1 Thing We've Learned About Every NFL Team During 2021 Training Camp
The usual suspects are headlining 2021 training camps: extensions, roster battles and hyped rookies.
However, some interesting wrinkles make this summer feel distinct. After a one-year hiatus, preseason action returns, albeit on a shortened three-game slate. There are also now three cut-down days, which makes the roster-whittling drama all the more intense across the league.
It can be hard for fans to keep up with all the noteworthy buzz. To assist, we'll run through one big takeaway from each training camp so far.
Arizona Cardinals: Jordan Hicks Situation Remains Muddy
The Arizona Cardinals drafted middle linebacker Zaven Collins 16th overall this year and in May gave veteran Jordan Hicks permission to seek a trade, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.
Hicks, 29, tallied 118 combined tackles last season but won't see the same amount of usage in 2021, with general manager Steve Keim making it clear the team feels it played him too much last year. But Keim told Arizona Sports’ Doug & Wolf that the veteran is in camp and will play a role, according to Kevin Zimmerman.
“Right now, he’s in camp competing," Keim said. "He’s having the best camp I’ve seen him have, and Jordan Hicks is going to help us win football games this year. He knows that and he’s willing to do it and he’s selfless and I’m excited he’s still with us.”
Atlanta Falcons: Dante Fowler Jr. Could Have Big Role
Glancing at the Atlanta Falcons roster, only interior man Grady Jarrett sticks out as a sure thing when it comes to rushing the passer.
But the Falcons hope to add Dante Fowler Jr. to the list.
Fowler managed just three sacks over 14 games last year, regressing from an 11.5-sack outburst in 2019 with the Los Angeles Rams. But Falcons coaches have hinted that he's going to have a specific three-down presence in new coordinator Dean Pees' scheme and that they expect a return to bigger production.
A year ago, Atlanta mustered just 29 sacks with no player above the 4.5 mark, so it needs Fowler at his best.
Baltimore Ravens: Sammy Watkins Gets a Big Chance
In late July, Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman turned some heads by proclaiming Sammy Watkins is one of the NFL's best receivers.
Watkins hasn't played a down for the Ravens during the regular season yet after spending the last three years with the Kansas City Chiefs. But he's still just 28 years old, has received 55 or more targets in each of his last three seasons and has scored as many as nine touchdowns in a season.
There's reason to believe Watkins has plenty of upside, especially with 2019 first-rounder Marquise Brown nursing a hamstring injury and first-round rookie Rashod Bateman suffering a groin injury, too.
Watkins could have a bounce-back season after missing six games last year.
Buffalo Bills: Jake Kumerow Emerges
Jake Kumerow seems like one of those names who always comes up in training camp buzz but doesn't do much otherwise.
Kumerow is now in Buffalo with MVP contender Josh Allen, and he recently "looked like a superstar," according to Matt Parrino of NYup.com. With Emmanuel Sanders missing time, it sounds like Kumerow has been the best non-Stefon Diggs wideout on the field, even working well against Tre'Davious White.
We're still talking about a 29-year-old wide receiver with 21 catches to his name, but Allen is the sort of quarterback who can change that in a hurry.
Carolina Panthers: Sam Darnold Building Chemistry with Dan Arnold
Looking at the Carolina Panthers from a traditional perspective, it's easy to think Terrace Marshall Jr., DJ Moore and Robby Anderson will benefit the most from Sam Darnold's arrival.
Kudos to those who circled Dan Arnold's name in red ink instead.
According to NFL Network's Cameron Wolfe, Arnold has had a great connection with Darnold.
Arnold hasn't had many chances to impress in a pro offense since going undrafted in 2018, but his 438 yards and four touchdowns last year in Arizona might have been a sign of things to come. He's rekindling a connection with offensive coordinator Joe Brady from their days in New Orleans together, and his becoming a reliable weapon could mean the difference between the Panthers winning big on the Darnold gamble or starting over again soon.
Chicago Bears: Justin Fields Stealing the Show
The Chicago Bears have attempted to keep a hardline stance that Andy Dalton, not 11th pick Justin Fields, will be the starter to open the regular season.
But Fields, who threw for 63 touchdowns and nine interceptions over two years at Ohio State, has wowed onlookers at training camp.
In fact, The Athletic's Adam Jahns wrote that Fields' "natural arm talent is captivating camp," highlighted by wicked sidearm throws and deep shots down the field.
Which is to say Fields taking the job mostly feels like a matter of time. Dalton has been a serviceable veteran for a long time, but he's never been known for arm talent. The Bears might not be able to hold out much longer.
Cincinnati Bengals: The Offensive Line Is Far from Set
No, this doesn't have much to do with the Cincinnati Bengals selecting Ja'Marr Chase over Penei Sewell at fifth overall this year.
Left tackle Jonah Williams and center Trey Hopkins are back, and the Bengals added Riley Reiff in free agency to upgrade the right tackle spot.
But the idea second-rounder Jackson Carman will upgrade a guard spot might sputter to a halt soon.
The Bengals issued their first depth chart of the preseason with Carman listed as a third-stringer. He's apparently more of a developmental project than first anticipated, with fourth-rounder D'Ante Smith even on the second string at guard—and he too was drafted as a tackle.
Cincinnati has some veterans in the mix at both guard spots so it's not the end of the world, but ideally a top-50 pick would play so well as to give the team no choice but to start him.
Cleveland Browns: Odell Beckham Jr. Ready but Not Rushing
There hasn't been a ton of buzz out of Cleveland about Odell Beckham Jr. as he comes back from his torn ACL.
The Browns didn't put Beckham on the PUP list to start the preseason, but he hasn't been out there much in 7-on-7 looks either.
But by all accounts, that's by design on the part of the coaching staff as Beckham has otherwise showcased "his speed, cuts and explosiveness are as sharp as ever," according to ESPN's Jake Trotter.
Considering the Browns made the playoffs last year on the backs of an explosive offense while Beckham only made it into seven games, there doesn't seem to be any reason to rush back a weapon with top-15 potential at his position.
Dallas Cowboys: Baby Steps with Dak
While some big-name quarterbacks coming off injuries are well ahead of schedule, Dak Prescott has proceeded notably slower.
And the Dallas Cowboys like that just fine.
If all goes according to plan, Dallas won't trot out Prescott under center until at least the team's third preseason game on August 21. Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones classified it as "not out of the question," according to the Dallas Morning News' David Moore.
Dallas has every reason to tread lightly with its franchise passer after he suffered a shoulder strain in his throwing arm, which has led to only light throwing recently. Last year was a six-win debacle without Prescott, and given his top-10 ability, there's no reason to rush him back into things.
Even if Prescott doesn't suit up in a preseason contest, it's hard to imagine he struggles much by the time the regular season arrives.
Denver Broncos: Jerry Jeudy on the Rise
Nothing seems a guarantee for the Denver Broncos under center between Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock.
But one thing is a lock—Jerry Jeudy is about to break out regardless.
Jeudy, the 15th pick last year out of Alabama, had a productive-but-not-spectacular rookie season, totaling 856 yards and three touchdowns.
During a joint practice with the Minnesota Vikings, Jeudy was making big plays against some of the opponent's top names in drills. And in what was called the play of the day by the Denver Post's Ryan O'Halloran, Jeudy had a touchdown catch of 50-plus yards.
Jeudy doesn't get a ton of hype in part because of his quarterback situation, but it's clear this summer that he's poised for a massive second year.
Detroit Lions: Surprise Name Emerging at WR
The Detroit Lions will need a surprise or two at wideout to help along Jared Goff in 2021.
Detroit's depth chart, after all, is a list of lesser-known names like Breshad Perriman, Tyrell Williams and fourth-rounder Amon-Ra St. Brown.
One might pick Williams as the breakout candidate because he has been a steady presence over the years. But it's apparently Kalif Raymond, with Chris Burke of The Athletic recently noting that nobody has "been able to cover him on a consistent basis" in camp.
Raymond, 27, is only 5'8" and has played with five different teams since 2016. But if he's shaking loose and making plays, it makes him a candidate to be the surprise that helps along Goff in the base offense.
Green Bay Packers: Amari Rodgers Will Have a Role
The Green Bay Packers used a third-round pick to get Aaron Rodgers some help in the form of Clemson wideout Amari Rodgers.
Rodgers might not have the name recognition of Davante Adams, Randall Cobb or even Marquez Valdes-Scantling, but he could see a big role right out of the gates.
Special teams coach Maurice Dayton, for example, said the rookie could be the team's punt returner. And Ryan Wood of the Green Bay Press-Gazette has praised Rodgers' play while working with base offenses, too, which could snowball into him getting some looks during the regular season pretty quickly.
While the Packers bringing back Cobb at the tail end of the Aaron Rodgers drama suggested the Clemson product might not see much playing time, it seems like the rookie receiver will make an impact early one way or another.
Houston Texans: Nico Collins Gets a Chance to Shine
With a barren roster, the Houston Texans will have plenty of lesser-known names getting a big chance in 2021.
One of those names is third-round rookie Nico Collins.
Collins, who scored 13 receiving touchdowns over his last two seasons at Michigan, is the tallest wideout on the Houston roster at 6'4" but has the speed to make big plays down the field. That would explain why he's getting first-team reps in camp and could start alongside Brandin Cooks, if not get more targets than new arrival Anthony Miller.
With a question mark under center and a Mark Ingram-led ground game, the Texans don't figure to put up a ton of offensive fireworks in 2021. But it's a situation primed for a breakout candidate like Collins, who can become a foundational block for the future.
Indianapolis Colts: The QB Battle Is Real
The Indianapolis Colts don't have a sure thing with Carson Wentz after he needed foot surgery. ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported Wentz might make it back for Week 1, but the tricky nature of the injury and rehab has turned the spotlight on a battle between Jacob Eason and Sam Ehlinger.
Eason, a fourth-round pick last year, seemed like the shoo-in to start. But it's Ehlinger who "really has been impressive" in the words of Colts head coach Frank Reich, according to Sports Illustrated's Josh Carney.
So the battle to start in place of Wentz, should it come to that, isn't as cut-and-dried as it seems. With the Colts seemingly unwilling to add a veteran passer via trade on the open market, a sixth-round rookie could indeed start the season.
Even if Wentz is on pace to start Week 1, it will be interesting to see which backup gets more first-team reps while he's unable to take them.
Jacksonville Jaguars: The Long-Term Plan Isn't as Predictable as Once Thought
When glancing at the Jacksonville Jaguars roster defensively, it seemed easy to envision CJ Henderson as a long-term staple of the plan.
According to ESPN's Jeremy Fowler, the Jaguars are willing to move Henderson via trade. It would be a stunning development for a dramatically rebuilding team that invested the ninth overall pick in him just one offseason ago.
Henderson only appeared in eight games last year and allowed 33 catches on 51 targets, but the major upside was blatant. When the Jaguars landed one of the market's top corners with Shaquill Griffin in free agency, it seemed like the core at a premium position was established for a long time.
Maybe nothing comes of the rumor, but it gets the nod in part because items like Trevor Lawrence have looked as expected during camp.
Kansas City Chiefs: Chris Jones Has a Big New Role
While most of the attention is on the rebuilt offensive line for the Kansas City Chiefs, an underrated signing has changed the complexion of the defensive line, too.
The Chiefs added Jarran Reed in free agency, which was big considering he's tallied 19 sacks over his last three seasons.
But perhaps most notable is it means that elite lineman Chris Jones, playing on his four-year deal worth $80 million, is now free to move all over the line and create mismatches. Jones himself talked about the big change on NFL Network's Inside Training Camp.
"It's been amazing," Jones said. "I look more so of it as an opportunity to move along the line and find matchups. Spags [Steve Spagnuolo] and the defensive staff made an adjustment this year to bring in Jarran Reed, which is a great addition to our D-line and which gives me the flexibility to move out, so I'm loving the transition and the opportunity to challenge other tackles."
Scary thought for opposing offenses around the league considering Jones has at least 6.5 sacks in each of his last four seasons with a high of 15.5. Offenses trying to keep pace with the Chiefs might have more problems than usual in 2021.
Las Vegas Raiders: Foster Moreau Is a Breakout Candidate
It might not seem like the Las Vegas Raiders have any room for a breakout candidate at tight end after Darren Waller led the team in receiving last year (1,196 yards, nine touchdowns) and did the same the year prior.
But Jon Gruden isn't sleeping on Foster Moreau, so neither should onlookers.
"I just think he's perfect for how we want to play here," Gruden said, according to NFL.com. "He can block in-line, he can pass-protect, he's a football junkie. He's one of the greatest kids I've ever coached. … I think he and Waller give us a duo that is as good as any I've ever had."
It's a little easy to forget about Moreau, a fourth-round pick in 2019. But he's looked good in camp with Waller out of action and the mentioned versatility could mean he eats into some of the targets normally reserved for the Henry Ruggs III-Bryan Edwards-Hunter Renfrow wideout trio.
Los Angeles Chargers: The Line Jump Will Be Immediate
The Los Angeles Chargers poured a bevy of resources into improving the offensive line in front of Justin Herbert this offseason after he took 32 sacks as a rookie.
Giving elite center Corey Linsley a five-year deal worth $62.5 million made most of the headline waves, but 13th pick Rashawn Slater out of Northwestern shouldn't go overlooked either.
Especially when one of the NFL's best like Joey Bosa said on Inside Training Camp that "all of us have been having trouble with him."
Viewed as the second tackle in the 2021 class behind Penei Sewell, it wasn't uncommon to see onlookers talk about Slater moving to guard. The Chargers have him in a premium spot out on the edge, though, and from the talks of guys who would know, he's doing just fine. While Linsley upgrades the interior, Slater provides the critical edge presence that should allow the seemingly inevitable second-year leap by Herbert.
Los Angeles Rams: The DeSean Jackson Impact Should Be Real
It was an easy thing to overlook at first. Jackson is 34 and played in just eight games over the last two years, and the Rams have a Cooper Kupp-Van Jefferson-Robert Woods trio at wideout already.
But Jackson has made notable big plays in camp while working on his connection with Stafford, including a bomb of at least 60 yards down the field after getting past defenders, per The Athletic's Jourdan Rodrigue.
Jackson put up some big numbers in the past alongside Rams head coach Sean McVay during a stay in Washington. And with it seeming like he hasn't lost a step, he's the wideout on the roster most primed to take advantage of Stafford's arm strength down the field.
Miami Dolphins: The Tua Tagovailoa Hype Is Real
In the summer months, every team's quarterback looks great and everyone is in the best shape of their lives, to name a few of the normal exaggerations.
But the hype around Miami Dolphins passer Tua Tagovailoa might just be real.
Tagovailoa had a tough rookie season when he was available, even getting yanked from games late. But he was working with a preseason-less buildup to his rookie year and coming off a serious hip injury.
Fast forward to now, Tagovailoa has looked good in camp and is doing things we just didn't see last year, such as this highlighted by Joe Schad of the Palm Beach Post: "Tua Tagovailoa just exhibited off-balance, late-developing play arm whip on a laser to Hunter Long. Different dude out there right now than what we saw as a rookie."
Surrounded by a 10-win roster and sixth pick Jaylen Waddle, Tagovailoa should be in line for a big sophomore leap.
Minnesota Vikings: K.J. Osborn Primed for a Leap
K.J. Osborn is far from the biggest name at Minnesota Vikings training camp this summer, but he's the guy who could benefit the most while opposing defenses focus on Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson.
Osborn, a fifth-round pick in 2020, is a second-stringer on the depth chart (that has two WR starters) now after a quick ascension. He's displayed a good rapport with Kirk Cousins on connections of 40-plus yards, and it sure doesn't hurt that he's returning punts, too.
While Osborn will still need a good preseason returning kicks and within the base offense to hold off the hodgepodge of names behind him on the depth chart, he's doing enough to qualify as a major breakout candidate.
New England Patriots: N'Keal Harry Making a Leap
The New England Patriots didn't see the immediate return on investment after taking N'Keal Harry with a first-round pick in 2019. He struggled to contribute so much so that the team got Nelson Agholor in free agency.
The Boston Herald's Karen Guregian wrote the following: "The much-maligned Harry is trying to recharge his football life, and he’s off to a good start, making jaw-dropping plays practically every practice. His power and athleticism have been on full display, especially coming away with balls in the end zone, whether long bombs or red-zone throws."
This sort of thing just never happened for Harry over the course of his first two training camps, and it carried over during the regular season as he caught just 45 passes over two years. If he's finally making the leap initially expected of him, the passing attack will be that much better for it.
New Orleans Saints: Jameis Winston Should Win the Gig
The New Orleans Saints remained true to their word to start training camp, letting a full-blown quarterback battle unfold between Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill by giving the latter first-team reps.
But as most probably expected, Winston is starting to pull away.
It's not hard to find praise for Winston. The Athletic's Katherine Terrell has classified Winston as throwing darts and moving well in the pocket with both first- and second-team offenses. As of Wednesday, Luke Johnson at NOLA.com listed Winston's training camp stats as 89-of-128 (69.5 percent) with four touchdowns and three interceptions, whereas Hill's were 70-of-110 (63.6 percent) with two touchdowns and three interceptions.
The first pick in 2015, Winston's big arm has been on full display and he's running quality two-minute drills, too. As much as the Saints might want to prove themselves right on the Hill front, the guy who threw 33 touchdowns (albeit with 30 interceptions) as recently as 2019 likely gets the nod.
New York Giants: OL Woes Might Be Just Getting Started
The New York Giants worked hard to improve the roster around Daniel Jones this offseason.
But repeated setbacks along the offensive line might derail the plans if the team can't come up with a solution quickly.
In short order, the Giants lost linemen Zach Fulton and Joe Looney to retirement. Nate Solder, paid to be a foundational rock (four-year deal worth $62 million in 2018), suffered a shoulder injury in camp. That's a big setback, as the Giants surely anticipated his return would stabilize things after he opted out of last season.
With so much riding on whether Jones can get it going with new weapons Kenny Golladay and Kyle Rudolph, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Giants dip into free agency for help, especially once cuts start.
New York Jets: Zach Wilson Could Have a Rocky Start
The reports out of New York Jets camp haven't been all rosy concerning second overall pick Zach Wilson.
After a brief standoff with the Jets over his rookie deal, Wilson has consistently struggled. On August 7, The Athletic's Connor Hughes noted Wilson spent his day going 11-of-24 with two interceptions, his seven drives going for three points.
ESPN's Rich Cimini later noted Wilson is starting to look more comfortable, albeit with some mistakes: "He looked more comfortable in the pocket and showed his arm strength with a couple of high-velocity intermediate throws. But he got careless on one pass, trying to drop one over the head of linebacker C.J. Mosley, who nearly made the interception."
Which is to say that this thing is going to take time and that it might be unreasonable to expect Wilson to have a Burrow- or Herbert-level rookie season.
Philadelphia Eagles: Offense Should Heavily Feature TEs
Maybe the Philadelphia Eagles got it right by holding onto tight end Zach Ertz.
Ertz was a constant in trade speculation this offseason, but he's been a staple of training camp thanks to his connection with starting quarterback Jalen Hurts.
In fact, NJ Advance Media's Mike Kaye noted Hurts has "heavily targeted" both Ertz and 2018 second-round pick Dallas Goedert a year removed from rarely targeting the position.
Hurts had his fair share of struggles last season over four starts (15 games) and just 148 attempts. Though the Eagles' wide receiver core is better with 10th pick DeVonta Smith, Hurts should continue to take advantage of having such a talented tight end duo in the regular season.
Pittsburgh Steelers: OL Could Be an Issue
Questions about the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line aren't something quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has shied away from during training camp.
Big Ben addressed the issue with SiriusXM NFL Radio's Training Camp Tour (h/t Allison Koehler of Steelers Wire).
"There are questions," Roethlisberger said. "You just mentioned a lot of guys and a lot of things, but how many of those guys have played together?"
While Big Ben looks slimmer and primed for a big season, his line lost David DeCastro as a cut, Alejandro Villanueva and Matt Feiler to free agency and Maurkice Pouncey to retirement. Kevin Dotson should start at a guard spot but has been hurt.
With the line overhauled and all the pieces yet to fall into place, the Steelers could start off the year slower than expected offensively.
San Francisco 49ers: Secondary Could Be an Issue
The San Francisco 49ers signing safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the middle of August says it all—the secondary might be a problem.
Clinton-Dix's arrival comes with Jaquiski Tartt on the PUP list and Tony Jefferson out with injuries.
And that's just at safety. Over at corner, the departure of Richard Sherman means Jason Verrett and Emmanuel Moseley are the starters. The former has a long injury history and the latter is a former undrafted free agent. The rest of the immediate depth is relatively inexperienced and showing rust in camp.
Not that the 49ers aren't ready for this sort of thing. The organization's philosophy is to prioritize the defensive line, as it has made big investments over the years like Nick Bosa and Javon Kinlaw. But if the pass rush isn't hitting home, the secondary could get exposed.
Seattle Seahawks: Contract Chatter Will Hang over All
It feels like forever ago the Russell Wilson speculation hung over the Seattle Seahawks.
And with things going about as expected for Wilson and Co. in training camp, most of the focus has gone to other contract issues.
The big item is the holdout by star safety Jamal Adams, with Adam Jude and Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times reporting the Seahawks are "not budging" on their final offer. Adams has said he won't play again until something gets done.
Offensive tackle Duane Brown is the other big item of note, with ESPN's Adam Schefter reporting he "isn't pleased" there hasn't been an extension done.
So for those keeping score, the Seahawks could be down one of the NFL's best safeties and one of Wilson's best protectors. Keep in mind the team only has about $5 million in cap space.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: RB Is Even Better...and More Confusing
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers did a good job of keeping the championship crew together this offseason, including quietly bringing back Leonard Fournette.
But adding a big-upside weapon like Giovani Bernard to the backfield improved the unit while making things a tad more complicated.
On the team's first depth chart, everyone falls behind Ronald Jones II, who last year ran for 978 yards and seven scores on a 5.1 per-carry average. But it's Fournette, not Bernard, second on the chart behind him. Before a memorable run in the playoffs, he averaged just 3.8 yards per carry with six scores, though.
It's Bernard who would seem to fit better as a second back given that he's caught at least 30 passes in every season of his career. But either way, it's almost an embarrassment of riches for a title winner that didn't seem to lose anything of note this offseason.
Tennessee Titans: Offense Humming Along Without Arthur Smith
Tennessee Titans wide receiver A.J. Brown thinks Ryan Tannehill can lead them to a Super Bowl this season, even after the loss of offensive guru Arthur Smith.
Here's what Brown told Inside Training Camp:
"He's not in the top-10 talk, or whatever; to me, it's nonsense. Many games we came back, we fought back, two minutes. Derrick (Henry) doesn't get the ball every play. Somebody's got to throw us the ball and he's very accurate. Anybody who's sleeping on him is nonsense. But he doesn't really care about that stuff and neither do we. I think his head is in a good place."
And as much as the loss of Smith hurts, he's probably right. Tannehill threw for 3,819 yards and 33 touchdowns last year while Brown and Corey Davis missed two games apiece. The latter is gone, but Julio Jones makes for a stellar upgrade.
With even names like first-year wideout Marcus Johnson having a huge camp—all while 2,000-yard rusher Derrick Henry takes it easy before the real games arrive—there's reason to believe the offense shouldn't skip a beat.
Washington Football Team: Antonio Gibson Is Just Getting Started
There's plenty of reason for excitement when it comes to the Washington Football Team's passing attack with Ryan Fitzpatrick directing an offense that boasts Curtis Samuel and Terry McLaurin.
But the running game might end up even more explosive. A year ago, third-round pick Antonio Gibson was excellent over 14 games, rushing for 795 yards and 11 scores on a 4.7 per-carry average. He also caught 36 passes through the air.
Considering his efficiency rates while only playing 37 percent of his offense's snaps as a rookie, Gibson might just be the biggest breakout candidate at his position across the entire league.