Michael Brockers is Rams' secret star; rookie quarterback intel

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With all 32 teams in the thick of the preseason, NFL.com's network of reporters collects the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:

-- With his rawness on full display this preseason, Lamar Jackson is nowhere near the starting lineup.

-- Andrew Luck is happy about everything -- seriously, EVERYTHING -- this preseason.

-- Plenty of excitement around Josh Allen and Sam Darnold heading into big weekend.

But first, Steve Wyche spotlights the overlooked set-up man on one of the league's most star-studded teams ...

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Rams defensive lineman Michael Brockers hasn't watched the tape. Not even any cut-ups. Last season's 26-13 Wild Card Round loss to visiting Atlanta is still bitter to Brockers.

The result, of course, is the worst part. But for him, that's not the hard part.

Brockers tore his MCL in the second quarter of what was then a tight game. The Falcons racked up 23 of their 39 total rushes after the 6-foot-5, 305-pounder went down, many times running toward the spot where Brockers previously had been handling his business. Of Atlanta's 124 total rush yards, 71 came in the second half, when Brockers occupied the sideline, wounded.

"That's just one example of how valuable that guy is to us," defensive line coach Bill Johnson said of Brockers this week, ahead of Saturday's preseason game against Houston. "Just one of many."

In an offseason defined by star-studded defensive additions, resulting hype and the holdout of reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, Brockers has gone relatively unnoticed, which is kind of hard to understand -- but not every star in the sky shines equally bright.

Brockers, entering his seventh season, is one of three former first-round picks on the defensive line (along with Donald and Ndamukong Suh), and is coming off one of the most productive seasons in his NFL career. Heading into 2018, Brockers, according to Johnson, is a vital cog in a rebuilt defense the Rams seriously upgraded this offseason, with hopes the unit can help lift L.A. to heights beyond last season's rare playoff berth.

"I've been under the radar my whole career," said Brockers, who is coming off a season that saw him post a career-high 55 tackles, including 4.5 sacks. "I'm comfortable with how things are. I don't have any stresses, really. I don't have to live up to expectations. Nobody's booing you because you had 12 sacks the season before and just had 11.5 and that's a down year. I can fly around and have fun."

Added Johnson: "He doesn't have to prove anything to me or anyone here. He doesn't have to play backup to anybody. He's not flashy, but he is good."

In his second season as a defensive end in Wade Phillips' 3-4 scheme, Brockers is pretty much the set-up man who allows others to thrive. He is mainly used as a 4-technique (head up on the offensive tackle) and sometimes a 5-technique (outside shade/shoulder of the offensive tackle). He could move inside closer to the center in some packages, but -- for the most part -- Brockers occupies blockers so Suh, Donald (once he shows up) and others can make plays.

Designs are for Suh and Donald to be used in different roles along the line, while Brockers has more of a set position -- and Brockers loves that. His ambition isn't to be in a system where he could get more sacks or direct the spotlight his way. His ambition, in his own way, is simply to rumble.

"I'm a smash-mouth guy," he said. "I grew up playing in the SEC, so I am used to dealing with double-teams and coming downhill. I played nose tackle before, and that gave me a lot of opportunities to learn a lot of things that are helping now. Yeah, I set things up, but I've learned this system well enough to set up different things."

Brockers, according to Johnson, has worked this offseason and through training camp at being a better finisher when there are sack opportunities. He'd often put himself in position to make plays, but now he has emphasized closing on the quarterback and sealing the deal, Johnson said. He's putting in the work to be better. This week, Brockers, well after nearly every other player had left the practice field, worked with two other defensive linemen on leverage and hand-placement drills. No coaches. No orders. Just want-to.

"Focus," Brockers said. "That's all it is. Focusing on the play call, the down and distance, analyzing everything quickly and staying focused. It's all just so fresh."

Fresh. It's a description Brockers used multiple times. Not just about his approach, but how fresh things feel with the Rams. That's a good thing.

When an organization is so used to losing -- Brockers didn't enjoy a winning season in his first five years -- and then suddenly blazes to a season of success, trying to recapture that mode is often the fly paper that disables progress. Each year, some team -- like the 2017 Raiders -- believes the previous season's positivity is a tide you can continue to ride. Doesn't always work that way now, does it?

"We have bought into the system so much," Brockers said. "We focus on each week, not the next week. Not on [what players] we got. We focus, as a team and individually, on that week. ... Yes, we have tremendous talent. We picked up a lot of great talent, and being in L.A., people are going to eat that up. We can't. We have to do what we have to do and get the job done. We have a ton of talent, but if we don't execute, we can get beat."

As for that new defensive talent -- Suh and cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib -- Brockers addressed the biggest concern some NFL coaches, players and personnel people outside of the organization seem to have: that there are too many combustible personalities joining forces all at once.

"They've just been grinding," Brockers said of the new, high-profile additions. "I haven't seen the character issues the media portrayed of these guys. At the end of the day, from what I've seen, they have the same mindset as the rest of us. They want to win a championship and want to win it this year."

NOTES FROM AROUND THE REST OF THE LEAGUE

ARIZONA CARDINALS: Johnson aims to cash in on contract season. Running back David Johnson knows this is a huge year for him. He'll have a new head coach (Steve Wilks) along with an offensive coordinator (Mike McCoy) who wants to pound the football. He'll have a fullback for the first time in his career, which is something he enjoyed running behind during his college days at Northern Iowa. He'll also have the same motivation he had before a dislocated wrist ended his season after just one game in 2017: to sign a long-term extension.

"The biggest thing I've been trying to do is let my agents handle it," said Johnson, who made the Pro Bowl in 2016 after amassing 1,239 rushing yards, 879 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns. "After we didn't get the contract done (in the offseason), I was a little upset about it. I'm really just going to do everything I can on the field so the front office wants to give me a new contract. They've been talking about the injuries and I've been learning it's a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league. So right now, I'm going to focus on doing whatever I can, (trying to produce) 1,000 yards rushing and receiving -- and that way, I can really force the front office to give me the contract that I think I'm worth."

-- Jeffri Chadiha

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BALTIMORE RAVENS: Jackson has a ways to go before guiding an NFL offense. The big takeaway from watching the Ravens in Indianapolis this past Monday night: There is absolutely no quarterback controversy. Joe Flacco, who has enjoyed perhaps his best training camp as a pro, completed 7 of 9 passes for 72 yards and a touchdown in the three series he led against the Colts.

The performance was not so crisp for rookie Lamar Jackson, whose dazzling speed can't obscure his sometimes wild inaccuracy. He went 7 of 15 for 49 yards and a touchdown, but when he missed, he missed badly. And in three preseason appearances (the Ravens played in the Hall of Fame game), Jackson has completed just 41.8 percent of his passes. The first-round pick said after the game that he had failed to warm up sufficiently, but people inside the Ravens organization acknowledge that, while the franchise is excited for his development, Jackson is nowhere near ready to play.

That creates an interesting decision for the Ravens. Can they count on Jackson developing enough to be Flacco's backup, or should they keep Robert Griffin III on the roster? Baltimore does not usually carry three quarterbacks in-season, but Griffin has played well in the preseason, completing 69.2 percent of his passes.

-- Judy Battista

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BUFFALO BILLS: Heading into big test, Allen has many excited. One of the most memorable comments I heard about Josh Allen before April's draft came from a veteran scout who said the quarterback's issues all come down to footwork.

"If he just figures out his step and stays consistent," the scout said, "he could be Dan Marino."

Nobody's offering up Hall of Fame comps for Allen in Buffalo yet -- certainly not Bills coach Sean McDermott, who will only say the team is taking it one day a time when asked if the rocket-armed rookie can win the starting job in his first preseason start Sunday against the Bengals (on national TV, no less).

But certainly, the Bills are pleased with the early progress of Allen, who has put in a lot of time on his footwork, among other things, and played better than his 56.2 percent completion rate in two exhibition outings, matching his much-discussed career completion rate at Wyoming.

The Bills have seen some good things from AJ McCarron and Nathan Peterman, too. They haven't made a decision on who starts Week 1. They announced Allen as Sunday's starter early in the week to let him experience everything that comes with being an NFL starter, right down to the flood of texts he received as word got out.

When I asked exactly what signs he'll be looking for that Allen can handle it, McDermott said: "I think we all know what it's supposed to look like and feel like in that regard. It's just him dipping his toes in the water, if you will, of what that looks like on the field and off the field -- how he handles his teammates, how he handles the meetings, how he handles the interviews. That's all part of, as we all know, what comes with that starting quarterback position, even in the preseason. It'll be a good experience for him in that regard."

-- Tom Pelissero

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INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: Luck's current happiness knows no bounds. Andrew Luck's joy at being back on the field after a year-long layoff to recover from shoulder surgery has been irrepressible, never more so than on Monday night. That's when he said he was happy to have Terrell Suggs drive his prized right arm into the Lucas Oil Stadium turf, probably to the dismay of everybody else in Indianapolis. It's all part of Luck getting reacclimated to the NFL.

Luck was so delighted that when he turned to his left tackle, Anthony Castonzo (who missed the game), to tell him he was happy to be sacked, Castonzo greeted the news with what Luck called "a death stare."

Luck's unbridled enthusiasm aside, it wasn't the best night for Indy's offense. With Castonzo out with a hamstring, virtually no running game and top receiver T.Y. Hilton resting with a shoulder injury, the first-team offense was non-productive, gaining just 44 yards. Luck threw a red-zone interception after forcing a pass that the quarterback chalked up to being a bad throw and a bad decision. The play that resulted in the aforementioned sack was supposed to be a deep pass -- that's why Luck held the ball so long, to let the play develop -- but because of the sack, Luck still hasn't unveiled a long bomb in a game, although he tossed a few in practice last week and said he feels he can make any throw.

Luck has played seven series so far -- the first two against Seattle raised hopes that his rust was already gone -- and will likely play the entire first half this week. While the rest of the Colts still look very much like a rebuilding team, Luck has had no setbacks in his return to action, and it's hard to imagine anything wiping the smile from his face.

"I'm very, very encouraged," he said. "How I feel. I feel great."

-- Judy Battista

Colts unveil new initiative. On Monday, when the Colts played their first home game of the season, they warmed up while wearing black T-shirts that said #BreakingBarriers on the front and "It Takes All of Us" on the back.

First-year head coach Frank Reich explained that the shirts were part of the Colts' efforts to entertain, inspire and unite their community by "winning the right way," he said. The Colts have also created a Social Justice Club Fund to help support local groups addressing inequality issues, and they hope to heighten community conversation on topics that promote equality and justice.

-- Judy Battista

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KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Mahomes' favorite preseason throw (no, not THAT one). Patrick Mahomes connected with Tyreek Hill on a 69-yard touchdown Saturday against the Falcons. The deep bomb showcasing the massive arm strength of Mahomes -- -- the ball traveled 68.6 yards in the air -- was all the league was talking about in the days that followed. But interestingly enough, that wasn't Mahomes' favorite throw of the game. It wasn't even part of his favorite drive. That honor went to a possession which, ironically, didn't end in a touchdown, but rather a field goal, after a score was taken off the board due to penalty.

"That long drive was probably my favorite part of the whole game," Mahomes said this week. "We drove it pretty much the length of the field, converted on some big third downs and then got to the red zone, and we got to score the touchdown, but got it called back. Just to see the ball moving and being able to convert on third downs is stuff that you're going to have to have during the season."

One of those converted third downs was an out route to TE Travis Kelce -- a throw Mahomes believes is tougher than the deep pass to Hill. It's also a throw he missed in the Chiefs' first preseason game. He worked with Kelce during the week and found success the next chance he had. Mahomes' ability to not make the same mistake twice has been something Andy Reid has been extremely pleased with this offseason.

-- James Palmer

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NEW YORK GIANTS: Say what? Saquon Barkley hasn't fully practiced since injuring his left hamstring -- the Giants call it "a tweak" -- on Aug. 13. The rookie has missed valuable practice time, as quarterback Eli Manning has pointed out. Barkley did have a history at Penn State of making the most out of mental reps. There, he would take part in perhaps three of 10 team reps, as coach James Franklin managed his workload.

"I guess that kind of helped me prepare for moments like this," Barkley said Wednesday.

Barkley is naturally inquisitive, and he asks a lot of questions, particularly of Manning. Barkley suggested early in training camp that he probably is "annoying" his quarterback with so many queries. "No, not at all," Manning replied.

Just the opposite seems true.

"If you don't know, ask. That's what we're here for," Manning said. "Don't go out there not knowing what your assignment is. Ask us, go do it right and play fast. We always want you to do that."

-- Kimberly Jones

Still the Mann. After enduring a three-win season in 2017, Eli Manning seemed rejuvenated when the Giants reported for offseason conditioning in April, under new head coach Pat Shurmur and general manager Dave Gettleman. He still seems invigorated, even as Shurmur pointed out Tuesday that Manning, 37, is from "a different generation" than his young teammates, including Barkley and Odell Beckham Jr.

How does Eli relate to his young teammates?

"I do a lot of dancing," he said to laughter. "I'm not trying to act like I'm 22. I act my age and make fun of myself a lot, and they add to it, probably, and so that's fine. I'm good with that. I have a good relationship with all those guys and have some fun with them."

Manning, a noted prankster, was asked about his practice of swiping teammates' cell phones and changing the language setting.

"I haven't done that as much," Manning said, laughing. "You know, they all have pretty good, secure passwords (now). Odell's isn't '1313' anymore, so ... I have to regroup and find a new system."

-- Kimberly Jones

His mother's battle. Cornerback Grant Haley went undrafted out of Penn State and is in a battle to make the roster. When he doesn't have the best day, he relies on the unique perspective provided by his mother, who is fighting a liver disease, PSC (Primary sclerosing cholangitis), and is seeking a living donor. Dr. Carla Neal-Haley, a pediatrician and doctor of internal medicine in the Atlanta area, continues to work long days.

"Sometimes I wish she'd slow down, but she doesn't know how. She treats any kid like her own," Grant said. "She's a special woman."

Haley, whose father is also a physician, said his mother has been battling for years.

"Over time, it's obviously getting worse," Haley said. "But she's one of the toughest women I know. I use that as my motivation, to be my 'why.' "

For more information about being a potential living donor, email DonateLiveLiver@gmail.com.

-- Kimberly Jones

* * * * *

NEW YORK JETS: Summer of Sam. The Jets believe they have found their franchise quarterback, whether Sam Darnold starts in Week 1 or not. And that tangibly has lifted the spirits in and around the team's Florham Park, New Jersey, training facility. People there just seem ... happier, more optimistic.

On Friday, there is a chance Darnold starts for the second consecutive week, against the Giants. It has helped Darnold, who's been consistently accurate in practices, to be able to rely on veterans Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater; Todd Bowles said it's the best quarterback group he's seen.

Bowles has been pleased with Darnold's accuracy and decision-making. A next step for Darnold will come when the Jets open up their downfield passing game. Through two preseason games, he has completed 21 of 29 passes for 158 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

Darnold does seem comfortable already. After he got away with a poor pass in practice to Robby Anderson, who adjusted to make a great catch, Darnold told reporters that Bowles asked him, "What was that?"

Darnold's response? "A completion."

-- Kimberly Jones

Rose-y future in NYC. If Saquon Barkley were fully healthy, Friday night's Giants-Jets game would feature a reunion of the two stars from the most exciting Rose Bowl in history. USC defeated Penn State, 52-49, on Jan. 2, 2017, with Sam Darnold and Barkley providing the biggest highlights.

As it is, Darnold might start Friday for the Jets, and Barkley, with his tweaked hamstring, surely will sit for the Giants. The two will be compared for years -- and share a home stadium -- after being drafted second and third overall in April's draft.

"I only can focus and control what I can control," Barkley said. "I'm just thankful that the Giants picked me and I'm here and I'm a New York Giant. I'm playing for the best franchise in the league, and I'm going to continue to take advantage of the opportunity every single day and continue to work every single day."

Darnold wasn't asked about Barkley this week. But he is on the minds of Giants defenders.

"I'm excited," safety Landon Collins said. "He's a rookie; we feast on rookies sometimes. It's always an exciting game. To see him play -- he's going to have a fantastic career once he gets it going, and I know he's going to do a great job at the Jets. But you're playing against a good defense, and we're going to have fun with it."

-- Kimberly Jones

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