NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock has been traveling around the country over the past month to take in training camp practices, not only to watch the progress of rookies that he evaluated for the 2012 NFL Draft but also to prepare for his work on Thursday Night Football with broadcast partner Brad Nessler. These are his observations:
Protecting the blind side
The Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers play in our first Thursday night game in Week 2. Everybody's talking about how good the Bears and Packers will be offensively -- and I think they will be, too -- but both have inexperienced left tackles. I can't wait to see these young men compete.
Now that the Bears have Brandon Marshall around and a healthy Matt Forte, they have as good a group of offensive skill players as they've had in years. But that doesn't do them any good if they can't protect Jay Cutler. Is J'Marcus Webb really going to be the guy to protect him? He's going to have to prove it.
It's the same problem in Green Bay. They had a lot of security over the years with Chad Clifton at left tackle, but now they have Marshall Newhouse there. He struggled against the Giants in the playoffs last season. Derek Sherrod was a first-round pick, but they don't know if he can do the job, because of his injuries.
Living on the edge
Most teams are fortunate if they have two natural edge rushers who can win one-on-one battles consistently. Teams need those guys to win because it's now a pass-first league.
You look at the Packers, and they have Clay Matthews, and the Bears, they have Julius Peppers. Green Bay and Chicago hope Nick Perry and Shea McClellin, respectively, can be the second guy, but they're rookies, so you don't know what to expect.
The Eagles had the most sacks in the league last season with 50 (tied with Minnesota), led by Jason Babin and Trent Cole. Now Phillip Hunt is turning into a beast, and Brandon Graham is healthy and looking like the first-round talent they thought he was. They also have Cullen Jenkins inside to push the pocket.
Then you've got the Giants, with defensive ends who can bring pressure in the base package but can also move inside to rush the passer in nickel and dime looks. With Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck inside, and Osi Umenyiora and Mathias Kiwanuka on the edge, they create mismatches all across the front in the nickel. It's crazy.
It's been interesting to see all the young guys pushing for these quarterback jobs. We all knew about the top two rookie signal-callers, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, but Brandon Weeden and Ryan Tannehill look like they're embracing the challenge, too.
I loved Russell Wilson coming out of the draft, but thought he was a year away. The great thing for him is that Pete Carroll is an outside-the-box thinker. He doesn't care how old his players are, how tall they are, or whatever else. He just wants players to help him win football games for the Seattle Seahawks.
I called John Skelton "Flacco Lite" coming out of college because he really reminded me of the Ravens signal-caller. Now, if you watch tape of Skelton from last season, he didn't make the right decisions all of the time. But I watched his arm live, and it's just obvious he can to get the ball into Larry Fitzgerald's hands down the field more often than Kolb.
It's amazing to me how people underappreciate the physicality of the New Orleans Saints' running game. They're one of the most physical downhill rush teams in the league. They ranked sixth in rushing last season, but that's overlooked because of Drew Brees' phenomenal numbers (led the league with 46 passing touchdowns, set a league record with 5,476 passing yards in 2011).
The Saints' offensive line is physical, they'll put a fullback in the game at times, and they have three strong backs who can pound the ball with Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Chris Ivory. And then you have Darren Sproles, who's the wild card. I'm just really impressed with what they can do in the run game.
Hokies on the rise
The Giants are seeking a replacement for Terrell Thomas at cornerback, and Prince Amukamara probably will start across from Corey Webster. But don't count out Jayron Hosley, a rookie third-round pick from Virginia Tech, from getting a lot of reps in the nickel and dime packages. He's a feisty, tough, quick corner who can tackle. He's not as tall as you'd like playing against those receivers in the NFC East, but I really like his competitiveness and coverage skill set.
And those two young tailbacks from Virginia Tech, David Wilson and Ryan Williams, will make some big plays this year -- if they're healthy. The Giants already have Ahmad Bradshaw and D.J. Ware, but Wilson has rare ability -- even showing it when he bounced a kickoff return for 48 yards against Jacksonville in his first preseason game. Williams has that sort of ability, too, and I expect to see it in Arizona this season.