Early Lessons from NFL Training Camps
Football is finally, blessedly here.
Sleds, drills, plays, scrimmages, new rookies and old veterans all in one place, in 32 different places across America. Helmets are cracking, pads are popping and players are going full speed. Position battles, injuries, contract disputes, trade demands—they're all happening at once.
Unfortunately, there's no training camp Red Zone Channel, so we can't see any of the glorious action live. All the football fans so desperately crave is happening just beyond our reach. Instead, we glue our eyes and fingers to our computers and smartphones, and wait for news from the embedded beat writers and reporters around the NFL.
Here at Bleacher Report, we've put together 12 of the most important lessons to be learned from the opening few days of training camp and put them in perspective. As the preseason draws tantalizingly near, we've already learned a lot from what little football there's been.
Andre Johnson Is Not Going Anywhere
When Andre Johnson reported to Houston Texans training camp, a storm that had been brewing for months dissipated, and a (metaphorical) rainbow arched over the Houston Methodist Training Center.
The disgruntled wideout had reportedly been pushing for a trade since the Texans failed to acquire top-shelf quarterbacking talent. As NFL Media's Ian Rapoport reported, even if Johnson's contract didn't make him difficult to move, the Texans flatly weren't interested in trading the franchise icon.
It's easy to sympathize with the seven-time Pro Bowler's frustration. He just turned 33, doesn't have much time left to win a Super Bowl ring and is stuck on a team that seems a year or two away from serious title contention.
Yet, he never had much leverage; Johnson has been paid handsomely by the organization, several times over. Bob McClain of The Houston Chronicle even "guaranteed" Johnson would start the season in Houston, and it looks like the Texans made him look smart.
Did Johnson have a change of heart? Did new head coach Bill O'Brien win him over?
"I just love playing the game of football," Johnson told reporters, per Chris Wesseling of NFL.com. "I'm gonna work my butt off like I always do."
The official Texans Twitter account quoted Johnson as saying he now plans to finish his career right where it started.
Bill Belichick Loves His Defensive Veterans—Old and New
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is notoriously aloof.
He hardly talks to the press beyond league requirements; when he does, he's tight-lipped and grim. By his standards, though, he's been downright bubbly about the play of Pro Bowl middle linebacker Jerod Mayo.
"I think he means a lot to our team," Belichick said Friday, according to Kevin Patra of NFL.com. "He's really the guy that the team probably revolves around more than any other player." With a host of players returning from injury, including Mayo himself, Belichick cited Mayo's value as a "glue-chemistry" player.
"Not just the defensive players, but all of the guys," Belichick said. "He's as well respected as any player in the locker room. One of the best overall team leaders, players."
Belichick, per ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss, has been pleased by the play of star free-agent cornerback Darrelle Revis. "He has worked hard. Smart guy. I’ve been impressed with him. Very professional. Has a good understanding of the game."
Belichick even expressed happiness about getting to know Revis, once a cornerstone of the rival New York Jets defense, off the field. "On a personal level," Belichick said, "I never really had a personal relationship with him. So I’ve enjoyed that part of it."
Patriots fans have to be anticipating that the healthy, happy, hard-working defense will be even better in 2014 than it was in 2013.
Geno Smith Is on the Right Track
The quarterback competition between Geno Smith and Michael Vick might be a competition in name only. Rich Cimini of ESPNNewYork.com called it a "pseudo competition," and the 13 first-team reps Smith got over Vick's four on the first day of training camp backs his assertion up.
Receiver David Nelson told Cimini that Smith knows "it's his team." While Smith wouldn't say the same out loud, he admitted to being "a lot more confident in my reads and my footwork," and thinks he's "delivering the ball a lot stronger and a lot more accurately."
Sports Illustrated's Don Banks agreed, tweeting that the picture he was getting from camp is that Smith's "noticeably better in year two."
As Cimini pointed out, Smith looking solid in camp is nice, but it's not the true test of who'll be starting for the Jets in 2014. The competition has essentially been set up for him to win, giving him plenty of first-team reps as long as he's not stinking up the joint. General manager John Idzik insisted to Seth Walden of the New York Daily News that the competition isn't rigged for Smith to win.
"To nail down the job," Cimini said, Smith needs to "show up" in the preseason games.
Until then, Jets fans can at least be glad Smith's wheels haven't yet fallen off.
Steve Smith Might Still Have It
Most wide receivers are retired by age 35. Some of the very best that have ever played still didn't have anything left in the tank at Steve Smith's age. When the five-time Pro Bowler caught only 64 passes for 745 receiving yards in 2013, it seemed as though he might finally be done.
Moving on from the Carolina Panthers after 13 seasons wouldn't have been easy no matter where Smith went—but trying to revive a flailing Baltimore Ravens offense and his own career at the same time is going to be a monumental challenge.
That's why it was so good to see ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley tweet that Smith was "putting on a show" in Ravens camp, beating both Chykie Brown and Lardarius Webb on "deep passes." At Smith's age, being able to burn young, athletic corners deep is a fantastic sign. Can he keep it up throughout camp and into the season?
Football lovers everywhere will be rooting for Smith to keep quaffing from the fountain of youth; the fiery receiver is always fun to watch.
Sam Bradford Is as Ready as He'll Ever Be
Throughout Bradford's time in St. Louis, he's struggled through a coaching carousel, a rotating supporting cast and now recovery from a season-ending ACL injury. From the last, at least, Bradford has emerged unscathed.
"Sam is in great shape," Fisher told Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "He’s ready to go. We don’t have (reservations), right now as we speak, as camp starts, he’s full-go."
That's great news, because Bradford's entering what seems like his third straight make-or-break season.
This year, though, it's true: If Bradford fails to break out in 2014, the Rams would only have to eat $3.6 million in dead money to release Bradford and get out from under his $16.6 million 2015 cap hit, per Spotrac.com. The Rams also acquired Shaun Hill in free agency—who arguably outplayed now-Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith in his last quarterback duel.
All Bradford has to do to hold Hill off, though, is play like he played in 2013 before the injury. With a 60.7 p completion percentage, 5.3 percent touchdown rate and 1.5 percent interception rate, per Pro Football Reference, Bradford finally played like the efficient, effective franchise quarterback the Rams thought they drafted four years ago.
The Pressure on Trent Richardson's Even Higher
Training camp always sees its share of unfortunate injuries, and the first one has already struck. Indianapolis Colts tailback Vick Ballard went down with a likely Achilles rupture, as Stephen Holder of The Indianapolis Star reported Colts owner Jim Irsay saying.
In 2012, Ballard surprisingly led the Colts with 814 yards rushing as a fifth-round rookie, per Pro Football Reference. After tearing an ACL early in the 2013 season, he figured to challenge Trent Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw for carries. Richardson, the No. 3 overall pick in that 2012 draft, came to Indianapolis in 2013 in a shocking early-season trade.
After averaging a meager 2.9 yards per carry for the Colts in 2013, per Pro Football Reference, Richardson will have to take a big step forward to justify the 2014 first-round pick the Colts surrendered to get him. Without Ballard, the Colts will have only Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw to fall back on—and injury-prone Bradshaw has only played a full 16-game season once in his career.
On a team with Super Bowl aspirations, Richardson is going to have to play like the workhorse he looked like at Alabama.
Johnny Football Is Going to Be on the Bench for a While
On Twitter, ESPN.com's Bob Holtzman quoted an anonymous Cleveland Browns player saying something many football fans have heard, but some have struggled to believe: The Browns are "all expecting Hoyer to start" at the beginning of the season.
Brian Hoyer certainly isn't an entrenched starter, proven veteran or a touted young talent. He's a 28-year-old journeyman who came into the NFL as an undrafted free agent and has just four career starts in five seasons, per Pro Football Reference.
However, three of those starts came in 2013 and accounted for three of Cleveland's four wins. He completed 59.4 percent of his passes for 6.4 yards per attempt, had an impressive touchdown rate of 5.2 percent and an interception rate of 3.1 percent. Those numbers are closer to pedestrian than Pro Bowl-worthy—but even that level of competent quarterbacking has been hard to come by in Cleveland.
Despite plenty of fans, media members and Browns staffers musing Johnny Manziel needed to tone down the partying and focus on football, Manziel admitted at a press conference he'd made some "rookie mistakes" while living it up in his first NFL offseason.
Even if his partying weren't a concern, Manziel faces the toughest system transition of any of the first-round quarterbacks, and just might have the best quarterback in front of him among those draftees. It's best that Manziel, who pointed out he's still just 21 years old, take a little more time to mature before being thrown into the fire.
Carl Nicks Won't Be Blocking for the Buccaneers—or Anyone Else—Ever Again
At this time in 2012, Carl Nicks was a four-year veteran coming off a first-team All-Pro season with the New Orleans Saints and his second consecutive Pro Bowl. He'd just signed a five-year, $47.5 million contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, per Andrew Astleford of FoxSports.com, and looked ready to be a cornerstone of new head coach Greg Schiano's offense.
Two seasons later, Schiano's out, and Nicks has been limited to just nine games in a Buccaneers uniform. A combination of a serious foot injury and a nasty MRSA infection may have ended not only his Bucs career, but his football career.
"I'd like to thank the Buccaneers organization for working with me as I have attempted to get myself back on the football field," Nicks' statement read, quoted by Astleford. "However, after careful consideration, I have made the decision to step away from the game."
LeCharles Bentley, a swing guard/center who also debuted for the Saints, had two Pro Bowl nominations in his first four years, left New Orleans in free agency and had his career ended by injury and subsequent infection, reacted to the news soberly on Twitter. After Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk tweeted the Bucs paid Nicks $25 million for nine games, Bentley said it was "$25 million to lose his career."
"Sad to hear but not surprised to hear news on Carl Nicks," Bentley said in a subsequent tweet. "Empathy shouldn't have a price tag. He lost a lot, beyond monetary."
The Raiders Might Never Get Anything out of D.J. Hayden
It's been a grim opening to training camp for talented young players fighting to come back from injury.
Oakland Raiders cornerback D.J. Hayden, the No. 12 overall pick of the 2013 draft, started training camp on the Physically Unable to Perform list. After rolling his ankle in OTAs, per Paul Gutierrez of ESPN.com, Hayden developed an undiagnosed stress fracture, the surgery for which held him out of minicamp.
Hayden is a gifted cornerback who might have been drafted even higher if he hadn't been recovering from a scary heart injury suffered in his senior year. Unfortunately, he's struggled to get on the field and stay healthy ever since.
Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News wrote that Hayden is "a write-off," a "non-factor" who can't be considered part of the Raiders' present plans, or possibly their future plans, either. "If he ever produces for the Raiders," wrote Kawakami, "it'll be an unexpected bonus."
For Raiders fans' sake, not to mention Hayden's, let's hope his career isn't nearly over yet.
Marshawn Lynch Isn't Getting a New Deal
Marshawn Lynch has everything a young NFL star could want: great personal success, a Super Bowl ring, the heart of the city he plays for, national fame and a four-year, $30 million contract, per Spotrac.com.
However, all of that on-field success—not to mention fame he seems to actively eschew—seems to have sated some of his hunger for "that action."
On ESPN 710 radio in Seattle, Seahawks general manager John Schneider announced Lynch "has made a decision not to be here," as quoted by Bob Condotta of The Seattle Times. A decision not to report to the Virginia Mason Athletic Center, not to work out in the heat or get banged around in full pads, and not to be satisfied with playing out the third year of his four-year deal.
Schneider explained that ripping up Lynch's deal wouldn't fit into the Seahawks' long-term "financial plan," and pointed out that "just two years ago Marshawn was one of our first guys we were able to reward." Behind Lynch, Christine Michael and Robert Turbin are ready to get more carries.
"It’s just like we had players at different positions," Schneider said. "Last year we ran into the deal with Brandon Browner and (Byron) Maxwell steps up and has to go...I think that the players and teammates think that they are comfortable with the next player."
The 49ers Will Miss NaVorro Bowman for the First Half of the Season
Fish butcher Justo Thomas of renowned seafood restaurant Le Bernardin is incredibly, stupendously, unbelievably good. Per Anthony Bourdain's Medium Raw, cited here by TheBraiser.com, when Thomas goes on vacation it takes three people to replace him—and they take twice as long to cut the same amount of fish.
The San Francisco 49ers might be in the same situation with monster inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman. In his three years as a starter, Bowman's been named first-team All-Pro three times. That's an insane achievement; The Associated Press has named him the best inside linebacker in the NFL every year he's played. It's indicative of just how dominant Bowman's been, even in a front seven loaded with talent.
Unfortunately, per Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com, the 49ers don't expect to get Bowman back from an ACL injury until the midpoint of the season.
Michael Wilhoite, third-round rookie Chris Borland and undrafted rookie Shayne Skov will all be in the mix to replace Bowman. Wilhoite played well in relief of Patrick Willis last season, but Borland is a talented player who fits perfectly into the 49ers mold. Skov was a standout at Stanford, so head coach Jim Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio are very familiar with him.
Which of the three will step up and take the job in camp? Whoever does, it's hard to imagine they'll play anywhere near as well as Bowman has.
Mixed Messages on RGIII
One of the most highly anticipated stories of 2014 is starting off with an uneven chapter.
Robert Griffin III, third-year Washington quarterback, was a phenom who took the league by storm in 2012 and an injured, overwhelmed shadow of himself in 2013. Would we see the phenom—or the phantom—when the doors opened at the Bon Secours Training Center?
Per Jason Reid of The Washington Post, it was a little of both. On the first day of training camp, Reid reported, Griffin "was not sharp," and the defense clearly looked better than the offense. Griffin struggled to handle the talented pass rush lined up across from him and showed "poor timing" with his revamped receiver corps.
On the second day, Reid reported, things were much more encouraging. The offense was "sharper overall," and Griffin repeatedly hit new deep threat DeSean Jackson on a variety of routes. As Jackson pointed out, getting better by repetition is "what practice is for."
That practice seems to be paying off for Griffin is huge news for Washington fans.