NFL's Biggest Winners and Losers from June Minicamps
For most NFL players, training camps are still more than a month away. However, that certainly doesn't mean these guys have been sitting idly by as the offseason unfolds.
Players have been working both individually and with their respective teams to prepare for the coming season. We'll be focusing on players' performances in team environments—specifically those in June.
Teams around the league wrapped lengthy offseason programs earlier this month with organized team activities (OTAs) and minicamps. Essentially, these late offseason sessions gave us our last look at teams before the break.
For some players, these last looks provided signs of progress and promise. For others, they brought little more than concern.
We're going to examine the biggest winners and losers from June OTAs and minicamps. We're basing our choices on reports and rumors from around the league. Factors like practice performance, playbook digestion and health will be considered.
Winner: Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints
Former Ohio State receiver Michael Thomas has been a big winner this month for a couple of reasons. Not only has he been drawing rave reviews from OTAs and minicamp, but he has also been earning the trust of New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
"That makes you feel good, too. 'Hey, we’re on the same page even though we haven’t even talked about that yet,'" Brees said of Thomas after one early June practice, per Mike Triplett of ESPN.com. "'You kind of know this offense, you have a feel for the game.'"
At 6'3" and 212 pounds, Thomas has the size needed to be a legitimate No. 1 receiver in the NFL. If he can keep Brees' trust, that's exactly what he can be—perhaps as early as this season. So far, Thomas has been using that trust to star on the practice field.
According to Sean Kelly of the Saints' official website, Thomas was one of the clear standouts from minicamp.
"My very early take is that the 6'3" receiver from Woodland Hills, California, is going to be a star," Kelly Wrote. "His size—combined with solid hand skills and speed—has shown very well. He already plays with a confidence about him."
Thomas seems to be making the most of his offseason opportunities, which isn't something we can say about our next entry.
Loser: Joey Bosa, DE, San Diego Chargers
There's one really big reason why Thomas' former Ohio State teammate Joey Bosa wasn't able to impress his new team in San Diego Chargers camp.
He skipped it.
Bosa still hasn't signed his rookie contract with the Chargers due to differing opinions over potential offset language, per Michael Gehlken of the San Diego Union-Tribune. Bosa's advisers suggested he hold out of minicamp. Bosa obliged, and by doing so, he potentially rubbed some of the team's decision-makers the wrong way.
"We're disappointed he's not here," Chargers general manager Tom Telesco said, per Gehlken ."This is a big part of the learning process for all players, not just rookies. But there's a business part to this [game], too, and we understand that."
The good news is that the Chargers do understand that there is a business side of football and aren't likely to hold a major grudge into training camp. The downside here is that Bosa will be playing catch-up once camp opens in relation to the players who attended June practices.
By skipping out on minicamp, Bosa also missed out on an opportunity to make one last positive impression on his new employers before the looming dead period.
Winner: Tajae Sharpe, WR, Tennessee Titans
One of the biggest winners among rookies this month has to be Tennessee Titans fifth-round pick Tajae Sharpe. Since being drafted, the former Massachusetts standout has gone from a Day 3 afterthought to a possible starting receiver.
According to John Glennon of the Tennessean, Sharpe has been earning time with the starting offense, and Titans head coach Mike Mularkey called the rookie the "most consistent" receiver in minicamp.
The 6'2", 194-pound Sharpe has the physical tools to start for the Titans in the near future. By making a strong impression in OTAs and minicamp, he should get the opportunity to do so as a rookie in Week 1.
“He’s right there right now, he could be our starter, he could be the starting X,” receivers coach Bob Bratkowski said of Sharpe during minicamp, per Paul Kuharsky of ESPN.com. “He’s competing for it, nothing’s given to him at this point. But he’s performing at a level as high, or higher, than any of the guys in the group."
For a fifth-round draft pick, making this kind of positive impression in June minicamp is a huge win.
Loser: Everyone Involved in the Von Miller Situation
Denver Broncos star pass-rusher Von Miller has yet to sign his franchise tender, and it doesn't appear he'll be doing so anytime soon. If he and the Broncos cannot agree to a long-term deal by July 15, his choices will be to play on the tag or not play at all in 2016.
According to Miller, he'd prefer the latter option.
"I love my teammates, coaches and my fans, but there is no chance I play the 2016 season under the franchise tag," Miller said earlier this month, via Instagram.
Naturally, Miller wasn't present during Broncos minicamp, which means he and the Denver defense both missed valuable time with one another. Any fans hoping to get a glimpse of the Super Bowl 50 hero lost as well.
According to Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk, there is buzz suggesting other teams have let Miller know that they are interested in acquiring him. These teams likely couldn't do so until next season, when Denver couldn't use the non-exclusive franchise tag. If Miller signs a long-term deal, of course, he won't be available at all.
However, as Florio points out, these teams could be trying to entice Miller to avoid a long-term deal now in order to make him available next year. In the end, this could all lead to Miller refusing to play—a scenario in which no one would win.
If Miller's holdout does continue into the regular season, Denver will lose out on the player rated second overall among edge-rushers by Pro Football Focus for the entire 2015 season (regular and post). Miller will lose out on just over $14 million.
Football fans everywhere will also lose.
Winner: Geno Smith, QB, New York Jets
Quarterback Geno Smith seems to have benefited greatly from June workouts, though, not entirely from his own performances.
In case you haven't heard, the Jets still haven't reached a contract agreement with 2015 starter Ryan Fitzpatrick. This means Fitzpatrick was far away from minicamp, and Smith got the chance to lead the first-team offense.
If the offseason standoff with Fitzpatrick continues, Smith is the man New York will call upon to start in Week 1.
Of course, there have been some positive reports regarding Smith that might help lead to the decision that Fitzpatrick isn't even a necessity.
"He's playing faster, he's thinking faster," Jets quarterbacks coach Kevin Patullo said during minicamp, per AP sportswriter Dennis Waszak Jr. "It's going smoother for him. That's been the big difference, I think, and where people are seeing the difference in him. It's just happening faster."
A lot can obviously change between now and training camp. However, Smith has at least created some positive impressions before the end of the offseason program, while Fitzpatrick has created none, which makes Smith one of the bigger winners of minicamp.
Loser: Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB, New York Jets
If we're labeling Smith as a big winner this month, we have to label Fitzpatrick a big loser. The problems for Fitzpatrick are complicated by the fact he doesn't even have a contract right now.
Teams around the league have spent months filling their quarterback rooms with talent from free agency and the draft. This leaves the market for a veteran signal-caller incredibly small. If the Jets don't make a move to re-sign the Harvard product, he might not find a job at all until sometime in training camp.
Barring a significant injury to a starting quarterback, Fitzpatrick will probably be looking at a backup role by then. We can understand Fitzpatrick not being quick to jump on the reported three-year, $24 million deal the Jets extended, put the New York Post's Brian Costello, but that's a lot more money than he's likely to earn in a backup role.
This is why Smith's momentum coming out of minicamp is bad news for Fitzpatrick. It doesn't help that former supporters like wideout Eric Decker are tired of banging the drum to bring Fitzpatrick back into the fold.
"On a scale from 1 to 10, I'm at a 10," Decker said when asked how sick he is of talking about Fitzpatrick's situation by NFL Media's Tiffany Blackmon.
If the Jets did gain confidence in Smith during June workouts, they could be inclined to withdraw their standing offer to Fitzpatrick. If so, he's about to lose out in a big way.
Winner: Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants
OK, so New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning might not actually be one of the biggest winners of minicamp. As an entrenched starter for a premier franchise, how much does he really have to lose?
However, we're pretty sure Manning feels like one of the biggest winners of this month's activity. After all, he just watched his newest offensive toy shine like a future star in minicamp. We're talking about rookie second-round pick Sterling Shepard.
“He’s going to be a phenomenal player,” Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. said of Shepard, per Dan Salomone of the team's official website. “He can run routes, he can catch, he can pretty much do it all. So I’m definitely looking forward to seeing him develop."
Beckham, of course, is Manning's top target and one of the league's most explosive pass-catchers. Adding Shepard to the mix as a potential second option should open things up for Manning even more.
In addition, Manning has to feel good about getting former top target Victor Cruz back in the lineup after the receiver missed the vast majority of the past two seasons due to injury. Cruz returned to participate in individual drills during minicamp.
If Cruz can return to pre-injury form and Shepard can live up to his billing, Manning is going to enter the season feeling like he won the quarterback jackpot.
Loser: Robert Griffin III, QB, Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns brought in quarterback Robert Griffin III this offseason to compete for the team's starting job. OTAs and minicamp are now over, and it doesn't appear Griffin has been able to distance himself from journeyman Josh McCown and rookie Cody Kessler.
According to Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com, Browns head coach Hue Jackson was "not even close" to naming a starting quarterback by the end of minicamp. Griffin certainly doesn't seem to have helped bring Jackson closer to a decision.
According to Pat McManamon of ESPN.com, Griffin was inconsistent with accuracy and footwork during minicamp and also failed to impress during OTAs:
There was a deep throw for a touchdown that ended minicamp, but before that three short passes were tipped, one was intercepted, two others could have been. In individual drills, Griffin showed off the magic arm that can be so impressive. But in team drills, he threw a lot of short routes, at times displayed poor footwork and often took the checkdown. OTAs lacked a "wow" moment for Griffin, a stand-up-and-take-notice moment.
Griffin has a realistic opportunity to salvage his career with Cleveland, a franchise desperate for an answer at the quarterback position. If he can't win the starting job in Cleveland, he's likely to lose out on any meaningful future in the NFL.
Winner: Myles Jack, LB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Rookie linebacker Myles Jack slid into the second round of this year's draft due to concerns about the health of his surgically repaired knee and his potential longevity. The Jacksonville Jaguars, of course, were happy to snag the former UCLA standout in Round 2.
This season, both parties will get the chance to make the teams that passed on Jack look foolish.
For Jack, the first step in the process occurred during June minicamp, when he made his official practice debut with the Jaguars.
“It was fun,” Jack said, via John Oehser of the team's official website. “I definitely have to get in shape and get more reps, but it was just fun playing football again. I really enjoyed it. I definitely made a lot of mistakes, and I’ll learn from them, but it was good being with the team and getting acclimated."
Jack has mostly been out of action since tearing the meniscus in his knee during a 2015 September practice. Being healthy enough to now join his new NFL employer on the practice field makes him one of the biggest winners of minicamp.
Loser: Darren McFadden, RB, Dallas Cowboys
June has not been a good month for Dallas Cowboys running back Darren McFadden.
If McFadden—who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season—had any hope at all of holding off rookie fourth overall pick Ezekiel Elliott for Dallas' starting running back job, it ended with a possible cellphone mishap and a broken elbow.
According to Todd Archer of ESPN.com, McFadden fractured his arm while trying to save a dropped phone. McFadden was forced to undergo surgery and may miss significant time.
"I don't want to put too much of a timetable on it," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said of the injury, per Archer. "They said the surgery went well, and the overarching thing was a couple months. So we'll see how he responds to everything, but we do anticipate him being back at some point in training camp and possibly being able to play in the opener."
The problem with McFadden being hurt now is that it gives Elliott and veteran Alfred Morris plenty of opportunities to cement their roles in the backfield. Elliott received first-team reps in minicamp.
"Obviously the more reps he gets, the slower it’ll become,” Cowboys running backs coach Gary Brown said of Elliott, via the team's official website. “And I think with Darren missing some time, his learning curve will accelerate, and it’ll slow down real slow now because he has to go out there and do it every snap."
Naturally, these developments also make Elliott one of the big winners of minicamp.