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Monday, May 5
Updated: May 6, 11:16 AM ET
Not every vet has disdain for mini-camps

By Len Pasquarelli

Universally detested by veterans who would prefer to spend Saturday morning hitting a golf ball instead of a blocking dummy, embraced by coaches who insist a team can never have enough organized offseason conditioning, the three-days of activities that transpired in most NFL precincts last weekend might be the game's most inaptly-named pursuit.

Long ago dubbed minicamps, the three days of practices in T-shirts and shorts occasionally take on maximum significance, and that was the case over the weekend at more than a few franchises.

For the most part, the most recent mini-camps offered the typical opportunity for getting rookies onto the field, and ogling them in three dimensions instead of just on a videotape monitor. But in many of the mini-camps where veterans also participated, coaches turned the sessions into on-field laboratories, as they adjusted depth charts to compensate for the usual offseason attrition and tinkered with human spackling in an attempt to patch holes.

Smith could find himself starting at free safety for the Bucs in 2003.
At the Tampa Bay mini-camp, for instance, former cornerback Dwight Smith auditioned for the role of starting free safety. Author of a pair of Super Bowl XXXVII interceptions, both of which he returned for touchdowns, Smith is the choice of coach Jon Gruden and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin to supplant Dexter Jackson, who took his title game most valuable player award and bolted to Arizona as an unrestricted free agent.

So for Smith, a two-year veteran whose lack of size is overcome by natural ballhawking skills, the mini-camp was far more than occasion to demonstrate to management his remorse over a recent road rage incident which included him brandishing a hand gun. On the NFL's top-ranked unit, and for a defense that returns all but two starters from 2002, Smith desperately wants to be more than a "nickel" corner this year.

And that made the Bucs mini-camp, for Smith at least, a testing ground of sorts.

"To me, that (starting) job has my name on it, but you have to show them that it's yours," Smith said. "You have to step up, make them pay attention, and kind of cement in their minds that you can handle things."

Perhaps more so than in some recent springs, that attitude prevailed over the weekend among a group of veteran players leaguewide who are suddenly projected into starting roles for 2003, or who are being asked to change positions this year. Coaching staffs and personnel departments all agree that the mandated lack of physical contact at mini-camps render the sessions something far less than dress rehearsals. If a player can't look good in what some scouts regard as little more than a glorified decathlon competition, then there is scant chance he will improve when the pace is accelerated, and the ammunition is live.

But there are so many examples of coaches tinkering with lineups, or re-arranging entire units this spring, that franchises need the mini-camps to offer at least a hint of what might be expected when July comes and the pads are strapped on.

"You need to get some kind of feeling," said New Orleans coach Jim Haslett, "for what certain combinations look like."

For the Saints, that principally translated over the weekend into the offensive line, a unit where right guard LeCharles Bentley might be the lone starter in 2003 who is playing the same spot he did in 2002. Preparing for the possibility that starting center and unrestricted free agent Jerry Fontenot might not return, Saints coaches enacted a far-reaching shuffle, with left guard Kendyl Jacox moving to center, right tackle Spencer Folau switching over to left guard, and Victor Riley taking over the right tackle spot. Oh, yeah, the Saints also signed free agent Wayne Gandy to replace left tackle Kyle Turley, traded to St. Louis.

A five-year veteran, Jacox has previous experience at center, and actually prefers the hub position, which he played during his previous San Diego Chargers tenure. In other league mini-camps, though, veterans were being fitted into positions they had never played in the past, and being asked to adjust to their new environs as quickly as possible.

If anything, the past weekend graphically demonstrated that mini-camps are for more than just rookie orientation.

Longtime outside linebacker Kevin Hardy, who had never played the middle in his seven previous seasons, is being asked by rookie Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis to do so. An offensive right tackle even in college, Pittsburgh Steelers veteran Marvel Smith is moving to the left side, to replace the departed Gandy. A weak-side linebacker during his four seasons in Indianapolis, Mike Peterson is now manning the middle in Jacksonville. The Colts staff bumped right guard Ryan Diem one spot to the right, to tackle, where he might replace longtime starter Adam Meadows, at a position foreign to him.

The last thing you want to do is show up at (training) camp feeling like you've got two left feet. At least a mini-camp, as much as some guys (complain) about them, starts the process of change and gives you a head-start on getting to that comfort level.
Mark Simoneau, Eagles LB

Brad Meester hasn't played center since college, but the Jacksonville left guard has made the move to replace the exited John Wade, as the Jaguars shuffle their line. San Diego linebacker Donnie Edwards had a brilliant season in the middle in 2002, and earned a Pro Bowl berth, but will now move back to the weak side to handle the position that had long been the domain of former Chargers star Junior Seau. In Chicago, offensive tackles Marc Colombo and Mike Gandy are flipping sides.

And none of the above switches account for the incoming player pool, where several rookies were moved to new spots over the weekend, and had the characteristic angst of their first experience in an NFL environment exacerbated by a position transition.

"When you're being asked to do something relatively new, you want to get as much time doing it as you can, get as much exposure as possible," said Mark Simoneau, a strong-side linebacker for three seasons in Atlanta, but now the Philadelphia Eagles' starting middle linebacker. "There's a level of security you have to achieve. The last thing you want to do is show up at (training) camp feeling like you've got two left feet.

"At least a mini-camp, as much as some guys (complain) about them, starts the process of change and gives you a head-start on getting to that comfort level."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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