The Latest Buzz Around Every NFL Team as Camp Season Nears

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystJuly 14, 2017

The Latest Buzz Around Every NFL Team as Camp Season Nears

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    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    Soon you'll be watching actual football on the many screens in your life. It won't be meaningful, the starters will play maybe one series and the entire ordeal will be a rust-filled festival of sloppy play.

    But it'll be football!

    The Hall of Fame Game is now just a few weeks away on Aug. 3, and prior to that training camps open throughout the final days of July. That's right, the time has almost come for pads, helmets and maybe also strange drills where yoga balls are heaved at quarterbacks.

    Before we get to that, though, it's important to take the pulse of the league and explore the latest rumors, roster and personnel concerns, injury updates and much, much more. Will Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell sign a long-term extension? Is 2017 Star Lotulelei's final season with the Carolina Panthers? And will the Green Bay Packers ever stop wasting quarterback Aaron Rodgers' prime seasons?

    Buckle up then, and let's do a lap around the league and tap into the latest buzz surrounding every team as the days, hours and minutes tick by to training camp.

Arizona Cardinals: Offseason Focus Has Been on Closing out Games

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    Bruce Arians
    Bruce AriansJohn Froschauer/Associated Press

    There are times when obvious facts of NFL life need to be stated, restated and hammered home by a head coach. It seems Bruce Arians has spent part of his offseason doing just that.

    The Arizona Cardinals head coach told NFL Network that his team has been focusing on doing whatever it takes to come out on the right side of the league's thin margin for error. The Cardinals had a disappointing 2016 season in part because of mistakes in close games. Those miscues led to a tie in Week 7 with the Seattle Seahawks, and of the Cardinals' eight losses, five came by a touchdown or less.

    "You gotta win close games," Arians told Good Morning Football (h/t Kevin Patra). "The NFL is all about close games. And we had won more close games than anybody in the league previous years. And last year, we lost four games that we hadthree by kicks, one by just not playing smart. We could have been smarter. We spent all offseason practicing those scenarios that put you in critical situations so we can be a smarter football team."

    If the Cardinals even, say, just avoided that tie and won one of those other close games they would have at minimum found themselves in late-season playoff contention. Remember, the second wild card spot in the NFC went to the 9-7 Detroit Lions.

    Putting your offseason crosshairs on winning close games is wise for any coach, and particularly for a team like the Cardinals after a frustrating season. As Patra notes, during the 2016 regular season, 57 percent of all games played had an eight-point margin of victory or lower.

Atlanta Falcons: When Will We Get a Takkarist McKinley Sighting?

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    Takkarist McKinley
    Takkarist McKinleyJeff Haynes/Associated Press

    Takkarist McKinley is already one of the most bubbly and entertaining (link contains profanity) rookies of 2017, and the Atlanta Falcons defensive end hasn't been on the field for a single regular-season snap yet, or even a practice snap during the offseason.

    That day should be coming soon, and when it does, the Falcons' defensive line will get a whole lot scarier in a hurry.

    McKinley needed offseason shoulder surgery after the combine. He likely wouldn't have been recovered in time to participate in the Falcons' offseason program, but a league rule preventing students from joining teams until their school semester ends kept him off the field regardless.

    He had a torn labrum repaired back in March, a procedure that came with a four- to six-month recovery period. So if he's struggled at all in his recovery, there's a chance McKinley may not quite be ready for the start of training camp.

    The Falcons will surely be cautious and bring their prized first-round pick along slowly. McKinley soared to the top of his draft class after recording 10 sacks and 18 tackles for a loss during his final season at UCLA in 2016. He has limitless energy and, when healthy, will form an intimidating pass-rushing duo with 2016 sack leader Vic Beasley.

Baltimore Ravens: Who Will Start at Tight End?

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    Benjamin Watson
    Benjamin WatsonNick Wass/Associated Press

    The Baltimore Ravens are depleted at a core offensive skill position long before the season even begins.

    They're searching for a tight end to step up after losing Dennis Pitta to a fractured and dislocated hip again, a severe injury that will likely end his career. Losing him leaves a swirling void after Pitta led all tight ends in 2016 with 86 receptions.

    Beyond Pitta there's potential but also mounting questions and uncertainty. Crockett Gillmore and Maxx Williams have dealt with their own serious injury issues while missing a combined 28 games since the start of the 2015 season. Nick Boyle is an option too and has been called a sleeper by ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley, but he's recorded just 197 receiving yards over 17 career games.

    The most likely replacement is Benjamin Watson. Just one year ago, being able to plug in Watson would have been a fine fall-back option. That's when he was fresh off a late-career resurgence with the New Orleans Saints highlighted by 825 receiving yards in 2015.

    Now Watson is a 36-year-old who just returned to the field after missing the 2016 season because of a torn Achilles. Maybe he'll bounce back quickly, but relying on a player at that age and with that medical history is dangerous.

    John Eisenberg of Ravens.com still thinks the starting tight end job is Watson's to lose.

    "I think the starting tight end will be Watson in Week 1," Eisenberg said in a recent mailbag segment. "I base that off of what I saw in spring practice. Yes, he's coming off an injury and didn't play at all in 2016. But he looks like a guy who's ready to go."

Buffalo Bills: New Defense Is Taking Shape

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    Reggie Ragland
    Reggie RaglandJeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    The Buffalo Bills have a new head coach, and a new defensive scheme came with him. Sean McDermott has spent the offseason installing his 4-3 scheme, which has meant answering some challenging personnel questions.

    Chief among them: Who will be the strong side linebacker?

    The default answer for now is Lorenzo Alexander. But he's versatile, and the Bills would surely like to avoid anchoring him to one role. Which could lead to 2016 second-round pick Reggie Ragland being tested on the outside.

    Ragland is a thumping linebacker who finished his time at Alabama with 102 tackles in 2015. He's best suited in the middle, but he could lose that job to Preston Brown after being limited in the offseason by the same knee injury that kept him out for all of 2016.

    Ragland will be at the center of the Bills' linebacker questions that might linger well into August. For now, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier is talking in standard diplomatic coach speak, saying that a number of different combinations could be used.

    "You've got three linebackers on the field and we hope that we'll try to mesh the right three in our 4-3 scheme," Frazier told Canio Marasco of BuffaloBills.com. "Maybe that'll be Lorenzo [Alexander] and Preston [Brown] together or maybe it'll be a different configuration. You always want to get your 11 best on the field and I believe that those guys will be part of our best 11."

Carolina Panthers: Is Star Lotulelei Entering His Last Season in Carolina?

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    Star Lotulelei
    Star LotuleleiGeorge Gojkovich/Getty Images

    The NFL can be cold and cruel when it comes to the business of handing out money and giving anything that resembles financial security. Just ask Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Star Lotulelei.

    The 2013 first-round pick has put together a quality start to his career as a run-stuffing behemoth up the middle. He's recorded 25-plus tackles as an interior defender during three of his four NFL seasons, topping out at 42 in his rookie year. And in 2016 Lotulelei also showed an ability to get after the quarterback with his single-season high four sacks.

    Yet while he's getting toward the end of his rookie contract and about to become expensive, a cheaper option is behind him on the depth chart. An option who was also a first-round pick.

    The Panthers selected Vernon Butler with their 30th overall pick in 2016. He was limited throughout much of his rookie season due to an ankle injury and played only 21 percent of the Panthers' defensive snaps, but a college career with 28.5 tackles for a loss over four seasons still isn't far in the rear view.

    As the Charlotte Observer's Joseph Person noted, the Panthers won't want to tie up much money long term in Lotulelei if Butler can perform well at a far lesser cost. That's why the 2017 season is critical for Lotulelei's future in Carolina. His quest for a payday starts in training camp and throughout the preseason games.

Chicago Bears: Kevin White Is Actually Healthy

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    Kevin White
    Kevin WhiteNam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    The Chicago Bears desperately need their seventh overall pick from 2015 to, well, start playing like a first-round pick. Or at least being on the field semi-regularly would be nice.

    Wide receiver Kevin White came to the Bears with plenty of promise after his 1,447 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns for West Virginia in 2014. But since then he's appeared in only four games due to a shin injury as a rookie and then a fractured fibula in 2016.

    So two seasons later White is still essentially a rookie in terms of his game experience, and there's no track record whatsoever of him being able to withstand the intense physical demands of an NFL season. Yet after Alshon Jeffery left as a free agent, the Bears are still leaning on him heavily.

    It was encouraging to see White running at full speed throughout the offseason, as Rich Campbell of the Chicago tribune noted. White still has a threatening combination of size and speed, and the Bears need him healthy for another reason beyond the loss of Jeffery. The team also now has just one season left to determine if White's fifth-year option will be picked up and if he'll be part of Chicago's future. It's pretty tough to evaluate an injured player.

Cincinnati Bengals: Jeremy Hill Will Still Have an Important Role

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    Jeremy Hill
    Jeremy HillJason Miller/Getty Images

    Joe Mixon was automatically crowned the Cincinnati Bengals' running back of the future after being selected with a second-round pick in 2017. He deserves that title, but Mixon might not be the running back of the present just yet.

    Jeremy Hill won't go silently into the night. He still has no business being the Bengals' lead back after averaging only 3.8 yards per carry in 2016, which is down drastically from his 5.1 yards per attempt as a rookie in 2014. At best Hill will be part of a committee situation on early downs while Mixon eases in at the professional level and Giovani Bernard does the same after recovering from an ACL tear.

    Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com recently noted that Hill will be "far from invisible" after Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis gave a fiery defense of him earlier in the offseason. And even if Mixon does secure early-down duties, there will still be a role for Hill as a goal-line bruiser.

    He's been highly effective near the end zone, with 29 career rushing touchdowns over only 47 regular-season games. As PFF observed, Hill was given the ball on 16 of the Bengals' 24 runs within five yards of paydirt in 2016, and he scored on six of those attempts.

Cleveland Browns: Seth Who?

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    Seth DeValve
    Seth DeValveTom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    Getting excited about a Cleveland Browns tight end usually means having a pleasant daydream where David Njoku's high-jumping awesomeness is on full display.

    And Browns fans should be excited about Njoku. But there might be a much lesser-known tight end to get giddy about too.

    Training camp can be a gem-mining mission for rebuilding teams. The young player who develops quickly can contribute fast on a roster filled with opportunities, and for the Browns, that player might be tight end Seth DeValve.

    The Browns don't have much receiver depth, especially with Corey Coleman always recovering from his latest injury, so Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer expects to see lots of sets with multiple tight ends, which will put DeValve on the field more after an impressive offseason.

    DeValve was a fourth-round pick out of Princeton in 2016 and needed time to adjust at the next level. Little was known about DeValve coming out of college until he lit up stopwatches with a 4.68 time in the 40-yard dash at his pro day. That's neck-breaking speed for a guy who's 6'4" and weighs 244 pounds.

    He wasn't on the field much as a rookie but still caught two touchdown passes on only 12 targets. With Gary Barnidge gone and multiple tight ends likely to be on the field, there's room for both DeValve and Njoku to rise in 2017.

    So far DeValve has stood out in the offseason, with Browns head coach Hue Jackson calling him an "emerging player," via Patrick Maks of Browns.com.

Dallas Cowboys: Jaylon Smith Is Almost Ready for a Two-Down Role

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Not long ago there was concern over Jaylon Smith and if the Dallas Cowboys' draft gamble would backfire in the worst way.

    The linebacker was a potential top-10 pick in the 2016 draft before suffering a severe knee injury that included nerve damage in his final college game. The nerve in Smith's knee was only reported to be regenerating as recently as early March, according to ESPN.com's Todd Archer. He already missed all of 2016, and 2017 seemed up in the air too.

    But then he made steady progress and was on the field during OTAs. Going forward Smith will take breaks in his on-field involvement throughout training camp and won't practice on back-to-back days. He'll be out there, though, which is all that matters after his career was in question.

    The suddenly renewed optimism about a player who could be a key defender for the Cowboys has Archer wondering if Smith could play a significant role right away in 2017. How significant?

    "I wonder if he will be a two-down linebacker as he feels his way back from the knee injury and gets accustomed to the brace," Archer wrote. "By working him in slowly, the Cowboys will give him the best chance to succeed. The expectations for him already are high, perhaps too high considering the seriousness of his injury. Making him a two-down linebacker might be the best way to work him into the lineup."

    That seems like a fine solution to both utilize a linebacker who recorded 226 tackles over his final two seasons at Notre Dame and make sure he doesn't overextend himself.

Denver Broncos: Demaryius Thomas' Hip Problems Are Gone

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    Joe Mahoney/Associated Press

    In 2016, Denver Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas produced his fifth straight year with 90 or more receptions and over 1,000 receiving yards.

    That was impressive for a couple reasons. The Broncos received average at best quarterback play, if we're being generous. And yet Thomas still managed to be a steady contributor, scoring five times and averaging 67.7 receiving yards per game.

    But mostly, Thomas' consistency is notable because of his mere presence on the field. He's able to play his role in the offense because the former first-round pick hasn't missed a game since 2011. In 2016, he kept that iron-man streak alive even while dealing with a nagging hip issue all season long. That restricted him at times and perhaps was part of the reason his receiving production fell by 221 yards compared to 2015.

    Now Thomas says he's feeling just fine, thanks, and is ready to remain productive in 2017 and beyond.

    "This is the best I've felt my whole career," Thomas told Aric DiLalla of Broncos.com. "I haven't had the problems I usually have with my hip, because that was one of the things that held me back.

    "I wake up now and I don't feel it, and that's a good sign, because usually I wake up in the morning and I'm like, 'OK, my hip's tight. I've got to loosen it up to get it going.' But now it's totally different."

    Thomas first broke out in 2012 after battling persistent injuries early in his career. Since then he's piled up 6,870 receiving yards, which is behind only the Steelers' Antonio Brown over those five seasons, according to Pro Football Reference.

Detroit Lions: Eric Ebron Is "Overly Excited"

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    Eric Ebron
    Eric EbronJose Juarez/Associated Press

    The Eric Ebron hype train keeps chugging, now with its nitro boosters engaged.

    Ebron was initially a disappointment after the Detroit Lions selected him with their 10th overall pick in 2014. The tight end had been a constant mismatch-creator in college with his blend of size and speed. But over his first two NFL seasons, Ebron posted a solid though far less than spectacular 785 receiving yards. Then he nearly matched that yardage total in his third season after Calvin Johnson retired and plenty of targets were available in the Lions offense.

    Ebron finished 2016 with 61 receptions for 711 yards, ranking among the top 10 at his position in both categories. That's earned him a larger role, with the Lions hoping his late bloom continues into 2017. And Ebron sounded rather delighted when speaking to SiriusXm NFL Radio recently.

    "The way they are going to go about using me this year has me overly excited," he said. "It's going to be fun for me."

    What does that mean specifically? Likely that Ebron is a fan of catching touchdown passes and he's about to do that more often, which was the only major element missing from his 2016 season.

    Anquan Boldin isn't a part of the Lions' offense anymore. He was a wide receiver in position title only and often functioned like a tight end. That was especially true in the red zone, where Boldin was targeted 22 times in 2016, leaving just six end-zone looks for Ebron. As a result Boldin was on the other end for eight of the 24 touchdown passes thrown by quarterback Matthew Stafford, while Ebron finished with only one.

    Both of those red-zone numbers—the targets and touchdowns—should swing in the opposite direction now, making Ebron one of the leading breakout candidates for 2017.

Green Bay Packers: Rodgers Acknowledges He's Not Young Anymore

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    Aaron Rodgers
    Aaron RodgersAssociated Press

    Hearing one of the best quarterbacks in this generation (and ever) talk openly about his advancing age doesn't exactly fill Green Bay Packers fans with the usual mid-July giddiness as training camp nears.

    Heck, forget Packers fans. Anyone who enjoys watching Aaron Rodgers do rare things with his rare talent—which is anyone who watches football—finds themselves staring off deep into the distance at the thought of not having him in the NFL.

    Rodgers is 33 years old and will turn 34 late in the 2017 season. He'll still be around for a while. But he's often been open and honest with his comments, which was the case when the Packers pivot spoke to NFL Network's Alex Flanagan recently.

    "I think I'm on the back nine of my career," Rodgers said while using the appropriate cross-sport metaphor. "But I think I'm just kind of starting the back nine. This will be my 10th year starting, I got to sit for three years. So I'm not the typical 13-year pro, having the opportunity to sit for three years and not take the wear and tear to learn the game."

    He's right from all angles there.

    Rodgers sat for three seasons and waited for Brett Favre's waffling to end before taking the reins in 2008. That means as his human body gets set to turn 34 in six months, it can be argued his football and quarterback body is still 31. So maybe he's set the course for Tom Brady-like longevity.

    Still, no two career trajectories are the same, and no two bodies are the same. And it's always fair to nervously tug at your shirt collar while thinking about how far away the end might be whenever any player is getting closer to the age of 35.

    That's an especially stressful exercise for the Packers because they risk wasting more prime years of a quarterback legend's career. They won Super Bowl XLV, but haven't been back to that grand stage in the six seasons since.

Houston Texans: Deshaun Watson Is Ready Whenever the Texans Need Him

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    Deshaun Watson
    Deshaun WatsonBob Levey/Associated Press

    Rookie quarterbacks selected in the first round all get the same treatment from the training camp buzz machine, and it comes down to this question: When will they be ready to start?

    Oh, and this question: Are they ready to start now? How about now?

    Deshaun Watson will have that hovering even more so than most rookie quarterbacks throughout the month of August. Unlike Patrick Mahomes and Mitch Trubisky, the two other first-round quarterbacks in 2017, Watson has a clear path to starting right away.

    It's just a matter of how long it'll take for Tom Savage to step aside. Or rather, be mediocre enough that the timeline to start Watson is advanced in a hurry.

    Watson recently told NFL Network's Alex Flanagan that he's ready when needed.

    "Honestly, whenever Coach [Bill O'Brien] and the coaches feel like I'm ready to go [I'll be ready]," Watson said. "The team feels like they can operate with me behind the wheel and being the quarterback. It's gonna take time, it's gonna be a process, really no rush. Just kinda taking it one day at a time, and whenever that time comes, I'll be ready."

    That's the standard line you expect him to say in the final days before training camp. Much like this brake-tapping comment from late June is typical stuff from a head coach trying to be patient with his young quarterback.

    "He's a very poised guy," O'Brien told John McClain of the Houston Chronicle. "I like the way he carries himself. I like the way he operates. He's a rookie, and he's not nearly where he needs to be to be a full-time starter in this league, but you can tell he's got a lot of qualities you like."

    The Texans gave up a first-round pick in 2018 to move up to get Watson, and the memories of Brock Osweiler's nightmare 2016 season are still fresh. Houston has somehow managed to finish 9-7 in three straight seasons despite consistently having bottom-tier quarterback play.

    Watson is the life boat that's finally come to save an otherwise talented team, and the Texans' patience won't last long once Savage inevitably struggles.

Indianapolis Colts: What's Going on with Andrew Luck's Shoulder?

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    Andrew Luck
    Andrew LuckAndy Lyons/Getty Images

    It's unclear how many alarms should be sounding because of Andrew Luck's continued inactivity or if any should be blaring at all. And that's really the point.

    The Indianapolis Colts quarterback quite clearly needs to be the main component behind any Colts turnaround in 2017. A once-dominant team that won 11 games in three straight seasons (2012 to 2014) has now posted back-to-back 8-8 years. The Colts have revamped their defense in an effort to support Luck, but the $140 million man is still the foundation for everything they want to accomplish in 2017.

    And with training camp just a few weeks away, there have been no reports of Luck throwing after shoulder surgery back in January, as Kevin Bowen of Colts.com noted. Unless Luck is keeping it a secret, he hasn't thrown a football in seven months, which is more than mildly concerning for a guy who not only does that for a living, but does it at an extremely high level.

    There doesn't seem to be much concern from the Colts, a team that still has Scott Tolzien as its primary backup quarterback. And Luck himself seems to be pretty nonchalant abut the whole thing too. In mid-June the 27-year-old wouldn't commit to being ready for the start of training camp while speaking to Zak Keefer of the Indianapolis Star, but Luck also said he hasn't thought about it much.

    It's likely Luck will be just fine and come out firing in Week 1. But be prepared with earplugs if he's not practicing to begin training camp, because those alarms will be deafening.

Jacksonville Jaguars: When Will Jalen Ramsey Be Ready?

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    We might finally have an offseason when the Jacksonville Jaguars are talked about endlessly as a turnaround team and it actually happens. Their new swarming and swatting cornerback tandem will lead the way.

    The Jaguars landed a marquee free agent by signing A.J. Bouye to a five-year contract worth $67.5 million. He's one of the league's fastest-rising young corners after recording 16 passes defensed and three interceptions in 2016, two of which came during the playoffs.

    Bouye will slide in alongside Jalen Ramsey, who really surged late in 2016 and tallied 13 passes defensed after Week 12. But the Jaguars might be waiting just a little while to see that new, shiny cornerback duo in action.

    Ramsey needed core muscle surgery in June. He was cleared for running later in the month, but NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported he could still begin training camp on the physically unable to perform list.

    Every training camp snap is vital for a cornerback entering just his second season who needs to gel with new teammates around him. But although Ramsey could miss some time and might be eased into preseason games, there's little concern about his Week 1 availability.

Kansas City Chiefs: Chris Jones Is a Rising Star

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    Chris Jones
    Chris JonesReed Hoffmann/Getty Images

    When you try to pick out a rising young star on the Kansas City Chiefs roster, the immediate answer is usually Tyreek Hill. The wide receiver and kick returner was electric as a rookie while scoring 12 all-purpose touchdowns.

    Another fine choice would be cornerback Marcus Peters, the 24-year-old who has already recorded 14 interceptions over only 31 career regular-season games.

    But the sleeper pick is defensive end Chris Jones, who was another surprise in 2016.

    Jones, a second-round pick in 2016, was pushed into more playing time as a rookie after injuries to Allen Bailey and Jaye Howard. He responded by being a constantly thrashing and pocket-collapsing presence.

    His first-year production is an example of sack totals telling only a partial story, as Jones finished with only two sacks. But he also recorded 43 quarterback pressures, per PFFeven while playing a modest 51.4 percent of the Chiefs' defensive snaps.

    Adam Teicher, the Chiefs reporter for ESPN.com, selected Jones as his rising star in the AFC West, noting that the Chiefs expect more out of him now in his second year.

    "The Chiefs expect Jones, a second-round draft pick in 2016, to be solid against both the run and pass; in particular he showed strong pass-rush skills last season," wrote Teicher. "He displayed the knack for being able to split double-teams and get pressure on the opposing quarterback."

Los Angeles Chargers: Hunter Henry Has a Bright Future

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    Hunter Henry
    Hunter HenryLeon Bennett/Getty Images

    It seems like Los Angeles Chargers tight end Hunter Henry must be the subject of gushing from his coaches often. Which isn't surprising stuff, because ranting and raving would be difficult to resist when you get to watch him every day during practice.

    Henry played only a little over half of the Chargers' offensive snaps in 2016 (53.8 percent) while splitting time with Antonio Gates. That's all the time he needed to compile 478 receiving yards and finish tied for the league lead among tight ends with eight touchdown catches.

    The second-round pick in 2016 represents the future at tight end not just for the Chargers but also for the NFL, as the 22-year-old isn't even close to his talent ceiling yet. There are now sky-high expectations for Henry heading into his second season, and his tight ends coach John McNulty is confident the strong-handed pass-catcher can live up to them.

    "The biggest thing is that he has ball skills," McNulty told Ricky Henne of Chargers.com. "He can catch the ball that gets in on him fast, and he makes the contested catches with big, strong hands. You look at some of those touchdown catches, they weren't easy. Balls were down below his knees, up over his head and he had guys draped over his back. But he's just able to concentrate and make those plays."

    The Chargers are in the unique position at tight end to have both a fading but still productive veteran in Gates and a second-year player who already looks to have star power. They'll both be key pieces of what could become a resurgent Chargers offense.

Los Angeles Rams: Todd Gurley Is Loving the Rams' New Offense

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    Todd Gurley
    Todd GurleyJae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Todd Gurley flatlined in 2016. He went from being the rookie of the year in 2015 to a bottom-tier plodding runner.

    His yards per carry cratered, falling from 4.8 to 3.2. And his yards per game did the same, tumbling from 85.1 to 55.3. That's the production of a replacement-level runner and not the 10th overall pick in 2015.

    Of course, a leaky offensive line that let Gurley get whacked almost immediately after taking handoffs was responsible for the spiral too. And the Rams actually having to call Case Keenum their quarterback for nine games didn't help either.

    But Gurley shares in the blame after becoming a tentative and indecisive runner who looked to bounce outside too often. He was 46th out of 53 qualifying running backs in yards after contact per attempt in 2016, per PFF.

    Now a fresh start is coming in Sean McVay's offense, and Gurley told SiriusXM NFL Radio (via NFL.com) he's "definitely loving" the new playbook.

    The new Rams head coach drew up a productive rushing offense as the Washington Redskins offensive coordinator in 2016. His unit ranked tied for seventh with a per-carry average of 4.5 yards. The Redskins also tied for sixth with 17 rushing touchdowns.

    Rediscovering the 2015 version of Gurley is now one of McVay's primary objectives. Accomplishing his main goal of turning Jared Goff into a starting-caliber NFL quarterback will go a long way toward solving the running-game issues too.

Miami Dolphins: McDonald's Suspension Will Lead to Tough Preseason Snap Balance

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    T.J. McDonald
    T.J. McDonaldRick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The Miami Dolphins signed T.J. McDonald to have him form one of the league's top safety tandems when he slides in alongside Reshad Jones. They were able to bring him in on a discounted one-year contract without any guaranteed money because of McDonald's upcoming eight-game suspension.

    The Dolphins did that knowing they'd have to survive life without McDonald for half of the season, but those eight games may actually be the easier part of their short-term safety plans. The hard part is about to begin.

    As ESPN.com's James Walker noted, the Dolphins face a difficult situation with how they distribute snaps throughout training camp and the preseason schedule.

    Once the regular season begins, McDonald will spend eight weeks watching from home and won't be allowed to enter the team facility. He won't get any work in a defense that will still be new to him at that point.

    So it's critical for him to take a crash course and cram in reps now. But Nate Allen will take over for McDonald temporarily, and he needs to be prepared for his half season as the starter.

    Because of that, McDonald understands he may have to take a back seat in August a little more than usual.

    "I'm a football player. I want to play," McDonald told Walker. "I want to play no matter what. Preseason is definitely a stride for me, just to be able to get used to the system at full, live bullets and whatnot. But at the same time, there's going to be guys that also need to get some time that will be there for Week 1. I understand that. So however the coaches want to use me, I'll be ready for whatever."

    It'll all make for some interesting and delicate snap-monitoring.

Minnesota Vikings: Bridgewater Is Still Progressing Well in His Recovery

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Teddy Bridgewater continues to take small but significant steps in his recovery from a severe knee injury during training camp in August 2016.

    A few months ago he posted a video to Instagram that showed the 24-year-old dropping back, planting and throwing, albeit while wearing a bulky knee brace. Then during OTAs he surprisingly appeared on the field briefly to do the same.

    Now, in his latest video, Bridgewater has ditched the knee brace and is moving fluidly without restriction.

    As Michael Rand of the Minneapolis Star-tribune noted, Bridgewater will still likely begin training camp on the physically unable to perform list. But if he continues to progress this smoothly in his recovery, we could see him at some point in 2017, which seemed highly unlikely after the first-round pick tore his ACL and suffered structural damage to his knee. 

New England Patriots: So Many Options on the Running Back Depth Chart

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    Dion Lewis
    Dion LewisElise Amendola/Associated Press

    Sometimes New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick delivers the unexpected. Like when he brings the guns out on a pleasant mid-July afternoon.

    But much more often he gives us exactly what we expect. Like a running back depth chart devoid of name value but still with plenty of actual value.

    Belichick has assembled a stable of runners who will have a specific role, and each contributes in his own way. But there's still some redundancy and therefore questions about who could be the odd man out by the end of August.

    Right now Mike Gillislee seems likely to get the first crack at the bulk of early-down work, with newly signed Rex Burkhead taking a chunk of the carries and contributing on special teams. But that leaves James White and Dion Lewis scrapping for passing-down work.

    White would seem to have the advantage because of his recent success. He developed a solid connection with quarterback Tom Brady in 2016 and finished with 551 receiving yards and five touchdowns. White also ended his season with flair while being a standout performer in the Super Bowl, busting out for 110 yards and a touchdown on 14 catches along with a further two scores on the ground.

    It'll be tough to push him aside now, and Lewis has played only 14 games over the past two seasons due to injuries. But ESPN.com Patriots beat reporter Mike Reiss still thinks Lewis is a roster lock.

    "To me, he adds an element of explosiveness and quickness that isn't otherwise on the roster at the position," Reiss wrote.

    He's not wrong, as a healthy Lewis is incredibly elusive after the catch and could be highly effective even in a limited role. Those aren't qualities teams typically pass on, so maybe a well-stocked Patriots running back depth chart will remain that way with a sacrifice elsewhere on the roster.

New Orleans Saints: The Drew Brees Countdown Is on

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    Drew Brees
    Drew BreesMaddie Meyer/Getty Images

    The New Orleans Saints are speeding toward a difficult decision with their quarterback. It'll involve answering this question: Just how much is a 39-year-old quarterback worth?

    Drew Brees is still playing at a high level while preparing to enter his age-38 season. The 2017 season will also be Brees' last under his current Saints contract after he signed a one-year extension in September 2016. He's still a generational talent and is fresh off his fifth 5,000-plus-yard passing season. Brees also completed 70 percent of his pass attempts in 2016 while throwing 37 touchdown passes.

    He's still an artist in the pocket and worthy of being one of the top-paid quarterbacks in football. Yet he'll be pushing 40 years old after the 2017 season.

    Brees will be wanting top dollar, and if the Saints aren't willing to make that sacrifice for an aging quarterback, another team will happily offer him a figure with a lot of zeroes. So as Yahoo's Jay Busbee quite rightly noted, the Saints will have Brees under a microscope in 2017.

    "Come 2018, Brees is going to want to get paid bigly, even though he'll be entering his age-39 season next year," he wrote. "So all eyes will be on Brees this year, watching for any signs of dropoff, and any tics that would justify (or not justify) paying an aging-but-still-viable QB a gargantuan final deal."

    Trying to picture Brees in another uniform makes your brain hurt. And a lot of hearts will be hurting too if the Saints-Brees marriage ends after 2017.

New York Giants: Getting Creative for Offensive Line Depth

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    jarron Jones
    jarron JonesMatt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

    The New York Giants are going down a creative path in their quest for offensive line depth. They'll spend training camp working with an undrafted defensive tackle and flipping him to the other side of the ball.

    That defensive tackle is Jarron Jones, who finished with 4.5 sacks and 19 tackles for a loss during his college career at Notre Dame. He had potential in that role too, but cracking the Giants roster as a defensive lineman would be difficult for any undrafted rookie. Led by Jason Pierre-Paul, Olivier Vernon and Damon Harrison, the Giants are well stacked up front and don't have many spare snaps available.

    They could, however, benefit from some more reinforcements along the offensive line. The Giants coaching staff thinks Jones' 6'6" and 316-pound body will fit better there. As for Jones, he's embracing the opportunity while knowing that versatility is like oxygen for an undrafted player.

    "They want to take advantage of my size," Jones told Andy Lipari of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. "We have a really good defensive line and in all honesty making the team on defense was pretty slim. Our offensive line is good but they could use a couple more guys. They ... said it could pay big dividends for me.”

    There's been some success with similar moves in the recent past. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have two such conversions on their offensive line after guard J.R. Sweezy made the switch with the Seattle Seahawks, while tackle Demar Dotson was converted too.

New York Jets: Is Juston Burris a Starting Cornerback?

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    If the New York Jets had their way, they would just not field a team at all and take a zero on the entire 2017 season. But alas, that's not an option, and they have to trot out the best players who are left from a scorched-earth rebuild.

    Which inevitably leads to questions like the one in the headline above. The answer is...probably?

    The Jets defense allowed 7.5 yards per pass attempt in 2016 (tied for 22nd), and they now have a youth-filled secondary after using their first two 2017 draft picks on safeties Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye. Those two are promising talents, but there will surely be growing pains as the rookies develop at the NFL level.

    Cornerback Juston Burris could provide some stability alongside them if he beats out Buster Skrine for a starting spot. And ESPN.com's Rich Cimini thinks that's a strong possibility.

    "I expect him to overtake Skrine as the No. 2," Cimini wrote in his roster projection. "Burris has the ideal dimensions to be a press-corner (6'0", with 32-inch arms). He has to play with flawless technique because he doesn't have the catch-up speed to atone for mistakes at the line."

    Burris does indeed have the physical dimensions to hold up well in press coverage, and although it came on a small sample size of only 178 snaps, his play as a rookie in 2016 was encouraging. Burris allowed a passer rating in coverage of just 84.4, according to Pro Football Focus.

Oakland Raiders: Jihad Ward Has to Recover from Another Surgery

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    Brian Bahr/Getty Images

    Surgery on any foot, and at any age, is always less than ideal for a pass-rusher who has to push off and accelerate quickly to turn the corner. And having surgery on the same foot twice over a three-year span is especially concerning.

    That's how defensive end Jihad Ward's medical report reads already has he prepares to enter his second season with the Oakland Raiders. Ward needed foot surgery to repair his left foot again after undergoing a similar procedure in 2015. NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported a cautious timetable has him missing the start of training camp and returning around mid-August.

    Every snap is precious for a young pass-rusher who was a second-round pick in 2016. Ward started 13 games as a rookie and was largely ineffective while not recording a single sack. Now his chances of keeping that starting spot and holding off Mario Edwards have taken a massive blow.

Philadelphia Eagles: Is Brent Celek Done with the Eagles After 2017?

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    Brent Celek
    Brent CelekMatt Rourke/Associated Press

    Philadelphia Eagles tight end Brent Celek has been a reliable blocker for quite some time. And he's been a solid pass-catcher too, though the 32-year-old is far removed from his single-season high of 971 receiving yards back in 2009. However, that did start a run of five straight seasons with 500-plus yards.

    The problem is Celek can't get younger, because that's not how time works. Worse, his production and relevance as a pass-catcher in the Eagles offense has taken a nosedive in recent years. Which is why Jimmy Kempski of PhillyVoice.com thinks Celek could be entering his last training camp in Philadelphia.

    "In 2016, Celek averaged less than one catch per game and he did not score a touchdown for the first time in his career," Kempski noted.

    Celek is still a quality blocking tight end. That's valuable, but blocking skill alone isn't worth $5 million, which is what a then-33-year-old will be scheduled to make in 2018.

    Zach Ertz finished fifth among tight ends in 2016 with 816 receiving yards. His continued emergence has reduced Celek's role, which is why the veteran averaged a mere 9.7 yards per game in 2016, and a single-season career low 155 yards overall.

    Celek will likely get one last crack at the playoffs and a championship in the only NFL city he's called home for 10 seasons. Beyond that, the dollars and production just don't meet.

Pittsburgh Steelers: It'll Be a Surprise If Le'Veon Bell Signs a Long-Term Deal

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    Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    Le'Veon Bell is a unique talent who has redefined what it means to be a patient runner. But redefining the running back market is another challenge altogether.

    The Pittsburgh Steelers slapped Bell with the franchise tag, which gives him a fully guaranteed one-year contract for 2017 worth $12.1 million. The issue as the clock ticks down to a Monday deadline is whether Bell will be in Pittsburgh for many years beyond 2017 and signed to a long-term deal.

    Getting to that point is complicated, and it would now be a "sizable surprise" if the two sides come to an agreement, as Jacob Klinger of PennLive.com noted.

    There's just so much at play, and heading into uncharted running back contract waters was always going to be tough.

    Bell has already recorded 6,050 yards from scrimmage at just 25, and he's done it at an average of 128.8 total yards per game. Simply put, he's a rare talent who deserves an equally rare paycheck. He's already set to get that in 2017, as the second-highest-paid running back is the Titans' DeMarco Murray, who will pocket $6.25 million.

    But Bell wants that sort of paycheck long term. Although his talent justifies it, the Steelers are understandably struggling to make that sort of financial commitment to a running back who has missed 17 games over four seasons due to injuries and off-field issues.

San Francisco 49ers: Carlos Hyde Is Fighting for His Job

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    Carlos Hyde
    Carlos HydeAssociated Press

    The appeal of San Francisco 49ers running back Carlos Hyde has also been his downfall.

    He runs like his brake lines have been cut, always rolling downhill and rumbling over everything in sight. When he's healthy that approach has been both entertaining and effective. The 26-year-old finished his third NFL season in 2016 with career single-year highs in rushing yards (988), yards per carry (4.6) and total touchdowns (nine).

    But his violent running style leads to his body constantly being painted in shades of black and blue. Absorbing the blows that come with that bowling-ball approach has been difficult, even for a 235-pound running back. And as a result, frustration is mounting after Hyde has missed 14 games already.

    Which is why it shouldn't be surprising that a new 49ers regime likely wants to start fresh and potentially rid themselves of the Hyde injury headache. Or at the very least install their vision in the backfield with a platoon situation developing.

    Matt Maiocco, the 49ers beat writer for CSN Bay Area, was recently asked in a mailbag column if Hyde legitimately could lose his job. His answer was that on a rebuilding team, very few players are secure, and Hyde isn't one of them.

    "Hyde is an immensely talented running back whose bid for 1,000 yards came up just 12 yards short in 2016 due to a late-season knee injury," Maiocco wrote. "He is healthy. But he is learning a new system. Shanahan and Turner hand-picked a running back they believe best fits the requirements of the position in their scheme."

    That running back is Joe Williams, a promising offensive puzzle piece the 49ers targeted with a trade up in the fourth round of the 2017 draft. Williams finished his final season at Utah with 1,407 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns.

    He's likely the future at running back for the 49ers with Hyde's contract set to expire after 2017. Williams might also be the present, too.

Seattle Seahawks: Will Jermaine Kearse Make the 2017 Roster?

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    If we're being kind, Jermaine Kearse's 2016 season was a horror show.

    Calling Kearse potentially the Seattle Seahawks' No. 3 receiver is pretty generous too. Doug Baldwin should continue seeing the largest chunk of the targets, and Tyler Lockett will soon be healthy to assume the No. 2 role. Then Paul Richardson is much more worthy of No. 3 duties going forward after his playoff acrobatics.

    So that could leave Kearse picking up table scraps after he caught only 46.1 percent of his targets in 2016, down dramatically from 72.1 percent in 2015. And the passer rating quarterback Russell Wilson had when targeting Kearse also spiraled from 126.1 in 2015 to 57.5 in 2016, per PFF.

    Kearse recently agreed to a contract extension. But like most NFL contracts, it's filled with fluff, and the Seahawks would benefit from moving on. As Rotoworld noted, Seattle can save $2.2 million in 2017 by releasing Kearse and then another $5 million in 2018.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Jeremy McNichols Is Pushing for Passing-Down Snaps

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    Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    A fifth-round rookie who was selected with the 162nd overall pick is typically pushing for any snaps at all and is overjoyed with anything he gets. A mid-round pick is often ready to dance in the streets nude after just getting a roster spot too.

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Jeremy McNichols heard his name when that slot came around on Day 3 of the 2017 draft. He's well behind Doug Martin and Jacquizz Rodgers on the depth chart, but there's still a way for him to make a meaningful contribution as a rookie, and McNichols is well aware of that path.

    In a recent interview with NFL Total Access, the 21-year-old said he's been working with his receivers coach daily during the down time between OTAs and training camp. That shows the Boise State product is honing his focus, which is exactly what he should be doing.

    McNichols is already a solid pass-catcher out of the backfield after two 400-plus-yard receiving seasons in college. In 2015, he snatched all 51 catchable passes thrown his way, and his 1.88 yards per route run ranked sixth out of the 21 draft-eligible running backs in 2016, all per PFF.

    If he can improve on that strength at the next level the Bucs could get a nice return from their fifth-round pick right away.

Tennessee Titans: Derrick Henry Looks Faster

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    Derrick Henry
    Derrick HenryDuane Burleson/Associated Press

    Trying to tackle Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry once he's in full stride must feel like getting cinder blocks thrown at you repeatedly.

    The house-sized NFL sophomore (6'3" and 247 pounds) had a limited role in his rookie year as he watched DeMarco Murray rumble to the league's third-best rushing total. Murray ran for 1,287 yards behind an offensive line that gave him acres of inviting green space to work with.

    But Henry still capitalized on his scattered opportunities. He was given only 110 carries while on the field for just 25.4 percent of Tennessee's offensive snaps. And he finished with 490 rushing yards, an average of 4.5 yards per carry.

    Murray remains the lead workhorse in the Titans' backfield. But he's advancing in age now at 29, and his body just took plenty of blows after another season with a heavy workload. Murray still isn't far removed from a 2014 season with the Dallas Cowboys when he was given 449 regular-season touches. And then in 2016, the Titans put the ball in his hands 346 times.

    Keeping Murray fresh is wise with his history of breaking down. Doing that while utilizing his backup's unique size and speed is smart too, especially with the growth Henry has shown.

    "I’ve really been impressed with Henry in his second offseason," TitansOnline.com writer Jim Wyatt noted recently. "He looks faster, and there's no doubt he's hungry. If he makes the most of his snaps, he could earn more time."

    The Titans certainly aren't losing anything when Henry is on the field, and their rushing offense should keep chugging along at its usual punishing pace. He has impressive lateral movement for a runner of his size and had the seventh-ranked elusive rating (57.9) in 2016 among running backs with at lest 83 carries, per PFF.

Washington Redskins: Will Cousins Be a Free Agent in 2018?

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    Kirk Cousins
    Kirk CousinsNick Wass/Associated Press

    Deadlines have a funny way of leading to frantic action. So there's still a chance that sanity prevails and the Washington Redskins sign quarterback Kirk Cousins to a contract extension before Monday's deadline for franchise-tagged players.

    But that chance is very much now in the dated '90s movie reference territory.

    Thursday morning NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported that barring something unforeseen—see also: barring something miraculous—Cousins will play 2017 under the franchise tag without a long-term deal in place. Rapoport added that "both sides are OK with it."

    Cousins is surely quite pleased with the idea of pocketing a fully guaranteed $23.9 million while playing one more season under the tag. But the Redskins seem to be shrugging at the notion of losing a soon-to-be 28-year-old passer who has proven he's worthy of being paid like a franchise cornerstone.

    The Redskins hesitancy to pay Cousins like a franchise quarterback stopped being understandable after the 2016 regular season. That's when Cousins threw for 4,917 yards at an average of 8.1 yards per attempt, with 25 touchdowns and only 12 interceptions. Any remaining doubts were silenced, and a quarterback who's still young and hasn't reached the age of 30 yet deserves to be paid what the market dictates on a long-term deal.

    Cousins is nearly guaranteed to be playing elsewhere in 2018 without that long-term deal by Monday. Tagging him a third time will cost $34.5 million, which is a salary cap death blow and will heavily restrict the Redskins from doing anything to improve going forward.

    So, for the Redskins, it's either pull off that miracle and reach a deal or be set back years while facing the murky darkness of starting over at a position where supply never, ever meets demand.

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