The NFL preseason games are finally complete, and teams are cutting players left and right to hit that 53-man roster. But before putting the preseason completely in the rearview mirror, we give SI's writers a chance to clear out their notebooks from their training camp travels and give observations that were still lingering on the pages or any nuggets of wisdom they deemed worth sharing a few days out from the 2015 NFL kickoff game.
SPARTANBURG, S.C.—It's Aug. 5, and a midmorning cloud cover is keeping the temps, mercifully, under 90. I’m here at Panthers camp to talk to WR Kelvin Benjamin, who drops one slant but is otherwise dominant—for naught. Two weeks in, an ACL tear will end his season. Three times I see a tall wideout elevating to pluck a jump ball from Carolina’s corners—but it’s not Benjamin. I’m seeing Devin Funchess, the 6’5”, 235-pound rookie out of Michigan, who’s going to inherit a lot of the targets that would’ve gone to KB. Can you say “silver lining”? —Austin Murphy
BOURBONNAIS, Ill.—Admittedly, Chicago's offense stumbled through some rough moments in camp. QB Jay Cutler talked about making steady progress, while offensive coordinator Adam Gase preached patience. The tricky transition to Gase's scheme, though, was even more noticeable when backup QBs Jimmy Clausen and David Fales were on the field—a reminder why teams are so often lost when they must turn away from their starter. If Cutler was struggling with the majority of reps and the first-team offense, just imagine the challenge before Clausen and Fales in limited time working with backups and UDFAs. —Chris Burke
ALLEN PARK, Mich.—It was a footnote on the 2015 first-round pick swap by Detroit and Denver, but the Lions remain thrilled that they acquired OL Manny Ramirez in that deal. Cut by Detroit back in 2010 before landing in Denver, Ramirez is now the most veteran member of the offensive line. And both GM Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Caldwell already were praising his versatility before Larry Warford's preseason injury. Ramirez likely will start even if Warford is healthy, but the coaching staff is leaving open the option of using him ... well, anywhere. With a new starter at center (Travis Swanson) and questions about RT LaAdrian Waddle's health, Ramirez may see work at several spots before all is said and done. —CB
ANDERSON, Ind.—I’m a sucker for a feel-good story involving any long-time veteran chasing that elusive first Super Bowl ring, and that’s why I’ll be closely watching the Andre Johnson and Frank Gore sagas in Indianapolis this year. The former University of Miami teammates have 22 years combined of NFL experience, with just five playoff trips between them. Gore did get agonizingly close to winning a ring with the 2012 49ers, but Johnson has never played with a team that advanced beyond the divisional round.
In the early stages of the offseason, I wondered if the Colts were right to load up on veterans past the age of 30 in a now-or-never push for the Super Bowl, but now I think they landed the exceptions to the rule in Johnson and Gore. These guys want some hardware, and they want it badly.
“At the end of the day, it’s about legacy,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano told me. “They’re not here because of the cash. They’re here because from afar they saw an organization that’s won for a long time, has a great quarterback and a lot of great players and has taken a step every year in the playoffs. It’s about having the vision and goal of hoisting that Lombardi [trophy]. They’re self-less guys, great teammates and great pros, and they’ve bought into the culture. I love this team. We drafted to win. We’re training to win. We’re all in to win, period.” —Don Banks
JACKSONVILLE, Fla.—“Marquis Lee was held out of practice today because his GPS was too high,” coach Gus 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.” —Emily Kaplan
Kansas City Chiefs
ST. JOSEPH, Mo.—It still seems almost unfathomable to me, but Alex Smith has already opened the second decade of his NFL career. I was there that day in New York City’s Javits Center at the 2005 NFL Draft, when a very fresh-faced Smith went first overall to San Francisco, but that might have been his one and only chance to smile in his first six seasons as a 49ers. Smith went a dismal 19-31 as a starting quarterback from 2005-10, and the parade of head coaches and coordinators he played under in San Francisco never ended until Jim Harbaugh got to town in 2011.
What a long, strange trip it has been for Smith, who’s still only 31, and maybe playing the best ball of his career as he enters his third season in Kansas City. Since 2011-on, Smith is 38-16-1 as a starter, and his resiliency is remarkable after the beatdown he endured with the 49ers.
“Looking back at that day, in 2005, I was a kid,” Smith told me at Chiefs camp. “It’s crazy to think that I’m in my 11th year, but I’m still only 31 and I feel like I have a lot of football left. There’s so much that has happened since 2005, but it’s about learning and making sure you give yourself the chance when the right situation presents itself. It’s about hanging in there and surviving.”
Smith has survived and thrived, and his perseverance is to be commended. He didn’t turn into another David Carr despite early career adversity. I won’t be surprised if the best days of Smith’s career are indeed still ahead. —DB
ST. JOSEPH, Mo.—When we visited in camp, Andy Reid didn’t seem to want to brag about his Chiefs being the only team last season to beat both New England and Seattle, the two Super Bowl teams from 2014. Then I realized why. Kansas City was also the only team to lose to both Tennessee and Oakland, which went a combined 5-27 a year go. Win either one of those games and the Chiefs would have been back in the playoffs for the second year in a row under Reid. As is, they went 9-7 and missed the postseason.
“You’ve got to learn in this league how to come off a big win, how to handle it,” said Reid, whose Chiefs won at home against Seattle in Week 11, then lost at Oakland four days later on a Thursday night. “That’s what we take out of that Raiders game. If you want to be one of the big boys, you’ve got to beat the big boys, and you’ve got to come back and sustain it after you do. But it did tell us what we’re capable of.”
I’m not picking the Chiefs to get back to the playoffs this season, but if they do figure out their consistency issues, they will be a very tough out in the AFC West. —DB
New York Giants
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.—Throughout the offseason, Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo had been working hard to impress team history upon his unheralded unit. He would splice together video clips of old Giants defenses and before practice the team would watch, say, Michael Strahan getting after the quarterback or Lawrence Taylor chasing down a ball-carrier. LB Carl Banks came in to talk to the unit, stressing that they are a franchise known for having a feared defense above all else. With much less star-power to work with than he had in his first stint as New York’s coordinator, it seemed Spags was hoping Giants pride could galvanize his group. —Ben Baskin
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.—“Hongry” is how Giants wideout James Jones pronounces the word “hungry,” which the salty veteran, signed seven days earlier, keeps using—four times, by my count—to describe Odell Beckham Jr.
“As soon as I walked in that room, Odell started in with all type of questions: ‘What can I do different on this route? How can I do this better?’ He’ll ask me before practice for a quote to pump him up. People don’t understand how much this game means to him. He’s a humble, talented kid who is HONGRY to be great.” —AM
New York Jets
FLORHAM PARK, N.J.—The Jets have certainly endured one of the newsiest preseasons in the league, but rookie coach Todd Bowles continues to show he won’t be thrown off his game by distractions such as the ones Sheldon Richardson and IK Enemkpali/Geno Smith created this summer. And his players have both noticed and appreciated Bowles’ sense of calm, which is exactly what this talented but underachieving Jets team needed after the always eventful six-year Rex Ryan coaching era.
“He doesn’t have to raise his voice to us,” Jets defensive end Jason Babin said. “He’s one of those guys without yelling at you who can say, ‘Hey, if you screw up, you screw up and there’s consequences.’ There’s no reason to yell or be a dictator. I played for Todd when he was the interim defensive coordinator in Philadelphia (in 2012), and he’s got more layers than you think. He just gives you the stoic demeanor and face, but even when that ship was sinking in Philly, he never lost it. When he’s up there speaking, you understand what he’s saying, because it’s clear, it’s concise and direct. There’s no fluff with it. That’s all you can ask for from a coach.”
I’m convinced New York hired the right guy to lead the Jets this season. But I’m skeptical we’ll see Bowles’ style rewarded with early results, given his team plays at Indianapolis, home against talent-laden Philadelphia, at Miami in London, and at New England—all in the first six games of his rookie season. If New York can somehow scrape out a 3-3 start in that challenging span, the Jets may indeed make more noise this year than many of us are expecting. —DB
FLORHAM PARK, N.J.—Eric Decker doesn’t have to shoulder the weight of being the No. 1 wide receiver anymore now that the Jets acquired Brandon Marshall. In fact, Decker won’t be weighed down by any title. The 28-year-old is adopting a much more flexible role in New York’s offense. In the practice I saw in mid-August, Decker was taking snaps in the slot and ran a reverse. He hopes to do a little bit of everything, but add a lot of production. —EK
PHILADELPHIA, Penn.—Long after practice had ended—and their teammates had retreated to the locker room or ambled to the podium—there were WR Jordan Matthews and TE Zach Ertz still going through drills together, at full speed, in 90-plus degree heat. While neither man would admit to favoring one quarterback over the others (the team had been calling it an “open competition”), both said Sam Bradford’s throwing accuracy had stood out. In Chip Kelly’s quick-read, up-tempo offense, a quarterback who can pinpoint passes is crucial—and it was evident the prospect of finally having one had the two pass-catchers salivating for the season to start. —BB
LATROBE, Penn.—Having shadowed Antonio Brown two days in May, watching him run and lift and attend his daughter’s track meet, it was cool and interesting to see the fruits of his Spartan work habits on the first day of Steelers camp, at sleepy St. Vincent’s College. Fellow wideouts Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant (since suspended) and rookie Sammie Coates all looked sharp in drills. That said, they appeared to be running through water next to Brown, whose jaw dropping burst out of cuts, and diamond-cutter’s precision on his routes, made them look like the jayvee. —AM
Two-game league suspension to start the season or not, Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell is poised for an even bigger and better year than he had in 2014 -- hard as that is to imagine. And I know this much, Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert are not afraid to keep setting the bar higher for the third-year veteran.
“There’s no question [he can do more],” said Tomlin of Bell, who had a combined 2,215 yards of rushing and receiving last season, with 11 touchdowns. “He’s a guy who has matured physically and mentally in his approach to what he does. He’s as highly conditioned as anybody on the field, and he’s detailed technically. He’s really at a young age learned what it means to be a professional.”
And here’s the worst news for the rest of the AFC North: Bell “may have talents we don’t know about yet,” Colbert said. “We’ll always be looking for new ways utilize him. It’s not like he’s 30. He still should be ascending. We know that he should be able to do this again.” —DB
St. Louis Rams
The quarterback move that took everyone by surprise this offseason was the Sam Bradford for Nick Foles blockbuster executed by Philadelphia and St. Louis. If Bradford stays healthy and wins big for the Eagles, Chip Kelly will look like a genius. But you can’t blame Rams coach Jeff Fisher for underlining the big IF in that premise. St. Louis started its backup quarterback in 25 of its 32 games in 2013-14, because of Bradford’s two season-ending ACL injuries.
“As I have said publicly, I took this job because of our owner [Stan Kroenke] and because of Sam,’’ Fisher said. “But I have not had Sam. And I’m a Sam Bradford fan. But I could not wake up in the morning any more wondering whether or not Sam was going to be healthy or not. I hoping Sam has a great year, but Nick is a great fit for the offense, and the great part about Nick, if he throws an interception, he’s on to the next play. It doesn’t rock his world. He knows the game’s 60 minutes long.”
That’s good advice, so let’s not slide this trade into the win column just yet for the Eagles, based on Bradford’s torrid preseason work. Foles has proven he can take a punch or two, and he is the one with the playoff start on his resume. —DB
San Francisco 49ers
SANTA CLARA, Calif.—Standing in a gleaming corridor in Levi’s stadium, I’ve just finished interviewing d-linemen Ian Williams and Tony Jerod-Eddy when Jim Tomsula bops by. Stopping for a hello and a handshake, the first-year head coach says, with a wide grin, “Are they a couple great guys, or what?” It’s not a question. Despite mass defections and offseason tumult—this is 11 days after Aldon Smith’s release, eight days before Ahmad Brooks is placed on indefinite leave—the vibe in this camp is surprisingly upbeat. —AM
RICHMOND, Va.—I cringed revisiting my notebook from Richmond, where on July 31 I took in an early practice at Washington’s camp: Jay Gruden wants RG3 to stop winning games with his legs, and start winning games with his arm and his head. Think with Bill Callahan-coached offensive line he will be given opportunities in pocket. Won’t be great, but he’s on the right track. No more drama. What does my now-irrelevant scouting report prove? In Washington, the only thing you can count on is instability. —EK