Offseason Takeaways to Wrap Up NFL Minicamps Across the League

What we learned about the 49ers, Commanders, Vikings, Bengals and Eagles, and a few other teams as we get closer to training camps. 
The key to San Francisco's defense is edge rusher Nick Bosa, who has three consecutive double-digit sack seasons.
The key to San Francisco's defense is edge rusher Nick Bosa, who has three consecutive double-digit sack seasons. / Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL spring is now complete, and I figured I’d wrap it up with a look at a few things I’ve heard coming out the past two or three months of work …

The San Francisco 49ers’ balance on defense through the offseason program shone—and should give new coordinator Nick Sorensen an even scarier group. The key pieces in San Francisco’s group haven’t changed much in a while. It’s Nick Bosa up front, Fred Warner on the second level and Charvarius Ward in the secondary.

The challenge has been—with all those guys getting paid on second contracts—to hit on enough picks and bargains around them to guard against a top-heavy balance sheet creating holes elsewhere.

There’s optimism going into the summer that the Niners are as good in that department this year as they’ve been before. And it starts with DL coach Kris Kocurek’s line. The Niners’ ninja of a position coach there has long brought in older vets, or reclamation projects, and maximized them. This year, with a lot of turnover in the group spearheaded by Bosa and 2023 free-agent signing Javon Hargrave, that led to the offloading of Arik Arsmtead and the addition of four vets the team hopes will make for a more balanced group.

Maliek Collins came from the Houston Texans, Yetur Gross-Matos from the Carolina Panthers, Leonard Floyd from the Buffalo Bills and Jordan Elliott from the Cleveland Browns on two-year deals for a total of about $63.5 million—or an average of just under $32 million per year. Armstead alone was making $17 million per. All have talent, having come in the league as first-, second- or third-round picks. All have track records. All had good springs.

And the real key is that all of them will be asked to do a little less because they have Bosa and Hargrave alongside them.

Meanwhile, at corner, San Francisco brought in another former top-100 pick in Isaac Yiadom, who has 28 career starts and had a bounceback year in 2023 for the New Orleans Saints, for just $3 million. And, after OTAs and minicamp, they’re optimistic they hit on Renardo Green, their late-second-round pick who played both safety and corner at Florida State.

Are these guys going to emerge as superstars in the fall? No. But in the place the Niners are right now, with so many mouths financially fed (plus Brandon Aiyuk next in line and Brock Purdy’s first chance to cash in looming a year from now), these are the areas teams such as San Francisco has to win to make the leap from contender to champion.

The 49ers have done well with this stuff, of course, the past few years. The hope is it’ll be just a little bit better this time around.

The Washington Commanders’ massive free-agent haul paid dividends in the spring. One thing a new coach can see over his first few months is how players are buying in and carrying the flag for the program he’s trying to put in.

And having been in that position before with the Atlanta Falcons, new Commanders coach Dan Quinn arrived in D.C. knowing that he’d need some flag-bearers for what he was trying to build. It’s a big reason why Washington went for volume in free agency—bringing in a massive number of players from across the NFL whom he and new GM Adam Peters saw as fits for what they’ll be trying to build over the next few years.

So far, so good.

Quinn saw it in the spring in the details on tape—in how players were finishing plays downfield, how they were going after the ball on defense and how the three new phases were being installed (the coaches tried to take their time and be deliberate with that).

The two guys in particular who really showed up in that regard were Bobby Wagner and Zach Ertz, who have a combined 23 years of NFL experience and have both won a Super Bowl. Quinn had Wagner in Seattle a decade ago, so he knew exactly what he was getting from the six-time All-Pro. And Quinn’s offensive coordinator, Kliff Kingsbury, had Ertz for a season and a half in Arizona, so Washington wasn’t guessing about him, either. Both helped to set a standard and install the coaches’ systems.

Quinn also brought Dorance Armstrong and Tyler Biadasz with him from Dallas, and imported older vets such as Marcus Mariota, Nick Allegretti, Austin Ekeler and Frankie Luvu who’d not only fit Kingsbury’s scheme, but help bring along the younger guys. And that’s only made the buy-in from established players such as Jonathan Allen, Jeremy Reaves, Daron Payne and Sam Cosmi come more quickly.

The hope, from there, would be that a program coming together would quicken the learning curve of Jayden Daniels, Mike Sainristil, Ben Sinnott (Jer’Zhan “Johnny” Newton when he gets healthy) and the rest of the rookies.

For now, though, they hit the break in a good spot.

Minnesota Vikings receiver Jordan Addison
Addison had an impressive spring for the Vikings, who signed Jefferson to the largest contract ever for a nonquarterback. / Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

There’s been a lot of focus on one Minnesota Vikings receiver this offseason, but you should pay closer attention to the other one. And I’m not saying, of course, that the spotlight on Justin Jefferson’s contract situation was unwarranted. There was a very good reason that he got the attention he did. He’s one of the best players in football, regardless of position, and he was about to raise the contractual bar for all nonquarterbacks, including receivers.

That said, Jordan Addison’s growth has created buzz in the Vikings’ facility.

With Jefferson away for most of the offseason program, Addison’s progress really showed up—he came back physically stronger in April while maintaining the burst and body control that made him a first-round pick in 2023. And without Jefferson around, it was easy to visualize how Addison has the ability to be a real No. 1 down the line, and create a pick-your-poison problem for teams trying to defend the former USC standout, Jefferson and tight end T.J. Hockenson all at once.

Now, if Minnesota can get Sam Darnold or J.J. McCarthy rolling (and don’t sleep on Darnold, who seems to have built on what he learned playing for Kyle Shanahan last year), then the Vikings really might have a little bit more than most people think.

In the same way Addison and the Vikings found a silver lining in Jefferson’s absence, the Cincinnati Bengals did the same when Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins were away. Trading away Joe Mixon this offseason, and moving (again) some parts on the offensive line (with Jonah Williams gone, and veteran Trent Brown and rookie Amarius Mims coming in), and bringing back Joe Burrow from injury meant Cincinnati was going to have a bit of a spring of transition.

But I’d bet they’ll benefit.

Similar to the aforementioned dynamic facing San Francisco, the Bengals are now facing the reality of having balance sheets top-heavy with massive contracts. Burrow’s been paid. Chase will be soon. The Bengals have invested in offensive and defensive linemen. And all of it means Cincinnati is going to have to develop waves of second-tier players to supplement its galaxy of stars.

With Chase and Higgins away for, at least in part, business reasons, Cincinnati got a good long look at those types of guys over the past couple of months. In particular, tailbacks Zack Moss and Chase Brown, tight end Mike Gesicki, and rising second-year receiver (and former Princeton heptathlete) Andrei Iosivas took nice steps forward, and looked like they’ll be good complementary pieces in the fall.

That’s good for now, obviously, because the more players you have the better. And with Higgins now signed to his franchise tender, the Bengals have a lot of runway to build toward an all-in 2024. But it’s even better for later, with Chase likely signed long term (Jefferson’s contract getting done was a big step in Cincinnati getting there with him), Burrow captaining the ship, and the need for affordable talent to emerge around those guys.

If Burrow’s healthy, this is a Super Bowl-contending team. And with all of those other guys taking steps, the Bengals’ chances will get even better for a long time to come.

The Philadelphia Eagles’ momentum of a year ago, when it felt like the organization was firing on all cylinders, feels like it has subsided. But there’s a way for Philly to get it back, and it’s through the defense. And in particular, it’s going to have to happen with the younger guys on what’s long been an aging unit coming of age with new coordinator Vic Fangio aboard.

Drilling down on that, the Eagles saw the most progress in that area at corner in the spring.

Part of it has been the emergence of veteran addition Isaiah Rodgers. Still just 26, Rodgers started 10 games over three years with the Indianapolis Colts, then got suspended for the 2023 season for making over 100 bets, some on his own team. Indy released him in late June of last year, and Philly quietly added him two months later, stashing him on the reserve list for the rest of the year.

He was reinstated by the NFL just before the draft and has been a revelation over the past two months. Add to that the fact that top-40 picks Quinyon Mitchell and Cooper DeJean (a safety-corner combo in the mold of Malcolm Jenkins) have looked the part, and that young guys such as Kelee Ringo have come along, and Philly should be much better at the position.

One sign of the improvement is that the Eagles are toying with moving aging corner James Bradberry to safety, a more suitable role for him on the roster—something they wouldn’t be doing if they didn’t feel a lot better about the young talent they have at the position.

And if all of this progress is matched by some of the young talent up front, then Fangio’s group should be able to help the Eagles take one big step out of the mess at the end of last year.

Like the Eagles, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have had the need to get younger the past few years, and the spring showed signs that it’s happening. And that starts at a pretty exciting spot—receiver. The Bucs already have, and have had, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin at the position. But the former turns 31 in August, the latter is 28, and as reliable as they’ve been (Evans has 10 consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, Godwin’s hit the mark in four of his last five), it’s not going to last forever. Which is where Jalen McMillan and Trey Palmer come in.

Palmer flashed his big-play ability as a rookie, playing in every game, starting six, and hitting for a 56-yard touchdown in the Bucs’ playoff win over the Eagles. He took another step over the past couple of months, along with the third-rounder McMillan (like seemingly every player coming from the Washington offense into the NFL this spring), who was outstanding in his early work.

Add to that improvements on the interior of the line—second-year guard Cody Mauch put on 15 or so pounds of good weight this offseason, and rookie center Graham Barton was a middle-of-the-fairway first-round pick who should transition quickly—and Baker Mayfield and OC Liam Coen will have a pretty intriguing unit to work with in training camp.

Indianapolis Colts coach Shane Steichen
Colts coach Shane Steichen came close to making the playoffs in his first season with Indianapolis. / Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStar / USA TODAY

The Colts are lurking as a dark horse in the AFC South under second-year coach Shane Steichen, and the lines are a good reason to take that threat seriously. Over his seven seasons in charge, Indianapolis GM Chris Ballard has poured resources into both areas, and this feels like it should be a year for all of that to pay off.

On offense, Bernhard Raimann is poised to answer the Colts’ long-term left tackle question once and for all. Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly and Braden Smith are still around. Second-year tackle Blake Freeland has gotten a lot stronger, and the team brought back Danny Pinter and Wesley French, and drafted Matt Goncalves and Tanor Bortolini in the third and fourth rounds, so the depth and balance is in as good of shape as it’s been in years.

Then, on defense, first-rounder Laiatu Latu joins Kwity Paye, Dayo Odeyingbo and Tyquan Lewis on the edge, with DeForest Buckner now joined by Raekwon Davis and Taven Bryan inside, and the makeup of the team, if you squint, is starting to look like the one Steichen came from in Philly.

Those Eagles teams were built through the lines, and the Colts’ chances may rest there—with Anthony Richardson and the skill guys (Alec Pierce and Josh Downs have come along) coming off good offseasons. And, if Richardson stays upright, and the team answers some questions in the secondary, Steichen and his coaching staff may have a pretty complete roster to work with coming off last fall’s impressive debut.

Brian Burns will be a guy to watch. His last year and a half, after the Los Angeles Rams’ failed attempt to pry him from the Carolina Panthers at the 2022 deadline, were sideways. He knew what Carolina had denied him, namely a chance to play for a perennial contender and get paid. The tone and tenor of talks never really improved. And, ultimately, the Panthers had to tag-and-trade him, only getting a fraction of what the Rams offered initially.

The New York Giants, I’d say, are huge beneficiaries.

Of course, it helps to have a GM, in Joe Schoen, who used to work in Carolina, and knew enough to see the bargain in front of him, when the Panthers were willing to part with their star edge rusher for a second-round pick and change. Since then, over the course of the spring, they’ve seen the same athletic, explosive, quick quarterback-terrorizer Burns always showed he could be in Charlotte.

Now content, and signed long term to play opposite Kayvon Thibodeaux and alongside Dexter Lawrence, I’d expect a big year from Burns. Add him to what the Giants believe will be a really good rookie class, and Brian Daboll’s crew could leap right back into contention in the fall.

Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson
The Browns need a big season from Deshaun Watson. / Jeff Lange / USA TODAY NETWORK

The early piecing together of Cleveland Browns coach Kevin Stefanski and OC Ken Dorsey’s scheme has worked. What’s interesting is that the two have relatively divergent backgrounds. Stefanski’s has varied, but the offense he has in Cleveland has been a variation of Gary Kubiak’s scheme. Meanwhile, Dorsey came up under Mike Shula and Brian Daboll.

That’s three different systems—though there is some crossover in their backgrounds in the Norv Turner scheme—so the past few months have been about melding things together.

Word I’ve gotten is it’s been pretty cool to see the whole thing coalesce. Turning the page allowed the team to tailor the scheme a little more for Deshaun Watson, something the Browns started on during the 2023 offseason, and the hope is that’ll help the team get more from the highly paid, fully guaranteed contract they gave the quarterback. Which it’ll need to do, since getting more from Watson was the whole idea in firing former OC Alex Van Pelt in the first place.

For his part, Dorsey brings experience working with athletic dynamos at quarterback, in Cam Newton and Josh Allen, and the work he did with the guys who were able to build offenses for them. So, the Browns are optimistic here. Or at least cautiously so.

Finally, we’re bringing back the quick-hitting takeaways. Mostly because the end of spring gave me plenty to cover.

• My first thought on the Trevor Lawrence deal: The contract has a really strong set of guarantees that shows commitment to the quarterback. The Jacksonville Jaguars have essentially locked in his first three years, which add up to $170 million. Most of his fourth year is fully guaranteed at signing, with the rest vesting a year early. All of his fifth year is guaranteed for injury now and will vest as fully guaranteed a year early. That’s a big bet on a QB.

• My second thought on the Lawrence deal: If the Miami Dolphins are worried at all about Tua Tagovailoa’s health, or the Green Bay Packers are worried about Jordan Love’s short track record, those guys wanting Lawrence’s guarantee structure could be a pretty significant problem.

• The three big quarterback deals left this summer (Tagovailoa, Love and Dak Prescott) will be negotiated by three different agents (Ryan Williams, David Mulugheta and Todd France) working for the same company (Athletes First). So it’s fair to say, just as Jefferson and Chase could help each other contractually, those guys will be able to do the same.

• The Atlanta Falcons’ receiver group had a nice couple of months, with veteran addition Ray-Ray McCloud III looking like he could fill the role Taylor Gabriel did during Raheem Morris’s first stint in Atlanta and Chris Blair emerging as a potential camp sleeper.

• As for Morris’s old team, the Rams having a healthy Cooper Kupp made a big difference in the offseason program. He looked as good as he has in a while moving around and making plays in OTAs, and his presence sure was a benefit to second-year star Puka Nacua as well.

• The UFL’s season is complete, and I’ll say it again: The NFL really needs to partner with someone to create a more effective developmental pipeline. It seems to me like this new combination of last year’s USFL and XFL is giving the league a golden opportunity to do just that. That is, if the NFL can stop worrying about profit margins so much. (Yeah, I know …)

• I’ve heard the access, and resulting footage, Netflix is getting for its Jerry Jones documentary is off the charts. I’m excited to see what becomes of it.

• That wasn’t a typo on the Kansas City Chiefs’ Super Bowl rings. It was a mistake. A typo is hitting the wrong button. Affixing the wrong seed to Miami is more than that (and kind of funny).

• Chiefs DT Isaiah Buggs was arrested and charged with domestic violence and burglary Sunday, adding to the off-field issues Kansas City’s had this offseason. Obviously, Kansas City does a ton of things right. But these problems are reflected in some of the chances they’ve taken over the years with the roster.

• Good to see Calais Campbell setting sail for Year 17, this one with Miami. Few players last that long, and a big part of Campbell’s ability to do so comes down to the kind of guy he is. I can say he deserves everything that comes his way.

Albert Breer