Predicting This Year's Biggest Training Camp Surprises
The 2014 training camp season is here in the NFL, our first real taste of football in months. With it will come a bounty of storylines.
Training camp is typically full of surprises. Some of them are pleasant, others malevolent. Predicting the latter would be in poor taste—at least if we're talking about injuries—so let's focus on the positives.
Here is a stab at some surprises that will come out of this year's training camps across the country.
Matt Schaub Will Impress
By all accounts, Matt Schaub was done as an NFL starter after last season.
The veteran quarterback was a perfect microcosm for the Houston Texans, who went from Super Bowl contender to laughable pretender in the blink of an eye. Injuries played a part, but Schaub was horrendous when he was the starter. He was even benched at one point despite having T.J. Yates and Case Keenum as backups.
The Texans moved on from their seemingly broken quarterback, even managing to score a sixth-round pick in a trade with the Oakland Raiders.
Schaub gets to start fresh with the Raiders, who only have second-round rookie Derek Carr and undrafted second-year man Matt McGloin on the roster.
Before his meltdown last season, Schaub was a quality quarterback. He might not have been Peyton Manning, but Schaub has a career 89.8 passer rating, and he was above 90 in the five seasons leading up to his disastrous 2013 campaign.
He psyched himself out last season, but that quarterback may still be in there. Per Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle, Schaub has his "mojo" back. It's early, but that is a promising sign for Schaub and the Raiders.
A bounce-back season may well be on its way.
Percy Harvin Will Be Healthy
This is more of a "crystal ball" kind of prediction, given injuries can be unpredictable and Percy Harvin has seen his fair share of them over the years.
Harvin missed most of his inaugural season with the Seattle Seahawks after hip surgery in the preseason, an injury from which he may have returned too early and aggravated in the middle of the season. He managed to make it back in the postseason, playing versus New Orleans and Denver.
The dynamic receiver is now fully healthy heading into training camp. Harvin told Bob Condotta at The Seattle Times, "This is the best I've felt in a long, long time." More importantly, he has spent over a year under head coach Pete Carroll, one of the more innovative coaches when it comes to non-football routines.
Perhaps time spent with the man espousing meditation and yoga and who tries to maximize player rest, as Alyssa Roenigk wrote for ESPN The Magazine, will do wonders for Harvin. At the very least, having an entire offseason to continue getting stronger should help stave off further injury.
A healthy Harvin equals an even more explosive Seahawks offense. The NFL might have a juggernaut on its hands.
Rolando McClain Could Challenge to Start
This may seem far-fetched given Rolando McClain retired once and quit twice now, but the third time's a charm, right?
McClain had a rough start to his career with the Oakland Raiders and Baltimore Ravens, but the fifth-year linebacker may have found himself in a nice position with the Dallas Cowboys. Moreover, a few years of seasoning—however poor—might get him over the hump as an NFL player.
Consider that, at 25 years of age, McClain is still younger than some of this year's rookies. While that means little, the Cowboys are up against the wall at his position.
Sean Lee was lost for the season after tearing an ACL earlier this offseason, leaving a huge hole in the middle of that defense. Justin Durant is penciled in as the starter, but he is no sure thing. McClain, meanwhile, had enough talent to merit a top-10 pick coming out of college.
Of course, we haven't seen anything to that effect during his NFL career thus far, but perhaps a straightened out life off the field will do wonders for his on-field performance.
Andre Roberts Is the Best Receiver in Washington...During Camp
This is unlikely to be the case come the regular season, but the biggest surprise out of training camp for Washington might be its new addition at wide receiver, and his name isn't DeSean Jackson.
Andre Roberts migrated east from Arizona this offseason, helping form one of the league's better trios at wide receiver in Washington.
He is off to a good start, reportedly meshing with Griffin, as tweeted by Yahoo Sports' Eric Edholm. From here it's not difficult to see Roberts having a fantastic camp and outshining his peers.
Malcolm Smith Will Win a Starting Gig
Odds are that linebacker Malcolm Smith enters football lore as one of those unheralded Super Bowl MVPs with little else to his name in the NFL. But what if his sparkling performance was merely a sign of things to come?
Smith might have been a backup going into the Super Bowl, but he played like Seattle's weak-side linebacker of the future.
He enters camp primed to compete for a starting job. The problem is he goes up against incumbent starters K.J. Wright and Bruce Irvin, though the latter has moved back and forth from outside linebacker to defensive end.
Irvin and Wright were a pretty good pair last season before the former was injured, so Smith has an uphill battle to fight. But Irvin came into the league as a pass-rusher, not a coverage linebacker. Smith was actually better than them, however, at least as Pro Football Focus (subscription required) rated the trio.
He might be better suited in a hybrid role, leaving Smith to do the heavy lifting as a pure outside linebacker.
Kenny Britt Will Win a Starting Job
As has become customary, the NFL offseason has been rife with negative news. One of the guys with a history of infamy has had an uncharacteristically quiet calendar year, however.
That man is wide receiver Kenny Britt, another in a lengthening line of former Tennessee Titans who followed their former head coach, Jeff Fisher, to St. Louis.
Britt was signed for depth and insurance, but the Rams may have gotten more than that. He was always a troubled talent, but a few years of hardship may have finally tamed him off the field, which could allow him to tap into that potential.
The Rams don't have an embarrassment of riches at wide receiver. Brian Quick is their best option at the X-receiver spot, and he hasn't exactly been productive in his first two years in the league. Tavon Austin is a slot weapon, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis are limited, and Stedman Bailey is suspended for four games to start the season.
The door is wide-open for Britt to surprise and win a starting job.
Darren McFadden Will Win Back Hearts in Oakland
The past six seasons have not been kind to Darren McFadden and Oakland Raiders fans.
McFadden has always been injury-prone, but he was rather good when he could stay healthy. That is until 2012, however, when McFadden seemed to fall off a cliff performance-wise on top of his usual injury woes.
McFadden has averaged 3.3 yards per carry in each of the past two campaigns. It's a wonder the Raiders extended him an offer at all, though a one-year, $4 million deal is hardly a big investment.
Oakland general manager Reggie McKenzie hedged his bets, however, signing fellow veteran-in-decline Maurice Jones-Drew to come back to his hometown. The Raiders will also be counting on second-year back Latavius Murray and richly paid fullback Marcel Reece this season.
It's McFadden who has the most to prove, however. He bet on himself in free agency taking that one-year deal, and those competitive fires must be stoked.
Written off by many—fantasy owners in particular—Run DMC will run his way back into fans' hearts this preseason.
Sean Spence Will Roar Back from Injury
It seems like a lifetime since linebacker Sean Spence has seen any sort of action for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In NFL terms, it has been nearly a lifetime—considering the average career is somewhere around three years—since Spence suffered a gruesome knee injury in the 2012 preseason. The injury was so bad it almost ended his career.
Spence has persevered, however, and he is quietly ready to shine for the Steelers in 2014.
A big reason why he might get a legitimate shot to start is the dearth of talent Pittsburgh has at linebacker. Even accounting for rookie sensation Ryan Shazier—who is all but playing a new position given he was on the outside in college—there isn't much depth in the middle.
That doesn't mean a job will be handed to Spence, however. He might be a feel-good story, but the third-year linebacker needs to prove he is completely over that injury and ready to roll going forward.
If he does, a starting job is in reach.