Here are some whispers we've been hearing from around the AFC:
• Fourth-year pro Paul Kruger, who will vie to replace the departed Jarret Johnson at one of the Ravens’ starting OLB spots, took a nice step forward as a pass rusher in 2011, notching 5½ sacks. However, how Kruger fares as a run defender is no small matter if he’s to succeed as a starter; Johnson’s run-stuffing ability was well-respected. “(That’s) kind of a role I'm hoping to get real good at, is sitting up on a tight end, kind of playing that outside 'backer position. I do a lot of it at the rush position — rushing the passer and stuff — but it's a little bit different,” Kruger said in April of setting the edge at outside linebacker. In Round Two of the draft, the Ravens added stout OLB Courtney Upshaw, who figures to compete for playing time in Year One.
• Jermaine Cunningham already had pressure on him heading into camp, but that got intensified when the Patriots drafted a pair of edge rushers — Chandler Jones and Jake Bequette — and another linebacker in Dont’a Hightower. Cunningham, the team’s second-round pick in 2010, played in 15 games with 11 starts as a rookie but didn’t live up to expectations as the pass rusher the team needed, with only one sack. We have heard that Bill Belichick is a big fan of Cunningham’s, but this will be a crucial summer for him to make the 53-man roster. A pair of Cunningham’s teammates from that 2010 class, Devin McCourty and Brandon Spikes, did get off to slow starts in ’11 after the lockout cost them a normal offseason. (Cunningham played in nine games with only one tackle and finished the season on injured reserve with a hamstring injury.) It’s possible that finally having a full offseason could get Cunningham’s game to the level that Belichick likely envisioned when he drafted him two years ago.
• To the chagrin of Jets fans, the Gang Green did not use one of its early picks on an offensive tackle — or even a late pick, for that matter. ORT Wayne Hunter, who led the team with 11 penalties, was a downgrade last season from the retired Damien Woody. We heard before the draft that the team would enter training camp with a position battle between Hunter and 2010 second-round pick Vlad Ducasse. GM Mike Tannenbaum confirmed as much to reporters on Friday. “I’d say Wayne is our right tackle now, and that’s something that we’re going to continue to look at,” he said. Tannenbaum added that Ducasse, who played some guard last preseason, will stay at right tackle. Tannenbaum also referenced Caleb Schlauderaff and Austin Howard in reference to the depth at tackle, but it’s a crucial position for the Jets, especially with Mario Williams entering the division this year.
• In the end, the Steelers didn’t lose WR Mike Wallace in restricted free agency. The club has made it clear they want to sign the Pro Bowler to a long-term deal. If such a deal happens, it figures to be before the season; Pittsburgh generally won’t negotiate new deals once the regular-season games begin. In addition to not losing Wallace, the Steelers were able to start restocking their depth chart with veteran reserves in April. Most notably, the Steelers brought back backup QBs Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch. With starter Ben Roethlisberger’s daring style of play being one that can lead to him taking some big hits, the re-signings of Leftwich and Batch give the Steelers a needed strong hand at the QB position.
• Jaguars GM Gene Smith has become adept at keeping other teams off his trail on Draft Day. After publicly coveting Redskins OLB Ryan Kerrigan last spring, Smith instead boldly jumped up to nab QB Blaine Gabbert. This year, Smith repeatedly discussed his desire to move down in the draft, only to swoop ahead of the Rams at the 11th hour to fill the club’s greatest need with the acquisition of the draft’s top wideout, Justin Blackmon.
• The retirement of Brian Dawkins came as little surprise to the Broncos, as the 38-year-old safety struggled to stay healthy down the stretch of the 2011 season. His absence in the secondary will be felt greatly, but according to head coach John Fox, his absence in the locker room may be even greater. “His contributions go far beyond the wins, interceptions, sacks and Pro Bowls he accumulated during his career,” Fox said. “Brian is the definition of class and is what you want in a leader.” According to a team insider, S Quinton Carter, a fourth-round draft pick last year, shadowed Dawkins for much of the 2011 season and will look to step into that leadership role.
• Look for Chiefs fourth-round pick Devon Wylie to compete with incumbents Javier Arenas and Dexter McCluster to be the team's punt returner. Wylie has explosive speed and averaged 15.4 yards per punt return last season at Fresno State. GM Scott Pioli said the Chiefs rated Wylie as one of the top returners in the draft and that he can do a number of other things on special teams.
• The selection of TE Ladarius Green in the fourth round of the draft means the Chargers will be cutting a tight end in camp. Currently there are five on the roster, and it is expected the team will carry only four into the regular season. The jobs of starter Antonio Gates and top reserve Randy McMichael are safe, as is Green's. According to sources, Kory Sperry is the likely odd man out, with veteran Dante Rosario expected to win the fourth TE job.
• Despite not having a draft choice until pick No. 95 in the draft, Raiders new GM Reggie McKenzie made no effort to trade up into the first, second or beginning of the third rounds, we hear. Instead, he actually moved back in the fifth round, adding an extra seventh-rounder in the process. McKenzie has said since he was hired that he values draft choices, a philosophy he showed over the weekend by not giving up more to move up.