The season starts in 10 days.
The more that countdown is written or said out loud, my theory goes, the more it will seem real. It still doesn’t — and probably won’t even while watching 16,000 Chiefs fans help raise the team’s first championship banner since Hank Stram’s squad was matriculating the ball down the field.
What little there was to training camp is essentially over. After a weekend full of team scrimmages, most squads have transitioned to a regular-season schedule. That includes roster adjustments — so long, Leonard Fournette — and reduced media access. Sorry, there’s no telling who looks better between Nick Foles and Mitchell Trubisky from now on. (The answer, from Bears reporters the last few weeks, has basically been neither.)
It’s easy to list what’s different or lacking about this football campaign. But no one is still doubting whether this season is going to start on time, which wasn’t the case a month ago. At publishing, there are nearly as many Watt brothers in the NFL as there are players on the COVID-19 reserve list. Ready or not, teams mostly know how they’ll approach Week 1. And if you are eager to see some actual competition, imagine what coaches feel like right now.
“This is a time where everything is winding down,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said over the weekend.
Translation: Let’s get to the good stuff.
Vikings’ defense: Coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman finally decided to blow up their defense this offseason, leaving major voids along the defensive line and in the secondary. But alas, a vacated pass-rusher spot has suddenly been filled.
It is remarkable that Yannick Ngakoue wanted to get out of Jacksonville so badly that he took a pay cut of nearly $6 million do so. While Ngakoue can’t sign a long-term contract with Minnesota yet, the second-round pick the Vikings gave up indicates they plan for him to be part of their future. Pairing Ngakoue with Danielle Hunter on U.S. Bank Stadium’s indoor track gives the Vikes one of the best QB-hunting duos in the league, same as it ever was. Zimmer made his name by coaching up cornerbacks, so I’m not too worried about how unproven the team looks there, especially with one of the best safety tandems in football (Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris) behind them.
As long as Hunter isn’t seriously hurt — he’s missed nearly all of camp — this Vikings team looks more balanced than any other in the NFC North.
Joe Mixon and Alvin Kamara mysteries: The Bengals running back hasn’t practiced in a week, reportedly due to migraines. There are also whispers he might be nearing a deal on a new contract before the season. These two developments may just be related.
In New Orleans, Kamara’s recent nonattendance has less mystery to it. ESPN reports the star back’s unexcused absences from practice are linked to his desire for a new contract. Coach Sean Payton didn’t expound further Monday on the issue. The Saints have a week or so to give the man his money before Kamara has to decide how far he’s willing to take any “hold-in.”
Jaguars running backs not named Leonard Fournette: Monday’s release of Fournette should not come as a huge shock, unless you were dumb enough to draft him in fantasy leagues. The Jaguars couldn’t find a taker for him during the draft and he wasn’t a natural fit in new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden’s scheme. The Jaguars will use Ryquell Armstead for inside running, Chris Thompson for passing-down work and try to mix in Devine Ozigbo’s speed. They also could grab a veteran back after roster cuts elsewhere.
Drafting Fournette at No. 4 overall in 2017 was one of the worst personnel moves of the decade because it was accompanied by a belief in Blake Bortles born out of blind hope, not results. The Jaguars passed on Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson to draft Fournette, made the AFC Championship Game, then took an extended victory lap, which included giving more money to Bortles. Shad Khan bought the team late in the 2011 season and general manager David Caldwell took over in 2013. They’ve produced one winning season.
Scotty Miller, Buccaneers wide receiver: When Tom Brady calls you “trustworthy,” you can trust that plenty of snaps are coming. Miller has taken hold of the Bucs’ No. 3 wideout position.
Zach Cunningham, Texans linebacker: In a league looking for linebackers who can cover, Cunningham just earned a massive extension from the Texans for his run-stopping ability. Bill O’Brien hasn’t been shy about handing out some big contracts since taking over as general manager, with Cunningham joining Laremy Tunsil and Whitney Mercilus as beneficiaries. I love watching Cunningham play — the 25-year-old’s as good a tackler as there is in football. It’s hard to imagine the Texans keeping fellow inside linebacker Benardrick McKinney past this season because two highly paid inside linebackers who don’t excel in coverage is one too many.
Damien Harris, Patriots running back: Harris gobbled up more first-team reps and catches from Cam Newton as training camp wore on. He has a strong chance to displace Sony Michel as James White’s primary tag-team partner in the Patriots’ backfield.
Saints’ secondary depth: Janoris Jenkins has been one of the “stars” of training camp, according to Nick Underhill of NewOrleans.Football. This sparked my attention because Jenkins is one of the keys to the Saints’ defense and he is one of the most erratic players in the NFL. When he’s good, he’s very, very good. When he’s not engaged, he can hurt a defense. It sounds like he’s dialed in on a secondary where he doesn’t have to be the best cornerback. New Orleans’ defensive backfield is radically deep, an impressive turnaround for what was once one of the worst units in football.
Jordan Reed, 49ers tight end: I don’t need to go over Reed’s injury history and the risk he’s taking by playing after so many concussions. His real test will come in the regular season. Still, in a rough camp for the 49ers, Reed emerging late last week as Jimmy Garoppolo’s favorite target is intriguing. A healthy Reed alongside George Kittle would change the complexion of San Francisco’s offense.
Second-round rookie wide receivers: Rams wideout Van Jefferson’s long grab at the team’s scrimmage put an exclamation point on what has been a strong first camp by all accounts. He’s earned a spot in the L.A. rotation to start the year.
Pittsburgh receiver Chase Claypool may have a similar rotational role on a deep Steelers WR corps after making a number of red-zone catches throughout camp. It turns out that being extremely large may be a feature for catching passes in the NFL, not a bug.
Philip Rivers-to-T.Y. Hilton hype: Colts camp has been mostly quiet. The practice reports indicate Rivers has looked at home in coach Frank Reich’s offense and that they’ve focused on short passes. A deep shot to Hilton during the team’s scrimmage, however, was part of a growing Hilton-Rivers bromance.
“The best receivers I have been around, they have a great feel for the game, and T.Y. has that, whether it be throttling on a route or being ready for a back-shoulder or a little bit of that unspoken communication that you have that we can kind of get on the same page,” Rivers said. “We’ve been able to have some of those type moments throughout training camp. That will only continue to grow.”
I don’t care if this is a training camp trope; I am all in.
Chargers’ defense: Safety Derwin James’ knee injury suffered Sunday was the biggest personnel loss since training camp began. A leader on and off the field, James’ versatility unlocks the remarkable talent around him in Los Angeles. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reports that James will miss “significant time” with a meniscus injury, a reality that will make the Chargers’ defense look ordinary.
For all the talent in Los Angeles, defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s crew was more disappointing than the Chargers’ offense last season, ranking 21st in Football Outsiders’ defensive efficiency. They have solid options to help replace James’ snaps (Desmond King and 2019 second-rounder Nasir Adderley among them), but Derwin is the one who makes the big plays, who would help the team’s cornerbacks and starting safety Rayshawn Jenkins reach their full potential.
Copy-and-paste this analysis from many previous Augusts, but it sure would be nice to see what the Chargers look at full strength. That isn’t going to happen — again — for a while.
Le’Veon Bell, Jets running back: The Twitter dustup with coach Adam Gase was a symptom of Bell’s problem, not the disease itself. The bigger issue is that Bell hasn’t looked particularly good at camp, according to multiple Jets reporters. Bell didn’t miss snaps in the team’s scrimmage because of a hamstring injury, but because The Inconvenient Truth (Frank Gore) has reportedly outplayed Bell throughout in camp.
There are many extenuating factors here, including New York’s offensive line, but Bell hasn’t looked like the same player since returning from his year off from football. If the Jets are planning to split his reps, it’s worth wondering whether Bell is even a lock to make it to the opener with the team.
Justin Rohrwasser, Patriots kicker: The guy drafted to replace Stephen Gostkowski has removed the tattoo that spawned controversy following his selection in April’s fifth round, but his first NFL training camp’s been marred by on-field travails. Following the signing of veteran Nick Folk last week — and some more misses by Rohrwasser in practice — there’s a much greater chance he winds up on the team’s practice squad instead of the 53-man roster.
Eagles’ injury luck: They lost the best guard in football (Brandon Brooks) before training camp even started. Now they’ve lost their first-round pick from a year ago (left tackle Andre Dillard) for the season and their first-round pick from this year (wide receiver Jalen Reagor) is out for at least a few weeks, according to Rapoport. Considering Dillard and Reagor’s previous injury history, it’s hard to pin this on anything more than pure bad injury luck, which has followed the Eagles since before they won their Super Bowl.
The Eagles drafted Reagor because they knew they couldn’t count on Alshon Jeffery, who is hurt, or J.J. Arcega-Whiteside after a disastrous rookie year. The Eagles rolled with Dillard at left tackle because they didn’t want to rely on Jason Peters staying healthy for a full season at left tackle. It’s too early to have transitioned to so many Plan Bs.
Fred Warner, 49ers linebacker: Warner was the first notable name placed on the COVID-19 reserve list in weeks on Monday. The third-year pro was reportedly having a standout camp and appeared ready to take another step in his development, all the way up to Bobby Wagner-level middle linebacker play.
This is especially disappointing for the 49ers because it comes so close to the season, with San Francisco already having been ravaged by injuries throughout the roster. No other team has so many key players banged up: Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, Kyle Juszczyk and multiple centers, among others.
Cardinals’ future salary-cap flexibility: Safety Budda Baker’s contract made a lot of sense, but it also could limit the Cardinals’ spending in 2021. DeAndre Hopkins wants a new contract, while Patrick Peterson and Kenyan Drake headline a group of impending free agents who’ll have to be addressed.
Giants’ defense: On paper, New York’s defense is one of the most talent-poor groups in football. Again. On the field, the team lost two defensive starters (linebacker David Mayo and rookie safety Xavier McKinney) last week. Monday’s signing of Logan Ryan was a necessary move, but this remains a team you want your fantasy starters to go against.
Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @GreggRosenthal.
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