Bucky Brooks
Saturday September 20th, 2008

What's wrong with Carson Palmer? That's what league observers are saying after watching the former Pro Bowler play this season. Palmer, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, has gotten off to a horrendous start this season, and looks nothing like the player that was the No. 1 overall selection in 2003.

"Something is not right with him," said an AFC personnel director. "He is not playing with a lot of confidence, and he looks uncomfortable in the pocket."

Palmer, who has a league-low 37.1 passer rating, has only averaged 114 passing yards a game, and has thrown three interceptions without a touchdown toss. Although he played two of the league's better defenses (Ravens and Titans) to open the season, no one would expect Palmer to turn in the worst two performances of his career in back-to-back weeks.

"He has looked bad," said an AFC personnel director. "He is not throwing in rhythm, and his accuracy is off. He looks nothing like the player he was a few seasons ago."

In 2006, Palmer earned the second of his two Pro Bowl nominations, and finished second in the league in touchdown passes (28). He connected on 15 passes over 40 yards, and was regarded as one of the top pocket passers in the game. However, Palmer's play fell off late last season (compiling a passer rating less than 70.0 in four of the last eight games), and he has been unable to recapture his rhythm in the pocket this year.

Some of the blame for Palmer's woes can be attributed to nagging injuries plaguing his two Pro Bowl receivers (T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chad Johnson). Both players missed significant time during the preseason, and the lack of chemistry has been apparent during the first two games. Houshmandzadeh and Johnson have combined for only 11 receptions for 129 yards, and those totals are well off the 12 receptions per game average that the duo has tallied in the previous two seasons.

"It's not surprising to see them struggle early in the season," said an AFC scout. "Houshmandzadeh and Johnson both missed the offseason program, and their preseason injuries prevented them from working extensively during training camp. Without that time to rebuild their chemistry and timing, you expected them to be a little out of sync when the regular season started. "

Defensive coordinators have pounced on the opportunity to take advantage of the unit's lack of chemistry by using a mixture of two-deep zones, and pressure man-to-man schemes to disrupt the timing of the Bengals' passing game. By taking the Bengals' top two playmakers out of the game, defenses have forced Palmer to throw to other targets, but the two-time Pro Bowler has been unable to find a dependable third option consistently. Tight ends Reggie Kelly and Ben Utecht are serviceable underneath receivers, but neither has the speed nor talent to command special attention. Antonio Chatman has filled in as the team's third receiver, but he lacks playmaking ability. Rookie receivers Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell were pegged to play key roles, but injuries and slow on-field development have prevented either from being a contributor.

The offensive line's erratic play has also contributed to Palmer's slow start. Despite only allowing three sacks, the unit has allowed consistent penetration. The constant pressure has forced Palmer to release numerous passes under duress, and his accuracy has been affected by his inability to fully step into his throws. In addition, the constant pounding that Palmer has endured has led to a few minor injuries (broken nose and sprained ankle), and the hurried throws have allowed defenders to clamp down on the receivers' routes.

"Their offensive line play hasn't been good," said an AFC scout. "They are allowing more leaks than expected, and the lack of protection is affecting the way he (Palmer) throws."

Bengals' fans shouldn't expect the two-time Pro Bowler to turn his game around soon. Palmer faces an aggressive Giants' defense this weekend, and a star-studded Cowboys' defense in a few weeks.

The question of wide receiver size will be debated at length during pre-draft meetings after watching a pair of diminutive rookie receivers take the league by storm. Eddie Royal and DeSean Jackson have been outstanding during the first two weeks of the season, and their sudden impact will have front office types re-evaluating the importance of size over speed at the position.

"They have been impressive," said an NFC scout. "Both have stepped into the league and made instant impact. Their play has been so stellar that you wonder why they weren't first-round picks."

Despite having outstanding collegiate careers as multi-purpose threats (Royal finished as the ACC's all-time leader in punt return yardage and Jackson holds the Pac-10 record with six punt return touchdowns), Royal and Jackson slid into the second round of the draft primarily due to concerns about their size. Royal (5-10, 184) and Jackson (6-0, 178) were deemed too small to be No. 1 receivers as pros, and they were bypassed by several teams in favor of bigger targets (Devin Thomas, Jordy Nelson and James Hardy).

"The biggest concern with each player was their size," said an NFC college scout. "Both were so slightly built that you wondered if they could handle the physical part of the game."

In spite of those concerns, Royal and Jackson cracked the starting for opening day, and each made resounding statements that they were ready for the league. In Royal's dazzling debut against the Raiders, he repeatedly torched two-time Pro Bowler DeAngelo Hall on the way to a nine-catch, 146-yard game that included a touchdown. He added another touchdown and critical two-point conversion in Week 2 against the Chargers.

Jackson was equally impressive by topping the 100-yard receiving mark in each of his first two games. He has two receptions over 40 yards, and has given the Eagles' offense an added dimension with his big play capabilities. In addition, Jackson has also boosted the team's return game, and has a 60-yard punt return to his credit.

Given the pair's immediate success, it begs the question: Why have they been able to make such an instant impact?

While several factors have contributed to the pair's early season accomplishments, the common denominator appears to be speed. Jackson (4.35) and Royal (4.39) were two of the fastest receivers at the NFL Combine, and their explosiveness makes them difficult to defend. Veteran corners haven't faced the first-year speedsters, and often underestimate their quickness off the line. Thus, they are surprised when Royal or Jackson eats up their cushion so quickly, and are out of position when they make their breaks.

"Anytime you have an explosive player on the field you must be aware of his whereabouts and give him his proper respect," said a long-time NFL secondary coach. "However, it always creates a dilemma for the corner. If he plays him to close, he gets run by and gives up a deep one. But if he is off too far, they pick him apart with the short stuff."

Jackson and Royal have given defensive coordinators a myriad of problems through the first few weeks, but their instant impact may force front office to change their thinking when it factoring size over speed.

League observers are taking a pessimistic view of the Vikings' decision to replace Tarvaris Jackson with Gus Frerotte. Though Jackson's struggles contributed to the Vikings' winless start, few scouts view Frerotte as a major upgrade at the position.

"He will be fine for awhile," said an NFC personnel executive. "But eventually he will have a meltdown, and cost the team a few games."

Frerotte, a 15-year veteran and one-time Pro Bowler, started three games (played in eight games total) for the Rams last season, and completed 56.3 percent of his passes for 1,014 yards with seven touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Although he was 1-2 as the team's starter, Frerotte had 10 interceptions in those three games -- including a five-interception fiasco against the Ravens, and scouts are questioning whether he can help them get back into contention for a playoff berth.

"He has the potential to help them," said a NFC personnel executive. "But they will need to do a great job of protecting him because he lacks mobility. Adrian Peterson and the strong running game will take some of the pressure off him, but he is so inconsistent that you can't imagine him being a long-term solution."

Though Frerotte has been lauded for his ability to lead a similarly constructed Dolphins' team to a 9-6 record in 2005, it should be noted that he only completed 52 percent of his passes, averaged 6.1 yards per pass attempt, and had 17 total turnovers as the starter. With Jackson posting similar numbers through sixteen career starts (57.1 completion percentage, 12 touchdowns, and 22 turnovers), it makes you wonder why the Vikings were so quick to pull the plug on their young starter in favor of the veteran.

"Anytime you go 0-2, someone has to be to blame," said an NFC scout. "But it's kind of surprising to see Jackson take the fall, after they spent the entire offseason anointing him as the guy."

The Vikings and Brad Childress entered the season with lofty expectations, now they're gambling that a longtime journeyman can keep their post-season hopes afloat.

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