NFL Minicamp Mailbag

Minicamps are in full swing, and while some questions are settled on the field, many more come out of camp every day. Recently's panel of NFL experts sat down and answered some questions for readers in a round table format.

The panel:

* senior NFL analyst Ed Thompson
* NFL draft analyst Chris Steuber
* senior NFL reporter Adam Caplan
* lead NFL analyst and former pro scout Tom Marino

Q: Is Will Smith, as his contract would suggest, a top three or even five DE in the NFL? —Nick from New Orleans

Ed Thompson: No. I'd place him in the top 10, but it's hard to see him in the top five, whether you look at his performance last season or even over the past three years. He's a highly talented player with plenty of upside, which is why he got paid so handsomely. But as of right now, I'd say he still lags behind players such as Minnesota's Jared Allen, Miami's Jason Taylor, Baltimore's Terrell Suggs, Tennessee's Kyle Vanden Bosch, Indianapolis' Dwight Freeney, Buffalo's Aaron Schobel, and Green Bay's Aaron Kampman.

Chris Steuber: I think a lot of people forget about Will Smith, because he plays in New Orleans on a mediocre defense. But statistically speaking, he's been the Saints most consistent defensive performer and has averaged more than eight sacks a year during his four-year career. The Saints may have overpaid Smith a bit, but the contract he received is the going rate for a pass rusher with his ability. With that said, I don't think Smith is a top five defensive end in the league, he's close, but I'd say he's in the top eight.

Adam Caplan: While Smith is seen as a team leader and is certainly above average against the run, I wouldn't necessarily put him in the top-five of all defensive ends. You could make a case for him around the top-10 as a pass rusher.

Here are the ends I'd put ahead of him:

Jared Allen, Minnesota
Jason Taylor, Miami
Osi Umenyiora, N.Y. Giants
Aaron Kampman, Green Bay
Patrick Kerney, Seattle
Aaron Schobel, Buffalo
Terrell Suggs, Baltimore
Kyle Vanden Bosch, Tennessee
Dwight Freeney, Indianapolis

Tom Marino: NFL GMs have put a premium on QBs, LOTs, CBs and outside pass rushers. Personally I don't think any of them are worth they money the teams are currently paying them, but the market obviously supports what the elite players are getting paid today. I believe Will Smith is a very solid player and among the top five to six at the position within the league. Without question, he and Charles Grant are the best combination within the league. I really liked Will as a college player (light years ahead of Vernon Gholston at a similar stage of his development).

Q: How are the defensive additions looking on the field, and do you think the additions are enough to get New Orleans back in the playoffs? Will Jo Lon Dunbar compete for some playing time at weakside linebacker? — Clint from Shreveport, La.

ET: I think the Saints helped themselves tremendously on defense. Sedrick Ellis is a monster, pure and simple. He's going to have some veteran offensive linemen wondering how they are supposed to stop this kid. Former Jags defensive tackle Bobby McCray was a very smart addition, as well; his versatility will be a big plus. I fully expect Jonathan Vilma to thrive in New Orleans' 4-3 defense as long as he doesn't have any further trouble with his knee. Tracy Porter is going to surprise a lot of folks, as well. I talked to a few wide receivers from this year's draft class who pointed Porter out as the toughest defender they went up against during their college career. As for Dunbar, I was stunned that he wasn't drafted. While I don't think it's realistic that you'll see him getting much time with the starters this year, I do expect to see him make the team and battling for a starter's role by his third season.

CS: The selection of Sedrick Ellis will prove to be the best addition the Saints made this offseason. Randall Gay and Jonathan Vilma were good additions, but Ellis has star potential written all over him. He's looked very good during OTAs, and don't be surprised if he's a starter on opening day. Jo Lon Dunbar has a shot to make the team and will have to perform well on special teams. It all depends on how Dunbar plays during training camp and pre-season games to see if he will compete for playing time at weakside linebacker. The Saints have a lot of veterans at LB, and Dunbar could be a player they groom for the future.

AC: One player from the offensive side of the ball told me recently he thought Ellis looked good during their OTAs. The expectation is that Ellis will be an impact player right away. As for Dunbar, he has to make the team first since he was an undrafted free agent. But the backup weak-side job still looks to be open, so it's not out of the question that Dunbar makes the team.

TM: Clint, Jo Lon Dunbar was a steady college football player with limited physical qualities. The "Will" backer position is, in most cases, the most critical of the linebacker positions. At the outset, I don't think he runs well enough to play a "Will" backer position, and if a college free agent was good enough to get playing time over established players (Shanle, Fijuta, Simoneau, and Evans), I would say they have some very big holes to fill in New Orleans. I would say his only chance to make it would be as a backup special teams player. Vilma, Ellis and overpaid CB Gay should provide a big lift to the Saints' defensive unit.

Q: Do the Raiders have any chance of making any progress or will they remain the laughing stock of the NFL once again? —Eddie from Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.

ET: I don't see Oakland as a playoff contender, but they should improve. The addition of RB Darren McFadden will help both Justin Fargas and second-year quarterback JaMarcus Russell. The offensive line should be better, but I'm not impressed by the wide receivers. The defense has a number of talented players who can hold their own, and the addition of Gibril Wilson and DeAngelo Hall to the secondary will make that group even better. As long as Hall doesn't turn into a cancer in the locker room and Russell can put together a respectable effort at quarterback, I like Oakland's chances to win six to eight games this year.

CS: The Raiders have a lot of talent on offense and defense, and I think they will be the most improved team this season. But it all depends on the development of JaMarcus Russell. If Russell is the real deal and plays well this season, the Raiders should finish second in the AFC West behind the San Diego Chargers.

AC: Offensively, they should run the ball well and their offensive line showed big improvement last year under offensive line coach Tom Cable. However, the receiver position still looks like a weakness and JaMarcus Russell has a long way to go to show he's a competent quarterback.

Defensively, they must stop the run better and I don't see any of their offseason acquisitions helping them significantly in that area. They should be much better against the pass with the additions of CB DeAngelo Hall and S Madieu Williams.

TM: I would say, Eddie, they should be much better offensively, but realistically they are not better than third within their division behind San Diego and Denver. The key is how fast, or better still, can JaMarcus Russell develop into a winning QB at the pro level.

Q: How is Zach Thomas doing in Dallas? He's old. Does he look it? And how is Mike Jenkins doing? Is he looking at some playing time during the season? —Brandon from Los Angeles

ET: Thomas is fired up about his opportunity in Dallas as the starting weak-side inside linebacker. He'll get plenty of playing time if he stays healthy. From that position in Dallas' defense, he's going to get plenty of opportunities to put up well over 100 tackles. By the time the season starts, he'll be 35 years old, but he's so smart and tough that he plays much younger than his chronological age.

CS: Zach Thomas is a savvy veteran and I'm sure when the season starts he will be ready to go. But you always have to worry about concussions with Thomas. He's a hard-nosed player and gives maximum effort on every down. Mike Jenkins will see playing time this season, whether that time comes as a starter or in nickel situations; that will be determined during training camp.

AC: The expectation is that Thomas will start over former first-round pick Bobby Carpenter. The only issue with Thomas is whether he'll play on third downs. The feeling is Jenkins will back up veteran CB Anthony Henry this season and will see time in sub-packages (nickel and dime) depending on the status of suspended CB Adam "Pacman" Jones.

TM: Zach Thomas is undersized, is up there in age, and has never been what I would consider any better than an adequate athlete. But when they blow the whistle, all he does is show up week to week and make plays. He's smart, lines people up, and plays his butt off. Mike Jenkins was the most talented of all the college corners in this year's draft, but is going to have to improve his work habits and commitment to the game. Brandon, he has crazy talent.

Q: Most Cowboys fans are not counting on Terry Glenn to make a comeback this year. If he does we will be very happy. Does Isiah Stanback look like he can be a solid No. 2 and the next Hines Ward? Patrick Crayton is a No. 3 in my eyes. —Todd from Graham, Texas

ET: I agree with you on Crayton being more of a No. 3 wide receiver. He's a steady, but not spectacular receiver. That said, the former seventh-round draft pick has been a real bargain for Dallas and is currently the second-best receiver on the team. But I don't think Stanback is the answer at No. 2 or 3 on the depth chart. Don't be surprised to see Miles Austin turn some heads during training camp this year. With his speed, jumping ability and body control, I like his chances this season more than Stanback's to grab the No. 3 spot.

CS: I don't see Isaiah Stanback being a No. 2 receiver this season; he's still developing his skills as a receiver. Stanback has a lot of potential, but he's still another year away from making an impact. You may think Patrick Crayton is a No. 3 receiver, but he will be the Cowboys No. 2 receiver behind Terrell Owens. One player you should keep an eye on during training camp is Danny Amendola. He had a breakout year last season for Texas Tech, hauling in 109 receptions for 1,245 yards and six touchdowns. An undrafted free agent, Amendola runs solid routes, moves well inside and has great hands. Amendola doesn't possess great size, but he's a polished receiver and will compete for playing time.

AC: The team is happy with the progress of late from Stanback, but understand he didn't catch a pass in his rookie season and the team isn't in pads during OTAs, so there's only so much you can see.

If Glenn isn't on the team, Stanback will compete against Sam Hurd for the No. 3 job. If Glenn is on the team, Stanback will compete for the No. 4 job.

I'd agree with you on Crayton, he's more of a slot receiver, but Stanback hasn't proven a thing yet as a receiver. If Stanback makes huge progress this season, he could push for a starting job in 2009.

TM: Wow, Stanback was a college QB, who was injured in '07, but you think he is going to line up in front of Glenn, Crayton, and No. 17 Hurd? Todd, I've got to tell you, I'd be more than a little surprised if that were to happen. He is a very good athlete, but I find it hard to believe that he could pass those people up so quickly.

Q: Now that Cedric "The Bust" Benson is gone from Chicago, I have two questions for you. What should the Bears do? What WILL the Bears do? If they decide they need to add a veteran, who will it be? —Mike from Providence, R.I.

ET: The Bears should and will do exactly what I believed they would do from the time they sent Matt Forte's name up to the podium on draft weekend. Give him the ball. He's a far better back than Benson and would have won the job during training camp anyway. He's a tough runner who is a real threat in the passing game. And his coach at Tulane made sure he knew how to pass block, so he's going to help Chicago's passing game even when he's not running a route. The Bears should add a veteran like former Texan Ron Dayne or former Lion Kevin Jones who can take some of the load off the rookie and who can help with his development.

CS: Now that Cedric "The Detainer" got boozed off the stage in Chicago, the Bears will turn to second-round selection Matt Forte. Forte had a tremendous offseason and really impressed scouts with his versatility, speed and vision. Even if Benson was still with the Bears, Forte would have made it hard for him to be the featured back. The Bears may look for a veteran to back up Forte, like Kevin Jones or Shaun Alexander, but they still have Adrian Peterson and 2007 third-round pick Garrett Wolfe on their roster. Wolfe is the wildcard to me and he has the potential to form an intriguing one-two punch with Forte.

AC: If I was their GM Jerry Angelo, I'd key on free-agent RB Kevin Jones and work him out and see how he's doing coming back from ACL surgery. Shaun Alexander looks like he's close to the end of the line and Travis Henry is too much of a headache to take a shot on. But Alexander has good character so we shouldn't dismiss him totally with the Bears. That said, expect rookie RB Matt Forte to start for them.

TM: Mike, I don't believe the Bears have a lot of options at this stage of the game (four weeks from training camp). I'm sure they list Peterson as the starter, but he is at best a tough journeyman back and special-teams player. Forte is the key in my opinion. He's a tough, north-south runner, who runs the hole and finishes. Wolfe was a very talented college back, but is short in stature and looks like a third-down back to me. They may look in training camp to make a move, especially if they don't think Forte is ready to contribute, but believe me when I say that there is not much out there.

Q: How many of the NFL players today are former Pop Warner Football players? How many of them still remember by supporting that very first level of competition they ever encountered and gave them a reason for wanting to be a PRO? —Everett from Seattle

ET: The NFLPA estimates that roughly 60 to 70 percent of today's NFL players participated in Pop Warner Football. While I don't know of any specific numbers on how many of them provide active support to the program today, I do know that many donate their time to working with youth of various ages through football camps or by providing financial support so that underprivileged youth get the opportunity to play football.

CS: I don't know how many guys in the NFL played Pop Warner, but I'm sure a majority of them played when they were kids. A lot of the players in the league have foundations and support many causes, and the most popular function players hold are football camps.

AC: I have no idea how many players played in Pop Warner, but most NFL players participated in some sort of organized football growing up. I happened to be at a football camp for kids this past weekend with NFL players and they all said they played in different types of leagues in their formative years.

TM: I'm sure a good many NFL players played Pop Warner football as youngsters (particularly skill players), but I don't know if the league calculates those type of stats on players. Most of the interior linemen in the NFL probably, even from the ages of 10 to 12, exceeded the weight limits.

I personally am not a big fan of the Pop Warner programs. I believe we should let kids from 8 to 13 just have fun. There is plenty enough time beyond that point in middle school, high school and perhaps college for players to be put in regimented, team-oriented situations.

Q: Do you believe D.J. Hall will make the Giants roster? If so, what are his chances of playing? —Jason from Leeds, Ala.

ET: I'd be surprised to see Hall make the final 53 at the end of the summer, primarily because the Giants have so much depth at the position. He's probably the seventh- or eighth-best receiver on the roster this year. The Giants should consider him for their practice squad if he's not snatched up by another team following the final roster cuts.

CS: I think it's going to be tough for D.J. Hall to make the Giants roster. The Giants have a crowded depth chart at WR and they have to find playing time for some of their other young WRs; Steve Smith, Sinorice Moss and Mario Manningham.

AC: It's going to be very difficult for Hall, an undrafted free agent, to make the Giants roster based on the personnel ahead of him.

Amani Toomer, Plaxico Burress, Steve Smith, Sinorice Moss and David Tyree are all expected to be on the team this season. The best Hall could hope for is to be on their practice squad.

TM: Jason, D.J. has talent, but he does not run particularly well, was sloppy on his releases and, in my opinion, was marginal in and out of a break (not a lot of attention to detail). He has good size, is experienced and was a good-handed catcher. He can make the off-target reception (was special vs. Ole Miss in '07, but just a guy in all other contests viewed). He is going to play, but I really don't see him as developing into a special player. I spoke to people "in the know" this morning and all were very impressed with his work throughout the spring, but unfortunately, he was injured weightlifting and will be out a month.

Burress could be a problem. He wants to re-negotiate his contract and may sit it out. Toomer is nearing the end of the line, Tyree is a journeyman, Smith is a talented sure-handed catcher, but is not a homerun threat (more of an inside receiver). I didn't like Moss in college (just a guy) and Manningham is talented, but is not a quick study. He is a little on the edge (personality), and has showed no interest in playing special teams (a long-term project).

Q: Who will be the starting QB for Tampa Bay at the beginning of the season? —Tyrone from West Point, Miss.

ET: Jeff Garcia will be the starter at the beginning of the season. And despite the fact that he turned 38 back in February, if he can stay healthy, he'll be the starter at the end of the year, as well. The bigger question may be who will be No. 2? I believe it will be Luke McCown, who completed better than 67 percent of his passes during five game appearances and three starts in 2007.

CS: I still think Jeff Garcia will be the Bucs' starting QB this season. I can't imagine the two sides not coming to an agreement on a new contract that satisfies both parties. But if Garcia decides to walk away from the game over a contract dispute, the Bucs will turn to Brian Griese to lead them this season.

TM: I would say it is without question going to be Garcia. I didn't like McCown at Cleveland or as a college player. Griese is smart and experienced, but is at best a journeyman player (I would question if TB would carry two 30-something QBs). Simms showed me nothing at Texas and less at the professional level. Johnson has good size, runs well and put up some big numbers, but the University of San Diego is light years from the NFL (they would literally have a tough time winning the championship in Hillsborough county). He has small hands (looked awful at the Combine throwing the football). Look for the Bucs to redshirt him (IR) and hope he can develop over time. I have never spoken to him, but his test score was critically low, particularly for a QB. Ty, always remember, when you have five QBs, you have none.

Q: Where is Shaun Alexander and is he going to land anywhere for next season? —Anonymous

ET: Shaun Alexander had visits with the Saints and the Bengals, but he's not close to being signed anywhere. Over the past two seasons he's averaged a rather ordinary 3.5 yards per carry, so teams aren't exactly stumbling over themselves to make him an offer. If he plays in 2008, it'll likely be due to a major injury during training camp to a starter. But even then, he'll have to be realistic with his compensation demands if he truly wants to play in the NFL again. There are too many younger, cheaper players who can average 3.5 yards per carry.

CS: Shaun Alexander is still on the open market and hasn't received much interest. The best situations for Alexander are Chicago and New Orleans, but nothing appears to be imminent.

AC: We haven't heard of any teams that would look at him as a starter, and other than the Saints and Bengals who had him in for visits, he hasn't received much interest. Alexander turns 31 in August and is looking at a backup role to end his career. Chicago is a possibility based on need at the position.

TM: The running back position in the NFL is a half-life. Shaun was a great back, but appears to be near or at the end of the line. His days as a front-line back, without question, are over and with the the injuries and money he would command, I would question his value within the league at this stage.

Q: How much will (DTs Corey) Williams and (Shaun) Rogers actually help stop the run for the Browns? —Dawgpound Psycho from Cleveland

ET: In 16 games at DT for the Packers last year, Williams made 35 stops, putting him in a tie for 39th best among all defensive tackles in the league. Rogers was better, but nothing to write home about. His 39 stops put him in a tie for 28th best at his position. That said, they are both big-bodied men who will be primarily tasked with drawing as much attention from the offensive line as possible so their linebackers are free to fly to the ball and make tackles. Williams has a better track record to date than Rogers at being consistently aggressive enough to draw double teams.

CS: The Browns desperately needed help on the interior of their defensive line, and adding two DTs of Corey Williams' and Shaun Rogers' caliber will only improve their run defense this season. Rogers will play NT, while Williams will play end, but look for them to give the Browns much needed penetration against the opposition.

AC: Williams will be more of a pass rusher, but he's playing in a new scheme, as is Rogers, so we'll have to see how they hold up against the run. Williams still is seen by scouts as an above-average pass rusher, but getting consistency out of him in that area is an issue. Rogers has major consistency and weight issues based on past experience with the Lions, but the Browns are happy with his progress so far. Both players will help form a nice rotation for the front three, and the expectation is the depth they have up front should help them get better against the run. The players on last year's team got worn down because of depth issues.

TM: Obviously the Browns feel they will make them better up front, but I believe there were some holes at LB and on the back end that still need to be addressed. I really don't see them as any better than third (behind Pittsburgh and Cincinnati) in a marginal division.

Q: The Jaguars are never making the news. Do you think it's because no one cares or because Jack Del Rio and company know how to keep a team happy? —Akeem from Jacksonville, Fla.

ET: Jacksonville has been hurt by the fact that NFL fans and the media are more often fascinated by teams who can light up the scoreboard, at least every few years. That hasn't been Jacksonville's gig. Fans love to talk about the opposing quarterbacks they fear, admire, or hate like the Manning brothers, Tom Brady, Donovan McNabb, Tony Romo and Brett Favre. Compare those guys to Jacksonville's leading men — Mark Brunell, Byron Leftwich and David Garrard. They are a bit of a ho-hum bunch by comparison, although Garrard is showing signs of life.

Meanwhile, the team has only had two big-name receivers in the history of the franchise — Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell. The team's third-best player in career receptions — Reggie Williams — has just 152 catches. So until Jacksonville gets a potent passing attack to pair up with their strong defense, they'll likely struggle to convince people that they'll be anything better than a vanilla, runner-up team. And that hurts their ability to gain more of the national spotlight.

CS: I think Jack Del Rio does a very good job with the Jaguars and he keeps everything together. But the Jaguars are not a very popular team around the country. Besides making a bold move in the draft to select Derrick Harvey, there hasn't been much news to come out of the Jacksonville front office.

AC: The Jaguars are the only team in the NFL that doesn't regularly sell out their games and they're in one of the NFL's smallest media markets. So there generally isn't a lot of buzz associated with this team; plus their failures in the playoffs have quelled a lot of talk in NFL circles. Despite all that, the front office did a tremendous job in free agency and the draft. This is quickly becoming one of the AFC's best teams, but they have to win more than one playoff game if they're to get the respect that they want.

TM: Akeem, teams like the Raiders, Bengals and Jets made lots of news last season, but they didn't win many games. I would much rather win a bunch of games, go to the playoffs and could care less if anybody knew who I was. Jacksonville, one of my favorite cities in the U.S., is considered a small-market city and unfortunately doesn't get its due from the national media. My suggestion would be to continue supporting your team and subscribe to JagNation, a great site.

Q: What new players have looked good for the Giants? —Frank

ET: In the early going, rookie safety Kenny Phillips is showing the coaching staff what they saw on game film from his college years in terms of his speed, leaping ability and good hands, so they're pleased about that. Second-round pick Terrell Thomas is projecting a lot of confidence on the field while he's learning. He should be in the mix for the team's nickel-back spot. Wide receiver Mario Manningham has had moments where he's impressed, but has been a bit inconsistent in the early going. Undrafted rookie D.J. Hall has made some impressive catches, but he faces an uphill battle due to the talent on the depth chart.

AC: The team is excited about rookie WR Mario Manningham and he could push Sinorice Moss for playing time this season if he continues his progression during training camp. Look for a battle in training camp for the WLB job between Gerris Wilkinson and veteran Danny Clark, who was one of their free agent signings.

TM: Frank, Phillips along with the LBs from Vanderbilt and BYU, have looked extremely good. Philips looks like he's been playing for three to four years already. Both backs will contribute on special teams.

Q: Plaxico Burress did have a great season last year, but is he really worth the T.O./Randy Moss money that he is looking for? —Dan from Monroe, La.

ET: Not yet. Plaxico's numbers over the past two seasons put him nearly neck-and-neck with Moss in catches and yards, but not in comparison to Owens. But one thing that's interesting to note is that over the past two seasons, his 133 catches — just seven less than Moss —places him as only the 22nd best in the league in that category. Compare that to T.J. Houshmandzadeh's 202 receptions or Reggie Wayne's 190 during that span and you'll wonder why Burress is squawking.

At least Owens (166 catches) can point to his 2,535 receiving yards during the last two years, third-best in the league behind Wayne and Chad Johnson. He also leads in touchdowns with 28, with Moss and Burress placing second and third with 26 and 22 respectively.

CS: Burress is a very good receiver, but he's not on the same level as Terrell Owens and Randy Moss. The Giants have to be careful here; Burress will turn 31 this August and he's been banged up the past few seasons. I would consider giving Burress a new contract, but only if his demands lessen and if he cooperates by practicing. It just seems like Burress wants one last big pay day, because he knows he won't play forever.

AC: No he's not, despite having a nice season considering the lingering ankle injury. He's a No. 1 receiver by default on that team, but personnel evaluators see him more as a No. 2 receiver. Burress has three years left on his contract and turns 31 in August so there's no sense of urgency on the front offices' part to adjust his contract.

TM: I personally don't think Burress is in the same class as Moss and is certainly not worth the money he is looking for. The Giants are in a tough situation, particularly since they are very thin at the position. Burress is under contract, but wants to renegotiate his contract. Look for him to sit out training camp and report in the week prior to the start of the season.

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