- We’re checking in on every team in the league at training camp as the run-up to the 2016 season continues, jotting down, notes, quotes and can’t miss stories as the drive to Super Bowl LI begins.
All 32 NFL training camps are open, and the league is brimming with optimism as kickoff on the 2016 season approaches. From old faces in new places to position battles that threaten to bring contenders to their knees to the looming injury risk hanging over every rep of every practice, there is no shortage of drama surrounding the preseason. Who is in position to knock the Broncos from their perch as Super Bowl champions? How quickly will this year’s most hotly anticipated rookies adjust to the speed of the pro game? Are some coaches’ seats already heating up in August?
This month, SI’s writers are dropping by training camps around the country, talking with notable franchise figures and emptying their notebooks as part of our 2016 preseason coverage. Below, read up on the teams we have visited so far.
HOUSTON — Let’s just skip the pleasantries and get down to what everyone wants to know about the Texans in training camp (besides the status of J.J. Watt’s back): How is the $72 million man, quarterback Brock Osweiler, progressing?
They are only four days into camp and haven’t played a game yet, but after watching Wednesday’s (thankfully) indoor practice and talking to various people around the facility, the Texans are thrilled where Osweiler is at.
“We reached out to a lot of different guys and we spoke to a lot of guys that worked with Brock; everybody spoke highly of him,” coach Bill O’ Brien said of the decision to sign Osweiler away from the Broncos. “Now that we’ve had him here in person since whenever, May, the guy is really smart, he wants information, he’s here all the time. He really operates the offense. That’s one thing for [offensive coordinator George Godsey] and I that we’ve been very pleasantly surprised with. Sometimes it takes a while to operate our offense. That’s one thing that he’s done well. He’s put a lot of time into it. He’s been really good. Now look, we all know that he’s got to go out there and play well, that’s the bottom line, but to this point, he’s been really good.”
If you’ve read my previous stories diving into the Patriots’ complex offense and how the Texans gameplan for an opponent, you know that Houston runs a very complicated scheme that has several layers. It often takes a year or two for quarterbacks to get a good grasp of the system. But thanks to Osweiler’s smarts and the small taste of the New England/Houston offense that he received in Denver (where former coordinator Adam Gase retained some of Josh McDaniels’s system after McDaniels was fired as head coach), Osweiler is way ahead of the curve. To illustrate, the Texans used a play call on Wednesday that was 14 words long. Osweiler had no trouble taking in the information, dispensing it and then executing it. It may seem basic, but it means a lot in this system.
“The offense is as complicated and as in-depth as much as the quarterback can handle,” Godsey said. “He’s been able to handle a lot of information. As far as the knowledge of the system, he’s put a lot of time in. The operation, the communication from quarterbacks to receivers or linemen to changing plays with the whole unit, he’s done an excellent job of that. Now we’re only in a couple days into pads and the running game is becoming a little bit more prevalent, so it’s mixing run and pass and how we’re going to play the game. As far as being able to soak in the information and spit it back out and execute it, he’s been able to accomplish that here. It’s not easy and he’s done it in a quick amount of time if you just think from last free agency period. We’ve had quite a few [quarterbacks] here and he’s done a great job. Excellent.”
O’Brien and Godsey aren’t just saying that because they’re stuck with Osweiler. Not once during practice did I see a play be reset because someone was lined up wrong. The ball did not hit the ground very often, and the running game seemed to have some pop. It did not look like an offense with a new quarterback, running back (Lamar Miller), center (Nick Martin), right guard (Jeff Allen) and two rookie receivers (Will Fuller and Braxton Miller) running a lot of routes. That says a lot about the quarterback because in this system everything flows through him.
Not everything is perfect. Osweiler still has the same three-quarters delivery which, if his footwork isn’t right, causes his deep passes to lose steam quickly. And he’s still finding a rhythm with Pro Bowl receiver DeAndre Hopkins: On one out route in the end zone, Hopkins and Osweiler weren’t close and Hopkins slumped his shoulders in frustration. There will be growing pains.
“We’re definitely on the verge of getting there, it’s early in camp,” Hopkins said. “He’s come from a winning team, under a winning quarterback. He knows everything to do on and off the field for his team to succeed and that’s what he’s doing out here. Just from that leadership role, he knows how to win and where he wants guys to be. I’m also staying on him as well, holding him accountable like that ball in the end zone. ‘Give me a chance, throw it up. I know what you might have saw but I want you to know just throw it up.’ We’re staying on each other to get where we want to be.”
More training camp observations
• Watt continues to make steady progress from off-season surgery to deal with a herniated disc. There is a possibility that he could miss the first two games of the season if the Texans go the conservative route.
• The Texans are quietly raving about rookies Fuller (a first-round pick) and Miller (third round) because both have acclimated well in the system. Fuller has shown the speed that he was known for at Notre Dame, but he’s catching the ball much more consistently. Miller does not look like a former college quarterback; he’s a natural at receiver.
• All three of the Texans’ undrafted receivers (Wendell Williams, Tevin Jones, Quenton Bundrage) are competitive and have shown skills worth developing. Williams is one to keep an eye on in the preseason games.
• Tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz looks to be the full-time tight end because of his blocking ability, but he’s still nothing special in the passing game.
• What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time, the Texans weren’t sure when Jadeveon Clowney would get back on the field after knee surgery. This year, not only is he on the field, he’s participating in full-contact special teams drills.
• Not sure what the Texans will do for numbers at the running back position, considering they like having a fullback. Lamar Miller, Alfred Blue and Akeem Dent would be a good threesome for most teams, and then you have the capable Jonathan Grimes and rookie fourth-round pick Tyler Ervin. Ervin couldn’t practice in the spring, and it shows. He appears hesitant and has to think too much. That doesn’t allow him to show off his speed.
• The defense is intact from last season, and all the competition is in depth spots (Hard Knocks star Charles James is still doing his thing). It’s a really good unit that seems to be getting a bit more aggressive in pressures and coverages.
• Vince Wilfork may have been a little heavy last season, but he aced his conditioning test this year. Must have all that work he put in for ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue.
• Veteran Nick Novak and undrafted rookie Ka’imi Fairbairn are competing for the kicking spot.
• Rookie center Nick Martin looks like a Day One starter already. Free-agent pickup Jeff Allen stood out at guard in offensive line work, as did tackles Chris Clark, Jeff Adams and Kendall Lamm.
Five questions with running back Lamar Miller
Q1: After four seasons with the Dolphins, you’re with a new team. What has stood out so far?
LM: Since Day One, the team and organization has welcomed me with open arms. There’s a great bond within this team. That’s always a positive.
Q2: Do you still scratch your head about your tenure in Miami, where they never let you be the guy and then didn’t try to re-sign you?
LM: Not really, I don’t really think about it too much. I’m here and I’m looking forward to what’s ahead. I never questioned why they didn’t use me as much or why they didn’t try hard enough to keep me, but I’m just looking forward to what’s ahead and making plays and helping this team win.
Q3: You went against the Patriots for years, and now you’re in the Patriots’ offensive system brought in by Bill O’Brien and offensive coordinator George Godsey. Can you see why New England has the success it has had?
LM: Godsey and OB, I think they do a great job of putting their guys in the right situations to make plays. That’s one thing that the Patriots did: putting guys in the right spot to be successful. I think they do a great job at just whatever your skill set is, they try to put yourself in a situation where you can perform at a high level and make plays.
Q4: What have you thought of Brock Osweiler so far?
LM: I think he’s done a great job. He’s the leader of the offense, he’s been taking full control of the huddle, making sure everybody is doing what they’re supposed to do.
Q5: Anything you’ve seen so far that makes you think, ‘That’s something we were missing in Miami’?
LM: We have a whole bunch of competitive people on this team, they compete on anything. That’s the thing that stood out to me the most when I first got here, how competitive the team is.
Biggest Turnaround: Offensive speed
Everything the Texans did this off-season, especially in the draft, was designed to improve team speed and make things easier for Hopkins. With Fuller and Miller, Houston has exceeded expectations. Ervin has a ways to go.
Buzzing: Undrafted TE Stephen Anderson
With all the young talent at receiver and among the running backs, the only offensive position lacking in pizzazz is tight end, which is ironic considering all the talent Bill O’Brien had at his disposal in New England. The Texans got next to nothing from the position last season, when only average production would have been a boon to the team. Anderson has flashed early, and the 6' 3", 220-pounder out of Cal will get every opportunity in the preseason to show he can bring something to the table.
CINCINNATI — After a fifth-straight Wild Card round exit last January, former Bengals MVP Boomer Esiason implied that it might be time for Marvin Lewis to move on. ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith was more straightforward, because of course he was, saying, “Marvin Lewis should be gone today” after Lewis’s team collapsed in the final minute against the Steelers. And yet, here we are, seven months later, with the NFL’s second longest tenured coach still on his Orange and Black throne.
The word of the day on the TVs inside the Bengals locker room Tuesday summed up Lewis’s plan for getting Cincy its first playoff win since 1990: relentless. RE-LENT-LESS. Meaning persistent or unceasing. The 2016 training camp T-shirts around here echoed a similar message: “Pound the Rock.” A cousin of the Panthers’ “Keep Pounding” motto (and a closer relative of the San Antonio Spurs’ “Pounding the Rock”), it comes from Progressive Era reporter Jacob Riis’s quote about a stonecutter splitting a rock only after 101 tries. Lewis, who is currently 0–7 in the postseason, obviously hopes success comes a little sooner than that, but you get the idea. After pushing his franchise to the cusp of greatness, Lewis’s strategy to reach the promised land is as simple as “stay the course.”
“That’s the Bengal Formula,” safety George Iloka said when he returned to the facility for training camp. “Every off-season, you’re going to have pretty much the same amount of guys and maybe bring in a new wrinkle here or there. But since I’ve been here, we don’t change up a lot. They don’t overhaul. Which is good.” Iloka will be joined by a rare new face in the Bengals starting lineup, Shawn Williams, who signed a four-year extension this off-season and got a promotion to replace Reggie Nelson, who left as a free agent.
The other area that was ripe for change was along the sideline. But after another off-season of other teams raiding Lewis’s assistants, he filled the resulting vacancies with men well versed in the Bengal Formula. With Hue Jackson now leading the division rival Browns, Lewis promoted quarterback coach Ken Zampese, who is keeping the bulk of Jackson’s system. “[Fans] won’t notice anything different,” Zampese told Bengals.com. “We’ll do the same things that got us to this point.”
On defense, Lewis rehired former Dolphins coordinator Kevin Coyle as DB coach, where he had served the Bengals for nine season prior to joining Miami. This is defensive line coach Jacob Burney’s first time in the Queen City, but he was schooled in Lewis’s philosophy while working under him in Baltimore. While Burney has put an emphasis on developing a rotation of defensive rushers, he is by no means trying to reinvent the wheel drill. And then there’s Jim Haslett, brought in to lead the team’s linebacker unit. This is his first time working with Lewis, but Haslett said he’s appreciated Lewis’s philosophy from the outside, and the two have known each other for years.
As for the loss that sparked the winter speculation about Lewis’s grip on the team, it is a thing of the past in the coach’s eyes. If you squint, you can see its impact, like when five-year vet Chykie Brown celebrated a pass breakup. “That’s expected,” Lewis barked. “We don’t need a demonstration.” But the game is never mentioned directly. “We’re just answering questions about the future,” Iloka said. Of course, the answer to most of those questions is some variation of “we’ll see” or “it’s still early.” This is a team that knows better than to make proclamations. New motto aside, these are the same Bengals that you’ve come to know, working towards that same elusive goal.
“We have a good formula here,” defensive end Michael Johnson says. “I’m just looking forward to being part of the group that really breaks through because I feel everybody knows that we are one swing of the hammer away from cracking that rock open, so we are going to just keep chiseling away at it. We are right there.”
Other training camp observations
• Bengals first-round pick William Jackson III could be done for the year after reportedly tearing his pectoral muscle Tuesday. The No. 24 pick did not appear to be a critical piece of Cincinnati’s 2016 corner rotation, but the injury will complicate decisions during the upcoming off-season when No. 2 corner Dre Kirkpatrick becomes a free agent. In other injury news, backup tight end Tyler Kroft left early Wednesday with what was reported to be a hyperextended knee.
• The aforementioned Haslett has quickly earned the respect of the linebacker room this off-season. Vincent Rey has dropped 20 pounds after committing to a Caveman Diet on the coach’s request, and all of the ’backers respond “Yes, sir” to him in practice. “He’s been able to reach that room right away and they’ve made a real connection with them,” Lewis said. “I’ve been excited about and frankly really pleased with how they responded to him.”
How’d he do it? By emphasizing his playing career (Haslett was the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1979) and by taking his guys out on the town, something he says he picked up while consulting at Penn State. “We went to a steakhouse, we went bowling [Marquis Flowers won], just us as linebackers and him as our coach,” Rey says. “We went to LA Fitness and we did a cycling class for 45 minutes. ... Doing stuff off the field as a group socially, it strengthens the bond you have together.”
• Speaking of LBs, Vontaze Burfict, who is currently on the non-football injury list and suspended for the first three games of the season, has been serving as a de facto assistant for Haslett thus far in camp, educating younger players and celebrating big plays during team drills. Haslett even said that Burfict wants to be a full-time coach one day. In the shorter term, expect Burfict to return to practice soon.
• An inspiring story: receiver James Wright was cleared for practice Monday after 609 days of rehab. A close friend of Jeremy Hill’s going back to their LSU days, Wright initially hurt his knee in November of 2014, his rookie year. Cincinnati.com has the full story of his return.
Five questions with head coach Marvin Lewis
Q1: What changes might we see with Ken Zampese in as OC?
ML: The offense is a Cincinnati Bengals offense. We’ll continue to move forward with that and we are excited to have Kenny be in charge and go from there and kind of put his stamp on it now.
Q2: What was the decision behind bringing in an experienced coach in Jim Haslett?
ML: His level of coaching expertise, his degree of knowledge on the little things and the fine points and the things that he adds as a coach, he’s just an excellent football coach and he’s very detailed.
Q3: How do you prevent good from becoming the enemy of great here in Cincinnati?
ML: The one thing about it, these guys are not satisfied with good. I think that’s the key for us as a football team: our guys’ internal drive, how they approach walking into the building every day and everything they do.
Q4: Takeo Spikes has been around the building representing NFL Network. What memories has that brought back?
ML: We allowed Takeo to move on when I came here. That’s one of the worst mistakes I ever made, that I didn’t fight to keep him in the building. He was an awesome player here and obviously had a great career after he left here. It’s always good to see him. He’s always welcome around here.
Q5: What was the key to Adam Jones having his first Pro Bowl season at age 32?
ML: He’s had an opportunity to be mentored and learn from a lot of good pros, good players, good people, and you’ve seen Adam just be a sponge to all of that. No question last year was his best year in the league as a cornerback. I think he’s just continued to work very hard, continued to accept the coaching and develop on the field with the physical part and the mental part.
Biggest Turnaround: Mental discipline
There weren’t many holes for the Bengals to plug in the off-season, except for that glaring one that exposed itself when Burfict and Jones earned last-minute penalties that set the Steelers up for a game-winning field goal.
Rather than changing the personnel to solve that issue, Lewis is attempting to change the personnel, starting with one message at the beginning of off-season activities.
“Nothing’s changed … but the one thing they added was we just have got to be a little smarter in terms of extracurricular activities on the field,” Iloka says. “Smart in terms of penalties. He said it once. We ain’t kids, you ain’t gotta whoop us or make us run or anything. You say what you want and it’s supposed to get done as a professional and it will.”
Buzzing: Cedric Ogbuehi
After fully recovering from a torn ACL and sitting behind Andre Smith as a rookie, all eyes are now on the 21st pick of the 2015 draft to be the right tackle of the future. So far, he’s proven capable of carrying that responsibility. Ogbuehi appeared to easily handle all comers during one-on-one drills Monday and Tuesday, and he’s already earned high praise from line coach Paul Alexander, according to former Bengals great Willie Anderson, who has been helping Alexander.
“I could tell you what Paul told me, but it would put too much pressure on the kid,” Anderson told Bengals.com. “I just know Paul really loves the kid. And when Paul loves a tackle like that, that guy turns into the guy. It happened with me. It happened with Levi [Jones]. It happened with Andrew [Whitworth]. What I understand is he’s one of the most athletic guys they’ve ever had up there.”
PITTSFORD, N.Y. — A visit to Bills training camp quickly reveals that Buffalo has assembled a pretty formidable nucleus of talent here at St. John Fisher College. But so far, a ton of it is standing on the sidelines this summer, watching the rest of the team begin its on-field preparation for the 2016 regular season.
For various reasons, observing the Bills early in camp this year means not seeing the likes of lead receiver Sammy Watkins (off-season foot surgery), first-round pick Shaq Lawson (shoulder surgery), defensive tackles Marcell Dareus (undisclosed medical issue) and Kyle Williams (knee surgery), running back Karlos Williams (conditioning), offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson (Crohn’s disease) and linebacker Manny Lawson (upper-body injury) partaking in the sweat-fest of practice. All told, there are 10 names on the Bills’ non-participation list, and there are a bevy of Pro Bowl berths represented on it.
So no wonder Buffalo’s camp feels kind of low-key and short on last year’s buzz and anticipation. There’s all that missing star power. Then again, an 8–8 finish last season and the novelty of head coach Rex Ryan’s heralded arrival having worn off is adding to the feeling of blandness so far. Not that anyone here seems to mind the distinct lack of buzz surrounding the Bills. Buffalo is taking an easy-does-it-approach in camp, in part to try and avoid the onslaught of injuries that bedeviled it last season.
“Our whole goal is to get that whole clump (of players) ready for the Sept. 11 opener in Baltimore,” Bills general manager Doug Whaley told me. “A lot of those guys, we already know what type of players they are, so let’s be smart with them. We’ve done it the other way, and last year we had a rash of injuries that bled into the season. So let’s take a different approach this season.”
Ryan has an interesting take on last year’s injury plague. He blames the team’s quarterback competition during last summer’s training camp for helping create the problem. The Bills had Tyrod Taylor, E.J. Manuel and Matt Cassel battling it out for the starting job, and often held offense versus defense team drills in multiple locations in order to maximize the snaps each quarterback received. That led to more injuries, Ryan said, and that’s not a problem the team will face this year with Taylor firmly established as the No. 1.
“We said we were going to give a true competition and we did,” Ryan said. “But how it affected our team, I think it hurt our team going through it. Obviously it wasn’t an ideal situation because we ended up having two-spot drills, and we did all that to increase the opportunity for our quarterbacks in particular to get reps. But at the same time it probably hurt us when we had some injuries, some small tissue injuries that we’re trying to avoid this year. This year we know who our quarterback is. So we’re taking the, Let’s be more patient approach [rather] than just jumping guys back in there.”
More news and notes from Bills camp
• Speaking of Taylor, all signs point to the club striking a long-term deal with its starting quarterback before the regular season opens, rather than making him play out his contract year. Whaley told me that while a deal wasn’t imminent, the indications are all positive that something will get done in the coming months. Bills sources paint the situation as just a matter of time before the two sides agree, and that’s a smart move, because Taylor definitely showed enough production and promise last season to warrant an investment in his future.
“The thing that makes you optimistic is we both want the same thing, to get a deal done that’s great for him and great for us,” Whaley said. “The lines of communication have been open and the frequency (of talks) has picked up. The timetable? No telling, but hopefully before the season starts.
“There’s no doubt about it, (Taylor’s) the unquestioned starter and has been that since the off-season program started. He’s got a great command of the offense, a greater comfortability factor practicing with the guys, and with his presence he’s taken a step in the leadership role as well.”
• It’s early August and Bills receiver Marquise Goodwin is back in Pittsford catching passes, when he dreamed instead of being in Rio de Janeiro competing in the long jump at the Olympics for the United States. But Goodwin, who missed the Bills’ off-season program training for the Olympic track and field trials, didn’t make the cut, finishing seventh, four spots behind the top three qualifiers for the Games. But he’s past the pain of that failure and ready to focus again on his battle to assert himself on Buffalo’s receiving depth chart, with a pivotal contract season looming. His NFL future could well be determined by his showing in 2016.
“I have no bad feelings about not making it, but obviously it was a little disappointing at first,” Goodwin said Tuesday morning, a day after leaving Bills practice with what he termed slight cramps. “You’ve just got to get over it. It’s not the end of the world. It’s not life or death for me. The results showed I finished in seventh place. I know we sent the best three from that day, but that’s just that day. The next day it could have been a different story. I prepared like I needed to and I competed like I needed to. It just didn’t fall in my favor. But mentally I’m at peace.”
And yes, Goodwin will watch as much of the Olympics as training camp schedules allow. “Three of my great friends are down there competing and representing our country,” he said. “I’m in daily contact with them, and I’m pretty sure they’ll make sure I feel like I’m there pretty much. They’ll keep me informed.”
• The Reggie Bush signing certainly makes sense for the Bills, who needed backfield depth in the wake of the four-game league suspension Karlos Williams will serve to open the season. But Buffalo went slowly with Bush, visiting with him Monday here to make sure he still had the strong desire to play, and also making certain to carefully explain Bush’s role to lead running back LeSean McCoy, who has been known to be a bit sensitive about any perceived slights.
Bush isn’t here to take any significant carries away from McCoy, but offensive coordinator Greg Roman is said to be entertaining some sets where both of them could be on the field at the same time, displaying their elusive running styles. But Buffalo’s dismal punt return unit is where Bush will show up first, and he was on the field Tuesday morning during a walkthrough practice fielding some punts.
While Bush returned 98 punts in the NFL from 2006–11 (with four touchdowns), the past four seasons he has added only two punt returns to his total, both coming last year in San Francisco. In other words, it’s been a while, so stay tuned for how much impact he can make on that front.
• I’ll have more from Bills special teams quality control coach Kathryn Smith later this summer, but this is all you really need to know about the first woman to serve as a full-time NFL assistant coach: She gets it. And she’s not in this game to make a statement. She just wants to do her job, and do it well. Case closed.
“I don’t laugh at the question of whether I’m a trailblazer, but I don’t feel that way,” Smith told me Tuesday, standing outside the team cafeteria. “There’s a lot of people, just because they’re men, who are taking the same path I am. They’re starting as interns, they’re starting as quality control coaches, and working their way up that way. I’m not looking at it as I’m doing anything different than at any of the 31 other teams and across sports and across any job really.
“I’m an entry-level coach. I’m trying to do the job, and hopefully there comes a time where it’s not, Oh, because I’m a female, we want to interview her, where the people that have that same position elsewhere aren’t being interviewed. To me, if I can work the way the men do, than there isn’t that difference of just because I’m a female I’m doing interviews, I’m being asked all these questions, when I’m an-entry level coach. I’m quality control. I’m busy. I’ve got a lot of stuff to do to help this football team.”
See what I mean? You go, girl.
• The Bills secondary needs safety Aaron Williams to be the player he has been in the past, and he made it through his first padded practice Monday since undergoing very serious neck surgery last season. But nobody really knows when he’ll be able to fully trust his body again and cut it loose in his typical hard-hitting style. Ryan said he thinks it’ll come when the Bills hold an intra-squad scrimmage on Friday. Whaley said it’s likely to be in the team’s first preseason game next week. Bills safeties coach Ed Reed said he doesn’t see any sign of tentativeness from Williams, but the player himself admits he is being careful about contact thus far.
“It’s just if I can’t do a certain drill, I’ll ask coach, Do I have to do this or not?’’ Williams said. “But for the most part I try to be cautious about contact right now.”
Williams underwent tests on his neck before the surgery, and if the results were different, his football career would have been over. Having stared into that abyss, he’s back now. But we won’t know if he’s all the way back until we see Williams hit, and be hit.
Five questions with assistant secondary coach Ed Reed
Q1: There’s a cliche in sports that says great players don’t make great coaches, because they have a hard time getting players with lesser talent to understand and duplicate the way they played the game. Are you finding any part of that thinking true?
ER: I don’t think that’s the real reason why, but I don’t understand why coaches don’t make it. I don’t think that’s the reason. I really do know why (coaches don’t make it), but I know that’s not the reason. You can’t teach them how to do it the way you’ve done it, you teach them as best you can what they’re supposed to do, and give your advice. I don’t tell them I used to do it like this or I used to do it like that. I tell them the technique that should be played on that play.
Q2: As a future Hall of Famer, what made you want to leave a cushy gig like co-hosting Inside the NFL on Showtime and get back out here and put in the long hours of an assistant coach, coaching Bills safeties?
ER: It’s always intrigued me, coaching. And I didn’t really leave Showtime. I’m still part of the (Inside the NFL) team. If they call me, I told them I’d still be on call, for a guest appearance. They know if they need me [they can call], but I’m not doing the weekly thing (like Jets receiver Brandon Marshall). That’s a little bit different commitment. Should you be able to do that as a player? If your focus is your job?
But I’m under contract technically with those guys, and I mentioned it to the organization and to Rex before I even signed for this job, that I’m still under contract and if they call, coach, that’s something I still aspire to do. And I left it that way with the producers, so they know.
Q3: Rex Ryan was quoted saying you could be an NFL head coach in five years if you want that. Is that something you’re after?
ER: I think it’ll happen a lot sooner than that. I know exactly what it takes, but there’s also a learning process within that. Whenever the offer presents itself, I would welcome the opportunity. It’s something I aspire to, and it’s a goal of mine. But if it don’t come, it don’t come. It’s not something I’m pressing for right now. My focus right now is to be the best assistant defensive backs coach I can be.
But I’ve been around a lot of head coaches. I’ve learned a lot from Brian Billick. I learned a lot from Coach (John) Harbaugh. I learned a lot from Rex. I learned a lot from being around Coach (Gary) Kubiak (in Houston). I’ve been around Curtis Johnson, Chuck Pagano, Mike Smith, Mike Pettine, guys who went from being an assistant to being a head coach. If you check the tree that I come from, I’ve been around a lot of head coaches.
Q4: Sources say you did a mean version of Prince’s “Purple Rain” on one recent karaoke night out with some fellow members of the Bills organization. Would that be Baltimore Ravens purple, or as a tribute to Prince’s Minnesota roots, Vikings purple?
ER: Yeah, man, you know, compliments to the great one. But it’s always Ravens purple, never a Vikings purple.
Q5: Sources also say your 8-year-old son, Edward, is a Patriots fan, which can not make him popular with Bills fans. So how did he feel about the “Free Tom Brady” campaign?
ER: He’s a Pats fans when we’re not playing. And he was cool about Brady. I explained it to him, that there are right and wrong things in life. There are things you can do, things you can’t do. You gotta teach him. I use any situation where you can teach kids, because you gotta use that. It’s about right and wrong, and there are consequences to every action.
Biggest Turnaround: The Bills’ practice to avoid penalties
Buffalo was the most penalized (some would say most undisciplined) team in the league last season, and Ryan wants that sloppiness to end, pronto. So he has instituted a few penalties of his own in camp this season, and they include immediately running a lap around the practice field if you commit a foul of some kind. Even veteran center and team leader Eric Wood had to suck it up and make the galling jog mid-workout Monday morning.
It’s not the most original form of corrective motivation, but, hey, if it works...
“We felt last year we had way too many self-inflicted penalties,” Ryan said. “It’s something we thought was important, to eliminate those type of penalties, the offsides, the pre-snap deals and the false starts, and the late hits. We want to be as physical a football team as we can within the confinement of the rules.”
Why laps? “We’ve done push-ups in the past,” Ryan said. “But I was like, You know what? The greatest motivator for me when I was playing was I hated to do that lap. It’s embarrassing. It was something that gasses you, and by the time you get back in there you’re kind of gassed a little bit. So if we can get better just a little bit in those areas, that will help us.”
Drawing Some Buzz: Stephon Gilmore
One of the few Bills stars who has been in action and making his presence felt so far in camp is fifth-year cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who has picked off a pair of passes in 11-on-11 team drills. Gilmore, the team’s first-round pick in 2012, is playing for a long-term contract this season, and Ryan said he seems determined to take his “game to a higher level.”
And part of that higher level might be Gilmore’s intention to get a higher salary than the five-year, $75 million deal ex-Carolina cornerback Josh Norman signed with Washington this spring.
“He’s been a tremendous player, but I see his game is actually improving,” Ryan said, doing the work of Gilmore’s agent. “It looks to me, he’s been by far and away the most impressive guy out here.”
NAPA, Calif. — Half an hour after practice ended, the Raiders’ p.r. staff sat me down in a shaded corner of the media tent with Sean Smith, arguably the team’s most important free-agent pickup. The highly regarded eight-year veteran gives Oakland a true shutdown cornerback and an incalculable upgrade in a secondary that was the Raiders’ biggest liability last season.
Looking for Smith on the field earlier, I thought there might be a typo in the roster. At certain angles, No. 21 looked like an outside linebacker. Nope. At 6' 3" and 218 pounds, he fits nicely into a Raider tradition of long, physical bump-and-run corners. (There was Hall of Famer Willie Brown, 75, counseling the defensive backs on the field Monday.)
“He has such a wide radius and such long arms, that if he gets his hands on you, he’s got a chance to take you out of the play,” says Oakland defensive backs coach Marcus Robertson. “Because most quarterbacks won’t wait to see if [the smothered receiver] can win. They’ve got that clock in their head.”
Smith was all smiles Monday. He’ll play corner opposite David Amerson, another rangy DB (6' 1", 205) who defibrillated his career last season. Cut by Washington on Sept. 21, the former second-round pick was snatched up by the Raiders, who quickly plugged him in as a starter. Finding consistency and an edge he’d lacked in D.C., Amerson was Oakland’s best corner in 2015. Behind Smith and Amerson will be nine-year veteran Reggie Nelson, coming off an eight-interception season with Bengals that earned him a two-year, $12 million deal in Oakland. He’ll groom Karl Joseph, the safety Oakland took with the No. 14 pick in last spring’s draft. Serious, sober people have already started comparing this kid to Earl Thomas. Oft-injured, disappointing D.J. Hayden is starting at the slot corner position in his make-or-break season. Early reviews are guarded, but generally good.
That’s five new starters in the secondary from Week 1 a year ago. Is the unit cohering?
“To be honest with you, it’s been going great, going back to OTAs,” says Smith, “From the outside looking in, you’d hear things and figure, ‘They must not be that good in the secondary.’ You get here, you meet these guys, and you realize this [secondary] is loaded with talent. It’s just that they were inexperienced. They had to go through their growing pains.”
Smith has taken pleasure in sharing his knowledge, “just teaching ’em some simple things that can make life so much easier.” One level behind him, fellow graybeard Nelson is schooling the safeties, promising undrafted rookie Chris Edwards in particular.
Smith expands on an example of such a tip: “Well, wide receiver splits—where a guy lines up in relation to the numbers. A receiver has a plus-three yard split outside the numbers, he can’t run every route on the route tree. When he’s out that wide, you can erase half the routes. If he’s condensed, now you’re thinking these routes. You don’t have to cover the whole route tree, so stop stressing. Make the game simple! Small things like that.”
Long after the allotted interview time had ended, Smith stayed rooted in his chair, sipping a sports drink. His family is from Pasadena; his brother is passionate Raiders fan, who was “in my ear a lot” during free agency, urging him to join the Silver and Black.
“Can’t beat this weather,” he remarked. The afternoon was sunny but pleasant, a cooling breeze coming off the Mayacamas Mountains, which divide Napa and Sonoma Counties. Smith is genuinely happy to be here, but not as happy as Raiders fans are to see him.
Other training camp observations
• Speaking of Raiders fans, a strong crowd attended Monday’s practice. They saw brief fisticuffs between cornerback Kenneth Durden and wide out Johnny Holton. They saw Khalil Mack put a nice pop on fellow edge rusher Bruce Irvin, the free agent signee from Seattle, in defensive drill. When the equipment guys pulled the narrow uprights onto the field at the end of practice, they saw free agent Giorgio Tavecchio outkick stolid 17-year veteran Sebastian Janikowski.
The Hintons from Livermore, Calif., may have missed a few of the first minutes of practice. They were in the lobby of the Napa Valley Marriott, getting some food into one-year-old Maverick, whose handsome features were slightly obscured by his Raiders ballcap. His father, Isaiah—whose mohawk ruled out a ballcap—explained to me that his son was named after Al Davis: “People would describe Al as an outlaw, and he’d take offense. He’d say, ‘I’m not an outlaw, but I am a maverick.’”
• Raiders owner Mark Davis, with whom I exchanged a friendly hello on the field after practice, may not be the maverick his father was. But he’s more patient than Al was. And that patience is paying off. Very few people would’ve blamed Davis for firing GM Reggie McKenzie after Oakland slid from consecutive 12-loss seasons down to 3–13 in 2014. Davis stayed the course and has been vindicated. McKenzie has enjoyed several strong drafts—quarterback Derek Carr, wide receiver Amari Cooper and Mack may be the most talented young trio on any NFL team—and Davis rewarded him last Friday with a four-year contract extension.
• After practice, a woman conducted a clinic with several daughters of assistant offensive line coach Tim Holt: NHRA driver Leah Pritchett, who had raced her Mopar/Pennzoil Top Fuel dragster over the weekend at the Sonoma Nationals. She was a guest at Raiders practice along with two-time world champion Cruz Pedregon, driver of the Snap-on Tools Toyota Camry Funny Car.
Pritchett, who is from Redlands, Calif., says she had long been partial to the Chargers, “until I got older and started to understand the different cultures of the teams.” At that point, she gravitated toward the Raiders. Their commitment to excellence “was very attractive” to her, as was the team’s “rebellious” reputation.
Pedregon hails from Torrance, Calif. For a while, he had his beloved Raiders in Southern California, although, he says, “I liked ‘em during the Ken Stabler days, the Jim Plunkett days, when they were in Oakland.”
His draw to the club transcends geography. He sees himself as the Raiders of Funny Car racing: “I’m a bit of an outcast, I kinda do things my own way. What I liked about the Raiders in the ’80s was that they had all these misfits. But they were also good players, and when you put ’em together, they won.”
Five questions with Greg Papa
Papa is a fixture in Bay Area media and the superb play-by-play voice of the Raiders. He also has an NFL assistant coach’s grasp of the game. It’s kind of daunting.
Q1: How optimistic should Raiders fans be about the revamped secondary?
GP: They did bring a lot of new pieces into the secondary. Typically when you bring in a lot of new people, it doesn’t always work right away. But I think in this situation what they want is big corners. David Amerson is a big corner. They had him last year and liked him well enough to give him a lengthy deal. Sean Smith we know well. He was a heck of a player when he was young in Miami, tremendous press corner. We learned more about him when he was in Kansas City. His movement skills aren’t quite what they were when he was younger, but he’s smart.
The bottom line in this league is you’ve gotta have size at corner to combat the size of these wide receivers. Randy Moss changed football. And the receivers the Raiders have to shut down in the AFC West are big men. Demaryius Thomas is a big man. Emanuel Sanders, even though he’s fast and in the slot a lot, is a big man. Keenan Allen in San Diego’s a big man. Jeremy Maclin in Kansas City. You’ve gotta have size to combat size.
Q2: D.J. Hayden is not a big man. He’s been installed at slot and had a couple good days of practice. Does this story have a happy ending for him?
GP: I don’t know. You need to find out who he is as a high draft pick. I think initially going into it, you plug him into that slot. I think T.J. Carrie could also do it. I thought he was our best inside corner last year. It’s a different skill set. D.J. struggled a little last year because they asked him to play outside and inside, and his technique was confusing: Was he in or out? So they tried to simplify it, and just keep him out, and move T.J. in. Now [D.J.] is just going to be in. But teams are smart, they’ll motion people, they’ll stack receivers, they’ll bubble it, they’ll bunch it, they’ll make you do other things. So D.J.’s gotta perform now. They did not pick up the fifth year [of his rookie contract], so he’s at a crossroads in his career.
Q3: Reggie McKenzie just got his contract extended. How deserving is he?
GP: He’s had some tremendous drafts. Everyone points to Khalil and Derek, but Gabe Jackson [third-rounder in ’14] is a terrific player, who they’re asking a lot of. They’re gonna move him from left guard to right guard to insert [free agent pickup] Kelechi Osemele at left guard. I didn’t think they’d ask a young guy to make that move, but this shows you what they think of him. He’s a very good pulling guard and a great talent.
So Reggie’s had good drafts upon good drafts. What this extension means to me is the solidarity in the front office. Reggie’s first head coach was Dennis Allen, and that didn’t go well. Mark [Davis] had more of a hand in hiring Jack Del Rio, and the fact that after one year with Jack, they’re giving Reggie a four-year extension, is making the statement that they’re getting along. It happens in sports where that relationship [between coach and GM] isn’t great. Look at [Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh]. You don’t always have to get along, but it makes life a lot easier. So to me, it speaks to the harmony that Jack and his staff have with the front office and personnel department.
It also speaks to the patience of the owner. Mark’s greatest skill is his patience. His old man didn’t have that kind of patience. After you put those young pieces in, you gotta let it cook for three, four years, and it takes awhile.
People talk about this team winning the AFC West, doing all these great things, but it may take more time. This recipe may call for a little more seasoning. But they’re gonna have time.
Q4: What’s your gut on the Raiders chances to win the division, or get to the postseason?
GP: Well, Kansas City’s a good team. Denver, as far as I know, won the Super Bowl, and I know they’ve had a lot of losses, but they’ve got some players. This is still a young team. What kind of strides can they make? It’s still a young quarterback. Amari Cooper’s a young, young player, but he can still grow in so many ways.
They should get there, but it doesn’t always happen. … You think you have the right pieces, but there are no guarantees in sports. You still gotta go out Sunday and play the games. I don’t know. The first game’s gonna be a challenge. Going on the road to New Orleans—that’s gonna be a hard game.
Q5: On the subject of Carr, it’s easy to be enthusiastic about him, but he has made some bad throws in the red zone, some odd decisions here and there. How far does he still have to go?
GP: Derek can make any throw, run any offense. If you wanted to put him under center and hand it off, if you wanted to run Gary Kubiak’s outside zone stretch run game, if you want him go no-huddle, if you want him to throw bubbles, shorts, screen passes, posts, deep stuff, Derek Carr can make any throw in any offense. His skill set is universal. There’s not a weakness to him as a player. He needs to, at times, read the field better as a player. People hate this term, but Denver won the Super Bowl last year with a quarterback who had no legs, and another young guy who never played. Because they knew how to manage the game.
Look at the two home games against Denver and Kansas City, the teams the Raiders have to beat out. They could’ve won both those games, and [Carr] threw a critical pick-six in the Denver game that flipped that game. Now it wasn’t all his fault—double-crossing routes on inside receivers with Amari and Seth Roberts—but the ball got intercepted and run back the other way and you lost the game.
Kansas City, you’re up six, driving for a field goal to go up two scores, he tries to keep a play alive way too long, they turn it over, Chiefs run it back to the one. He throws another pick that gets run back, and another after that. He threw three. You’ve got to know when to be O.K. with a par and not go for birdie. If the defense is what we think it could be, we don’t need that. Punt the ball.
I think overall with Derek, it’s when to eat it, when to take a sack, when to scramble out of bounds. He has every skill, he’s great guy, hard worker, good teammate, but you gotta figure out how to manage the golf course. It doesn’t matter if throws for 300 yards and wins fantasy drafts for people all over the country. At the end of the game the Raiders need to have more points.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.V. — Dennis Allen strolled to his first training camp press conference as Saints defensive coordinator in strapped sandals rather than traditional Nikes, but you shouldn’t judge a coach by his kicks, at least not this one. Though Allen spent three years in the Bay Area, his philosophy is far from bohemian. “There is right and there is wrong,” he explained Saturday. “If you do right, there is praise. If you do wrong, you’re going to get corrected.”
When players are asked to describe their coordinator, the first word out of their mouth is almost always “detailed” or “thorough.” Allen lived up to those descriptions Sunday, stopping the second-team nickel unit when he saw something off to spend nearly five minutes going through the linebackers’ various responsibilities based on how a running back releases from the backfield.
The days of laid-back Rob Ryan are clearly in the past. And given the way the New Orleans defense played under Ryan the last two years, that’s probably for the better. The Saints finished 31st in yards allowed in both 2014 and ’15 and were last in points surrendered in ’15. The group improved slightly after Allen took over late in the year, but now he is looking to return this defense to respectability—with the help of several new pieces.
Up front, the Saints spent their No. 12 pick on defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins and added Nick Fairley in free agency. Fairley missed Sunday’s practice with an injury but had been taking first-team reps before he went down.
At linebacker, New Orleans brought in James Laurinaitis to man the middle after he was released by the Rams. General manager Mickey Loomis compared Laurinaitis to Saints great Jonathan Vilma during his training-camp-opening press conference, and the linebacker has only continued to receive praise since then.
Behind him, safeties at the opposite ends of their careers—second-round pick Vonn Bell and 33-year-old Roman Harper—joined former Pro Bowlers Kenny Vaccaro and Jairus Byrd to create such a positional strength that Allen has experimented with putting three safeties on the field at a time.
Miscommunication marred multiple drills over the weekend as players adjusted to Allen’s fast scheme, but there were also positive signs. Not long after Allen set the tone by having his players do 40 pushups on the first day of camp, Bell picked off Drew Brees. Vaccaro has registered knockdowns all over the field. Rankins flashed his agility while winning a one-on-one drill Sunday. And corner Delvin Breaux has shown he’s ready to take a major leap in year two. Sunday, Breaux locked onto newly signed wideout Hakeem Nicks during a one-on-one drill and stood him up, bringing the drill to a standstill.
All Nicks could say in response was, “Damn, good s---, man. Just wait until I get my feet under me.”
Allen’s intensity fits with the tone head coach Sean Payton has been trying to set since he told his players on the first day, “This is going to be as hard of a camp as I can make it.” After a second consecutive 7–9 season, Payton vowed to get as much out of August as he did back in 2006, or at least as much as he could under the current CBA rules.
“I think all of us—starting with myself as the head coach—every T’s crossed, every I's dotted,” he said. “The periods might be longer. The practices might be a little bit more demanding. Three hours is a long practice. We normally do not have a practice that long, but for us to get it the way it is supposed to look, there might be some practices where we are out here longer than normal.” Players routinely went to the ground and beyond in one-on-one drills and even special teams periods featured popping pads. Payton has put a particular emphasis on increasing the number of turnovers his defense produces, so almost every drill is punctuated with shouts from coaches to “Get the ball out!” Whether it will pay off remains to be seen, but quarterback Luke McCown said he can already identify Allen’s impact on the defense. “I definitely feel like they’re more confident in what they’re doing,” he said. “They’re lined up quicker, they’re flying around and I’m excited to see them play.”
Oh, and if you were curious about those misleading Tevas, the answer was as straightforward as you’d expect from Allen.
“The dogs are barking a little bit on me,” he said. “So I gotta keep ’em aired out.”
Other training camp observations
• I’ll let you decide for yourself which of these three facts is the strangest: 1) Peyton Manning shared a practice field with Drew Brees Sunday as he visited Saints camp; 2) The recently retired Super Bowl 50 champ was wearing a tie; 3) Manning was in town because he was speaking at the Grocery Manufacturing Association’s leadership forum. O.K., No. 3 is definitely the strangest. I’m not sure how much Manning knows about the SmartLabel Initiative discussed at the event, but plenty of Saints took the opportunity to discuss pigskin with him after their practice. “It was good to see him,” Payton said. “I think one of his great traits is that he loves being around players and this type of teaching environment. ... I’m sure it was a good break for [him] and it was for us.”
• Speaking of QBs, the Saints’ trio of signal-callers kept competing after the end of Saturday’s session, going against each other in a game that involved threading a football through two three-foot-tall foam tackling rings as they rolled towards each other. There is some sort of scoring system involved, and judging by the players’ reactions, it rewarded McCown with a W Saturday.
• In terms of throws that actually matter, several of Brees’swent in the direction of Coby Fleener over the weekend. Fleener is the latest in a long line of tight ends who have benefited from playing with Brees, from Antonio Gates in San Diego to Benjamin Watson last year in New Orleans, and Brees looked his way multiple times in team drills, including on a post pattern that sent Fleener into the end zone practically untouched.
After four years with Andrew Luck in Indianapolis (and more before that at Stanford), Fleener expressed how lucky he was to go from one elite quarterback to another after signing with the Saints. “[Brees] is an outstanding leader and what you want in a quarterback and a leader of your team,” Fleener said. “He really welcomed me in and kind of said, ‘Hey, let’s get to work. Let’s figure out what we need to do to make sure we’re on the same page.’ He’s been all I can ask for.”
• Following a 69-catch rookie season, there was plenty for Willie Snead to speak with the media about Saturday, but the reporters on hand mostly just wanted to know about his hair. Snead was hoping to get the tips bleached, he explained, but somehow ended up with fully blonde locks.
The 23-year-old said he knew he’d hear some jokes about the new look, but his mom likes it, so he figured he’d stick with it for a while. Asked for his thoughts, running back Tim Hightower said, “If he has great success and we have success, we may all dye our hair blonde.”
Five questions with safety Roman Harper
Q1: Did you ever think you’d be back (in New Orleans)?
RH: No, well, not playing. I kept a place here, but I was just coming for Mardi Gras and things like that. I never thought I’d actually be wearing a 41 jersey for the Saints again. It’s truly an honor to be able to go somewhere, to be drafted here and play for such a long time ... and now to be able to come back to where it all started to try to get this thing in the right direction.
Q2: What have you seen in Delvin Breaux at this point?
RH: Delvin’s amazing. So I didn’t know about this guy until Ronde Barber told me about him last year. I went out to dinner with him and some friends and he was like, “I’m really impressed with this Delvin Breaux.” ... To see the growth and his maturity, he’s so mature for the amount of years he’s played. The game is really starting to slow down for him. He’s one of the best corners I’ve ever seen at the line of scrimmage. He’s fast, he’s huge, he’s got great hand-eye coordination. He’s got to continue to grow. He’s got to continue to want it. He loves to compete. ... I’m expecting really big things out of him as he continues to grow in this league. Year two and three are going to be really big for him, and I’m sure he’s going to be one of those guys you talk about.
Q3: Can you compare this place all against Jackson, Mississippi, and Millsaps (where the Saints held training camp from 2006 to 2008)?
RH: Yeah man, you got to understand: It was real two-a-days back then. It was hot. I called my dad. I questioned if I wanted to do this for a living. I had to look at my signing bonus check and say, “I can keep this up.” … It was a grind, and now look at this, man. I can call room service, I an go skeet shooting on my day off. It’s pretty nice. We got a breeze. I don’t have to walk 50 yards up a hill to practice and half a mile to change and all these other things. It’s definitely different, man. The mentality is completely different. The NFL is a different game now.
Q4: Did you talk to Peyton Manning [Sunday]?
RH: Yeah. I was still angry because the last time I saw him, the confetti was falling for him. But he said we were even [referencing Super Bowl 44, when the Saints beat Manning’s Colts]. We laughed about it and we joked. I gave him a hug and I told him congratulations and all those things. You’ve got to understand and respect this guy, all the great things he’s done, the way he’s changed and molded this game, the way he’s been able to compete for such a long time. You envy him.
Q5: How has Sean Payton changed during your time in Carolina?
RH: I was going to say, ‘Sean really hasn’t changed.’ Sean is still himself. The team has changed so he can’t be the same guy that he was because the team has changed. He has to make sure these guys know who he is as a coach and what he expects out of them day in and day out, so those things have changed, but Sean himself hasn’t changed. I mean, he’s the same guy. He’s gotten older, but he’s still in good shape. He’s still talking trash and being loud and brash and borderline arrogant, confident, borderline arrogant, and I love it. I love Sean. You’ll never go into a game thinking you are an underdog, that’s for sure, and for that I appreciate him.
Biggest Turnaround: Scheduling
While the Saints made several off-season acquisitions, one of the biggest additions this training camp seems to be a few Z’s. Sean Payton has tried to bring back the practice mentality he instilled in his first few years in New Orleans, while at the same time adjusting the team’s schedule to allow for more rest time, ending meetings earlier and starting morning practice later.
“One of the things we are paying attention to, obviously, is the recovery and all the elements that go into that,” Payton said. “A lot of it is the evening recovery—trying to get the guys in the cold tubs, trying to get the guys really to sleep earlier. Then the [morning] schedule is even backed up ... with the idea of making sure that everyone is getting north of eight hours’ rest.”
It says a lot about Payton’s philosophy that he is not willing to sacrifice modern science while trying to instill an old-school mentality.
Drawing Some Buzz: Michael Thomas
From the moment the rookie wide receiver hauled that pass in Friday, Saints veterans have hardly stopped talking about it. Meanwhile, Thomas has continued making highlight reel plays, including coming back to an underthrown ball for another unlikely grab Saturday. To him, those catches are just part of the job. “When the ball is in the air, covered or not, I trust my ball skills over whoever is covering me,” he said Sunday. “I take a lot of pride in my ball skills. If I can get my hands on it, I want to make a play.”
Thomas still has work to do in the run game, but less than a week into training camp, he has already left quite an impression.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Even though Friday morning’s camp-opening workout was billed as his first full practice in almost a year, Victor Cruz knew better. There were no 7-on-7 or team drills in Friday’s 80-minute indoor session, providing him no opportunity to go up against the defense and test himself as he comes back from almost two years of injury and inactivity.
Then came Saturday. The sun was out, the heat was in full force, and the Giants were back outside, in front of a throng of their screaming fans. And Cruz, who has become something of a sentimental story that so many can root for, finally had a full-scale workout to endure and measure himself by.
“Yeah, 100 percent, going out there today and going against the defense a little bit and having the fans there watching, it was definitely the real day one,’’ Cruz told me about an hour after practice, sitting in the office of one of the Giants public relations officials. “It felt good, man. I got through it, didn’t feel have any setbacks, didn’t feel any pain, and now I just build on that.’’
This is a new and interesting Giants team in 2016, with rookie head coach Ben McAdoo large and in charge. But I couldn’t keep my eyes off Cruz for long portions of Saturday’s practice, watching for any sign of the electrifying play-maker who has seen most of 2014 and 2015 wiped out by injuries to one of his knees, and then a calf.
What Cruz is trying to do is a pretty rare thing, given how long his career has been on hold. There are comebacks, and then there’s what No. 80 is attempting, and it seems like forever since we’ve seen him doing the Salsa in the Giants end zone. When Cruz was first hurt, rupturing a patella tendon in October 2015, Odell-mania hadn’t even really been fully launched yet in New York. Now he’s just trying scratch his way back to a secure roster spot, hoping to recreate some of the magic of when he was the Giants’ young receiving sensation.
“It feels like a long time since I’ve been out there, especially because of the setbacks,’’ Cruz said. “Because last year I was healthy, and I practiced, and then came more setbacks (with his calf injury). I’ve had this emotional rollercoaster ride. It’s been a long time, but that first preseason game is around the corner, and it’s a blessing just to be out here and playing this game after everything I’ve been through.’’
Cruz’s perspective, despite his injuries, is intact. He and I both recently attended the New York premier of Gleason, the moving documentary film chronicling ex-Saints player Steve Gleason’s battle with ALS, and I asked what it felt like to watch it, as an active player who is still putting his body on the line for the game of football?
“It hit me hard, man, because you think you go through ups and downs,’’ Cruz said. “You think you’ve got it rough. But when you see something like that, you don’t want to complain about anything ever again. You realize people are going through a lot worse than what you’re going through. So you can’t complain or say something negative about your issues, when this guy is going through the most gut-wrenching thing you can probably go through.’’
Cruz’s rags-to-riches NFL story has always been a good one, and a lot of us are keeping fingers crossed that it has a happy ending, and his comeback takes off.
“That’s the plan,” he said, smiling. “That’s always been the plan. And I think it’ll happen. I’ve come so far and this organization has put their faith and trust in me for so many years. Something good has to come from it. I’m just enjoying these moments, and I don’t even mind training camp now.’’
More news and notes from Day 2
• Of all the NFL franchises Eli Apple could have been drafted into, of course it had to be the Giants—home of the most famous Eli in NFL history—who took the Ohio State cornerback, transforming New York into a two-Eli team.
And, yes, there has been some confusion already. An “Eli’’ question to McAdoo elicited a quick “Which Eli?’’ on Saturday, and the rookie himself got duped by thinking it was his turn at a team ritual when in actuality it was Eli Manning’s turn.
“Like on the practice field, whenever the coach tells us to break it down, he yells Eli, and I’m thinking it’s me, so I go up there thinking I’m breaking the team down,” Apple said. “But it’s Eli Manning, and I’m like, ‘Aww, man.’ It’s going to take a couple practices. Hopefully they come up with a nickname for me so everything else is easier.’’
Apple didn’t for a second think Manning would get the nickname for clarity sake. “Of course it will be me, as it should be,’’ he said. “But I knew what was ahead as soon as I got drafted. That’s what I thought about on draft night.’’
• On a sweltering hot and humid Saturday morning, McAdoo, curiously enough, was dressed as if it was late October or early November, with baggy long pants and a pullover coaching jacket in addition to a layering shirt. He looked as if he had to be dissolving in the heat with all that on, but apparently that’s the way he likes it.
“I like to sweat when I’m out there,” he said. “I think you think clearly when you have a chance to sweat. Otherwise you feel bottled up. So you get out there, you get a couple layers on, and you get some sweat worked up, and you think clearly. It keeps my mind clear. I’ve got some demons in me. I’ve got to sweat ‘em out, and it helps me manage my thoughts.’’
I think he was kidding about the demons. But I guess time will tell.
• One of the small ways McAdoo is making it clear that this is his team, and that the 12-year Tom Coughlin coaching era is over, is that he schedules several “TV timeouts” during his practices. But that’s not the best part. During the interludes, there is piped in music featuring some current or vintage TV theme songs.
My personal favorite on Saturday was the theme song from Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, but I also heard Game of Thrones and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
“I like all the HBO stuff,” McAdoo told me. “But we’ll do Family Feud, and Seinfield’s always a popular choice.’’
Makes sense to me. NFL games have TV timeouts. Loads of them. So why shouldn’t practice?
• I don’t get the sense that newly-minted Giants free-agent signee Olivier Vernon is going to gets stage fright playing in the big city. The former Dolphins defensive end knows the spotlight is going to come his way because of the monster contract that came his way in March. But he doesn’t sound obsessed with trying to live up to the mega-deal. That’s almost always the right approach in these type of situations. There’s enough pressure just to stay on the field in the NFL week in and week out.
“I mean, really, the defensive end position doesn’t change just because you go to a different team,’’ Vernon said. “You just have different teammates, different scenery and a different playbook. But playing defensive end stays the same. This is going on my fifth year, so I’m pretty sure I know what’s got to get done. I guess just you’ve got to wait and see if I can get it done. Just wait and see.’’
5 Questions with Giants G.M. Jerry Reese:
Q: The track record in the NFL isn’t great for teams that went out and made as big as splash as the Giants did on defense this spring. What tells you New York will be the exception to that rather than the rule?
JR: We’ve seen teams do that, get well really quickly in free agency. You can fill some holes pretty quickly. And really, this was the first time since I’ve been GM that we really had some money to spend. You never know if it’s going to be an over-shop or not, but we felt like these guys are quality football players, and young guys on the verge of being stars in this league. It’s about getting the right guys. There may be some growing pains, but we had to help our defense. Our defense obviously wasn’t what we wanted last year.
Q: The Giants have been the most injured team in the league for three years running. Are you optimistic the changes Ben McAdoo has made will turn that trend around?
JR: We’ve tried different things, but I think we’ve been unlucky to a degree. When one of your best players is in a fireworks accident (Jason Pierre-Paul), there’s no GM book for that. But we are taking a different approach. We spent a quarter-million dollars re-doing our weight room, and we got a new strength and conditioning coach (Aaron Wellman). Hopefully this approach will get us through our injury bug and we’ll keep our players out there. The whole thing is let’s build these guys up, let’s don’t come right out of the shoot and have a two and a half-hour practice out there and have guys in the training room with soft-tissue (injuries).”
Q: Any potential downsides to an easy-does-it approach in camp?
JR: What you have to be careful of is, you can’t be too easy on these guys. One thing I told Ben you’ve got to be careful of is, these guys have got to come out of training camp and have some callouses on them. It’s important. I said we’re concerned about injuries but you can’t worry about injuries. You’ve got to have some toughness out here, because if you don’t win the physical battle, you can forget it in this league.”
Q: Do you think Victor Cruz going to be able to make it all the way back?
JR: “We’re hopeful, and I believe if anybody can come back from basically a couple years off it’s him. I had a really good talk with him because when we re-did his contract some. I said: ‘Victor, you know what, you’ve got to come back with that walk-on mentality. When you first got here, man, you had that whole walk-on mentality, and I said you’ve got to get that back. You’ve got to act like you’ve never played here. You got to make the team. And I think if you do, if you come back with that kind of mentality, everything will work out for you.’ “He absolutely gets that. He was like ‘Mr. Reese, you know I can appreciate you saying that. I can hear what you’re saying.’ I hope he can stay out there because that’ll give us a hell of combination if we can keep him healthy.”
Q: Some would say it’s a big year for Jerry Reese, too. To that, you say?
JR: “Every year is a big year for Jerry Reese. It comes with the territory. I love this franchise and this will be my 10th season as the GM. The first nine years were okay, but we definitely could have done better. It means a lot to me to help get this franchise back on track, and I feel like we’ve made some moves and there’s a lot of positive energy around here. Ben has come in here and I think he’s doing a nice job of getting the positive energy we need, so I look forward to the challenge, and I’m driven by the challenge of helping the franchise get back to where it should be.”
Biggest Turnaround: The Giants’ practice habits
As Reese alluded to above, McAdoo has changed the way the team is working early in camp, in attempt to get the Giants’ past their ridiculous run of injury woes. New York won’t don full pads until their fifth day of camp, on Tuesday, and that comes only after an off day Monday. The first two days of workouts lasted 80 minutes (indoors) and 100 minutes. Clearly the goal is good health at the Giants’ Quest Diagnostics Training Center team complex.
It’s kind of new-school thinking that stands in somewhat stark contrast of Coughlin’s rather old-school methods. McAdoo is holding shorter meetings geared to holding the attention span of millennials, and while he’s asking his players to keep the tempo up in practice, he also has plenty of stretching built into the schedule. So far the early returns seem positive.
“I don’t know if it’s new school, but it’s our school,’’ McAdoo said. “We’re going to take a different course to get there, but we’re still going to have a physical camp. When we put the pads on, it’s going to be physical and we’re going to hit and be a heavy-handed football team. You’re going to feel us when we strike you. But it’s my responsibility to keep player safety in mind first and foremost. The game has changed. It doesn’t look the same. But the teams that are standing in the end are still the physical football teams.”
Drawing Some Buzz: Sterling Shepard
The sturdily-built second-round receiver from Oklahoma has already impressed the Giants with his route-running, his maturity level, and the way he competes on every snap. With that name, he sounds more like a FOX anchor man to me, but he looks like he could provide some early impact in the New York receiving game.
“He seems like a young pro,” McAdoo said. “He seems like a young man who’s committed to his craft and being a pro is important to him, and that’s what you’re looking for with young players.”
McAdoo said the Giants won’t hesitate to ask plenty from rookies Apple and Shepard. “I trust them right now,’’ he said. “We’re not going to be afraid to play young players.”
RENTON, Wash. — The Seahawks opened their 2016 training camp in the most Seahawk-ian way possible. There was Pete Carroll, at age 64, slinging spirals with gloves on both hands, laughing at being the oldest head coach in the NFL. Music echoed across the practice fields at full volume. Boats bobbed in Lake Washington. Seaplanes flew overhead. Families joined the players on the field after practice. That included Ciara, the pop star that married quarterback Russell Wilson this off-season.
Carroll was already in midseason form, fresh off agreeing to a three-year contract extension, signing autographs after practice, telling reporters this team “got me all jacked up, so I got to be a little careful, I might get out of control here.” He will, it should be noted, turn 65 in September. He all but flexed when asked about that.
“This is what 65 gets you,” he said. “Look at me—it isn’t that bad.”
But while the setting and the set-up felt familiar, vintage Carroll era in Seattle, there was one obvious difference as the Seahawks began their latest playoff push. And that was the focus this off-season on the offense. Seattle used eight of its 10 draft picks to bolster a unit that caught fire over the last six weeks of last season. The Seahawks selected three linemen, three running backs, a receiver and a tight end. They also signed wideouts Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse to extensions, and soon, they will welcome back two contributors—tight end Jimmy Graham, running back Thomas Rawls—who ended last season on injured reserve.
The running back position in particular looks crowded. There’s Rawls (830 rushing yards in 2015), Christine Michael (a former second-round selection) and four rookies: C.J. Prosise (third round, Notre Dame), Alex Collins (fifth round, Arkansas), Zac Brooks (seventh round, Clemson) and Tre Madden (undrafted, USC).
Quarterback Russell Wilson is set to enter his fifth season surrounded by more talent than in any of the previous four, and it’s not difficult to argue that this offense could be better than the one that pushed Seattle into the divisional round (they lost to Carolina, on the road, after a terrible first half) last January. The obvious counter is the uncertainty on the offensive line, but the Seahawks addressed that, too, with picks in the first (lineman Germain Ifedi), third (G Rees Odhiambo) and sixth (C Joey Hunt) rounds.
The draft selections, coupled with an offensive core that has spent most of the past four seasons intact, has Carroll, Wilson and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell saying that this unit has never started training camp this far ahead. “Oh, yeah,” Wilson said. “This is the best it has been.”
Added Bevell: “We’re far ahead of any time since I’ve been here.” He then added the obligatory disclaimer, that this is a new season, but added, “We’d love to pick up where we left off.”
Other training camp observations
• There had been some speculation that defensive lineman Michael Bennett would not report to camp on time, staging a holdout as he looks for a new contract. But there was Bennett, dancing on the field, chasing Wilson and wearing a ‘Black Lives Matter’ T-shirt after practice. He said he wanted more than anything to reach the Super Bowl in Houston, his hometown, next February, and play against his brother, the tight end Martellus, who signed with New England. That would mean a rematch of the Super Bowl two years ago, where the Patriots topped the Seahawks in the final seconds of the fourth quarter.
Bennett’s attendance also meant that the Seahawks did not enter this season the way they did last season, with a prominent defensive player (last year it was safety Kam Chancellor) holding out. “No distractions,” Bennett said.
• Carroll wasn’t the only non-player the Seahawks extended in recent weeks. John Schneider, their general manager, also inked a five-year deal. After both contracts were signed, Baldwin posted this on Twitter: “BREAKING: Seahawks extend the Grey Haired Assassin
@PeteCarroll and the WWE Champion #JohnSchneider. Congrats to the NFL tag-team champs”
• Count receiver-returner Tyler Lockett among the players whom the Seahawks expect to make larger contributions in 2016. And that’s after he exceeded all expectations other than his own last season, making the Pro Bowl as a returner and catching 51 passes for 664 yards and six touchdowns. He also set a franchise record with 139 punt return yards against Arizona on Jan. 3. Lockett pointed to that game Saturday as an example of what he’s capable of.
The Seahawks plan to deploy Lockett from all over the field this season. They’ll use him as an outside receiver and a slot receiver. They’ll send him in motion. And they expect him to take some snaps from the backfield. Last year, Lockett played 61.5% of the team’s offensive plays. Expect that number to increase in 2016.
Lockett said Saturday that he trained with his father, the former NFL receiver Kevin Lockett, this off-season. They concentrated on his footwork and his release off the ball. Kevin Lockett, his son said, used to punt in high school, so he spent a good portion of the summer kicking balls to his All Pro-returner son.
Of last season, Lockett said, “I expected way more out of it. I expected a lot more out of myself.” That’s a nice sentiment and all, but the Seahawks traded four picks to move up and select Lockett in the third round of the ’15 draft because they needed a returner. They got more than that. “He became a really strong force for us,” Bevell said.
• Carroll spoke highly of Wilson’s development. Carroll had said earlier this spring that the late Bill Walsh used to say that the fifth season is when players and teams really settle in. There’s a comfort level then that makes experience an asset. “Looking at (Wilson) now, talking to him and watching him on the field with his teammates now compared to two, three years ago, it’s a big difference,” Carroll said. “It is subtle, I think it would be subtle to you, but it shows up in so many ways.”
Of Wilson’s second marriage, Carroll added, “He is smiling a lot.”
• Seahawks coaches and executives praised tight end Nick Vannett, a third-round pick out of Ohio State. They haven’t been this deep at that position, with Graham coming back and Luke Willson expected to contribute, under Carroll. Willson had the first long catch of the first practice.
• Brandon Browner, the defensive back who played three seasons with Seattle before spending the last two in New England and New Orleans, broke up a pass in practice that prompted cornerback Richard Sherman to sprint across the field to bump chests. This apparently meant that the Legion of Boom, the nickname for Seattle’s defensive backfield, is back intact. (Browner was an original member.) Carroll said Browner is taking reps at safety for now in order to learn that position. “He is a monster of a football player,” Carroll said.
• Christine Michael followed in the footsteps of Ravens wideout Steve Smith, adding a Senior after his last name on his jersey.
Five questions with Russell Wilson (with bonus cliché counter)
Wilson, the eternal optimist, is also in midseason quote form.
Q1: How do you guys carry over how well you played at the end of last season?
A: I don’t know if it’s carrying it over. I’m not sure if there’s even such a thing. Ultimately, you rework, you reestablish who you are (cliché 1), as an identity, you reestablish who you are one play at a time (2), one practice at a time (3), one day at a time (4), one thought at a time (5), one win at a time (6), one catch at a time (7), one throw at a time (8). It’s just simply one at a time (9). So that’s how you become something that you want to be.
Q2: But there’s reason to be excited with all the additional resources on the roster, no?
A: We got a lot of weapons (10). I can definitely say that. From the tight end group to the receiver group to the running backs. All the skill position guys. We love the game, and we love playing for each other (11), and that’s what makes it so exciting. Our offense has a lot of ballers on it. We just have to ball out and make those plays. Ultimately when it comes down to it you make those plays on Monday through Saturday (12).
Q3: Did you continue to focus on your speed this summer?
A: Tons of speed work. Tons of lifting, throwing. Just everything. Going to be ready to go. Ready to bring it (13). Busy summer but it’s been a great summer in the sense of being able to accomplish a lot of goals, in the sense of training and all that. I’ve been able to maintain it throughout. That’s a blessing, too.
Q4: So is this offense ahead of where you were last season, or in the years before that?
A: That’s what I always wanted. You just take it one day at a time (14). You trust the process (15). And that’s always how it has always been for me. I don’t look too far ahead, man (16). I just take the now (17). Be present (18). Be here (19). And just try to execute the moment (20).
Q5: Doug Baldwin signed an extension this off-season. How would you say he’s changed, or become a better leader, in recent years?
A: I more so look at it like he’s passionate about the game of football (21). That’s how he’s always been. And he’s grateful to be out here every day. Separation is in the preparation (22). There’s nobody that works any harder every day. Him and Jermaine (Kearse) and Tyler, those are the core guys. Then you have all the other guys who can make so many different plays.
Biggest turnaround: the offensive line
The Seahawks, according to OvertheCap.com, have spent $11.7 million on that unit, the lowest figure in the league. As recently as 2013, Seattle had spent the most money of any NFL team on its o-line, but all five of those starters are gone now. In their place, the Seahawks have the three linemen they drafted, Justin Britt (a third-year player converting to center), Garry Gilliam (undrafted, third year, projected at left tackle) and free-agent signing J’Marcus Webb (seventh season, last with the Raiders). The Seahawks o-line is the biggest question mark on an otherwise stacked team that looks to contend for the Super Bowl this season. Schneider said the Seahawks did not intend to spend less money on offensive linemen than other players. It just worked out that way, he said.
Drawing some buzz: DT Jarran Reed
The Seahawks nabbed Reed in the second round, out of Alabama, believing they had found a steal, perhaps even the steal of the draft. Schneider called Reed the best run-stopper available and said Seattle considered taking him in the first round. Reed should help replace Brandon Mebane, who left for San Diego this offseason, and bolster a defensive line that remains one of Seattle’s strongest units.
FLORAM PARK, N.J. — Hear that? I don’t either. The drama alarms aren’t going off in Jets camp. For once. And second-year head coach Todd Bowles could get used to this. Not that he’ll let himself get comfortable enough with the lack of trouble to actually start expecting such a blissful state to continue.
But for now, the Jets pretty much have the team they hoped and thought they’d have at the start of camp, with New York checking off two big things from its to-do list with the re-signing of starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick on Wednesday and the contract extension of defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson two weeks ago. As a long-time journalist with an appreciation of deadlines and their motivating impact, I applaud the Jets for getting their most important pieces of work done just in the nick of time, which has made for a peaceful early vibe in Gang Green-land.
“I’m glad we have all the guys in, because we have guys that are able to compete and challenge for positions that we didn’t have in areas last year,” Bowles told me late Friday afternoon following his team’s long, hot practice. “Everybody’s being pushed this year and we’re going to have to cut some pretty good football players. But that’s what you want, that competition part of it, so I’m very happy about that.”
I was at the Jets’ second day of training camp last year, too, and that’s the day the Sheldon Richardson speeding/child endangerment story broke, and not long after that, New York lost its No. 1 quarterback Geno Smith when teammate I.K. Enempkali broke his jaw with a punch. The pads don’t go on in Jets camp until Saturday, but so far, so good. And this is a team and a coach who seem better off for having weathered last year’s storms and come out standing.
“The things that happen off the field are so different in this job,” Bowles said. “The timing of it all, and the surprise is when it comes and then you have to gather yourself for a minute and still make a decision. But the first 30 seconds to one minute is like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ Then after that, it’s like ‘Okay, what do we do going forward?
“The football stuff nothing really surprises me. But you just want your players to stay out of trouble and you want your players to do the right thing. But they’re young and they’re human and you’ve got to weigh each situation differently and handle it all. That’s the biggest thing I got from last year, when there was a bunch of those situations, like the Sheldon situation and locker room situation with the punch. There’s stuff that comes up that’s out of your control that you have get back under your control.”
More stuff will undoubtedly come up at some point this season and blindside Bowles and his Jets. But for now, they’re enjoying the relative calm of an early camp devoid of significant surprises.
More news and notes from Day 2
• First off, Christian Hackenberg might be the heir apparent, but at quarterback, the story of New York’s camp so far is the hair that apparently never got cut even once this off-season by newly re-signed starter Ryan Fitzpatrick. Talk about cap room, I’m not sure how Fitzy could even possibly wear a cap these days, and I’m guessing his helmet is a tight fit too.
With that mountain man beard and his thick, wavy bouffant up top, it’s almost as if you could take Fitzpatrick’s head and flip it upside down and it would look almost exactly the same. Fitzpatrick said on Thursday he actually avoided going to his barber during his holdout once a New York Post columnist went out and did a story about the place in early June.
“He’s like Charlton Heston in “The Ten Commandments,” when he went up to the burning bush and came down with a beard and an afro,” said Bowles with a laugh. “When I saw him, I’m like ‘You got to be kidding me.’ I guess he’s going to take a poll with the players (to see if he should keep it or cut it), so it’s out of my jurisdiction now. It’s a new era now.”
But now that he’s signed for $12 million guaranteed this season, you’d hope Fitzpatrick could get that unruly beast under control and start again being the face of the franchise, rather than just the mass of hair of the franchise.
• The Jets petitioned Bowles for more music during practice this season and were partly successful. The tunes were cranked on Friday until the team drills started.
“They want music during the entire practice,’’ Bowles said. “Last year we had music during stretch, so this year we compromised and it’s for stretch and individual (drills). So we’ll see how we progress from there. But I like music. If it makes them calm and it makes them concentrate in practice, I’m all for it. It’s going to be loud on Sunday, so it doesn’t bother me.”
• Standout defensive end Sheldon Richardson was absent from practice Friday, but it was an excused absence, allowing him to handle some personal issues, Bowles said.
“It’s not concerning at all, and he just needs a day or two,” Bowles said. “It’s not threatening, and he’s fine.”
New lead running back Matt Forte is another player missing some early camp practices. The ex-Bear said he tweaked his hamstring “about a week ago” and is taking the cautious approach, sitting out the first two days of workouts. With both Forte and veteran rusher Khiry Robinson out (he’s on PUP), those absences have given rookie speedster Romar Morris a chance to flash his skills from the backfield, and the ex-North Carolina product has taken advantage of the opportunity, earning a mention from Bowles after Friday’s work.
Lastly, star cornerback Darrelle Revis remains on the PUP list to start camp, after having wrist surgery in March. No one is willing to put a timetable on his return, but I’m willing to bet Revis won’t be seeing much preseason game action. Why risk it? Bowles said he’s not concerned about Revis missing the regular-season opener.
• Not only will the Jets not sneak up on anybody this season after winning 10 games a year ago, but their schedule also looks considerably tougher. A slow start could doom their season, and you can see the makings of one on their schedule. New York plays five of its first six games against teams that were in the playoffs a year ago, four of them on the road: Cincinnati, at Buffalo, at Kansas City, Seattle, at Pittsburgh, at Arizona. And that Week 2 trip to Buffalo is no layup, because it’s on a Thursday night with Hall of Famer Bruce Smith having his jersey retired at halftime.
“It’s a tough act to follow, but at the same time when you win double digit games, your schedule is going to get tougher,” Bowles said. “We’ve got to be mentally tougher and we’ve got to start games faster and understand situations better than we did last year. Last year we played and we were good at times, but we didn’t understand what we were doing in certain situations. But you want to play the best and see how you are against them, so we’re up to the task of playing anybody.”
• Buster Skrine and Marcus Williams are two of the candidates to start at the other cornerback opposite Revis, but don’t sleep on rookie Juston Burris, who had a great day in practice on Friday. No. 38 had a number of nice moments, none bigger than when he had a pass defensed against Brandon Marshall in one-on-one coverage near the goal line. At 6' 0", 212 pounds, the North Carolina State product has some size and coverage skills.
Five Questions with Devin Smith
Q1: Did you feel snake-bit at times last year as a rookie, with the broken rib/lung injury early in camp, then the ACL injury to your right knee in December?
A: I tried not to give in to that. I’ve got a lot of support behind and my faith in God to lean on. I just felt like everything happens for a reason. I just trusted in God and kept moving forward. I know there’s something bigger at the end of the tunnel.
Q2: What you bring to the receiving game is so different than what Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker do for the Jets, in that you can stretch the field and add verticality. How often do you let yourself dream about the possibility of adding your deep threat to what they do on shorter and more intermediate routes?
A: Not just myself, but without the rest of the receivers we have, too. All of us bring something different to the table. Me, I feel like I’m very, very good at that threat doing deep downfield. And I’m looking forward to coming back and trying to add that to this team. I felt myself this offseason getting stronger and getting a little smarter with the game, and the offense is coming to me easy now.
Q3: When do you believe you’ll be ready to play again after the ACL injury? The 10-month mark of your rehab will be late September, early October.
A: I’m not sure when they’re planning on having me back, or what the exact timetable is. My only focus is to try and get better each and every day, and whenever I feel ready, and they feel I’m ready to come back, coming back and just grinding. When I come back I just want to be 100 percent because I don’t want to be hurt any more. This was my first major injury I ever had in my life, and my first surgery, and it was a serious one. So I’m just trying to focus on things that are going to keep me on the field. I’m starting to eat a lot better. I’m starting to do things for my body more. It’s all process and I’m trying to stay on top of it.
Q4: How good was it to see your quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick, walk back in that door the other night for your first team meeting?
A: Honestly it kind of threw me off because I really didn’t think that was going to happen like that. When he walked through the door I was like in shock. But I think it’s good for the team just because that one of the things that a lot of us was worried about and were pretty focused on. He’s very, very smart and he can help you with anything on the field, so it’s good to have somebody like that at the quarterback position.
Q5: Are the Jets this year going to see the Devin Smith they thought they drafted in the second round in 2015?
A: Yeah. Absolutely. Whenever my time comes, I’m going to take full advantage and go out there and bust my tail and work hard.
Biggest Turnaround: Running backs
Unless you count how close the Jets came to opening their camp with Geno Smith as their No. 1 quarterback, there’s really not a lot of dramatic change from last year’s roster. But signing Matt Forte to replace Chris Ivory as the lead back represents a pretty major switch in a revamped backfield, with the ninth-year veteran still a versatile and dangerous threat even as he hits the dreaded age of 30.
Besides Forte, other newcomers include ex-Saint Khiry Robinson, who is on PUP as he recovers from last season’s broken tibia, as well as recently signed veteran Bernard Pierce, and the aforementioned rookie Romar Morris. Only Bilal Powell returns from last year’s backfield rotation, with Zac Stacy being waived this week after failing his pre-camp physical.
New York’s backfield has some intriguing potential and a lot of varied skill sets to call upon. Forte is obviously the key, and his rushing, pass-catching and blocking still make him one of the league’s most well-rounded feature backs.
Drawing some buzz: Leonard Williams
Two days does not a standout camp make, but the 2015 first-round pick is showing early signs that his second season in the league will be better than his first, and he was pretty good as a rookie. Williams gets a little overlooked with Wilkerson and Richardson as his linemates, but maybe not for long. Even when he’s not wearing pads, Williams consistently seems to get some solid pass rush push, and wind up in the backfield.
Some Jets observers believe he’s ready to take a significant second-year step, and give opposing offensive lines another major headache to handle. According to Williams, this is the first time since high school that he will be playing in the same defensive system for a second consecutive season. Finally having continuity might be a difference-maker for him this season.
RICHMOND, VA—On Thursday morning, Washington training camp opened quietly. For once.
It’s year two of Scot McCloughan’s tenure as general manager, and this time, there are no marquee position battles or major holdouts. It’s year three of Jay Gruden’s reign as head coach with the Redskins, and this time, there’s no need to set a tone or take control. And as he enters his fifth year in the NFL, quarterback Kirk Cousins has gained perspective on the importance of pacing himself.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” he said Thursday. “We’ve got a long time until September 12 against the Steelers so we’ll just keep building until that day and trust that each day is a step in the right direction.”
To sum up: nothing to see here. But while fans might associate quiet with boring, Cousins sees the value in continuity. “Anytime you can be in the same place and have some familiarity, I think it improves your ability to perform at a high level,” he said. “I think we have a lot of guys who are great people—great teammates—in this organization and having them back is going to help us.”
In OTAs and here in Richmond, the Washington offense is adding the complexity it lacked in Cousins’s first full season as starter. They’re little things—slight tweaks to routes against certain defenses and making sure the optimum play is called for each look—but they could make a big difference.
“We were able to move a little faster in offensive preparation and I think that gives us a greater volume in the plays we can get to and use,” Cousins said.
If there is one area where Cousins is hoping to make major improvements, it’s in the running game. “We’d like to run the football a little more consistently this season,” he said a day after Gruden mentioned that the team could add a veteran back to compete in camp. Washington averaged 3.7 yards per rush last year (28th in the league) and then lost Alfred Morris to the Cowboys this off-season. That leaves 2015 third-round pick Matt Jones as the workhorse this season after he struggled with ball security issues a year ago. Behind him are third-down specialist Chris Thompson and rookie Keith Marshall, who the Skins drafted in the seventh round.
Gruden’s comment came during a notably short press conference Wednesday, a sign that there are no hot seats or burning questions this year in Richmond. Instead, there is a long simmering concern that won’t be answered for months: Can they do it again? Washington has not successfully defended a division title since 1984 and has not made the playoffs in consecutive years since ‘92. Cousins knows that. So does Gruden. Asked Wednesday about his most important accomplishment through two years as head coach, he responded, “Progress probably. I think progress, some stability.”
In the passing game at least, Cousins would be fine with the status quo. “We can always improve,” he said, “But by the same token, to replicate what we did last year through the air would be a strong year.”
So yes, things are slower than normal around here, but don’t expect too many complaints. It’s almost as if the quiet around town is the result of a cautious hope that if everyone stays just so, success will keep coming to the Skins.
More news and notes from Day 1
• Josh Norman stayed quiet during his first training camp walkthrough as a Redskin, hiding under a burgundy safari hat and doing his best not to jump a corner route when he was guarding DeSean Jackson, opting instead to leap and catch air before jogging back to his position. But his personality still came through. When he wasn’t in, Norman could be seen firing invisible arrows in the offense’s direction, and afterwards, as the rest of the team retreated from the sun, the cornerback played some soccer with the staffers. The DB was also the last to leave the autograph line, signing everything from a cell phone to a Panthers mini-helmet. He stood for plenty of selfies, too.
And when he was in during the afternoon, he was hard to miss. Jackson and Pierre Garcon both beat him for catches along the sideline during 11-on-11s, but Norman got the last laugh as he knocked the ball out of Jackson’s hands on the final play of the drill before getting up, throwing a fist pump, and going to celebrate with the other defensive backs.
• Summer reading: Cousins has developed a reputation as an avid reader, and he maintained that label this summer, taking down all 720 pages of last year’s Michael Jordan biography. “I think that was the longest book I’ve ever read,” he said. Now he’s working through Phil Knight’s new autobiography.
• On a much more dour note, Cousins spoke about the death of former teammate Mike Sadler, who died in a car crash Saturday. “I was crushed when I heard about Mike's passing,” Cousins said. “A phenomenal person, very intelligent, brilliant, witty, funny, great teammate and a great person. He was lost too soon. He was going to be going to Stanford Law School this fall, is my understanding, and he was going to do great things after that. So it's tough to hear that, and obviously we’ll be praying for his family, for the Spartan nation, and just understand that life is short and try to take advantage of every day we have.”
• A day before the Redskins arrived, their training facility was hit with a severe storm that knocked out power for thousands around Richmond. The team’s building and field held up OK, but many of the temporary fences and tents that had been set up for camp were toppled, requiring crews to spend most of Wednesday making repairs. The field goal posts got the worst of it, but were replaced in time for practice Thursday.
Five Questions with Trent Williams
Q1: You brought the offensive line down to Houston to train and bond. What was the most memorable part of that trip?
A: The sand, man. We were doing drills on the sand, and I mean guys were just looking around man. Everybody was bent over, everybody was trying to hide, to duck out of reps. I was about to puke myself. We kind of look back on that and laugh.
Q2: Has Kirk Cousins bought dinner for the offensive line yet?
A: Not yet but we just got back. We’ve got time. We’ll definitely get his a-- though.
Q3: I hear you are in the best shape of your career heading into your seventh season?
A: Every year I try to come back in better shape than I left the year before…. The workouts man, running up and down that hill man, running on that track out there in that 100 degree Texas heat, it’s all about just trying to get better than I was.
Q4: And how about the guy across from you—Preston Smith. Does he look different in Year 2?
A: He’s definitely made some strides. You can tell he took this off-season very seriously. He came back in great shape. He basically led the group on the conditioning test. He was finishing first or second every time so you know for a guy that big to be able to run like that—he’s always been a physical specimen and now that he’s got that hard work with it I think the sky’s the limit for him.
Q5: Who else do you feel like could really show up this year?
A: I think maybe it’s Matt [Jones’] year to concrete himself in that backfield as that guy. You can tell he’s worked his butt off this off-season. He definitely has the talent to do so; he has every tool in the toolbox. With the threats that we are going to have on the outside, it’s definitely going to keep that box light. I think Matt is going to make his presence felt.
Biggest Turnaround: Defensive Backs
After finishing 25th in the league in passing yards allowed per game, Washington shook up its defensive backfield this off-season. In addition to bringing in Norman, the Redskins added David Bruton, a special teams star in Denver who has a chance to find an expanded role in D.C. as he battles Duke Ihenacho for the starting spot next to converted corner DeAngelo Hall. It’s far too early to tell how big of an improvement the changes will bring, but the early returns are positive. Hall said he feels rejuvenated by the position switch, corner Bashaud Breeland compared Bruton to a field general, and Norman’s value is obvious after his Pro Bowl season in Carolina a year ago.
“He’s a great athlete and we’re excited to have him, no question,” Gruden said. “When you go out and land a free agent of his caliber with the success that he had in Carolina and with the playmaking ability that he has and the leadership qualities that he has—it’s only going to help your football team.”
Drawing Some Buzz: Preston Smith
Washington lost edge rusher Junior Galette to a torn Achilles tendon this week, but second-year edge rusher Preston Smith appears ready to emerge as a consistent threat across from Ryan Kerrigan. Smith was already drawing praise from draftniks as a second rounder last year, and he delivered during his first campaign—leading all rookies with eight sacks. The 6’ 5” linebacker is bigger, stronger, and faster, Gruden said. He’s also more confident in the coach’s estimation.
“I think sometimes he was feeling his way through a little bit early—not quite sure—but I think once he gained confidence of where he’s supposed to be, he was able to fire off the line and make some plays with his length,” Gruden said. “He’s still just tapping his skill set. You know, he’s got a ton of ability and it’s our job to get more out of him … I think he’s going to be a heck of a pass-rusher for us for a long time.”
As the Broncos began their first training camp practice after winning the Super Bowl last February, their music playlist reinforced the organization’s preferred theme. The first song that blasted from the speakers on a cloudless day in Englewood, Colo., was Jay Z’s On to the Next One. On to the next season.
The reigning champions survived an eventful spring and early summer. They wished quarterback Peyton Manning well in retirement, waved goodbye to quarterback Brock Osweiler in free agency, signed quarterback Mark Sanchez and drafted quarterback Paxton Lynch. And that was only one position. Denver also made quarterback terrorizer Von Miller the highest paid non-signal caller in NFL history (six years, $114.5 million, up to $70 million guaranteed). One cornerback, Aqib Talib, was shot twice in the leg in Dallas. And two defensive starters—Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan—departed in free agency.
And so the Broncos approached 2016 the way their defensive backs practiced in individual drills on Thursday: with blinders affixed to their helmets. Coach Gary Kubiak said what all coaches who win a Super Bowl say, dating back to the first football coach. “We aren’t defending anything,” he told his team.
Ah, but they are, and if recent history is any indication, bet against the Broncos. The Patriots are still the last team to repeat as Super Bowl champions, back in the 2003 and ‘04 seasons. The last team before New England? Denver, after the 1997 and ’98 seasons, with John Elway, their current general manager, at quarterback.
What was odd about Denver’s first day back at camp was how many seemed to doubt the Broncos, who return most of the league’s top defense and solid playmakers on offense and still answered question after question about feeling disrespected. Most pundits have not picked Denver to even win its own division, choosing Kansas City, or Oakland, to end the Broncos’ five-year reign. And that’s because of the uncertainty at quarterback, along with questions on the offensive line.
“A lot of people are saying, 'You're going to have a tough chance of defending it', as if we don't win the Super Bowl this year we have to give our rings back,” receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. “The trophy is ours. We're just out here chasing another one.”
More news and notes from Day 1:
• Miller didn’t splurge on any purchases after signing his new contract. “What am I supposed to buy?” he asked. “A spaceship?” I asked him if he could point to a key meeting, or turning point, in his negotiations with the Broncos, which were contentious, with Miller threatening to hold out rather than play this season under the franchise tag. He said that a week or two—he couldn’t remember exactly—before the deadline he called Elway and Joe Ellis, the Broncos president, not to talk numbers but to reiterate that he wanted to stay in Denver and hoped they could reach a deal. He wanted, Miller said, to remind them that he was human. “I really wanted to get the agent and the whole business thing out the way,” Miller said. “I didn’t want to talk numbers or anything like that. I just wanted to talk on how I felt and the type of expectations that I had for myself and what I wanted to do.”
And what did he tell them? “The expectations that I hold for myself are scary,” Miller said, before declining to provide specifics. (Although he said earlier this summer that he wanted to win defensive player of the year.)
He practiced for about 40 minutes on Thursday, after missing OTAs and mini-camps. The Broncos plan to work up to a full workload for Miller.
• Talib watched practice from between the two outdoor fields, mostly with a towel covering his head. He’s on the Non-Football Injury list, and he did not take questions from the media, which meant his coaches and teammates answered several questions about him. Elway said the Broncos did not yet have a timetable on Talib’s recovery or return. “Our expectations are that’s going to be real soon,” Kubiak said.
• DeMarcus Ware, the Broncos veteran pass rusher, also did not practice Thursday. Typical of many of advanced age, (Ware is about to turn 34), his back is hurting. But Ware told reporters he could have played Thursday if the Broncos had opened their season then. A team source said he expected Ware to play fewer snaps on average this season, around 15 a game or so.
• It’s hard to read too much into one training camp practice, but receiver Demaryius Thomas stood out Thursday, with several catches and one long run up the right sideline. Thomas had a strange season in 2015: 105 catches, 1,304 yards, six touchdowns and, by his own admission, far too many drops. Those are monster numbers, by any measure, and yet Thomas talked about last year like it was the worst 105-catch season in NFL history. Maybe it was.
Thomas said he spent this off-season focusing on dropping fewer balls this year, focusing on his fundamentals. He spent the last week trading texts with Kubiak, detailing his expectations for this season. “We could be better than last year,” he said.
• What you didn’t see at Broncos training camp: two words, Sports Authority. That’s because the company, which had purchased the rights to the stadium—known as Sports Authority at Mile High—has gone bankrupt. Ellis said the Broncos are working with the Denver Metropolitan Football Stadium District to find another company to buy the naming rights. “It's important that we do get one,” Ellis said, citing stadium improvements as one place to spend that money.
Five Questions with John Elway
Q1: Von Miller noted this summer that Mr. Bowlen made you the highest-paid player in the NFL twice. Did you share with him any of your own experience on coming back into a locker room after cashing that kind of paycheck?
A: That’s what I tried to tell him today. We met in my office. I know that he’s one of those happy-go-lucky guys that wants everybody to be positive. But the expectations, you’re going to see different sides of people because of them and what you make. So you have to be able to battle through that and understand that situation. You can’t let if affect you on the negative side. Just tried to warn him a little bit what’s coming.
Q2: What else did you tell him?
A: It’s always a little bit worrisome, like, how does a guy react to being financially set? I said, this is about creating your legacy. It’s about what you want to do as a football player. You should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. That’s what you should be. He agreed with me. He’s capable of that.
Q3: Was there a pivotal moment in the negotiations?
A: Ultimately, as much as you’d like to get these things done before the 15th, they’re never going to happen. It’s never going to happen until its time, unless one side just totally caves. So that’s why [there’s the] need for the deadline. That’s why we knew it probably was going to get until the 15th, and it did.
Q4: He had an insane off-season, traveling the world, reality TV. Does that concern you at all?
A: That’s up to him. That’s his time, right? But ultimately whatever it takes for him to be ready to play football and play at a level we expect him to play is what he has to do.
Q5: Does he remind you of anybody who used to chase you around on Sundays?
A: Yeah, I mean Derrick Thomas is a guy that had that kind of talent, with the speed and the ability for him to come off the edge. He’s got that ability. He’s unique. So that’s why he’s gotta take advantage of it.
Biggest Turnaround: Quarterback
The biggest change in Denver is obvious: Quarterback. Quarterback. Quarterback. How the competition plays out there over the next month will go a long way in defining the Broncos’ title defense.
Sanchez, the fifth pick in the 2009 draft, is the presumed frontrunner. He looked sharp on Thursday, and Kubiak even noted that to reporters. “He just looked confident,” Kubiak said. Sanchez started on the Jets teams that reached the AFC championship game in the 2009 and ’10 seasons, but his career stalled, first in New York, then in Philadelphia.
If Sanchez is the starter, he will replace Manning, a first ballot Hall of Famer, after having replaced Brett Favre, who is being inducted this year, when he was with the Jets. Sanchez said he learned the Broncos’ playbook by studying flash cards like he prepping for a vocab test.
There is a sense in Denver, though, that the starting job isn’t necessarily Sanchez’s, and since the Broncos have been adamant that they don’t plan to play Paxton Lynch, their first-round pick out of Memphis, too much this season, don’t be surprised if Trevor Siemian gets a shot at some point. For now, Siemian and Sanchez are slated to split the first-team repetitions.
Drawing Some Buzz: Shane Ray
The Broncos seem genuinely excited about Shane Ray, the pass rusher they took 23rd overall in 2015. Ray told me he gained 10 pounds of muscle this off-season. He’s always been known for his speed and quickness and ability to get around the edge. But he wanted to be able to play more physically, too, in order to keep the blockers guessing—and put them on their backs. He said he thinks he will even shift inside some this season, which he also did in college at Missouri. “Without a doubt,” Ray said after practice Thursday. “I had no problem with beating guards. I feel like if a tackle can’t block me a guard sure can’t.”
Imagine an improved Ray chasing quarterbacks alongside Miller and Ware this season. Opposing offenses would prefer not to. And that’s one reason why several Denver defenders argued that this defense could actually be better than the one that finished first overall and ranked in the top five in almost every defensive category last season. Obligatory disclaimer: Of course they’re going to say that in July. But … “We can become the best defense of all time,” safety T.J. Ward said.