The best way to evaluate and get to know where an NFL team stands for an upcoming season is to go to training camp, watch practice and then talk with players, coaches and members of the front office. Here are some quick hits from the training camps I have attended.
Why did they draft Tim Tebow? If it was to spark some excitement within their fan base, they've succeeded with flying colors. Tebowmania is in full effect at Broncos training camp in Dove Valley, Colo., as fans began to line up their cars at 4 a.m. for the first day of camp, knowing full well that the gates didn't open until 7:45. Tebow's No. 15 jersey is also clearly the jersey of choice for most Broncos fans these days.
But if the Broncos drafted him to be their quarterback, it could be a while. Kyle Orton is light years better than Tebow and Brady Quinn at this point, and head coach Josh McDaniels essentially admitted as much when he said, "Kyle is operating this offense right now at the highest level ... there is nothing we can't do with him."
No questions necessary regarding the selection of Demaryius Thomas. Actually there is one right now, and that is the status of his foot. Other than that, the rookie wide receiver from Georgia Tech is an absolute gem. He made play after play, including several deep grabs in traffic, on the day I visited camp.
Practice was sloppy at times, with a lot of players ending up on the ground after plays, a big no-no because of the possibility that anyone going to the ground could roll up into a teammate and cause a knee or ankle injury. There also was a glaring lack of a pass rush, due in large part to the injury to 2009 sack leader Elvis Dumervil.
Josh McDaniels is doing it his way. Right or wrong, McDaniels has a core philosophy and he is sticking to it. That's why Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall and former defensive coordinator Mike Nolan are no longer part of the team. Whether his system can produce a winning formula remains to be seen.
The defense will be better. This unit has been significantly upgraded at four spots if not more. It looks like the Eagles hit on their first two draft choices, defensive end Brandon Graham and safety Nate Allen. Both players should start from day one. Philly also traded for former Lions linebacker Ernie Sims, who could quickly become a fan favorite due to his violent style of play. The biggest upgrade, however, comes at middle linebacker, where Stewart Bradley returns after missing all of the 2009 season with a torn ACL. He's made a quick first impression on Sims.
"Where I'm from in Florida, you don't see white guys like that -- 6-5, 260 pounds, smart and he can run. He's special."
The expectations have not altered with the change in quarterback. All of the players are going to say all of the right things on the record, but what sold me on their belief in new starting quarterback Kevin Kolb is the things some of the players I know personally told me off the record. To a man, they all mentioned his confidence and ability to quickly forget a bad play and move on to the next one. That's critical for a young player and will serve Kolb well in a tough fan and media market.
The interior offensive line is the biggest concern right now. The Eagles can't be sure about their starter at any of those three spots. And though the organization will point out that back-ups like Max Jean-Gilles and Stacy Andrews have significant experience in this league, some of those players are the same ones who struggled in the back-to-back losses to Dallas to end last season.
They really can get by without Darrelle Revis. They don't want to, mind you, but they can. You have to have three legitimate corners in this league, and the Jets feel they have that in Antonio Cromartie, Kyle Wilson and Dwight Lowery. But none of those guys is Revis, and they know that as well.
Another concern is special teams. Does the Jets' group equate to Super Bowl quality? So much money and effort was invested to bring in big-name back-ups like LaDainian Tomlinson and Jason Taylor that you have to wonder if New York has the core group of special teamers necessary to reach the high expectations this team has. Most teams have five or six guys up to the task, but the Jets are still trying to find out who else can get it done other than Erik Smith, Brad Smith and James Ihedigbo. Not to mention the kicking position, where the Jets inexplicably failed to re-sign Jay Feeley and instead are rolling the dice with former Cowboy Nick Folk.
At the end of the day, the Jets want the Colts. Head coach Rex Ryan says he thinks about Peyton Manning every single night and the things he would do differently than in last season's AFC Championship Game. "That guy, personally, has cost me two rings. That's how I look at it," Ryan said.
The secondary is a real issue, but they are working on it. First there was uncertainly as to when safety Ed Reed and cornerbacks Fabian Washington and Lardarius Webb would return to action from offseason surgery. Then their best corner, Domonique Foxworth, went down with an injury and is out for the season. Rest assured, the Ravens are working the phone lines and scanning the waiver wires to bring in another competent NFL corner.
Baltimore worked almost exclusively out of the shotgun formation, using multiple receiver sets, at the practice I attended. Makes sense with the addition of Anquan Boldin and Donte Stallworth. Combine those two new weapons with a confident third-year quarterback in Joe Flacco and multi-purpose threat Ray Rice, and the approach makes sense.
It's not often you see training-camp competition at both long-snapper and place-kicker, but that's what's going on at Ravens camp. Both positions let this team down at critical junctures last year, so the Ravens are trying to avoid a repeat. But that doesn't mean it is easy or fail proof.
"Usually at a position like right tackle, over the course of six weeks of training camp and preseason football, it becomes fairly obvious who the better player is," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said. "At kicker, I don't know that you really know about a guy until he makes a couple big kicks in pressure situations. And even that doesn't ensure that he will continue that level of performance the following week."
Harbaugh thinks both of his current kickers, Billy Cundiff and Shayne Graham, will end up on NFL rosters this season.