Quick-Hits: Observations about Week 1 in preseason of the NFL

St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford throws a pass to Laurent Robinson for a touchdown during the second half of their NFL football game in St. Louis, Missouri, December 26, 2010. Bradford set an NFL record for completions in a rookie season. REUTERS/Sarah Conard (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

There’s still one game left on the Week 1 preseason schedule (Jets vs. Texans tonight), but I’ve let these thoughts marinate for long enough. Here are some quick-hit observations from Week 1’s NFL preseason games.

Jake Locker turned in the best performance of any rookie quarterback in Week 1. Locker was solid in the Titans’ preseason win over the Vikings on Saturday, completing 7-of-10 passes for 89 yards and a 45-yard touchdown to Yamon Figurs. Granted, he did fumble once and took a sack, but the key is that he looked poised and confident in the pocket. The Titans aren’t paying Matt Hasselbeck $7 million to sit the bench, so don’t count on Locker unseating the veteran this season. But the rook looks good early.

Speaking of rookies, Julio Jones looks like the real deal. It’s way too early to know if the Falcons will receive a good return on their big investment from the 2011 draft, but Jones looks fantastic thus far. In his preseason debut against the Dolphins, both of his receptions went for 20-plus yards and he added one rush for 12 yards on an end-around. He basically affirmed what everyone has been saying: that he doesn’t look like a rookie. Again, it’s early, but the Falcons have to be thrilled with what they’ve seen.

The Bears still have issues on their offensive line. Simply put, GM Jerry Angelo has not done a good enough job building his offensive line over the years. He has missed in the draft (Chris Williams), he has missed in free agency (Orlando Pace), and now he better hope that guys like J’Marcus Webb and Greg Carimi can settle in to their respective positions before quarterback Jay Cutler gets killed. The Bears gave up nine sacks in their win over the Bills on Saturday night, including four by the first-team unit. Granted, Caleb Hanie held onto the ball too long on multi occasions, which contributed to a couple of the sacks. But the bottom line is that Chicago’s offensive line looks poised to hold the Bears back in 2011.

Shawne Merriman could be ready to resurrect his career in Buffalo. Of the nine sacks that the Bills recorded against the Bears on Saturday night, three of them came from Merriman. He absolutely abused J’Marcus Webb on a consistent basis, using the combination of speed, power and technique that made him popular in San Diego early in his career. He has always been a motivated player, so if he’s completely healthy he could be one of the few stars in Buffalo this season.

The Panthers clearly want Cam Newton to start. Jimmy Clausen started Saturday night against the Giants, but Newton entered the game in the second quarter and played into the fourth. Ron Rivera hasn’t made the announcement yet, but Newton figures to start the Panthers’ second preseason game. As long as he looks respectable and isn’t a complete disaster, I think we’ll be seeing Newton as the starter come Week 1 against the Cardinals.

Colt McCoy looks like a perfect fit for Pat Shurmur’s offense. Because they have an entirely new coaching staff and there’s so little time for the players to get up to speed before the regular season starts, the Browns could be one of those teams that is drastically affected by the lockout. Then again, if McCoy plays as well in the regular season as he did in his first preseason game, the Browns may actually be more competitive than people think. McCoy completed 9-of-10 passes for 135 yards and a touchdown versus Green Bay and while the game was meaningless in the standings, it was hard not to be impressed with the second-year QB’s play. He looked like he had been running Shurmur’s offense for two years – not two months. He’s a perfect fit for the West Coast scheme and thus far, Cleveland fans have to be cautiously excited about his development.

It looks like Ted Thompson has struck draft gold again. Rookie Randall Cobb caught three passes for 60 yards in the Packers’ preseason opener on Saturday. He also racked up 58 yards on two kick returns, impressing the team with his speed and quickness. Aaron Rodgers could have yet another weapon in his passing arsenal this season.

It wasn’t surprising to see the Vikings’ offense struggle as much as it did in Week 1. Minnesota fans seem eager about the potential that this unit has, which is understandable. With guys like Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin and now Donovan McNabb on that side of the ball, the Vikes’ O has the chance to be explosive this season. But it will take some time before everyone is on the same page with new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. Plus, while McNabb may be familiar with the West Coast Offense, it’ll take time before he gels with his receivers in this offense. Both of his series on Saturday ended in punts and his average pass didn’t travel past four yards. Fans might see more of that this preseason as McNabb and the rest of the Vikings’ offense gets acquainted with Musgrave’s system.

It’ll take time before Sam Bradford is comfortable in Josh McDaniels’ system. Bradford was a little shaky in the Rams’ preseason opener on Saturday, completing 7-of-12 passes for 45 yards and a touchdown. He had great chemistry with tight end Lance Kendricks, but it was clear that Bradford will need a couple of games to play with confidence in McDaniels’ system.

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Where will Shawne Merriman wind up?

SAN DIEGO - AUGUST 14: Linebacker Shawne Merriman  of the San Diego Chargers works out before the game with the Chicago Bears on August 14, 2010 at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California.  Merriman signed his one year tender contract on Friday and isn't expected to play. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

It’s official: Shawne Merriman is no longer a Charger after the team waived him on Tuesday.

Merriman, who passed his physical and is apparently healthy after dealing with calf and Achilles injuries for most of the year, must clear waivers before teams can bid on his services. The early indications are that the Dolphins, 49ers and Ravens could be interested in the outside ‘backer.

The Ravens would be an interesting choice because they could use another pass-rusher and Merriman could sit back and learn from guys like Ray Lewis. It’s veteran-led team that will certainly compete for a playoff spot this year (barring injuries, of course), so maybe Merriman would accept a third down role in order to be a part of a winner. Then, after the season, he and his agent could try to coax some team into giving him a multi-year deal (assuming he performs this year).

The Patriots would seemingly be a good fit for Merriman too, although that team never does what anyone thinks its going to do so who knows. They could definitely use a pass-rusher though.

It’ll be interesting to see if anyone takes a flier on the 26-year-old now that he’s supposedly healthy.

Update: The Bills acquired Merriman off waivers according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. He won’t play in Week 9, however.

Will teams show interest in Shawne Merriman once he’s released?

Aug 14, 2010; San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman watches from the sidelines during the preseason game against the Chicago Bears at Qualcomm Stadium. The Chargers defeated the Bears 25-10. Photo by Image of Sport Photo via Newscom

Shawne Merriman’s career with the San Diego Chargers is finished. The team placed him on injured reserve with a minor injury designation, which means they have to release him once he’s officially healthy.

With this being the eventual outcome, Chargers’ GM Alex Smith was wise not to give Merriman a new contract this offseason. Not that he was going to give into Merriman’s contract demands anyway. Despite the linebacker’s three-time Pro Bowl status, Smith wasn’t going to give the injury-prone Merriman a new deal when he hasn’t been productive in nearly three years.

The question now becomes: once he’s released, will any team take a flier on him? Even if he’s deemed healthy enough to be released, he probably won’t be 100% for the rest of the year, which means the market could be completely bare for him in a couple of weeks.

One team that may make him an offer is the Patriots, who have an obvious need for a pass rusher and who also play the 3-4 alignment that suits Merriman’s skill set. There haven’t been any connections to Merriman and New England yet, but then again it’s still early and it’s not Bill Belichick’s style to reveal his team’s future intentions.

Another team that may be interested is the Saints, who also have a need for a pass rusher and could use the upgrade at linebacker. Even though they play a 4-3, Gregg Williams is known for his innovative schemes and he could certainly put together a game play fits Merriman’s pass-rushing ability.

Again though, he’s not healthy and hasn’t been in two years. One team that has already said they’re not interested is the Cardinals, who would like to add depth at outside linebacker but they don’t want to take on the injury risk. It makes you wonder how many other teams feel the same way.

2010 NFL Preview: AFC West Predictions

SAN DIEGO - JANUARY 17: Quarterback Philip Rivers #17 of the San Diego Chargers celebrates after a touchdown against the New York Jets during the AFC Divisional Playoff Game at Qualcomm Stadium on January 17, 2010 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

On paper, the AFC West is definitely one of the weaker divisions in football. The Chargers remain the team to beat, while the Broncos are just trying to make it to their opener without losing another starter to injury.

But the West usually produces a surprise or two along the way (i.e. Denver last year), so don’t count out the Broncos, Raiders or Chiefs before the season starts. All three of those teams come with some glaring weaknesses, but it’s not like the Chargers are the picture of perfection.

Here’s how I see things shaking out in the AFC West in 2010. Be sure to check out the link entitled “2010 Question Mark” under each team’s preview, which is a breakdown of one or two potential weaknesses that could derail that squad’s hopes this season. (If the links aren’t available now for some teams, check back because they will be before the season starts.)

1. Chargers

What to Like: After finishing fifth in the league in passing yards per game (271.1) in 2009, the Chargers should once again be explosive through the air. Losing Vincent Jackson is a major blow, but adding a pass-catching back like Ryan Mathews in the draft was a nice coup. Philip Rivers returns after compiling a 104.4 QB rating last season and developing into one of the best signal callers in the game. Again, the loss of Jackson hurts, but Malcolm Floyd is ready for a breakout campaign, Antonio Gates returns as one of the top pass-catching tight ends in the NFL and the team recently acquired Patrick Crayton from the Cowboys. Brandyn Dombrowski has also looked good filling in for Marcus McNeill, who continues to holdout while seeking a new contract. Defensively, free safety Eric Weddle is coming off a great ’09 season, while Shaun Phillips and Stephen Cooper remain steady at their linebacker positions.
What Not to Like: Is there anybody left that GM A.J. Smith hasn’t pissed off? This team managed to lose its top wideout and is close to watching its best offensive tackle (McNeill) holdout well into the season. Defensively, Shawne Merriman is back but who knows how productive he’ll be after a poor showing in ’09, while Larry English failed to impress last season as well (albeit as a rookie). The defensive line lost their top run-stuffer when Jamal Williams was released and Luis Castillo has been living off his reputation for the last two years. The entire defensive line, in fact, is arguably this team’s biggest weakness. The secondary, outside of Weddle, has a ton of question marks as well.
Keep Your Eye On: Malcolm Floyd
The 28-year-old out of Wyoming will finally have his opportunity to shine now that Jackson is gone (or rather, not playing). He’s been Rivers’ favorite target so far this offseason after finishing fourth in the league last year in yards-per-catch average. If he can build off the nine-catch, 140-yard performance he had in Week 17 last year (while Jackson was out), then Floyd could be another dangerous weapon in the Chargers’ arsenal.
The Final Word: If there were another team in this division that I thought had a remote chance of overtaking the Chargers, I would probably have them winning the division. But because the West is so weak this year, the Bolts should have no problems winning 10-plus games and claiming the division again, even though they have a several weaknesses heading into the new season. Whether or not they advance in the playoffs is another story. The key is Rivers, who is an exceptional talent that has proven he can carry this team during the regular season. But the playoffs are a different animal – he’s going to need help and while Mathews looks like he has all the tools to make him a solid young player, relying on a rookie is always a dangerous proposition. Defensively, this team has way too many question marks and unless guys like Merriman or English step up, I think they’re going to struggle at every level this year. A division crown looks to be on the horizon, but so does another one-and-done showing in the postseason.

San Diego Chargers 2010 NFL Question Mark: Defensive Line

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Progress shown in Merriman contract talks?

According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, Shawne Merriman’s new agent met for two hours on Thursday with Charger GM A.J. Smith and chief negotiator Ed McGuire. Given Tom Condon’s (Merriman’s former agent) poor relationship with Smith, this is a good sign for the linebacker as he pursues a long-term deal.

“We had a meeting with David that was very productive and enlightening on a number of fronts,” Smith said. “Regarding Shawne, I told him we are open-minded regarding his situation. We have many other player situations to ponder in the year ahead.”

It is all but certain that in Thursday’s meeting the parties addressed the Chargers’ attempts to trade Merriman and the likelihood of a contract extension now and in the future.

Merriman, like many restricted free agents caught in the NFL’s labor strife, is unhappy with the fact he received a one-year tender offer.

Additionally, the three-time Pro Bowler is disenchanted with the fact Smith has no plans to give him a long-term contract.

If it were up to the Chargers, they would love to see Merriman play on his one-year tender and then reassess the situation after the 2010 season. A serious knee injury limited him in 2008 and when he returned last year, he struggled while only posting four sacks.

It doesn’t make sense for the Bolts to sign Merriman to a long-term deal not knowing how productive he’s going to be in the future – especially considering they drafted his eventual replacement in Larry English last year. That said, if Merriman turns out to be the player he was in his first three years, then the team risks upsetting him and him moving on after the season.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

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