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It's time to pass judgment

Several teams need to settle QB situation

Marv Levy obviously knows his current events.

When the Buffalo Bills general manager punched in a cellphone number and learned the person on the other end was driving around Boston, he chuckled, then said: ``Hope you're not going through that tunnel."

Levy and the rest of the NFL's 31 personnel chiefs usually have tunnel vision of a different kind this time of year. All NFL squads are scheduled to begin training camp by today, which traditionally marks the first step of a sixth-month, nonstop grind. Or, as Bill Belichick sometimes says, every team starts climbing up the same mountain.

Perhaps the defining theme of the upcoming NFL season is the lingering questions surrounding the quarterbacks set to lead their teams on that climb. And no place is that more apparent than the AFC East.

In Miami, there is no guarantee that Daunte Culpepper -- who tore three ligaments in his knee last October while playing for the Vikings -- will be ready for the season opener Sept. 7 at Pittsburgh. Culpepper was cleared to participate in the Dolphins' first practice in training camp yesterday , but there is still uncertainty as to how heavy of a load he'll handle. If he can't go, it's Joey Harrington's job.

In New York, Chad Pennington is recovering from two surgeries on his throwing shoulder in the last year. He's in a four-way competition for the Jets' starting job with Patrick Ramsey , rookie Kellen Clemens, and Brooks Bollinger .

And in Buffalo, there are no injury concerns at quarterback, just a three-way competition between former first-round pick J.P. Losman , veteran Kelly Holcomb, and career backup Craig Nall .

One division, three major unknowns.

In the entire AFC, eight of the 16 teams have either open quarterback competitions, a starter coming off serious offseason surgery, or a changing of the guard.

``It seems like every year there are quarterback questions or unsettled situations at the position," said Levy, whose pro coaching career started in 1969 with the Philadelphia Eagles. ``Many of the situations are different. Is a first-rounder ready to play? Who is going to step up? Is someone like Culpepper going to be ready?

``There are abandoned quarterbacks who have sparkled, like Brett Favre after leaving Atlanta, or Steve Young after leaving Tampa Bay. There are backups who get it done, like Kurt Warner or Matt Hasselbeck . So what I'd say is that there is no one formula."

Levy, who had a winning formula as coach of the Bills (1986-97) when Jim Kelly was the quarterback, said one of the reasons the Patriots are favored to win the AFC East is because of their settled quarterback situation.

It's a general thought echoed in many NFL cities: Until the quarterback spot is adequately addressed, it's difficult to focus on the rest of the team-building process. That's part of the reason so many quarterbacks are drafted in the first round, which Levy said can be a blessing or a curse.

``The expectations are so great, I don't care for the first-rounder," he said in the hours before the Tennessee Titans inked Vince Young to a contract Thursday that included a guaranteed $25.8 million. ``I'd rather have a sixth-rounder like Tom Brady, or a third-rounder like Joe Montana."

The problem, of course, is that there are also plenty of sixth-rounders like Todd Husak (selected three picks after Brady in 2000 ) and third-rounders like Giovanni Carmazzi (selected 134 picks before Brady in Round 3), both of whom never developed.

Levy does acknowledge that ``if there is any one position [above all else], it's quarterback," and that's why the Bengals, a team that showed dramatic improvement in 2005 by making the playoffs for the first time in 15 years, are a bit of a wild-card this year. Quarterback Carson Palmer is coming off major surgery after suffering torn knee ligaments in the 2005 playoffs.

In Pittsburgh, coaches will be watching Ben Roethlisberger closely after his offseason motorcycle accident. And there are new starters in San Diego (Philip Rivers ), Cleveland (Charlie Frye ), and Oakland (Aaron Brooks ).

Over in the NFC, there are fewer questions, with the most noteworthy in New Orleans concerning Drew Brees (shoulder surgery).

Another year, more quarterback questions. For Levy, that sounds about right.

``I tend to say this is the norm," he said. ``Quarterback is a vitally important position."

LaCasse riding high on bonus

Stoughton High graduate Ryan LaCasse , a seventh-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens, didn't exactly go on a spending spree after signing his rookie three-year contract.

Seventh-round picks generally receive a signing bonus in the $40,000 range.

``My big splurge," he said, ``was to go out and get a $13 haircut."

LaCasse's no-frills approach was also seen during Ravens' offseason activities. Instead of waiting for a bus that picked rookies up at a nearby hotel, LaCasse hopped on his bicycle and rode 3 miles to the team's workout facilities. After workouts, he rode the 3 miles back to the hotel.

``Just trying to stay in shape," said LaCasse, a defensive end who played at Syracuse. ``It's something I enjoy doing. I used to do a lot of mountain biking before I played football and this was a way to get back into that. Plus, it was a pain to wait for the bus. This allowed me to make my own schedule."

LaCasse checked in for the opening of Ravens' training camp Thursday, where he'll compete for a roster spot as a strong-side outside linebacker and a pass-rushing defensive end on third down. LaCasse also realizes he'll have to make a mark on special teams to earn a roster spot.

He said the team's veterans, specifically fellow outside linebacker/defensive end Adalius Thomas , have been a big help.

``If they see something you're doing that isn't right, they'll pull you to the side and show you some of the tricks of the trade," LaCasse said.

Freak accident keeps Packers' Blackmon on sideline

The Green Bay Packers opened training camp Friday, but former Boston College cornerback/receiver Will Blackmon didn't take the field with his new team.

Blackmon, a fourth-round pick who will play cornerback for the Packers, sustained a clean fracture of his foot during offseason drills. He called the injury ``a freak accident" in which his foot got caught on the field while he was jogging.

``I wasn't even fully sprinting," he said. ``It's definitely tough when all you've wanted to do is participate in the NFL your whole life, but all I can do is stay patient and study [the playbook]."

Blackmon, who said he played last season at BC with a separated shoulder, estimates his return could come ``anywhere from two weeks to a month." The Packers are set at the starting corner positions, with Charles Woodson and Al Harris , so Blackmon is expected to contend for time in a reserve role with former first-round pick Ahmad Carroll , third-year veteran Jason Horton , and second-year players Mike Hawkins and Patrick Dendy . He also is expected to vie for time on special teams, in the return game.

Just as he developed strong friendships at BC, which he visited last weekend in the days leading up to training camp, Blackmon sees them starting to develop in Green Bay, too.

``Our '06 rookie class is real close, we all talk among each other," he said of the group headlined by No. 5 overall pick A.J. Hawk (Ohio State), second-round picks Daryn Colledge (Boise State) and Greg Jennings (Western Michigan), and third-rounders Abdul Hodge (Iowa) and Jason Spitz (Louisville).

One aspect that quickly caught Blackmon's attention in Green Bay is that it's all Packers, all the time.

``Football-wise, it's everything you need and something I definitely want to experience. When I was at BC, I was really excited when we switched to the ACC. I loved playing away and seeing how crazy the people were. Unfortunately for us at BC, we were competing with the Red Sox and Patriots. Here, we're the main focus."


Using their money wisely
There's spending, and then there's smart spending. According to figures compiled by the NFL, the Patriots are part of the latter group. Over a 10-year period from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, the league charted how much signing bonus money was spent by teams for players no longer on their rosters. Not including the Texans, who entered the NFL as an expansion team in 2002, the Patriots had the fourth-lowest total. The Eagles had the lowest figure, followed by the Steelers and the frugal Cardinals. The team with the highest figure is the 49ers, which is one reason the once-proud franchise has struggled.

Not so secret admirer
Bills general manager Marv Levy said he's long been an admirer of his team's new coach, Dick Jauron of Swampscott. In fact, when Levy was coaching the Bills, he said he was prepared to hire Jauron as his defensive coordinator in 1995. ``We ended up being 12 hours too late," Levy recalled this week. ``By the time we called, he had already accepted an offer from Jacksonville." In his new role as Bills GM, Levy wants the team to emphasize ``character, work ethic, simplicity, and a focus on the fundamentals." He feels like Jauron is reflective of that approach. ``He's an excellent teacher, intelligent, and someone who has great respect across the league," said Levy.

Your time is up
The St. Louis Rams, under new coach Scott Linehan , are limiting the amount of time reporters covering the team can watch practice. Under former coach Mike Martz , reporters were allowed to watch the entire practice. Now, the reporters will be limited to just the first 30 minutes (the time mandated by the NFL). The feeling among some squads that close practices is that teams are so evenly matched, any competitive advantage must be protected. Reporters counter by pointing out that, among other things, the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers allow full media access to all reporters. St. Louis reporters are fighting to have Linehan's decision reversed.

What were you saying?
When the Bengals selected offensive tackle Levi Jones in the first round of the 2002 draft, a few ``experts" panned the team for reaching on the Arizona State product with the 10th overall pick. The moral of the story: It's never a bad thing to reserve judgment. The Bengals signed Jones, now a coveted left tackle who has started 61 of 63 pro games, to a six-year, $40 million extension last week. Meanwhile, quarterback Joey Harrington and offensive tackle Mike Williams , taken third and fourth overall, respectively, are already with their second teams after flaming out with the Lions and Bills, respectively.

Colbert way in Pittsburgh
The defending champion Steelers made an important move by extending the contract of director of football operations Kevin Colbert last week. Terms of the extension weren't announced, but the deal could keep Colbert in Pittsburgh through 2010. Colbert's work is greatly respected in Foxborough, as both the Patriots and Steelers operate with similar personnel philosophies. Like the Patriots, the Steelers have traditionally lost key players through free agency, and replenished that talent primarily through the draft and solid coaching, not big free agent splashes. Nose tackle Casey Hampton , safety Troy Polamalu , quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and tight end Heath Miller are among some of Colbert's first-round draft picks in recent years.

In need of healthy supporting cast
The Seahawks, who are looking to win their second NFC title, added a marquee free agent this offseason in former 49ers linebacker Julian Peterson . But the team's success probably depends more on the health of the players around Peterson. Defensive end Grant Wistrom (knee); defensive tackles Rocky Bernard (knee) and Marcus Tubbs (ankle); and defensive backs Michael Boulware (knee) and Jordan Babineaux (shoulder) are all rehabilitating from surgeries. And that's not to mention safety Ken Hamlin , who is attempting to come back after suffering a fractured skull and blood clot in his brain in an off-field incident last October. Coaches are still trying to figure out where to play former Patriots offensive lineman Tom Ashworth . The Seahawks are deep at tackle, which is Ashworth's natural position, and worked Ashworth at left guard in offseason drills.

Dolphins dip into the pool
As of Thursday's close to the unrestricted free agent period, 154 veteran free agents signed with new teams while 104 re-signed with their old clubs, according to figures provided by the NFL. The Dolphins signed the most unrestricted free agents from other teams (11), followed by the Texans and Lions at 10 apiece. The Bills, Jets, and Redskins were next in line with eight. In total, there were 353 unrestricted free agents this year. The total player pool is approximately 1,700.

The face of Sprint
Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi is well known throughout New England, but Sprint obviously believes he has a national profile. The company sought out Bruschi as part of a national television ad campaign that is expected to air throughout the NFL season. Bruschi is joined by Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and former players William ``The Refrigerator" Perry (Bears) and Ickey Woods (Bengals). Filming for the ad took place in New York from July 11-12.

Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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