Fact or Fiction on Top Training Camp Rumors, Buzz so Far
With training camps now underway for all 32 NFL teams, the top storylines around the league have returned to being those that actually happen on the football field.
Training camps provide the first major look into how each team will operate on the football field in the upcoming season. As a result, early in these camps, rumors begin to emerge of players stepping up into new or increased roles with their respective teams and, conversely, of players losing holds on their starting spots and/or playing time.
Ahead, we take a look at the early buzz emerging from eight NFL training camps. Which rumors are signs of things to come, and which rumors are likely to be little more than myths?
Anquan Boldin Will Be Colin Kaepernick’s Go-To Receiver
When the San Francisco 49ers traded a sixth-round pick for Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin in March, they knew they were making a valuable acquisition.
Boldin played a crucial role in the Ravens’ run to an NFL championship last season, which culminated in a Super Bowl victory over the 49ers.
The 49ers have a good amount of talent elsewhere at wide receiver, including A.J. Jenkins, Quinton Patton, Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams, but Boldin is expected to become an immediate go-to option for the San Francisco offense.
In a report from San Francisco's camp, Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area went as far as to say that Boldin is “definitely (quarterback Colin) Kaepernick’s go-to guy.”
While it’s dangerous to speak so definitively less than a full week into camp, there is reason to believe Maiocco’s statement. Boldin is a very skilled receiver with the polish to step up into an unfamiliar offense, pick up the system quickly and flourish right away in his first season.
With Crabtree out of the equation, Kaepernick will likely rely most heavily on Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis. Davis could challenge Boldin to be the team’s go-to option, but he wasn’t a go-to guy for Kaepernick last season. Although he was second on the 49ers in total targets last season, he didn't tally more than two catches in any of the 49ers’ final six regular-season games.
If Kaepernick and Davis can develop an immediate rapport this season, Davis could become the top target. However, with Boldin’s ability to consistently get open and make plays on the outside, he's likely to maintain his status as the go-to receiving option for the defending NFC champions.
Kevin Kolb Losing Buffalo Bills’ QB Job to EJ Manuel
The Buffalo Bills will have a new starting quarterback this season.
Right now, it is unclear whether that will be veteran free-agent addition Kevin Kolb or rookie EJ Manuel, but the early buzz is pointing in favor of the rookie.
Manuel looked "spectacular" in one of the Bills’ first practices on Monday, according to Les Carpenter of Yahoo! Sports. In the same practice, Sports Illustrated’s Peter King said that Manuel looked "comfortable, confident, strong-armed and accurate."
Kolb’s inaccuracy, meanwhile, has made it look at times “like he was trying to complete passes to the water cooler,” according to Jay Skurski of The Buffalo News.
Joe Buscaglia of WGR 550 wrote on Wednesday that Manuel has been “clearly the better on the field” of the two quarterbacks. He also noted that it would be “awfully tough for Manuel to be worse than Kolb over the past three days.”
Buscaglia said that Kolb has “never looked comfortable in the pocket” and that Manuel “may not be that far away” from winning the starting quarterback job.
All of that said, it is important not to overreact to the two quarterbacks’ early practices. Kolb has six seasons of NFL experience, including 21 starts, while Manuel is new to the league. Additionally, Marrone said on Monday that Kolb has been seeing “more of the exotic stuff” from the Bills defense—meaning, their usual starters and blitzing packages—than Manuel has seen, according to Skurski.
This battle is likely to continue through at least the first one or two preseason games for the Bills. But if Manuel can continue to impress and outperform Kolb in those preseason games, the Bills should not hesitate in handing the starting reins to their rookie quarterback.
Manuel is attempting to continue a trend that has seen 10 of the last 15 first-round quarterback draft picks start in Week 1 of their rookie NFL seasons. He may continue to be a work in progress as a rookie quarterback, but he has much better physical tools and far more upside than Kolb does at this point.
Geno Smith Outplaying Mark Sanchez to Take QB Job
Elsewhere in New York, another rookie quarterback is competing with a struggling veteran in hopes of winning the starting quarterback job.
The buzz there is also favoring the rookie, New York Jets quarterback Geno Smith, to unseat incumbent starter Mark Sanchez.
Sanchez is coming off of a horrendous season with the Jets, leaving the door open for the second-round pick to take his job. According to ESPN New York’s Rich Cimini, Smith is seizing the opportunity.
Cimini said on Wednesday that Smith has outplayed Sanchez through the first week of training camp, and that he has pulled “even or perhaps ahead” in the team’s competition to start.
Seth Walder of the New York Daily News seconded Cimini’s claim of Smith outplaying Sanchez and said that Sanchez “failed miserably” if he has been trying to impress the Jets’ front office.
As in Buffalo, a starting quarterback should not be anointed off of one week of training camp practices. That said, if Smith can continue to progress and outperform Sanchez when preseason games begin, he should be able to seize the starting job.
While Smith is full of promise and likely to continue improving, Sanchez’s career is on the downswing after his play alternately plateaued and declined last season. The Jets should be eager to hand the starting job to Smith whenever he appears ready to take it. Early reports indicate he is on the path to taking those reins.
Loser of Vick-Foles Competition Will No Longer Be a Philadelphia Eagle
The Philadelphia Eagles also have a starting quarterback competition happening in training camp. Rumor has it that the competition between Michael Vick and Nick Foles could be one to see who remains on the roster.
Geoff Mosher of CSN Philly told Pro Football Talk that the team may not have a roster spot for the loser of the competition.
Given that the Eagles drafted their potential quarterback of the future this year in fourth-round pick Matt Barkley, the team may decide it's best not to continue with the quarterback who is unable to seize the team’s starting quarterback job.
If Foles wins the battle, it makes complete sense for the Eagles to move on from Vick. He has only one year remaining on his restructured contract, according to Spotrac, and if the 33-year old is unable to win a starting competition now, his career prospects will be bleak.
Should Vick win the competition, however, this rumor could really be put to the test. Foles is only entering his second NFL season, and he is a skilled pocket passer with the potential to be a very good starter down the road. Giving up on Foles before he even completes his second NFL season would show that the Eagles believe Barkley has more long-term potential.
Foles "has seemed to hit a speed bump in his attempt to win the competition," according to Jordan Raanan of NJ.com.
The competition is likely to continue through at least the team’s first two preseason games, but Vick appears to be the early favorite to win the job.
If Vick does end up winning the battle, chances are good that both he and Foles will be kept throughout the 2013 season. While the team could release Vick outright if he fails to win the competition, they would be hard-pressed to move on from Foles unless they receive a strong trade offer in return.
Barkley has a chance to be the Eagles’ future at quarterback, but the team should also give Foles the chance to compete beyond this summer and establish his presence in the Eagles’ long-term future.
Ronnie Hillman to Hold Down Denver Broncos’ Starting RB Job
When the Denver Broncos released Willis McGahee earlier this offseason, the door opened for rookie Montee Ball to immediately emerge as the team's starting running back.
However, second-year running back Ronnie Hillman is in line for that starting spot early in training camp, according to Mike Klis of The Denver Post.
Hillman only ran for 327 yards and one touchdown on 84 carries last season, but he has his “arm wrapped tightly around the starting running back spot” early in training camp, according to Klis.
However, there is still time for that to change as Ball continues to gain experience in training camp. Ball is a very talented runner who offers more for the Broncos as a rusher than Hillman, especially between the tackles. As Klis noted, however, he must improve as a blocker in pass protection to surpass Hillman on the depth chart.
That said, Ball should be able to take on a feature back role for the Broncos if he continues to improve in all facets of his game. He is a well-rounded runner who does a great job of taking on and running through contact, and he has very good vision and quickness. He has the skill set to be a very consistent, productive and durable runner for a talented Broncos offense.
Hillman, a 2012 third-round pick, is very talented in his own right, but as Broncos vice president of football operations John Elway said in his pre-draft press conference, Hillman is better suited for a change-of-pace role. He is a smooth open-field runner who is a good pass-catcher out of the backfield, but he does not have the downhill running ability that Ball can offer.
Hillman may have a hold on the top spot in the Broncos’ running back depth chart for now, but they didn’t draft Ball in the second round of this year’s NFL draft to have him sit on the bench. He is as NFL-ready as any back in this year’s rookie class, and he should see his share of starts this season.
Josh Evans to Unseat Dwight Lowery as Starting Jacksonville Jaguars Free Safety?
The Jacksonville Jaguars are going to have a number of rookie starters this season. That group will likely include at least two in the team’s defensive backfield with second-round pick Jonathan Cyprien at strong safety and third-round pick Dwayne Gratz at cornerback.
It has been suggested that they could be joined by sixth-round pick Josh Evans. Jaguars beat writer Ryan O’Halloran of The Florida Times-Union is among those who have said the team could give Evans a shot to unseat incumbent starting free safety Dwight Lowery in training camp.
Evans is a talented safety who was worthy of being selected higher than Round 6, and he should see immediate playing time in his rookie season. However, Lowery is the steadiest player the Jaguars have in their secondary, and they will rely on him to be a playmaker and leader this season.
Lowery may not be a star in the Jacksonville secondary, but in a unit that will already be very young and inexperienced, his veteran presence and well-rounded game are important to the Jaguars defense. He could be pushed by Evans for his starting spot in time, but that is unlikely to happen in 2013.
Shawn Williams Will Start at Strong Safety for Cincinnati Bengals
Another rookie safety competing for an immediate starting spot is Cincinnati Bengals third-round pick Shawn Williams.
While the Georgia product came out of college with a significant need to develop his game, he may already be the team’s best option to start at strong safety alongside Reggie Nelson.
Jamison Hensley of ESPN.com said Williams stands as the front-runner to win the starting strong safety job.
“He has more of a feel for that position than Taylor Mays,” Hensley said of the rookie’s play in comparison to the struggling bust who is competing with him to start.
Williams has some of the same issues as Mays in his game. While Williams is a physically imposing safety who hits hard, he is inconsistent in coverage and can be undisciplined at times. That said, he is an upgrade in run support and should develop into a better playmaker in pass coverage than Mays.
Mays started three games for the Bengals last season, and the results weren’t promising. If Williams continues to make plays in training camp and the preseason and the Bengals believe in him as a long-term player at strong safety, their best bet may be to throw him into the fire immediately.
Undrafted Rookie WR Kenbrell Thompkins to Make Immediate Impact for Patriots?
With tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Julian Edelman both sidelined with injuries, the New England Patriots are without their top six receivers from last season in training camp.
That has opened opportunities for a number of other receivers to step up, and one undrafted rookie certainly seems to be taking advantage.
The Patriots drafted two wide receivers this year in Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce, but undrafted free-agent signing Kenbrell Thompkins is making a name for himself early in training camp.
Thompkins has spent the majority of the first five days of training camp with the Patriots’ first-team offense, according to Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald. He was “arguably the best player on the field” on Tuesday, according to ESPN Boston’s Field Yates.
I was in attendance at the Patriots’ practice on Tuesday at Gillette Stadium, and Yates’ claim is not far off. Thompkins has found an immediate rhythm as a top target while showing the ability to make challenging plays on the ball downfield.
By consistently receiving repetitions with the first-team offense and performing well, it appears that Thompkins is not only securing a roster spot for himself; he's also competing for immediate playing time.
Free-agent addition Danny Amendola should have the No. 1 spot on the team’s receiving depth chart secured, but the competition is wide open and Thompkins has put himself squarely in the competition. If he continues to perform well throughout training camp and in preseason games, he could be a very important player for an offense replacing a great deal of weapons lost from last season.
Dan Hope is an NFL draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report.