NFL Training Camp Latest Buzz: Core of Steelers Offense Set with Diontae Johnson Deal
To paraphrase Steve Martin from the classic comedy The Jerk, the new NFL season is here! The new NFL season is here!
Well, sort of.
The Jacksonville Jaguars and Las Vegas Raiders will meet at Tom Benson Stadium on Thursday to participate in the Hall of Fame Game. The contest serves as the unofficial start of the 2022 campaign.
Millions of people will watch a glorified scrimmage, primarily between the teams' second- and third-string units. But beggars can't be choosers during the dog days of summer, and football being played in Canton, Ohio, serves as the precursor to when things matter.
Speaking of which, the league's 30 other teams continued to put in work since the full preseason slate doesn't begin until next week. Business doesn't stop, either.
The Pittsburgh Steelers finally got their biggest contract holdup (or is that hold-in?) settled.
Wide receivers continue to dominate the NFL landscape, though not entirely through financial means.
Rookies for the Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans are set to make significant impacts this season, if their recent performances are any indication. Isaiah McKenzie and Jalen Reagor are taking advantage of training camp reps for the Buffalo Bills and Philadelphia Eagles, respectively. The Chicago Bears' Justin Fields wishes he could get the same type of help.
Another rookie could address another premium position in the Colts lineup.
Meanwhile, Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray isn't practicing, but he's still at the forefront of discussions.
Bleacher Report provides the latest buzz and rumblings from Thursday's training camps.
Steelers Offense Ready to Roll After Diontae Johnson's Deal
The year of the wide receiver continued when the Pittsburgh Steelers and Diontae Johnson agreed to a two-year, $36.7 million contract extension, as reported by NFL Network's Mike Garafolo.
Johnson joins Davante Adams, Cooper Kupp, Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs, Terry McLaurin, DJ Moore, Chris Godwin, Mike Williams, Brandin Cooks, DK Metcalf and Deebo Samuel as young wide receivers who got their bags this offseason.
Interestingly, Johnson signed a shorter deal at a lower average annual salary than those mentioned. Essentially, the sides reached a compromise since Johnson just entered the initial window to negotiate a new deal this offseason.
The 26-year-old receiver is now tied to the Steelers through the 2024 campaign, which is vital for the entire offense's growth.
With Ben Roethlisberger finally stepping aside, the Steelers have a chance to jump-start what became a stagnant offense that lacked functionality because its veteran signal-caller couldn't move or push the ball downfield.
Decision-makers within the organization spent the bulk of this offseason trying to address the position. Ultimately, the Steelers settled on signing veteran quarterback Mitch Trubisky to a prove-it deal and then drafting Kenny Pickett with this year's 20th pick.
Eventually, Pickett will take over, whether he does so at the start of his rookie campaign or a little further down the road. His development is key to the entire organization. Pittsburgh made a statement when the Pitt product became the first quarterback drafted and the only one to land in the first or second round. He's the guy.
More often than not, a player's situation serves as an overriding factor in whether he can be successful. Obviously, Pittsburgh is already one of the league's most stable franchises, with no expected movement within the front office or atop the coaching staff expected in the near future. The next step is placing the best possible supporting cast around Pickett.
Johnson is the team's primary receiving threat. The first-time Pro Bowler led the Steelers last season with 107 receptions for 1,161 yards. With Johnson as the focal point, Pittsburgh continues to build an impressive young wide receiver corps that includes Chase Claypool and the team's 2022 second-round draft pick, George Pickens.
Furthermore, both starting running back Najee Harris and tight end Pat Freiermuth are entering their second seasons. Plus, the Steelers' offensive interior received an overhaul this offseason.
Pickett will step into a promising situation once he's named the starter. The Steelers made sure of it when they extended Johnson.
Aaron Rodgers' Confidence in Rookie Wide Receiver Continues to Grow
The burgeoning star known as Romeo Doubs continues to burn brighter with each passing day.
Rookie wide receivers flash every year in training camp and the preseason only to fade once the regular season begins. But the Green Bay Packers' setup feels different.
An obvious opportunity exists for someone to become Aaron Rodgers' favorite target after the organization traded Davante Adams to the Las Vegas Raiders earlier this year.
General manager Brian Gutekunst signed veteran Sammy Watkins and traded up in the second round to draft Christian Watson in an attempt to offset a rather prodigious loss. Yet the team's fourth-round rookie continues to steal the show.
“Every single day … there’s been at least one kind of ‘wow’ play for him, and that’s kind of rare for a young guy like that," Rodgers told reporters. "Now we’ve had some guys over the years kind of do that, but they’re all in the top 10, I think, in the Packers’ receiving history.”
Typically, a quarterback speaking highly of one of his wide receivers isn't a big deal. Most do. Rodgers' trust is difficult to earn, though. He's shown in the past he's more than willing to lambaste young receivers if they're not up to snuff.
Praise from the four-time league MVP is no small thing, particularly for a middle-round rookie who wasn't initially expected to be a big contributor in his first year. Doubs can be an instant vertical threat while he continues to grow in Green Bay's offensive scheme.
"When it's thrown up and it's between him and the DB to make a play, that’s one thing you can’t coach," Randall Cobb said last week when asked about Doubs. "You can’t really teach that. You either have it or you don’t. And he has it. That’s special."
As Watson continues to nurse a knee injury, his spot as Green Bay's rookie with the most expectations to perform in 2022 has been taken.
Isaiah McKenzie Stakes Claim as Buffalo Bills' Slot Receiver
Over the final month of last season (including postseason), Isaiah McKenzie found his footing as a weapon within the Buffalo Bills offense. During the team’s last five games, McKenzie caught 17 passes for 188 yards and ran the ball for 60 yards. While those numbers aren’t impressive on paper, the receiver’s skill set added a dimension to the Bills offense.
The five-year veteran continues to build on his late-season performance throughout training camp. McKenzie is competing with Jamison Crowder to be Buffalo’s top slot receiver.
"Job's up for grabs," McKenzie told reporters Tuesday. "Jamison Crowder came in, and he’s had a great career. He came in to compete with me, and I came back to compete with him. I know it wasn’t going to be easy, and I know it’s not easy now."
Beating Crowder is no small feat. At one point, he was considered one of the league’s best slot receivers. He’s three years removed from his career-high of 78 receptions. His performance decreased in the subsequent two seasons, whereas McKenzie’s play has seen an upward trend.
"I feel like now everybody's seeing it and I'm just getting more opportunities after those plays," McKenzie said. "And I feel like I got to keep doing that and be consistent. But at the same time, you know, it's more noticeable now that I'm in the slot position."
Buffalo’s franchise quarterback certainly noticed.
"Isaiah McKenzie just keeps making plays for our offense,” Josh Allen said Thursday. “He’s a little muscle hamster."
Cole Beasley averaged 77 receptions over the last three seasons. He left a void as Buffalo’s primary inside receiver. McKenzie will be a popular target if he does claim the job.
Jalen Reagor Regains Footing Among Philadelphia Eagles' WR Rotation
Jalen Reagor seemed to be on the outs with the Philadelphia Eagles earlier this year. He appears to be turning it around during training camp.
The 2020 first-round pick has been a disappointment through his first two seasons with 64 receptions between those campaigns. The possibility of a trade lingered, particularly after the team acquired A.J. Brown from the Tennessee Titans.
With Brown in the fold, Reagor’s roster spot didn’t appear secure. The team also signed Zach Pascal in free agency, which pushed Reagor even further down the depth chart.
Yet the 23-year-old target appears to be taking advantage of opportunities this summer. Reagor ran with the first-team offense Thursday while DeVonta Smith continued to deal with a groin injury, according to the Delaware News Journal’s Martin Frank.
"Hey, you’re not gonna get 11 chances a game like at TCU," head coach Nick Sirianni told Reagor about his role this year. "But if you get three, you gotta take advantage."
Sirianni added that the wide receiver came into camp in great shape and he’s "playing more consistent."
Maybe Reagor finally becomes the explosive target the Eagles envisioned when they chose him with the 21st pick. His inclusion alongside Brown, Smith, Pascal and Quez Watkins forms a talent quintet.
AFC South Rookie WRs Working with First-team Offenses
While Doubs has been one of the biggest surprises from all 32 training camps, a pair of other non-first-round rookie targets are making their presences felt with their respective AFC South squads.
The Tennessee Titans' Kyle Philips and Indianapolis Colts' Alec Pierce made quite the impression through just one full week of practice. Of the two, Philips' rise could be described as a much bigger surprise since the Titans chose him with this year's 163rd pick.
According to Titan Insider's Terry McCormick, the fifth-round rookie is already working as the slot receiver with Tennessee's first-team offense. Despite his draft status, Philips was arguably the best "traditional" slot option among this year's draft class.
“He creates mismatches and problems for the defense based on his instincts and short-area quickness to make plays in the middle of the field,” Colts head coach Frank Reich said when talking about a traditional slot in today's game, per The Athletic's Robert Mays.
Last season, the combination of Chester Rogers and A.J. Brown played the majority of snaps as the Titans' inside receiver. Both are no longer with the team.
First-round rookie Treylon Burks and veteran Robert Woods create some flexibility within the scheme since both can play outside the numbers or from the slot. Now, Philips can be sprinkled into the mix as well to create different packages to keep defenses on their heels.
Pierce was the highest-drafted player in this Colts class, though the team lacked a first-round selection and then traded down in the second frame.
Despite Piece's draft status, the Colts coaching staff isn't creating some imaginary competition when none exists. Pierce was drafted to play opposite Michael Pittman Jr., and that's exactly what he's doing every day.
As The Athletic's Zak Keefer noted, Pierce has worked strictly with Indianapolis' projected starters since Day 1.
Plenty is expected of the team's top draft pick. The Colts chose not to sign any veteran wide receivers this offseason. Pierce must prove viable as the offense's No. 2 target. Parris Campbell, meanwhile, must stay healthy. Ashton Dulin must continue to build on a strong offseason and training camp to contribute.
"You guys know we really like smart receivers (here)," Reich said. "Smart skill guys, because we’re gonna move everybody around. And we want to be multiple and just can’t have any weak links."
Where the Indianapolis Colts' Left Tackle Competition Stands
The Indianapolis Colts entered training camp with left tackle as their top position to watch since it remained unsettled. A competition hasn't really materialized. But the possibility of one still exists.
According to the Herald Bulletin's George Bremer, Matt Pryor has received every first-team snap. Pryor's status is somewhat expected since the organization re-signed him to a one-year, $5.5 million deal after his promising glimpse of playing left tackle late last season.
Despite the organizational enthusiasm for Pryor to protect quarterback Matt Ryan's blind side, general manager Chris Ballard hedged his bet by drafting Bernhard Raimann with the 77th pick.
Raimann isn't a typical third-rounder, though. The Austrian foreign exchange student presents a first-round combination of size (6'6", 303 lbs), athleticism and potential. He slid in the draft because A) he's already 24 years old after a serving a mandatory military requirement in his home country and B) lacks ideal length with 32 ⅞-inch arms.
The Colts seem willing to give him a chance to win the job, though.
"You know, we're moving him around just a little bit, but he's handling that well," head coach Frank Reich told reporters. "Smart guy. He has a lot of energy out there on the field. He finishes well, bends well. So, he's making really good progress."
The ability and attitude are there. Attention to detail will determine whether Pryor is actually pushed or Raimann serves as a swing lineman this season.
Offensive line coach Chris Strausser said:
"[He is] super athletic, which is kind of what we hoped for and anticipated. He's a ways away in terms of being at the level we need him to fundamentally with the technique stuff, but he makes progress. Just his athleticism is fairly unique.
"... There's just so many stinking details that go into playing offensive line at this level. There's almost really no way you can come in here and not say what I just said right now, be a guy that's a ways away detail-wise. It's assignment stuff, it's footwork stuff, it's hands — it's a combination of all that stuff."
Chicago Bears Offense Continues to Be a Work in Progress
In the least surprising news of training camp, the Chicago Bears offense is struggling.
"I think we’re progressing every day," quarterback Justin Fields told reporters Wednesday. ‘‘We’re not where we want to be yet, though, for sure."
Fields added, "I think we can improve at everything. As long as we continue to get better every day, we’re going to be in a good position."
Honestly, what did the organization expect?
The team fell well short of taking the necessary steps to ensure it properly built around the second-year signal-caller.
Chicago claims the league's worst wide receiver corps after the meager offseason additions of Byron Pringle and third-round rookie Velus Jones Jr. A similar argument can be made about the offensive line, though the team added reinforcements when it signed left tackle Riley Reiff and guard Michael Schofield last week. Granted, a team signing two 30-something blockers in late July isn't usually an indication of future success.
To be fair, defenses are typically ahead of offenses at this point, and the Bears are implementing a new scheme under offensive coordinator Luke Getsy.
Even so, Fields' acknowledgement doesn't bode well.
‘‘It’s tough because you want to know everything right now; you want to be successful at everything right now,’’ the quarterback said. ‘‘So it’s really just knowing that there are going to be mistakes and just making sure that you don’t make the same mistakes twice."
The hope is everyone gets in sync and certain players excel when provided opportunities. But early returns aren't promising, and the Bears' projected franchise quarterback is frustrated.
Chicago's lack of commitment to build around last year's 11th pick is manifesting on the field, which could portend a difficult year for the offense.
Cardinals Head Coach Kliff Kingsbury Sends Message to QB Kyler Murray
Kyler Murray better study up, because the responsibilities of the offense are greater than the quarterback understands.
Last week, head coach Kliff Kingsbury allowed his quarterback to call plays during the team's Saturday session.
Kingsbury told reporters Thursday when asked about Murray's play-calling:
"I just wanted him to know that, hey, this [expletive] ain't easy. Every now and then, he starts shaking his head when I'm calling it in there; I'm like, 'Alright big dog.'
"Anytime we can keep him involved. He was coaching them up right until the last second, like while they were trying to throw he was saying stuff to them, so probably won't be doing that again."
How did Murray do? Kingsbury said he was good. But, "I would not want to play for Kyler Murray if I was a quarterback and he was the coach."
Murray continues to recover after testing positive for COVID-19. He didn't practice Saturday during what was deemed a rest day. In the meantime, Kingsbury's joking nature in response to why he let his franchise signal-caller operate the offense still says something about the entire situation after the Cardinals included, and then revoked, an "independent study" clause in his new contract extension.
Despite all the recent drama, Murray is one of the league's most gifted young signal-callers. To reach greatness, he needs to become an extra coach on the field. Older veterans are basically handed the reins and allowed to run the offense. Murray is still working toward that. He's not quite there, of course. That's OK.
After all, Murray turns 25 in a few days. His continued development should allow him to reach the point where Kingsbury is comfortable if the current starter controls the entire offense and he helps coach the other quarterbacks.