Every season brings something new and different at NFL training camps.
Go to Houston or New Orleans this year, and you will see brand new CRZs or “Cool Recovery Zones.” These are trailers with two rows of theater seating, where the temperature is set in the 30s, and players retreat, by position group, to knock their body temp down a few degrees during breaks in practices held under the Gulf Coast sun. I tried it after sweating through a Texans morning session, and I can confirm it works.
Go to Detroit, and you’ll see the new hill that Lions coach Matt Patricia had built—a hill that, I was told, cost more than you’d think. Patricia was inspired by the rolling landscape in Foxboro, on which Bill Belichick, and assistants like Patricia, would condition the players. In the flatlands of the Midwest, you have to manufacture this kind of thing.
Go to Westfield, Ind., and you’ll see the normal-looking two-story house on the edge of the Colts’ fields. There lives the family that sold the 400 acres that make up Grand Park, this massive complex with 26 baseball and softball diamonds, and 31 fields for soccer, football, and lacrosse. The weekend I was there, over four days, it hosted over 100 baseball games. The Colts, by the way, have a small private area with a set of bleachers behind the North goal posts for that family.
And go to Irvine, Calif., and you’ll see the Rams still staging the UC-Irvine campus for practice and training purposes, but ditching the dorms for the first time in favor of a posh hotel in nearby Newport Beach, another sign that camp isn’t what it used to be, and of teams realizing that freshman-year accommodations (remember the dorms we saw on Hard Knocks three seasons ago?) might not lead to peak performance.
In this week’s GamePlan, we take a quick break from answering your questions (the mailbag will return next week) to spill some of what’s left in my notebook after a month of traveling to NFL training camps. Learning these little things is part of the value of hitting the road in late July and early August. Of course, the bigger part is the actual football—and everything you learn about it along the way.
You’ll get information about the 20 teams I saw, and the 12 I didn’t. Call it our All-32.
Browns (July 24-25)
I was planning to say this here, even before the GQ story blew things up—this was the first time I’ve spent time with Baker Mayfield, and I was really struck by how level and intelligent he came off, counter to perception. I’d heard this about this before, and seeing it for myself helped firm up my feelings on the 24-year old being in for a Carson Wentz/Patrick Mahomes-type of breakout sophomore year.
It’s who he is as a player, of course. But it’s also who he is as a competitor and a worker.
“He loves to play the game of football between the white lines,” GM John Dorsey told me. “That’s real. But he’s also a smart enough guy to realize he doesn’t know anything yet. He’s growing. He’s a second-year guy, he’s growing. He’s gonna have his falls at certain times of the year. But he’s smart enough not to make the same mistake twice.”
In the MMQB column on July 29, Mayfield told me that it doesn’t seem like he gives a damn what people people think (“Nah, I don’t.”) But the other thing he emphasized, along the lines of what Dorsey was saying, is that he’s well-aware of how far he has to go as a pro football player, a product of never forgetting how hard it was to make it here as a two-time college walk-on.
“A big part of who I am is where I came from,” Mayfield says. “But I also realize I have to start from square one each year. What I did last year? Great. Who cares? I gotta build on it, getting better, working on the things I didn’t do as well, and continue to get better.”
So what kind of quarterback was he last year? “A young one, that’s for sure. A young one, not as knowledgeable as I wanted to be.”
And now? “Much better.” With the hope to be “tremendously better” by Week 1.
I like where the kid’s head is at.
Steelers (July 26)
In Latrobe I got the feeling that the Steelers almost resent the idea that the departures of Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown are going to make the wheels come off the wagon, mostly because Pittsburgh was closer than a lot of people remember last year. On Thanksgiving, Mike Tomlin’s crew was 7-2-1. In Week 15, they took apart the eventual Super Bowl champions in the Patriots. So no, after a 9-6-1 year, this won’t exactly be a teardown.
“Those games were decided by three points or less, the year before, we won them,” Ben Roethlisberger saysa. “Last year, we didn’t. That’s the way it goes sometimes. We have to take it, we have to be better. We can’t put ourselves in situations to leave it to a kick, or leave it in someone else’s hands, we want it to be in our hands, in how we finish games.”
Tomlin, for his part, tried to create tension in camp to simulate the kind of late-game moments that were his 2018 team’s undoing—“I think you’re continually working to create it, not only here, but in everything that you do, because you don’t know what the tipping point is. You never know what the tipping point is, you never know what’s going to push you over to other side. You’re consciously searching in all areas to find that winning edge.”
We’ll see if they find it.
Bengals (July 27)
I was there when A.J. Green went down, so my first memory of this camp was how new Bengals head coach Zac Taylor could have lost his best player for the start of his first season at the cost of the NFL keeping its 100th anniversary event in Dayton.
And after that, I had this takeaway: For all the feeling that Taylor’s hire was a swing at trying to recreate Sean McVay’s magic, the coaching staff there is pretty scheme-diverse.
Which is to say that feeling about Taylor wasn’t 100% accurate. The Brown family loved how detailed Taylor’s plan was during the interview process. He had an answer for everything, including the question of how he’d find the right people with whom to surround himself given the challenges of being hired a month after other new coaches. He wanted guys with different ideas, which is easy to see on the flow chart.
“We’re not the Rams in Cincinnati,” Taylor says. “The experiences that [offensive coordinator] Brian [Callahan] and [quarterbacks coach] Alex Van Pelt have, there’s a lot of guys bringing pieces of what they’ve done. And some of the stuff we’ve done in the past, stuff we’ve had success with that we like too. It’s piecing together the Bengals offense.”
The idea is to have the Rams offense as a base, but to keep building off of it, which is easier to do when there’s a greater volume of ideas in the room.
Colts (July 28)
Given Andrew Luck’s injury situation, there’s still a lot of uncertainty surrounding what his September will hold. But putting that aside (which is admittedly difficult to do), this Indianapolis team looks loaded, sort of in the way Seattle looked at the start of this decade, just before they really broke out. The front seven and the offensive line—really, everywhere you look on the roster—are packed with athletes.
Such a huge part of it is a result of the almost-accidental partnership that GM Chris Ballard and coach Frank Reich have forged, and how Ballard’s scouting department knows exactly what Reich’s coaching staff wants, both position-specific and program-wise.
“I like to think we’re trying to get players with integrity and humility, but we gotta model that,” Reich says. “We all have issues. But I know Chris is a man of integrity. I know Chris is very humble, I know Chris is very smart and very good. He listens. We work together, we collaborate and I try to be the same way. I think it starts there.”
If Luck is ready to go on Sept. 8, look out.
Bears (July 29)
Four years of GM Ryan Pace’s team-building has brought the Bears to a place where so many corners of the roster and the coaching staff are championship-ready. There’s no gentle way to put it—there’s a ton of pressure on Mitch Trubisky in Chicago.
Trubisky’s QB rating was over 100 in four 2018 games, and under 80 in six. Accordingly, there was good, and there was bad. And in my conversations with Matt Nagy through it, he’d emphasize it took the Chiefs two-and-a-half years with Alex Smith before the offense was truly his. So Trubisky’s still in weeks of that process with his coach.
“He knows the offense. He’s learned it,” Nagy says. “And it’s not so much learning an offense, as a quarterback in this offense, it’s more about learning what to do with the offense. He’s working through that.”
Therein lies the step they’re expecting this year—when he breaks the huddle, Nagy wants Trubisky thinking about the defense, not the offense. And that’ll happen if he’s got Nagy’s scheme down cold and, like the coach said, is able to apply it to what he seeing from the other team’s defense. Bears backup Chase Daniel witnessed that transformation with Smith in Kansas City. And he, for one, thinks he’s seeing that coming from Trubisky.
“When you’re on scout team, they’re throwing up cards, they’re circling the guy and you throw it to the guy,” Daniel says. “[Not having] the card mentality is what coach talks about all the time with his quarterbacks—‘let it rip, be you.’ And Alex was like, ‘Hey, it doesn’t really matter if I turn the ball over, I’m gonna go out and be protective with it, but I’m gonna take more chances.’ I think Mitch is starting to understand that as well.”
Lions (July 30)
One thing I think you’ll see in Detroit this year that may not have been noticeable in Year 1: Matt Patricia’s expertise of the details. One example would be in how the offensive line will be coached a certain way, specific to how the shorter-but-not-height-deficient Matthew Stafford plays. Another is in the bigger, longer targets Stafford prefers, guys like T.J. Hockenson, Jessie James and Kenny Golladay, being deployed.
And then there’s how Patricia himself will be able to direct the coaches more than he did last year, when he was focused in getting the program off the ground floor.
“I think the biggest part for me last year, you’re trying to do everything within the organization to make change, get it right, make it Tier 1 level,” Patricia told me. “This year was really good for me to be able to go back and coach the coaches, like, ‘hey this is what we have to expect, this is what we have to do.’ We’re asking our players to do this, we have to be able to do this.’
“Those expectations and those differences, I think with the coaching staff changes that we made, you evaluate the first year, this has to get better, or this was good, whatever it is, I’m spending more time doing that. Which, ultimately, in the end, should help.”
In the end, the real hallmark of Belichick’s program in New England is in complementary football—how the pieces fit together. And ultimately, that’s what Patricia is looking for in coaching his coaches.
Chiefs (July 31)
Mahomes Mania is everywhere in Kansas City. Even with thunderstorms on the horizon, there was a big crowd at practice and a lot of 15 jerseys in the crowd. You can even see it with the coaches and scouts—everyone wants to see Patrick Mahomes’s encore.
“You definitely notice people noticing you more, and you’re seeing your jersey more,” Mahomes says. “All that stuff is awesome, just to be achieving your dream and living out your dream on a daily basis. But I feel exactly the same, going out there and play my brothers, my teammates, my best friends. I’m having fun each and every day.”
However it was pointed out to me that a few days before, Mahomes ran sprints with new defensive acquisitions Frank Clark and Tyrann Mathieu. The implication—Mahomes knows that the team’s ability to maximize the championship window it’s in, especially with Mahomes on a rookie deal, is going to hinge largely on the total makeover the defense has undergone.
And on that front, the team brass is pretty optimistic on what Clark and Chris Jones can do together on the line, and how Steve Spagnulo is going to make that work.
Texans (Aug. 1)
How Year 3 goes for Deshaun Watson rides, in large part, on how the offensive line comes together. Remember when last year, he got beat up so bad that at one point he couldn’t fly and instead took a 12-hour bus ride to Jacksonville to play. But Watson can also do more to help himself, and he knows it.
His first two years, most of the time, Watson would go to the line with two calls, and a read to determine which one he’d go with. Now, he said, he breaks the huddle with a handful of options floating around in his head, which should help everyone, the line included, in getting the Texans out of bad calls, and out of bad looks.
“I see it when the defense tries to disguise things, and show a blitz, he knows the blitz is coming before it’s coming,” star receiver DeAndre Hopkins says. “And that helps us out a lot, because we’re able to get on track with what route we want to run, based off what they’re showing. Him being able to decipher that, that’s maturity, that’s growing.”
“We’ve really been working on our disguises, trying to give Deshaun different looks, and it’s going to help him as much as it helps us,” safety Justin Reid added. “You have days you come out here and he’ll torch us. It’s a back-and-forth chess match.”
Watson being able to play that game could be a game-changer, given what he’s been able to do without the leeway to move the pieces around like he now can.
Saints (Aug. 2)
Sean Payton doesn’t want to call what his team had to deal with in the aftermath of this January—or last January, for that matter—a hangover. And for a very specific reason.
“Hangover’s definitely not the right word, because hangover represents partying and then dealing with that,” Payton says. “Is there a bad taste is guys’ mouths? Yeah, probably so. There was that challenge a year ago coming off the Minnesota game. But honestly, there hasn’t been any alright, sit down, put up a power point and discuss it—at all.”
But there’s definitely a sense of urgency here. Brees, who is 40 years old, told me he’s year-to-year at this point. Michael Thomas is just the first of a bunch of young Saints who are going to get big contracts, in New Orleans or elsewhere—which is a champagne problem, but a problem nonetheless in how it affects team-building.
Coaches hate the idea that any one year is different than others, and Payton explained to me that his message to the players has been to “trust the path.” But the guys here feel it. The roster is stacked, a result of bumper crops coming from the 2016 and ’17 drafts, with promising ’18 and ’19 classes behind them. The time is now, so Nickell Robey-Coleman, they say, is just a relic of their past.
“We have to move past it, and move on, that’s the fastest way and the easiest way, to move past it and move on,” Thomas says. “And that’s what we’re doing. You know what it felt like. But control what you can control. It’s a new season and we’ve had a great offseason in order to develop, and we’ve brought in some new pieces that’ll help us dominate even more.”
Rams (Aug. 3, Aug. 6)
I saw the Rams twice, and one interesting thing is that the team hopes they’ll have two defined guiding voices on the roster when Week 1 comes. On defense, it’ll be safety Eric Weddle, who’s getting the green dot on his helmet, and will have a level of autonomy to adjust things back there that new acquisitions rarely do. And on offense, it’ll be quarterback Jared Goff.
Sean McVay and others raised to me how much more vocal and forceful Goff has become as a leader in his fourth year. With his knowledge of the offense, after two full years in it, he’s earned that much. The idea, then, is to become more adaptable to whatever a defense throws at him, which is an outgrowth of the struggle the Rams had dealing with the Patriots’ scheme in the Super Bowl.
And as for any “hangover” here, McVay’s co-workers haven’t seen it.
“Long story short, Sean’s one of those people that, his DNA, the way he is, a win or a loss is not gonna define us. It’s deeper than that. It’s bigger than that,” GM Les Snead says. "He does a really good job of, a moment in time isn’t going to define who he is or who we are. That is truly what he believes and when somebody truly believes something, the organization follows that because it’s not something that he read, or somebody gave him this advice, ‘this is how you handle it’, that’s just who he is.
“Whether it’s losing a regular season game or losing the playoff game the year before, losing the Super Bowl, heck, winning the NFC Championship. We’re more than that.”
Chargers (Aug. 3)
Heading into Year 16, Philip Rivers still loves to play football, and loves to compete, and loves the locker room. Conversely, there’s no question that his presence is a tacit display of how he feels about the team around him, mostly because he does a lot (see: 90-minute daily commute) to keep playing when he very easily could be settling into life as a high school football coach and full-time dad now.
The Chargers, as he sees them, are loaded.
“That ’06, ’07, ’08, ’09, there was a four-year stretch there, where we were as good as anyone in the league, probably should’ve won two. And we didn’t,” Rivers says. “I think we’re back in that same similar window, from a roster standpoint. So yeah, I think that certainly is a part of [still playing] too. You don’t wanna come out here and play and go 2-14. Of course, I’d be long gone too, if that was the case. We all kind of see what we have, the opportunity that we have.”
Still, there’s plenty to navigate. The team offered Melvin Gordon a deal in the $10 million per range—and neither side is budging for now. Starry sophomore Derwin James will be on the shelf until the Holidays. The offensive line has a lot to work out, still, and uncertainty concerning the status of left tackle Russell Okung.
So yes, this should be one of the league’s most interesting teams this fall. And maybe one, based on all the questions above, that takes a little while to figure out.
Cowboys (Aug. 4)
Jaylon Smith’s deal is done—and it’s absolutely a surprise that his contract was finished first. The fourth-year linebacker is a great story, and a very good player, and will be behind teammates Dak Prescott, Zeke Elliott and Amari Cooper in any fiscal power rankings pretty soon.
Smith’s contract was less complicated to work out, because its numbers likely won’t carry the long-term implications the other contracts will—and that’s part of the reason why his deal was the first locked up. But there’s another piece to this, and that’s the value Smith put into remaining a Cowboy, and how it’ll benefit him beyond his football career. No one should doubt that there’s a message in there that the Joneses want to sell.
“A little bit comes with putting a star on your helmet,” COO Stephen Jones told me. “These guys get a lot of recognition. Don’t get me wrong, they deserve it. But I don’t think it’s by accident that we have a lot of Pro Bowlers. We’ve got a lot of national games, these guys get a lot of exposure, and they perform at a high level and get the recognition that they deserve.”
On one hand, that, of course, is correct—and the relevance in being a Cowboy is only enhanced if the team is good, which it will be for a while if the brass can keep all these guys together. On the other, football money is fleeting, and such avenues of loyalty in these cases are often proven to be one-way streets, when a player’s usefulness to a team expires.
Cardinals (Aug. 5)
The Kliff and Kyler Show got off to a roaring start in the Cardinals’ preseason opener against the Chargers, then skidded off the tracks against the Raiders last Thursday. But to Kliff Kingsbury, that’s to be expected. Kyler Murray’s going to have his bumps, and Kingsbury wants to use the preseason to work those out—so his uniquely-gifted quarterback has a better idea in September of what he can and can’t get away with.
“It’s just decision-making still—he’s gonna have some big plays, he’s a dynamic talent,” Kingsbury says. “It’s making sure that we don’t have the plays that get you beat on a regular basis. We’re gonna have growing pains, and have adversity, and have our ups and downs. But I just think him understanding the speed of this game, what he can get away with, what he can’t get away with is the biggest challenge right now.”
Part of that equation will be how the Arizona offensive line looks in two weeks—because it wasn’t very good against Oakland, and it has some pretty tough tape from last fall, too.
49ers (Aug. 6)
I asked Kyle Shanahan if there was a lesson his team should take from how last year went down, with a five-game winning streak to finish 2017 fueling feverish hype going into ’18, which obviously proved to be unfounded. And the 49ers’ coach’s answer was interesting.
“No, but that’s why you never get caught up in what people are saying,” he says. “I never felt like we’d arrived. I knew where we were at, I knew that season was going to be extremely tough. We knew why we won those five games in a row at the end of the year. So there was not a part of me that felt like we’d arrived. And I believe the players in the building didn’t think so either. We knew it was going to be tough, we knew where we were at, and we didn’t have a lot of depth.
“And we lost our running back before the year started, which was a huge deal and people didn’t realize it, and then we lost our quarterback third game in, that was really tough. We knew we hadn’t arrived. We knew it was gonna be a grind. We knew we had to stay healthy. And we knew it was going to be close games. You can be 5–11, 8–8, 11–5 because of those games.
“We never felt like that. And that was a little bit of the hard part, because it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, we’re disappointed.’ I knew it was gonna be tough if we lost those guys. Now, we should’ve won more than we did. We lost a couple close games and I think we should’ve won three more games than we did. But that’s where we were at last year. We’re in a much better position now.”
Raiders (Aug. 7)
In August 12’s MMQB column, we detailed how Jon Gruden feels about Antonio Brown, Derek Carr and the Raiders’ roster as it stands this August. That, by the way, stands in stark contrast to where he was last summer, with a team full of players he inherited.
And where was it most apparent? With his rookies.
“Not just the first-rounders,” Gruden says. “Cle [Clelin Ferrell] has been impressive as a leader, he’s an every-down finishing guy. [Josh] Jacobs is really starting to put it together, and [Johnathan] Abrams has got a chance. But it’s the other guys – Foster Moreau, Isaiah Johnson, Trayvon Mullen, and [Hunter] Renfrow, they’ve all done a good job coming in and not missing practice, and not making mistakes.
“And they are not afraid to compete. I like that.”
That last point is important, because it illustrates what’s common in what he and new GM Mike Mayock are looking for in players, and it’s even there with the guys with baggage (like Brown, Richie Incognito and Vontaze) that Oakland acquired.
Redskins (Aug. 11)
We didn’t address this head on last week, so we might as well here. It struck me how Washington head coach Jay Gruden is so matter-of-fact, so refreshingly blunt and to-the-point when it comes to his own job security.
“I think as an NFL coach, you want to have longevity obviously, but you also have to produce,” he says. “And if you don’t produce, obviously, we know what can happen. I’ve been in football my whole life. My dad’s been fired. My brother’s been fired. I’ve been fired with my brother. So we understand the nature of the business. You gotta produce. You gotta win. And we have the players to do that.
“I’m very confident in this football team, and I’m excited for the year to start.”
And as for whether he has an idea of what it’ll take to keep his job, he said, “I know what they expect. I know what being a Washington Redskin means—I mean, they have Joe Gibbs and some of these other guys in the history books—and I know what the expectations are for this franchise. If you don’t live up to them, they’re gonna find somebody who will. But I feel like we’ve built a pretty good thing here. It’s been a few years obviously, but if we get our guys healthy and playing well, I think we have a team that is very, very solid.”
I’d add this: Gruden’s done as good a job of quieting the Redskin circus as any coach in the 15 years I’ve covered the league, and has proven a really good offensive mind and developer of young coaches. Which should count for something.
Panthers (Aug. 12)
Word’s been out in NFL circles about Carolina owner David Tepper’s fascination with analytics for some time—which makes sense, given his background as a hedge-fund manager. How does Ron Rivera feel that impacts what he does day-to-day?
“The whole analytics thing has really helped,” Rivera says. “All this really does is validate the things I already thought. And it’s helped me in my decision-making. I think the things I have learned from him, it’s organizational, the way he handles things, the way he handles people. The biggest thing, above anything else, is ‘hey, take your best shot.’ If you make a mistake, you can correct it. Just have a plan going forward.
“That’s all he wants to know, what is my plan going forward? How am I going to approach it? But at the same time, with the analytics, if we can limit, and increase, then let’s do so.”
Know the Riverboat Ron thing? That’s actually where Rivera has seen the most validation, via the numbers a beefed-up analytics department is giving him.
“The fourth down stuff has always been the same,” Rivera said. “Last year, there were actually a number of those opportunities when I should’ve gone for it on fourth down and didn’t. … So, see, the biggest thing I get from this stuff is it just validates the things that we’ve done in the past, that’s probably been one of the more helpful things.”
Bills (Aug. 12)
The Band-Aid in Buffalo has been ripped off. After making the playoffs in Sean McDermott’s first year, the Bills cured the ills of the Rex Ryan/Doug Whaley era by slashing-and-burning the roster in early 2018. As a result, they carried over $70 million in dead money last year—meaning that 40% of the salary cap was accounted for by players no longer on the team. This coincided with the arrival of a new quarterback, in Josh Allen, and the start of a youth movement roster-wide.
And now, they can move forward.
“It’s certainly a load off our shoulders—that’s a hard way to live, it’s a hard way to survive,” McDermott told me, when we met at the team hotel before his team’s joint practices with the Panthers. “But it was necessary. And now we can start hopefully building and making progress. Those are tough days when you’re kind of in the ocean tic-tacing back and forth. Now, to be able to really build on the foundation is a good feeling.”
And then, McDermott used something he read in a Pat Riley book to describe to me the path he and GM Brandon Beane have taken, going from Year 1 jump to total rebuild.
“The first year is almost the innocent climb,” he says “As Pat Riley says in his book when he was talking about his career, and the Lakers, you have that first year, you’re moving in the right direction, but it’s not sustainable. But it’s good. It feels good. And then you come back the next year and it’s, ‘OK, we really have to reset here.’ It’s hard, hard to go through those.
“But they’re necessary. I use the analogy of dating. Hey, it’s the honeymoon phase, everything’s great. But you haven’t really had those tough conversations. The second year, you have to have those tough conversations. That’s what really leads to real growth. You don’t know it at the time, but those tough conversations, if you stick around long enough, are what really help you build the right way.”
The result we can see now? The Bills have young centerpieces in place on each side of the ball, in Allen and middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, were active in the second tier of free agency (Mitch Morse, John Brown, Cole Beasley), and have only about $9 million in dead money on their 2019 cap. So they think they’re going to be better this year, and they know they have a much better chance to stay good if that happens.
Buccaneers (Aug. 13)
I had one burning question for Bruce Arians... A few years back, I remember him saying that he didn’t want to coach if he wasn’t gonna call plays. And yet, this year, he chose to return to the NFL, and cede play-calling to Byron Leftwich.
“That was one of the decisions I made in the (2018) offseason, where it was if I went back in the right situation, and Byron was available, I’d have him do it,” Arians tole me. “If Byron was not available, I’d be calling them, because I haven’t trained anybody else.”
And Arians explained, when I asked why he felt that strongly about Leftwich, and only Leftwich, that “We think the same. I might go to say something, and he’s already called the same play or a very similar play. It’s easy flow for me working with him.”
Will he get the itch when the games start to count?
Arians laughed at the idea, and said, “I’ll get out there, ‘Hey, what about this?’ And it’ll be, ‘Nope, shut up. He’s doing great.’”
Dolphins (Aug. 13)
The quarterback competition is still ongoing, and interesting, which we detailed in last Thursday’s column. What might be most interesting to me, though, is how it’ll affect the team’s plans long-term—which may or may not include Josh Rosen.
Simply put, the team’s going to need, at some point, to get an assessment of where he is to plan for the position in 2020, given that the Dolphins are flush with draft capital for next April and the crop coming out of college football (Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert, Jake Fromm, et al) is expected to be very solid.
So in a rebuilding year, wouldn’t it just make sense to go with Rosen, rather than Ryan Fitzpatrick (who’s still playing well, but obviously isn’t going to be the franchise)? Here’s how Brian Flores, Chris Grier and the Dolphins see it: A full year of practice work should show them plenty to Rosen’s potential, and it’d be more damaging to the program not to give the guys on board now the best chance to win with the team’s best quarterback.
Right now, that guy is Fitzpatrick. But the gap between he and Rosen has shrunk. So stay tuned. If Rosen can’t beat out Fitz by Week 1, it certainly could happen soon thereafter.
And the rest …
There are 12 teams I haven’t visited. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t getting info on them. Here’s a nugget on each coming out of camp …
Broncos: Tight end is an important position in the offense new coordinator Rich Scangarello is bringing from San Francisco (see: Kittle, George), and the competition there has been interesting. First-round pick Noah Fant will, obviously, factor in. Austin Fort was having a great camp before he went down. Jeff Heuerman is now a more experienced hand there. Second-year pro Troy Fumagalli has shown potential. And now Jake Butt is coming back. So for an offense that has invested in its line, and has some receivers and backs, and added Joe Flacco, the belief is how the tight end situation sorts out could go a long way to seeing how far Scangarello can take the group.
Eagles: This is one deep team, and camp only proved that out. No one has offensive line depth? The Eagles do, with Halapoulivaati Vaitai and Andre Drummond coming off the bench. The running back spot was a trouble area in 2018? It’s now absolutely loaded, with Miles Sanders and Jordan Howard likely to share a good chunk of the workload, and Darren Sproles and Corey Clement among those in reserve. You can play this game at a lot of positions in Philadelphia, which is why I’m leaning towards picking them to come out of the NFC.
Giants: The secret to the Giants’ improved quarterback play this summer (from both Eli Manning and Daniel Jones)? Improvement from the offensive line. The staff is optimistic that the team’s forever problem area might just be fixed, with second-year guard Will Hernandez making a jump, and veteran additions Kevin Zeitler and Mike Remmers bringing a level of professionalism to the group.
Falcons: GM Thomas Dimitroff swore to owner Arthur Blank that last year’s the depth issue wouldn’t manifest again in 2019—and so he set out to draft two offensive linemen in the first round (Chris Lindstrom, Kaleb McGary) after spending to add James Carpenter and Jamon Brown in free agency. It hasn’t looked great thus far in preseason games (with the caveat here that McGary’s been out) but there’s still time for Atlanta to get it right.
Jaguars: We’ve focused a lot on Nick Foles, and for good reason. But so much of where he goes this year is going to depend on what’s around him. There’s been good and bad developments on that front this summer. On the bright side, D.J. Chark has taken a major step forward at receiver, and change the complexion of a group led by Marqise Lee. Conversely, the team’s been struck with injuries and uncertainty at tight end (an important spot in new OC John DeFilippo’s scheme), and still needs to short out its tackle spots.
Jets: Ty Montgomery has been a nice surprise for the new staff—one of the Jets’ best players in training camp, and a very, smart, hard-working piece for Adam Gase’s offense. Because of his versatility to play receiver, and Le’Veon Bell’s ability to do the same, I’d expect to see those two on the field together a bunch in the fall. The benefit is obvious—it’s tough on defenses when the huddle breaks, and you don’t know where the skill guys are going to go.
Packers: While we’ve all, rightly, focused on Aaron Rodgers and Matt LaFleur, the Packers’ defense has quietly shown signs through spring and summer of really coming alive in Mike Pettine’s second year as DC. Green Bay believes it has a top-five corner in second-year man Jaire Alexander, free-agent adds Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith are living up to expectations, and Rashan Gary has flashed his considerable potential. All of which means if the middle of the defense holds up, and can get offenses into third-and-long, Pettine’s going to cook up some interesting looks for quarterbacks to handle.
Patriots: New England’s staff doesn’t go gaga over guys in August. That said, I can tell you that the Patriots are ecstatic with their defensive depth (and have shown more 3-4 type fronts in preseason to get the most of their flexibility there), particularly at linebacker and in the secondary. And there are good vibes around undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers. He had a good spring, and got off to an outstanding start to training camp. The question that lingered, really, was whether it’d translate into the preseason games. The answer is that it has, and it’d be surprising at this point if Meyers doesn’t make the team.
Ravens: With C.J. Mosley off to the Jets—and to be clear, the Ravens badly wanted to keep Mosley and offered him $14 million per to try and accomplish that—Baltimore needed guys to step forward at the two off-ball linebacker spots. That’s happened, with Patrick Onwuasor, Chris Board and Kenny Young all flashing this summer. I’m told Onwuasor, the group’s veteran, is likely to get the green dot on his helmet (meaning he’s got the coach-to-player communication), and serve in the leadership role Mosley did. That makes sense, since he started alongside Mosley last year.
Seahawks: Pete Carroll’s defensive scheme is predicated on getting home with four rushers, and so concerns about the 2019 Seahawks’ ability to do it were only ramped up with the star defensive tackle Jarran Reed’s six-game suspension. As of now, training amp has shown that it’s probably going to have to happen with fresh legs and a lot of rotating. Jacob Martin, Barkevious Mingo and Cassius Marsh are in the mix outside, with Jamie Meder, Poona Ford, Al Woods and others inside. All of that means the team is more reliant on first-round pick LJ Collier developing and Ziggy Ansah staying healthy than they’d like to be. And, of course, counting the days til Reed gets back.
Titans: This was GM Jon Robinson’s fourth offseason in charge, so this is very much his team, and, in so many ways, it’s ready to win now. The left tackle position should help set up where 2019 goes. Taylor Lewan is out for the team’s first four games, popped for violating the PED policy, which means one of Robinson’s earliest acquisitions is taking center stage. Dennis Kelly, acquired for Dorial Green-Beckham over the summer of 2016, will replace Lewan through September. Marcus Mariota’s health, how the Titans keep up with the rest of the AFC South and what happens with former first-rounder Jack Conklin could all ride on how Kelly shows as a full-time starter—which is a lot to have on your swing tackle, even one as experienced as Kelly is.
Vikings: Getting Kirk Cousins playing on rhythm is going to be vital for new coordinator Kevin Stefanski. Cousins isn’t the same guy off-schedule, as last year proved again, and making that possible is going to boil down to fix a creaky offensive line. That’s why this year’s rookie class is so important for a team that’s well-stocked at just about every other spot. Center Garrett Bradbury’s already starting, and there’s a good chance fourth-round guard Dru Samie might be too, sooner rather than later. And then there’s undrafted sleeper Olisaemeka Udoh, a former Elon College tackle who the Vikes believe could develop into a starter, too.
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