AFC North mailbag: Merits of minicamp

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Rich from Bellevue, WA writes: What exactly goes on at a minicamp? If they don't have real contact, what do they do? You mentioned that you can't assess offensive linemen because there's no contact, so what *do* the o-linemen do? Or the d-linemen, for that matter?

James Walker: Good question, Rich. Minicamp is mostly for learning the playbook and teaching assignments. It's very much like a weekend-long walkthrough, where players only wear helmets. Much of it is full speed but there's is no tackling. Offensive and defensive linemen basically make sure they're in their right spots and know their assignments on a given play. The best gauge for these camps are with the skill players, such as the quarterbacks, receivers, linebackers and secondary.

Ethan from Versailles, KY writes: Hey do you think with the protection the Bengals have now for Carson from Andre Smith and the young defense with the pickup of Rey, can Carson and Cincinnati get their name back to the top of the division?

James Walker: Ethan, I put the Cincinnati Bengals on sleeper watch for 2009 because of their talent and the return of quarterback Carson Palmer. A lot of people laughed at the time, but more people are now paying attention. Smith definitely helps the offensive line. His game tape is solid, and if he brings that level of play to the Bengals next season he will have a good rookie year. Their center position still worries me, though. I question if the Bengals will get enough protection and push up the middle when they play the better teams in the division like the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers. How the Bengals compete in those four games could be the difference in their 2009 season. Rey Maualuga has first-round talent, and I'm interested to see where and how Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer will use him.

Scott from College Park, Md. writes: Hello Mr. Walker, I enjoy your blog and I can legitimately say I understood your use of the term "camp fodder" in reference to the Steelers' undrafted free agents. Likewise, I was wondering what you thought about the guys the Ravens have signed? Do you think Dannell Ellerbe or Graham Gano are likely to contribute, and or is the answer still pretty much "camp fodder"?

James Walker: Every team has a different set of circumstances, Scott. For the Ravens, there are fewer rookie draft picks and more opportunities. For instance, Gano may have about a 50-50 chance to win the kicker job. His competition is Steve Hauschka, who is unproven. Anyone who plays inside linebacker also will have a shot with the departure of Bart Scott. So look for more interesting stories from the rookie free agents in Baltimore. I will get a closer look at them later this week during the Ravens' full-squad minicamp.

William from New Brighton, Pa. writes: What's up James? Love the blog, daily reader here. Anyways, how do you think the Steelers are going to come into the season with our third receiver? Obviously, I should think it has to be Sweed, but I really like 3 rounder Mike Wallace in that spot.

James Walker: Thanks, William. I really liked what I saw from Limas Sweed in minicamp last week. He had one of the most productive camps, and if he stays healthy I think he's going to win the No. 3 receiver job and make good strides in his second season. Sweed's biggest competition is veteran receiver Shaun McDonald, who was just signed last week. Wallace has tremendous speed, but I need to see more of him at this point, particularly once everyone starts hitting in full pads.

Joseph from Columbus writes: With Mangini focused on versatile players, what do you think the fate of long snapper Ryan Pontbriand is? As a Pro Bowler, do you think he is worth a roster slot?

James Walker: Don't worry, Joseph. Pontbriand is safe. Eric Mangini likes versatility. But he's not going to cut one of the few legitimate Pro Bowlers left on the team because Pontbriand can't play left tackle, outside linebacker or tight end.