed as 7 pounds lighter than his playing weight at North Carolina State, where he was part of one of the best lines in college football. Teammates Mario Williams (No. 1 overall to Houston) and Manny Lawson (No. 22 to San Francisco) also went in the first round.
"I think I'm going to be a good fit here because I'm a penetrating D-tackle," McCargo said. "I just get off the ball and go up the field as quickly as I can. I feel I can be a very good fit for this defense."
After being a surprise first-round choice, McCargo has had to answer a lot of questions about whether he benefited from playing between two top-shelf ends. Williams and Lawson combined for 39 sacks the last two years.
But it was McCargo who was tying up a couple blockers inside. He also found time to make 123 tackles, 28 stops for losses and 3 1/2 sacks of his own in his 29 career starts. He missed five games last fall after suffering a stress fracture in his foot that required surgery. "I thought we all benefited from each other," said McCargo, who was Williams' roommate. "They helped me, I helped them. I don't really feel overshadowed."
Bills scouts said there were games where McCargo outshined Williams, in their opinion. "They were good and he was good," coach Dick Jauron said. "They left him in the game on third down and Mario Williams went inside on a lot of third-down situations, so they were the two inside rushers. It was a great combination. They had a nice thing going there up front."
Jauron hopes he can say the same about his own defensive line someday. He sees situations where Tripplett and McCargo can be on the field at the same time. "In pass rush situations, we'd like to think both will be out there," Jauron said.
Dolphins coach Nick Saban continues to marvel at the progress being made by Daunte Culpepper, who just over six months ago underwent major reconstructive surgery of his right knee. Saban said Wednesday that Culpepper said that he has been given clearance to practice his 3-, 5-, and 7-step drops and nearly every skill needed to play his position.
"He may not do it quite as quickly, but he's doing it and effectively enough to participate," Saban said. Saban wouldn't predict that Culpepper would start the season behind center, but he didn't rule it out either.
Generally, injuries involving three torn knee ligaments take from eight to 12 months to heal, but Culpepper seems on track to play in at least one preseason game. In case Culpepper has any setbacks, Saban is preparing newly acquired former Lions quarterback Joey Harrington to fill in. Harrington just completed his first full week of organized team activities with the Dolphins and Saban said he's catching on quick.
Despite just going 18-37 as a starter in Detroit, Harrington said his confidence remains high.
"It's a learning experience. I learned what kind of people and what kind of players I want to surround myself with. I learned how I want to attack certain situations. I learned what to do when things don't always go well," he said. "In such a long season, you are going to have bumps, you are going to stumble along the way and I've learned how to deal with those situations. I think I am a better player for it."
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Patriots wide receiver Bethel Johnson's three-year NFL career has been a complete disappointment. As harsh as it might sound, it's the truth. In 39 career games the former second-round pick out of Texas A&M has just seven starts with 30 receptions for 450 yards and four touchdowns as nothing much more than a fourth or fifth wideout in New England. His greatest contributions have come as a kick returner, with a 25.1-yard average and two scores over three seasons, though even his production in that role has decreased each year since his AFC-leading 28.2-yard average as a rookie in 2003.
Those aren't the sort of numbers the Patriots were looking for when they made Johnson a somewhat surprising second-round pick after a career at A&M in which he set a school career records with 117 receptions for 1,740 yards with 11 touchdowns. And the pro production certainly doesn't fall in line with his 4.3-second 40-yard dash speed, which makes him one of the fastest players in the game.
Disappointment is the word to attach to Johnson right now and he knows it. In fact, he's worried that the opportunities to make a name for himself in the NFL may be passing him by. "I have been totally disappointed because I know what type of player that I am," the confident Johnson said of his first three seasons. "For me to be in the situation that I have been in, it's disappointing because I know what I can do.
And me being such a competitor, it's hard for me to sit and watch. I hate it. I hate it with a passion. I want to be to be able to do this, that and whatever. But the opportunity just passes you by. And I never wanted to be one of those people where people don't know I've done something -- like you don't know that Bethel Johnson played in the NFL after it's all said and done. I don't want the years to keep passing me by and not be doing anything."
Johnson claims that he's worked as hard as anyone to crack the regular offensive rotation in New England and that he knows the offense as well as can be expected, but that things just haven't worked out. Injuries, including a variety of different leg problems and a pelvis injury late last season, have limited him. But it would seem that there has to be more to it than that, especially for a team that's had to use a variety of fill-in wideouts at times in recent years ahead of a player with such raw speed and potential.
What's to blame for the lack of playing time and production? What does Johnson have to do to become a more productive force and not let the opportunities continue to pass him by? "I do everything that I have to do every single year to make it happen. But it's not up to me," Johnson said. "I've asked that question for the last three years, really. But apparently it's not getting ... what they asked me to do -- catch the ball better -- I stay and catch the ball. Run routes better. I run my routes the way they ask me to do. I do what I have to do. I just feel something is not there."
And with the team's signing of Reche Caldwell and drafting Chad Jackson, there might not be much more time for that "something" to arrive for Johnson in New England. Johnson knows he could be coming to the end of his opportunities with the Patriots, but is still quite determined to revive what's been a dead career to date. "I always like when people have the chips stacked against me and tell me what I can't do," Johnson said. "I've been spending 27 years proving people wrong. Keep it coming. Keep it coming, because it just motivates me."
That motivation, coupled with good health and an opening in the hole left by the departure of David Givens, could make training camp 2006 Johnson's best, last chance to prove himself to Belichick.
"I don't think they have written me off because if they wrote me off I'd have been gone by now," Johnson said. "I think they know what I can do, really. I always say that I didn't have a fair chance at proving it.
"I have a lot on my shoulders -- big chip."
Now the only question is whether that chip will lead to big production, something that everyone's been waiting for from Johnson for years, or if his career in New England finally come crashing down under its weight.
NEW YORK JETS
During his two media sessions at the Jets' rookie mini-camp, it was often hard to tell if Eric Mangini was coaching an NFL team or a group of Olympic gymnasts. When asked about the defense, the Jets' first-year coach once replied, "I think that the scheme is built on flexibility, and the ability for us to evaluate an opponent and force them to play left-handed and take away their strengths, attack their weaknesses (and) maximize our strengths.
"But to do that," Mangini continued, "you have to have players that are flexible, they are flexible in terms of what positions they can play, what techniques they can play, mentally flexible. And that's what we're looking for is defensive players to adapt to the scheme, which is flexible."
In case you weren't scoring, four times in that answer Mangini used the word "flexible." And, no, it has nothing to do with trying to execute a perfect dismount from the pommel horse. What it means is that on both defense and offense, Mangini intends to use the Bill Belichick style of tweaking not only the game plan, but the overall schemes in an effort to best attack what that week's opponent does well.
Mangini has given very few hints of exactly what defense he will run, though it has been assumed that the Jets will mostly be in a 3-4. The clues are the fact that the Patriots ran that defense when Mangini was on the staff, plus the fact that the Jets have been stockpiling linebackers during the off-season.
Blake Costanzo, a free agent from Lafayette who participated in the rookie mini-camp, indicated that Mangini hasn't been lying. "There is no base defense," the linebacker said. "We've got such a big playbook and so many ways we can attack an offense."
The 6-foot-1, 235-pound Costanzo also said that he doesn't know exactly what linebacker position he will line up in when the Jets rookies and veterans have a combined mini-camp in June. "We're learning all the linebacker positions," he said. "We're learning everything."
As for the offense, the 35-year-old Mangini said first-year offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, 32, shares his basic philosophy. "One of the things that I really liked about Brian, when I sat down and talked to him," Mangini said, "is (that) Brian is not bound by any conventional thinking. He has the same philosophy -- how can I make the defensive side of the ball play left-handed, how can we attack their weaknesses, how can we minimize their strengths. So philosophically, we were very similar in terms of our approach to an opponent."
Defensive tackle Kelly Gregg said there is no animosity between him and linebacker Ray Lewis. A month ago, Lewis criticized the Ravens' personnel on national television, saying their small defensive tackles don't allow him to be a dominant player. "It didn't hurt me at all, not one bit," said Gregg, who stands 6-0, 310 pounds. "You can talk about whatever was said in the off-season, but the thing that hurt me the worst is losing and not getting to the playoffs."
Gregg is considered the unsung hero of the Ravens' high-profile defense. Using his great strength and leverage, Gregg plays bigger than his frame, developing into one of the team's most consistent defensive players since taking over as a starter in 2002. In fact, he has as many 100-tackle seasons (two) as Lewis since 2003.
But Lewis prefers to have tackles such as Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams who shield him from blockers rather than accumulate tackles. That's why Lewis sounded off on the Ravens' defensive front a week before they drafted 340-pound Haloti Ngata, saying, "The thing that frustrates a person like myself is when you don't give me the proper tools to be dominant."
Gregg doesn't plan to approach Lewis about his comments, saying he understands the circumstances surrounding the remarks.
"It's great to make buddies and friends, but we want to win," Gregg said. "Everything stinks when you're losing. Everyone is mad at each other, and the food is not as good. But when you're winning, everything is great. I'd go out there and eat a boot and it would taste good."
Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan seemed more upset by Lewis' criticism than Gregg.
"The unfortunate part is how it makes Kelly look," Ryan said last month. "It seems like I'm always defending the guy. He's a damn good football player." Before joining the Ravens' coaching staff last season, Clarence Brooks oversaw the Miami Dolphins' defensive line, which started prototypical, bigger tackles such as Tim Bowens and Larry Chester.
It didn't take Brooks long to look past Gregg's lack of size and appreciate his skill as a technician. "Until you really study him and are around him every day, you don't realize what he can do," Brooks said. "He's the best leverage player I've been around. He's the best player I've ever been around as far as always being on balance and staying on his feet."
In defense of his play, Gregg pointed out that Lewis was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2003, when Gregg was the biggest defensive lineman. The other starters that season (Tony Weaver and Marques Douglas) both weighed less than 300 pounds.
"Sure, it would be nice to have those big guys, but change always happens," Gregg said. "We're going to go out there and compete. All we care about is winning. Nobody's feelings are going to get hurt."
Quarterback Carson Palmer would have preferred his first Sports Illustrated cover as a Bengal to be a picture of him holding a Super Bowl trophy. Instead, the Palmer cover that hit newsstands May 24, shows him running in a hydrotherapy pool with the words "The Rehab of Carson Palmer" superimposed over the picture.
"It's definitely flattering to be on the cover of any magazine," Palmer said Tuesday, "especially a magazine like that, but it's not like I'm on it for winning a big game. I'm on it for being dinged up. When you're on it because you're injured and not able to practice, it's not as good. But it's still a huge honor."
The SI cover is the second for Palmer, who was also on the cover of the magazine's NFL draft issue on April 28, 2003. The cover story, written by Michael Silver, delved into the emotions Palmer felt immediately after Steelers defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen rolled into his knee as he released a 66-yard pass to Chris Henry, tearing the anterior cruciate ligament, shredding the medial collateral ligament and dislocating his kneecap.
It also touches on the hatred he feels for the Steelers.
The Bengals quarterback said he didn't hesitate to speak so openly in the magazine about his hatred for the Steelers because "it's how I felt. It's how everybody in our locker room feels. It's a heated rivalry between local teams. It's great. I don't hate playing them. I love playing them. ... I hope they lose every game and I'm sure they hope we lose every game.
"It's nothing personal against the individual players. It's the game."
Many of the quotes throughout the story show a side of the Bengals quarterback that has rarely been seen before in the media, but Palmer said he didn't set out to unburden himself in the story as a form of therapy.
"That's the first time I've really been asked some of those questions," he said. "I didn't feel like I was getting anything off my chest. I was being honest and answering what I was asked."
Fifteen months after declaring the Browns would switch to a 3-4 defense, Coach Romeo Crennel has the personnel to make the defense work. That was not the case last season when key ingredients were missing. The Browns had no pass-rushing linebacker threat in 2005. Now they have two with Willie McGinest and rookie Kamerion Wimbley. They also went the old-young route at nose tackle with Ted Washington and rookie Babatunde Oshinowo.
McGinest and Washington have played a combined 28 years in the NFL. Their leadership, as much as their skill, is imperative to making the Browns a winning team. The Browns have finished above .500 only once since returning to the NFL, finishing 9-7 in 2002.
"I'm looking forward to getting on the field and learning from Willie McGinest," Wimbley said. "I know he just came to the Browns as well. He has a lot of knowledge just from playing in the NFL. He knows what it takes just to survive and have a long career. I'm looking forward to learning from him."
Oshinowo had similar remarks about learning from Washington. Physically, they are very different. At 370 pounds, Washington is 60 pounds heavier than the rookie, yet Oshinowo says he can learn technique from Washington, and it probably will not take him long to absorb the information. Oshinowo has a degree in electrical engineering from Stanford.
"Playing with Ted Washington and playing for coach Crennel, it's a great thing," Oshinowo said. "We have played in a 3-4 set for the past two years. I have played in and had a lot of success in the system. That's what I've been the most comfortable with. I would say nose tackle is the one thing that I do well."
The Browns were last in the league with 23 sacks last season and 30th in run defense. The additions of Washington and McGinest in free agency plus Wimbley and Oshinowo in the draft should change those numbers dramatically. Yet despite poor run defense and virtually no pass rush, the Browns allowed only 301 points. Three teams that allowed more were in the playoffs.
Crennel envisions more third-down success with better personnel on defense, which in turn should provide better field position for the offense. The Browns were last in the league with 232 points scored. That is nearly a 200-point differential from the Bengals, who scored 421 points.
There's no contract extension in sight for cornerback Ike Taylor, who came off the market as a restricted free agent last month. Yet Taylor remains nonplussed and announced there was no reason to fear that he might hold out as he enters the final year of his contract with the Steelers.
The Steelers and Scott Smith, Taylor's agent, have negotiated for weeks on a long-term contract with little progress. Taylor did sign the one-year tender of $1,573,000 the team issued him. "You have to stay positive," Taylor said. "There's nothing really negative about it. I feel as a player, you're going to come out on top, and as a staff, they're going to come out on top. It's just both meeting halfway trying to get something done."
Many players become apprehensive as they enter the last season under contract. Their future, their finances and their place of employment all remain cloudy without a long-term deal.
Taylor said none of that bothers him.
"I don't think there's a negative part to it," Taylor said, "because I'm doing something a lot of people would like to do, that's playing football in the NFL, and I'm enjoying myself and enjoying playing for Pittsburgh. As far as any negatives, I see no negatives in this."
Last season was Taylor's first as a starter and third in the NFL. He led the NFL with 24 passes defensed and seems to have a good future with Pittsburgh. His contract for 2006 represents a 414 percent increase over his $380,000 salary from last season, but he wants the security of a long-term deal.
"I want to be here, I want to stay here," he said. "You can't let it bother you. We'll get it worked out, there's no rush. It's a slow process. It's business, it's negotiating." Taylor worked out in Orlando with trainer Tom Shaw before arriving in Pittsburgh in early April. He has not missed a workout this spring with them.
"I'm not a holdout guy, I don't want to be like that, I just want to play football and win games," Taylor said. "Whatever happens, it is what it is. I'm just going to let it be like that.
"We're still talking. Sometimes there are standstills but that's understandable. That's the negotiating part of it, the business aspect. It's teaching me a lot, I'm learning a lot, asking a lot of questions. I want to know what's going on, I don't want to be in the dark. It's kind of interesting, to be honest with you."
The Texans finished last season ranked third in the league in special teams. This season, they look to move up even higher. With talented special teams coach Joe Marciano returning under new coach Gary Kubiak, the Texans will have many familiar faces but a few key additions.
Part of the off-season attention is going to veteran kicker Kris Brown in hopes of helping Brown improve his overall numbers. In Brown's seven-year career, he has connected on 80 percent of his field goal attempts three times. The last time was in 2003 when he was 18-for-22 with the Texans.
Brown struggled last year, going 26-for-34. He missed field goals in two games that were decided by just three points. "He's been a very solid kicker in this league for many, many years," Kubiak said. "And nobody is harder on himself than Kris is, so I expect him to bounce back and do a great job."
The Texans return Pro Bowl kickoff returner Jerome Mathis, who has been limited in practice because of a recent motorcycle accident. Phillip Buchanon will return as the Texans' top punt returner, but he will have a new No. 2 in cornerback Dunta Robinson.
"It's something I expect to do," Robinson said. "Hopefully I get a couple opportunities. It's not something that I look to do each time they call a punt return, but maybe I'll get a couple of chances to show my skills back there. The last time Robinson returned a punt was in 2003 as a senior at South Carolina. He returned three punts for 44 yards that season. During high school in Athens, Ga., Robinson returned a punt and kickoff for a touchdown.
"We're going to put the best guys back there," Kubiak said. "I'm not worried about protecting this guy or that guy. If the best guy out there on game day is Dunta or Jerome (Mathis) or Phillip -- whoever helps us win the game, that's who we're going to put out there. There's no saving anyone."
Reggie Wayne is going to be a member of the Indianapolis Colts for the remainder of his NFL career. That's a given.
But after signing a six-year, $39 million contract that included a $12.5 million signing bonus, Wayne knows that he still has a lot of work ahead of him if he wants to continue to be mentioned among the league's best receivers.
Last season, he snapped Marvin Harrison's streak of six consecutive seasons leading the team in receptions. Wayne finished with a career-best 83, one more than Harrison.
"What it means to me is (quarterback) Peyton (Manning) is starting to trust me more," Wayne said recently. "It motivates me to keep doing it."
It's his desire to improve in all facets of his game, and not his hefty new contract, that continues to drive the former first-round draft choice.
"I guess I'm able to buy a bigger house," Wayne said. "Other than that, it doesn't change anything."
The financial commitment, however, served as a type of vindication for Wayne.
"There was a lot of tough talk when I first arrived here," he said. "Everyone wanted a defensive guy, wondering why me."
Now the wondering has ceased. Wayne, who has increased his reception total in each of his first five seasons, is confident his best is yet to come.
"There's more," he said. "Hopefully we can keep climbing the ladder. I consider myself young. I'm 27 years old, so I think I can keep getting better and better. If I continue to push myself like I've been doing every summer, it shouldn't be a problem."
As if the Jaguars needed more controversy to go with the Maurice Drew situation, the club claimed veteran offensive lineman Wayne Hunter on waivers from the Seattle Seahawks. While no specific reason was given for Hunter's release from the Seahawks, the three-year veteran was let go just three days after he was cited for misdemeanor assault and malicious mischief stemming from an incident in a Renton, Wash., sports bar.
Hunter and his brother got into a confrontation at the bar that resulted in two plates and six glasses to break. After he and his brother left the bar temporarily, he returned and exchanged words with another patron. He slammed him into a shuffleboard table before leaving. He was later stopped by policed and arrested.
It's not the first off-the-field problem for the former University of Hawaii lineman. He was in legal trouble for two altercations with a girlfriend, the first of which came when the girlfriend was pregnant and resulted in him being charged with two counts of fourth-degree assault.
Those charges were placed on continuance, which meant they were delayed, but that was later revoked when the same woman made another complaint against Hunter last year.
Hunter, 6-foot-5, 305 pounds, received one-game suspensions each of the last two years because of the altercations with his girlfriend. Both suspensions issued by the NFL were for violating the league's conduct policy.
"We're aware that he (Hunter) has had a couple issues that he's resolving personally," Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said. "We feel that the environment that we have here with the Polynesian players that we have on the team, including two of the guys that he played with in college (Vince Manuwai and Chad Owens), gives him the best chance to succeed as a young man, as a football player but also as a man growing up."
Hunter was inactive in all 16 games with the Seahawks as a rookie in 2003 and played in just two games the past two seasons. Hunter's only appearance a year ago was at guard, but Del Rio indicated that the newest Jaguars lineman would get an opportunity with the Jaguars at tackle behind current starters Maurice Williams and Khalif Barnes.
Still out rehabilitating from shoulder surgery, defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch wanted to be as involved as possible in recent mini-camp practices. So during 11-on-11 periods of practice, he lined up on a sideline, carefully monitoring the snap and working on his start. For each play the Titans ran, he ran a 40-yard sprint alongside them.
And it turned out he was a bit of a pied piper -- two other injured Titans, defensive tackle Marcus Stroud and offensive tackle Daniel Loper, joined him. "I saw his crazy (butt) over there," linebacker Keith Bulluck said of Vanden Bosch. "I'm sure when some of the new guys see him do that stuff, they'll be looking at him like, 'Who the hell is that crazy guy?' But that's Kyle, man. That's Kyle, and you have to love him for it."
The Titans do love him for it, as it's just the sort of example they want set for a young roster. Vanden Bosch hasn't had an easy time standing on the sideline, even for a May practice without pads.
"It is real tough," he said. "I want to keep working and keep making progress, and it is difficult when you're not on the practice field. I can make strength progress and conditioning progress, but it is hard to make actual football-field-type progress when I am not out there.
"I feel like I have more of a leadership role this year, and it is difficult to do from the sideline. But I am just going to try and do what I can do, so when I come back I'll be ready to go."
Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer said he was not at fault for an alleged road rage incident in April. Plummer was issued a municipal summons for intent to injure and destroy property for a hit-and-run incident. Douglas Stone of Denver claimed Plummer cut him off and he honked at Plummer, who got out of his car and kicked the front of Stone's car. The police report said Plummer got back in his car and backed it into Stone's car before leaving the scene.
Plummer admitted he cut off Stone's car, but waved in his rear-view mirror to say he was sorry. "All I heard was incessant honking and when I pulled up to the light I felt a bump on the back of my tailgate, which was very surprising," Plummer said.
Plummer said he got out of the car, saw there was no damage and drove off. Plummer later called 911 and in a police recording of the call, Plummer calmly explained that he was bumped by another driver but there was no damage. Plummer said he did not kick Stone's car or back into it.
"From my story I just told you, I think it would probably be impossible for that to happen," Plummer said. The police had difficulty reaching Plummer to issue the summons, which was finally issued on May 19. Plummer said he was surprised to get it.
Plummer has been involved in other incidents during his Broncos career, such as when he made an obscene gesture towards a heckling fan at Invesco Field at Mile High in 2004. Plummer said he doesn't have problems controlling his anger.
"There's no anger management problems with me," Plummer said.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
Self-improvement specialists will tell you that one of the first steps toward achieving self-respect is changing the mindset regarding what can be accomplished in one's life. One of Herm Edwards' first goals in taking the job as the Chiefs new coach was making his defense, a unit that has been ranked no higher than 28th over the past four seasons, believe that real improvement is right around the corner.
Judging from the comments middle linebacker Kawika Mitchell made during a pep rally-style address to some 14,000 fans attending a recent public workout at the Chiefs mini-camp, Edwards already has succeeded in taking the first step. "We have the best defensive linemen in the league," Mitchell said when it was his turn to address the crowd. "We have the best linebackers. We have the best defensive backs, and we need to start believing that."
Positive thinking is a wonderful thing, of course, but Mitchell was talking about a unit that was 30th in pass defense a year ago. A limited pass rush amplified coverage problems, and Kansas City's defense continued to leak during a 10-6 season in which the Chiefs lost games in which they scored 28 and 31 points. Still, Edwards already seems to have his new defenders believing that the Cover-2 system he and returning defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham will employ will make his returning players better. Remember, right now the Chiefs have only one new face -- cornerback Lenny Walls -- looming as a potential new starter on defense, though rookie DE Tamba Hali has shown evidence that he will make a strong push.
Mitchell in particular will be an important player in the new scheme, and making him a believer was a first big step for Edwards. Middle linebackers take deep drops in the two-deep zones in front of the safeties. They have to be able to move and cover a lot of territory, which Edwards thinks his new players can do.
"I think we have good, athletic linebackers here -- big guys who can run," he said. "That's the first thing that drew my attention when I got here. We're not asking them to do anything they can't do, just something they're not used to doing."
Mitchell, obviously, believes he and his returning defensive teammates are up to the challenge. Or so you would guess from his pep-rally comments. "I feel comfortable enough to say I feel that way, and I never talk about something unless I believe it 100 percent," said the usually soft-spoken middle linebacker. "That's the way I feel, and the only way to change people's mind is for us to believe it too.
"We really need a different attitude. We have to believe we're not step-brothers on this team. That can happen sometimes when you have a great offense."
A decade after wondering if the Oakland Raiders knew what they were doing taking a stand-up linebacker from Temple University and making him a defensive end, Lance Johnstone is back where he started. Johnstone sits in a locker directly across from the one he used to occupy six years ago and doesn't seem at all surprised. "It was always in the back of my mind that I'd end up here," Johnstone said.
When Johnstone left the Raiders following the 2000 season, they were coming off the first of three consecutive AFC West titles and a loss in the conference championship game. The team Johnstone returns to has fallen on hard times, with a 13-35 record that is the worst stretch in franchise history. There are only six familiar faces on the roster -- and none of them are on defense.
Offensive players still around from Johnstone's last season are linemen Adam Treu and Barry Sims, wide receiver Jerry Porter, running back Zack Crockett and kickers Sebastian Janikowski and Shane Lechler -- both of whom were rookies.
"It's amazing how things change in five years," Johnstone said.
One thing that remains the same is Johnstone's role -- he is a situational edge rusher who isn't stout enough at 250-plus pounds to be a base end, but who can fly in from the outside on third-and-long.
Johnstone is a classic Raider draft-day tale, a linebacker from a losing program who was envisioned as something else by Al Davis. In Johnstone's case, Davis' hunch in the second round has led to a 70-sack career. Last season, Johnstone was credited with a career-low 15 tackles but still had seven sacks. The thought of joining the Raiders, with NFL sack leader Derrick Burgess around to come hard from the opposite side, was alluring to Johnstone.
"The best years I've had have always been when you have another good pass rusher with you," Johnstone said. "Hopefully we get (Warren) Sapp coming off his injury and we'll have three real good pass rushers in there and get Tommy (Kelly) going a little bit. We can do some things."
Johnstone signed a multi-million dollar contract extension with the Raiders the year before he was waived after injuries slowed his play in 2000. He said there were never any hard feelings.
"I understand the business side of this whole thing," Johnstone said. "I've never had any ill will, and I still had a lot of friends on the team. It was just one of those situations. That's why it was no big deal to come back."
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
It's hard to say but not difficult to read: Cory Lekkerkerker. The name on the jersey was front and center during the final day of the recent rookie orientation, which featured youngsters as well as veterans. When it came time for the first string to trot out, Lekkerkerker was at right tackle.
Much has been made about the hand-wringing the Chargers are doing at left tackle. Veteran Roman Oben is trying to get past two serious foot operations to be ready for training camp. And the Chargers don't want to rely on Oben's backup, the inconsistent Leander Jordan.
That is why the Chargers spent a second-round pick on Marcus McNeill. Just in case Oben can't go, they want McNeill to give Jordan a run for the starting spot. But the team is also seeking to upgrade at the opposite tackle. There were some concerns that Shane Olivea, a two-year starter, wore down as last year's 9-7 season progressed.
Is Lekkerkerker the answer? Hard to say, though the Chargers' coaches seem to like his potential. There's not much to go on game-wise, as Lekkerkerker did not appear in a single game last season. He was on the practice squad for half the season and spent the other half inactive.
Lekkerkerker signed last year as an undrafted free agent from Cal-Davis. Olivea had nearly as many snaps as Lekkerkerker in the camp, so saying he's lost his job is a stretch. But it's a position worth watching.