- From the fallout of the off-season's biggest injuries to young quarterbacks under fire, we rounded up the 10 most important things to take out of the NFL's spring practice sessions.
Welcome to NFL summer vacation. With mandatory minicamps wrapping up, players now head out on break until July 22, when the first of the training camps begin.
In the meantime, here are 10 things we learned from the latest round of off-season practices.
Jay Ajayi is going to be a very busy man
Miami coach Adam Gase said during a radio interview in May that he wants Ajayi to handle “between 22 and 25” carries per game this season. Perhaps that doesn’t sound like a massive number, but in terms of an NFL running back’s workload it is huge. An average of 25 attempts stretched over a 16-game schedule would put Ajayi right at 400 rushes for the season—just five backs in NFL history (Larry Johnson, Jamal Anderson, James Wilder, Eric Dickerson and Eddie George) have hit that number. Ezekiel Elliott and Le’Veon Bell led the league last season in attempts and attempts per game, respectively, with 322 and 21.8.
On top of his run-game workload, though, Ajayi also wants to be more involved as a receiving threat. ESPN’s James Walker reports that “catching the ball out of the backfield became a major focus during Ajayi’s off-season training,” a year after the Boise State product hauled in 27 passes for a paltry 151 yards (5.6 yards per reception).
The Dolphins will have to draw a line in the sand, somewhere. Ajayi handled 287 touches last season, way up from the 56 he had as a rookie. And Gase said midway through the 2016 campaign that he needed to keep an eye on Ajayi’s touches, because the back’s physical style naturally adds to his wear and tear. (Ajayi dropped in the 2015 draft due to concerns over the long-term health of his knee, which he injured early in his college career.)
One way or another, Damien Williams and Kenyan Drake will have to spell Ajayi at times, or Ajayi won’t be able to maintain his level of play into the winter.
The Cowboys are facing similar questions with Elliott, although he does not come with the same injury history as Ajayi. Elliott’s 322 carries easily paced the NFL last season (no other back topped 300), but Dallas also wants him more involved as a pass catcher.
“Absolutely. We’re going to try to get him the ball that way,” RBs coach Gary Brown told the Dallas Morning News. “We’re going to hand it to him, throw it to him, heck, if he can take a snap we might give it to him that way.”
Elliott touched the ball 354 times last season, an average of 23.6 times per the 15 games he played. Where does the line fall between feeding the dynamic back and attempting to keep him from breaking down early in his career?
Rookie-year expectations for Corey Davis and Mike Williams
At some point down the line, Davis and Williams—both top-10 picks—could land among the NFL’s most productive receivers. The likelihood of that happening in 2017 continues to dip, for varying reasons.
In Williams’s case, it remains due to injury. The No. 7 pick still has not practiced in full since injuring his back during the Chargers’ first rookie minicamp session, and coach Anthony Lynn could not even guarantee that Williams would be 100% when training camp opens next month. This after both Lynn and Philip Rivers earlier expressed concern that Williams was falling behind. Whenever Williams is available, he figures to be a significant piece to L.A.’s offense, but he’ll have ground to make up.
Davis has been practicing, a positive development in light of the ankle surgery he required this spring. However, the Titans added veteran receiver Eric Decker to the mix Sunday, signing him to a one-year deal. So, Davis, Decker, Rishard Matthews, Delanie Walker, DeMarco Murray and others all will compete for looks in the passing attack. ESPN fantasy expert Mike Clay currently projects Davis to catch 60 passes for 758 yards and six TDs; last season’s Titans leaders, Walker and Matthews, each hauled in 65 passes.
Expect Tennessee to open things up more through the air this season, assuming Marcus Mariota is healthy. Still, it’s going to be a run-heavy team behind Murray and Derrick Henry. Even if Mariota tops his 451 pass attempts from last season, there are more mouths to feed now.
Good news, (very) bad news for the Saints
When we polled our writers earlier this month on each NFL team’s most important players, OT Terron Armstead ranked fourth on the Saints’ roster. He’s now out for four to six months after tearing his labrum, the same injury that shelved Detroit left tackle Taylor Decker this off-season. Armstead has talent in abundance, so this is a hit no matter how one slices it.
The glass-half-full line of thinking, though, is that New Orleans has been here before. Armstead has yet to play a full 16 games in his previous four seasons, and he was limited to just seven games a year ago due to multiple injuries. Andrus Peat slid over from guard to handle left tackle and held up in that role. The nature of the Saints’ offense—Drew Brees getting rid of the ball in a hurry—can help mask deficiencies up front. The Saints allowed just 27 sacks in 2016, the sixth fewest in the league.
Peat could step out to the left side again. Rookie Ryan Ramczyk could be another answer. The first-round pick played left tackle at Wisconsin and has the athleticism to survive on Brees’s blind side—the caveat being that he, too, needs to get healthy; hip surgery has prevented him from jumping into the mix yet.
Seattle’s search for a No. 2 cornerback
As minicamp broke, the leader in the clubhouse for the starting job opposite Richard Sherman was Jeremy Lane. There very well could be a changing of the guard come July and August, however. Coach Pete Carroll said last week that Lane has “guys nipping at his heels,” and all arrows seem to point toward rookie Shaq Griffin as the player applying the most heat.
“He’s got probably one of the best corner minds that we’ve had for a young guy around here,” defensive coordinator Kris Richard said, via The Seattle Times. “That’s just in regards to leverage, positioning, the understanding of our coverages and where we need him to be. He’s picked it up fairly quickly.”
Lane’s ideal role is in the slot, which would leave an outside spot for Griffin, should he maintain his momentum through the summer.
More Doug Martin love
The Buccaneers just cannot stop talking about how focused and driven Martin looks this off-season. The latest hype came courtesy of GM Jason Licht, who last week told the NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo: “He looks like the Doug Martin of 2015.”
The Doug Martin of 2015 rushed for 1,402 yards and caught 33 passes. No Tampa Bay back eclipsed even 600 yards rushing last year, so a return to form from Martin would be huge. Among the reasons to pump the brakes a bit is that Martin cannot even suit up until Week 4, as he has to serve out the remainder of a PED suspension. Will he be able to deliver an immediate impact come Oct. 1? What happens to his role if the Bucs’ offense clicks without him in Weeks 1 through 3? There are questions still to be answered, but few players get the type of praise Martin has received this off-season.
Inside the Jeremy Maclin signing
A deeper dive into Maclin’s possible role with the Ravens can be found here. An element not touched on much in that piece, though, is the injury-induced uncertainty in Baltimore’s tight-end corps will ratchet up the reliance on the Ravens’ receivers and backs. Dennis Pitta’s season (and possibly career) is over after another hip injury, while Maxx Williams had, according to coach John Harbaugh, a “type of knee surgery no other football player has had.” He is a question mark for the start of training camp.
Baltimore still has depth at the TE position: Crockett Gilmore, Benjamin Watson (returning from an Achilles tear), high-upside option Darren Waller. But the Ravens will be figuring out that mix deep into August, so Maclin could be just as important of an underneath safety net for Joe Flacco as he is a deep threat.
Tracking Jared Goff
Whether or not the Rams contend in the NFC West, the development (or lack thereof?) of Goff will be among the year’s more talked-about storylines. Last week, mimicking comments he made earlier this off-season, Goff talked up how much easier he has found Sean McVay’s offense to digest compared to the Rams’ 2016 version.
“I’d say I’ve understood all of it and grasped all of it so far,” Goff said, via ESPN.com.
It’s easy for teams, and quarterbacks, to plug their progress this time of year. Blake Bortles’s supposed step forward has sparked a slew of recent articles, and he is as glaring an example there is for needing to wait until the games count. But the McVay-Goff relationship at least is off to an encouraging start.
Is it finally Kevin White’s time?
The Chicago Tribune’s Rich Campbell reports that White is “back to full speed,” which a) is no small update given that White has played four games in two season, and b) only really matters if the same can be said come September.
The Bears have been awaiting White’s breakthrough ever since they drafted him with the seventh pick in 2015. The door is wide, wide open for him to be a high-volume target this season, should he stay on the field—Alshon Jeffery’s gone, no receiver on the roster hit 70 receptions in ’16 and Chicago figures to be behind (and thus, passing) quite a bit.
On Shaq Lawson and the Bills’ new scheme
Sean McDermott’s arrival as head coach in Buffalo means a shift from the Rex Ryan 3–4 base defense to a 4–3 front. Lawson is all about the transition thus far.
“I will always have my hand in the dirt. I was always an attack defensive end,” Lawson told WGR 550, via the Bills’ website. “You know, not having to stand up and drop into coverage a lot of the times. It’s what I’ve been doing and it’s what got me drafted in the first round, things like that. I’m just very comfortable with it because I’ve been doing it all my life.”
Lawson also has the advantage of actually participating this off-season. He required shoulder surgery after the Bills drafted him last year, which landed him on the PUP list and kept him out through Week 6. Healthy, he’ll be expected to hold down a starting DE spot, pairing with Jerry Hughes. The Bills’ front of Lawson, Hughes, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams could be fierce, especially with OLB Lorenzo Alexander providing extra pass rush help off the edge. Lawson is a key, though, because there is limited depth behind the top two ends.
Carlos Hyde still has the 49ers’ RB job
There has been speculation throughout the off-season, sparked in part by comments from 49ers GM John Lynch himself, that Hyde could wind up an expendable piece of San Francisco’s roster. That has not yet played out on the field. Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee reports that Hyde “had the honor of getting the first running back snaps of all the spring practices,” a setup that could change come training camp but also counts for something as coach Kyle Shanahan implements his scheme.
Barrows added that Hyde will “have to fend out a host of other” RBs. Of note on that front: the strong work reportedly put in by UDFA rookie Matt Breida. Veteran Tim Hightower and fourth-round pick Joe Williams were slated to be Hyde’s main competition, and probably will remain as such, but the emergence of a back further down the depth chart could complicate matters. If Breida outplays Hightower and Williams in camp, would that be viewed as a good sign for Breida’s ability or a bad sign for the 49ers’ depth as a whole?