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NFL training camp buzz: EJ Manuel, Geno Smith ready to rise?

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 these dispatches from places he's been:

New York Giants camp: Can Eli get his mojo back?

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- One of the NFL's most consistently consistent franchises saw a flurry of offseason changes on both sides of the ball, but let's concentrate on the offense.

Gone are coordinator Kevin Gilbride and the scheme that won two Super Bowls. And gone, the Giants hope, is the confidence-starved version of Eli Manning from 2013.

Few free agents were as coveted this offseason as Ben McAdoo, who left a post as the Packers' quarterback coach to become Big Blue's new offensive coordinator. He was drawn to Tom Coughlin's experience -- and ring collection. At yet another storied stop on his résumé, McAdoo wanted players willing to listen. Word is, Manning has been an even better student than McAdoo could've imagined.

"Eager" is the adjective that continually comes up when you talk with Giants people about Manning. McAdoo didn't simply bring over the Packers' playbook, toss it on the desk and tell Manning to learn it. He blended terminology the Giants already used with his from Green Bay, and this has accelerated the learning. Still, players are running around with their hair on fire, as it was described to me. Everything will be faster in this higher-percentage scheme.

In his job interview, McAdoo sold the Giants on the idea that his expertise will help them thrive with (and adjust to) whichever players are available. Too often in 2013, New York's offense stumbled when certain guys were injured; it was unable to adapt as well as, say, the defense.

As for Manning, I asked a Giants source to identify the one aspect of the quarterback's game that needed the most improvement after a horrendous 2013 campaign. I assumed it would be statistical, maybe completion percentage. Nope. "Confidence," I was told. Too many times last year, the Giants didn't recognize their quarterback in the fourth quarter. He needed to KNOW he'd lead a comeback, but didn't seem to. The G-Men want the cocksure leader from the past, the guy who pushed them to a pair of come-from-behind Super Bowl wins.

If Manning shows more confidence late in games -- thanks in part to some improved protection -- it'll be mission accomplished.

Buffalo Bills camp: Offensive weapons abound

PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, and the Bills embrace this. They snagged their quarterback of the future in 2013, drafting EJ Manuel with their first-round pick. They watched him star early, suffer multiple injuries, then stumble late.

This offseason, to put their quarterback in the best possible position to succeed, the Bills built around him. With the defense already loaded, it seems like everything Buffalo did was for Manuel.

"It's about getting command of this offense; that's what we need him to do," general manager Doug Whaley told me. "Our philosophy was, 'Let's surround him with talent, so he doesn't have to think, I have to win this by myself.' He just has to make the right decisions, get the ball in the right people's hands."

The Sammy Watkins draft-day leap this year spoke to this mentality. And the Clemson product has been everything Buffalo's brass dreamed of and more, having already made a bevy of silly catches in Bills duds. Whaley even hoped to emphasize to Watkins how much work a rookie must put in to be great -- but then he noticed that at 6:45 a.m. on the first day of rookie minicamp, Watkins was in the fieldhouse, running routes by himself.

"And we were like, 'He's taken it upon himself,' " Whaley said.

Prior to snagging Watkins, the Bills sent a sixth-round pick to the Buccaneers in exchange for receiver Mike Williams; speaking about the fifth-year pro, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett told me, "He really surprised me how much he improved from OTAs." Furthermore, Buffalo acquired running back Bryce Brown in a trade with the Eagles. Remember how the Bills led the league in rushing attempts last year? Whaley told me that number won't go down. They will look to pound the football and make life easy on their QB.

"Now, five years from now, maybe we're throwing it 50 times a game," Whaley said. "But now it's, 'Make the right decision.' "

We know about the promise on defense in Buffalo. In fact, it was the talent on all three levels that convinced former Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz to become the Bills' defensive coordinator, as opposed to possibly sitting out a year. Schwartz rarely had back-end talent like this in Detroit.

But it's the wealth of offensive weapons that really catches your eye. Hackett said, "There's a lot of guys I want to get on the field, which is a good problem to have."

Still, the most-heard phrase these days at St. John Fisher College might be, "If the quarterback plays well ... "

New York Jets camp: Geno working to break through in Year 2

CORTLAND, N.Y. -- The Geno Smith the Jets have seen on the field thus far in camp is far different from the one they last saw in December. Coaches and team officials are convinced of it.

Sure, there is a competition of sorts going on with Michael Vick, even with the lopsided reps, and even with Vick readily admitting it's Smith's job to lose. The Jets want to call it a battle, so fine. But it's one that Smith began winning two weeks after last season ended.

Following a trying rookie campaign that ended on the high of winning three out of the last four games, Smith took two weeks off. Then he holed himself up at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida -- the place where he had trained for the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine. He shut out friends and media and fun. The training wasn't just physical, but mental, as well. According to a source close to Smith, the quarterback began studying film on the defensive coordinators the Jets will face this year, scouring tape for tendencies.

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When I mentioned Smith's work to Jets GM John Idzik, he pointed out that it wasn't something the coaches asked him to do. "That comes from within," Idzik said.

Coach Rex Ryan has taken notice.

"No doubt," Ryan told me. "He knows he's put in the work, too. And that's the thing about being a quarterback: You got to be a gym rat and have that mentality. And he's put in the physical work, too, changing his body. He's gotten stronger, cut down the body fat. He wanted to be a better football player, and he attacked it."

And it's not just Smith who has Ryan buzzing. The coach said he's never had a team where everyone passed the conditioning test, but that happened this year. Idzik glowed about how many players retained knowledge from minicamp to training camp. As one assistant coach told me, they are playing faster and not thinking as much.

Throw in the addition of running back Chris Johnson, and the Jets have reason for optimism. "Can't get more explosive than that guy," Ryan told me.

Green Bay Packers camp: Peppers has plenty left in the tank

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The sting of watching Colin Kaepernick run circles around Packers defenders for the second consecutive postseason was enough to spark a change in the way Green Bay plays D. No, it wasn't the only reason, but it was a huge one.

The 49ers quarterback combined for 279 rushing yards in two playoff losses for Green Bay, and suddenly, the Pack needed to get more athletic and more versatile. And so they went to work. They signed Julius Peppers, debunking the notion that GM Ted Thompson doesn't spend in free agency. They re-signed B.J. Raji to a fiscally responsible deal and put him back at nose tackle, a move that already has coaches excited. He'd been pushing that shift away from end, too. And, as Raji revealed Sunday, the Packers plan to unleash that front line and let everyone attack. "Just be more aggressive," Raji said.

So much, though, depends on Peppers, who, at 34 years old, is at a point in his career when most players wind down. When I asked a Packers source where they'll play the 12-year veteran, I was told: "Everywhere."


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Yes, they expect a lot.

But how much does Peppers truly have left? That's what the Packers set out to discover when they studied last year's Chicago film before making the move to sign him. According to team sources, this is what they learned: Peppers was as flexible as any 20-something player, bucking the general trend that older guys get stiffer. One veteran Packers staffer pointed out that Peppers had the walk of a younger player, loose and flexible. One called him a "physical freak. Just a freak." These are traits that talent evaluators build their reputations on.

And when Packers folks further examined the tape, they didn't find the lackadaisical effort that pundits accused Peppers of making in 2013. When Peppers combines with a healthy Clay Matthews, the Packers believe they'll bring pressure like they haven't in quite some time.

And considering what this team has on offense -- that Aaron Rodgers guy is pretty good, and the offensive line depth is impressive -- Green Bay should have every opportunity to contend in a major way.

Here's one more tidbit from my visit to Green Bay: The question has been raised about how much longer Thompson wants to do this job. The club is trying to extend his contract, but Thompson is 61 years old, and some have wondered if an exit is near. After speaking to key people in the organization, I am more convinced than ever that Thompson has no plans of retiring.

Follow Ian Rapoport on Twitter @RapSheet.

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