Last week, my admiration for those making their living as beat writers and truckers rose to a new level. I took on the task of visiting a number of training camps in the Northeast. My journey covered four camps, six teams and more than 1,200 miles in four days. The turnout for each stop was awe-inspiring, ranging from 400-500 on a rain-soaked morning practice to over 12,000 to coronate King Terrell (Owens).
In between breakfast burritos, strong coffee and bottles of water to battle dehydration, I got to watch a lot of football and some interesting drills. Even though it was just the first full week of camp, guys were getting after it. Here's the first of a three-part series designed to provide a glimpse into the world of training camps and to add first-hand insights to aid in your draft strategy.
Buffalo Bills at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y.
The Bills took the field and I made my way over to watch the quarterbacks go through their initial drills. I wanted to see the marriage of a new offensive system and QB Drew Bledsoe. I came away mildly impressed from watching his touch on the deep ball and the 10-15 yard outs run by the wide receivers. Passes to his left tended to sail. I believe that this will be corrected, as they've got another full month to work out the issues. Plus, Sam Wyche is back on the sideline and is very actively monitoring Bledsoe's throws.
I watched first-round pick J.P. Losman run through the same drills, pressing himself to match the venerable Bledsoe. He's got the arm strength to make the big toss and is working hard to get his touch down for the short routes and to hit the receiver out of the backfield. His mobility is noteworthy and he will be a huge playmaker down the road. (Note: Losman was 4-4 for 39 yards and added a rushing TD in Saturday's scrimmage). Travis Brown currently resides as the No. 2 man on the depth chart. His footwork is solid and he was able to make all of the throws.
Jonas Jennings is back from the foot injury that ended his 2003 season prematurely and is moving well in drills. I know, who's Jonas Jennings? Jennings essentially stands as the linchpin to the offensive line, with his chief responsibility being to protect Drew Bledsoe's blindside. His health will be key to their development and success.
Rookie Lee Evans, running opposite Eric Moulds, was a favorite target of the big fly. Moulds himself is running well and is prepared to return to the receiving elite. Josh Reed was also in the mix, looking to force first-year coach Mike Mularkey into a decision between him and Evans, who has been unbelievable in drills, showing a great first step off of the line and a willingness to lay out for the ball. Reed ran additional routes over the middle, showing that he's willing to catch the ball in traffic.
The man to watch in this practice was second-year wideout Sam Aiken. Aiken missed the majority of the 2003 campaign due to injury, but he's back and ready to compete for the No. 3 wide receiver position in Mularkey's attack. He was running crisp routes and catching anything that entered his personal space. As he walked to the sideline he fanned himself with his practice jersey, revealing a tattoo that read "Sleeper" across his midsection. I later confirmed that this is, in fact, one of his nicknames. That's funny, because as I watched the practice, I added him to my list of sleeper receivers.
Travis Henry is out to prove himself all over again, working extra reps in route running. He's leaner and ready for the competition to fend off upstart second-year man Willis McGahee. Speaking of McGahee, the explosiveness was there once he got outside the tackles in Friday's workout, but he seemed to hit the line tentatively. Saturday's carries in the scrimmage looked much the same, and he did seem to gain confidence with each carry. This should be a great competition over the next month.
Cornerbacks Troy Vincent and Nate Clements looked good in 11-on-11 drills, and the signing of Jason Gildon will help solidify the middle. The remaining defensive back positions are yet to be sorted out. There are a number of players with limited experience vying for those roles. Sam Adams was unable to go in drills, but chatter on the sidelines says it's just a short-term deal and he'll be on the field shortly. Aaron Schobel, playing for a contract extension, dominated in drills and appears ready to generate a big push up front. It'll be interesting to watch how the defense develops in preseason games. If it doesn't, watch for Bledsoe to toss the ball an awful lot.
First preseason game: Sunday, Aug. 15 vs. Denver
New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass.
I battled the rain and construction to hit Gillette for a morning workout. Upon arrival, my eyes were immediately drawn to the running backs. I just had to see how Corey Dillon was progressing in his new offense. My immediate response was to assume a C. Montgomery Burns-like posture and mutter the word "excellent." He was bouncing in the holes like he did as a rookie and shined in pass-catching drills.
Backup Kevin Faulk was also very impressive. He hit the holes and bounced to the outside, looking quicker than he did in his reps last season. Faulk also remains a big part of the passing game, hauling in extra reps during short passing drills.
Tom Brady was his usual efficient self, hitting a host of receivers with tight spirals to the sidelines. He also was launching the deep ball a little more frequently than we've seen in the past. They're working to get Deion Branch more involved in a deep passing game and from what I saw in this workout, it's clicking.
The Patriots also worked drills with rolling the pocket, trying to offer up new looks for opposing defenses gunning for them. Brady took to it well. As for the backups, that's another story.
Brady also seems to have bonded with long-time San Francisco 49ers wideout and fantasy washout J.J. Stokes, who was working the middle of the field in additional reps with Brady. Stokes is a big target and possesses big play potential (63 catches with eight touchdowns back in 1998). The other big target of the day was wideout David Givens. He was working deep out routes opposite Branch, Troy Brown, Bethel Johnson and David Patten
With first-round selection Ben Watson continuing his holdout, Bill Belichick is looking at three tight ends in workouts. Christian Fauria maintains the best grasp of the offense. Zeron Flemister has the size at 6-foot-4 to make a contribution, but he's more of a sit-down receiver. (Note: Flemister was helped off of the practice field on Monday – officials are awaiting word on the extent of the injury.) Finally, Daniel Graham continues to confound his teammates and coaches, making great catches against press coverage, but watching uncontested tosses bounce off the fingers.
The backup quarterbacks present cause for concern if you're a Pats fan. Both Rohan Davey and Kurt Kittner struggled to toss a spiral in this particular morning workout. Davey has a cannon for an arm, but he's got a big windup and is slow of foot. He excels at the deep middle route. Kittner struggled with arm strength on the deeper throws and decision-making with the mix of blitzes being thrown his way.
I'll end this report with two quick hits on the defense. Dan Klecko dominated in open-field tackling drills, showing speed and footwork that will allow him to be more versatile in Belichick's ever-changing defense. Word at camp is that he may see some time at linebacker this season in addition to his normal work in the trenches.
Rookie free safety Dexter Reid also looked tremendous in one-on-one drills. He tipped away several balls and made a tremendous pick on a low throw by Kittner. If the Pats can count on the rookies to make plays in that fashion, look out!
First preseason game: Friday, Aug. 13 vs. Philadelphia
Quentin Griffin made a strong case for the starting job in Denver, rolling up two long runs and finishing with 46 yards on six carries. He also caught three passes for 12 yards. Mike Shanahan loved what he saw, and you have to like that kind of effort on a national TV opener.
Rookie safety Sean Taylor looked outstanding, making several big plays including an interception in the end zone on a fade route and a short return for a touchdown. Taylor's a big hitter and playmaker and a solid selection to pad your INT totals.
Washington will have to do without tackle Jon Jansen, who ruptured his left Achilles' tendon. The injury to the University of Michigan standout, who hasn't missed a game or practice in his career, opens a gaping hole in the Redskins line. Clinton Portis will still be a monster, but this will impact the passing game.
Darius Watts of the Broncos had four catches for 44 yards – and they threw the ball in his direction another half-dozen times. Mike Shanahan wants to see what the rookie from Marshall brings to the table. He dropped one, but he looks like he'll be a fixture in the offensive scheme this season as the third wideout. Charlie Adams, a second-year man from Hofstra, also looked solid with five catches.
Finally, for Portis owners, his backup Sultan McCullough played good smash mouth football in his stint on the field. He's a speedster out of USC, and when he hits the corners, he'll be tough to catch. He's worth a late-round look in Gibbs' offense to protect your investment in Portis.
There's also a full slate of action ahead this weekend. I'll be watching intently to give you the update on position battles and the injuries that are sure to follow.