At long last the NFL’s so-called ‘dead period’ is drawing to a close as the pads come out and teams begin to enter training camp ahead of the 2021 campaign.
The Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers are eligible to report from Wednesday July 21 in view of their Hall of Fame Game on August 5, followed by the Super Bowl-winning Tampa Bay Buccaneers from as early as July 24 before the remaining 29 teams return in full on July 27.
On that note, here we examine a few storylines worth keeping an eye on…
It’s tough to know which way to look when it comes to quarterback quandaries and question marks. But let’s start in New Orleans, where the Saints enter a realm of uncertainty as Jameis Winston takes the reins with Taysom Hill as his shadow following the retirement of Drew Brees. Can Sean Payton and Peter Carmichael help the former No. 1 overall pick cut out the erratic interceptions? We will find out.
The Denver Broncos will host their own quarterback contest between Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater; Daniel Jones is gearing up for a make-or-break year with the New York Giants; eyes shall be firmly fixed on Tua Tagovailao’s development with a revamped Miami Dolphins offense; the Pittsburgh Steelers await to find out how much more Ben Roethlisberger has to offer; Jared Goff is onto new beginnings with the Detroit Lions; Ryan Fitzpatrick, Kyle Allen and Taylor Heinicke will be fighting for the job in Washington and of course there is is that man Aaron Rodgers, whose fate with the Green Bay Packers is anybody’s guess at this point.
Elsewhere in rookie land, Trey Lance will be afforded time to absorb Kyle Shanahan’s genius amid a precarious situation for Jimmy Garoppolo, Justin Fields will seek to defy the Chicago Bears’ plans to start Andy Dalton in Week One, Mac Jones will look to push Cam Newton in New England, while Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson feel the full weight of expectation as they front up major rebuilds from the off.
Many will recall something of a freak period last year when it seemed as though there was a new season-ending injury cropping up each week. After surgeries and gruelling rehabilitation processes, the high-profile casualties are back.
Dallas Cowboys fans will greet Dak Prescott with open arms after his horrific ankle injury in Week Five against the Giants, who will meanwhile have star running back Saquon Barkley at their disposal again following the knee injury he sustained against the Bears in Week Two.
Panthers talisman Christian McCaffrey makes his comeback from a shoulder injury that kept him sidelined beyond Week Three, the 49ers will be boosted by the presence of star edge rusher Nick Bosa after he managed just two games, and the Bengals are set to get former No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow back under center after his outstanding rookie year was cruelly halted by a torn ACL and MCL.
Cleveland Browns receiver Odell Beckham Jr is eager to bounce back from his ACL tear, Steelers linebacker Devin Bush is primed for a huge year after tearing his ACL five games into last season and Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter, Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller and Los Angeles Chargers safety Derwin James all hope to be in action after missing the entire 2020 campaign.
Training camp will offer up a small insight into the kind of player teams will be getting back.
Eagles big men
Andre Dillard and Jordan Mailata head into camp as arguably two of the most important players on the Philadelphia Eagles roster in 2021. With long-serving left tackle Jason Peters no longer in the picture, the pair will contest for the job of chief protector to Jalen Hurts’ blindside in what looms as the quarterback’s first full season as starter.
Dillard made four starts and appeared in all 16 games as a rookie in 2019 after being drafted out of Washington State in the first round, before missing the entire 2020 season through injury as the added absence of Peters and Lane Johnson for half the year made for a decimated offensive line that would give up a league-high 65 sacks.
It did, though, pave the way for Mailata to make impressive strides in his development as he played 64.87 per cent of snaps, taking full advantage of his opportunity to force a decision upon the Eagles this summer.
“Oh there’s definitely [a competition],” said offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland this offseason. “And I think that anytime there is competition like that and it’s that close, it brings the best out of both players. Both players have to be on every day, all day because it’s a competition. Whoever’s the most productive and whoever does the best, whoever has the best value going into the season, will be the starter.”
Coordinator coalition in Miami
Among the key components to Tua Tagovailoa’s ascent in Miami will be the role of new co-offensive coordinators in former running backs coach Eric Studesville and former tight ends coach George Godsey.
It brings up the fourth successive year the Dolphins first-round quarterback will have had to learn a new offense, following on from a difficult rookie season marriage with former offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, whose scheme was clearly far better suited to Ryan Fitzpatrick.
The Dolphins took their time finding the right person, or people, to oversee Tagovailoa for what they hope is the foreseeable. Studesville and Godsey mark an absorbing approach in regards to their previous responsibilities demanding a focus on advancing pre-snap intricacies and creating moving parts at the line of scrimmage designed to take the heat off the quarterback. Jaylen Waddle, Lynn Bowden Jr., Myles Gaskin give them the opportunity to do just that.
Running back committees
The San Francisco 49ers saw the fine work of run game coordinator Mike McDaniel and rewarded him with not only the offensive coordinator position, but one of the deepest running back rooms in the league.
Raheem Mostert, who led the team in rushing yards in 2019, returns after playing just eight games due to injury last season, joining 2020 rushing and total touchdowns leader Jeff Wilson, third-round rookie Trey Sermon, free agency pickup Wayne Gallman, who is coming off a career year with the Giants, and 2020 undrafted free agent JaMycal Hasty.
Combine that with the blocking expertise of tight end George Kittle and fullback Kyle Juszczyk, along with the dual-threat of Deebo Samuel and the 49ers look a mind-scrambling prospect at the line.
Indianapolis boast a similarly fascinating backfield committee as they enter with a three-headed prong of Jonathan Taylor, Nyheim Hines and Marlon Mack, while the Philadelphia Eagles arrive with Miles Sanders, Boston Scott, Kerryon Johnson and Kenneth Gainwell. Welcome to the modern NFL. Let the battle for carries commence.
Chiefs offensive line overhaul
Having winced at the sight of Patrick Mahomes scurrying for his life in the Super Bowl, the Kansas City Chiefs wasted no time refurbishing their offensive line. Out went starting tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz, both of whom were absent due to injury in Tampa, and in came left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. via a trade with the Baltimore Ravens along with free agent guard Joe Thuney and second-round rookie center Creed Humphrey.
On top of that the Chiefs welcomed back 2020 opt out Laurent Duvernay-Tardiff, tempted three-time Pro Bowl guard Kyle Long out of retirement and re-signed right tackle Mike Remmers.
It is a new-look line of protection for not only Mahomes to familiarise himself with this camp, but also Clyde Edwards-Helaire as offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy looks to expand the second-year running back’s multi-purpose role.
Boy does David Culley have his work cut for him as he looks to rescue a sinking ship in year one as Texans head coach.
While the future of quarterback Deshaun Watson remains up in the air amid his legal situation and known desire to move on from the franchise, J.J. Watt’s departure leaves a monumental void when it comes to both elite talent and locker room leadership. The organisation’s decision to give away star receiver DeAndre Hopkins meanwhile remains a sour reference point.
Among the defining jobs for Culley will be ensuring harmony and convincing those playing for him that this is a team with identity and a team with direction. Linebacker Zach Cunningham and safety Justin Reid are primary candidates for expanded leadership responsibilities, running back Mark Ingram and quarterback Tyrod Taylor are shrewder offseason pickups than they might appear for the same reason, and in rookie receiver Nico Collins, rookie tight end Brevin Jordan and fourth-year running back Phillip Lindsay the Texans added some exciting new weapons with which to lift spirits.
That being said, the question marks far outweigh any potential glimmers of optimism right now.
A void to fill in Seattle
Unless anything changes over the coming weeks, the Seattle Seahawks will enter 2021 without long-serving linebacker K.J. Wright, who became a free agent at the end of last season after 10 years with the organisation. The veteran’s departure leaves Russell Wilson and linebacker partner Bobby Wagner as the only two remaining players from the Seahawks’ 2013 Super Bowl-winning roster.
It also means Pete Carroll has a void to fill at strong side linebacker, among the options being 2019 third-round pick Cody Barton, 2019 fifth-round selection and depth player Ben Burr-Kirven and 2020 second-round defensive end Darrell Taylor, whose versatility could see him used alongside middle linebacker Wagner.
At the ‘Will’ position, there is an added onus on 2020 first-round pick Jordyn Brooks to assert himself as a key contributor after a slow start to a rookie year that he did in fact go on to finish strongly. Seattle could also yet bring Wright back given what appears a quiet market.
Payton Turner’s role in New Orleans
You would probably place the Saints’ selection of Houston defensive end Payton Turner alongside the Las Vegas Raiders’ selection of Alabama offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood as two of the more surprising features to the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. That’s perhaps less to do with their talent, but more down to teams keeping their evaluations of both relatively quiet.
Turner is primarily expected to push 2018 first-round pick Marcus Davenport at the right defensive end position, although his skillset could now see him emerge as an option to serve on the interior as the Saints look to cope without defensive tackle David Onyemata, who was recently suspended for six games for violating the NFL’s PED policy.
Onyemata’s absence could also provide an opportunity to second year defensive tackle Jalen Dalton, who missed the whole of his rookie year through injury having initially entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Bears.
Undrafted rookie breakthroughs
Training camp presents itself as an opportunity for undrafted rookies to showcase their talent before the eyes of coaches and prospective team-mates as they bid for a place on the final roster. In recent years we have seen James Robinson, Phillip Lindsay, J.C. Jackson, Jeff Wilson and Austin Ekeler all make careers for themselves after going undrafted – who might be next?
Former Grambling State offensive lineman David Moore and former North Carolina Central cornerback Bryan Mills will have a chance to expose the Draft neglect for HBCU prospects after signing with the Carolina Panthers and Seahawks, respectively; safety Trill Williams will work out with the Saints having been part of a talented Syracuse secondary and former Louisville running back Javian Hawkins offers the Atlanta Falcons an explosive ‘Swiss Army Knife’ option.
The Jaguars’ Josh Imatorbhebhe (Illinois), Vikings’ Whop Philyor (Indiana) and Seahawks’ Cade Johnson (South Dakota State) are among the top undrafted receivers, former Oregon State edge rusher Hamilcar Rashed Jr has a shot to compete for a place on the Jets roster and there is intrigue surrounding how former Alabama linebacker Dylan Moses fares with the Jaguars after a knee injury in college obliterated his once-high Draft stock.
Elsewhere the Patriots and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will get to work implementing two tight end sets featuring free agency arrivals Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, while in New Jersey the Giants and Jason Garrett are similarly tasked with shaping an offense strengthened by marquee signing Kenny Golladay, first-round pick Kadarius Toney, veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph and former Bengals speedster John Ross.
Dan Campbell will be stamping his kneecap-biting approach onto the Lions, Sam Darnold and Carson Wentz will seek to revive their careers with the Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts, respectively, and in Buffalo there is added British interest as offseason addition Efe Obada looks to build on a career year while Christian Wade continues on his mission to break into the final Bills roster.
On top of that expect to see joint-practice kerfuffles, theatrical arrivals (see Brett Keisel’s tractor and off-road dump truck) and some photographic evidence of offseason gains.
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