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  • As the first week of OTAs wraps, the balance of the buzz centers on players teams will have a close eye on all summer.
By Chris Burke
May 26, 2017

The Cardinals’ linebacking corps and secondary are as athletic and versatile as any team in the league (I touched on that in more depth during a recent talk with rookie safety Budda Baker). However, a year after finishing with a disappointing 7-8-1 record, Arizona’s hope for a return to playoff form largely rests in how well its defensive line holds up.

Central to that developing plot is Robert Nkemdiche, a 2016 first-round pick who struggled to crack the lineup as a rookie. The belief is that he can replace the spot up front left vacant by the departure of longtime Cardinal Calais Campbell—no small task considering Campbell, a two-time Pro Bowler, had been entrenched in the starting lineup since 2009.

If Nkemdiche rises to that challenge, the Cardinals have a shot to be solid up front and potentially dominant overall defensively. If he falters in his second season, piecing together a competitive D-line will be a challenge.

“He’s playing extremely well,” coach Bruce Arians said earlier this week, according to Arizona Sports 98.7 FM. “He jumped offsides twice today, but that’s probably the first time. ... He’s been playing extremely well and [we want him to] be the player we drafted, which he is. He is.”

Back for the Cardinals this season are DTs Corey Peters and Josh Mauro, who started 14 and 13 games, respectively, last year. Veteran Frostee Rucker and 2015 draft pick Rodney Gunter are among the other returnees, so the Cardinals should have enough to piece together at least a usable rotation sans Campbell. But Nkemdiche has the highest upside of the group, by a significant margin.

“People want football to be microwavable,” said Cardinals defensive line coach and former NFL DT Brentson Buckner—a reference to Nkemdiche’s slow-and-steady development plan. “Football is not microwavable, especially on the defensive line.

“I’ve been happy with him. I never got down on him. I didn’t expect him to come in and do all that dominating, because I knew the position. It takes time. It takes some guys even longer. He is starting to come around. He’s in great shape. He’s fully back from the ankle. You see the natural ability take over. Now it’s all about Robert.”

It’s been a bit bumpy thus far for Nkemdiche, after he slipped in the draft due to off-field red flags and then scuffled in 2016. The Cardinals don’t really have the luxury to afford him any more time to develop.

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Tracking the top-10 receivers

Funny how this sport works sometimes. Headed into the 2017 draft, there was a little buzz that Western Michigan wide receiver Corey Davis could tumble due to a troublesome ankle injury. He wound up coming off the board at No. 5 anyway, to the Titans. And now as the first round of OTAs wraps, he’s actually in the best position health-wise of the three receivers taken in the top 10.

The Bengals knew ahead of time that No. 9 pick John Ross would need time this summer to rehab, following March surgery on his labrum. That rules him out for OTAs.

Mike Williams’s recent setback was much more an unpleasant surprise. The No. 7 pick tweaked his back during the Chargers’ rookie minicamp, an injury that thus far has forced him to sit during OTAs. His coach, Anthony Lynn, said this week that Williams ”is getting behind right now.”

“If he wasn’t a rookie it would be different,” said Lynn, per ESPN.com. “But he has so much to learn, and some of this you can only learn on the field.”

Philip Rivers struck a similar chord: “Obviously, it’s nothing he can’t catch up on. But this to me is valuable time, especially at his position. With all of the things we ask for from our receivers formation-wise and all of the things we do like no-huddle, it would be good for him to be out there doing this.”

Davis is not yet at full speed either, but he did tell the Titans’ website, ”I could play a game right now if need be.”

The second round of OTAs kicks off next week. Ross won’t be available for the Bengals. Will the Chargers have Williams back?

NaVorro Bowman’s return

The trade rumors (however unrealistic they may have been, given his injury history and contract) have subsided for now, so linebacker NaVorro Bowman is back at it as a 49er. His mere presence on the field during this week’s OTAs was news enough: Bowman ”already is back to full speed,” according to Joe Fann of 49ers.com, a little less than eight months after tearing his Achilles.

Bowman, still just 29, stands to man the middle in new defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s 4–3 scheme—a shift from the team’s previous 3–4 look.

“I like it, I like it a lot,” Bowman told the team website. “I’m able to fly around to the ball and make the plays that I know I will.”

Rookie Reuben Foster has been running drills this week, but the 49ers have kept him clear of contact. As a result, he’ll be playing a little catch-up when he is 100% (the hope is that happens by training camp).

Tom Savage banking on experience

Texans QB Tom Savage has made two career starts, and he left the second one at halftime with a concussion, so he’s not exactly a decorated veteran. He has, however, been part of the team since coach Bill O’Brien’s arrival in 2014. That alone could lock Savage into the starting job this season.

Longtime Houston Chronicle beat writer John McClain has been saying as much ever since the Texans traded up for Deshaun Watson in Round 1:

The experience does matter. It shouldn’t matter as much as talent in the long run, but it definitely carries weight at this time of year.

“This has been the longest I’ve ever been in an offense in my career so it’s been fun,” Savage told Texans.com. “I’m learning a lot and just going out there and—I know I sound repetitive—but just executing what these coaches are teaching me and ultimately trying to win games.”

Watson will be the Texans’ starting quarterback eventually. The change still looks like it’s going to take awhile.

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Trouble for the Bills at tight end?

Even before he signed with Buffalo as a free agent in 2015, there reportedly were worries—at least from his former team, the Dolphins—about the long-term health of Charles Clay’s knee. Those worries haven’t gone away.

“We are concerned with Charles’s knee situation,” rookie Bills coach Sean McDermott said Thursday, according to The Buffalo News. “It’s something we have to manage moving forward in order to have him on the field for us, which is important moving forward. He’s a weapon for us.”

Clay has not missed any games due to his knee ailment during his Buffalo career (he sat out one last year for the birth of his child and three in 2015 because of a strained back), but he has been a near-permanent fixture on the injury report on account of it. He’s also yet to take off quite the way the Bills envisioned when they signed him away from Miami—Clay has averaged 54 catches and 540 yards in two seasons.

The Bills opted not to address their tight end situation during the draft, trading back from the No. 10 pick with O.J. Howard on the board, then using a Round 2 selection on wide receiver Zay Jones, who’s week-to-week right now with his own knee injury. So, there is little in the way of meaningful depth behind Clay. They need him healthy, for all 16 games.

PETER KING’S WEEKLY HOT READ: Want more insider information from Peter King? Check out the MMQB Hot Read.

Ryan Tannehill good to go

Even more important to the AFC East’s outlook is the status of Ryan Tannehill. He partially tore his ACL in December, thereby forcing Matt Moore into the starting lineup as the Dolphins headed into the postseason.

Tannehill was back on the field for OTAs, and he actually said his knee “started feeling good probably at the end of January.”

“It’s really strong and ready to go,” he said this week, per the Miami Herald. “I’m feeling back to 100 %,” he said. “Everything feels totally normal. I’m going to keep pushing to get better next year.”

About all that guard talk ...

One of the talking points surrounding Western Michigan O-line prospect Taylor Moton at draft time (not here, mind you) was that he would have to move inside as a guard at the next level. The Panthers have other plans, no doubt fueled by their nagging need at tackle.

Bill Voth of Panthers.com reports that not only are the Panthers giving Moton an extensive look at right tackle, they’re also asking him to take reps on the left side. Voth added that Moton appears ticketed for a swing job in 2017—the Panthers signed Matt Kalil to play left tackle and have Daryl Williams and possibly Michael Oher (concussion) for the right. Moton’s playing time, then, could boil down to where an injury arises. Still, it’s obvious already that the Panthers are not pigeon-holing him as an interior lineman.

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One for the road

I’ve been trying to save space in these OTA notebooks to highlight at least one under-the-radar player worth monitoring this summer. Today’s candidate: Dallas tight end Rico Gathers.

You might know him as former Baylor basketball star Rico Gathers, but he began his transition to football on the Cowboys’ practice squad a season ago. The 2016 sixth-round pick warrants a little intrigue: He’s 6' 6" and 273 pounds, and then there’s that hoops background.

Gathers even has cycled through with the first-team offense at times this off-season, both in rookie mini-camp and now OTAs. Obviously, Jason Witten has a lock on the TE1 role, but his projected backup, Geoff Swaim, is out until training camp following foot surgery, so there are plenty of reps available for Gathers.

“I try to tamper the enthusiasm a bit and coach ’em up,” Dallas tight ends coach Steve Loney said, according to DallasNews.com. “But he’s come a long way from where he started. I have to remind myself that he has zero background. Last year—just getting in the huddle and hearing the snap count—that’s now behind him. He’s getting off on the snap count. He was slow before because he was thinking too much. Now he’s reacting. So I feel good about his progress and I want to make sure I keep him humble and don’t have him look too far because there’s a huge challenge ahead of him.”

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