NFL Training Camps: Updates, Rumors and Analysis for July 31
It's not officially training camp season until there are multiple injuries to be scared about. Injuries that likely won't matter much, or at all, by Week 1.
So that sweet, sweet smell is the return of both football and injury-report-induced anxiety.
Detroit Lions fans can thank tight end Eric Ebron for that. He'll likely be just fine when the wins and losses mean something. But having a promising, talented and oft-injured tight end already limping has fans in cold sweats, and it's not even quite August yet.
The Los Angeles Chargers are experiencing much worse injury fears, as they face the possibility of an extended absence from wide receiver Mike Williams, the seventh overall pick in the 2017 draft.
But at least all those injury concerns are temporary, unlike the life without tackle Branden Albert that the Jacksonville Jaguars are suddenly facing.
Those were some of the main storylines from Monday that we'll dive deeper into as training camps keep rolling. But we begin with the Baltimore Ravens and their public Colin Kaepernick decision.
Ravens Balancing Team Needs and Fan Opinion with Kaepernick Decision
There's a quiet truth about controversial roster decisions in the NFL that teams never acknowledge publicly. It's this: Fan opinion doesn't matter.
Or at least it doesn't the vast majority of the time. There are exceptions to every unofficial standard operating procedure. But what the Baltimore Ravens are doing with quarterback Colin Kaepernick goes beyond both league logic and the franchise's own conduct in the recent past.
Some paying customers who think they can sway the shape of the on-field product may be irked by the suggestion that front offices rarely take them into consideration.
But were Cincinnati Bengals fans consulted before their team decided to draft running back Joe Mixon after he was shown on tape punching a woman? And did the Kansas City Chiefs take public input before selecting wide receiver Tyreek Hill following a guilty plea for assaulting his then-pregnant girlfriend?
Those are two recent examples, and former Philadelphia Eagles president Joe Banner has another significant one from further back. The Eagles signed Michael Vick when he finished serving his time for operating a dog-fighting ring. Vick eventually played a significant role on the 2010 Eagles team that won its division. The then-30-year-old went to the Pro Bowl and was the league's Comeback Player of the Year after averaging 8.1 yards per pass attempt and running for 676 yards.
So, did the Eagles carefully consult fans before signing a quarterback who helped the team in the future but drew lots of public ire for his actions? Of course they didn't, as Banner noted.
Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti's response during a fan forum Sunday night when asked about damaging the team's brand by potentially signing Kaepernick showed where his values lie.
He's the owner of a team that, for now at least, doesn't have its starting quarterback. Joe Flacco will miss training camp time because of a back injury. There's optimism he won't be out long and will need only a week of rest.
Still, an offense with at best questionable depth elsewhere (especially among its tight ends) already has its starting quarterback dealing with a delicate injury. The need for a quality backup is clear, and the mere thought of Ryan Mallett taking meaningful snaps should be enough to ratchet up the urgency to bring Kaepernick aboard.
But no, Bisciotti wants to pause first and slow things down. This time he wants to consider what the fanbase thinks after a player dared to express his opinion on a sensitive but important social issue. And now Kaepernick is called a potential distraction because, in a deeply divided political climate, there's less listening and more attacking, which sadly makes it difficult for many to separate the football player from the protester.
“I hope we do what is best for the team and balance that with what is best for our fans,” Bisciotti said at the fan forum, via Jeff Zrebiec of the Baltimore Sun. “Your opinions matter to us. We’re very sensitive to it, and we’re monitoring it, and we’re trying to figure out what’s the right tact. So pray for us.”
There wasn't any need to weigh public opinion when former Ravens running back Ray Rice was arrested for assaulting his future wife. He trotted out onto a training camp practice field the following summer. The Ravens embarrassingly put his wife in front of a camera during a press conference and didn't take more definitive action by releasing Rice until a second video emerged showing him knock her unconscious.
Rice's misconduct was clear, as was the reason the Ravens should have been concerned about the basic principles of human decency at the time, or at least public optics, even before the second video was released.
What was Kaepernick's crime that now has him before the almighty court of public opinion? He knelt silently for about 100 seconds during the national anthem.
Branden Albert Abruptly Retires
The Jacksonville Jaguars didn't give up much to get Branden Albert. They sent a seventh-round pick to the Miami Dolphins, which was a cheap investment for a player who could temporarily solidify the left side of their offensive line.
But no team gives up anything—anything at all—if there's even a chance the player it is trading for will retire and not play a single regular-season snap. That's the future the Jaguars now face after Albert delivered a stunning announcement and walked away from the NFL on Monday.
"During my short stint in Jacksonville, I quickly realized that they are working incredibly hard to turn the corner and I truly believe that they will find success in the coming years," Albert said as part of a statement provided by the team's website.
"I look forward to returning to Miami, the place that I now call ‘home,’ and running my businesses, while giving back to the community. While this chapter of my life is coming to an end, my story is still going and I hope you’ll follow along."
That's how a short and strange tenure with the Jaguars will end for Albert. After the trade there was some tension between him and the organization when Albert didn't attend the voluntary portion of the team's offseason program. He was trying to renegotiate his contract and wasn't successful. Albert had two years left on a five-year deal signed in 2014. However, none of his scheduled $8.9 million in 2017 was guaranteed.
Injuries surely played a role in the 32-year-old's decision to walk away as well. Albert has been in the NFL since the Kansas City Chiefs made him a first-round pick back in 2008. Over nine years he logged only one full 16-game season.
This is a tough blow for the Jaguars because Albert was effective when healthy. He's a two-time Pro Bowler and is only one season removed from his most recent Pro Bowl trip in 2015.
His departure puts pressure on second-round pick Cam Robinson to immediately start and avoid any rookie hiccups. Pro Football Focus graded Robinson as the 90th overall FBS tackle in 2016 prior to the draft.
Jay Ajayi Left Practice Early After Getting His Bell Rung
An automatic caveat comes with most July injury updates: There's still plenty of time to heal and be healthy for when games start to mean something 39 days from now.
That's the rosy and optimistic view. But a dose of pessimism can still be applied to Miami Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi and the concussion he may have suffered in practice Monday. Those with half-empty glasses will note that head injuries are always delicate, and the brain doesn't care what the calendar says.
Ajayi plays a highly combustible position and is asked to take lots of punishment in a run-oriented offense. So potentially suffering a concussion now in the early days of training camp—and long before the Dolphins' first preseason game—is still concerning even if there's no threat to his Week 1 status.
The 24-year-old had his "bell rung," according to Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald, who also noted that trainers took away his helmet. Later, Dolphins head coach Adam Gase confirmed Ajayi was evaluated for a concussion, via ESPN.com's James Walker.
Ajayi averaged 4.9 yards per carry in 2016, his second NFL season and first as the Dolphins' starting running back for most of the year. He finished with 1,423 yards from scrimmage, which incredibly included three games with 200-plus rushing yards.
He's the backbone of the Dolphins offense, which makes any injury a significant one, even in late July.
Eric Ebron Is in Midseason Injury Form
Let's check in on Detroit Lions training camp for another July injury that likely won't impact Week 1 but still raises some worried eyebrows.
The Lions are set to lean heavily on tight end Eric Ebron after his semi-breakout 2016 season with 711 receiving yards, which was 174 yards more than his previous career single-season high. Anquan Boldin is gone now, and he was on the other end of eight of the 18 touchdown passes quarterback Matthew Stafford threw to wide receivers and tight ends in 2016. Remarkably, a 36-year-old Boldin was given 22 red-zone targets, which ranked third in the league, according to Pro Football Reference.
Ebron will likely receive most of those targets if he can stay healthy. Of course, Ebron hasn't exactly excelled at the whole not breaking thing. And he left the first practice of Lions training camp with a hamstring injury.
Lions head coach Jim Caldwell confirmed the injury Sunday night when speaking to the media, via Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. Like Ajayi's concussion, we're too far away from football that matters for this to carry any significance for Week 1. But also like Ajayi, it's not a welcomed sighted when a central figure in the offense could miss critical training camp snaps.
And it's especially troubling when the player in question has a lengthy injury history. Ebron has missed eight games over three NFL seasons and also sat out the preseason in 2016.
Getting Mike Williams on the Field at All in 2017 Might Be an Accomplishment
The Los Angeles Chargers seem to be eternally gimpy at wide receiver.
Keenan Allen looked like a budding perennial Pro Bowler as a rookie in 2013 when he finished with 1,046 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. In the three seasons since he's missed 25 games.
Allen's ACL tear was the most crushing injury of the Chargers' 2016 season, but there were many more body blows before that. On the first day of training camp, Javontee Herndon suffered a season-ending knee injury. Then on the second day of camp, Stevie Johnson also suffered a knee injury, tearing his meniscus.
Just like that the Chargers' wide receiver depth chart was decimated. But hope flowed freely throughout the organization again when they replenished that depleted depth by inserting one of the best receivers available in the 2017 draft. Yes, Mike Williams would be the answer to all that ailed the black and blue Chargers after his 1,361 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns for the Clemson Tigers in 2016.
Fast forward to the early days of training camp, and Williams is blending right in with his new surroundings by being injured and likely useless for much of his first NFL season.
Williams missed nearly the entire offseason program because of a herniated disc in his back. Unsurprisingly, the Chargers placed him on the physically unable to perform list. But somewhat surprisingly, there isn't even a hint of optimism coming from the team about his recovery. And the early days of camp are usually brimming with thoughts of sunny days, players in peak condition and bones/muscles mending quickly.
Sunday, the team announced Williams is not expected to practice at all during training camp, via Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times. That's already a potential death blow to his rookie production. And head coach Anthony Lynn made it sound like Williams' getting on the field at all in 2017 will be a victory. He couldn't confirm or deny if the injury was of the season-ending variety.
“I’m hopeful that it’s not, but who knows? It could be,” he told Woike.
The Chargers are still deep enough at wide receiver, with Dontrelle Inman, Travis Benjamin and Tyrell Williams able to support Allen. Still, losing your No. 7 overall pick for all of training camp, and possibly far beyond, is quite the gut shot already.
Still No Timetable for Latavius Murray
Latavius Murray was going to be the underdog in his battle with Dalvin Cook for snaps in the Minnesota Vikings backfield. However, as a short-yardage bruiser he has a chance to carve out a goal-line role.
But Murray's regular-season snap count could keep sinking lower if he keeps sitting, watching and anxiously waiting.
Murray started training camp on the physically unable to perform list because of an ankle issue. There was initially still some optimism about a quick return when Murray told Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press that his "health is really good." But then Monday, Tomasson reported there's no timetable for when Murray will be removed from the PUP list, and he would only commit to being ready for the regular season.
Of course, feeling spry for Week 1 is all Murray is concerned about. If Murray comes back to look like the running back who pinballed his way to 12 rushing touchdowns in 2016, he could still earn an important role even with the missed training camp time. He was the only running back among the top-10-highest scorers to finish with fewer than 200 carries.
Murray scored nine times on carries from inside the opponent's 5-yard line, according to Pro Football Reference, which ranked tied for third.
Good Luck Covering Christian McCaffrey
Climb aboard, and let's take a trip on the express train to training camp hypetown. As always, your conductor as we steam ahead is rookie Christian McCaffrey, the running back who's also part receiver.
That McCaffrey is making the casual onlooker drool isn't surprising. But when he makes a 30-year-old teammate entering his 10th NFL season spew out gushing praise, well, there just might be something special brewing.
“He’s pretty unstoppable as far as coming out of the backfield running routes,” fellow Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart told Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer. “I can tell you now there’s not going to be anybody in this league that can cover him one-on-one.”
McCaffrey is well known for his route running as a slot receiver and then also being maddeningly elusive in the open field after the catch. That combination of footwork and tackle-breaking ability is what made McCaffrey so attractive to the Panthers, a team trying to ease the burden on quarterback Cam Newton.
McCaffrey will be the linchpin in the effort to get the ball out of Newton's hands faster to playmakers who can generate long gains after short-to-intermediate throws. The 21-year-old recorded 43 forced missed tackles on rushing plays in 2016, per PFF, and another 21 as a pass-catcher.