First phase of my training camp travels is in the books, and we’ve got a lot to get to.
• It’s great news that Saquon Barkley was out at Giants practice on Monday—and the idea from here for the team will be making sure he stays out there. I’m told New York has a very gradual re-acclimation plan for its star tailback. The coaches haven’t ruled out his participation in preseason games or joint practices with Browns and Patriots, but that’d have to be based on his progress, and would only be done to get him a little taste of game speed prior to the regular season (which implies, of course, that his work would be limited). Barkley himself said that his return to the field is a “small step” with bigger ones coming. But for the Giants, having their bell cow back is a boon, and it’s just one more element that should help them get a pretty clear read on where Daniel Jones stands in the quarterback’s third year as a pro.
• I wouldn’t be surprised if the Saints wound up trading Michael Thomas, even with the acknowledgement that his value in such a deal wouldn’t be what it once was. And part of that, of course, is the acrimony between Thomas and the team. But here’s something else to pay attention to—before the team paid Thomas and Alvin Kamara, Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis had gone over a decade in charge without paying any skill player more than $10 million per (and the one player who got to $10 million per, Jimmy Graham, was traded a year after he signed the deal). Some of that was circumstantial. A lot of it, though, was philosophical. Over the same period, the team poured resource after resource into its offensive line, which tells you a lot—Payton believes having elite linemen is more important in running his offense, and that he can find skill players to surround the quarterback with. Now, having Drew Brees for all those years certainly helped in the effort to get the most out of the backs, receivers and tight ends. But even now, it’s pretty clear that Payton’s got confidence in his ability to find answers at those positions. And my guess, and it’s just a guess, would be he wouldn’t be afraid to deal Thomas away for that reason.
• Interesting anecdote I got on Lions QB Jared Goff from the team’s first practice in front of the fans. The first offense was in a red-zone drill, and with the energy of the crowd amping things up, coaches figured the gunslinger in Goff might surface. Instead, he threw four straight balls to his backs. And that dovetailed with the phrase Goff told Dan Campbell that he’d written down in his notebook—Take what they give you. “That was a point of emphasis,” Campbell told me. “We didn’t even say anything to him, I didn't say anything to him, but in his head, he'd written it down to take what the defense gives you. That was his emphasis going into day 4 of practice. And as you can see, man, that's encouraging.” GM Brad Holmes added, on the particular practice Campbell referenced, “This guy made every right decision, for all the right reasons. Like, OK, that's what I'm looking for. That's been really, really cool to see.” Holmes, of course, was in L.A. with Goff before taking the Detroit job in January, which gives him good context on where the quarterback’s at. And he sees a motivated player. “He's got a chip on his shoulder here,” Holmes said. “But I think that's from when we had the trade for him, from that point, Dan and I and Jared in here, that first talk, it was completely open and transparent about what went down in L.A. And Dan said, ‘Look, this is how it's going to be here.’ You look at him now, even just yesterday, it's like his mind is quieting, he's got a quiet mind now. And you just feel his, it is more swagger, more confidence. The ownership in everything he's been given, he's really, really taken pride in that.” So maybe Goff’s got a better shot than many think to resurrect his career in Detroit, after being on the business end of the Matthew Stafford deal in January.
• The Cardinals think they’re really close to being really good—and their proof is in how, last year, three single-possession losses in four weeks (surrounding the Hail Murray miracle) extinguished so much of the optimism of a 5–2 start. In studying it, Arizona saw, loud and clear, that the details are what kept an 8–8 team from getting to double-digit wins. And in reply to that, Kliff Kingsbury’s built his 2021 camp to address the problem last year’s team had with letting the little things slip. “I think we let too many little things slide at practice—Saying we'll get right in the game,” he told me. “It was that type mentality, and we didn't get it right in the game. That's something we made a big emphasis on this offseason, this training camp, Hey we're going to get it right in practice. If we see something we're gonna call it out and we're going to redo it and the players have embraced it so far.” Along those lines, Kingsbury says the coaches are being “sticklers” in walkthroughs, and won’t let things slide in walkthroughs on the premise that the players would get it right in practice—which relates right to the flaw that had players believing what slipped in practice would correct in games. And the team’s offseason activity drove home the point, with Arizona importing proven pros like J.J. Watt, James Conner, A.J. Green and Rodney Hudson to be sort of foot soldiers in the locker room for the message. And Kingsbury says, “You just see (the impact) in our young guys. Rookie-wise, these guys, we haven't had one guy late to anything through the offseason, through training camp. They've just been dialed in. It's as dialed in as a class that I've seen. I think a lot of it has to do with being able to see those veterans and how it’s supposed to be done.” And for their part, the vets who arrived in Arizona know the score. “In terms of attention to detail and trying to focus on every single aspect of the game, whether it's film study, whether it's practice, whether it's hand placement, foot placement, things like that, those are obviously things that are going to improve your game,” Watt said. “I think that we've got a lot of guys here who are extremely talented and hungry to learn as well, which has been great, that's been one of the best parts so far from my time here is seeing how eager these guys are to learn and ask questions and get extra work. I've really enjoyed that.” Now, the Cardinals just need that work to translate in what might be football’s best division.
• That Patriots TE Hunter Henry’s already nicked up—he got an MRI on his shoulder on Monday—explains some of the risk the Patriots incurred in bringing in the really good, but not great, and injury-prone, free agent. Dollar for dollar, the Chargers, in essence, swapped out Henry for free-agent C Corey Linsley. And they did that for a reason. (For what it’s worth, Chargers people are ecstatic with Linsley’s early work—having him around to take some of the mental side off of Justin Herbert should be huge).
• My sense is the Colts will likely wait until next season to do an extension with three-time All-Pro G Quenton Nelson, after taking care of two of his draft classmates (Braden Smith, Darius Leonard) in a very big way. And I understand why they’re waiting, but doing so doesn’t come without risk. Washington’s Brandon Scherff is almost certain to be a free agent next spring, with a franchise tag number of $25.97 million (or the quarterback figure, if it’s higher), and could become the first guard to break the $20 million barrier. Nelson is four-and-a-half years younger than Scherff, and probably a better player too. Which means the price-tag on Nelson could be significantly higher in seven months than it is now.
• Was out at Raiders practice on Sunday, and the contrast between the offense and defense is stark. Vegas is good on the front end and deep on the back end at every skill spot, and is hopeful that young guys like Alex Leatherwood and Andre James can mitigate the line losses of the 2021 offseason. Conversely, the defense is chock full of questions. Which means new coordinator Gus Bradley’s got his work cut out for him.
• Saturday’s Packers/Texans game has plenty of intrigue. We’ll all get eyes on Jordan Love for the first time—he’s going to get a lot of work—in an NFL game setting. And how Houston handles Watson for this one will be worth paying attention to.
• Missed this in the morning column—but great news, seeing the Bucs sign defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to a three-year extension. He was a huge part of their Super Bowl run, and it’s smart of Tampa to give him reasons to stick around, with a lot of head-coach interest expected in 2022. It’s been sort of an open secret in the league that whenever Bruce Arians retires, he’d love to hand the keys over to Bowles. Which, of course, is another reason for Bowles to consider staying put. Whether they can convince him to when interest heats up remains to be seen.
• Deshaun Watson’s return to practice, to me, doesn’t signify much, because nothing’s really changed. Watson wants a trade. GM Nick Caserio’s not going to do it without getting the kind of massive return he’d have landed if he traded Watson in January. And obviously, it’s going to be tough to land that sort of return with 22 lawsuits pending against Watson. Maybe a settlement comes. Maybe the league lends some clarity on Watson’s status for the 2021 season. But until then, things are a standstill. And that’s why Watson and the team have to go forward in this very weird way.
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