NFC position battles: QBs under pressure in West

We projected the 20 most intriguing position battles in NFC one month ago. With the regular season approaching, let’s check in to see which players have earned starting gigs.

Linebacker is more clear. It would be a surprise if suspended middle linebacker Rolando McClain ever plays for the team again. Anthony Hitchens has taken over in the middle, with Kyle Wilber a starter on the outside. Translation: Tony Romo and friends might need to score 35 points each week to win.

At running back, Alfred Morris has run all month like he wanted to make the Redskins regret letting him go. He’s on his way. With Lance Dunbar on the mend and rookie Darius Jackson looking like he belongs, Jerry Jones could potentially attempt to trade Darren McFadden.

And before I do get into the sleepers, you know how much I love to say that Aaron Rodgers is going to be motivated this season because his brother aired their family’s dirty laundry on “The Bachelorette” this summer. I’m still convinced this is the case, even though a lot of the football types in the building kind of bristle at the idea. But I did get a pretty good endorsement of this theory a few weeks ago. Forgive me, I did share this story with you on my Facebook page. However, it’s too good not to share in case you missed it. (ICYMI for all of you hipsters.)

Latavius Murray’s fantasy stock: Coach Jack Del Rio said that Murray’s limited playing time against Tennessee was only because the Raiders know Murray and need to find his backup. That argument only works if Murray is clearly better than the players behind him.

Both DeAndre Washington and camp surprise Jalen Richard run with serious juice. Washington is great on passing downs and Richard has vision. Throw in underrated fullback Jamize Olawale’s carries with the starters and Murray is staring at a diminished workload. Del Rio refused to guarantee Murray would be the team’s No. 1 back early in the offseason, and Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie promised to get help. The team was hoping to reduce Murray’s role and just so happened to find the right guys with a fifth-round pick and an undrafted free agent.

A good week for …
Dallas Cowboys rookies: This has nothing to do with the broken bone in Tony Romo’s back. That injury will keep Dak Prescott in the spotlight longer than expected, but his performance against Seattle on Thursday night showed how the Cowboys can survive. Prescott showed he can stand tall against pressure, even if heat is rare behind the boffo Cowboys line. Prescott avoided big mistakes, ran the hurry-up like a veteran and got the Cowboys starters to halftime tied against a stout defense.

More importantly, Prescott will have the support of a strong running game. Ezekiel Elliott put more skills on tape (power, burst, vision, blocking, toughness) in 14 snaps than some NFL starters show their whole career. Even the Jones family couldn’t overhype this kid enough.

Andre Johnson, WR, Tennessee Titans: Signed without a guaranteed roster spot, Johnson now looks slated for a starting role. Dorial Green-Beckham is gone and Justin Hunter could be soon behind. Johnson actually played more with Tennessee’s first-team offense on Saturday than big free-agent pickup Rishard Matthews, catching three passes for 65 yards. Time will tell what he has left, but A.J. is getting a legitimate final chance to burnish his Hall of Fame numbers alongside a promising young quarterback.

Bengals tell Andy Dalton to cut down on the tackles in 2016

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton joked Thursday that he probably wouldn’t be making many tackles this year.

If it’s up to the team, he won’t be making any at all. Dalton broke his thumb last season trying to make a tackle after throwing an interception in the first quarter of a game against the Steelers on Dec. 18. The Bengals went 2-2 without him, but weren’t able to make it out of the first round of the playoffs.

“Oh yeah. We’ve made that clear here,” Bengals cornerback Adam Jones said on Pro Football Talk Live Thursday morning. “Whatever happens, he needs to run his ass back to the sidelines.”

In the ESPN story, Norman said of Thomas: “I don’t know what he was out there for. He was supposed to be an all-world guy and I shut him down.”

Bell will inevitably have the shortest leash. Get him a few carries, then see you in Week 4. Bell can’t return to practices until Sept. 26 after serving a three-game suspension for missed drug tests.

The 22-year-old superstar is gearing up for another teaser on Saturday, when the Rams travel to Denver to play the reigning-champion Broncos at 6 p.m. PT. Gurley is expected to play. But while the rest of the starters go deep into the second quarter in the third preseason game, Rams coach Jeff Fisher will probably restrict Gurley to only one drive, just like he did last week.

“It’s whatever,” Gurley said. “Whatever Coach Jeff gives me, I’ll be happy with it. Obviously I want to be out there with my boys, running the ball, protecting, whatever it is. Just a couple more weeks until the real games.”

And with Gurley, that’s all the Rams are even thinking about. During Tuesday’s airing of “Hard Knocks,” Fisher was seen telling his defensive coaches that Gurley should be treated “like a freaking quarterback” and need not be tackled. On Wednesday, Fisher watched Gurley end up near the bottom of a pile during a scuffle with his own teammates and said, “We all need to be smarter than that.”

The Rams are being uber-cautious with Gurley, because he will carry a heavy load in the offense and because he showed last year that he doesn’t necessarily need to play in preseason games. Many have wondered if Gurley should simply not play at all until the regular season, which is probably something Fisher has thought about himself.

Josh Norman embraces new status as target, says he ‘can take it’

ASHBURN, Va. — When Washington Redskins corner Josh Norman signed his new contract in April, he knew life would change. He went from scrappy underdog to a moving target.

A year ago at this time he was an improving corner on a very good Carolina defense. Now he’s a target.

“I think it’s crazy,” Norman said. “I would never dream that in a million years.”

“I’m part Native American on both my mom’s and my dad’s side. It’s kind of a funny thing, though. A redskin playing for the Redskins,” he said, in a story written by senior writer Kevin Van Valkenburg.

Norman also said he’s the “best cornerback on Earth” and asked when New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. would “grow up.”

The issue, which has Norman on the cover, will be available on newsstands Thursday.

Norman’s franchise tag was rescinded by the Carolina Panthers this past offseason, and he then signed a five-year, $75 million deal with Washington in April. He told The Magazine that he felt constrained in Carolina, that he was asked to cut down on his trash talk but wouldn’t because “I’m not a fake.”

He said the team’s conservative nature made him expendable.

“They kind of shunned me,” he said. “They turned down a lot of stuff for me, interviews, sponsorship deals, stuff I didn’t even know about. They wanted it to be about the two main guys, Cam [Newton] and Luke [Kuechly].”

In Washington, he said he thinks he can “grow.”

“…[I]t feels like everybody can say whatever they want,” he said. “It’s a free-flowing kind of place. It’s like going from a dictatorship to freedom.”

“He’s skilled and talented. I won’t take that away from him. But he’s never been through any adversity in his life. It’s like, when are you ever going to grow up?”

Ever since Norman signed a five-year, $15 million-a-year deal with the Redskins, he has been knocked by other players — New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and Arizona Cardinals corner Patrick Peterson — and roasted by fans anytime video of him getting beat in practice surfaces. And his comments now are turned into headlines.

While blocking out the noise, Matt Ryan still focused on that elusive Super Bowl

“I believe Matt is an elite quarterback,” offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. “Matt was the third pick in the draft [in 2008]. He’s played a lot of good football. But being an elite quarterback also has to do with the people around you. Nobody is elite on their own.”

Ryan, 31, isn’t consumed with outside perception. It’s been his motto to block out the noise. However, he’s not totally immune to it. It annoys him, to a degree.

“I think a lot of times, maybe it affects some of the people around you more than it affects you, and that part of it isn’t fun,” the typically reserved Ryan said. “Obviously, when your wife is pissed off about something, that part of it isn’t fun.”

Criticism has mounted, in large part, as a result of Ryan’s financial status. He enters the 2016 season as one of 11 quarterbacks averaging $20 million-plus per season. Eight of the 11 — Cam Newton, Joe Flacco, Brady, Drew Brees, Eli Manning, Russell Wilson, Rodgers and Roethlisberger — have made it to the Super Bowl, with the latter seven winning titles. And two of the others — Philip Rivers and Andrew Luck — have four and three playoffs wins, respectively, so more than Ryan.

When a quarterback is set to make more than $100 million over a five-year period and eats up more than $20 million in cap space each of the next three seasons, the standards are raised.

“It’s kind of the going rate,” Ryan said of the $100 million plateau. “That’s not to be funny or anything. As you see now, we play our position and we go out and compete, and this is what I’ve done since 13 — played quarterback. It’s never been about [money]. I’m not complaining. [Money] is just one of the things that come along with it. With that comes added criticism, and there’s a certain expectation.

“What I need to do is do my job as best I can and not worry about what everyone else thinks about what you’re getting paid. This is something that comes up for every quarterback. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t affect the outcome of games. For me, the things that are important are the things that affect the outcome of games. That’s what I focus on.”

Ryan signed his contract in July 2013, well before the Falcons experienced a dramatic freefall. They’ve missed the playoffs the past three seasons while compiling an 18-30 mark. Ryan surpassing 4,500 passing yards in each of those seasons didn’t really matter in the grand scheme.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The San Francisco 49ers are two weeks and one game into their preseason, and the quarterback competition between Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick still doesn’t have much in the way of clarity.

Gabbert started and had an up-and-down performance in Sunday’s 24-13 loss to the Houston Texans, while Kaepernick still is recovering from the right shoulder fatigue that kept him from throwing in two practices and the preseason opener.

But as training camp practices melt away, the best chances for one quarterback to gain separation do too. Which makes this week perhaps the most critical of the entire training camp when it comes to figuring out who will be playing the most important position in the game for the Niners in 2016.

49ers coach Chip Kelly often has pointed to the preseason games as integral milestones in the competition, and the same is true of the team’s three scheduled joint practices with opponents. While the day-to-day work in practice matters, it only goes up a notch when there’s another team on the other side.

This week brings two practices against the Broncos in Denver on Wednesday and Thursday, followed by Saturday’s preseason contest between the teams. One of the primary reasons the 49ers held Kaepernick out of Sunday’s game was to give him a chance to be ready to play this week in Denver.

“Colin isn’t 100 percent and it wouldn’t have been fair to put him in and judge him in a competition,” Kelly said. “We’re just trying to get him healthy and see if we can get him ready for this week against Denver.”

What we learned: Browns setting RGIII up for success?

Multiple league executives recently told NFL Media’s Bucky Brooks that they expect Griffin to provide a short-term spark under Jackson’s tutelage and early-season game plans.

If the experiment blows up in Jackson’s face, on the other hand, it won’t be attributable to an inadequate supporting cast.

Here’s what else we learned from Monday’s action in training camps around the league:

1. It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for the Browns offense on Monday. Jackson noted that Josh Gordon will be the first to tell you that he needs to lose weight. Although Gordon is nursing a quadriceps injury, Jackson is hopeful that the suspended wideout will return to practice soon.

2. The Buffalo Bills’ injury woes continued on Monday, as NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reported that left tackle Cordy Glenn is expected to miss the preseason after suffering a high-ankle sprain. This news comes on the heels of injuries to first- and second-round draft picks Shaq Lawson and Reggie Ragland.

3. Don’t pencil in a monster workload for second-year Redskins running back Matt Jones just yet. General manager Scot McCloughan revealed on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports that seventh-round pick Keith Marshall will be part of a “two-headed monster” in the backfield.

“But out here, in the last week, he’s a one-cut guy, and when he puts his foot in the ground, he can fly,” McCloughan explained, via Sharp Football. “He’s 220 (pounds) and he can fly.”

Marshall also had the run of the day in Monday’s practice. A star recruit at Georgia, Marshall is an interesting name to monitor in preseason action. His 4.31 forty-yard dash at 220 pounds was one of the most impressive speed scores in the history of the NFL Scouting Combine.

4. Speaking of rookies flying under the radar, Cardinals third-round pick Brandon Williams has drawn raves during the first week of camp. The starting spot opposite Patrick Peterson is Williams’ “to lose,” coach Bruce Arians said Monday.

5. In other Cardinals news, Arians revealed that the organization is working on more contract extensions after signing Carson Palmer, Larry Fitzgerald and Tyrann Mathieu to new deals in the past week. Defensive end Calais Campbell, pass rusher Chandler Jones and wide receiver Michael Floyd are obvious candidates for negotiations.

6. Halfway through last season, Amari Cooper was so dominant that NFL Media’s Daniel Jeremiah was inspired to pick the Raiders rookie over Odell Beckham as the young wide receiver with the highest upside. Cooper then stumbled down the stretch while playing through a foot injury so painful that the team considered shutting him down for the season in December.

How serious was the injury? Cooper said Monday, via San Francisco’s KGMZ, that he avoided watching his rookie tape this offseason because he was injured for such a large portion of the season that he was never himself.

7. Shaking off early-career foot injuries of his own, Julio Jones flirted with the 2,000-yard mark last season. The Falcons superstar acknowledged Monday that it’s difficult to even set his sights on 2,000 yards this year.

“When I go (into) games, I don’t think about 2,000 yards,” Jones said, via SiriusXM NFL Radio. “I had 1,800 yards last year, but I wasn’t even thinking about it. Everyone was like, ‘Oh, man, you’re so close, you’re so close. Are you trying to get it? Are you trying to get it?’ I’m like, ‘I’m trying to go out here and get a W, I’m trying to win the game.’

“But I think it’s possible, though. I definitely think it’s possible, but it depends on the defense, if they’re going to let that guy beat them that day.”

8. Nick Shook compiled the most interesting of Monday’s depth chart revelations from around the league. The first- and second-team wide receivers for the Vikings and Titans might surprise a few people.

The college football season is a few weeks away, but that doesn’t stop NFL scouts from surveying the landscape to see which players have the potential to emerge as game changers at the next level. As a scout for the Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers, respectively, I would frequently jot down notes and make preliminary lists of the top players in my region to help me plan my travel schedule for the fall. Although these lists were etched in pencil instead of pen due to the constant change in the evaluation process, the compilation served as a nice starting point for my draft rankings.

I will share with you some of my preliminary lists this week to help pinpoint which college players to track this fall. Today, we will take a long, hard look at some of the top pass-catchers in college football.

1. JuJu Smith-Schuster, USC, WR: Every coach in America would love to build their passing game around a big, physical pass-catcher with speed to burn. That’s why USC’s Smith-Schuster is firmly entrenched as the No. 1 receiver in the minds of NFL scouts heading into the season. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound junior is a rugged playmaker capable of doing the dirty work between the hashes or acting as a vertical threat on the outside. In addition, he delivers big plays on “catch-and-run” concepts that allow him to showcase his impressive combination of strength, power and explosiveness with the ball in his hands. As a recent convert to receiver (Smith-Schuster primarily played defensive back and running back in high school), he is just beginning to come into his own as a pass-catcher. With a complete offseason devoted to mastering the nuances of route running and bump-and-run releases, Smith-Schuster should go from good to great as the Trojans’ WR1 this season.

Ken Stabler epitomized ‘badass’ Raiders of the 1970s

“He’d be 10 times more drunk than we were, and he’d be out there playing football, and we couldn’t get out of bed the following morning, you know?” a Hells Angels biker offered in the same program.

All of which is why Stabler, who died last July of colon cancer and was found to have suffered from CTE, getting his due by being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday is a bittersweet affair for his family and friends.

“Just a winner, man,” said Cliff Branch, who played receiver for the Raiders. “His thing was, ‘How much sleep do you need to go play a three-hour football game?’ And you know how he felt about that. Just total command of the huddle.”

Branch said Stabler often told his teammates that the Raiders were going to engage in some “playground football” and ask for their input.

“You guys let me know what you can do out there, and we’ll go with it,” Stabler said, according to Branch.

“I come off the line of scrimmage, and a guy’s playing 5 yards off, and I said, ‘Kenny, he’s sitting on me,'” Branch said. ‘He said, ‘We’re going up right now.’ Eighty-yard touchdown, and he comes back, ‘Good call, Cliff.'”

Stabler was Oakland’s second-round draft pick in 1968 out of Alabama, where he succeeded another night owl, Joe Namath (the Raiders had selected quarterback Eldridge Dickey out of historically black college Tennessee State in the first round). Stabler spent his first two professional seasons with the Spokane Shockers of the Continental Football League.

“He wasn’t really ready for the rigors of the NFL yet,” said Raiders owner Mark Davis, who was a ball boy for his father, Al Davis, and the team at the time. “But then, the Immaculate Reception game — that’s when he started to get his groove on.”

Indeed, were it not for Franco Harris’ last-second catch-and-run in that Dec. 23, 1972, playoff game, the heroics of the left-handed Stabler, who replaced Daryle Lamonica at quarterback, would have been the story of the day. It was Stabler’s 30-yard gallop down the Three Rivers Stadium left sideline late in the fourth quarter that gave the Raiders a short-lived 7-6 lead.

As the younger Davis hinted, the die was cast for a decade worth of white-knuckle rides and epic comebacks.

“He had a lot of fun, but he worked his ass off,” said Davis, who will be in Canton, Ohio, with his mother, Carol, to represent the Raiders and Davis family.

Stabler will be introduced via video by Hall of Fame coach John Madden, who is recuperating from hip surgery and unable to make the trip. Stabler’s favorite target, Hall of Fame receiver Fred Biletnikoff, will be joined on stage by Stabler’s grandsons, Jack and Justin Moyes, to unveil the bust.

“In the big games, he was big,” Madden said in a halftime ceremony honoring the late Stabler last season at Coliseum. “In the tough games, he was tough. The hot games, you know, when it really got heated? He was the coolest guy on the field. And I always said that if I had one quarterback to make a drive the length of a field at the end of the game, to win that game, that guy would be Ken Stabler. No. 12. The Snake.

“Thanks for the memories. We miss you, we love you, and we’ll see you in the Hall of Fame.”

After taking over as the Raiders starter in 1973, Stabler went 50-11-1 in the regular season and 7-4 in the playoffs. He was the 1974 NFL MVP. That’s when he led the NFL in touchdown passes (26) and TD percentage (8.4) while throwing for 2,469 yards, and he had an interception-free streak of 143 straight passes.

Under Stabler’s direction, the Raiders were an NFL-best 12-2 in the 1974 season. They were the highest-scoring team in the league, with 355 points, and they boasted the NFL’s best point differential, at plus-127. Still, the Raiders fell to the Pittsburgh Steelers at home in the AFC Championship Game.

It wasn’t until the 1976 season that the Raiders and Stabler finally got over the hump, thumping the Minnesota Vikings 32-14 in Super Bowl XI.

The Thursday before the game, Stabler put on a clinic in practice.

“The ball only touched the ground once, and that was on a drop,” Tom Flores told Sports Illustrated in 1981. “John Madden was standing next to me, and he said, ‘What do you think, Tom?’ and I said, ‘Throw a blanket over him, and get him out of here. This is scary.'”

The efficient Stabler completed 12 of 19 against the Vikings for 180 yards.

“Al and I hugged in the locker room five minutes after the game, and I said, ‘We finally did it,'” Stabler told HBO Sports. “And his reply was, ‘Can you do it again?'”

He could not. After a run of five straight AFC title games from 1973 to 1977, a pair of postseason-less 9-7 seasons ensued, and Stabler was traded to the Houston Oilers in 1980 — the Raiders thumped him in the AFC wild-card game en route to the Super Bowl XV title with Jim Plunkett under center — and spent three years with the New Orleans Saints. He retired during the 1984 season.

The Cold War between Stabler and Davis did not truly end until 2009, when they mended fences in a closed-door meeting in Davis’ Alameda office.

Stabler finished with 27,938 passing yards after completing 59.8 percent of his passes for 194 touchdowns and 222 interceptions in an NFL career that spanned from 1970 to 1984. He was named to the league’s all-1970s team.

After Stabler was a finalist for Hall consideration three times, the veterans committee finally came calling during Super Bowl week this past winter.

“Long overdue,” Martin said. “Long overdue. The things he’s done in the NFL, he should have been there a lot sooner. We all appreciated him, but now the rest of the NFL can appreciate him.”

Hall of Fame linebacker Ted Hendricks agreed and recalled Stabler’s leading the Raiders’ epic comeback on Monday Night Football on Dec. 3, 1979. Oakland rallied from a 35-7 deficit at the New Orleans Saints to claim a 42-35 victory.

“Finally,” Hendricks said. “You wondered why he hadn’t been [inducted] before. It’s really tragic that he’s not here to accept it himself.

“What a beautiful person he was. Always congenial, and always had that winning spirit inside of him that he never lost a game. He just ran out of time.”

The link to the new Steve Gleason documentary sat in my email for three days before I opened it. People told me I’d love it. The reviews of the film, which won acclaim at Sundance and is now in wider release, are uniformly positive and talk about the spirit of life and hope laced through his journey. That didn’t matter much. I didn’t want to watch someone die of ALS in front of my eyes. I know Steve and his wife, Michel, a little, spending time with them for a story, and even that brief interaction showed me enough of their struggles to know that there wouldn’t be some Hollywood ending.

The movie follows five years of Steve’s life as he goes from a vibrant football folk hero for the New Orleans Saints to a man trapped in a wheelchair, unable to speak or move. After seeing his struggle up close – not only the valiant bits that raise awareness, but the awkward fights with his stressed-out wife and his son gently pushing his limp head back into place – I thought I knew what the movie would be about and how it would make me feel.

Then I watched Gleason. I was wrong.

The film opens with Steve starting to record video journals for his still unborn son, Rivers, that would teach him about love and about taking chances, about being his own person and building a campfire: things a boy needs to learn from his father if he wants to grow into a good man. Soon the cameras are around Steve all the time, as he gets his diagnosis of ALS and then starts to lose things. We see Michel see him try to swim and struggle, crying at the sight of the strong man she married actually beginning his slide toward nothing. His dad takes him to a faith healer and Steve gets down in his football stance, like he’s covering a kickoff, with his hand up in the air. He takes four steps and hits the ground hard and sliding, like a big bull that’s been shot. In the crowd, Michel fumes at Steve’s dad for making him do this to himself. Later we see Steve speaking some of his last words before ALS traps him in a silent body, in one of the purest moments of desperation and despair ever recorded on film.

The arc is sophisticated and layered, its central thesis revolving around the things passed down from father to son, moving through generations. We see Steve try to make peace with his own father while attempting to give as much of himself as he can to Rivers. We see Steve and Michel argue. We see Steve struggle with the same things as many healthy people, just in an extreme way: He wants to work on his foundation because it makes him feel good to be helping, gives him a purpose, while Michel thinks he’s not spending enough time with her and with his video journals for Rivers. That conflict drives the second half of the movie.