It wasn't clear what training camps would yield following the lockout, but with my 2011 tour over, I came away impressed overall. Most players reported in shape and the new mandatory practice schedules actually looked like an effective way to get schemes installed and teaching done.
Established teams always have a head start over the competition, but the gap is even greater now. Which leads me to this conclusion: We will not see the normal playoff turnover, where four to six new teams make the postseason, this year.
After seeing nearly half the league over the past month, here are the five things that impressed me and concerned me during my camp tour:
Steelers look Super. If ever a team looked ready for the season, it was the Steelers. Heck, their third-team offense functioned well in a 2-minute drill. The defense was already playing at a fast pace and the unit had more blitzes and zone pressures in the scheme than some teams will have all year. Ben Roethlisberger was doing a much better job in the pocket and getting rid of the ball quicker than I have ever seen him. The most impressive part, I witnessed all this during the first week of camp.
Freeman ready to fly. I sat down with Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman and talked X's and O's for close to 30 minutes, and I was blown away with where his game is right now. He's already on the verge of being an elite quarterback with incredible leadership skills and talent. On the practice field, he demonstrated his humility by playing receiver for backup QB Josh Johnson in his preparation to run a 2-minute drill. It was close to 100 degrees on that field and Freeman did the leg work in full pads to get his teammate ready.
Rookies that impressed. In no particular order, these rookies impressed me on my tour and looked ready to play: LB Von Miller and S Rahim Moore in Denver, DE J.J. Watt and LB Brooks Reed in Houston, RB Mark Ingram in New Orleans, TE Lance Kendricks in St. Louis, LB Mason Foster in Tampa Bay, LB Akeem Ayers in Tennessee, and LB Ryan Kerrigan in Washington.
Impressive acquisitions. Three players that stood out were Kevin Kolb in Arizona, Matt Hasselbeck in Tennessee and Lee Evans in Baltimore. Kolb has a presence about him to go along with football intelligence and a quick arm. He has energized the Cardinals. Hasselbeck has turned up the tempo of the Titans' offense and is a tremendous influence on rookie Jake Locker. Evans gives a new dimension to a Ravens offense that desperately needed it.
Houston, we have hope. The defense is a work in progress, but after watching the Texans practice for three hours in pads in 100-degree heat, I was impressed with all the moves they made to get things fixied. Wade Phillips has always been at his best as a defensive coordinator and he has some real talent to work with in Houston. I left camp confident Mario Williams will succeed at outside linebacker, especially when I watched him explode into tackles and literally lift them off the ground. Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning are clear upgrades in the secondary and rookie Brooks Reed will get after quarterbacks opposite Williams.
My camp concerns
The Ravens' offensive line. Every team has a weak spot and Baltimore's is up front. The Ravens should believe they are a Super Bowl contender, but questions about the big guys will get put under a microscope against the Steelers in Week 1. Right now, there is a matchup problem for the offensive tackles against James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. (Since I was there, the Ravens have signed Bryant McKinnie, but more help is needed.)
Big hole in Tennessee. Watching the Titans practice, new coach Mike Munchak was very impressive as a leader. Hasselbeck is also making a big difference and they have a lot of solid linemen on both sides of the ball. Those factors would make the Titans a tougher out this year than most people would think. However, without Chris Johnson, they really won't be going anywhere. General manager Mike Reinfeldt announced while talking with me that he was prepared to make Johnson the highest-paid running back if he showed up. Johnson will pick up the new running scheme whenever he reports, but the passing game -- protections and timing with Hasselbeck -- will take time. Reinfeldt said he would have been fine with Johnson skipping practice and just attending meetings until the contract was done. But now, three weeks have been wasted.
The kickoff conundrum. Last year, there were 23 kickoff returns for touchdowns and close to 100 returns of 40 yards or more. That excitement is going to disappear with the new rule that has kickoffs coming from the 35-yard line. As I toured training camps, I saw more teams lining up the returner five yards deep in the end zone and telling them that if they start forward to field a kick, then come out with it. With coverage units closing in faster and the velocity the returner generates coming out from so deep, there still will be big collisions and the risk of injury. Just not many big returns.
Rookies that didn't impress. Some rookies really needed to step up into starting roles but appeared as if they need a lot more work. They will be ready in time, just not now. Baltimore WR Torrey Smith and OT Jah Reid, Washington WR Leonard Hankerson, Cleveland WR Greg Little, New Orleans LB Martez Wilson, Rams DE Robert Quinn, Chargers LB Jonas Mouton and 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick all need work.
Tebow looks lost. It was sad to watch Tim Tebow at practice. When I first walked out on the field, he was running the scout team against the first defense. As practice continued, I got a chance to stand right behind him in the team drills and he looked lost trying to read the coverages and locate the right receiver. He escaped to his left most of the time and was inconsistent throwing the ball. You really want to cheer for this young man, but he has so much work to do before ever getting on the field -- especially considering that the people running the Broncos aren't the guys who drafted him. It was tough to watch.