Chris Simms' Top Training Camp Storylines That Could Shape 2017 Season
While the casual NFL fan might not pay a ton of attention to training camp season, it is one of the most important times of the football year. I can tell you as a former player that the foundations laid during training camp and in the preseason have a monumental impact on the rest of the season.
Therefore, when I went to put together a list of things to watch during training camp, I looked for storylines that could dramatically impact the NFL landscape. I didn't want to be that guy who looked around the league and said, "Ooh, I wonder how DeSean Jackson, Mike Evans and O.J. Howard are going to do together for the Buccaneers."
Those guys are going to be great. There you go, and you're welcome.
I'm not going to focus on the quarterbacks returning from injuries—Marcus Mariota, Ryan Tannehill, Cam Newton, Andrew Luck and Derek Carr—or every high draft pick from the past couple of years, either. Sure, those guys are all worth watching, but that's not all that interesting to me. If Luck can't play, the Colts are going to suffer. If Jared Goff can't pick up the offense under Sean McVay, the Rams are going to suffer. That's all you need to know.
Instead, I wanted to dig a little deeper to examine the camp storylines that interest me as a football guy. These are players and situations worth watching that could make or break teams in 2017 and, by extension, impact the league as a whole.
Believe it or not, the Redskins can be a major player in the NFC in 2017. Not only is Washington a borderline playoff team, but the Redskins can affect the futures of the Cowboys, Giants and Eagles.
Washington should be on the rise. It has taken steps to get bigger along the defensive front and better in the secondary. Young defenders like Jonathan Allen, Fabian Moreau and Ryan Anderson can certainly boost it on that side of the ball. However, this isn't a team that is ready to dominate on defense.
The Redskins have emerged as an offensive force under Jay Gruden and Kirk Cousins. It's that unit that's going to lead them to the playoffs if they're going to get there. My big question is if they can get enough out of 2016 first-round pick Josh Doctson for that to happen.
Cousins has thrived because he has had weapons around him. He lost two big ones in Jackson and Pierre Garcon this offseason. I don't have any questions about Terrelle Pryor Sr., who was brought in as a free agent. I think he'll be one of the top wideouts in football this season. My question is whether or not Doctson can be the right complement to him.
Injuries limited Doctson to two games and 66 receiving yards in 2016. I need to see that he can be the Jackson to Pryor's Garcon. I don't yet know that he can be, and neither does Washington. Doctson doesn't need to be a 1,000-yard receiver, but he does need to establish himself as a legitimate threat.
If he can do that, then the Redskins should be just as dangerous as they were in 2016, and perhaps more so. They'll be right back in the postseason hunt, and they'll have a hand in shaping the NFC playoff picture.
Dallas' Young Pass Defense
The Cowboys are going to be right back in the thick of the playoff race too. The rushing attack should again be one of the best in football, and Dak Prescott will take another step forward in Year 2. If Dallas is going to be a Super Bowl contender, though, it needs its pass defense to improve.
This was my biggest question with the Cowboys last season. They ranked 26th in pass defense, allowing 260.4 yards per game, which is far too many for a Super Bowl squad. Sure, the strategy of grinding the ball on the ground and controlling the clock often helped compensate, but Dallas cannot expect to ride that formula for two full seasons in a row.
Just look what happened when it faced a team that could move the ball through the air and slow the Cowboys rushing attack. That's exactly what New York did, and Dallas dropped both games. When it faced an elite quarterback in Aaron Rodgers in the postseason, it couldn't hold him off.
With teams like the Giants, Packers, Raiders, Cardinals and Falcons on their schedule this year, the Cowboys need their pass defense to shape up in a hurry.
In camp, I'll be following young defenders like rookie corners Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis, rookie pass-rusher Taco Charlton and second-year linebacker Jaylon Smith, who has yet to play a down in the NFL. Obviously, development won't be the only thing to focus on, as the Detroit Free Press' Perry A. Farrell reported Lewis was found not guilty in his domestic-violence trial and Smith is still coming back from injury. If all these pieces can come together under Rod Marinelli, it'll be the difference between having a top-15 pass defense and a bottom-15 pass defense.
Dallas doesn't need to have one of the league's best pass defenses to be a Super Bowl contender, but it does need to be better than it was last year. The foundation will be laid by these young defenders in training camp.
There isn't an NFL team that has placed more unfair pressure on a rookie this year than the Ravens have with cornerback Marlon Humphrey.
First of all, the guy was overdrafted. Humphrey was selected 16th overall, but he should have gone somewhere between picks 30 and 50. Maybe it was because he's an Alabama product—general manager Ozzie Newsome, a Bama product himself, seems to have an affinity for them—but Humphrey is already facing the expectations of being a mid-first-round pick.
He will also have the task of trying to reverse a recent trend: Newsome has missed on defensive backs in the draft. Matt Elam didn't work out. Neither did Terrence Brooks.
The most pressure, though, will come from the fact Humphrey may be the piece that makes or breaks Baltimore's status as a Super Bowl contender.
We know the Ravens have a good defense—it ranked seventh in the NFL last year, allowing just 322.1 yards per game. They added speed to the offense and now have perhaps the best group of skill players they have ever put around Joe Flacco. The one question is whether or not the defense can stop the elite passing attacks in the NFL.
Baltimore may need Humphrey to be its No. 1 corner for the answer to be yes. The addition of Brandon Carr will help, but Carr isn't the No. 1 corner he once was.
The Ravens also lost young up-and-comer Tavon Young to a torn ACL this offseason, and Jimmy Smith has struggled to maintain his health over the past few seasons. Even with those guys at full strength, the Baltimore defense struggled against offenses with speed in 2016. Losses to the Patriots, Steelers and Bengals down the stretch kept the Ravens out of the playoffs last year.
If Humphrey can emerge as a No. 1 corner by the end of the preseason, watch out for Baltimore.
There are a few things I'm interested in following with the Steelers this preseason. I want to see all the Killer Bs—Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Le'Veon Bell—finally together. I want to see how the secondary responds to a new emphasis on man defense. However, the one area that could make or break Pittsburgh's season is the pass rush.
Yes, the Steelers pass rush was pretty good in 2016 (38 sacks, tied for ninth), but those sacks often came from creative schemes and from the pressure to score that Pittsburgh's offense created. James Harrison led the team with five sacks.
What I want to see is a defense that can pressure the quarterback in base packages with basic looks. What I really want to see is third-year player Bud Dupree emerge as a sack artist.
Sure, the Steelers have Harrison and rookie T.J. Watt in the equation. However, Harrison is aging, and Watt is unproven. Dupree is in the prime of his career and has all the physical tools to be a Von Miller- or Khalil Mack-type player; he just hasn't put everything together yet. He showed some signs last year.
I want to see Dupree complete the process. If he can, he'll form a great pass-rushing duo with Harrison.
Going back to the days of Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd, Pittsburgh has had pass-rushing tandems that allowed the defense to thrive in base formations. Harrison and Joey Porter—now on the defensive staff—did it. That is what the Steelers need out of Harrison and Dupree.
If Pittsburgh can get Dupree to take the next step, it'll finally be able to play more man defense and truly challenge the elite passing teams in the NFL.
Tennessee's Revamped Secondary
The Titans are another team that could emerge as a surprise contender this season.
Tennessee has a developing young quarterback in Mariota, and it put some weapons around him this offseason. It has a pass rush (40 sacks last season, tied for sixth) and a pretty good defensive coordinator by the name of Dick LeBeau. It has an offensive line and a rushing attack that, for my money, is second only to the Cowboys.
In fact, the Titans are built similarly to the Cowboys, and like Dallas, their biggest weakness is a poor pass defense. Even with a respectable pass rush, they ranked 30th in pass defense last year, allowing 269.2 yards per game. That is why the development of Tennessee's new-look secondary will be worth following in camp.
The Titans' big offseason signing was Logan Ryan. It was a huge addition. I was with the Patriots when they drafted Ryan, and I've watched him develop into one of the better cornerbacks in the league. Tennessee general manager Jon Robinson was the college scouting director in New England then, so he knows what he got in Ryan.
The Titans also added strong safety Johnathan Cyprien, who logged more than 100 tackles in each of his first four seasons in the NFL. He'll help patrol the middle of the secondary.
The wild card is rookie first-round pick Adoree' Jackson. He'll be a dangerous return man, sure, but if he can also develop into a shut-down corner to play opposite Ryan, the Tennessee pass defense could be dangerous.
At the very least, the Titans need their pass defense to be better. They simply cannot field the league's third-worst unit again and expect to have a special season in 2017.
DeMarcus Walker and Domata Peko
If you're looking for obvious things to watch during Broncos camp, feel free to follow the running game and offensive line. They were notable problems last season that everyone was aware of.
You might be surprised to learn, however, that the big problem for Denver last year was a shoddy run defense. Did you realize the mighty Broncos defense ranked just 28th in the league, allowing 130.3 yards per game on the ground? That's pretty ridiculous when you consider it ranked third during the 2015 Super Bowl campaign, ranked second in 2014 and tied for seventh when the team reached the big game in 2013.
Denver is built for defense. To win, that unit has to be dominant, and it can't be dominant if teams are running all over it.
I'm curious to see if new head coach Vance Joseph can reforge that stout run defense during camp and the preseason. Two players in particular—rookie DeMarcus Walker and free-agent addition Domata Peko—can help him do just that.
One big reason why the run defense fell off is the fact it lost both Terrance Knighton and Malik Jackson over the past two years. Walker and Peko can help replace them.
Joseph is a former Bengals assistant, so he knows what Peko can do. I looked at Walker as another Jackson leading up to the draft. I think he's a phenomenal player who can really change what the Broncos are able to do with their defensive front.
The know on Walker was that he didn't go 100 percent every play. Well, when you're playing almost 100 snaps a game in the Florida heat, going 100 percent all the time really isn't an option. He won't have that problem in Denver.
If Walker and Peko can adapt to the Broncos system by the start of the regular season, Denver could be right back in the Super Bowl chase.
Oakland Pass Rush
Look, the Raiders defense sucked last year. It ranked 24th against the pass, allowing 257.5 yards per game, and 26th overall, allowing 375.1 yards per game. If the team is going to become a title contender, that defense has to improve.
Now, I like some of the moves Oakland made to improve that defense. Bringing in John Pagano as assistant head coach will help. I think young pieces in the secondary like Karl Joseph, Obi Melifonwu and Gareon Conley will help the back end.
What I'm interested in seeing is if Oakland can improve its pass rush.
The Raiders have one of the league's most dominant pass-rushers and the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Mack, but they also had the league's worst pass rush (25 sacks last season).
Mack is a force. He racked up 11 sacks last season. Bruce Irvin chipped in seven, meaning the rest of the team combined for only seven more.
There's something seriously wrong there.
Oakland needs to find someone to help contribute to the pass rush this season. Whether that's Mario Edwards Jr., Jihad Ward, Shilique Calhoun or even Denico Autry is irrelevant. The Raiders have to develop another pass-rusher—and no, they can't count on Aldon Smith. Otherwise, getting past a team like the Steelers or Patriots in the AFC is going to be extremely difficult.
If Oakland can find another pressure guy in camp, though, the rest of the AFC should be on notice.
Minnesota Skill Players
The Vikings are another team I believe can be a contender this year. They possess a Super Bowl-caliber defense—certainly one that can carry them deep into the playoffs—and they have a quarterback in Sam Bradford who played a lot better than people realized last season.
What Minnesota needs to do in camp and in the preseason is establish a rushing attack and figure out where the big plays are going to come from on offense. The Vikings had the league's worst rushing offense in 2016 (75.3 yards per game), and explosive plays were difficult to come by.
In camp, I'll be following the trio of rookie Dalvin Cook, Latavius Murray (when he returns from PUP) and Laquon Treadwell.
Cook could be the key to the Minnesota offense in 2017. He's an explosive player with superstar potential. We know he can break big runs. We know he can catch a swing pass and take it to the house. My two questions: Can he pass protect, and can he excel at the NFL level?
If Cook can do those things, the Vikings offense should be in good shape. That will be especially true if Murray can adapt to the scheme and be Cook's between-the-tackles complement. While Cook has the skills to find space in the open field, Murray is more of a one-cut-and-go downhill back.
The wild card is Treadwell, the 2016 first-round pick who caught all of one pass last year. Minnesota has some good young receivers in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, but Treadwell is supposed to be the guy who can threaten defenses downfield and give Bradford a No. 1 option. He's big, he's physical, and he moves well enough in space.
He just couldn't get onto the field in 2016. If Treadwell, Cook and Murray emerge in camp, the Vikings could be one of the more complete teams in the NFC this season.
The Lions were a playoff team in 2016. They could become a Super Bowl team this year. They've taken steps to improve the offensive line, and if Ameer Abdullah can stay healthy, they could have a strong running game as well.
Oh, and Detroit has Matthew Stafford, who is one of the three best quarterbacks in football. He's almost entirely the reason why the Lions have reached the playoffs in two of the last three years.
I also like some of the pieces they have on defense—and coordinator Teryl Austin is a coach I believe in. Yet I can't help but look at the pass rush and see it as a problem.
Last season, Detroit produced just 26 sacks, which tied for second-fewest in the NFL. If that's going to improve this season, the Lions need better production out of defensive end Ezekiel Ansah. Ansah wasn't fully healthy in 2016, but he produced just two sacks in 13 games. He had that many sacks in the team's lone playoff game.
Ansah's underwhelming play and the overall pass rush essentially doomed Detroit's hopes for an NFC North title last year. The Lions ranked 31st in third-down defense, allowing a 45.5 percent conversion rate, and faded down the stretch, losing their final three games. With a better pass rush, they may have won the division, gotten a better seed in the playoffs and made a postseason run.
With a better pass rush, all of that may happen in 2017.
Ansah should have all the motivation in the world to bounce back this year. He had 14.5 sacks two years ago, he was a top-five draft pick in 2013, and he's playing in a contract year. Detroit needs him to improve, though, and I want to see how he's moving in camp and in the preseason.
Seattle Running Game
The Seahawks' two big weaknesses last season were a shaky offensive line and a poor running game. I'm not as concerned about the line this year for a couple of reasons. First of all, Seattle has remained competitive with a questionable line for some time. Also, it added pieces like Luke Joeckel and Oday Aboushi this offseason. Plus, guys like George Fant and Germain Ifedi are a year older and more experienced.
That leaves the rushing attack. In each of his first four seasons, quarterback Russell Wilson was supported by a top-five running game. But the Seahawks dropped to 25th last season, averaging 99.4 yards per game, and they weren't the same.
I'm curious to see who will be the leading rusher. It might be new addition Eddie Lacy, or it could be holdover Thomas Rawls. I wouldn't count out C.J. Prosise either. Prosise started two games last season, against the Patriots and Eagles, and shined in both.
I'm also curious to see how the backs perform behind the new-look offensive line. Seattle averaged just 3.9 yards per carry last season. At least some of the blame for that has to be placed on the line.
I'm most interested, however, in seeing how these pieces come together. While the Seahawks might not return to having a top-five rushing offense, the potential to be much, much better is there—and that's all they really need to be a Super Bowl contender. The defense is still a playoff-caliber unit, and Wilson is leaps and bounds better than he was when Seattle last lifted the Lombardi Trophy, after the 2013 season.
Wilson did just enough to win during his first couple of seasons. He's since developed into one of the league's most lethal passers. With him, his pass-catching weapons and that defense, even a top-15 rushing attack should be enough to worry other teams in the NFC.