Orlando, Fla. -- Weary conventioneers know how to operate a breakfast buffet. It starts with eggs cooked en masse, a mostly tasteless blob of protein that balances out watery sausage patties and the cantaloupe your conscience forces you to take. Savvy eaters use a keen eye to spot the tastier options on the table to round out the meal.
It's the same approach one has to use with a room full of NFL head coaches, arranged at tables around a hotel ballroom here at the Ritz Carlton for a hungry media. Take the platitudes about second chances and excitement for the season ahead, but watch closely for a miniature cheese Danish of real information or a sincere thought about the people and players who make the game so interesting.
I walked the buffet line of AFC coaches at Tuesday morning's breakfast doing just that, helping myself to scoops of scrambled eggs from the likes of Chuck Pagano and Andy Reid, plucking out a few tasty morsels. I took what I got, divvied it up and stuck it on top of a sterno can. Here it is.
Chuck Pagano isn't making excuses
Injuries were a consistent theme in Pagano's comments, factoring into nearly every question he was asked. It started with the offensive line.
"Continuity is huge. How many different lineups did we use?" Pagano said about his offensive line last season. "We make no excuses, but it is what it is. Hopefully, knock on wood, we won't have to go through another year like that."
He's optimistic that things will get better this year, thanks in part to more depth at guard and center. Khaled Holmes is healthy, and will battle recent acquisition Phil Costa for the pivot job. Guard Donald Thomas is "busting his rear" to bounce back from a torn quad that ended his 2013 season early. He's on track to be ready for training camp.
Pagano expects good health and a Hakeem Nicks to be a big help to his group of receivers and tight ends this year too. NIcks adds "another big, physical receiver that will do a great job versus press coverage." Having that group on the field together will force defenses to "pick the poison."
And no conversation with the Colts head coach would be complete without an update on Trent Richardson.
"We made a big trade for Trent, and we know what Trent's capable of doing," the coach said. "Trent's going to be so much better in his second season for us, just having an offseason ... knowing the offense and having chemistry with our offensive line."
He also pointed out the competition at the running back position.
"Man sharpens man just like iron sharpens iron. [The Colts] have a lot of options, a lot of talented players that you can rotate in. It's good to have multiple rushers."
Dennis Allen demands flexibility
The Raiders head coach also dished on his offensive line at Tuesday morning's smorgasbord. More than anything he noted that it was in a state of flux, with no fewer than three of the five positions already determined.
"The idea was to try to acquire as much talent up front as we could, and hopefully have some flexibility," Allen said.
Stefen Wisniewski is locked in at center. Recently acquired tackle Donald Penn will work on the left side to start the year.
"I think we want to look at Austin Howard at guard some, look at Menelik Watson at right tackle, obviously that's what we drafted him to be," he said. "The good news is that we've got some flexibility, especially if we have injury issues like we did last year.
"Until we get them out there and start working around, I don't know who that five's going to be yet. I'm going to let those guys go out there and compete."
Chiefs expecting big things from Alex Smith
A glowing beacon of Tommy Bahama held court in the middle of the room. When Andy Reid wasn't fielding questions about DeSean Jackson, Nick Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles, he got the chance to answer a few inquires about the Chiefs, his current team.
Alex Smith was among the non-Eagles players he was asked about, and Reid sees a quarterback who figures to be at the center of his plans for years to come.
"He's kind of in the prime spot in his career, from a quarterback standpoint," Reid said of the 29-year old. "He's excited to get back and continue to grow in this thing. We'll keep adding to that [from a personnel standpoint] and just let the maturation take place."
Reid also revealed his plans to put Eric Fisher, the first overall pick in last year's draft, at left tackle. Fisher spent his rookie year on the right side. Donald Stephenson will handle duties on the right side, but the coach pointed to Stephenson's experience leaving open the Chiefs' options.
E.J. Manuel ready to settle in as a starter
Manuel's knee surgeries are behind him, and head coach Doug Marrone said that his second-year quarterback will be good to go for offseason workouts. More importantly, Marrone pointed to Manuel's growth from his rookie year to his second season.
"He’s learned a lot. He’s a very bright kid, a very prideful kid, all those experiences that happened to him, he’s like ‘Okay, now I know what I have to do.’ I’m excited for him to get back," Marrone said.
Browns looking at QBs ... sort of
You might have heard that the quarterback-needy Browns did not attend any of the pro day events for the top signal-callers available in the NFL Draft this year. Before you, understandably, assume this is a case of the Browns being the Browns, head coach Mike Pettine says there's a very good reason for it.
"You get a lot more out of a private workout when it's a little less scripted or it's scripted the way you want it scripted, where you can kind of throw some curveballs at a player and see how they react to it," Pettine said. "It's like the difference between a guy hitting home runs at batting practice vs. live pitching."
The Browns plan to workout quarterbacks ahead of the draft, and those plans are currently underway. Which quarterbacks will they work out? Plenty of them, Pettine said.
"There's more than just the first three," he said. "There are some other guys down the line that are impressive on their college teams."
Cleveland has two picks in the first round of the draft, the fourth pick and the 26th pick, acquired from the Colts in the Trent Richardson deal.
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Safety swapping in Baltimore
John Harbaugh devoted a portion of his time Tuesday morning to explaining his view of the safety positions in today's NFL. There's been speculation about moving second-year safety Matt Elam to the free safety spot after the team signed free agent Darian Stewart, but Harbaugh said that designation was more of a technicality.
"Those guys are kind of interchangeable. I like both safeties being able to play both positions," he said. "The free safety, so to speak, is really the weak safety, lines up on the weak side of the passing strength. The strong safety lines up on the strong side of the passing strength. It's not really a matter of a box guy and a deep guy. You rotate weak and the free safety is down and the strong safety is back. If you play a split safety coverage, they're both high. So they've got to be able to do all those things well.
"So we'll just have to see how it plays out. Darian [Stewart] can play the free safety spot. So if we're starting out, Darian would start out at free safety and the weak-side safety, and Matt would start out as the strong-side safety, but that's going to change as we line up in different defenses."
Safety could again be on the Ravens' shopping list for the NFL Draft this year.
"I'm looking at the safeties now in the draft," he said. "You want tacklers and you want guys with range and you wants guys with ball skills."
The Patriots head coach spent most of his session snarling, referring reporters to direct their questions to other people, from Vince Wilfork to Chip Kelly. In between, he did offer a comment on recently acquired cornerback Darrelle Revis.
"I think he'll help our team," Belichick said. "He's a good player, does a lot of things well, looking forward to working with him."
Was there more?
"We're just trying to improve our team."
Aren't we all, coach, aren't we all.