7 Points: Pressure's On

Why would a big year by Dallas WR Roy Williams be good for the NFL? Will Jeff Garcia be the starting QB in Oakland by Week 1? Why is Patriots RB Laurence Maroney returning with a chip on his shoulder? Get the answers to these questions and more in Ed Thompson's latest 7 Points feature.

Point 1: Roy Williams needs to drive home the point that Jerry Jones is making in Dallas.

For the good of his team and the NFL, wide receiver Roy Williams needs to step up and be a more consistent target than Terrell Owens was over the last two seasons. 

In 2008, Owens failed to log at least 40 yards of receiving in eight contests. And even during his 1,355-yard season in 2007, Owens wasn't a steady force for the Cowboys, rolling up 65 percent of his receiving yards during six big games. He averaged just 53 yards per contest in his other nine game appearances.

If Williams can be a steadier receiving threat, it'll open up opportunities in the running game and for the rest of the club's receivers. And the Cowboys could find a better balance offensively, putting a messy 9-7 season behind them for good.

That would reinforce a positive message to all of the owners in the NFL, who appear to be gradually realizing that problem players aren't worth the collateral damage they cause to a football team that has championship aspirations.

Dallas owner Jerry Jones, a man who previously appeared to be so desperate to win a Super Bowl that he endorsed questionable signings of players like Owens, Adam "Pacman" Jones and Tank Johnson, seems to have learned a painful, but valuable lesson. All three of those players have been jettisoned from the Dallas roster along with some outspoken veterans who had lost their team-first attitudes.

If the Cowboys rebound back into the mix for the NFC title this year, the decision to part ways with problem players could serve as a great example to the entire NFL. As Jones has witnessed first-hand, even highly talented players with baggage do little more than weigh your team down.

Point 2: It won't shock me to see Jeff Garcia starting at quarterback for the Oakland Raiders as early as Week 1.

While the veteran quarterback was acquired to be a mentor to third-year quarterback JaMarcus Russell, the Raiders had to know that they needed a player with a track record of stepping in on-the-fly to salvage a team's season. Garcia proved that he could be that type of player when he took over for the injured Donovan McNabb back in 2006, and I fully expect him to be called upon to save the Raiders from another season of disappointment this year.

Jeff Garcia
AP Photo/Paul Sakuma

Let's face it, Al Davis will be watching his team's training camp as an 80-year-old owner who is hungrier than ever to see his once-feared club return to prominence in this league. At the same time, Tom Cable will be anxious to prove that he can be a successful NFL head coach. Neither one will be likely to stand by Russell if he struggles during training camp, despite the fact that he'd be gouging the team's cap for $13.6 million this season while holding a clipboard.

The feisty and competitive Garcia certainly isn't planning to yield the starter's role to Russell, particularly after the young quarterback performed like an erratic rookie during OTAs.

"I understand the role that I have basically assumed that JaMarcus was drafted to be the starting quarterback," Garcia said. "But I think there has to be a realization at some point as to putting the best players on the field that are going to give you the best chance to win. Now if JaMarcus is that guy, then he definitely deserves to be on the field and should be on the field. 

"But if for some reason with what I bring as a playerfrom a competitive nature, and the intensity and emotion that I bring to the fieldif that gives us a better chance to win games, then that decision is going to be left up to the coach. And hopefully he can make the right decision for the team." 

Point 3: There's no team with a more muddled quarterback situation than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 

If you take a quick glance at the quarterback depth chart for the Buccaneers, you'd think that they were setting the stage for a game show called, "Who Wants To Be An NFL Starting Quarterback?"

Tampa Bay has an interesting collection of young wanna-be starters, veteran washouts and second-tier talents competing for the role. It should be one of the most interesting training camp position battles in the league this summer. 

Rumors have been circulating that Brian Griese, one of the five quarterbacks currently on the roster, will be released or traded. The 34-year-old veteran started five games for the Buccaneers last year, completing 59.8 percent of this throws for 1,073 yards. But in those five starts he threw seven interceptions and just five touchdown passes. He didn't make an appearance during the team's recent workouts.

Luke McCown has spent four of his five NFL seasons with Tampa Bay, earning just three starts during that stretch with the Buccaneers. Realistically, the 27-year-old quarterback is an underdog for the starter's role, but he's been touting himself as the incumbent that the others will have to beat out for the job. The fact that the Buccaneers signed veteran Byron Leftwich and drafted rookie Josh Freeman with their first-round draft pick seems to indicate that they don't necessarily agree with his self-declared status.

Leftwich appears to be little more than an insurance policy for the team to help bridge them until Freeman is ready to start. The former Jaguars starter backed-up Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh last year and appeared in five contests, performing capably. He could lead the offense for the first few games of the season if necessary. Second-year quarterback Josh Johnson was declared inactive for all 16 games last season and is still developing.

Unless Johnson stumbles badly during training camp, don't be surprised to see Freeman, Leftwich and Johnson as the three men left standing by September with McCown as the odd-man out.  Freeman and Johnson offer the team a pair of athletic, young signal-callers who can grow in the Bucs' system together while Leftwich serves as their mentor.  

Point 4: The thud you heard coming out of Cincinnati this week was Carson Palmer putting his foot down. And it's about time.

Prior to being sidelined for the year four games into the 2008 season, the Bengals quarterback threw for no less than 3,800 yards, a 62-percent completion rate and 26 touchdowns for three consecutive seasons. Palmer was a legitimate threat to opposing defenses every week, even while battling distractions that were caused by some of his teammates' off-the-field legal problems and the on-the-field antics of the player formerly known as Chad Johnson, who legally changed his name to Chad Ochocinco. 

Carson Palmer
AP Photo/Tony Tribble

Over the past few seasons, Ochocinco seemed to be investing as much effort into choreographing his next touchdown celebration as honing his skills as a receiver. As a result, T.J. Houshmandzadeh slipped past him, becoming the team's top receiver.

With Houshmandzadeh signing with the Seattle Seahawks as a free agent during the offseason, you'd think that Ochocinco would have jumped at the chance to re-establish himself during OTAs as the leader of the wide receiver corps. But once again he was absent while the rest of the players began working together as a team. Palmer subtly sent a message to his lackadaisical teammate during a recent interview with NFL Sirius Radio, praising the receivers who were in camp, especially Chris Henry.

"He's a guy that's had a great offseason, really, really turned his life around. I'm excited to watch him play," Palmer said. "He's a guy that, it seems like he catches a touchdown every other ball that gets thrown to him, he's that explosive. He's kind of taken over for Chad's position and he's a guy that does not want to give up that spot right now."

The seventh-year quarterback obviously realizes that he needs to show his team that he's ready to take charge againand that he can put points on the scoreboard with or without Ochocinco. Palmer sounded like a quarterback who would be just as happy to see the egocentric wide receiver stay home or play elsewhere. 

"It's definitely a new look for the Bengals receiver corps, but I couldn't be happier with the guys we've got," Palmer said. "T.J.'s (Houshmandzadeh) gone and Chad's pretty much gone. He hasn't been here, so we've got guys that want those two spots, guys that compete day-in and day-out when we're out there on the field, running, conditioning and in the weight room lifting. They're guys that want to take over for those two spots. They look every bit capable of doing what we're going to ask them to do."

Point 5: The Giants offense will be more effective in the red zone this year.

Eli Manning & Company converted nearly 74 percent of their goal-to-go opportunities in 2008, the best mark by the team's offense since 2005. But the unit's 51-percent success rate overall in the red zone reflected a significant dip compared to the nearly 55-percent rate in 2007. And what made that statistic more troublesome for the Giants was the fact that the team ventured inside their opponents' 20-yard line 69 timesmore often than any other season in this decade.

Undoubtedly, the loss of Plaxico Burress ten weeks into the season contributed to the drop-off, so the Giants bolstered their receiver corps that included Domenik Hixon, Steve Smith and Mario Manningham as they headed into the 2009 campaign. With their first-round selection of Hakeem Nicks, the team added a 6-foot-1, fast, physical wide receiver with great hands who reminds me a bit of the Colts' Reggie Wayne when he first entered the pro ranks. Two rounds later they traded up to select Cal-Poly's Ramses Barden, a player who could be inserted into the lineup along with tight end Kevin Boss to provide Manning with a pair of 6-foot-6 targets in the red zone. 

"I'd love to make an impact in the red zone, as well as in the middle of the field," Barden said during a phone interview. "I want to be that complete player, and anything I can do in the red zone is definitely icing on the cake."

Point 6: Marc Bulger is badly in need of a bounce-back season.

The last time the Rams quarterback was able to unleash the full level of his natural talent was during the 2006 season. He passed for 4,301 yards, completed 62.9 percent of his throws and tossed 24 touchdown passes against just eight interceptions. And get thishe did all of that despite being repeatedly pounded to the turf, suffering 49 sacks behind an offensive line that seemed to be confused and poorly prepared.

Marc Bulger
Getty Images/Doug Benc

Over the past two seasons, Bulger's status as the team's starting quarterback came into question as he threw more interceptions (28) than touchdowns (22). And his completion rate last year dropped to 57 percent, the lowest of his career. But in an obvious vote of confidence for Bulger, and in hopes of restoring balance to their offensive attack by opening up running lanes for Steven Jackson, St. Louis wisely added talent to a developing offensive line through the addition of former Baylor offensive tackle Jason Smith. Prior to the draft, they had improved their lot at the center position by signing former Ravens center Jason Brown.

New head coach Steve Spagnulo will provide a badly-needed spark to a club that has been reeling aimlessly for the past few years. And he's made it clear that he believes in his starting quarterback's ability to lead his team's offense.  

"I really think the world of Marc, I did every time that we had to play against him," Spagnulo said this week. "I still think he's one of those guys that gets the ball out quick. He can put some pressure on the defense. And if the quarterback can put pressure on the defense, that's pretty good from an offensive point of view."

Point 7:  Don't write-off Patriots running back Laurence Maroney. He still has plenty of spunk.

Unfairly judged by many people who questioned his toughness last year, Maroney recently revealed that he was sidelined by something more substantial than a generic shoulder injury last season.

"I had a broken bone and I was trying to play with it," the former first-round pick recently told the media.

Unfortunately for Maroney, New England is purposely tight-lipped about providing details about player injuries. The club apparently believes that keeping more detailed information close to the vest provides them with a competitive advantage. But as a result, the fans and the media didn't understand the severity of his injury. 

Speculation ran rampant and Maroney's image took a blow. The impact of those comments obviously stung the fourth-year veteran. And he's anxious to get back onto the field to set the record straight.

"Everybody is going to think one way because they don't really know what's going on," Maroney said. "I dare anybody in this crowd to play football with a broken bone in your shoulder and you tell me how long you're going to last out there."

Maroney will be competing with former Jaguars running back Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk for playing time this season, so it'll be important for him to get off to a fast start if he wants to be at or near the top of the depth chart in New England. In 30 game appearances during his first three seasons, Maroney has rushed for 1,673 yards and 12 touchdowns while averaging 4.3 yards per carry. He's also caught 26 passes for 310 yards and one touchdown.

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A member of the Pro Football Writers of America, Ed Thompson's player interviews and NFL features are published across the Scout.com network and at FOXSports.com. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook. Or contact him by email through this link.

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