Most Important Players to Follow in 2018 NFL Training Camps
It's almost here.
As a matter of fact, for a couple of NFL teams, it already is. Veterans for both the Baltimore Ravens and Chicago Bears have already reported for training camp. Over the next week or so, the league's 30 other teams will do the same.
The pads are going on, folks. It's time to start preparing in earnest for the season to come.
As training camps ramp up, so will an onslaught of news and updates. There will be progress reports on this year's incoming rookies. Information on the return of injured stars. And proclamations about veterans who are being counted on to take "the next step" in 2018.
Every team has one such player—the guy to watch, so to speak. And fans of each team will flock to news about them.
But there are some players so compelling that they merit attention from fans from coast to coast. Buffalo to Los Angeles. Jacksonville to Seattle. And all points in-between.
Players just like these.
Carson Wentz, QB, Philadelphia Eagles
Starting this piece with any player except Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz would be professional negligence.
For the first three-quarters of the 2017 season, Wentz was arguably the best player in the NFL at the league's most important position. The second-year pro was on a collision course with an MVP award after passing for almost 3,300 yards with 33 touchdowns and just seven interceptions en route to winning 10 of Philly's first 12 games.
Then came a torn ACL against the Los Angeles Rams last December, and just like that, Wentz's season was over.
The Eagles, of course, went on to victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII with Nick Foles under center.
There's no question that, if healthy, Wentz is the starting quarterback of this team. But with how late in the season his injury happened, there have been more than a few questions about Wentz's availability for Week 1.
Head coach Doug Pederson told reporters (via Dave Spadaro of the team's website) that even he's not entirely sure when his young quarterback will be medically cleared to practice.
"I honestly really don't know when Carson will be cleared," Pederson said. "I'm asked about it every day everywhere I go. This is one of those deals where you have to trust your medical staff. I want Carson to play for 15, 20 years if he can. We're in Year 3. He and I are married together and we're just going to make sure this is right before he plays."
Until he is cleared, all eyes will be on Wentz watch. Once he is, they will shift about four feet south—to monitor how the quarterback moving on that surgically repaired knee.
Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston Texans
The Houston Texans have the potential to give the Jacksonville Jaguars all they can handle in the AFC South in 2018.
Or Houston could be lucky to win six games.
It all depends—on a couple of things.
The first is the health of quarterback Deshaun Watson, who took the NFL by storm as a rookie in 2017 before tearing his ACL on the practice field a few days after what many considered the best regular-season game of the entire 2017 campaign.
Despite now having torn both ACLs in the matter of just a few years (Watson injured the other at Clemson), he told Dave Johnson of the Daily Press he isn't about to change how he prepares for or plays the game.
"Injuries are going to happen," said Watson. "I've dealt with this injury before as a freshman. And I played the same way I did the year before. There's no point in switching up the routine. I'll stay prepared and stay fit throughout the year, not just in the offseason but throughout the season. I do what I do. I don't want to change anything that got me here."
A large part of what made Watson so special as a rookie was his ability to either pick up yardage with his legs or extend plays until a receiver came open deep. This isn't to say Watson's right arm is anything to sneeze at, but he's all about the wheels.
Seeing him move fluidly and without limitations on the practice field and in preseason is just about the best news Houston fans could ask for...
J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans
...Except for maybe the sight of Justin James Watt wreaking havoc again—even on a practice field.
From 2012-2015, Watt had arguably the best four-year stretch of any defensive player in league history. He averaged more than 75 total tackles and 17 sacks per season. The 29-year-old topped 20 sacks in a year twice and was named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year three times.
The last two years have been a different story. Multiple back surgeries restricted Watt to just three games in 2016 and limited him most of the time he was on the field last year. Just when he appeared to be rounding into shape, he suffered a devastating tibial plateau fracture.
Over the past two seasons combined, Watt has 23 total stops and 1.5 sacks.
Watt told reporters (via Mark Lane of Texans Wire) that he knows some doubt whether the offseason's gone as well as reported regarding his recovery.
"Like I said earlier in the offseason, I could tell you I'm feeling unbelievable (or) I could tell you I'm feeling super (bad) – you won't know until I hit the field," Watt said. "Just show up to training camp, watch how I play and then you can decide for yourself how I look."
Getting Whitney Mercilus back from injury would be big for the Texans. Getting Watt back would be Brobdingnagian. At his best or even close to it, he's a force of nature. A generational talent. Arguably the best defensive lineman who has ever played the game.
Told you the Texans could give the Jaguars a run for their money.
Myles Garrett, DE, Cleveland Browns
You may be expecting to see the first overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft listed here. And make no mistake, there's going to be a ton of face-time for Baker Mayfield on HBO's Hard Knocks this summer as they follow the Cleveland Browns.
But every indication is that Cleveland head coach Hue Jackson is committed to veteran Tyrod Taylor as the team's starting quarterback to open the season.
And given that, it's the No. 1 overall pick from the year before who is more important to Cleveland's fortunes in the short term.
Myles Garrett didn't take long to make an impact in the NFL. He logged a sack on his first snap as a professional and posted two in his first game. He showed real flashes in posting seven sacks in 11 games as a rookie.
But Garrett also struggled to get on the field, battling nagging injuries from his first training camp all the way through the season. As he told ESPN's Pat McManamon, he's well aware that he's no good to the team watching from the sidelines.
"The best quality is availability," the second-year pro said. "I have to be present."
Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams smells a breakout season coming—provided Garrett doesn't push too hard.
"He is one of the few guys that I have had to coach that I know I am going to have to keep my hand on to hold back," Williams said. "One of the things with him is his overworking. He works so hard because he does not want to be good; he wants to be great. Sometimes he can be his own worst enemy in that respect because he works so hard physically that he has to do a good job with recovery also. The next thing is this -- and he knows -- if he stays healthy, watch out."
A healthy and explosive Garrett in camp is Step 1 toward that breakout.
Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs
Here's hoping that Patrick Mahomes likes pressure.
Because there isn't a young quarterback in the NFL under more as training camp nears.
Just like Mitchell Trubisky in Chicago, Mahomes is a second-year player his team traded up to draft who will be expected to take a huge step forward and assume control of the offense in 2018.
But Mahomes will be taking the reins for a Chiefs team that won the AFC West in 2017. He's the young player the team had enough faith in to send veteran Alex Smith packing in the offseason.
It doesn't hurt Mahomes' chances that the Chiefs are loaded with skill position talent in tailback Kareem Hunt, tight end Travis Kelce and wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins. For his part, Mahomes told ESPN's Adam Teicher that he thinks the Chiefs can be an offensive dynamo in 2018.
"I think we can be one of [the best], if not the best offense in the NFL," Mahomes said. "We have a ton of talent everywhere and we're deep at every position. I think with the offensive line all coming back pretty much and then having a good stable of running backs, having receivers and tight ends that can make plays, for me it's all about just getting them the ball and letting them make the plays."
However, for all that receiving talent, the Chiefs are only going to be as good offensively as the man throwing the passes. And while the Chiefs obviously have a lot of confidence in Mahomes, we are talking about a quarterback with 35 career passing attempts who hasn't thrown a touchdown pass that counts in the NFL.
Every throw Mahomes makes in camp is going to be scrutinized. And then some.
Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants
Training camp for the New York Giants this year is replete with subplots. Whether it's the new head coach, the veteran quarterback hoping for one last run or the rookie tailback just starting his, Big Apple sports pages aren't going to be hurting for copy over the next month.
None of those subplots could be as essential to the Giants' chances of a quick rebound as the return of wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.
There's been more written about Beckham's quest for a contract extension this year than the condition of his ankle. But as Jordan Raanan of ESPN reported, Beckham looked like his old, explosive self when partnered with signal-caller Eli Manning at mandatory minicamp.
"Odell looked healthy," Manning said. "He was running routes full speed, making cuts and seemed to be his old self. So I'm excited about that and that he can go out there and run all the routes. So, excited to get him back going once training camp hits up. And getting on the same page, there are always new routes and new tweaks to the offense. But I know he's been working hard and is going to have a big year."
Having a running back of Saquon Barkley's caliber at his disposal greatly increases Manning's chances at success in 2018.
But not as much as having maybe the NFL's most dominant receiver back—a player who topped 1,300 receiving yards and recorded double-digit touchdowns in each of his first three seasons.
If Beckham returns to those heights, he'll get his payday.
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, New York Jets
The theme of OTAs and minicamp for the New York Jets was the Teddy Bridgewater lovefest.
The 25-year-old Bridgewater, who inked a one-year deal with the Jets in the offseason, threw a monkey wrench into the idea that veteran Josh McCown would serve as a placeholder for rookie Sam Darnold this year.
In minicamp, Bridgewater looked like the young quarterback who led the Minnesota Vikings to the playoffs in 2015 before a terrible knee injury put his NFL future in jeopardy. He was accurate with his throws and showed off the mobility that some feared could be gone for good.
Jets head coach Todd Bowles told team insider Eric Allen that Bridgewater opened more than a few eyes in early practices with the team.
"Teddy has shown no signs of weakness with the knee," Bowles said. "He's moving around, taking every rep, every snap like everybody else. So he's progressing, getting better. He's a tough guy. He feels good, he looks good, he's moving around good."
To be fair, this remains an uphill battle (to put it mildly) for Bridgewater. The Jets traded up to acquire Darnold this year, and he hasn't been cat food himself. The harsh reality is that if Bridgewater continues to shine, he's probably more likely to be traded to a team that needs help at the position than to ever start a regular-season game for Gang Green.
Still, we're talking about a player who appeared not too long ago to be done. Bridgewater nearly lost his leg when he dislocated his knee and completely tore his ACL.
Seeing him not only back in action but also playing well is a great story.
Richard Sherman, CB, San Francisco 49ers
If you're into drama and subplots, then there's one player who has to be on any "must-watch" list as training camps get underway across the NFL.
Richard Sherman is a former All-Pro coming off a major injury. He was released by the only NFL team he has ever played for and then signed with said team's archrival. Sherman hasn't been shy even a little bit about taking shots at his old team in Seattle, either, including telling Robert Klemko of The MMQB that the Seahawks have "lost their way."
Other than that, though, it's just another summer for the 30-year-old.
When Sherman signed with the San Francisco 49ers on a team-friendly deal after Seattle let him go, it sent a very clear message. He doesn't believe he's as close to the end of the line as the Seahawks did, and he intends to show them that—twice a year.
However, Sherman's also an aging cornerback who had already shown some signs of decline before rupturing his Achilles tendon last November. That Klemko also reported Sherman was walking with a limp after a recent workout is a sobering reminder of that fact.
The Niners are something of a trendy pick as a playoff contender this year after winning five games in a row to close out 2017. And while quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo may have gotten the big bucks in the offseason, it's Sherman who was the big-name free-agent addition.
So, you can add "increased expectations" to the reasons why Sherman's a must-watch player in camp this year.
Well, that and the post-practice press conferences.
Sam Bradford, QB, Arizona Cardinals
Many NFL fans have probably grown tired of the Sam Bradford saga. For reasons mostly outside his control, it's been eight years of the occasional flash, far too many injuries and a whole lot of what might have been.
That saga enters its fourth chapter in 2018. As in fourth team—Bradford joined the Cardinals in free agency after two years in Minnesota that were a microcosm of his career so far.
As Chris Wesseling of NFL.com reported, Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks told the NFL Network back in May that there's no question who the Redbirds starter is if Bradford's healthy.
"We're pushing everybody to start," Wilks explained. "I've stated this several times: Sam Bradford is our starter. We gotta go out there with 11 guys and Sam's going to be the first guy out there. But everybody's fighting for a position, so I'm not going to hold (Rosen) back at all."
The problem is that since then, rookie passer Josh Rosen has fared very well in his first few practice sessions. And while Bradford has also been solid, he made it just two games into last season before his balky knee ended another year.
For what it's worth, veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson told NFL Network's James Jones (via Marc Sessler of NFL.com) that were it up to him, Bradford would be under center in Week 1.
"Well, right now I'd probably take Sam due to his experience," Peterson said. "Due to some of the records that he has in the league. Because when Sam is healthy and is on the field and has talent around him, he's a top-tier quarterback."
At best, Bradford's the bridge to Arizona's future with Rosen.
And now there's precious little margin for error if he's even going to be that.
Rashaad Penny, RB, Seattle Seahawks
We'll close this out with a rookie.
It just isn't the one most people expected to see.
Rookie quarterbacks like Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen will all more likely than not start games at some point in 2018. First-year players from Saquon Barkley to Cleveland Browns cornerback Denzel Ward will likely start from Week 1.
But none may be more important for a team with Super Bowl aspirations than Seattle Seahawks tailback Rashaad Penny.
The Seahawks have had all sorts of problems running the ball in the two years Marshawn Lynch has been gone. Partly it's been line play that was...not good. But the Seahawks' parade of tailbacks over that span hasn't created a ton of room to roam either.
The Seahawks didn't burn their first pick on Penny as a developmental project. After a wildly productive season of over 2,200 rushing yards at San Diego State last year, Penny was brought in for one thing and one thing only: to be a featured back.
This isn't to say the job's going to be handed to the youngster. Chris Carson impressed enough in OTAs that Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times predicted he would open the season as Seattle's lead running back.
If Penny wants to be the guy the Seahawks want him to be right off the bat, he's got ground to make up. That means every day on the practice field is going to be all the more vital.
And all the more interesting to watch.