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Snap Judgments: Turner set to break out as Atlanta's feature back


Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we arrive at the midway point of the NFL's fake-game schedule, putting us (thankfully) just 17 days away from when they start keeping score for real. ...

• Brett Favre's a Jet, Jeremy Shockey's a Saint, and Jason Taylor now does his sacking (and dancing?) in D.C. While those headline acquisitions have sucked up most of the oxygen in the NFL the past month or so, my pick for the best get of the offseason remains Falcons running back Michael Turner, who signed with Atlanta way back at the start of free agency in March.

And with a nod to the impact that defensive end Jared Allen could make in Minnesota, Turner is still the new face in a new place that I expect to pay the biggest return on the investment in 2008.

So far, it's tough to quibble with the Falcons' move to sign LaDainian Tomlinson's former understudy to a lavish six-year, $34.5 million contract. In Turner's first two preseason games as Atlanta's No. 1 back, the fifth-year vet has run nine times for 135 yards, which works out to a tidy 15.0-yard average. In his homefield debut Saturday night against the Colts, Turner rolled to 113 yards on just four carries, the highlights of which were gains of 63 and 52 yards, both of which set up Jason Elam first-quarter field goals in the Falcons' 16-9 loss.

Setting aside Turner's rare blend of power and speed for the moment, I've heard plenty of folks question whether he could possibly produce big numbers this season while running behind an Atlanta offensive line that will be average at best and makeshift at worst. I can't tell you if Turner will have as many holes to run through as he should this season, but I'm confident he'll hit the ones that are there fairly frequently, and he'll pop his share of them for defense-gashing chunks of yardage.

New Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey knows exactly what he has in Turner, and he's not going to under-use Turner's ability to both run over people and run away from them. Atlanta fans can count on that. The Falcons want to employ third-year rusher Jerious Norwood as a change of pace option in tandem with Turner, but after waiting four years for his chance to carry the offensive load for a team, Turner won't lack for work.

"All I know is that when he went in there, people couldn't tackle him,'' said Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who played with Turner in San Diego in 2004-05. "Mike was a bruiser, but he's going to give more punishment than he takes. I knew at some point he was going to get an opportunity to be a No. 1 back in this league.''

Turner first opened mine and a lot of other folks' eyes back in mid-December 2005, when he helped the Chargers knock off the 13-0 Colts in Indy with that memorable game-clinching 83-yard touchdown burst with just over two minutes to go in the 26-17 San Diego upset. Brees was the Chargers quarterback that day, and he still can't believe someone so big (5-foot-10, 244 pounds) could move so fast.

"No one really knew he had that top-end speed, even though we had all heard of Michael 'The Burner' Turner,'' Brees said. "It was like one of those moments where you go, 'Oh, man. Where did that come from?' ''

I'm convinced there are going to be more of those moments for Turner in Atlanta this season. Suspect offensive line and all, the Falcons made the best move of the year in enticing Turner into their backfield. After the debacle of Atlanta's 2007 season, it was the right call for a team in desperate need of something or someone to count on.

• A concussion for Derek Anderson could mean Cleveland has concluded the smooth sailing portion of its preseason and it's time for a little rough water. All I know is Browns head coach Romeo Crennel was really hoping to not open the Pandora's Box of having backup quarterback Brady Quinn play long enough and well enough to kick start any hint of a quarterback controversy.

• I'm not saying there was a great choice to be had by Bears head coach Lovie Smith, but I believe he made the best possible call in going with Kyle Orton over Rex Grossman at starting quarterback. Chicago has seen the Grossman movie more than once and knows how it ends. Orton's story at least has yet to be fully told. That's what it would have come down to for me were I a Bears fan.

• Chris Henry back to Cincinnati? Really? I guess Marvin Lewis isn't calling all the shots in Bengals-land.

• Now that was the Trent Edwards that Bills offensive coordinator (and former QBs coach) Turk Schonert has been telling me about for two years now. Poised, efficient with the ball, and capable of making every throw that an NFL quarterback has to make.

Edwards' 9-of-11, 104-yard, two-touchdown pass showing against the Steelers in Toronto (how weird does that sound?) Thursday night leaves me questioning my supposition that Buffalo, almost by default, will enter the season with the AFC East's fourth-best starting quarterback.

• That said, Chad Pennington wasn't too shabby in his Miami starting debut, eh? You could make the case that of the inextricably linked quarterbacking triumvirate of Favre, Aaron Rodgers and Pennington, the ex-Jet turned in the best performance of all -- completing 5 of 6 passes for 55 yards and leading the Dolphins on two scoring drives (one more than Favre did for New York) in Miami's 19-14 road win at Jacksonville.

And while we're at it, how come no one seems fixated on just how quickly Pennington will pick up the Dolphins offense, given that he'll have the same amount of time to acclimate himself that Favre has in New York? I still expect quick-study rookie Chad Henne to be starting for Miami at some point this season, but Pennington's transition with the Dolphins could wind up being smoother than No. 4's with the Jets, but with a lot less fanfare.

• Remember in my pre-training camp burning questions when I asked how long it would be before the veteran QB-loving Bill Parcells brought Vinny Testaverde to Dolphins camp? I wasn't serious, but I also wasn't too far off. I just had the wrong ex-Jets starter in mind.

• OK, I'll ask it: Was Favre even the best Jets quarterback named Brett on the field in Washington the other night? I mean, rookie Brett Ratliff did finish 13 of 19 for 148 yards, leading New York into Washington territory on three of his four late-game possessions.

I know he was playing in what amounted to mop-up time against the Redskins' subs, but only a 23-yard Mike Nugent field goal miss at the gun kept Ratliff from hanging a pair of fourth-quarter field goal drives on the board and forcing the game into overtime. He was way sharper than Jets backup Kellen Clemens, that much I know. Ratliff has thrown for a league-leading 400 yards in two games this preseason, and you have to wonder if he has passed Clemens for the backup job behind Favre.

• Just think, once the NFL does the inevitable and goes to 18 regular season games -- and that's a move that may be negotiated as part of the league's next CBA -- the two-game preseason schedule would already be over for this year. I can't think of any fan who would object. The NFL's exhibition season gets harder to watch every year, with so many teams merely playing the games with nothing more in mind than avoiding injuries to key contributors.

• Somebody do Derrick Harvey a favor and give him JaMarcus Russell's phone number. At least that way Jacksonville's rookie holdout defensive end will know what the rest of his 2008 might be like.

• We know Al Davis loves the vertical passing game and all, but sheesh can these Raiders run the rock. Oakland is averaging 236 yards rushing through its first two preseason games, and it's not a flukey stat based on one big game and one so-so game. The Raiders rushed 41 times for 248 yards (6.0) in a win over San Francisco, and gained 224 yards on 37 attempts (6.1) at Tennessee on Friday.

I don't care who you play, 472 yards rushing on 78 carries is getting it done in the ground game. The Raiders have four different running back who already have 86 yards or more this month: Louis Rankin (120 yards on 14 carries), Adimchinobe Etchemandu (98 yards on eight carries), Darren McFadden (92 yards on 18 rushes), and Michael Bush (86 yards on 22 attempts).

That should help lighten the offensive burden on first-time starting quarterback Russell's shoulders. If Oakland can run for 236 per game, I like their chances to win a couple. With that kind of surplus in the backfield, it also makes you wonder if the Raiders will be the first team called if somebody gets thin at running back.

Oakland's running the ball so well that even LaMont Jordan (76 yards on 19 rushes) is gaining yardage -- albeit in New England.

• It was so predictable, because anytime you have a three-man competition at the game's most crucial position you're already in trouble. But does San Francisco's quarterback situation look like a train wreck in slow motion or what?

Mike Nolan and his 49ers coaching staff are in heavy job-saving mode, and that will apparently lead them to make the short-term decision to start J.T. O'Sullivan over both Alex Smith (the No. 1 overall pick in 2005) or Shaun Hill (who looked good late last year in going 2-0 as the team's starter).

Maybe O'Sullivan is the next Kurt Warner or Tom Brady waiting to happen. But more likely he just momentarily looks like the best of three pretty mediocre options, namely because he's more familiar with offensive coordinator Mike Martz's offense, dating to their time together in Detroit. All I know is that the three quarterbacks went a combined 15 of 34 for 237 yards and one interception in San Francisco's 34-6 drubbing of Green Bay on Saturday, and that's a 44.1 percent completion ratio.

I'm tweaking it a bit, but what's that they say about when you have three potential starters, it means you really have none?

• This year's early nominee for the Marques Colston out-of-nowhere award goes to Seattle rookie running back Justin Forsett, a seventh-round pick out of Cal who so far has looked like a young Tony Dorsett -- if you'll excuse the rhyme.

Forsett ripped off 136 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries in Seattle's 29-26 overtime win over visiting Chicago on Saturday. That gives him 194 yards rushing on 28 carries this preseason, a whopping 6.9 average run. Only Washington's Marcus Mason (another no-name who's making good) has more rushing yards this preseason, albeit courtesy of the Redskins' one extra exhibition game.

Who needs Shaun Alexander? (Apparently no one, since he remains un-signed).

• Same old, same old in Chicago. The Bears got 16 points out of their defense and special teams against Seattle, and 10 out of their offense. The trouble is, you can't build your season around the premise that your offense will be outscored by both the opponent and your own team.

• How 'bout them Cowboys? I'm not sure there are many positives to take away so far from double-digit road losses at San Diego and Denver. But their show sure plays well for the cameras on HBO. Come to think of it, the ol' Hard Knocks' series didn't work wonders for Kansas City last year either.

• I watched most of that Panthers-Eagles game Thursday night -- even making it through that almost one-hour weather delay -- and all I kept thinking was that Philly head coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg looked in midseason form.

The Eagles threw the ball 52 times in the game, completing 25 for 247 yards passing, compared to just 22 rushes. Does anybody in the league bother giving less lip service to the myth of the all-important balanced offense? Philly's going to throw the ball more than it runs. A lot more. Almost every time.

• Oh, so that's why Matt Cassel hasn't started a meaningful game since high school. Anyone care to debate the issue of whether Tom Brady is more valuable to his team than any other player in the NFL, Peyton Manning included? (Would you trade Cassel straight up for Jim Sorgi? I wouldn't). Next contract negotiation with the Patriots, Brady's agents should pop in the video of New England's first two 2008 preseason showings on offense.

Case closed.

• Not that you need reminding, but Minnesota's Super Bowl express depends on the state of Tarvaris Jackson's right knee, which sustained a sprain to the medial collateral ligament at Baltimore. When I first heard the news that Jackson had left the game with a knee injury Saturday night, I had flashbacks to how the Ravens wiped out the Falcons' 2003 season when quarterback Michael Vick fractured his fibula against Baltimore in an exhibition game that August.

Jackson's injury is nowhere near that serious, of course, but with Gus Frerotte, Brooks Bollinger and John David Booty behind Jackson on the depth chart, would the Vikings dare dial up the still unsigned Daunte Culpepper if Jackson at any point this season went down for any length of time? Given how Minnesota head coach Brad Childress and Culpepper got along in their brief time together, I think not.

• The more I see of Baltimore rookie running back Ray Rice, and the more Willis McGahee continues to have health-related question marks surrounding his surgically repaired left knee, the more I'd be inclined to snap up Rice if I were one of those Fantasy Football playing types (which I'm not).

Ravens rookie head coach John Harbaugh loves the kid, but for now has to stick with the company line that McGahee is his starter. But no matter what the semantics, Baltimore is going to use the rookie from Rutgers early and often. And the onus is on McGahee to re-prove that he can be counted on to get on the field and produce.

Rice touched the ball 11 times at home against the Vikings on Saturday and produced 94 yards, including a 42-yard burst the first time his number was called before the hometown fans. But that was only the start of the love affair. It's going to get better, Baltimore.

• Even before he injured his left shoulder in action against Detroit at home Sunday night, I had my doubts whether Chad Johnson's new and improved attitude was even going to make it through September. His transformation had a bit too much overnight, calculated feel to it. I figured he was two or three frustrating Bengals losses away from reverting to the forehead-slapping form he exhibited for most of this offseason.

But now that he's hurt, and maybe won't be healthy enough to be the early-season factor he had hoped, I think the odds he blows up on the Bengals again have risen to better than 50-50.

• When I visited Ravens camp way back on July 22, sources within the organization told me they didn't expect franchised linebacker-defensive end Terrell Suggs to report and sign his one-year contract until a couple days after Baltimore's second preseason game. That has become somewhat of the standard move for unhappy franchise players, to blow off training camp as a sign of their displeasure, but still give themselves two weeks to prepare for the regular season.

Still, Suggs came in exactly two days after the Ravens' second preseason game, so I'm impressed by Baltimore's prognostication skills.

• Now playing the role of Terrell Owens in Philadelphia, Javon Walker in Green Bay, Randy Moss in Oakland, Chad Johnson in Cincinnati and Keyshawn Johnson in Tampa Bay, we give you Anquan Boldin in Arizona -- the latest, greatest (and clearly underpaid) receiver who wants to shoot his way out of town using only his mouth.

• You better suck it up and hit the practice field a bit more, Plaxico Burress. That touchdown machine Domenik Hixon is starting to close some ground.

• Not that I expect anyone to change their minds in Tennessee or Washington because of this, but did you notice how much more productive backup quarterbacks Kerry Collins and Todd Collins were this weekend when compared to starters Vince Young and Jason Campbell?

Just sayin'.