Training Camp Buzz Roundup: Dallas Cowboys Create Pecking Order for Extensions
The dog days of NFL training camps are in full swing.
Players are banged and bruised, others are receiving opportunities they hadn't, and coaching staffs are navigating the delicate balance between player maintenance and trying to string together productive practices.
Two major injuries dominated the Seattle Seahawks and Oakland Raiders camps, and crucial competitions in Cleveland, Miami and New England included certain options earning longer looks.
Meanwhile, the business side of the NFL never stops. Quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott and wide receiver Amari Cooper are in line for contract extensions from the Dallas Cowboys. How the organization will proceed clarifies by the day.
Rosters remain in flux as the first preseason contest nears for the 30 teams that didn't participate in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game. The following buzz-worthy topics emerged from Tuesday's practices.
Order Clarifies for Dallas Cowboys in Contract Negotiations
The Cowboys must pay for the front office's impressive talent acquisition over the last four years.
Quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott, wide receiver Amari Cooper, cornerback Byron Jones, linebacker Jaylon Smith and right tackle La'el Collins are all in line for contract extensions.
How the organization prioritizes their importance will determine which individuals the team can re-sign. A hierarchy emerged in recent days.
Prescott is the top priority because he's the quarterback and his rookie contract expires at the end of the season. A deal will get done, and Prescott isn't sweating the details.
"It will happen when it happens," Prescott told reporters at the start of training camp.
Elliott's holdout has forced the two-time Pro Bowler into the second slot. According to ESPN's Josina Anderson, Elliott's representatives told the Cowboys brass the running back will sit out the 2019 campaign if he doesn't receive a contract extension. However, the nuclear option may not come into play since both sides want to get a deal done, per Anderson.
"I think you see what happens with [Todd] Gurley, and you get a great player like Le'Veon [Bell], who's every bit as well thought of as Gurley, and he had unfettered free agency," Cowboys COO Stephen Jones said of Elliott's market on 105.3 The Fan. "He had 32 teams with no draft picks attached, and the market was $13.5 million ... less than Gurley's. At the end of the day, business changes, and we pay attention to that."
NFL Network's Jane Slater reported the Cowboys have offered "generous" deals to make Prescott, Elliott and Cooper top-five-highest-paid players at their respective positions. Slater added the franchise is willing to let each of its stars play through their current contracts and push the negotiations into next year.
That final point places Cooper on the back burner. The wide receiver's leverage pales in comparison to Prescott's and Elliott's because of his positional value and lack of a holdout. Either he can accept what the Cowboys offer, or he'll have to play this season on his current deal.
Undrafted WR Emerges as Tom Brady's Favorite Target
The New England Patriots are known for finding diamonds in the rough. After all, the dynasty was built on the sixth-round selection of a future Hall of Fame quarterback.
But the team's impressive talent acquisition didn't stop there. Last year's Super Bowl squad featured significant undrafted contributors in center David Andrews, defensive tackle Adam Butler and cornerback J.C. Jackson. Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman was a seventh-round selection as a converted quarterback.
The Patriots know talent and how it fits into their system.
So, it should come as no surprise that another undrafted free agent continues to impress in training camp and could earn a significant role in the offense. According to the Boston Sports Journal's Greg A. Bedard, rookie Jakobi Meyers—not first-round selection N'Keal Harry—has emerged as Tom Brady's favorite target.
"The football doesn't care how old you are," Brady said, per NFL Network's Mike Giardi. "The football doesn't care whether you are drafted or not."
Meyers earned his way on to the first-team offense.
"He was good," Detroit Lions cornerback Amani Oruwariye said after the teams' first joint practice, per The Athletic's Nick Underhill. "He had some pretty good releases, and you can tell he's learning the offense well with how he tries to get open. He's doing a good job, and he's making plays when it comes to him."
The rapid development of young targets is vital because the Patriots lack wide receiver depth. Meyers and Harry can complement Edelman as bigger and more physical targets. Plus, less pressure will be placed on veteran Demaryius Thomas, who continues to recover from last year's torn Achilles tendon.
HC Brian Flores Expects Ryan Fitzpatrick to Start 1st Preseason Game
Last week, Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores told reporters, "It's pretty clear to me that Ryan Fitzpatrick is leading the way."
Not much has changed. The 15th-year veteran is expected to start the Dolphins' first preseason contest against the Atlanta Falcons.
"I see Fitz going with the ones, but that could change," the coach told reporters Tuesday. "... That's where I see it right now."
Fitzpatrick can expect to play a little longer than normal so the staff can get a feel for his handle on the offense. But the Dolphins want Josh Rosen to compete for the starting spot.
"Josh has done a good job," Flores said, per the Miami Herald's Adam H. Beasley. "Again, the preseason games will tell us. That's just another part of the evaluation. I think it's a good competition. That's what it is."
The preseason gives Rosen a chance to close the gap. Fitzpatrick should look better in camp. He's started for seven different franchises. Rosen, on the other hand, is still learning and adapting in his second season.
How Rosen reacts once he faces real competition will provide a better measuring stick for his maturation. If Rosen slings the ball around, he should start the second preseason game with the third contest for whomever is named the starter. If Rosen doesn't play well, the Dolphins might as well hand the job to Fitzpatrick.
LeSean McCoy Remains Focal Point of Buffalo Bills Offense
LeSean McCoy is too old (31). He makes too much money ($8 million annually). The 11th-year running back can't get the job done anymore after posting career lows in rushing yards (514), yards per attempt (3.2) and touchdowns (three) last year.
The concerns are obvious. Yet the Buffalo Bills will still feature McCoy this fall after signing both Frank Gore and T.J. Yeldon in free agency and drafting Devin Singletary in the third round.
"I'm the guy. I feel like that. That's what I've been told," McCoy told Chris Brown of the team's official site. "That's my everyday approach. ... Me and Frank have been competing for years. We train in the offseason, and we're always trying to beat each other. I'm excited for the challenge."
McCoy seemed like an obvious cut candidate since the team can save $6.4 million upon his release and has improved depth.
"There's always talk about something," McCoy said. "Whether it's off the field, on the field. Whether it's age, my salary, there's always something. So I learned to use that as motivation. That's something that Frank has taught me. No matter what goes on, they'll look for the guy with the name or the money. So it motivates me in different ways."
The offense should open up for McCoy this season after the organization's extensive additions to the line (Mitch Morse, Spencer Long, Quinton Spain, Ty Nsekhe and rookie Cody Ford) and receiver corps (Cole Beasley and John Brown). The Bills are more well-rounded overall with their roster construction, so opponents can't key on McCoy.
Plus, the added depth will take some pressure off McCoy since Gore demands a certain number of snaps and the team's younger options should work their way into the rotation.
Bengals More Likely to Extend RB Giovani Bernard Than Trade Him
Speculation began last week that Cincinnati Bengals running back Giovani Bernard could be traded after his agent visited training camp.
The logic is simple enough. The Bengals feature Joe Mixon, who finished fourth in the league in rushing yards last season, and selected a pair of running backs—Trayveon Williams and Rodney Anderson—in this year's draft. Bernard looks like the odd man out, right?
The Athletic's Paul Dehner Jr. reported the Bengals don't plan to trade Bernard and that the front office is contemplating an extension for the 27-year-old.
"We've got a good backfield right now with Joe and Gio to start," head coach Zac Taylor said, per Michael LaPlaca of the team's official site. "It's good to get them both out here and take the load off of each other and help the young guys come along. ... We are in good shape with those guys."
Bernard's presence in the lineup does more than spell Mixon; the seventh-year veteran is an experienced third-down back and allows the rookies to develop at their pace. For example, Anderson continues to recover from last season's torn ACL. The Bengals don't need to rush the sixth-round pick.
Plus, an extension would provide the franchise with roster flexibility if and when Joe Mixon becomes a free agent after the 2020 campaign.
Has a Front-Runner Emerged for Browns' Starting RG Spot?
The Cleveland Browns' search for a starting right guard finally has a front-runner.
Head coach Freddie Kitchens and his staff rotated options every day of training camp until the start of this week. Previously, Austin Corbett, Kyle Kalis and Eric Kush received equal opportunities.
Kush earned an edge recently and opened practice with the first-team offense for three straight days, according to the Chronicle-Telegram's Scott Petrak. The competition isn't over, but Kitchens is searching for some consistency so the offensive line can grow together.
"I've told all three of them I'm looking for somebody to step up," the first-year head coach said (via the Orange and Brown Report's Fred Greetham). "We're almost two weeks in now. Somebody needs to start separating themselves. ... We'll see if [Kush] can string some days together."
Kalis' inclusion in the competition may be done after he left Tuesday's practice with a trainer, according to Petrak.
The Browns listed Corbett as the first-team right guard when they revealed their first unofficial depth chart—emphasis on "unofficial" since those are maintained by the media department, not the coaching staff.
Right now, Kush is the guy to replace Kevin Zeitler after the front office traded away the previous starter. If the 29-year-old plays well during the first preseason contest against the Washington Redskins, he'll be one step closer to securing the starting spot.
Jaelen Strong Makes Push to Be Cleveland Browns' 4th or 5th WR
The excitement surrounding the Browns is palpable. The reason why primarily involves the wide receivers whom quarterback Baker Mayfield will throw to this season.
Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry are established stars. They set records in their first five seasons and earned the distinction of being top performers at their respective positions (X and slot receiver).
But the Browns will often have three or more wide receivers on the field. Rashard Higgins is the third option and will play Z receiver. However, Derrick Willies, whom the team signed as an undrafted free agent last year, and Jaelen Strong received first-team reps throughout training camp.
Strong became a forgotten man after disappointing as a 2015 third-round pick with the Houston Texans and suffering a torn ACL in 2017, which caused him to sit out the 2018 campaign.
The traits that once made Strong a top prospect reemerged in Cleveland. He's a big-bodied target (6'2", 220 lbs) who excels at high-pointing the football.
"I just come in every day with the mindset that [it] is a new day, new rep and new play," Strong said, per Cleveland.com's Scott Patsko. "Taking it one play at a time and throwing it all out there to show the coaches I want to be here."
The fourth through sixth receiver roles are wide-open with Strong, Willies, Ishmael Hyman, Damion Ratley and Antonio Callaway vying for the three spots. Callaway is a given after last year's impressive rookie performance, despite a less-than-great start to training camp. Two spots are there for the taking, and Strong is making a push to claim one.
"It is a testament to anyone who is going through anything," Strong said, per Patsko. "Just keep working, keep grinding, and the days will get better."
Report: Seattle Seahawks All-Pro LB Bobby Wagner Ruled Out Indefinitely
The Seattle Seahawks continue to suffer significant blows to their defense.
First, the NFL suspended defensive tackle Jarran Reed, the team's top returning sack artist, for six games because of a violation of its personal conduct code. In April 2017, a woman reported to police that Reed physically assaulted her. Per Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times, police recommended pursuing a fourth-degree assault charge against Reed; however, prosecutors chose not to press charges, citing "insufficient evidence."
Second, this year's first-round pick, defensive end L.J. Collier, suffered an ankle sprain that will keep him out of the preseason. Fortunately, he could be ready for Seattle's first regular-season game Sept. 8, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, though the staff will need to ease the rookie into the rotation after he misses so many vital reps.
The latest blow came when four-time first-team All-Pro Bobby Wagner underwent a platelet-rich plasma therapy injection. He's out indefinitely, according to the Tacoma News Tribune's Gregg Bell.
"Bobby had a little procedure done," head coach Pete Carroll said. "He's going to get a little break here just to get right and the thing that we do with them. On his lower body. ... a little bit of everything. It's something he's done regularly."
The Seahawks expect Wagner back by the start of the regular season, but if his recovery doesn't go as planned, they can't afford to lose him for any length of time. The NFL's highest-paid off-the-ball linebacker (on an annual basis) and the organization decided the procedure needed to be done now to get him on the field when it matters.
"Just to make sure we have plenty of time between the games and all that stuff," Carroll said.
Details of Antonio Brown's Mysterious Foot Ailment Surface
File the following in the weird and unexpected: According to Pro Football Talk's Chris Simms (h/t PFT's Mike Florio), Antonio Brown's unidentified foot ailment is the byproduct of burning his feet "by entering a cryotherapy machine without the proper footwear, and his feet were frostbitten." The resulting blisters prevented the wide receiver from practicing and forced him to visit a foot specialist last week.
Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden refused to elaborate on the situation and stated the team is "gathering information," per the Las Vegas Review-Journal's Michael Gehlken.
The Raiders pursued Brown to provide the offense with a focal point. When healthy, the seven-time Pro Bowler is a difference-maker. Defenses must account for him at all times, yet he's still the league's most productive receiver over the last six seasons.
Obviously, frustration set in since the Raiders can't install their entire offense without Brown.
"I think we're all disappointed," Gruden said Friday, per ESPN.com's Paul Gutierrez. "We think he's disappointed. We'd like to get the party started. We'd like to get him out here. He's a big part of the team.
"I want the guy out here as soon as possible. I'd like him to never leave and stay in the huddle every play. But life goes on and you've got to continue to work, and the other guys got to take advantage of these opportunities, and so far, they have."
A timetable for Brown's return to the field isn't known. The longer his absence, the longer it'll take for the standout target to build a rapport with quarterback Derek Carr and get the offense on track.
Detroit Lions' Top Draft Pick Already a 'Fixture' on 1st-Team Offense
Top-ten picks are supposed to make an instant impact. But some coaches are hesitant to hand them starting roles. So, the staff will state that the top pick must "earn" his spot even when providing an elite prospect with every opportunity to get on the field.
Even so, not all top picks are ready for the pressure. Sometimes, there are legitimate obstacles that keep them off the field.
The Detroit Lions spent the eighth overall selection on tight end T.J. Hockenson after handing Jesse James a four-year, $22.6 million free-agent deal. James is a proven veteran and a solid contributor, but Hockenson is clearly the top tight end in Lions camp.
"Hockenson's been a fixture on the first-team offense in Detroit since he arrived for the offseason training program, and that's been consistent through the first couple weeks of training camp as well," Tim Twentyman of the Lions' official site wrote.
The Iowa product is an advanced prospect. The 6'5", 247-pound Hockenson is both an outstanding athlete to create mismatches in the passing game and a refined blocker. His well-rounded game should make him a big part of the offense early in his career.
Rookie tight ends are notorious for slow development. First-year performers rarely provide much production. Hockenson may be the outlier after being the highest-drafted tight end this decade.