8 Under-the-Radar NFL Developments Entering July

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistJune 20, 2021

8 Under-the-Radar NFL Developments Entering July

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    July is rapidly approaching, which means 2021 NFL training camp season is nearly upon us. It will be a welcome return after a year with no preseason and a largely virtual offseason. Many of the typical storylines—rookie progressions, position battles and contract situations—will apply.

    However, while fans are waiting to see which rookies can claim starting jobs, who the Week 1 starting quarterbacks will be and where Aaron Rodgers will play in 2021—assuming he plays at all—some key developments won't dominate the headlines.

    Here we'll examine eight of those under-the-radar storylines. These aren't the biggest of the 2021 offseason, but they're sure to have an impact on the upcoming campaign and beyond.

David Bakhtiari Recovering in Green Bay

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Rodgers' situation could cast a shadow over the Green Bay Packers well into training camp.

    "I'd be surprised if there was any hardcore negotiations over the course of the next couple weeks," NFL Network's Ian Rapoport said on Total Access.

    Whether or not Rodgers returns or the Packers lean on Jordan Love and/or Blake Bortles at quarterback, the recovery of starting left tackle David Bakhtiari will be vital to Green Bay's success.

    Bakhtiari, a two-time first-team All-Pro, suffered a torn ACL during a December practice last season, and his recovery could take some time.

    "I'm about at the halfway point," Bakhtiari said on the Pat McAfee Show." It's been really good. I'm really excited with the progress I've been making."

    The fact that Bakhtiari has had no setbacks is obviously good news for the Packers quarterbacks. He is one of the league's most reliable left tackles when healthy, and not having him in 2021 could present a significant problem. The bad news, of course, is that Bakhtiari isn't close to 100 percent and may not be ready at the start of the season.

Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin Developing Bond with Dwayne Haskins

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    The Pittsburgh Steelers have been consistently relevant during the Ben Roethlisberger era. However, there's a chance it will end with this season. Big Ben is 39 years old, struggled down the stretch last year and is playing on a restructured one-year deal.

    "No one knows," general manager Kevin Colbert said of Roethlisberger's future on PFT PM.

    While Pittsburgh doesn't have a defined succession plan at quarterback, 2019 first-round pick Dwayne Haskins could be part of the equation. The Ohio State product struggled with the Washington Football Team and was jettisoned after less than two seasons. Pittsburgh took a flier on him, though, and could look to develop him slowly behind Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph and Joshua Dobbs.

    Head coach Mike Tomlin is taking a personal interest in Haskins' development.

    "I've been more concerned about Dwayne the person...what he's been through...how it's affected the growth and development of his game," Tomlin said, per Steelers team reporter Missi Matthews.

    Haskins possessed enough physical talent to be a first-round selection two years ago. However, he was rushed onto the field in Washington and then discarded after only 13 starts, which has probably done nothing to help his confidence. Haskins never seemed to have the full support of head coaches Ron Rivera and Jay Gruden, and he fell further out of favor amid multiple violations of COVID-19 safety protocols.

    To this point, Haskins has failed to prove that he can be a franchise quarterback on or off the field. If the Steelers can maximize his potential, provide support and coax maturation from him, however, he could be a successor to Roethlisberger in the not-too-distant future.

Bears Developing New-Look Offensive Line

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    The Chicago Bears traded up to land former Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields with the 11th pick. A quarterback competition between Fields and free-agent acquisition Andy Dalton could be coming—though Dalton is playing the mentor role for now.

    "Andy has just completely taken me under his wing. Any question that I have for him, he's going to answer, even when I'm throwing," Fields said, per ESPN's Jeff Dickerson.

    While plenty of eyes will be on Chicago's quarterback group heading into camp, the Bears are retooling an offensive line that is set to get James Daniels back from a torn pectoral muscle and that added tackle Teven Jenkins in the second round.

    Chicago's offensive line is tackling the offseason as a cohesive unit rather than a group of individuals.

    "It's the first time I've ever seen that. You've got 17, 18 O-linemen that are all doing this as one," head coach Matt Nagy said, per Larry Mayer of the team's website. "They're not leaving their guy behind, and they all go over and do everything together."

    The quarterback situation will get most of the attention, but the development of the O-line could be just as vital to the Bears' campaign. Last year's unit was underwhelming, surrendering 35 sacks and paving the way for a ground attack that ranked 21st in yards per carry. If the group can play more complementary football in the trenches, the line could improve significantly.

Browns Prioritizing Speed on Defense

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    The Cleveland Browns appear to be legitimate Super Bowl contenders for the first time this century, and they'll generate plenty of buzz in the next several weeks.

    While a lot of attention will focus on the return of wideout Odell Beckham Jr. from a torn ACL, the first real offseason of the Baker Mayfield-Kevin Stefanski era and the addition of players like pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney, it's the increase in defensive team speed that could give Cleveland its biggest boost in 2021.

    The Browns improved that defensive speed by adding John Johnson III, Anthony Walker, Troy Hill, rookie corner Greg Newsome II and rookie linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. According to defensive coordinator Joe Woods, that will bring the defense, well, up to speed with the modern NFL game.

    "When you look around the league, the league is becoming more of you see teams spreading you out and quick throws," Woods said, per Jared Mueller of Browns Wire. "It is becoming more matchups and space," Woods said. He continued, "Just more of a premium on speed."

    Cleveland was good enough to win 11 regular-season games and a playoff contest last year. However, the Browns ranked just 22nd against the pass and 21st in points allowed. Figuring out how to best utilize their newfound wheels on defense could go a long way toward putting the Browns in title contention.

Joe Mixon Getting Healthy in Cincinnati

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    The Cincinnati Bengals seem to have found their franchise quarterback in 2020 No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow. Unfortunately, he was lost to a knee injury that involved multiple torn ligaments 10 games into his pro career.

    Burrow's recovery will naturally be the biggest storyline surrounding Cincinnati this offseason.

    However, Burrow isn't the only key member of the Bengals making his way back from injury. Running back Joe Mixon missed 10 games with a foot setback and finished 2020 with only 428 rushing yards, 138 receiving yards and four combined touchdowns.

    Mixon has appeared healthy and has been practicing during OTAs, which bodes well for both the Bengals and Burrow.

    Though Mixon has only been healthy for one 16-game season in his four years as a pro, he has two 1,100-yard rushing campaigns. A versatile back, Mixon has caught 129 passes for 1,008 career receiving yards and five more scores.

    The Bengals might have a larger role in store for Mixon this season, too, as longtime complementary back Giovani Bernard departed in free agency. Burrow's recovery will be the most important development for Cincinnati, but Mixon being on the mend is tremendous.

Elijah Moore Already Impressing

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    The New York Jets used the No. 2 pick on former BYU quarterback Zach Wilson. His development will be the most important facet of Jets camp for a couple of reasons.

    For one, the Jets have been searching for a true franchise quarterback for what feels like a lifetime. First-round picks Mark Sanchez and Sam Darnold didn't pan out, and Wilson is the latest signal-caller with a crack at filling the void.

    New York also doesn't have an experienced Plan B—backups James Morgan and Mike White have zero regular-season appearances between them.

    However, Wilson isn't the only rookie capable of making an early impact. The Jets used a second-round pick on Mississippi wideout Elijah Moore, and he's already looking like a star.

    "He's looked terrific in the time I've been there," NFL Network's Kim Jones said of Moore following minicamp.

    Moore hasn't simply impressed with his physical skills. He's also impressed the coaching staff with his work ethic.

    "This guy wants to be really, really good in this league," offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur told reporters. "He wants to make a name for himself. He's so internally motivated and driven."

    Ideally, Wilson will become New York's new franchise signal-caller. However, the potential impact of Moore's becoming a franchise receiver shouldn't be discounted.

Ravens Receivers Finding New Energy

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    The Baltimore Ravens drafted a new potential No. 1 receiver in Minnesota first-rounder Rashod Bateman. That's huge because quarterback Lamar Jackson hasn't had a true No. 1 perimeter target since he entered the league in 2018.

    Bateman's development will be worth watching in camp, but he isn't the only receiver new to the roster. Baltimore also drafted wideout Tylan Wallace and signed Sammy Watkins in free agency. 

    "I felt a major energy change with that wide receiver group, not only with the coaching, but just with the wide receivers that are there," cornerback Marlon Humphrey said, per Kevin Oestreicher of Ravens Wire.

    The newfound energy may also be the product of new passing game coordinator Keith Williams and receivers coach Tee Martin.

    "Their receiving corps is going to be 20 times better than it was in the past," former NFL wideout and current ESPN analyst Keyshawn Johnson told Jonas Schaffer of the Baltimore Sun.

    Having a dynamic, explosive and confident receiver group could be a dangerous development for Ravens opponents. Jackson has taken Baltimore to the postseason three times with a more underwhelming wideout group and was the league's unanimous MVP in 2019. With a better group around him, Jackson might yet take another step.

No. 2 Tight End Emerging for Chiefs

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    The highlight of the Kansas City Chiefs' offseason has been the revamping of their offensive line—and for good reason. The Chiefs were without starting tackles Mitchell Schwartz and Eric Fisher in Super Bowl LV, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers pass rush dominated the O-line.

    Kansas City responded by adding Orlando Brown Jr., Joe Thuney, Kyle Long and rookies Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith. The restructuring could lead to a massive boost for the Chiefs.

    "Been saying that Chiefs could have their best OL they have had since Mahomes has been there in 2021," ESPN's Louis Riddick tweeted.

    However, Riddick also hinted at another development that could pay big dividends this season.

    "Oh...and watch out for rookie 5th rd TE Noah Gray from Duke. They like him. A lot," he added.

    Fifth-round rookies don't usually command a ton of offseason buzz, but Gray's development could be huge. Though he had only 29 receptions for 285 yards and two touchdowns at Duke last season, he has the athleticism and polished route skills needed to make an early impact.

    This is big because the Chiefs already have one of the NFL's biggest mismatch threats in tight end Travis Kelce. Pairing him with another dangerous receiving tight end could make the Kansas City offense virtually indefensible in two-tight end formations.

    The Chiefs passing attack is already one of the league's most explosive, and it could be even better thanks to a rookie who isn't likely to fly under the radar for much longer.

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