Friday, 5:10 p.m., Charlotte
Was that a fish that just went swimming by? Scorcher out here. But this team needs the work, because there are so many spots open for competition, with Jake Delhomme, Julius Peppers and Muhsin Muhammad gone, and integral linebacker Thomas Davis out for the year after freakishly tearing his ACL in June. The front seven could consist of guys named Johnson, Johnson, Brown, Leonard, Connor and Anderson.
The Panthers rarely have a really down season, but I'm not sure that streak is going to continue (suffice to say I'm wavering on my May pick of Carolina for the playoffs). Steve Smith, the only household name left in camp, is out until late August with the broken arm suffered in a flag-football game this offseason, and when I saw him, I asked: "You sure you'll be back for the opener against the Giants?''
"Positive,'' he said. "I'd bet my game check on it.'' Smith also said he plans to make a beeline for Giants safety Michael Johnson early in that game. Johnson's the guy who laid the vicious hit on Smith that broke his arm -- and ended his season in Week 16 last December. "I'm going after him,'' said Smith, and he walked away.
Friday, 7:45 p.m., Commerce, Ga.
The cellphone rings, and it's A.J. Smith, the Chargers' general manager. He said he wasn't going to be talking about the holdouts -- wideout Vincent Jackson, tackle Marcus McNeill, linebacker Shawne Merriman -- after this week, so I wanted to get in under the wire.
The Merriman squabble is not difficult to understand, in my opinion, because the Chargers can't be sure what kind of player he is anymore. (He had four sacks in the past two years, over 15 total games.) But I find it odd and counterproductive -- as do many Charger fans -- that Smith hasn't negotiated long-term deals with two players I would consider cornerstones, McNeill and Jackson. Not only does he apparently not consider them vital players, but in lowering their one-year contract offers from $3.2 million to around $600,000 in June, he slapped two very good players in the face and made it nearly impossible for them to accept offers they certainly consider insulting.
Smith told me he does not plan to change the offers on McNeill or Jackson, nor will he enter into long-term contract discussions for them.
"We have a priority list of players we want to get signed, and that began 11 months ago with Philip Rivers,'' he said. "Then we got Antonio Gates done. We have a priority list still, which I'm not going to discuss.''
Rivers and Gates are cornerstones. McNeill and Jackson aren't in the same category to Smith. That's got to be a bitter pill for two important players -- particularly McNeill, I would think. Jackson has had some off-field problems, and his recent violation of the league's personal conduct policy resulted in a suspension for the first three games of the 2010 season. Said Smith: "Disappointment lurks around every corner. You'd love to have everyone on your roster happy, but that's not the world of the NFL. It is disappointing, but I have to run the team and build the roster the way I see fit.''
Understood. But I wouldn't want to alienate two of my top six or seven players -- perhaps losing them for the season -- on the verge of a year when the Chargers are a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Figuring his team can survive this distraction is a big gamble by Smith.
Saturday, 11 a.m., Flowery Branch, Ga.
Looking at the key players, and the ages of them, on the Falcons, I wonder: Is there a contender with more young, important players? Matt Ryan, 25, and middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, 23, are the offensive and defensive signal-callers. Thomas DeCoud and William Moore are the longterm safeties, in all likelihood; both 25. Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury could be the defensive ends of the future; they're 24. Peria Jerry and Sean Weatherspoon, both front-seven building blocks, are 25 and 22, respectively. Longterm left tackle Sam Baker is 25. And on and on.
"We're young, but we're not inexperienced,'' Ryan told me.
I watched the morning practice with GM Thomas Dimitroff, and at one point, we watched the 6-2, 205-pound hitter, DeCoud, fly by. Last year, he middle-blitzed and sacked Drew Brees, and the Falcons are going to try to send him and others from odd spots like that to vary what offenses see.
When Arthur Blank gave Dimitroff the keys to this team before the 2008 draft, he wanted the precocious former Scott Pioli pupil to build the team mostly through the draft, like the Patriots, so it would be good for the long haul. If these players come through, the Falcons shouldn't have many valleys in the next few years.
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