NFL's Biggest Winners and Losers from Early 2020 Training Camps
We're just over two weeks out from the 2020 season opener between the Texans and Chiefs, and training camps across the NFL are in full swing. Veterans are getting up to speed as best they can in this abbreviated offseason. Rookies are getting their first extended taste of life in the pros.
Some players—young and old alike—are already standing out. There are running backs who appear in midseason form and offenses that seem to have the makings of a buzzsaw.
Conversely, others are struggling. There are quarterbacks who haven't yet found their groove. And injuries have already taken a toll on some squads—especially one on the shores of Lake Erie that has seemingly raised bad fortune to an art form over the past 20 years.
Winner: Damien Harris' Odds of a Big Role in 2020
With Tom Brady now in Tampa Bay and a less-than-imposing array of passing-game talent at Cam Newton's disposal in Boston, the ground game is going to be more important than ever.
Given that reality, Sony Michel's slow recovery from a foot injury and uncertain status for the season opener isn't a good sign. However, the emergence of another young back on the roster is another story.
With both Michel and veteran Lamar Miller on the sidelines, second-year pro Damien Harris has had a chance to show what he can do. And so far, the former Alabama star has made the most of it.
According to Evan Lazar of CLNS Media, Harris has consistently excelled in all facets of the game—an assertion seconded by Jeff Howe of The Athletic. "Harris continues to stand out," Howe tweeted, "and it's not just as a runner. He did a nice job picking up a block today and looks comfortable in his route tree. He's been the best back in camp."
There's a difference between starring on the practice field and getting the job done in live game action. Harris has very little of the latter—four carries for 12 yards as a rookie. But if he continues to shine in practice, he is going to get an opportunity to show he can be New England's lead back in 2020.
Loser: Los Angeles Rams' Ground Game
In some respects, the Rams are in the opposite offensive situation as the Patriots. In wide receivers Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods and tight ends Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett, they have no shortage of pass-catchers.
But with Todd Gurley now toting the rock in Atlanta, the running back position was a major question mark entering training camp, and that picture hasn't gotten any clearer.
As Gary Klein reported for the Los Angeles Times, second-year pro Darrell Henderson suffered a hamstring injury over the weekend. Head coach Sean McVay said the team remains optimistic that he will be ready to face the Cowboys in Week 1.
"We'll be hopeful that he'll end up being able to get back and it won't affect his availability for the Dallas game," McVay said.
That Henderson's availability for the opener is even being mentioned is a bad sign for a position group that was already a question. Henderson wasn't great as a rookie—he averaged just 3.8 yards per carry.
But that was better than the 3.7 yards a pop that veteran Malcolm Brown managed last season, and while the Rams spent a second-day pick on a running back (Cam Akers) for the second year in a row, Akers' next carry in an NFL game will be his first.
If there was one position where the Rams could least afford a lingering injury, it was in the backfield. Jared Goff may be throwing the ball a lot in 2020.
Winner: CeeDee Lamb, WR, Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys fielded the NFL's top-ranked offense in 2019, with two wide receivers (Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup) who topped 1,000 receiving yards. Despite that, the Cowboys used their first draft pick on a wideout: Oklahoma's CeeDee Lamb with the 17th selection.
Lamb was a big play waiting to happen in Norman, topping 1,300 receiving yards and averaging over 21 yards per catch. Per Rob Phillips of the team's website, Lamb has carried that explosiveness over to the NFL, quickly developing a rapport with Dak Prescott.
"Very, very gifted," Prescott said. "Great hands, has a great feel for the game. I think that's probably the most impressive thing, to be a young rookie playing in the slot and just have a feel for the game and know where to be. I think that's going to go a long way and serve him really well in this league."
Lamb, for his part, said he's been awestruck by just how fast the NFL game is.
"Everything I got warned (about) is definitely here—everything as far as the speed, the tempo, how smart guys are and how talented guys are," he said. "You've got D-linemen running 4.7 (40 times). You've got DBs running 4.2s-4.3s, linebackers flowing sideline to sideline at 4.4-4.5s. It's things that you can't teach."
With Lamb in the slot, Cooper and Gallup on the outside and Ezekiel Elliott in the backfield behind a stout O-line, Prescott might just have more offensive weaponry than any quarterback in the league.
Loser: Josh Allen's Consistency
Entering his third year and coming off a trip to the postseason, the 2020 season could be a definitive one for Josh Allen, and head coach Sean McDermott indicated to reporters that he's been pleased with the development he's seen.
"Now in year three, just seeing him grow as a young man on and off the field has been fun to watch," McDermott said. "We're encouraged by Josh's development and the time he put in when he was away from us every offseason, including this offseason. He's worked on his game, and he continues to polish his game and get on the same page with his receivers over the last couple of weeks now."
To his credit, Allen has had his moments in camp. According to Nick Wojton of Bills Wire, veteran slot receiver Cole Beasley said that Allen is throwing with more anticipation in camp.
"He's playing more confident than ever," Beasley said. "He's making throws [now] that he wouldn't have even tried to attempt last year. He's starting to throw guys open a bit."
The problem is that just as in years past, consistency has been an issue with the 24-year-old. Spot-on throws have been followed by errant ones. Allen also threw interceptions to safety Micah Hyde and cornerback Josh Norman in practice.
It isn't cause for panic, but it is cause for concern—especially since consistency has been Allen's bugaboo since he entered the pros.
Winner: Clyde Edwards-Helaire's First Impression
When the Chiefs made Clyde Edwards-Helaire the first running back selected in the 2020 draft, it ratcheted up the pressure on the LSU star to be an immediate contributor for the defending Super Bowl champs. When veteran running back Damien Williams opted out of the 2020 season, that pressure only increased.
So far, he appears to be up to the task.
As Peter King reported for NBC Sports, not only has Edwards-Helaire's performance on the practice field stood out, but so has the extent to which the Chiefs are using him. Whether it's running the ball between the tackles, taking it off the edge or catching it out of the backfield, the offense has featured a heavy dose of the rookie—and he has excelled.
"He's on pace to have a big year," general manager Brett Veach said. "To be our primary ball-carrier."
Edwards-Helaire, who topped 1,400 rushing yards last year while averaging over 6.5 yards per carry and catching a school-record (for a running back) 55 passes, appears to have a skill set tailor-made for Kansas City's offense. He'll also see few stacked boxes given how potent the Chiefs' passing game is.
Joe Burrow of the Bengals might be the favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year, but Edwards-Helaire isn't far behind.
Loser: Chase Young's Chances of a Hot Start in 2020
Ohio State has cranked out big-time edge-rushers on an annual basis in recent years, whether it's Joey Bosa, Sam Hubbard or Nick Bosa. As ESPN's John Keim reported, former Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer thinks the best of the lot may have entered the pros this year.
"Of all the players we had, including the Bosa brothers, as far as size and speed, Chase [Young] might be the most talented of all of them, which means he's probably one of the most talented players to come out of college in the last decade. All the intangibles are there; also the tangibles."
From the moment the Washington Football Team made Young the second overall pick in the 2020 draft, fans in the nation's capital anxiously awaited his arrival on the practice field.
But as Nicki Jhabvala reported for the Washington Post, Young has missed a handful of practices with a hip injury, though head coach Ron Rivera said, "We want to make sure before we throw him back out there, so we may be a little bit more cautious than we need to be."
This could turn out to be much ado about nothing, but given the expectations around both Young and the D-line in D.C., he could use all the practice reps he can get, and hip injuries have been known to drag on for a while.
Winner: Kyler Murray's Odds of a Big Year 2
This should surprise absolutely no one.
Since the Cardinals added wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins in the offseason, there hasn't been a more hyped quarterback this side of Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson than second-year pro Kyler Murray.
As Josh Weinfuss wrote for ESPN, Murray has looked the part of a superstar in the making in camp. Murray also said he and Hopkins are already building a rapport:
"As far as relationship goes, we already got a pretty good relationship off the field. On the field, I think that's going to continue to grow. He's a great dude. Obviously, a great football player, one of the best. Him and Larry (Fitzgerald) being able to catch anything throwing their way definitely helps me out, but we got a lot of great weapons, so I'm excited to get out there and put it to work."
Head coach Kliff Kingsbury said he believes Christian Kirk can also be much more than just a complementary piece in this offense: "We feel like Christian is really an ascending player. He was having a really big year and got banged up a little bit last year. And then Hop, his numbers and production speak for itself. ... If we got into a deal where we're throwing it a bunch, yeah, I mean, anything could happen."
On paper at least, the Redbirds are loaded on offense.
Loser: Chicago Bears Muddied QB Battle
There's no question what the biggest training camp storyline is for the Bears: It's the battle to start under center between incumbent Mitchell Trubisky and offseason addition Nick Foles.
Ideally, the Bears would have a clear favorite emerge—of it not becoming a maelstrom of mediocrity that drags into the season.
It's still early, but so far it's looking less like a blowout and more like a carousel.
Per Adam Hoge of NBC Sports Chicago, it's been Trubisky who has looked better throwing the ball for the most part. But just as he has far too often over his first three seasons, he also made a tactical error in a red-zone drill that drew the ire of head coach Matt Nagy.
"Those are critical errors that we can't have. He's not going to do that again. He's going to fix it and move on," Nagy said. "That's a situational play that we need to be 2nd-and-goal at the 1 and not 2nd-and-goal at the 3. He'll fix that problem and move on, and he'll do better tomorrow."
Given the limited practice reps Foles has had in Chicago, it's not especially surprising that Trubisky might have a slight edge. But the longer this goes on without a starter emerging, the greater the chances the Chicago offense struggles against the Lions in Week 1.
Winner: J.K. Dobbins Making Waves in Baltimore
In 2019, the Ravens ran the ball better than any team in NFL history, picking up 3,296 yards.
As terrifying as it may be for the rest of the AFC to consider, they may be even better in that regard in 2020. The second round of this year's draft brought with it a potential game-breaker in the backfield.
Last year at Ohio State, J.K. Dobbins piled up over 2,000 yards on the ground. And while veteran stalwart Mark Ingram sits ahead of Dobbins on the depth chart, if the early portion of camp is any indication, it's going to be hard to keep Dobbins off the field.
Per Jeff Zrebiec of The Athletic, Dobbins has regularly stood out on the practice field, making plays both in the run game and as a receiver:
"Every practice seems to bring another highlight-reel submission from rookie running back J.K. Dobbins. In a seven-on-seven goal-line drill, the second-round pick made an acrobatic leaping catch in the back of the end zone over his former Ohio State teammate, Malik Harrison. Dobbins also victimized rookie inside linebacker Kristian Welch with a similar catch in the back of the end zone during Sunday’s practice."
According to Ryan Mink of the team's website, running backs coach Matt Weiss added: "J.K., I've been really impressed with. I think every day, his athleticism, his physicality, his vision—all the things that make a great running back—show up on the field."
It appears that Ingram may be hearing footsteps, in more ways than one.
Loser: Cleveland Browns Defense
Last year, the Browns ranked 22nd in total defense. With what has happened to the team since camp opened, it may be hard-pressed just to match that finish in 2020.
First, as Matt Howe reported for 247Sports, linebacker Mack Wilson suffered a "significant" hyperextension of his left knee—an injury that will sideline the second-year pro at least most of the 2020 season. Wilson didn't play especially well in place of the injured Christian Kirksey last year, but with both Kirksey and Joe Schobert gone, he was being counted on to help lead the linebackers in 2020.
On Monday, second-round rookie safety Grant Delpit was carted off the practice field with what appeared to be an Achilles injury. Sure enough, his season is over.
That's possibly the team's best linebacker and presumptive starter at free safety—done.
The Browns at least have some options at linebacker, whether it's fellow second-year pro Sione Takitaki, free-agent addition B.J. Goodson or rookie Jacob Phillips. But the team's depth at safety wasn't all that great with Delpit healthy. Now, either veteran Andrew Sendejo or youngster Sheldrick Redwine will be thrust into a role he wasn't especially well-suited for.
Just another year in Cleveland.