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NFL training camp buzz: Matthew Stafford, Bears D on the spot


NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport is traveling around the country on his annual training camp tour, monitoring the sights, sounds and sources of the NFL. While zipping through airports and exchanging rental cars, he filed the following four dispatches from places he's been. (Click here for the first installment of this travel log.)

Minnesota Vikings camp: Bridgewater making immediate impression

MANKATO, Minn. -- Last Monday, the day I visited the Vikings' idyllic training-camp setting, the team planned to open up the weight room at 8:30 a.m. But first-year coach Mike Zimmer told players if they wanted to lift earlier, he'd make sure that was possible. So the entire offensive line lifted at 7:30 a.m. -- and they were joined by rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

It's the way the former Louisville star has been since his arrival a few months ago: first one in the building every morning, last one out the door. General manager Rick Spielman recalled preparing to leave one day during rookie minicamp and seeing an empty practice field except for two people: Bridgewater and the media relations intern catching passes for him.

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There is a quarterback competition in Minnesota between veteran Matt Cassel and this rookie whom the Vikings grabbed by trading into the back of the first round in May. By mid-week, they were splitting first-team reps. Zimmer has a particular date in mind for making a call on a starter, though he wouldn't spill the beans. But he did tell me it'll depend on other factors besides just performance, including whether the defense is solid enough to support a rookie starter and whether the offensive line has come together. It's also necessary that the players believe the eventual starter truly won the job, because if they don't buy in, it's all meaningless.

The Vikings think they got the real deal in Bridgewater -- a player not to be confused with the guy who was roundly criticized after an underwhelming pro day. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner, by the way, called that general reaction "ludicrous." ("You've got two years of tape playing in games," Turner said, "then worry about five to six throws you made.") Turner also praised the other quarterbacks, saying Cassel is off to a great start, while Christian Ponder is working hard to eliminate negative plays. Internally, there is the wonder how good Ponder -- the 12th overall pick of the 2011 NFL Draft -- could have been had he been able to learn under Turner this whole time. Alas, we'll never know. Now, it's mostly about Bridgewater vs. Cassel.

Generally speaking, there is a lot to like on a team that should be one of the NFL's youngest again, including the continued development of the seven first-rounders from the past three drafts. If the quarterback plays well, the Vikes could surprise. Right now, there are a lot of positive vibes in Mankato.

"We like what we've seen," Vikings president Mark Wilf told me as he took a six-second break from watching practice from the sidelines. "Zim is doing a great job."

Detroit Lions camp: Can Stafford take the next step?

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- From the time Matthew Stafford entered the NFL as the top pick in 2009, talent has never been a question. Efficiency, maybe. Attention to fundamentals, sure. But not talent.

Entering his sixth season with just one playoff appearance to his name -- but suddenly under the tutelage of quarterback-friendly coach Jim Caldwell -- Stafford is at a crossroads. Which, as Caldwell told me, is a good thing. The Lions' new boss began coaching Peyton Manning at a similar point in his career. Same with Joe Flacco. Caldwell, whose job interview with the Lions included a well-researched critique of Stafford, believes the quarterback is close to reaching that championship level of play.

"I think Matt has the ability and talent to get it done," Caldwell told me. "But it's a matter of maturing along the way, which he's done, and it happens around your fourth, fifth or sixth year. Same sort of time with Peyton and Joe. Matt has embraced everything. He's dedicated. He's got a thirst for the game. That's one thing you want to see."

And Caldwell has seen it. So has the rest of the Lions staff. Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, for instance, has been impressed by Stafford's intelligence, something that is rarely talked about. Sometimes, the Lions will need his brain as much as his arm, getting them in and out of plays as opposed to just dropping back and firing.

For all of this, there are reinforcements. Similar to the Cardinals last year, the Lions have three coaches focused on the quarterback, not just two. Jim Bob Cooter, snagged from Denver to be Detroit's quarterbacks coach, forms a trio with Caldwell and Lombardi. The Lions recognize the importance of honing in on that one spot.

Another key for 2014: The fact that GM Martin Mayhew got Stafford and Calvin Johnson some help. For the first time in memory, Megatron is flanked by a receiver (Golden Tate) who demands attention from foes. Meanwhile, athletic tight end Eric Ebron, the No. 10 overall pick in May, will serve as the inside threat if teams roll up on both outside receivers.

Throw in a revamped defense run by new coordinator Teryl Austin that will use Ravens and Jets principles to put Ndamukong Suh and Co. in position to make opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable, and this team is a bit more well-rounded than it has been in recent years.

"Matt and Calvin aren't going to have to get it done alone every week," Caldwell said.

Chicago Bears camp: Extreme makeover on defense

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- For all the blame that regularly falls on No. 6 and all the scrutiny that comes with simply being Jay Cutler, the quarterback wasn't the reason the Bears finished 8-8 in 2013 and (barely) missed the playoffs. (The organization clearly felt this way, handing Cutler a seven-year, $126 million extension right after the season ended.)

So it's nice that Bears coaches feel Cutler is sharper and has a greater understanding of the offense, but this isn't a game-changer. That Cutler and coach Marc Trestman dissected every single play in the offseason is impressive, but not earth-shattering.

Instead, it's the defensive makeover -- the full-scale plastic surgery -- that offers the optimism. A franchise historically built on defensive toughness, grit and simple tackling ability lacked much of that last season, and the result was the game's second-worst scoring D. Privately, members of the organization will admit that failing to live up to the reputation stung; they are well aware of their history.

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So, how did GM Phil Emery react this offseason? As Trestman put it, "It's a completely different team on defense."

Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston joined the team in free agency, beefing up the pass rush in a major way. Cornerback Kyle Fuller and safety Brock Vereen, two Bears draft picks from May, could be starting in the very near future. Stopping the run remains a top priority, as the Bears finished dead last in rushing defense a year ago, but defensive coordinator Mel Tucker is encouraged by what he's seen.

"I can see the improvement is evident already," Tucker told me. "Technique, fundamentals, better hand-placement, more guys attacking, listening. We have a ways to go, but you can see us building chemistry."

Tucker, for his part, was kept on another year despite the unit's woeful performance last fall. It was an acknowledgement from the front office that injuries and necessary transition (away from the aging units of recent years) were to blame, not the coordinator. And it puts Tucker in position to engineer the turnaround, too.

One key part of it? Former Cowboys Pro Bowler Jeremiah Ratliff, who walked a burning bridge out of Dallas to a safe haven in Chicago. Tucker said the defensive tackle is "strong as a bull," ready to create havoc. If he can assist the pass rushers around him like he did early in his Cowboys career, improvement should come to this unit as quickly as proficiency was lost.

Cleveland Browns camp: QB battle overshadowing culture change

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BEREA, Ohio -- Deep down, Browns coaches enjoy the circus surrounding their quarterbacks. They don't mind the constant spotlight on Johnny Manziel or the nationwide interest about who is leading the QB battle. (At the moment, Brian Hoyer is, for what it's worth.)

Why? Because all of that takes attention away from the kind of football team the Browns really will be. One based on grit and toughness, one that can run it right at you and make you very, very uncomfortable with its defense.

On the day I took in camp, Mike Pettine's team held a live scrimmage, with tackling to the ground. That almost never happens anymore, and it certainly won't be an everyday occurrence for the Browns, either. Willingness to do it at all, though, is telling. When these Browns don't tackle to the ground, they still "thud," which Pettine joked "pisses off the running backs." He did not seem to mind that the ball carriers weren't pleased. That's the kind of team he's building: One that is a little pissed off.

Do you know the first player Pettine targeted when he was hired? Karlos Dansby, whom he tried to sign in Buffalo, too. Dansby's hard-nosed play will permeate the locker room, serving as the standard. Another early target was Donte Whitner, who has basically run the defense during practice. As GM Ray Farmer told me, those guys influence the other guys -- two grizzled veterans who set the tone and help explain to the youngsters how things should go.

And the unit hasn't held back. With all the eyeballs on the quarterbacks, this is one reason their performances have been uneven. As one Browns source told me, "We've been throwing crazy blitzes in practice at these quarterbacks."

Sometimes, it hasn't been pretty, but that's OK. The QBs will need to learn eventually, so why not now?

"We were having this debate in the scouting room about how guys that have to come up, have to perform early, and specifically against a defense like we have and the things that they're doing -- it's difficult," Farmer said. "You're not just going to walk up there and make easy reads -- our guys are flying around."

The quarterbacks take up the spotlight, but the type of club the Browns are forming looms just as large. This should be a team for all circumstances -- that's what they are trying to build after years of turmoil.

"AFC North, bad weather games, you can't be one-dimensional, but you have to be able to be all-weather," Pettine said. "If you can run the ball when teams know you're gonna run, that's how you win. We want to brand ourselves that like."

Follow Ian Rapoport on Twitter @RapSheet.



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