NFL Training Camp Notes: Lamar Jackson Flashes in Preseason Debut
The Pro Football Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio, signals the start of another NFL preseason. The Chicago Bears and Baltimore Ravens drew the spotlight in the league's opening contest, yet how the game should be viewed—as well as the progress being made in training camps—can be misunderstood.
The on-field product isn't up to par and mistakes will be made. That's OK. Those miscues can signal growth.
"There is a test for all of us coaches to see how we want to go about it, especially for me with time management, game management, how you want to do that stuff," Bears head coach Matt Nagy said before Thursday's contest, per Chicago WGN's Larry Hawley. "But as far as scheme and game plan, this is about the players and letting them play so they can show off their talents to us, so we know who we want to keep and don't want to keep."
Kinks are being worked out. Teams are overcoming unforeseen obstacles. Individuals are making the most of their opportunities. Rosters are in flux and being revamped.
The daily grind takes its toll, and every organization is adjusting to what it may or may not have.
For those of us on the outside, the wait is over, though. Football—or some semblance of it—is officially back.
Little Things Will Define Lamar Jackson's Development
Joe Flacco has nothing to worry about if Lamar Jackson's first professional performance is any indication of how things will go during the regular season. Jackson completed four of 10 passes for 33 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
It's obvious Jackson is feeling his way through the Ravens offense.
On a positive note, the transition from under center in Baltimore's rhythm passing attack went smoothly. Poor footwork plagued Jackson during his prolific collegiate career. He dominated the nation's best defenses without any concept of a proper base, as his was too narrow, too often. The opposite occurred Thursday night.
Obviously, the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner placed a heavy emphasis on his footwork during the predraft process through the start of training camp. The 21-year-old consistently worked with a wider base and delivered the football as soon as his back foot hit the top of his drop.
Thursday, the ball didn't come out as cleanly as it normally does, though. It'll take some time for all the mechanics to come together. But playing the quarterback position starts from the ground up, and it's obvious the young signal-caller is putting in the time and work to improve.
Of course, his ball placement could be better. The interception came as a result of his throwing inside to a receiver on an out-breaking route. As coaches love to say, "If you're going to miss, miss outside." Jackson didn't, and Bears cornerback Doran Grant capitalized.
The performance also showed something about his overall game. He's always been a pass-first decision-maker who uses his feet to extend plays while keeping his eyes downfield. He showed the same wearing the Ravens' black and purple.
Jackson is the Baltimore Ravens' quarterback of the future, but he's not ready to start. Good thing he has plenty of time to develop behind a competent veteran.
Patrick Mahomes Experiences 'Hiccups' During Practice Sessions
Two kinds of training camp reports tend to emerge regarding quarterbacks. Either the signal-caller hasn't thrown an interception or practice turnovers have become a concern.
The Kansas City Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes falls into the latter category, but it's OK.
"He had a few hiccups today," offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said Thursday, per ESPN.com's Adam Teicher. "But that's a part of the process. When you're young you need those hiccups because they become valuable lessons. ... Would we like for him to be perfect? Yes. We'd like for him to have the highest quarterback rating ever. ... He just needs to be poised under pressure."
Mahomes came out of Texas Tech with a gunslinger reputation. His game is predicated on making throws other quarterbacks can't. Of course, growing pains will happen. The new starter isn't a decade-plus veteran like Alex Smith, nor does anyone expect him to be. He's a bit wild. As his comfort with the system and his role grows, his understanding of when and where to place balls will as well.
Besides, head coach Andy Reid wants last year's first-round pick to take chances. There's no reason to play it safe at practice.
"If you don't have the intestinal fortitude to go test it, you're gonna be one of these quarterbacks that checks it down every time ... and that's not what it's all about," Reid said, per KCTV 5's Tom Martin.
When a quarterback can rely on dynamic playmakers such as Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins and Kareem Hunt, he should be more than willing to take a few chances.
Colts Are 'Gonna Be All Right' with Andrew Luck Back Behind Center
The Indianapolis Colts front office and coaches continually remind everyone about their plan regarding Andrew Luck's return.
The method seems obvious: They're going to ride their franchise quarterback for all he's worth. And there's nothing wrong with that. General manager Chris Ballard and head coach Frank Reich understand their fortunes are tied to Luck's health and on-field production.
Luck, in turn, is throwing with velocity and impressive accuracy despite missing the 2017 campaign with a bum shoulder.
"The thing about great players, they just make it look easy," Reich said, per The MMQB's Albert Breer. "You do the hard things and make them look easy. Some of the progressions we've worked through, his command of the offense, to me those are things you watch. After one day of watching him in the huddle, I was like, 'OK, we're good, we're gonna be all right.'"
The concerns lessen with each day, and the plan includes pushing Luck a little harder than a typical starting quarterback during the preseason.
"The plan is to play him a little bit more than he would normally would if he'd had a normal year last year," Reich explained. "But I don't want to overreact. ... We'll build a confidence lever there. And sure, he needs to get his snaps, and maybe a little bit more. But I'm not gonna be dramatic with it."
Generally speaking, franchise quarterbacks receive few preseason snaps. Luck's situation is different. The primary goal is to keep him healthy, of course, but he needs to be on the field and reacclimate himself to the Colts offense and the game itself.
AJ McCarron Takes Lead in Buffalo Bills' Quarterback Competition
The Buffalo Bills are morphing into AJ McCarron's team.
According to The Athletic's Matthew Fairburn, McCarron has been the first-string quarterback each of the last two days. Eventually, Josh Allen will take over, but the Bills plan to slow-play their first-round signal-caller's development. Right now, McCarron's separation from Nathan Peterman is more important as the Bills prepare for their first preseason contest against the Carolina Panthers.
New offensive coordinator Brian Daboll brought a complex scheme, and the Bills are doing themselves a disservice by rotating their quarterbacks.
"There's a lot going on," defensive end Jerry Hughes said, per NYUp.com's Matthew Parrino. "From a defensive front's point of view, it's great because you really have to play your rules. It really strips us down to our basics and just coming out there and reading our keys and playing football, playing fast. This camp has been fantastic because we're getting a bunch of different looks."
While the different looks may be awesome defensively, the Bills can't develop continuity without an established starting quarterback. The team signed McCarron to be a bridge to Allen. Peterman had been given a chance and provided promising minicamp play. But it's time to put the most consistent performer behind center.
McCarron is the obvious choice.
Earl Thomas Provides the Seattle Seahawks with an Ultimatum
Earl Thomas isn't reporting to training camp unless one of his two demands are met.
"It's the reason I'm holding out—I want to be able to give my everything, on every play, without any doubt in my mind," Thomas wrote for the Players' Tribune. "And it's the reason why I'm asking the Seahawks to do one of two things: Offer me an extension or trade me to a team that wants me to be part of their future."
Over the past eight seasons, Thomas didn't just become one of the league's best defensive backs; he developed into the standard to which all free safeties are compared. His six Pro Bowl appearances and three All-Pro first-team nominations don't encapsulate Thomas' leaguewide impact.
The famed Legion of Boom secondary was predicated on his unparalleled sideline-to-sideline speed and ability to erase any mistake made by the other 10 defenders. The Cover 3-heavy scheme the team employed is now used by multiple franchises that continue to look for their version of Thomas.
At 29 years old, he may have lost a step, but Thomas remains one of the game's most savvy players—both on and off the field. The 2010 first-round pick signed a four-year, $40 million dollar contract extension before the 2014 campaign. This is the deal's final year, and the safety market already reset as Eric Berry, Reshad Jones and Harrison Smith's contracts are each worth over $51 million.
"With that being said…I also have learned why I need to take care of this business side of things," Thomas added. "In the NFL, no matter what you've done or what you've accomplished, teams are constantly reminding you that you don't matter."
It's the time to strike for teams—such as the Dallas Cowboys or Oakland Raiders—who may have interest in acquiring the standout safety, since the Seahawks have been clear they won't address his contract, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.
Options to Replace Titans S Johnathan Cyprien Include Eric Reid, Kenny Vaccaro
Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel revealed strong safety Johnathan Cyprien suffered a torn ACL during Wednesday's practice.
"I am devastated to say that he tore his ACL," Vrabel said Thursday, per ESPN.com's Turron Davenport. "It's tough for me as a new head coach watching guys work hard in the offseason, play hard and not get a chance to experience the NFL season this year."
Cyprien signed a four-year, $25 million contract with the Titans after leading the league's safeties with 127 total tackles in 2016. In fact, the 2013 second-round pick only missed four games in four seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars and amassed at least 104 total tackles in each of those campaigns.
Yet, his durability hasn't translated to Nashville, where he missed six regular-season contests last year before suffering this season-ending injury.
Cyprien generally provides a physical, in-the-box presence. Now, the Titans lack a complementary piece to Pro Bowl free safety Kevin Byard.
Kendrick Lewis is the most likely replacement on the roster, but he's also nursing an injury, according to John Glennon.
So, Tennessee must scour free agency. Fortunately, the safety market has been slow in its development, and three starting options remain. According to Rapoport, Kenny Vaccaro, Mike Mitchell and Lardarius Webb are scheduled to visit. Eric Reid remains an option as well, per Titans Online's Jim Wyatt.
Of the three, Reid is the youngest (26 years old) and has the ideal skill set to replace Cyprien as a physical box safety with the flexibility to play nickel linebacker.
Is Cole Beasley the Dallas Cowboys' No. 1 Wide Receiver?
The definition of a No. 1 wide receiver continues to evolve as the game becomes more pass-oriented.
At one point, aerial attacks leaned on 6'2"-6'5" targets at X-receiver who could run past defenders or jump over them. Obviously, every team wants its version of Julio Jones or A.J. Green, but those physical traits aren't necessary.
Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry are all under 6'0" and work from multiple spots, yet they're counted among the league's most prolific pass-catchers.
Cole Beasley is another effective slot receiver, and he should expect an expanded role this fall. The 5'8", 180-pound Beasley is working inside and outside, depending on the formation.
"I was actually saying I've never had a practice like this before. I got a little fatigued," Beasley said at the start of camp, per the Cowboys' official site. "I'm used to just doing all the quick stuff, but now they got me all over the place and running all types of routes. It's really fun."
Allen Hurns gives the offense a vertical threat, while Tavon Austin will be used in multiple roles. Beasley can continue to work underneath routes as Dak Prescott's security blanket.
"I think we also go back to getting Cole Beasley involved a lot," Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin told 247Sports' Patrik Walker. "A couple years ago when he had [his] best year, Beasley really led the team in receiving because it goes back to the theory that Dak plays inside-out. I think we'll see a lot of him coming back to the forefront."
Beasley set career highs in 2016 with 75 receptions for 833 yards.
New England Patriots Add Another Weapon with Eric Decker Signing
Decker's inclusion adds to a mishmash of options among the team's wide receivers where defined roles are lacking. Chris Hogan and Kenny Britt—yes, the same Britt the 0-16 Browns released midseason—are expected to open as "starters" even though the latter is dealing with a hamstring injury.
Phillip Dorsett is the most likely option to work out of the slot in three-receiver sets. Cordarrelle Patterson, meanwhile, is an X-factor as a gadget player and special teams ace.
However, Decker provides a pair of things that should allow him to overtake one or two of these receivers.
First, the 6'3" Decker adds size to a group that has eight targets (including the suspended Julian Edelman) under 6'1". Second, the eight-year veteran can work from the slot or outside the numbers. Dorsett is still a strong option to line up inside, while tight end Rob Gronkowski will get his share of reps detached from the offensive line. But Decker provides more flexibility.
New England's coaching staff is the best from an X's and O's perspective.
The Patriots won't be explosive out wide, but they can create mismatches with different looks. Imagine four-receiver sets with Gronkowski and Decker lined up inside of Hogan and Britt. The Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady can dominate the middle of the field. Or the team can utilize its quicker options for a different approach.
Decker's veteran presence immediately helps an underwhelming group.
Joel Bitonio to Follow in Joe Thomas' Footsteps
The Cleveland Browns have found Joe Thomas' successor, and he's not the left tackle the organization expected.
"It's full speed ahead with Joel [Bitonio]," head coach Hue Jackson said, per Cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot.
Bitonio spent the previous four seasons playing next to Thomas as a Pro Bowl-level left guard. Ultimately, the staff realized its plan heading into training camp wasn't working.
Shon Coleman struggled with the move from right to left tackle. Rookie Austin Corbett isn't ready to take over the blind side, either. When defensive linemen are shouting "Ole, Ole!" at the offensive tackles during one-on-one pass-rush drills, according to CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora, the offense has a big problem.
Bitonio became the obvious choice. The 26-year-old blocker played left tackle at Nevada before the Browns selected him 35th in the 2014 NFL draft. But he expressed trepidation at returning to his old position.
"It's just a different animal, and it's something I've got to learn," Bitonio said, per Cleveland.com's Dan Labbe. "Playing guard, I knew the nuances of the position. I knew if this guy does this or this guy does this, you understand what's going to happen to you. And at tackle I'm still trying to develop that as we go through camp."
Bitonio, Corbett, JC Tretter, Kevin Zeitler and Chris Hubbard, from left to right, now comprise the Browns' starting offensive line.