In preparing for my NFL camp tour, I make a checklist of critical elements for the summer sessions -- and it is almost impossible to list them all. Ultimately, camp comes down to this: Keeping the right 53 men on the roster; making the right medical decisions (IR, PUP, medical settlements); getting the offense and defense installed with enough reps for the right players to open the season; getting eight solid candidates for the practice squad
I'll get a glimpse into how the process works, but keep in mind teams I visit in late July -- like the Patriots, Jets and Bills -- will look a lot different by mid-August. The 49ers and Broncos in mid-August are going to look like much more polished squads.
Here's a list of the core objectives for every club at camp:
1. Daily practice grade on everyone in camp.
2. The learning curve for the young and new players (will they be ready to start, contribute or wait to play?).
3. Players handling transition of position changes (i.e., 4-3 defensive ends being converted to outside linebackers).
4. Daily personnel meetings between the front-office staff and coaches, so everyone is on the same page when final cuts are made.
5. Updating the emergency list daily, noting potential veteran free agents if personnel problems arise.
6. Number of reps for the veterans getting and the rookies (the veterans need to stay fresh and the rookies have to learn by doing).
7. Evaluating situational play: First down, third down, red zone, no huddle, four-minute, two-minute, short yardage/goal line, blitz pickup, defending the pistol, nickel defense, dime defense.
8. Fundamentals -- how much work are the players getting on blocking, tackling, forcing fumbles, protecting the ball, etc. (teams may get practices rained out, or incur too many nagging injuries to practice and some situational play or fundamentals gets neglected)?
9. How many throws are the veteran and rookie quarterbacks getting per day (pitch count)?
10. Daily meetings with the medical and training staff.
11. Special teams evaluations.
12. Players on the bubble -- should they be released before they go down to injury and the club is liable for the salary?
I go into each camp with that list of things to cover. Sometimes it is easy to observe and sometimes it is impossible. Watching a few practices, getting a chance to watch some of the practice tapes and interviewing a dozen players, coaches and front office people doesn't complete an analysis of a team, but you can get a preliminary picture. The good news for me? The teams on my schedule have been more than accommodating and let me get a good peek into the club.
New England Patriots -- July 28: I get excellent opportunities when visiting Foxborough. Coach Bill Belichick will save some sit-down time to go over his roster and team progress. The club gives me the opportunity to watch practice from the field with the team or up in a perch high up in the stadium where I get a bird's-eye view. The Patriots have totally revamped their receiver situation, and that will be front and center on my visit. Tom Brady loves the no-huddle attack, and he expects precision routes from all eligible receivers. As of now, players who caught 300 of his 400 completions last year are not on the roster. How fast a rookie like WR Aaron Dobson can develop is an issue. Will the Patriots have to go back to the free-agent pool to fortify the receiver group? A guy like TE Jake Ballard needs to be up and running early. Will there be even a bigger emphasis on the running game? What did the team learn in the 28-13 playoff loss to the Ravens that prevented them from going to another Super Bowl? The defense did a great job of creating turnovers, but can it improve as pass defenders, including an upgraded pass rush?
New York Jets -- July 29: I haven't been to the Jets' camp in three years, and I'm eager to watch the quarterback battle. Coach Rex Ryan typically runs a physical practice, providing both sides of the ball a chance to win the battle on the practice field. The last time I visited, the goal-line/short-yardage scrimmage was no joke. I expect the same this year. The Jets have new coordinators, and it will be interesting to see the potential return to the running game on offense, and how the defense will manufacture pressure. My immediate focus will be on Quinton Coples' transition to linebacker, rookie defensive end Sheldon Richardson and how fast rookie corner Dee Milliner works his way into the starting lineup. On offense, I will clearly be counting the number of passes Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith get in practice. It will be interesting to sense if the players are taking sides in the QB competition.
Buffalo Bills -- July 30: This will be my third AFC East stop, and it will give me a good sense of where the Bills stand in the division. I know new coach Doug Marone but have not seen him as an NFL head coach. The Bills also have a quarterback battle, and it should be very interesting to see how the reps are distributed between EJ Manuel and Kevin Kolb. Among the questions I hope to answer: Who replaces Andy Levitre at guard? Has C.J. Spiller become the "bell cow" back? Can Kiko Alonzo really man the middle and quarterback this defense? Will Jarius Byrd even be in camp or will he hold out, and how does the club compensate if he's not there? Front-office personnel told me that the defense will be a multiple-front package. How Mario Williams is utilized is of interest.
Cleveland Browns -- Aug. 1: The Browns underwent an offseason front-office and coaching overhaul. I've known Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi for a long time, and expect to get some time with them. It will be interesting to see if owner Jimmy Haslam's problems in his other business is a distraction to the club. I am very interested to see how second-year QB Brandon Weeden is developing under OC Norv Turner. The club already knows it will be without wide receiver Josh Gordon to start the season, and I wonder how many reps he will get because the team has to get other receivers ready. The defense is heading back to a 3-4 after a stint in a 4-3. Jabaal Sheard looked like a good young 4-3 end last year, and how he fits in this defense as an OLB is key, plus finding ways to get Paul Kruger, Sheard and rookie Barkevious Mingo on the field at the same time.
Pittsburgh Steelers -- Aug. 2: One of my favorite stops, and this will be my 10th straight year. And I love to be there in a year coming off a disappointing season because things will be very intense for a team that hasn't had back-to-back non-playoff seasons since 1999-2000. I go out of my way to be there the night of their traditional intrasquad scrimmage at Latrobe High. The Steelers will have individual drills to work on fundamentals at full speed, group periods, like blitz pickup, as well as one-on-one pass routes with coverage. There will be a team period and you can bet defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will bring the multiple blitz calls all night trying to frustrate the offense. How will this offense look without speedy Mike Wallace at receiver? Can the defense click with James Harrison and Casey Hampton gone? Last year, they talked about being a better run offense but finished 26th. Is this the season they get back to their roots?
Hall of Fame, Aug. 3: For the past eight years I covered the induction ceremony at the HOF with radio partner Tim Ryan. Usually, I spend the morning and afternoon before the ceremony talking football with the many former players in Canton for the weekend.
Washington Redskins -- Aug. 5: The Redskins are in new digs at Richmond, Va., and I am eager to see the facilities as well as Robert Griffin III's progress. The Redskins' story always starts with RG3, but there are many other issues as the Skins get ready to defend their NFC East title -- from the controversial team nickname to the defensive adjustments, this is a fascinating franchise. Last year, the Redskins went 9-1 when rookie Alfred Morris had 20-plus carries, but his production slowed down when RG3 wasn't a running threat. For me, the question is: How does this offense grow and protect RG3 at the same time? Hopefully the offense is throwing against the Redskins defense while I'm there, so I can take a good look at last year's 30th-ranked pass D. I know GM Bruce Allen has a ready list if the secondary starts to look like it did in 2012, or health becomes a factor. How quickly can rookie CB Dave Amerson get into the starting mix?
Baltimore Ravens -- Aug 6: This stop is one of the most impressive. Owner Steve Bisciotti will walk the practice field with me, and offer me one of his fine cigars as the visit comes to an end. Now that they are the world champs, it could be two cigars! First order of business will be to see the personnel adjustments after losing Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Anquan Boldin, Matt Birk, Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger. The Boldin trade to San Francisco makes the receiver situation of particular interest for me. If Tandon Doss and David Reed are struggling will this club sign a veteran like Brandon Lloyd by the time I get there? The Ravens are perceived as a defensive team, but they are breaking in six new starters on that side of the ball. So how far along are they by Aug. 6? Last year, the run defense ranked 20th in the NFL and the first four games this year are against Montee Ball (Denver), Trent Richardson (Cleveland), Arian Foster (Houston) and C.J. Spiller (Buffalo).
Houston Texans -- Aug. 7: Expectations are always high in Houston. The Texans had the seventh-ranked offense and defense last season, but couldn't stop the Patriots' offense in the playoffs (41 points) or in the regular season (42). Will Ed Reed make a difference on the back end? Will the return of linebacker Brian Cushing fix the problem? On offense, I will be focused on the passing game opposite Andre Johnson. Can DeAndre Hopkins take some of the pressure off Johnson and Matt Schaub? The Texans didn't have enough passing touchdowns last year to be Super Bowl contenders (Johnson had four TD catches). Brooks Reed was an emergency replacement at ILB last year, but now may make the position change. I will spend time looking at the structure of the linebackers. On offense, I need to look long and hard at the right side of the offensive line, which was not the same in 2012 as it was in 2011. Last year, no less than four different players worked at right guard and tackle, and it will be interesting to see if rookies Brennan Williams and/or David Quessenberry crack the lineup.
Denver Broncos -- Aug. 12: I spent some time with coach John Fox this past week and have a good understanding of where this team is headed. It's no secret this is a Super Bowl-or-bust year. From John Elway to the punter, the focus is on the Lombardi Trophy. I was impressed with Denver on my camp tour last year, especially with the progress the no-huddle offense had made in two weeks of camp. I expect a well-oiled machine this year, especially with Wes Welker in the slot. Neither disciplined front office executive, Matt Russell or Tom Heckert, will be around when I get there and Elway may be working overtime on some of the personnel issues. I will spend time watching the progress of RB Montee Ball. We all know he can run, and opposing defenses are trying to stop the Peyton Manning passing attack. But where are Ball's pass-protection skills? As for Manning, his arm strength last year was better than advertised and all indications are that he has improved upon that. The Broncos throw the ball so much in practice that I will get a good look at his deep ball. Manning got all the attention last year, but this defense finished second in the NFL. How do they overcome the loss of Elvis Dummervil? Shaun Phillips comes over from San Diego, and players who have gone against Phillips say his versatility is impressive. I want to see how he fits in Denver's scheme.
Seattle Seahawks -- Aug. 13: It's always a big treat for me to visit old friend Pete Carroll up in the Northwest. From attending team and staff meetings to watching all the practice tape I need, to practically standing in the huddle at practice, I will know this team. Under the direction of GM John Schneider, Seattle does not stand still with the roster it has at the start of camp. There will be veterans brought in almost on a daily basis if competition is needed at any position. On defense, the club bought some pass rushers. I will pay close attention to see how Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin factor into the rush. There is one linebacker spot open to competition, and by time I get to Seattle there should be a clear picture of how everyone stacks up. On offense, the 27th-ranked passing attack in 2012 gets a boost from Percy Harvin joining the club. Watching all the ways Seattle plans to use Harvin is a priority.
San Francisco 49ers -- Aug. 14: Visiting the NFC champs to wrap up my West Coast tour is a treat. This well-stocked roster has a mission to get back to the Super Bowl. Last year, Colin Kaepernick was a backup/role player in camp. Now, he is the team leader. I don't care what hat he's wearing, I'm here to watch his growth and development as a QB. The loss of Michael Crabtree and the departure of TE Delanie Walker makes the receiving corps a key spot to study. Anquan Boldin will be impressive. But what about the rest of the receivers and rookie tight end Vance McDonald? Why did the 49ers trade for troubled CB Eric Wright? How quickly can rookie safety Eric Reed be ready to start? The first three quarterbacks on the schedule are Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck. As good as the 49ers' defense was last year (No. 3 overall), it did give up 175 points in the final six games (29 points a game). What adjustments will the defense make this season?