Panthers Emerge as Unexpected Contenders and Other Top Training Camp Revelations
NFL training camps are where revelations about the upcoming season start to emerge.
Before camps, free agency and the draft process—alongside endless good press—paint a picture that every team is ready to contend. The overwhelming positive vibes make it fun, though the sweltering summer heat has a way of flushing out the truth.
Each year, training camps show where rookies stand on the depth chart, how veterans are returning from injuries, the free agents in new places that will spur massive change and which unexpected contenders and pretenders will make themselves known.
The following are revelations onlookers can expect to unfurl during camps based on clear trends, the slightest of hints and projections.
Dwayne Haskins Wins the QB Job in Washington
It shouldn't take long for the Washington Redskins to figure out No. 15 overall pick Dwayne Haskins should start under center in Week 1.
That's a daunting task for any rookie but especially Haskins given the Redskins' schedule to start 2019. They open at the Philadelphia Eagles and then play the Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bears before a seeming break against the New York Giants—but then welcome Tom Brady and the New England Patriots to town.
Still, it isn't hard to imagine Haskins outshining veteran Case Keenum, even if head coach Jay Gruden has been shy about the topic so far.
"They have to learn the system first, then go out here and participate in practice and then produce and make the right reads and throws," Gruden said, according to ESPN's John Keim. "It's going to be a process. It's the very, very beginning."
Haskins is the big-armed prospect from Ohio State who threw for 50 scores with just eight picks a season ago. Keenum is a career 62 percent passer who had just 18 touchdowns and 15 picks in his Denver Broncos audition a year ago before he was traded.
While Keenum has pro experience, Haskins has a connection with third-round pick Terry McLaurin, another former Buckeye, as well as a rookie-friendly Gruden offense, which has helped guys in the past (see: Dalton, Andy).
Danny Amendola Emerges as a Star
Big names and big dollars got the big attention in free agency. Landon Collins, Le'Veon Bell, Trent Brown, the list abounds.
Far down that list was Danny Amendola—but not in terms of impact.
Amendola predictably fell off the map in the Miami Dolphins wasteland a year ago, tallying just 575 yards and one touchdown on fewer than 10 yards per catch. That is bound to change with the Detroit Lions, who may have found the missing piece even if their offense figures to heavily use tight ends.
This, as captured by Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, says it all: "With the Lions working heavily on early-down situations [May 30], Amendola seemed to be a favorite target of quarterback Matthew Stafford."
Stafford struggled last year, and the lack of a reliable third option behind Marvin Jones Jr. and Kenny Golladay played a part. While logic might suggest first-round pick T.J. Hockenson will help fill the void, it should be clear throughout camp that the reliable Amendola—a favorite of Tom Brady for years who has 28 or more first-down catches in three of the last four seasons—is whom Stafford will rely on most.
Jamie Collins Sr.'s Return Plays Key Role for Pats
One would think the Patriots will take a hit on the defensive side of the ball in 2019 after losing Trey Flowers, who inked a $90 million contract with the Lions.
But that's simply not how it works with Bill Belichick.
Jamie Collins Sr. is back. He reunited with New England on a one-year pact worth $2 million and already looks like a "key cog," according to ESPN's Mike Reiss.
Collins spent the last two seasons and change in Cleveland after getting traded and will turn 30 in October. The return should go smoothly considering he already knows the Belichick culture and system.
Keep in mind that a season ago Collins was healthy for 16 games for the first time since his rookie year and tallied 104 tackles and four sacks. He's better positioned to make an impact than some might think.
Daniel Jones Pushes Eli Manning
Elsewhere in the NFC East, an underwhelming quarterback battle figures to end up favoring the rookie, too.
Underwhelming, because the New York Giants took plenty of heat for drafting Daniel Jones sixth overall. The post-draft media tour featuring Giants brass insisting other teams were going to pick Jones didn't help.
None of it will matter if Jones becomes a franchise quarterback, though he first has to compete with Eli Manning for the job. It sounds like he made good progress upon arrival based on comments from offensive coordinator Mike Shula, according to Dan Schneier of 247 Sports: "The things that you ask him to do to maybe make a couple changes, maybe that were different to what he was used to in college, he does pretty quickly. Whether or not it's technique in the pocket, everything that we have asked him to do, he's done it pretty quickly."
Given that mechanics and quickness to adapt have been two big talking points about Jones, it's easy to imagine him emerging over the summer and stealing the gig.
Manning, after all, is 38, and while he threw for 4,299 yards last year, he managed only 21 touchdowns against 11 interceptions and took 47 sacks. He'll no longer have Odell Beckham Jr. to spam the ball at, either. If Jones responds to the offense quickly enough, his playmaking ability should put him ahead.
Ezekiel Ansah Breaks Out Again
Ezekiel Ansah quietly settled for a one-year deal worth $9 million with the Seattle Seahawks after an injury-impacted free agency and stacked pass-rushing class relegated him to prove-it territory.
Expectations were set accordingly, especially considering he'll be tasked with helping to replace the production of Frank Clark, who's had nine or more sacks in three straight seasons and 35 over his four years.
But it's easy to forget just how effective Ansah can be off the edge. He's tallied 7.5 or more sacks in four out of his six seasons with high points of 12.0 and 14.5. But Detroit also didn't want to extend him this offseason because he's missed two or more games in three straight seasons, including nine last year alone.
But with Seahawks coach Pete Carroll having said Ansah could be ready for Week 1, it isn't a stretch to think the veteran edge-rusher will start turning heads late in the summer.
Naturally, that will bleed into the season, and Ansah would merely be the latest unexpected force to emerge for a defense that keeps losing big names but getting big performances elsewhere.
Marcus Mariota Revives Titans
One could argue the Tennessee Titans don't need a revival after they won nine games last year.
But they lost (and, to be fair, won) some close contests last year, including a 13-12 setback at the hands of the Buffalo Bills and didn't reach their ceiling while Marcus Mariota struggled under center.
Mariota is one of the offseason's biggest talking points because he missed a pair of games last year and had nagging neck issues that limited his play. By the end of the season, he had completed 68.9 percent of his passes but thrown for just 11 touchdowns with eight interceptions. He threw for 200 yards just six times, and the concerns prompted Titans brass to bring on Ryan Tannehill.
But Tannehill has packed on weight this year in the hopes of becoming more durable. A strong supporting cast added Adam Humphries. Mariota was the second overall pick in 2015 and is entering a contract year, so he could near his 26-to-9 touchdown-to-interception ratio of 2016 as opposed to last year's downswing.
Given Tennessee's strong weapons at the skill positions and underrated defense, Mariota is the key to this underrated contender.
Kyler Murray Makes Big Impact
Top quarterbacks aren't guaranteed success upon arrival in the NFL, though the pressure to produce is always there.
Kyler Murray faces the same task, and one can expect the Arizona Cardinals won't defer to Brett Hundley for a season so Murray can develop.
Murray has the skill set to excel out of the gate provided he can handle the developmental curve that comes with trying to adapt to the pros. So far, so good on that front, as Murray said he knows the playbook better than any player.
"Is it true? I'd say obviously I'm more familiar with it," Murray said, according to Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic. "Coach [Kliff] Kingsbury obviously knows it the best. But yeah, obviously with [Larry Fitzgerald] being a veteran and not having to come to every OTA and stuff like that and me being there every day, studying every day, yes, I do know it better."
As McManaman noted, Murray should be in a familiar-feeling system. And Kingsbury also figures to put Fitzgerald, David Johnson and Co. to work better than the last coaching staff, which will help Murray. Before long, it should be apparent Murray won't hit many bumps in the transition.
Panthers Emerge as Unexpected Contenders
There isn't a ton of hype surrounding the Carolina Panthers, which should change once training camp and exhibitions get underway.
The biggest storyline surrounding the team was whether Cam Newton was going to be healthy for 2019 after he missed two games and struggled to just 24 touchdown passes and 13 picks last season.
But Newton is on track for training camp, which means it's time to shine a light on everything else.
Everything else, meaning the Panthers quietly upgraded their offensive line in free agency with center Matt Paradis and retained right tackle Daryl Williams before drafting tackle Greg Little. Speaking of the draft, Carolina will pair first-round edge-rusher Brian Burns with Bruce Irvin and Mario Addison. And don't forget about the arrival of Gerald McCoy inside.
On offense, Christian McCaffrey accounted for nearly 1,965 yards last year, and DJ Moore finished second on the team in receiving. Greg Olsen should be available for more than nine games.
When it comes to training camp breakout lists, expect the Panthers to be near the top.