Here are a number of whispers we've been hearing from our sources around the NFL:
• Texans OLB Connor Barwin broke through in a major way in 2011, notching 11½ sacks and having three more negated because of penalties. What’s more, we hear the best from Barwin is yet to come. After suffering a gruesome ankle injury in Week One in 2010, Barwin had a long way back to being ready to get on the field in time for Week One last season. With Barwin entering this offseason fully healthy, expect the menacing pass rusher to improve simply by having more time to focus solely on his technique, as well as not having to worry about learning a new defense in a lockout-shortened offseason.
• Colts new GM Ryan Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano inherited a mess when they took over control from former vice chairman Bill Polian and former head coach Jim Caldwell. The roster with which they were left included plenty of undersized players who weren’t ideal fits for what Pagano wants to do defensively. However, one area where Polian had changed his philosophy a bit in recent seasons — drafting bigger cornerbacks — could work out for the new staff. It remains to be seen who will grab a starting job opposite CB Jerraud Powers, but we hear 2010 third-rounder Kevin Thomas and 2011 sixth-rounder Chris Rucker have a chance to fill the bill, from a physical standpoint, for what Pagano is looking for.
• Safety was already a need for the Dolphins, and the position's lack of depth took a hit when the team cut SS Yeremiah Bell. On Thursday, Miami signed former Viking Tyrell Johnson, who joins fellow safeties Reshad Jones, Chris Clemons and Tyrone Culver, as well as former Cardinals DB Richard Marshall, who may factor in the safety rotation when he's not at the nickel CB position. New defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle had success with his safeties in Cincinnati, and we hear he is looking for versatile safeties who can cover. The Dolphins' secondary struggled to make big plays last season, and safety likely remains a draft priority, along with adding a pass rusher up front.
• At the club’s pre-draft press conference, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome shed some light on how the club ascertains the concussion histories of draft prospects. "Well, I have noticed this year — and this is a credit to (director of player personnel) Eric (DeCosta) and (director of college scouting) Joe (Hortiz) — that in the summaries of our reports that are being written about players, they talk about the number of concussions that they've had in college,” Newsome said, according to the club. “So, that information is out there. As far as what we do, and most teams do, is once we get guys here, we'll get a baseline test done with those players, so that if a concussion occurs, then we have something that we can refer back to. But, it is something now that throughout the league — and in all professional sports and on the collegiate level — everybody is spending more time looking at it."
• Just because the Broncos signed Peyton Manning and Caleb Hanie doesn't mean they won't draft a quarterback, too. Executive VP of football operations John Elway spent all fall scouting quarterbacks for the draft, and the team still lacks a long-term plan at the position. We hear it's likely the team will select a signalcaller somewhere in the first four rounds.
• The re-signing of DE Luis Castillo is good for the Chargers' depth on the defensive line, but it likely doesn't have an impact on the starting lineup. We hear the team was pleased with the way Vaughn Martin played last season after Castillo broke his leg in Week One, and it will likely give him every chance to reclaim the starting left end job in training camp.
• Raiders QB Carson Palmer is excited to be running a West Coast offense, something he's never done before. Palmer told the Contra Costa Times, "A lot of things quarterbacks are asked to do in this offense are strengths of mine. There are a lot of naked bootlegs and I’ve always focused on working on that. I did so much of it in college and I’m excited to do more of it now." He added that the team's fast running backs should thrive in the zone running scheme being installed by offensive coordinator Greg Knapp.
• The Redskins could be targeting a right tackle with their third-round pick. The draft class offers some zone-blocking depth, and the team is still concerned with what it has, with Jammal Brown coming off injury and little insurance behind him.
• The Eagles will add a running back, likely through the draft. They want to ease the load of LeSean McCoy, who was on the field more than almost any runner last season, and could do so by selecting an inside runner. They have been doing their homework on the draft’s RB class and very well could take one in the first three rounds.
• Although it is not a given, our Packers sources will not be shocked in the least if the team releases injury-prone DE Mike Neal after the draft. The announcement that Neal will be suspended for the first four games of the 2012 season for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances certainly isn’t helping his chances of remaining on the roster, we hear.
• Despite the addition of John Carlson to go along with Kyle Rudolph and the expected use of plenty of two-TE formations, don’t expect the Vikings to be exclusively a one-back offense. They still will feature a fullback after signing Jerome Felton, who will compete with Ryan D’Imperio as the lead blocker. Vikings GM Rick Spielman told PFW that offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave still likes the way RB Adrian Peterson runs behind a fullback.
• Bears QB Jay Cutler said last month that he thinks Kellen Davis can be one of the league’s premier tight ends if he stays healthy and is used correctly. Davis is expected to be utilized much more frequently as a receiver in Mike Tice’s offense after making only 19 catches over the past two seasons in Mike Martz’s system, but some are not on board with Cutler’s outlook for Davis. “(Davis) doesn’t do anything great,” a league evaluator told PFW. “He flashes, then disappears. He doesn’t do anything to wow you.”
• Sources familiar with WR Vincent Jackson’s work habits say they have little-to-no concern that his payday with the Buccaneers will take away any of his desire to succeed on the field. “He comes to work every single day,” a league source told PFW.
• Sporting big holes everywhere on their roster, the Rams could be setting the pace as far as working the free-agent market, reportedly marching nearly two dozen free agents in and out of team headquarters for visits, eight of whom they have signed (listed in order of projected impact: CB Cortland Finnegan, C Mike Wells, DT Kendall Langford, WR Steve Smith, OLB Jo-Lonn Dunbar, OLs Quinn Ojinnaka and Robert Turner and TE Matthew Mulligan). Word is the Rams could have their sights set on UFA WR Jerrico Cotchery, who played five seasons with the Jets under Brian Schottenheimer, the Rams’ new offensive coordinator.
• Our Niners sources tell us the team has bought in free agents Leonard Davis, Geoff Schwartz and Jason Brown for visits in an attempt to provide competition for promising second-year pro Daniel Kilgore at the ORG spot vacated by Adam Snyder, who signed with the Saints. Word is Brown could have an edge on the other candidates, due to his ability to also serve as the backup center, a role Snyder assumed last season.
• After getting a surprisingly effective boost from low-profile O-line additions Paul McQuistan and Breno Giacomini last season, we hear the Seahawks are hoping for the same from free-agent pickup Frank Omiyale, who had worn out his welcome with the Bears but has the versatility that Seahawks assistant head coach/offensive line Tom Cable savors. “Omiyale was in Atlanta’s system when Cable was there, and they think a fresh start might help him,” said one team source. “They got him for a real good price, and (ORT) James Carpenter’s return from knee surgery is still a big question mark.”