Checking in on John Fox, Jay Cutler and the Bears in Bourbonnais, plus a look at J.J. Watt and the Texans, who are practicing in Richmond with Washington
One last Bear point: John Fox is a happy, peppy guy normally. Today, he was as up/happy as I’ve ever seen him. Change good for him+Pace.— Peter King (@SI_PeterKing) August 6, 2015
Tour Highlights and Lowlights, Week 1
SOMEWHERE IN SOUTH GEORGIA-Team MMQB stops for gas. For sale: Mounted alligator heads. Cold blueberry wine. Snoop Dog smoking paraphernalia.— Peter King (@SI_PeterKing) August 4, 2015
Jaguars Training Camp Report
Emily Kaplan writes:
Site: The practice field adjacent to EverBank Field, Jacksonville, Fla.
What I Saw: Evening practice, Monday, Aug. 3. After canceling a fan-centric session at a local high school with threats of thunderstorms, the Jaguars tried practicing at home. It was damp, steamy and lasted just under 30 minutes until the skies opened and players scurried inside.
Three things you need to know about the Jaguars:
1. This the first year they've spent real money on free agency. Davon House (four-year, $24.5 million) was signed as a shutdown corner, Jared Odrick (five-year, $42.5 million) as a vaunted defensive end, Stefan Wisniewski (one-year, $2.5 million) as a steely center and tight end Julius Thomas (five-year, $46 million) as a red zone stud for second-year quarterback Blake Bortles. House is the lengthy, physical corner that Gus Bradley coached in Seattle. House’s production may depend on how effective the front seven, led by Odrick, can dial up pressure. Odrick, ferocious and spry veteran, hasn’t missed a game since 2010 but tallied just one sack last season (however that’s a misleading stat; with the Dolphins he had to two-gap quite a bit). Wisniewski has the pedigree and experience Jacksonville desires, but is coming off shoulder surgery. Thomas, now the NFL’s highest-paid tight end, thrived in Denver the last two seasons, but who doesn’t look good when Peyton Manning is throwing you the ball? Most of these players have “if’s” attached to their role, so we’ll see if the Jaguars spent money wisely.
2. Blake Bortles entered the offseason with a sore arm. It stems from poor mechanics at Central Florida and his rookie season with the Jaguars. In February, the 23-year-old went to Southern California to visit quarterback guru Tom House (yes, the “Tom Brady guy”). It was supposed to be a one-week session, but Bortles ended up staying most of the offseason. For three days a week, House tutored Bortles on a new throwing motion and warm up regimen. Through the early days of camp, Bortles reports no problems on his previously achey right arm. With new offensive coordinator, the venerable journeyman Greg Olsen calling the shots (Jedd Fisch was fired for “philosophical differences”), Bortles’ development and health are storylines to watch 2015.
3. The Jaguars are 9-39 in the last three years. The big question is, how patient is owner Shahid Khan? Nobody inside the organization has a true sense of what Khan wants. An international businessman (and billionaire) who bought the team in 2012, Khan isn’t around the franchise much. He hasn’t given much indication of what he considers progress. However, this much is clear: if the Jaguars, with a splashy free agent class and promising quarterback come out with another dud of a season, general manager Dave Caldwell and third-year coach Gus Bradley could be on the hot seat.
What will determine success for the Jaguars. Bortles. The Jaguars had all intentions of sitting their No. 3 pick for his rookie season. Plans changed. Jacksonville benched Chad Henne and Bortles wound up playing 14 games, showing some promise but spiraling as the season slogged on. If House cured all that ails Bortles, the Jaguars have a chance to overachieve.
But if Bortles still has growing (or literal) pains, the Jaguars will revert back to Henne, proving this truly is a franchise stuck in neutral.
Player I saw and really liked. I’m taking a cop-out here because I didn’t get to see practice.
Five dot-dot-dot observations about Jacksonville. The injury to top pick Dante Fowler Jr. in rookie mini camp is unfortunate, but not totally detrimental. Two reasons: At least it happened early on, and the Jaguars have had time to adjust their game plan, and how many rookie pass rushers thrive right away anyway? A redshirt season could benefit Fowler’s end game… Man do the Jaguars love Paul Posluszny. During my day at EverBank I heard Posluszny’s name mentioned at least five times — independently — as a model of consistency, including gushing words by the head trainer and Bradley… Jacksonville admitted mistake on their Toby Gerhart free agent signing by drafting running back T.J. Yeldon in the second round, hoping Yeldon can shoulder the load like Maurice Jones-Drew did for so many years…. The Jaguars locker room is ridiculous. By now you may have seen the video of Peter King playing ping pong there, and the rest of the room is tricked out with a wall-size flat screen TV, mood lighting and individual lock combination cubbies for cell phones, along with chargers (I’ve seen other teams with this, like the 49ers, but something about the Jags just felt swanky). No wonder they don’t have trouble signing free agents… Bradley is one of the most upbeat coaches I’ve ever been around. I see why guys rave about playing for him, and why they want to play hard for him. Get Bradley on a long tangent and he begins to sound like he’s giving a Ted Talk.
The one name on the roster I’d forgotten about. Nick Marshall, the former Auburn quarterback who signed with Jacksonville as an undrafted free agent. He’s trying to make the team as a cornerback. I don’t know if he has a shot — looks like he’s competing with four other corners for two roster spots — but beat reporters said Marshall has impressed, at times early in camp. Marshall has the speed, length and size (210 pounds) Bradley prefers in the position, and he’s so gifted I hope the Jaguars can find a place for him on their roster.
The thing I will remember about Jacksonville: “Marqise Lee was held out of practice today because his GPS was too high,” Bradley told the local media contingent.
“What does that mean?” a reporter asked.
Welcome to football in 2015. The Jaguars were the first NFL team to institute GPS tracking on players — to answer the reporter’s question: it monitors how much, and at what intensity players are running, a potential indicator to prevent injury. Lee told me it’s because he also spends time returning kicks. “I don’t think I was doing too much,” Lee says. “But it’s what the coaches want and what this team does.”
Next up: drones that conduct scouting evaluations and breathalyzers that monitor hydration. I’m just kidding, but with the tech-savvy Jaguars, who knows?
Gut feeling as I left camp: I think the money shelled out will pay off. That’s not enough to surpass Indianapolis or Houston in the AFC South (or even come close) but Jacksonville’s trajectory is pointing up.
After Jaguars practice, Peter noticed receiver Bryan Walters schooling tight end Clay Harbor in ping pong. A ping-pong lover himself, Peter foolishly challenged Walters to a game, which he lost badly, 11-2 while Walters played left-handed. Don't quit your day job, Peter.
New England Patriots Training Camp Report
Jenny Vrentas writes…
Site: Practice fields outside Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass.
What I Saw: Afternoon padded practice, Tuesday, Aug. 4. Sunny, high 80s. The team made it off the practice field just before the storm clouds rolled in. (Make of that a metaphor what you will.)
Three things you need to know about the Patriots:
1. Tom Brady is still taking all the team reps with the starting offense. At some point you’d that expect backup Jimmy Garoppolo will need to take meaningful reps with the first-team offensive line and skill players to prepare for the starts he’ll make if and when Brady serves his four-game suspension from the NFL. But not yet. Garoppolo has gotten in some 7-on-7 work and individual drills with the starters, but so far all the 11-on-11 reps in practice have belonged to Brady.
2. Tom Brady is still also not talking publicly. His only public comments since the NFL upheld his four-game suspension for his purported role in Deflategate remain the lengthy statement he published on his Facebook account last Wednesday. Each day, when the team’s media relations staff comes around during practice to ask for interview requests, the beat reporters and national media in attendance request Brady. Each day Brady leaves the practice field without talking.
3. Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler is primed for a major upgrade in his role on the Patriots defense. With Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner gone, Butler looks in line to step into the starting cornerback void—yet another stage in his stunning ascent from a fringe-of-the-roster undrafted free agent one year ago. Butler earned the distinction on Tuesday of the first player to pick off Brady in this training camp, when he undercut a slant route intended for receiver Josh Boyce in the 11-on-11 team session. “He’s just taken the next step,” safety Devin McCourty said of Butler. “He’s trying to learn as much as possible. We know one thing we’ll get out of him is competing against receivers. That’s what he does exceptionally well. Everything else, we just keep talking to him, whether it be the first time he saw routes or different combinations in zone coverages. We just continue to talk to him like we do all the young guys. I think he’s moving forward and trying to step up and be more verbal.” Revis’s offseason return to the Jets has left a big question for the young players on the Patriots roster to answer.
What will determine success or failure for the Patriots: The cliché answer would be “block out Deflategate,” but we all know Bill Belichick is the best in the league at closing ranks and eliminating distractions. Even if Brady serves all four games of his suspension, who’s betting on the Patriots not winning 11-plus games and taking the division yet again? Not me. For a team that hasn’t had a losing record since 2000, failure is relative, so I’ll answer like this: The two potential trouble spots that could hold the Patriots back from defending their title are the defensive backfield and the offensive line.
Player I saw and really liked: Travaris Cadet, a fourth-year running back who spent his first three seasons with the Saints. The scouting report on Cadet from the New England beat writers was that he catches the ball well, and he showed that in Tuesday’s practice with a clean reception in the back of the end zone against tight coverage from linebacker Jonathan Freeny (the ball was also beautifully thrown by Garoppolo). The Patriots have a lot of power backs, with LeGarrette Blount and Jonas Gray, but they’re looking for someone to step into the role the now-departed Shane Vereen held. Cadet also plays a lot on special teams, covering and returning kicks, which adds to his value to the team. “I’m working day to day on trying to become a complete player,” he said. “Running the ball, blocking, pass pro-ing, and being able to create mismatches out of the backfield just as well as lining up at receiver.”
Five dot-dot-dot observations about New England: Wide receiver Julian Edelman, who beat writers said appeared to tweak something during Sunday’s practice, was dressed in his uniform and came out for stretching but then retreated to the field house and did not practice. … WR Danny Amendola had two nice back-to-back TD catches from Brady during red-zone 11-on-11 drills, beating corners Logan Ryan and Tarell Brown. … The Patriots rewarded Rob Gronkowski by paying him early $4 million of a $10 million option bonus that is due by the end of the year, ESPN reported. Picking up the option will keep Gronkowski with the team through 2019, so this is a sign of the Patriots' long-term commitment to the game-changing tight end. “It’s a great feeling,” said Gronkowski, who called the organization “first class.” … Last year’s left guard, Dan Connolly, is now retired, and last year’s right guard, Ryan Wendell, is on the physically unable to perform list, so there’s a lot of pressure on two rookies. Twin fourth-round picks Tre’ Jackson (from FSU) and Shaq Mason (Georgia Tech) have been working at the two guard positions with the first-team offensive line. … Belichick was in a bit of a chipper mood after the first off day of camp on Monday. “Alright, how was the weekend?” he said when he walked into his press conference. “Good, good.”
One name I’d forgotten about: Dominique Easley, the Patriots’ first-round pick in 2014. The defensive lineman from the University of Florida played in bits of 11 games as a rookie, but the team shut him down for the year in December because of knee soreness from his collegiate ACL tears. His injury concerns flashed again when he began camp on the PUP list, but he only missed the first two practices. He looks like a player who needs to knock the rust off, but if he can stay healthy, he has the talent to help New England's interior pass rush.
The thing I will remember about Foxborough: There’s something eerie about there being an elephant in the room and everyone going to great lengths not to talk about it, even when they are definitely talking about it. After practice, Belichick had Willie McGinest, the three-time Super Bowl champion who is being inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame on Wednesday, address the team. His message: “Stay tight-knit and stay a team,” Amendola recounted. That pertains to Deflategate. But as McGinest emphasized, he never brought up Deflategate.
Gut feeling as I left camp: The ranks are closed, and this team is in attack mode.
Before Bucs practice Tuesday morning, Gerald McCoy and Mike Evans hopped on The MMQB van to test out the new Madden NFL 16 game. Peter played McCoy and shockingly won 14-7 when he went deep on Bucs defense on fourth and long with Johnny Manziel.
* * *
Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Report
Kalyn Kahler writes:
Site: Atlanta Falcons’ Flowery Branch Headquarters, located northeast of Atlanta.
What I Saw: Morning practice, Sunday, Aug. 2. Blue skies on a sunny morning for the Falcons first practice in full pads.
Three things you need to know about the Falcons:
1. Almost nothing is the same in 2015. Atlanta has new head coach in former Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, and a new offensive coordinator in Kyle Shanahan. “Half the team probably wasn’t even here last year,” veteran tight end and free agent signee Jacob Tamme says. “I have no idea what happened last year. No one cares really.” That attitude is obvious at Flowery Branch and these 2015 Falcons will be an interesting team to follow. Says free agent signee linebacker Brooks Reed: “We’re all excited that we got all new staff. The staff is excited they are on new teams, there’s a lot of energy out here right now.”
2. Kyle Shanahan’s job got a whole lot easier. Finally, Shanahan has a fully groomed quarterback to work with in Matt Ryan. Shanahan’s escape from Cleveland with Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel led him to the promised land with Matt Ryan, a true franchise QB. Shanahan has developed a reputation for adjusting well to personnel — Robert Griffin III, Hoyer and Matt Schaub were all at their best under Shanahan’s tutelage. Just imagine what he can do with an established 3-time Pro Bowler like Ryan. “Kyle has been a chameleon,” Ryan says. “Everywhere he’s gone he’s had different guys to play with him and I think he has shown that he’ll adjust to whatever personnel they add. He’s open to trying to do some things that I like and the combination of the two has been really good.”
3. Running backs will be important again.
Atlanta relied heavily on its passing game in previous seasons, but Shanahan will lead a more balanced offensive attack, with more emphasis on the ground game. Last season with the Browns, Shanahan coached Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell to average nearly four yards per carry. This could be the year the Falcons run game rebounds and the starting spot is Devonta Freeman’s to lose. Rookie third round pick Tevin Coleman is in the mix to battle Freeman in the team’s biggest position battle to watch this season.
What will determine success or failure for the Falcons:
Defense. Quinn In Seattle, Quinn used a simple playbook and he’ll work to remake the NFL’s worst defense in 2014. The Falcons need to improve on a unit that finished last against the pass and 21st against the run last season. Atlanta ranked 30th in the league with just 22 sacks last season. To fortify the pass rush, Falcons drafted Vic Beasley in the first round and added a couple veterans: linebackers Justin Durant and Brooks Reed and defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Tyson Jackson. Last season, Durant started at outside linebacker for the Cowboys and was on his way to the best season of his eight-year career when he tore his right biceps in a Week 8 loss to Washington. Durant led the Cowboys in tackles at the time of his injury, and even though he only played six games, he finished sixth on the team in tackles with 59 for the season. Clayborn comes to Atlanta from Tampa Bay, and he’s also returning from a biceps injury that sidelined him after Week 1 last season. When he’s been able to stay healthy, Clayborn has been effective (7.5 sacks as a rookie in 2011 and 5.5 in 2013). The Falcons will need Beasley to step up as a rookie and Durant to stay healthy to improve upon last year.
Player I saw and really liked. Justin Hardy, wide receiver. Hardy, rookie fourth-round pick out of East Carolina University, has been hailed as a potential “secret weapon.” “Justin Hardy has done a great job coming in as a rookie,” Ryan says. “He’s a smart ballplayer. He had a ton of catches in college, so he knows how to get open.” At East Carolina, Hardy broke the FBS record for career receptions (387) and he posted three consecutive 1,000 yard seasons. Hardy’s reliable catches showed during one-on-one drills, when Ryan threw him a deep ball that the rookie caught smoothly in stride down the sideline.
Five dot-dot-dot observations about Atlanta. Quinn’s practice was efficient. Practice began at 10 a.m. and ended promptly at 11:46 a.m. Short and to-the-point, the Falcons wasted no time in the heat.. Desmond Trufant will be soon be among the Richard Sherman-type corners of the league. Trufant goes up against elite wideouts Roddy White and Julio Jones in practice everyday. This could be his first Pro Bowl year… Saw some competitive one-on-one battles between two first round draft picks Vic Beasley and Jake Matthews… Sad I couldn’t see Durant practice as he had a scheduled day off Sunday….The team’s slogan, “Rise Up,” seemed to be everywhere.
The one name on the roster I’d forgotten about. Jacob Tamme, tight end. Falcons signed the eight-year veteran away from the Broncos, where he played a role in the 2013 record-setting offense. Tamme will battle last year’s starter Levine Toilolo and Tony Moeaki for a starting role as a pass-catching tight end.
The thing I will remember about Flowery Branch: While writing this, the walls in the media workroom were vibrating with the loud bass beats of the Falcons hip hop-heavy playlist that blares outside during practice and in between meetings inside. Falcons hired homegrown DJ Jay Envy to bump some extremely loud hip hop music during the entire length of practice. A Pete Carroll tactic that Dan Quinn has carried over to Atlanta, the playlist energizes players and creates a game-like environment to facilitate better on-field communication. “It’s just another part of Quinn’s philosophy, trying to simulate a game-type atmosphere,” Tamme says.
Gut feeling as I left camp: It doesn’t take much to win the NFC South, and Quinn’s changes on defense will make a much improved Falcons team. I think the have a good chance to take the NFC South crown.
* * *
The Falcons Are Right on Beat
Kalyn Kahler writes...
Atlanta DJ Jay Envy is a fixture in the local nightclub scene. As the winner of 2014 Best of Atlanta DJ, he regularly fields requests for gigs across the city. This past spring, he received an unusual request.
It was Falcons strength and conditioning coach AJ Neibel. Neibel called up Envy (real name: James Lam) before the start of OTAs, on the hunt for a DJ to help push practices to the next level and got Envy’s name from Red Bull. Envy quickly signed on for OTAs and training camp, and although his perch on the balcony overlooking the practice fields of the Falcons facility couldn’t be more different from the DJ booth at dark indoor clubs, he said playing Falcons camp is the same idea- minus the strobe lights.
“I’ve never played training camp or any other football gigs before but it's the same concept really,” Envy said. “Get people hyped and bodies sweating.”
Said linebacker Brooks Reed: ”When you’re out here sweating and there’s no noise, you just think about how tired you are. But when there’s music in the background, you’re more in the moment and not thinking about how tired you are.”
It’s well documented that Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll uses loud music to energize his players at practices. So it comes as no surprise that first-year coach Dan Quinn would take this tactic from his former boss and implement it in Flowery Branch. “It’s like a new energy,” receiver Roddy White said. “Q is making sure everybody is up and going. Whatever keeps the players going, to keep us happy.”
White’s favorite song on the hip-hop heavy playlist is, “We in Da City” by Young Dro. Envy met with White and the rest of the Falcons several times to get a feel of what the players wanted to hear (Kevin Gates, Troy Ave, Migos and K Camp were popular requests). “Turns out they liked the same type of music I do so it made my job easy,” Envy said. “Being born and raised in Atlanta, hip hop is my first love so it was easy to cater to the players.”
While the right tracks give players the extra push they didn't know was there, the music is more than just a way to stay motivated at practice. The Falcons (minus Quinn) are no stranger to simulated crowd noise, and Jay Envy’s tracks create an extremely distracting game-like atmosphere. “It’s never quiet in the game, that’s very rare for it to be quiet,” tight end Jacob Tamme said. “The only problem is that I can’t hear the quarterback. I don’t like that part, but it makes it game-like so it’s good work for us.”
By the end of training camp, the Falcons will be well-adjusted to the situations Tamme describes- where traditional verbal communication doesn’t carry through the sounds of the crowd. “It’s just another part of Quinn’s philosophy, trying to simulate a game-type atmosphere,” Tamme said. White agreed, noting the loud noise aids the offense in facilitating communication- especially during two-minute drills.
While Tamme and White benefit from the game-like environment, running back Devonta Freeman claimed he doesn’t notice the blaring music. “I don’t hear it,” he said. “I tune everything out when I practice. I’ve been taught over the years to concentrate only on my job. I can’t tell you what songs they play.”
The music volume doesn’t turn down with the horn that signals the end of practice. “We actually do it all over, even in the meeting rooms,” White said. White isn’t kidding- an hour after practice broke for team meetings, the walls of the Falcons headquarters at Flowery Branch shook and the floor vibrated from the heavy bass of songs by Future, Rich Homie Quan and Drake (Back to Back was on the playlist, are the Falcons on Team Drake?)
While only 53 players will make the final roster at the end of camp, Envy has proven himself worthy to Falcons staff; he recently signed on to be the Falcons official DJ throughout the season and will provide his tunes at all home games at the Georgia Dome.
SAMPLING OF SUNDAY’S PLAYLIST:
U Mad- Vic Mensa ft. Kanye West
Work- ASAP Ferg
Karate Chop- Future ft. Lil Wayne
Booyah (Party Favor Remix)
Racks- YC feat. Future
We Dem Boyz- Wiz Khalifa
Back to Back- Drake
Flex (Ooh, Ooh, Ooh) - Rich Homie Quan
It’s All About the Benjamins- Puff Daddy ft. The Notorious B.I.G. The LOX & Lil Kim
Don’t Tell Em- Jeremih
Bring Em Out- T.I.
My Partna Dem- Rich Kids
* * *
Andy Benoit writes...
Site: The Raiders Napa Valley Training Complex. Located 10 minutes from downtown Napa and five minutes from rows and rows of vineyards.
What I Saw: Saturday morning practice, Sunday night practice (the team’s first in full pads) and Monday morning practice.
Three things you need to know about Oakland
1. They’re simplifying on defense. After spending three seasons under coordinator Jason Tarver and his smart but voluminous scheme (Tarver and head coach Dennis Allen worked together on it), they’re moving to Jack Del Rio’s more traditional zone-based defense. “I feel more comfortable in the scheme we’re playing now,” third-year cornerback D.J. Hayden told me after Saturday’s practice. “Last year’s scheme was good. But when (the scheme’s) simpler, you don’t have to think as much and you can just play faster.”
Hayden’s running mate, ascending second-year cornerback T.J. Carrie, had a slightly different take, saying both staffs put the players in great positions to succeed and that there are so many variations to every coverage that it’s essentially all minutia anyway. “And in the end, they’re all just some form of man, zone or fire zone,” he said, explaining how coverages are not play calls per se, but rather, just concepts.
In the holistic sense, Carrie is exactly right. But the decreases in what he calls “fire zones” (i.e. rotations and disguises) makes for an increase in the more straight-forward coverage concepts. With this, the talented young Raiders defense should at least play faster in 2015.
2. Don’t believe Khalil Mack’s rookie sack total (4). It’s as misleading as any statistic I’ve ever seen. Week in and week out, Mack jumped off the film. He was as good as almost any defensive end in the league. It just so happened it didn’t translate to sacks. I asked him about that, acknowledging that he probably gets asked about it all the time. “Yeah, I’m asking myself about it,” he said. He didn’t seem too bothered by it, though.
“Justin Tuck told me, sometimes people get lucky,” Mack said. “Across the league, you see some guys just show up and the scheme, and maybe just (the nature of) a particular play, allows them to be in the right position.” He said this with no hint of resentment or dismay. He did, however, seem pleasantly surprised when I informed him that, according to Football Outsiders, he ranked second in the league in drawn holding penalties, with eight. But mostly he talked about what he must do to improve his game. He cited “fundamentals” and applying them “throughout the whole game, being consistent” as his area in most need of work. “I can’t just rely on athleticism,” he added. To better understand fundamentals and various moves, he spent significant time this past offseason studying other pass rushers around the league, most notably, Dolphins veteran Cameron Wake, whom he lauded unequivocally.
In practice, Mack, lined up as the weak side defensive end on the vast majority of snap. The “Leo,” as it’s called in this scheme. He’ll draw a lot of one-on-one blocking that way. Expect his sack numbers to soar.3. The receiving corps is better – thank goodness.
What will determine success or failure of Raiders: The defense’s adaptation to the new scheme. Just because it’s simpler doesn’t mean it doesn’t still have nuances that must be perfected. The linebackers, in particular, have a ways to go here. (Or maybe linebackers coach Sal Sunseri is just nitpicky. Watching Sunseri instruct his player, by the way, was the highlight of camp. He has a passion for details and a way with words.) Offensively, the Raiders must stay healthy at receiver and become more consistent up front in run-blocking.
Player I saw and really liked: Tight end Mychal Rivera. He aligned in a variety of spots across different formations, most notably in the slot, where he covers a lot of ground as a long-striding interior route runner. Rivera showed excellent body control and consistently snatched balls away from his body.
Five dot-dot-dot observations about the Raiders: Everything quarterback Derek Carr does is compact. His footwork, his windup, his release. Raiders fans should be excited about their QB…..Speaking of Raiders fans, they’re a rowdy bunch. I mean this in a nice way. They organize chants, shout at players with good-natured relentlessness and gladly brave the sun even though most wear all black. At one point, in the restaurant bar of the hotel where the Raiders are staying, fans spotted Mark Davis sitting in a back corner booth. Chants of “Stay in Oakland (clap-clap-clap)” erupted, a not uncommon occurrence this weekend in Napa. A nice hotel restaurant bar is about as inappropriate a forum as aggressive chanting can find, but Davis seemed to love it…..The Raiders’ O-line is massive. And oddly shaped. In the right shade of brown pants, Gabe Jackson’s thighs could blend in with the trunks of the nearby redwood trees. Austin Howard looks like he could literally eat a linebacker. And Donald Penn has the body of a sumo wrestler but with the ankles of a long-distance runner. One would think such disproportion would be cause for injury, but Penn hasn’t missed a game in the past seven years. He’s coming off his best season, too…..Free agent pickup Nate Allen will be an important piece to this defense as the box safety. He’ll rotate down in a lot of the coverages, with Charles Woodson playing centerfield....Raiders defensive players probably hear echoes of Ken Norton’s voice as they drift off to sleep each night. The first-year defensive coordinator is a yeller. Not in an accosting way (unless needed), just in a “guy who’s always saying something but because he’s on 53-yard wide field talking to dozens of men at once” sort of way.
The one player on the roster I’d forgotten about: Malcolm Smith, Super Bowl 48 MVP (yes, I’m calling it Super Bowl 48; it’s time to take a stand against the archaic and complicated Roman Numeral system, which vanished hundreds of years ago for a reason). Smith will likely be part of the team’s nickel package and may start opposite Sio Moore at outside ‘backer in the base 4-3. He moves well, plus he played in a similar zone scheme in Seattle.
The one thing I’ll remember about Napa: The county library. Needing to print off 70 pages of a particular team’s film study notes Saturday night so that I could write that team’s preview Sunday morning, I raced to Kinkos, only to learn that they wanted well over $50 for the job. So, thinking I could take advantage of California’s taxpayer dollars, I raced across town to the public library, hoping they’d print them for a smaller fee. They did: $7. And they weren’t going to charge me because I’d arrived just three minutes before closing and the register was already locked. I learned about the register only after I’d already laid out seven one dollar bills on the counter. It would have been an unspeakable display of parsimony to retrieve them at that point, for by then several library staffers had stuck around a few minutes after closing time to help arrange my printing. Grateful, I submitted the $7 as a donation. It occurs to me now that the library must keep the donations in a compartment that’s separate from the register. Anyway, I’ll be writing it off in April.
Gut feeling about this team as I left town: It will be a much better team than it was a year ago. Unfortunately, the AFC West is ultra-competitive, so “much better” might only equal seven or eight wins. But the talent is young and fairly plentiful on both sides of the ball, and the new coaching staff is committed to aiding it with a simpler system.
Carolina Panthers Training Camp Report
Robert Klemko writes...
Site: Panthers training camp, located on the grass practice fields below the 13,000-seat Gibbs Stadium at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., a picturesque college town 75 miles southwest of Charlotte.
What I saw: Morning practice, Aug. 1, the team’s second day of practice after a Friday night opener. The Panthers practiced this day without coach Ron Rivera, who left the team Saturday to attend the funeral of his brother, Mickey, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer two years ago.
Three things you need to know about the Panthers:
1. They’re going to be frightening in the red zone.
Imagine a goal-line offense consisting of 6-5 wide receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess, 6-6 tight end Greg Olsen and 6-4 tight end Ed Dickson. Catching passes from 6-5 quarterback Cam Newton? That’s a basketball team. There isn’t a team in the NFL that can match up with the size and leaping ability of these four men.
2. But, there’s a speed problem at wide receiver.
Let’s say the Panthers have the ball, 1st and 10 at the 20 yard line on opening day at Jacksonville. Here are Cam Newton’s passing options and their best pre-draft 40 times…
Greg Olsen: 4.51 seconds
Jerricho Cotchery: 4.54
Kelvin Benjamin: 4.61
Devin Funchess: 4.48
Granted, Benjamin plays much faster than his time, and 40 times aren’t the best indicator of game speed. But you get the idea. These are large men who use leverage and spacing to win battles with defensive backs. Here’s the problem: One reason NFL teams don’t stock their depth charts with small forwards is the necessity for a playmaker who can take the top off a defense and limit eight-man looks against the running game. Now that Stephen Hill is gone (waived after suffering a torn ACL Saturday), the next best hope is Ted Ginn, who has been little more than a dangerous kick returner since the Dolphins drafted him ninth overall in 2007.
Was it a reach to draft the Washington safety/linebacker with the 25th pick in the first round? Before Thompson takes even a preseason snap, most would say yes. He’s playing weakside linebacker in Carolina with a pretty great supporting cast, including Luke Keuchly and Thomas Davis. He’ll prove the general manager a genius if he can run with the Jimmy Graham’s of the world and take on the occasional lead block, something he wasn’t often asked to do in college.
What will determine success or failure of the Panthers: Whether Michael Oher, placed on injured reserve late last season after a an abysmal 12 games at right tackle for Tennessee, can somehow turn things around at 29 years old and give Cam Newton the protection he lacked last season. Early indications aren’t good, with Oher struggling to keep up in padded and non-padded practices so far. Nate Chandler, placed on IR 11 games into last season after giving up 32 sacks/hits/hurries, is the backup option in what could be the worst blindside (sorry) tackle situation in the league.
Player I saw and really liked: WR Kelvin Benjamin. The second-year phenom looks skinny, healthy, limber, and impossible to cover. During one special teams session, Benjamin (73 catches, 1,008 yards as a rookie) and second-round pick Devin Funchess sequestered themselves to an empty practice field to work on goal line routes with Cam Newton and backup QB Derek Anderson (This is a tradition initiated by Benjamin and Newton that Funchess has been encouraged to join). On one fade attempt at the left corner, Newton threw a dart behind Benjamin, who spun his body just short of 360 degrees, snatched the rock with both hands and tapped his toes just inbounds.
Five dot-dot-dot observations about the Panthers: In the early goings, there seems to be an adjustment period for these pass-catchers as their hands recall just how hard Newton can spin a football… all eyes on Shaq Thompson moving forward as coaches determine whether he’s a liability in the run game at outside linebacker… Star Lotulelei earned much of the recognition for a strong defensive line performance in 2014, but it’s Kawann Short who many expect to have a breakout season at defensive tackle… The battle for carries behind Jonathan Stewart is one to pay attention to in preseason, with veteran Fozzy Whittaker and rookie Cameron Artis-Payne looking comparable early… former Bears CB Charles Tillman, acquired in free agency, looks healthy and should provide an answer to some of the larger, more physical wide receivers that populate the NFC South.
The one name on the roster I’d forgotten about: Ted Ginn. At 30 years old, the man can still cook. Speed was never his problem, but on the first day of August he showed something he hasn’t in eight pro seasons – the hands and route-running ability to make an impact. Ginn smoked Chris Houton deep early in practice, with both players leaping a four-foot tall white fence before they could come to a stop beyond the endzone. Later, Ginn left promising cornerback Josh Norman in the dust on a post route to catch a Newton ball which must have traveled 60 yards in the air. Ginn hasn’t caught more than 40 balls in a season since his second year in Miami, and didn’t start a game at wide receiver last year in Arizona, but he could make a difference on this team.
The one thing I’ll remember about Carolina: About halfway through practice, Cam Newton zipped a pass behind Stephen Hill on a crossing route – essentially an uncatchable ball – and upon twisting his body and landing awkwardly on his right foot, Hill crumpled to the ground. You could hear muffled screams as players took to their knees and the training staff prepared an air cast. The crowd of fans sitting on a nearby hill, still buzzing from a Ted Ginn touchdown catch on the previous play, went dead silent. For two minutes, trainers attended to Hill while players stood around, looking solemn and stunned. Then a whistle chirped twice, and slowly, deliberately, the Panthers swung the 11-on-11 drill to face the other end zone, turning their backs on Hill. Such is life in the NFL. You toil for three years, catch 45 balls, make a nice handful of money and friends in the process, and when your knee explodes on a muggy day in August, your career how you knew it is mourned for exactly two minutes. As Hill was carted away, a woman carrying a child beside another man followed the cart up the hill, with the woman wiping away tears. Hill was diagnosed with a torn ACL, and waived by the club less than 24 hours later.
Woof Woof from Wofford
The Panthers host training camp at Wofford College, a 1,600-student private college in Spartanburg, SC. With its pristinely-manicured campus, accessible fan-friendly set up and favorable dorm culture among players, it is a quintessential site. But The MMQB arrived with eyes on one local attraction: We wanted to meet Blitz, the 2-year-old Boston Terrier who serves as Wofford's mascot. We asked, and Wofford answered. It was a good day. Woof.
* * *
San Diego Chargers Training Camp Report
Andy Benoit writes...
Site: The Chargers home facility, located amongst a sprawl of Northern San Diego business parks, up against the green sage-brush hillside of Murphy Canon.
What I saw: Morning practice, July 30, the team’s first of this training camp. Also, very little shade. And, in my own reflection, the haggard redness of a man ill-prepared for such humidity.
Three things you need to know about the Chargers:
1. They have an “elite” quarterback. Philip Rivers, as good of a pure pocket passer as there, practices the way you’d expect: fully engaged and full throttle. In “offense vs. defense” sessions Rivers did his usual yeoman’s work before the snap, setting the protections by calling out the Mike linebacker and make adjustments based off the defensive front. (With plays being scripted, and this being Day One of camp, there did not appear to be any audibling.) When the second-and third-stringers were working, Rivers took a knee and talked with safety Eric Weddle (the defense’s quarterback). During special teams sessions, Rivers engaged with offensive coordinator Frank Reich and head coach Mike McCoy. Since entering into McCoy’s system in 2013, Rivers has completed 68 percent of his passes (second only to Drew Brees), averaging 7.8 yards an attempt (fifth best in the league).
2. John Pagano is the best defensive coach nobody talks about. Pagano employs a multifaceted scheme that features a breadth of different looks. “We try to disguise on every snap,” he told me after practice. “We start with it on Day One. It’s not something where in Week 5 we say, ‘Hey, whoa, we gotta start doing this.’” (Here Pagano clapped his hands as a gesture of urgency.) “We try to start it Day One, that’s what it’s all about.”
Pagano hasn’t always had great cornerbacks to work with, making his pressure concepts and post-snap coverage rotations all the gutsier. “You always have to still have that attack mode mentality,” he said. Much of these ploys come out of zone, though in this practice, the Chargers primarily worked on man-to-man. Most interesting was watching their corners perform a press coverage drill with their arms crossed shoulder-to-shoulder. Teams these days are finding all sorts of ways to teach corners to not rely on their oft-flagged hands. In the scrimmage portions of practice, the corners primarily matched up to specific wide receivers.
Every game has scenarios that demand man coverage. (Third-down-and-short, for example.) This could explain the heavy emphasis on it this first day. Overall, I’d expect the Chargers defense to continue using a heavy dosage of matchup zone concepts in their base packages. You can set up more disguises from zone than you can from man. This speaks to the point Pagano made to summarize his defensive philosophies: “The game is all about angles.”
3. Eric Weddle may not be happy with his contract situation, but the Chargers have every reason to be happy with him. Weddle is one of the most versatile defenders in the league. In this first practice, he played both deep safety and down near the line of scrimmage. I asked Pagano how important the ninth-year veteran is to their scheme. “Huge, huge, huge,” he said. “It’s like having a coordinator out there on the field. We’ve been together for so long, so he thinks like me. He has that mentality of football.”
What will determine success or failure of the Chargers: Whether their somewhat thin – and in spots, youthful – defense can stay healthy and generate more big plays. Last season, they registered only seven interceptions and 26 sacks, both near the bottom of the NFL.
Player I saw and really liked: Keenan Allen. The third-year wide receiver has very unique body control and a grasp on the nuances of his position. We talked in the afternoon about his route running, which he works on diligently during the offseason. He loves lining up in a tight split (i.e. inside the field numbers, closer to the quarterback).From here, he has more room at his disposal. He brought up Antonio Gates, and how much he’s learned from the likely future Hall of Famer. “He never takes baby steps,” Allen said. “He always takes full strides. That’s what I try to do.”
Five dot-dot-dot observations about the Chargers: First-round rookie running back Melvin Gordon looks the part. He showed eye-popping short-area lateral agility and cutback prowess. He both glides and explodes in his movement and can reach the second level effortlessly….Another Melvin who is critical to this team: Ingram. The fourth-year outside linebacker lost 20 pounds this past offseason, which surprised me considering that he already possessed outstanding horizontal burst for a 260-something pounder. But Ingram explained to me it was “bad” weight that he lost. And that his horizontal burst isn’t a purely physical thing anyway. “It’s about 50-50 for God-given ability and (something that’s) learned,” he said. “You’re given the ability but you take it to that next level by practice and film study, and (specifically) practicing lateral movements.” Ingram also said one of the more interesting tidbits about film study that I’ve heard: “In the pros, you have to do it to be successful.” So in college are you saying it’s just more of a bonus then? “Yep.”…..Stevie Johnson is replacing the departed Eddie Royal as the No. 3 receiver. Johnson is patient and acrobatic, which we were reminded of when he made a twisted (literally) adjustment for a catch against perfect man-to-man slot coverage by Steve Williams. The patience and acrobatics are necessary because Johnson doesn’t have great quickness. That’s where Royal will be missed…..Danny Woodhead has plenty of quickness, and he displayed it with no visible remnants of the fractured fibula that wiped out his 2014 season in Week 3. Woodhead also has a new little mustache, which looks either sharp or creepy, depending on your perspective….Charger fans haven’t lost any love for Antonio Gates, despite his four-game suspension for a PED violation. The media also seems to be still very fond of the veteran.
The one name on the roster I’d forgotten about: Austin Pettis. Not that I’m kicking myself for this. The former Rams third-round pick joined the team this past January. I only remembered him because during special teams gunner drills, which Pettis was partaking in, some kid up against the fence kept yelling his name. “Austin I know you hear me,” the kid eventually shouted. Pettis was left with no choice but to acknowledge the screamer, which he did by looking over (helmet off) and gently sticking an index finger in the air.
The one thing I’ll remember about San Diego: Qualcomm Stadium, and how absolutely hideous it looks from the freeway. “Yeah, and have you seen inside of it?” one Chargers staffer asked me. I have not. I’ve just seen its exterior of crisscrossing slabs of concrete. “It’s like a dinosaur,” the staffer said.
Gut feeling about this team as I left town: This has the feel of a 9-7 club. Maybe that’s just because the Chargers have won between seven and nine games each of the past five seasons. There’s talent here, but a lack of depth along the defensive and offensive lines. And there are unproven young players, like cornerback Jason Verrett and outside linebacker Jerry Attaochu (he ran with the first unit), who need to be stars for this defense to truly prosper. Maybe they can be; both are capable. In that case, the Chargers could win 11 games. But I’ve learned not to trust “maybes” in the NFL. So I don’t know. Just not a whole lot feels different about what’s been a good but certainly not great Chargers team.
Sights seen at Chargers camp today:
1. Handfuls of expensive cars in the Holiday Inn up the street. The Chargers are holding training camp at their regular facility, but the players – even the decorated veterans – are all staying at the hotel until mid-August. This is to create more of a camp atmosphere and to better accommodate the evening meetings that can run until 10:00 p.m. Coaches all have rooms at the hotel, as well, but most of them are sleeping in their offices.
2. Waves and waves of baggy blue shorts worn by players…and then Keenan Allen with his shorts cut off several inches above his kneecaps. But not to worry, Allen wore white spandex under the shorts. Still, it looked a little, um, well, dorky.
3. I didn’t see, so much as hear, Jason Verrett grunting. Every team has a grunter – a guy who makes guttural sounds off fully exerted movement. Verrett’s grunts were frequent, matching the chop of his feet on a press coverage drill.
4. Players leaving the field with helmet, pads and shoes off. It’s a nice soft grass field, so stocking feet aren’t a problem. But it looks just a little preemptive. About one out of four players – maybe one out of three – removed his shoes before exiting the field. Philip Rives was one of them.
5. An entire cooler of Gatorade falling off the back of a cart that was high-tailing to midfield after practice. A rainbow of, sealed bottles hit the ground, along with the ice they were packed in. Two other coolers still remained on the cart, and it was apparent the driver was unsure whether to carry on and reach those who awaited hydration or go back and retrieve the spilt beverages. After some hesitation, he carried on. Safety Jahleel Addae and undrafted tight end Brian Parker, the two people closest to the spill, bent down and kindly gathered the drinks.
* * *
The Longest Road to Training Camp
Kalyn Kahler writes…
Jackson Gaskins would do just about anything to work in the NFL, even if that means living out of his own van. Gaskins, 22, is a training camp intern with Washington, and he admits he fudged the truth a bit when he applied for his position. “I lied on the application when I said that I had a place to live,” Gaskins says. “I was planning on living out of my van.”
Gaskins drove 3,313 miles from San Diego to Richmond, Va. (taking a circuitous route) to work an unpaid training camp internship. He made the four-day trip solo with a broken radio and a mattress shoved in the back of his 2004 Toyota Sienna.
Eight states later, Gaskins still hadn’t found a place to stay in Richmond, but it didn’t matter. He was determined to make it to Washington. He was going to work in the NFL. The details would work themselves out. The day before his arrival he found housing with another training camp intern.
“When I told my best friend that I was driving across the country, he asked, ‘Why? Are they paying you really well?’ I said, ‘Well, not really.’”
Or not at all. Gaskins, a graduate student at Colorado Christian University, is one of 13 20-something training camp interns who have made huge sacrifices to work for Washington simply for school credit over the next three weeks. “Hey, I have to go to wherever there is opportunity,” Gaskins says.
Washington senior vice president for communications Tony Wyllie first met Gaskins at the team’s media reception dinner last week, where Washington’s communications staff introduced the new interns to local media. “I said, ‘Man, you came all the way from San Diego?’” Wyllie says. “I’ve been around this league for23 years and never seen that type of dedication.”
But a few minutes later Wyllie met Sterling Randle, 24, a BYU student from Provo, Utah, who drove 31 hours to report to the Bon Secours Training Center for his chance to start an NFL career, rivalling Gaskins journey.“There’s nothing in Utah,” Randle says, “We just have the Jazz in Utah and Real Salt Lake.”
In previous years, Wyllie says most interns were local students from Virginia Commonwealth University and University of Richmond. But this year the team received over 500 applicants, “They brought so much to the table that we just brought in the best candidates,” Wyllie says. “We’ve never had interns travel this far, not by car. It shows a can-do attitude.”
Wyllie, who traveled from Texas to San Diego for his first training camp internship with the Chargers in 1992, sees a bit of himself in Gaskins and Randle. “I couldn’t even afford a plane ticket,” Wyllie remembers. “The dean of my school—Texas Southern University-—handed me a plane ticket so I was able to go.”
Gaskins and Randle both chose to move cross-country for training camp because of Wyllie’s expansive communications coaching tree. Gaskins interned for the Chargers all of last season and was asked to work at the Super Bowl, where he heard about Wyllie’s wide network at the initial meeting in Phoenix. “Everyone was leaving, and they had people stay back for a picture, all of Tony’s guys,” Gaskins remembers. “There had to be at least 30 or 40 guys. I just got chills, i don’t know why.”
By his own count, Wyllie has six former interns who are now directors of communications across professional sports. “If you work for Tony, you are going to go places,” Randle says.
In a competitive business, Gaskins and Randle have put in the mileage to stand out from the rest. “I can tell they are passionate,” Wyllie says. “You can’t teach passion. These guys are going to make their passion their paycheck.”
* * *
Washington Training Camp Report
Emily Kaplan writes:
Site: Bon Secours Training Center in historical downtown Richmond, Va., two hours South of Fed Ex Field. Sprawling grass fields with not even a square-foot of shade.
What I Saw: An afternoon practice, Friday, July 31. Baking hot at 91 degrees. Klemko, inexplicably, wore jeans. Again.
Three things you need to know about Washington:
1. The next month is about getting Robert Griffin III to be more of a conventional quarterback, so it isn’t all about being mobile. Coach Jay Gruden wants Griffin to stop winning games with his legs, and start winning games with his arm and his head. “We have to help keep the weight of the world off his shoulders,” Gruden told The MMQB. “He’s only 24, just turned 25. He’s been through so much. He just has to play quarterback for us and forget all the outside stuff.” To alleviate some burden, Gruden appointed Matt Cavanaugh as quarterbacks coach (something the team did not have last year). Cavanaugh will focus on Griffin’s presence in the pocket while Gruden will sprinkle more play-action into the offense.
2. To become less-quarterback reliant, Washington shored up its offensive line. Something needed to be done to a unit that allowed 36 sacks last season. Enter veteran offensive line coach Bill Callahan, architect of the Cowboy’s dominant run game in 2014. He has an exciting player to build around in 2015 first-round pick Brandon Scherff, the stud tackle from Iowa.
3. Washington also fortified its defense. Jim Haslett, the defensive coordinator for the last five seasons, is out. Joe Barry is in. You might remember Barry for his two-year stint as the Lions defensive coordinator. He’ll install a one-gap 3-4 scheme that should generate more pressure up front. New general manager Scot McCloughan prioritized on defensive linemen in free agency, adding Ricky Jean Francois, Terrance Knighton and Stephen Paea. And then came perhaps the biggest addition: Junior Galette. The controversial linebacker — a costly cut for the Saints earlier this week —attended his first practice on Friday (more on that in a bit).
Player I saw and really liked: Alfred Morris. Maybe its because I know he’ll have such an important role in the offense, but I found myself watching Morris a lot in 11-on-11 drills. He plugged away in Washington’s power scheme. Of course, it was a no-pads session so if a running back didn’t look good that would be a problem. But with an added emphasis on the run game, I expect a productive year for Morris.
Five dot-dot-dot observations about Washington: Tough day for Bashaud Breeland, the second-year cornerback. After receiving a one-game suspension for a marijuana citation, Breeland took a nasty fall during one-on-one passing drills and was carted off. The apparent right leg injury looked serious. Breeland is one of the team’s better corners... Washington is lining up Scherff at right tackle, and he had some great battles with Ryan Kerrigan in one-on-one drills.....DeSean Jackson was fielding punts, as was fourth-round draft pick Jamison Crowder from Duke....It's so fun to watch Gruden at practice. He is incredibly animated and involved, even jumping in a few drills himself.... Neither Kirk Cousins or Colt McCoy stood out, though Cousins did have a nice deep ball to Crowder toward the end of practice.
The thing I’ll remember about Richmond. Junior Galette’s debut. I did a double-take when players walked on to the field and there was Galette strolling side-by-side with Kerrigan. They were engaged in a pretty chummy conversation. Who would have thunk that these two would be teammates, and that Kerrigan would be the one with a fat contract and Galette on a veteran’s minimum deal?
Although Galette did not fully practice, his presence loomed. A cadre of reporters tracked his every move; the linebacker spent most of the two-and-a-half hour afternoon session doing sprints and footwork drills with position coaches and chatting with his new teammates on the sideline. Galette should fit into Barry’s scheme quite nicely, so his future in Washington, I think, depends solely on this: getting along with his teammates and staying out of trouble.
Gut feeling about this team as I left town. I have optimism that Griffin — if he stays healthy — will fare better than he did in the last two seasons. I really do. However I don’t think that’s enough to keep up with the Joneses (Philadelphia and Dallas) in a competitive NFC East. At best this feels like a 6-10 team, but even with a favorable schedule (Washington hosts the Dolphins, Rams, Buccaneers, Saints and Bills) that seems high. My gut tells me that next offseason will be especially fascinating in Washington.
After a great day in Owings Mills, the crew took in a baseball game at Camden Yards....
....and made some new friends.
* * *
Baltimore Ravens Training Camp Report
Thursday, July 30, 2015
Site: 1 Winning Drive, Baltimore Ravens HQ, Owings Mills, Md., 13 miles northwest of Baltimore.
Robert Klemko writes:
What I Saw: Morning practice, Thursday, July 30. Sunny, 85 degrees, humid (probably shouldn’t have worn jeans).
The thing I’ll remember about Owings Mills: There were several big plays, including picturesque snags by 36-year-old Steve Smith and 21-year-old rookie Breshad Perriman that should excite Ravens fans for the future on offense, but my favorite moment from Thursday happened well after practice as players trickled out of the heat and into the air conditioning of the swanky Under Armour Performance Center. Following their first day of training camp – a spirited but cautious foray in helmets and shells – quarterback and Super Bowl XLVII MVP Joe Flacco, dropped his helmet on the grass path to the door, strolled towards the media hub, answered seven harmless questions, chatted with a reporter or two and went inside. Twenty minutes passed. Players signed autographs for screaming kids lined up behind ropes on their way into the building, and soon there was no one left outside but a handful of media packing up gear. And there was Joe’s helmet, resting on the ear fitted with Flacco’s all-important audio speaker linking him to coaches. Most of the quarterbacks I’ve met are cool on the outside and secretly neat-freak perfectionists at heart. I can’t imagine Peyton Manning or Tom Brady standing at a locker and not noticing or caring his helmet was missing. But that’s Joe. Maybe that’s what makes him so pedestrian in the regular season and so damn money in the playoffs; Joe cares when it counts.
Three things you need to know about the Ravens:
1. The offensive coordinator carousel continues. Joe Flacco will play for his fourth offensive coordinator in four years after former play caller Gary Kubiak’s departure for the Denver head coaching vacancy. Enter Marc Trestman, shown the door in Chicago after his locker room and his defense fell apart. It’s too early to say how different Trestman’s approach will be from Kubiak’s, but the foundation of his spread-leaning offense is being built on swing passes and dump-offs to Justin Forsett and a host of fullbacks, and on the downfield acumen of Smith and Perriman. The rookie’s hands remain a question mark, but he did pull off a beautiful falling catch on the right sideline near the end of practice Thursday.
2. Baltimore believes in Timmy Jernigan, the second-year lineman tasked with replacing longtime anchor Haloti Ngata (who was traded for fourth- and fifth-round picks to the Lions this offseason). Jernigan averaged just 26 snaps per game last season but did enough for John Harbaugh and the front office to feel comfortable dealing a player who remains a Top-10 3-4 defensive end entering his 10th season.
3. It’s a relief to be done with Ray Rice. And that’s despite what the team said about tuning out distractions a year ago. The controversy surrounding Rice’s arrest on domestic violence charges and subsequent suspension and release was an emotional burden that loaded stress in the early season and applied pressure on nearly every aspect of the organization this time last year. Said running back Justin Forsett: “It’s nice. There are no distractions. [We] want to keep it that way and focus on football.”
What will determine success or failure for the Ravens: How healthy the defensive secondary can remain over the course of a season. I’m talking specifically about the cornerback position, where there are the biggest question marks and the least depth. Jimmy Smith is the top corner, but he never quite got over a Linsfranc injury suffered at midseason. Lardarius Webb had perhaps the worst season of his career a year ago, and Asa Jackson struggled similarly. If the Ravens lose Smith, Webb, Jackson or free agent pickup Kyle Arrington for any extended period of time, trouble awaits.
Player I saw and really liked: Steve Smith. Who doesn’t like Steve Smith? Here’s reason No. 43,547 Steve Smith is an All-American Badass: Halfway through Thursday’s practice, the five-time Pro Bowler entering his 15th season wiggled past cornerback Rashaan Melvin in an 11-on-11 session, cut to the post and made a diving, one-handed grab of a Flacco pass in front of a late-arriving Matt Elam. Later, Perriman matched his effort with a diving catch of his own. You think Smith doesn’t know what he’s doing, diving for 20-yard receptions in shells on the first day of practice? Steve wants a ring, and he’s making sure everyone in Owings Mills is on board.
The one name on the roster I’d forgotten about. Kyle Arrington. Smart pickup for a couple of reasons: Baltimore is short on corners, as previously discussed, and Arrington fits a need for a quick-twitch nickel corner who can lock down the slot. For example, Indianapolis’ T.Y. Hilton made mince meat of the Baltimore defense in Week 5 a year ago with nine catches for 90 yards on 12 targets in an Indy win. But in two games against the Patriots and Arrington last season, Hilton managed four catches for 60 yards.
Gut feeling about this team as I left town. They’ll win the AFC North, but what’s next? Do they get past Indianapolis or New England, or both? Earning home field advantage deep into the playoffs is critical.
Thursday, July 30, 2015
Seven quick observations after a three-hour morning session of the Baltimore Ravens, the first practice of the summer and first practice of coach John Harbaugh’s eighth season as head coach:
1. I’ll write about this more come Monday, but I thought Harbaugh hit the right note when talking to his team at the camp-opening meeting Wednesday night. He told them, referring to the way last season ended and the attitude the players should have entering 2015: “I’m pissed, but I’m proud.” Meaning he’s angry the Ravens lost leads of 14-0 (after 11 minutes) and 28-14 (after 35 minutes) and fell to the eventual Super Bowl champion Patriots in an incredible divisional playoff game at Foxboro in January. Translation: We had a great season overall, but there’s no excuse—not even injuries—for blowing two big playoff leads on the road.
2. There’s a reason New England respects Baltimore so. They’ve met four times in Foxboro in the playoffs in the Harbaugh Era. The tally is two for Baltimore, two for New England. Notably, Baltimore has outscored the Patriots by 27 points in those four games. The losses were both excruciating—the 23-20 defeat in January 2012 when Lee Evans had the winning TD stripped by his hands in the final minutes; and the loss last January. The Ravens hope a healthier secondary makes the difference if they meet again this postseason. Of course, that means important but brittle pieces like Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb must stay upright at cornerback for Baltimore.
3. In an ideal world, Baltimore defensive coordinator Dean Pees will line up Webb and Smith outside and Patriot import Kyle Arrington in the slot in Week 1 to face Peyton Manning. Look for Baltimore to play three or more corners at least two-thirds of the game.
4. Owner Steve Bisciotti did not prod, urge, call, suggest to or beg commissioner Roger Goodell to go tough on the New England Patriots or quarterback Tom Brady. Non-story. Take my word for it. Also, understand that Bisciotti is one of the least-involved NFL owners in the league. He doesn’t get tied up much in league issues, hasn’t attended many league meetings in recent years and rarely talks to Goodell. I don't think many, if any, owners called Goodell with get-tough suggestions on the Brady case. Bisciotti certainly did not.
5. The off-season has not dimmed the Ravens’ enthusiasm for getting versatile Iowa defensive lineman Carl Davis with the 90th pick in the draft. At 6-5 and 320, Davis should be a rotational piece on a strong defensive line (even without Haloti Ngata) immediately.
6. What team has a tougher first seven weeks than Baltimore? Five of seven on the road. Two back-to-back trips to the West Coast (at Denver, at Oakland in Weeks 1 and 2; at San Francisco and at Arizona in Weeks 6 and 7) ... and Cincinnati at home in Week 3 followed by a game at Pittsburgh the following Thursday night. If Baltimore survives that run 5-2, the Ravens will win the division. If they start 4-3, they'll make the playoffs. Maybe even with a 3-4 start.
7. What East Coast team has ever had four games west of Denver in the first seven weeks of a season? Doubt that’s ever happened.
I’ve often said it’s hard to draw any conclusions watching a team early in camp with little contact. And the very young receiver group will have to mesh early with Joe Flacco. But this team is a Super Bowl contender in my eyes.
Thursday, July 30, 2015
Wednesday, July 29, 2015
Wednesday, July 29, 2015
Robert Klemko writes: I’m a day away from joining the training camp tour with Peter King (it sounds glamorous, but it’s just a van with an The MMQB sticker slapped on the side). I’ll join Peter and a handful of The MMQB and SI staff at more than a dozen stops throughout the east coast and Midwest, including two teams I’ve yet to see practice in three seasons covering pro football: Atlanta and Jacksonville.
I’ll be bringing along a spiffy new recording device handed down by Dan Bloom, head of our new podcast partnership with Slate, Panoply. Time and technology permitting, I’ll be recording Peter’s musings from the road and some of my best interviews from Baltimore to Tampa and everywhere in between to air on The MMQB podcast with myself and Andy Benoit on Thursdays on iTunes and here at mmqb.si.com.
The itinerary for the next seven days (and a few storylines to watch):
Thursday, July 30: Ravens (Owings Mills, Md.) Breshad Perriman snuck into the first round in a draft stocked with stellar wideouts, but he didn’t showcase the best hands at UCF. What will be different in the pros?
Friday, July 31: Washington (Richmond, Va.) Rebuilt defensive backfield… is Dashon Goldson finally the answer at safety?
Saturday, Aug. 1: Panthers (Spartanburg, S.C.) What kind of impact will Peanut Tillman have on Sean McDermott’s defense in the twilight of a stellar career?
Monday, Aug. 2: Falcons (Flowery Branch, Ga.) How will new head coach Dan Quinn employ first-round pick Vic Beasley in his bid to energize a lackluster defense?
Tuesday, Aug. 3: Jaguars (Jacksonville, Fla.) Can Allen Robinson live up to the offseason hype and provide a reliable threat for second-year quarterback Blake Bortles?
Thursday, Aug. 4: Buccaneers (Tampa, Fla.) Jameis Winston’s the main draw, of course, but rookie linemen Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet could make or break new coordinator Dirk Koetter’s bid to revamp the offense.
If you see us at one of the training camps, give a holler.
* * *
Tuesday, July 28, 2015
St. Vincent College | Latrobe, Pa. Noon.
Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp Report
Site: St. Vincent College in the Laurel Highlands of west central Pennsylvania, 40 miles east of Pittsburgh. Across U.S. 30 from the Arnold Palmer Airport.
What I Saw: Afternoon practice, Monday, July 27. Sunny, 89 degrees, humid. A scorcher.
Three things you need to know about the Steelers:
1. Life is different in 2015. No Hall of Fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. No (likely Hall of Fame) safety Troy Polamalu. LeBeau was gently let go by Mike Tomlin, replaced by 59-year-old Keith Butler, a player-and-coaching lifer getting his first shot to coordinate a defense. Polamalu retired and vanished, which you knew the reclusive one would do. In his place is seldom-used Shamarko Thomas, the 2013 fourth-round pick from Syracuse. No one knows how he’ll play, but he did make a heck of a play, nearly jarring the ball loose on a high throw to rookie Sammie Coates in the afternoon practice.
2. Ben Roethlisberger may still miss Bruce Arians, his former coordinator and Georgia off-season lake buddy, but he has adapted well to Todd Haley. Roethlisberger looked terrific in this practice, as did his cadre of excellent young receivers. Adding Sammie Coates (the fast kid from Auburn drafted in round three) to the mix is almost unfair. Roethlisberger clearly is on the same page with Haley. Last year, he set career marks in completion percentage (.671), passing yards (4,952) and touchdown-to-interception differential (plus-23). He said here in Latrobe that there’s no reason the Steelers shouldn’t average 30 points a game. “Well, Todd said that, and we follow him,” Roethlisberger said.
3. Keith Butler will be different from LeBeau, but don’t ask anyone here how. I’ll be writing on the Steelers’ defensive changes later at The MMQB, so come back for more details. But Butler is going to make mostly cosmetic changes to the D. The biggest change may come at defensive end. He’s a 3-4 guy, as the Steelers have been, but he doesn’t believe in the ends being stay-at-home space-eaters. He wants them to make plays and rush the passer better than they have. Good news for the underrated Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward, the likely DE starters.
Player I saw and really liked: DeAngelo Williams, running back. The unrestricted free agent from Carolina comes into a crucial role after nine years as a Panther. He caught a wheel route from Roethlisberger out of the backfield and out-sprinted two linebackers down the right side for a long gain in the practice I saw. With no Le’Veon Bell for the first two (or three) games (Update: Bell’s suspension has indeed been reduced to two games), Williams will have to be big against the Patriots and 49ers, at least. The Steelers love having him.
Five dot-dot-dot observations about the Steelers: Backup QB could be a problem. Bruce Gradkowski has a sore arm and is on PUP, and Landry Jones inspires no confidence … If I’m Kevin Colbert, I’m stashing undrafted 6-4 free-agent Devin Gardner (a slash player, working at wideout and quarterback) on the practice squad and seeing if he can develop … The Steelers need second-round pick Senquez Golson, an interception machine at Ole Miss, to get in competition for the nickel spot, but he’s on PUP with a shoulder injury. That’s a vital position, particularly late in the season. December quarterbacks on the Steelers sked: Andrew Luck, Andy Dalton, Peyton Manning, Joe Flacco … I think second-year man Ryan Shazier, the inside ’backer from Ohio State, looks ready to be the next in line of rush-and-cover linebackers … I don’t know how you cover all those wide receivers. I really don’t. Antonio Brown, by the way, made a catch at practice that would be among the 10 best he’s ever made had it been in a game, a one-hander way outside his body while keeping his feet inbounds.
The one name on the roster I’d forgotten about. Dri Archer, wideout/running back. Maybe Steeler Nation will forget about him, too, if he doesn’t start making some plays. At 5-8 and 173, Archer needs to be the kind of shake-and-bake player who makes defenders miss on multiple plays a game. He hasn’t been, and looked totally pedestrian in this practice.
Gut feeling about this team as I left town. So hard to know anything on a team’s second practice of camp, and an unpadded one at that. But I think about the Steelers today what I thought of them all offseason: They’re going to score more than enough—they’ll be a top-five offense in the league, for sure—and the big question is whether they can be much better against the run (they allowed an ugly 4.4 yards per rush last year, very un-Steeler-like)—and adapt quickly to what Butler’s teaching. To challenge Baltimore and Cincinnati late into December, Butler is the vital guy.
Monday, July 27, 2015
Saint Vincent College | Latrobe, Pa. 6 p.m.
Sights seen at Steelers camp today:
1. Two Benedictine monks in full robes walking around the campus of St. Vincent College, which is home to the largest abbey of Benedictine monks in the United States. Long brown robes, mind you, on a 90-degree day.
2. James Harrison, inexplicably, dressed in heavy gray sweats and heavy gray hoodie. Midway through the afternoon practice, he had sweated through everything.
3. A sparse crowd in the bleachers at pristine Chuck Noll Field. Looks like the big crowd came Sunday, for the commemoration of the Steelers' 50th summer holding camp at St. Vincent. They even had a National Anthem.
4. Ben Roethlisberger signing autographs, unprompted, for 17 minutes after afternoon practice. He was one of seven Steelers still out signing more than a half hour after the practice ended. And Jerome Bettis was at camp earlier in the day, signing for everyone in sight.
5. Mike Tomlin coaching like this was a playoff game. The man does get after it.
6. Two Gaelic Football players from Dublin, in Pennsylvania to play a series of games over four months, watching from the end zone, 10 feet from offensive line drills run by Mike Munchak. The guys, 21, couldn't believe the size of the linemen, and thought it was heartbreaking when I told them that 25 or 30 of the players on this field wouldn't be playing football this year, and would have to find jobs doing something else. "What will they do?" one asked. My answer: "What everyone else who doesn't play football does, I guess."
One thing I think watching this scene, as well as the one from Minnesota a day earlier: Teams miss so much when they stay in their home-facility cocoons, which more and more teams are doing now. The Jets, no long in upstate New York. The Giants, no longer in Albany. The Eagles, no longer in Bethlehem, Pa. The Ravens, no longer in Westminster, Md. I could go on and on. Teams need to be touching their fans more than they are, and training camp is the best chance to do that.
Welcome to our Training Camp blog
By late August, The MMQB will have taken you to every camp in the NFL. But not only to camps—we’ll take in ballgames and meet fans and experience lots of Americana along the road as we visit places we hope to bring to life for you. Please talk to us along the way … we’ll have plenty of chances to interact with you. Send your comments about the blog or about your team to us at email@example.com. And check back two, three, four, nine times a day for our offerings on all things training camp.
Sunday, July 26, 2015
Minnesota State University-Mankato | Mankato, Minn. 7 p.m.
Minnesota Vikings Training Camp Report
What I Saw: Afternoon practice, Sunday, July 26. Sunny, 85 degrees, very humid.
Three things you need to know about the Vikings:
1. Adrian Peterson doesn’t look or sound like a bitter man. Maybe it’s his faith, or maybe it’s his ability to accept what he cannot change, or maybe he’s simply a happy man. Whatever, Peterson looked like his old self on the practice field, and I wrote about his state of mind for The MMQB in my Monday column after he missed 15 games last year stemming from charges of child abuse from whipping his 4-year-old son. One thing that didn’t make the column cut: I asked him if he had regrets about life in the last year. “I don’t get that year back, and there is a lot I could have accomplished in that year,” he said as a hot sun beat down on him between morning and afternoon sessions. “But then again, it was one less year of the wear and tear on the body. In that sense it was awesome. But not being able to get that year back, it hurts a little bit.”
2. Mike Zimmer’s defense will find the pass-rusher it needs, but how about the safety? Zimmer thinks Anthony Barr is ready to be an impact player on his defense, and he’ll need to be. Everson Griffin needs help rushing the passer. But there’s a fight on for the safety opposite Harrison Smith, and no one’s in the lead.
3. Teddy Bridgewater looks and acts older that he did in his rookie year. He looks more ready to take an NFL season’s pounding. Bridgewater’s not afraid of picking up the reins of the offense, even with Adrian Peterson and some old salts on the offensive line. “The one thing about Teddy,” offensive coordinator Norv Turner said, “is it’s not too big for him.” Zimmer: “Teddy’s really cerebral.”
What will determine success or failure for the Vikings: I say it's the protection for Bridgewater. The offensive line was shaky and in transition last year. Tackle Matt Kalil must rebound, and rookie T.J. Clemmings from Pitt likely needs to win one of the starting guard jobs for the group to shine. “We’ve got strong weapons on offense,” said Mike Zimmer, “but we’ve got to protect Teddy.”
Player I saw and really liked: MyCole Pruitt, rookie tight end, Southern Illinois. Because the Vikings have a good but injury-prone tight end, Kyle Rudolph, fifth-round pick Pruitt could become a vital player. Norv Turner loves his catching radius, and when I watched practice, I saw a 258-pound NFL body with quickness to make linebackers miss.
Five dot-dot-dot observations about the Vikings: Zimmer told me he wouldn’t go away from Blair Walsh as his post-touchdown alternative (going for one instead of two) with the movement of the PAT from the two-yard line to the 15 this year. “At least not till the weather gets really bad,” he said … Good to see Kirby Wilson, the former Steelers running backs coach burned in a house fire in 2012, coaching the running backs hard on Sunday. He’s in his second year in Minnesota after seven years on the Steelers’ staff, interrupted by getting severely burned at home before a 2011 season playoff game … Wideout Mike Wallace, coming off his embarrassing end at Miami, is doing and saying all the right things here. But proving time for him doesn’t come in July in camp. It’ll come in a pressure game in December … I really like the depth at cornerback. Trae Waynes, the first-round pick, looks the part of an early-season impact player … Something I have never seen before: Wideout Cordarrelle Patterson on a Segway riding around camp—with only the foot portion of the vehicle. No handlebars. It’s controlled simply by the feet and one’s balance.
The one name on the roster I’d forgotten about. Brandon Bostick, tight end. Remember the guy who missed the catchable onside kick for Green Bay in the NFC title game, helping the Seahawks come all the way back to win late last January? The Vikings signed him, and he’s here, trying to break into a crowded tight end depth chart.
The thing I’ll remember about Mankato. Jake’s Stadium Pizza, just down the street from Vikings camp in a little strip mall. Impossible to be thin in this town once you’ve discovered this cheesy magic.
Saturday, July 25, 2015
Target Field | Minneapolis, Minn. 7 p.m.
Walleye is good, even if it’s not on a stick
Two things I do not recall from my one previous trip to this nirvana of a baseball field:
1. A sellout.
2. The pork chop is on a stick but the fish is not.
A sellout—yes, there was not a ticket to be had, not even standing room, when my faithful video man, John DePetro (Yankees fan), and I (decidedly not a Yankees fan) walked up to the ticket window 45 minutes before the Yankees and Twins met on a beautiful night for baseball in downtown Minneapolis. “Not even standing room?” I asked the lady behind the ticket window. “Nope,” she said. So we entrepreneured it, scalping a couple in the lower bowl from the first scalper we saw.
Beer selection—dizzying. I started with a Grain Belt, my go-to everyday Minnesota beer, and graduated to Farm Girl Saison. When we got hungry, we walked out to the outfield for what I remember from my first trip: the walleye. Am I wrong in thinking it was on a stick a couple of years ago? Thought it was. Either way, the two pieces of breaded white fish, which came in what looked like a big piece of fried chicken, came with fries for $10.50. A bargain! Even breaded, it’s not too filling, and a wonderful flaky fish. John and I stood in the outfield, overlooking Torii Hunter in right.
We didn’t stay till the end. But the Yankees got four in the ninth to win, and DePetro had a little pep in his step back at the hotel.
Well, at least the fish was good.