We've been hearing the following whispers around the NFC:
• Redskins RB Clinton Portis is the odds-on favorite to win the starting job, despite having the most competition he has seen in Washington. Mike Shanahan has issued a challenge to Portis this offseason, and from what we hear, Shanahan and the other offensive coaches have been impressed with the way Portis has responded. Many feel he could have a bounce-back season.
• Cowboys TE Martellus Bennett has flirted with his immense talent, but the team is growing weary of his lack of progress. Don't be surprised if John Phillips, who was a nice surprise last season as the third tight end, passes Bennett on the depth chart. If the rumors are true that Jerry Jones previously had resisted trading Bennett for a first-round pick, then he might be kicking himself because so far Bennett has not proven worthy. Phillips, who has had a great offseason by most accounts, has been terrific, however.
• Although Giants head coach Tom Coughlin said that FS Kenny Phillips would begin training camp working mostly with the trainers until they clear him medically to play, Coughlin was very optimistic that he would have Phillips, who is coming off microfracture surgery on his knee, on the field for some of the 20 days of camp. "Oh, definitely," Coughlin said, "I expect to get him as much as a week or two (of practice)."
• Felix Jones weighing more than Marion Barber? It's true. Jones added bulk in the offseason and currently sits in the 220 range while Barber is below that, at around 215. That won't change the way either back runs with the ball, but it might help Jones when it comes to handling the added load he's expected to receive.
• The Vikings have kicked around the idea of signing another veteran receiver as training camp was opening. The top three — Sidney Rice, Bernard Berrian and Percy Harvin — are extremely strong, but there's little established depth beyond them. Plus, the health of Rice (hip) has come into question.
• Lions rookie CB Amari Spievey struggled in his first work with the team this spring and appeared to be more of a project this season. But his work in the team's final minicamps in June gave the staff hope that Spievey can be more than a special-teams contributor and sideline student this year. He enters camp with a very real chance to earn a significant role - if not as a starter, then as a valuable sub-package defender. No secondary spot — other than FS Louis Delmas' — is anywhere close to being set in stone.
• It would appear veteran Bears LB Hunter Hillenmeyer's roster status is a great deal more secure than it was a year ago at this time. "A couple of the Bears' coaches thought he had his best year ever (in '09)," said one team insider of Hillenmeyer. "He's definitely in the mix. The LB unit is not nearly as deep with Jamar Williams gone (traded to Carolina for S Chris Harris)."
• A very interesting battle for the third-down RB job could be shaping up in the Packers' training camp between sixth-round rookie James Starks and incumbent Brandon Jackson. We hear Starks could have a leg up as far as running and receiving skills are concerned, but Jackson, who has significantly bulked up his lower body, has worked extremely hard to make himself into arguably one of the league's better backs in terms of blitz pickup.
• Almost one year after being suspended for violating the league's substance-abuse policy, Buccaneers FS Tanard Jackson appears to have figured things out and is staying away from whatever led him to be disciplined by the NFL, sources say. Jackson, who usually keeps quiet around the media, was apologetic after being suspended but didn't reveal what substance he was using. He has started every game he's played for the Bucs.
• Several players are competing for reps in the Panthers' rotation at defensive tackle, but training-camp observers say Ed Johnson and Tank Tyler both showed a quick first step in initial practices. Carolina is going to need tackles who can get pressure on quarterbacks for its cover-2 defense to be effective.
• With only four running backs on the Rams' 80-man roster at the start of training camp — including Steven Jackson, who is coming off back surgery — we hear the Rams plan on seriously checking out other teams' camps for a potentially decent backup to Jackson. The best bet currently on the roster appears to be second-year RB Chris Ogbonnaya, an apparent favorite of GM Billy Devaney's. Word is former Eagles star Brian Westbrook remains very much on the Rams' radar screen.
• Although Niners 2008 first-round DL Kentwan Balmer continues to be viewed as a major disappointment who appears to have fallen behind 2009 seventh-round pick Ricky Jean-Francois on the depth chart, team insiders tell us Balmer probably will just manage to hang on to a roster spot as "a back-end-of-the rotation guy," although there are hardly any guarantees.
• We hear Cardinals fourth-round rookie OLB O'Brien Schofield is doing everything in his power to make it back at some point this season after suffering a torn ACL during a Senior Bowl practice in January. "The kid is working his tail off. He's here every day," said one team insider. "But if a lot of these young guys like Will Davis, Cody Brown and Stevie Baggs come through, there won't be any rush to get Schofield back."
• After appearing to drop behind Deion Branch, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Golden Tate, Deon Butler and Mike Williams on the Seahawks' depth chart at wide receiver, veterans Ben Obomanu and Sean Morey could both struggle to make the final roster, our sources tell us.
Related link: AFC Whispers
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