The Biggest Winners and Losers from 2021 NFL Training Camps
NFL training camps are still ongoing, but with a month of practices and most preseason games now in the books, some players and teams are emerging as clear winners and losers.
Some teams have been pleasantly surprised by strong performances from their rookies or have gotten production from unexpected sources. Other squads have been ravaged by injuries or aren't getting much out of players who are projected to contribute this season.
Read on for a look at the teams and players who are standing out the most in training camp for good or bad reasons.
Winner: TE Foster Moreau, Las Vegas Raiders
Las Vegas Raiders tight end Forster Moreau had an up-and-down start to his NFL career.
He scored five touchdowns as a rookie in 2019 before suffering a torn ACL that cut his season short. He recovered in time for the 2020 season, but he played only 24 percent of the Raiders' offensive snaps behind star tight end Darren Waller and veteran Jason Witten.
With Witten now retired, Moreau should once again work behind and alongside Waller.
According to NFL Network's Peter Schrager, the third-year tight end is the player whom the Raiders are most excited about right now. He said Moreau is "beloved" by members of the organization, who feel he is ready to bust out as an offensive weapon alongside Waller and young receivers Bryan Edwards and Henry Ruggs III.
"Getting to play behind Darren Waller is just one of the greatest blessings in the world," Moreau told Raiders.com's Rachel Gossen. "... Everyone's so centrally focused on him, as they should be, because if they're not, he'll go for 200. That just creates pocket of space and opportunities for everyone else. And he's selfless like that, and he knows that."
Moreau still has to prove it during the regular season, but a promising training camp is opening the door for the Las Vegas offense to get creative in 2021.
Loser: New York Jets' Pass Rush
When the New York Jets signed edge-rusher Carl Lawson this offseason, they were expecting him to lift a defense that recorded only 31 sacks last year. He was well on his way to accomplishing that goal, putting together a fantastic training camp during which his quarterback hits became a regular sighting.
Unfortunately, Lawson won't get a chance to turn Gang Green's defense around this year. He went down with a season-ending Achilles rupture during practice last week, ending a potential Pro Bowl season before it could even get off the ground.
"The man puts in the work," first-year head coach Robert Saleh told reporters in the wake of Lawson's injury. He does everything the right way. You could not ask for a more perfect big-money free agent who came in and just does things the right way. Despite getting paid, he still wanted more. I just feel bad for him."
Lawson's injury will be difficult to overcome, but the Jets do have one silver lining. Second-year defensive end Bryce Huff has distinguished himself with some fantastic plays during the preseason, including a pair of sacks against the rival Giants in opener.
The undrafted free agent was a surprise addition to the roster last year, contributing on both defense and special teams on a part-time basis, but he now could be a key piece to the defensive rotation with Lawson sidelined.
Winner: Green Bay Packers
Hours before the 2021 NFL draft began, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Aaron Rodgers didn't want to return to the Green Bay Packers. The star quarterback was reportedly disgruntled for a variety of reasons, including the team trading up the year before for Jordan Love, his potential replacement.
The Packers held the line, swatting away suitors that called to gauge the reigning MVP's availability. Rodgers eventually reached an agreement to attend training camp after they gave him more say on personnel decisions, removed the final year of his contract and gave him an out as early as next season.
With Rodgers back in the fold, Green Bay is poised to make another deep postseason run. Although he won't appear in any preseason games, practice reports suggest he should pick up right where he left off after he threw a career-high 48 touchdowns in 2020.
The Packers had a relatively quiet offseason aside from the Rodgers drama, but they did draft at least one promising rookie in cornerback Eric Stokes. He should help shore up the outside spot opposite star corner Jaire Alexander.
Love has also shown plenty of promise over the past month, and Rodgers' return will spare him from being thrust into a starting role too early. He went 12-of-17 for 122 yards and a score in Green Bay's preseason opener against the Texans before sitting out last week with a minor injury.
While there's no quarterback controversy in Green Bay, the Packers appear set under center for the foreseeable future. That has them looking like a clear winner this offseason.
Loser: Indianapolis Colts
The Indianapolis Colts traded for Carson Wentz this offseason to replace the retired Philip Rivers under center, but he suffered a foot injury during the first week of training camp. After undergoing surgery, he was expected to take 5-12 weeks to recover.
Wentz returned to practice Monday and told reporters he's "optimistic" that he'll be ready for the Week 1 game against the Seattle Seahawks. However, he has already missed out on invaluable practice reps that would have helped him learn the Colts' system and develop a rapport with his teammates.
Wentz isn't the only key Colts player who suffered an injury during training camp. Star guard Quenton Nelson suffered the exact same injury as Wentz and was given a similar recovery timetable, although he also returned to practice Monday.
If the three-time Pro Bowler is hampered by his injury, it would be a major blow to an Indianapolis offensive line that was already reeling from the retirement of longtime left tackle Anthony Castonzo. Eric Fisher will likely man the role once he recovers from his Achilles injury, but the underwhelming trio of Will Holden, Julien Davenport and Sam Tevi are all vying to replace Castonzo in the meantime.
Until the injury bug exits Indy, this team might have a tough time contending in 2021.
Winner: New England Patriots Quarterbacks
The New England Patriots began the offseason by re-signing incumbent starting quarterback Cam Newton despite his underwhelming 2020 campaign. They capitalized on an unexpected chance to draft a potential franchise quarterback a few weeks later, landing Alabama's Mac Jones with the No. 15 overall pick.
If one of these signal-callers managed to distinguish themselves with a strong training camp, it would have been a boon for the Patriots. Instead, both have greatly exceeded expectations thus far.
Newton has been taking most of the first-team reps in practice and Jones has mostly excelled with the second-stringers, but the rookie has seen some sporadic work behind the first-string line, per NFL.com's Kevin Patra. During Week 2 of the preseason, both quarterbacks lit up the Philadelphia Eagles.
While head coach Bill Belichick appears to be in no rush to officially name a starter, longtime offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels revealed that Newton would be New England's QB1 if the season began today.
"Cam certainly is the starter now, and he has done a good job," McDaniels said, per Justin Leger of NBC Sports Boston. "He has gone in there, he played well the other night. He's practiced well. But, I know those guys are really competing hard and we're giving them an opportunity to compete and play a lot of football."
It appears this will be Newton's job to lose, but New England will be in good shape regardless of whom ends up starting in Week 1 against the Miami Dolphins. The Pats appear to be set at the position in both the short and long term thanks to Newton and Jones.
Loser: QB Andy Dalton, Chicago Bears
When veteran quarterback Andy Dalton signed a fully guaranteed one-year, $10 million contract with the Chicago Bears this offseason, he expected to be their starter. But one month later, the Bears traded up to No. 11 to select Ohio State signal-caller Justin Fields.
Even with Fields looming behind him, Dalton initially had head coach Matt Nagy's unequivocal backing as the team's starting quarterback. Fields was seen as a developmental prospect who would spend at least one season learning behind Dalton.
However, the rookie's preseason play could force Nagy to turn the offense over to him much sooner than expected.
Dalton drew boos while leading mustering only six points in two quarters against the Buffalo Bills this past weekend. The rookie wasn't much better than Dalton through the air, but he did showcase the dynamic rushing skills that made him a first-round pick, notching 46 yards on four carries.
Fields was on the receiving end of a terrifying helmet-to-helmet hit after Bills linebacker Andre Smith broke free off the edge and decimated him, but he popped up unscathed. If he can stay healthy for the remainder of the preseason, Fields has a real shot at usurping Dalton.
Following the disappointing 45-16 loss to Buffalo, Nagy said he still plans to start Dalton in Week 1 against the Los Angeles Rams. However, his leash seems much shorter than it was at the beginning of training camp.
It would hardly be shocking if Fields takes over during the season opener, replacing an unproductive Dalton and providing a jolt to a Chicago offense that badly needs one.
Winner: Denver Broncos Secondary
The Denver Broncos secondary was already one of the league's better units during the 2020 season, but it looks even better now.
Denver's most glaring issue last year was its lack of quality outside cornerbacks, which it quickly rectified this offseason. The Broncos acquired a pair of proven corners in Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller, and they used their draft pick on potential shutdown corner Pat Surtain II.
The Alabama product dominated against the Minnesota Vikings in his preseason debut, shutting out his marks on 11 coverage snaps and returning an interception to the house. He followed that up by conceding only a 12-yard completion against the Seattle Seahawks the following week.
According to Pro Football Focus (h/t Nick Kosmider of The Athletic), Surtain drew the highest overall score at his position and among all rookies in Week 1 of the preseason. His new teammates aren't strangers to making big plays, either.
Safety Justin Simmons appears to be on track for another Pro Bowl campaign after he picked off Seahawks quarterback Alex McGough on the game's opening drive this past weekend. He will be paired deep alongside Kareem Jackson, who is coming off a career-high 89 tackles and ranked as the fifth-best safety in football last season, according to PFF.
This secondary had plenty of star power and name recognition going into training camp, but it is living up to the hype with the season rapidly approaching.
Loser: Cincinnati Bengals' Offense
Joe Burrow was on a record-setting pace as a rookie before going down with a season-ending knee injury. The 2020 No. 1 overall pick completed 65.3 percent of his passes for 2,688 yards and 13 touchdowns against five interceptions while adding another 142 yards and three scores on 37 rushes.
The Cincinnati Bengals went only 2-7-1 in Burrow's 10 starts last year, and it may be difficult for them to improve on that mark this season. The LSU product has been inconsistent during training camp, making a myriad of mistakes and poor throws that have observers wondering whether he was rushed back into action.
Burrow told reporters that his knee feels fine and chalked up his struggles to a "mental thing."
"I'm just getting back used to playing football again against top-level competition," he added. "Hopefully a couple more reps, a couple more days, we'll get it back to my old self."
Burrow has yet to play in the preseason, although he might suit up for the exhibition finale on Sunday. Either way, he'll need rookie wideout Ja'Marr Chase to overcome his ongoing camp struggles as well.
The No. 5 overall pick has been plagued by drops recently, according to Chris Roling of Bengals Wire. He dropped all three balls thrown his way against Washington on Friday, and he couldn't reel in a pass placed right on the numbers in practice Sunday.
With the Bengals set to begin the regular season against the Minnesota Vikings on September 12, they don't have much time left to sort out their offensive woes. It's a troubling development for a squad that had so much promise coming into training camp.