Whether the decrease in conditioning work mandated by last summer's new collective bargaining agreement actually precipitated more offseason incidents this spring, with catastrophic soft-tissue injuries seemingly on the rise, is a certainly a matter of conjecture.
But what cannot be debated is that offseason injuries to players such as Terrell Suggs, Jason Peters, Phil Taylor, Da'Quan Bowers, Lofa Tatupu and others -- with most expected to be sidelined for the majority or all of the 2012 season -- will put plenty of heat on their replacements.
Guys like Atlanta second-year veteran Akeem Dent, who recorded all of one tackle from scrimmage as a rookie in 2011, was to have benefitted from having Tatupu as a mentor. Now Dent, who seems to have the perfect last name if not the experience for the starting job, will be expected to step into the void created by the free agency defection of Curtis Lofton (to New Orleans), who started in all but one of his 64 games for the Falcons since 2008.
"(Lofton) was a great player for us," Dent said, as the Falcons began training camp practices on Thursday. "I can't try to be him. Or I'm not Lofa, either, who had all that experience, and has been to Pro Bowls. Even though we were fighting for the same position, he was helping me sort stuff out, you know? All I can do is to go full-speed all the time ... and try to be consistent with everything I do. I am who I am."
Exactly who Dent is: A onetime strong-side 'backer at the University of Georgia, the former third-round choice, who was moved inside by the Bulldogs' staff late in his career in Athens, has started just 13 games at middle linebacker. In his debut NFL season, Dent played primarily on special teams, and his 19 coverage tackles ranked among the most in franchise history. But Lofton, despite liabilities in coverage that Atlanta coaches opted to ignore, played virtually every down from scrimmage. A season-ending pectoral injury to Tatupu, suffered last week in a weightlifting incident, prompted the release of the veteran and left Dent without the mentor with whom he had worked for much of the offseason.
The Falcons signed 13-year veteran Mike Peterson as insurance -- he played the middle under coach Mike Smith in Jacksonville, knows Dent well from last season, but would not have been rescued from the scrap heap if not for Tatupu's injury -- but they are without the guy they hand-picked, after he didn't play at all in 2011, to provide insurance. Suddenly, the safety net has sprung a few holes and Dent is expected to repair them with little apprenticeship served.
Unlike Lofton, who generally played all three downs, Dent almost certainly will be a two-down defender in the scheme being implemented by new coordinator Mike Nolan. But even if he's projected as a two-down run-stuffer, the youngster still has considerable responsibility for a team that has been to the playoffs in three of the past four seasons, and the learning curve has been accelerated.
"People don't want excuses," said Dent, who could have a difficult time replicating the ability of Lofton to align all his colleagues in the right place, a knowledge that the departed Tatupu might have provided. "We're expected to win. We expect to win. And I've got to play well and fill in the hole."
Because of the aforementioned injuries, Dent isn't the only young player in the NFL facing a tough period breaking in for a high-profile teammate who was incapacitated by an offseason incident.
The league's reigning defensive player of the year, Suggs, who had 14 sacks in 2011 and whose public bravado fits well with the Ravens' mindset, has vowed that he will return at some point this season from his Achilles injury. Baltimore coaches and club officials are privately skeptical but, even if he does,' fourth-year veteran Paul Kruger likely will be asked to fill in for him. Kruger, who could end up sharing time with rookie second-rounder Courtney Upshaw, had 5.5 sacks as a situational player last season, and displayed obvious pass-rush instincts. But the former Utah star, a second-round pick in 2009, has but one regular-season start on his resume.
"You can't dwell over who you're replacing, or try to be something you're not," said Philadelphia offensive tackle Demetress Bell, signed as a free agent after Peters suffered two Achilles tears, and almost certainly will miss the entire campaign. "The pressure to produce is (considerable) enough without doing that. It's your time to step up, and people are counting on you to do it."
Some league scouts feel that Peters, a five-time Pro Bowl blocker, is the premier left tackle in the NFL.
Bell, on the other hand, has only 31 appearances in four seasons in a career marked by injuries. Only once, in 2010, has he played in 16 games. Bell played in just seven contests (six starts) in 2011, and in only eight in 2009. He will benefit some from the fact Eagles' quarterback Michael Vick is left-handed, and thus won't be protecting his blindside, but the shoes he is being asked to fill are more like oversized clodhoppers.
"There's no doubt," Bell said, "people are going to be (scrutinizing) me."
The same can be said for Scott Paxson, who will probably get the first shot in the Browns' training camp at replacing Taylor. Like Suggs, Taylor, who sustained a pec injury, has declared he will return at some point in 2012. Like Ravens' officials, most Cleveland executives are dubious.
The Browns chose a pair of defensive tackles in the draft three months ago, John Hughes of Cincinnati (third round) and Boise State's Billy Winn (sixth round), but Paxson gets first dibs on lining up next to Ahtyba Rubin in a Cleveland defense that is probably better than its numbers from last year.
A former Penn State standout, Paxson originally entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent, has been released four times, and has never started a game. In fact, before last season, when he registered all of his 21 career tackles, Paxson had been in only one regular-season contest.
"None of that matters now," Paxson said in the offseason, when referring to the Taylor injury.
Nor does is matter if offseason injuries this spring mushroomed or if, perhaps because of the pedigree of the guys who sustained them, the increase was only a perception. What matters is that several young, and relatively untested, players will be expected to step in and fill critical spots.
--Around the League--
--League scouts have been conspicuously silent, at least for attribution, about the Penn State scandal.
But prior to the verdict against former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, there was some sentiment that the hiring of former New England offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien as the replacement for Joe Paterno might perhaps prompt the school to soften its stance on visits by scouts, guidelines which were among some of the more strident in the nation.
School administrators were said to be wary of any ties to the NFL, as far as scouts and certainly agents, and while the policies were laid out by the university, the suspicion was that they came with the fingerprints of Paterno all over them.
The past month or so has all but dashed any hopes that Penn State will be more "NFL friendly" under O'Brien's stewardship.
As for the players still on the squad after the Sandusky conviction, many of whom vowed this week to remain with the program despite the NCAA's more lenient transfer policy regarding them, well, there are mixed opinions from scouts.
Some scouts suggested to The Sports Xchange that they might place a premium on the loyalty of the players who stay in State College, while others said that players who defected might do so because they wanted to be able to compete for a bowl game and a chance at a conference title.
Whatever the disparate views on the players, there pretty much is unanimity that not much is going to change when it comes to scouting access for at least the first year of O'Brien's stewardship.
--Part of the hang up in completing a new contract for Denver offensive left tackle Ryan Clady, who has been offered a five-year, $50 million contract according to some Mile High City reports, is that Broncos officials feel the four-year veteran was more consistent in his first two years in the league.
Of course, a $10 million-a-year proposal isn't exactly chopped liver, but the Broncos' brass definitely feels Clady lags behind fellow left tackles such as Jason Peters (Eagles), Joe Thomas of Cleveland and perhaps Miami's Jake Long.
The counter from Clady's camp: While his performance may have slipped some in 2010 and clearly in 2011, there were some mitigating circumstances. The former first-round draft choice, who was among the NFL's premier pass protectors in his first couple campaigns and made the Pro Bowl each of those years, sustained an offseason injury to his patella tendon in 2010.
Despite some suggestions that he might miss the whole season, he started every game, despite not being at 100 percent.
Last year, the midseason switch to Tim Tebow as the starter, and the radical remaking of the Denver offense, with an emphasis on the run game, didn't exactly play to Clady's natural strengths.
As suggested a few times in the Tip Sheet, the arrival of Peyton Manning should benefit Clady even more than some other Broncos' teammates, since his "pass pro" skills figure to be accentuated. There remains a chance, even with the start of training camp, that the Broncos and Clady will complete an extension before the start of the season.
Discussions, which had been dormant for a week or two, are continuing' albeit it not at the pre-camp pace. But Clady would prefer some sort of sign from the team, beyond money, that his performance over his first four seasons has been top-shelf.
--The Friday morning report by multiple Cleveland-area media outlets that the Browns are negotiating to sell at least part of the team -- subsequently confirmed by franchise officials -- was somewhat surprising. But it probably shouldn't be.
Owner Randy Lerner, who inherited the club when father Al Lerner died in 2002, has been a guy who was well intentioned, but never quite able to deliver, and unable to lift the team to its previous status.
Basically, the younger Lerner, who was thrust into the stewardship role prematurely, has not been completely comfortable as the owner.
And despite his genuine passion for the franchise, he has been more of a fan than a facilitator, a guy whose heart was generally in the right place, but who was usually ineffective.
It remains to be seen how much of an "investment" potential owner/partners Jimmy Haslam and former Eagles' president Joe Banner make in the Browns, but the early indications from league sources on Friday morning were that it could be substantial.
It will also be worth noting what effect Haslam/Banner could have on the role of team president Mike Holmgren. It's been rumored for several years now that Holmgren might not be around a lot longer.
--The early read on the Thursday trade of defensive tackle Brian Price from Tampa Bay to Chicago, at least from the personnel people to whom The Sports Xchange has spoken, was that the Bears likely got the better of the deal.
A former second-round choice (2010), Price struggled through injuries with the Bucs and started just 14 games in two seasons, and didn't exactly endear himself to new coach Greg Schiano in the short time they were together.
But the former UCLA star is regarded in the league as strong and quick, and a guy who, if healthy and in shape, will fit nicely into the Chicago tackle rotation with projected starters Henry Melton and Matt Toeaina, and perhaps push the latter for snaps.
This marks the second time in recent years that the Bucs shipped the Bears a high-round defensive lineman -- they traded them the late Gaines Adams in 2009, but the formerly Clemson star died from a heart ailment a year later -- and Chicago coaches were excited about getting Price for just a seventh-round pick.
--In the absence of Mike Wallace, the unsigned restricted free agent who has not yet signed his one-year tender and is missing training camp, Pittsburgh officials have broken off negotiations.
The truth has always been that the Steelers, while embracing Wallace, feel that Antonio Brown might turn out to be the better receiver, and were always set on signing Wallace to a long-term deal at their parameters, not his.
There was some needling involved in coach Mike Tomlin's characterization of Wallace as a "one-trick pony" -- a player whose blinding speed intimidated defenses, but which was always better than his route-running -- but also some truth to it.
There is also some truth to this: Pittsburgh will keep a close eye on third-year veteran Emmanuel Sanders, the man who is currently replacing Wallace, but who has experienced foot and knee problems in the past.
The Steelers really like Sanders, who believe that his route-adjustment abilities, honed under run-and-shoot coach June Jones at SMU, give him the chance to be a very good pass-catcher.
But Sanders, who is more quick than fast, and who reads secondary rotations well, has undergone surgeries on both feet in two years, and had a fairly routine knee procedure as well.
The injuries are arguably the biggest reason Sanders has just 50 receptions in two years.
Pittsburgh coaches feel he is better than that, but will keep a close eye on his physical status. During the offseason, Tomlin candidly acknowledged concern over the injuries, but bragged about Sanders' potential.
With Wallace out of camp, and no hint as to when he will sign, the Steelers need Sanders to approximate that potential.
--It's only a few days into camp, but the old adage "three's a crowd" has hardly been a factor for several teams who boosted their "nickel" coverage packages in the offseason, essentially with three starting-caliber cornerbacks.
And that clearly has been the case with the Falcons.
The addition of Asante Samuel to the tandem of Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes wasn't purposely intended to provide Atlanta with the potential to better match up with all the multiple-wide receiver looks presented by NFC West archrival New Orleans, but things certainly are shaping up that way.
Said one Falcons' defender on Thursday: "We're better prepared now to go tit-for-tat with them, and that makes a difference."
Despite a Philadelphia Inquirer note last week that suggested coach Andy Reid viewed Samuel as a player who was in decline, the Falcons' staff hasn't perceived any disturbing drop-off in the play of the four-time Pro Bowl defender in minicamps, OTAs or the opening days of camp. The nine-year veteran has always been a guy who gambled some that he could jump routes and make the big, game-altering play, and who sometimes got beat deep on double-move routes as a result.
But he brings a swagger that was perhaps lacking in the Atlanta secondary, and he'll allow Robinson, an overpaid disappointment in his first two seasons with the club (even if Falcons' officials wouldn't admit it), to move to the slot in most situations.
"It's a comfortable situation (playing inside)," Robinson said. "We play 'nickel' more than 50 percent anyway, so we're all starters. There's no ego involved."
--The last word: "I was stunned. I didn't believe it. It was awesome. It was one of those things that you hear and that's so hard to believe. But at the same time, when you let it all soak in, you think to yourself, ‘Man, he's got a point.' If he's saying it, then I've got to do it. So the first run of the year, I'm sliding, and you'll know it's for him." -- Philadelphia quarterback Michael Vick, on the suggestion by President Barack Obama, who apparently is taking his health initiative to the NFL, that the Eagles' star needs to slide more at the end of his scrambles