What to watch for: 23 teams opening minicamp
Nine NFL squads conducted mandatory minicamp last week. This Tuesday, 23 teams start their three-day mandatory work.
Players under contract can be fined for skipping minicamp. Players who have been franchise tagged but not signed the tender are not under contract and therefore cannot be fined — i.e. Houston Texans’ Jadeveon Clowney.
Minicamps for the 23 squads run from Tuesday through Thursday, after players underwent physicals on Monday. Phase three of offseason workout rules apply (no live contact is permitted, but teams can run 7-on-7, 9-on-7, and 11-on-11 drills). According to the collective bargaining agreement, two-a-day practices are permitted at two of the three days during mandatory minicamp, with restrictions: players may be on the field for a total of no more than three-and-a-half hours per day; no practice can last more than two-and-a-half hours of on-field activities; the second practice shall be limited to walk-through instruction only; organized activities can’t begin prior to 7 a.m. or end after 8:30 p.m. local time; and players may only be asked to participate in club activities for a maximum of 10 hours per day.
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The lack of contact means what we are watching this week is a shell of real football, but certain aspects can give glimpses or clues as to how a team might operate, how coaches feel about certain players, and other clues to take a closer look at come training camp in July.
With that in mind, let’s run down one thing to watch for from each of the 23 teams opening minicamp today.
How will the young receiver pecking order shake out? Kyler Murray and his development in Kliff Kingsbury’s offense will be picked apart like a carcass in the desert. Let’s go beyond that surface level and keep an eye on how the young receiving corps shakes out. Larry Fitzgerald is the staple, and big things are expected of Christian Kirk. Beyond that, there are snaps in Kingsbury’s offense to be had. The Cards used three draft picks on receivers: Andy Isabella (second round), Hakeem Butler (fourth round) and KeeSean Johnson (sixth). How is their development progressing through the offseason program? Will one step out to steal snaps? Would they still be slotted behind Chad Williams heading into training camp? And how is free-agent flyer Kevin White working on his redemption tour?
Revamped O-line: It’s nearly impossible to get a good gauge on the offensive line during minicamps given the lack of contact allowed. And yet, the biggest changes to the Falcons’ roster came with the additions of two first-round picks on the right side of the line. Even with limited contact, how does the duo progress during team drills as we head into training camp? With Julio Jones (along with others) reporting but limited by a foot injury, the changes to the O-line are the biggest question facing the Falcons’ offense this offseason.
All eyes on Lamar Jackson: The Ravens’ re-imagined offense won’t be fully clear until training camp, as Greg Roman tinkers with his new operation, but this week will cover another glimpse of Jackson’s potential Year 2 rise. All reports out of Baltimore have suggested the signal-caller has diligently improved his mechanics and accuracy. It’s one thing to look good in personal workouts, it’s another to excel during team drills, and will be even bigger next month when the pads come on in training camp. With a young, unproven receiving corps, Jackson’s development will be vital to any success the Ravens conjure in 2019.
New pieces surrounding Josh Allen: The Bills’ offseason goal has been clear: buffer Allen. The Bills upgraded the offensive line and targeted speedy, not big targets for their strong-armed QB. Unfortunately, injuries across the board have wrecked Buffalo’s offseason plans, creating questions about chemistry building. Three of the top four receivers have been sidelined with injury, including free agent additions Cole Beasley and John Brown, two tight ends missed time with injury and the offensive line has been banged up. Which players will participate, and can Allen build chemistry if half of his offense is sitting on the sideline?
Cam Newton throwing pigskin: Ace Boogie throwing a football will likely be the biggest story emanating from this week of minicamp (barring a catastrophic injury). The Panthers quarterback underwent offseason surgery and will take part in team drills for the first time. While Carolina isn’t likely to push Cam early in the process, seeing how his arm is calibrated heading into the summer could give us an indication into how he’ll look come September. When we last saw Newton toss a ball during live action he was slinging lawn-darts and heavy worm-burners. How his motion looks and the velocity on the ball this week will be closely monitored.
Kicker battles live on: Sure, we could mention Mitchell Trubisky diving deeper into Matt Nagy’s offense as something to keep an eye on, but when there is a heated kicker battle going on in Chicago, it’s the star. Given how the Bears’ season ended, the aftermath with Cody Parkey, the eight-man competition at rookie minicamp, the list being whittled down to three, and yet none commanding the job makes this one of the few competitions during June minicamps that could have a lasting effect on a playoff roster. First, one of the booters must finally convince the team brass he’s the man for the job. The fact that none has yet is disconcerting for Bears fans.
Where does John Ross fit in the new offense? The former first-round pick enters a vital year for his career and every day of practice will help the speedster find success. First, he must stay healthy, but beyond injuries, Ross must prove he can be more than a field-stretcher in Zac Taylor’s offense. Thus far, reports from Cincy have been encouraging. We need to hear more flowery language, however, before buying that Ross will be a legit threat behind A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd. If Ross isn’t excelling when defenses are in shorts, he’ll surely struggle once the pads come on.
What does Kellen Moore’s offense look like? This will be a question all offseason and into the chilly months as the world tries to figure out how first-time play-caller will employ Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper and Dak Prescott. Moore’s former teammate, Dan Orlovsky, has repeatedly suggested he thinks the offense will be one "that is like Sean Payton married with Matt Nagy married with Mike Leach. Like they all had a baby and that’s what this offense is going to be." If even close to true, that would be one fun offense. It remains to be seen the exact wrinkles Moore will employ, like more motion, greater deception, etc. As team drills ramp up this week, perhaps we’ll get a better clue.
Green Bay Packers
Marquez Valdes-Scantling becoming second-fiddle to Davante Adams? The Packers desperately need at least one pass-catcher to step up to supplement Adams’ dynamic ability (and take advantage of favorable coverage). Thus far during offseason workouts, MVS has been the young receiver getting most of the praise from Aaron Rodgers and the new coaching staff. This week is another opportunity for the second-year wideout to prove he’s ready for an escalated role. Matt LaFleur’s offense should open up opportunities for pass-catchers other than Adams to excel. First, they need one to break out. Will Valdes-Scantling be that man, or will another outshine him as we head toward training camp?
Offensive line makeover on track? The off-field front-office drama will be front-and-center this week, but let’s keep our eyes on the field. We know Jadeveon Clowney, who has not signed his franchise tag yet, will skip minicamp, so let’s focus on the offensive line. Houston used a first and second-round pick on the line to hopefully stem the rushing tide that swallows Deshaun Watson. Will Tytus Howard and Max Scharping finally be the answer? Will they be ready Week 1? Team drills this week should give us an indication where the coaching staff sees this group.
How is the receiving corps shaping up? Andrew Luck might sit out until training camp with a calf injury. If the QB is sidelined, we’ll need to look elsewhere. The receiving corps in Indy is shaping up to be an interesting unit. Devin Funchess’ usage is one to track as we expect him to play a big-slot role in Indy. I also want to see where rookie Parris Campbell fits in opposite T.Y. Hilton. Colts coaches gushed about the Ohio State speedster after the draft. If he proves a quick study, Indy could boast more speed than Top Gun. Also keep an ear out for Deon Cain, who impressed last offseason before tearing his ACL in the preseason.
What does the Jags D look like without key pieces: Linebacker Telvin Smith decided to sit out 2019. Now pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue will sit out minicamp in a contract dispute. Without two of their best defenders, what will the once-dominant Jags D look like on the field this week? Ngakoue’s decision to hold out is an interesting one. The former third-round pick is woefully underpaid in relation to his production, and the Jags would be lost without him on the field. He currently holds leverage and is underscoring that by staying away. If the Jags aren’t willing to bend on a contract, will he stay away even longer and allow the situation to fester? After potentially finally finding an answer under center in Nick Foles, is the defense now deteriorating?
Kansas City Chiefs
How will the offense look without Tyreek Hill? The receiver will remain away as the league awaits his domestic situation to play out. Without the speedster on the field, how will the K.C. receiving corps look? Underscored by the expectation that Travis Kelce will sit after offseason ankle surgery, Patrick Mahomes will be utilizing some young wideouts. Sammy Watkins looks like the No. 1 on paper, but can rookie speedster Mecole Hardman step in off the bat? Will youngsters Byron Pringle and Gehrig Dieter see an opening and show the coaches they deserve more playing time?
Los Angeles Chargers
How does Melvin Gordon look? The running back skipped voluntary workouts but reported for mandatory duty this week. After finishing the season obviously hindered by knee injuries, the running back’s status will be one to follow. The Chargers weren’t the same potent offense when Gordon was hobbled. L.A. needs the workhorse at full speed come September. Expect the Chargers to take it easy with their running back this week, as it’s his first reps with the team this offseason, but the condition of his knees and body will tell what to expect next month in training camp. There is also the issue of Gordon’s contract extension, as he enters the final year of his deal. Both the running back and team probably want to ensure he’s fully healthy before any long-term deal gets done.
Los Angeles Rams
Is Todd Gurley going to do anything? Gurley and his knee will be a headline at least until 2020, if not longer. Get used to it. Will the dynamic back participate at all during minicamp, or will the team continue to keep him on the sidelines, working privately with trainers. The team’s statements about Gurley’s injury belie their actions thus far during the offseason. If we don’t see Gurley at all this week during team drills, expect more assumptions to be made about his usage in 2019.
What does Gary Kubiak’s influence on the offense look like? With Kyle Rudolph’s extension on the eve of minicamp, one looming question was answered. Now we turn our attention to the tweaks on offense under new full-time coordinator Kevin Stefanski and offensive assistant Gary Kubiak. We expect that Kubiak brought with him the zone blocking plan that has been so successful elsewhere. Add in the addition of first-round pick Garrett Bradbury — the perfect, athletic center for the scheme — and the Vikings’ run game should immediately be upgraded around Dalvin Cook. While minicamp isn’t the best place to judge a run game given the lack of contact, keeping an eye on schematic changes can give us a clue of the offseason tweaks, how the parts mesh, and what to look for during training camp in July.
New Orleans Saints
Will the Saints finally find a second-fiddle to Michael Thomas? Thus far, the Saints have rolled snake eyes each time they’ve tried to find a reliable No. 2 receiver. Heck, the Dez Bryant signing last season didn’t last two full practices. Will that role fall fully to tight end Jared Cook? Or will one of the youngsters step up? Tre’Quan Smith showed flashes last season, as did Keith Kirkwood, but neither was consistent enough. Austin Carr is a slot dart. And Cameron Meredith hasn’t recovered from knee issues, took a pay cut this offseason, and has been sidelined with injury thus far this offseason. Will Meredith even participate in minicamp? Will anyone step up, or will it be the Thomas and Cook show in 2019?
Derek Carr’s new weapons gelling: The Raiders resisted a QB change and instead spent their money to improve Carr’s situation. On paper, the offensive line looks better, if not still untested. The receiving corps is vastly improved with Antonio Brown, Tyrell Williams, J.J. Nelson and rookie Hunter Renfrow. Rookie running back Josh Jacobs is a dual-threat athlete. Coaches have also talked up tight end Darren Waller as a potential break-out candidate to replace Jared Cook. Now it’s Carr’s job to make all the pieces fit. Minicamp is a chance to continue to build chemistry before a pivotal season starts for the quarterback.
How is the RB rotation shaping up? Rookie running back Miles Sanders was sidelined during OTAs with a hamstring tweak. The Eagles could continue to be cautious with the soft tissue injury. If the rookie does participate, his spot in the rotation will be one to monitor. The Eagles brass has talked up Jordan Howard this offseason, but despite praise of his pass-catching ability, the former Bear remains an early-down back. There will be snaps to battle for between Howard, Sanders, Corey Clement, Wendell Smallwood, Josh Adams, Boston Scott, and Donnel Pumphrey. Minicamp will help set the stage for the roster battle to come in training camp.
How will the Steelers replace Antonio Brown’s production? The Steelers might have rid themselves of a headache with the AB trade, but they also gave away a player who averaged 114 receptions for 1,524 yards and 11 TDs over the past six seasons. JuJu Smith-Schuster sits as the obvious No. 1 target, but how will the rest of the depth chart shake out? James Washington struggled as a rookie. He’s received positive reviews during the offseason thus far, but can he become a consistent force? Ryan Switzer is a slot receiver with limited production. Eli Rogers has an injury history and is coming off a season with just 12 catches. Donte Moncrief owns physical attributes but has never been consistent. Perhaps third-rounder Diontae Johnson can steal the show and be the latest mid-round receiver pick for the Steelers to hit it big. We won’t know how the Steelers WR corps will shake out until we see more team-rep periods.
San Francisco 49ers
Where is Jimmy G in his rehab? The 49ers haven’t allowed Jimmy Garoppolo to participate in team drills yet as he makes his way back from an ACL tear. They might hold him out this week as well and wait for training camp to test drive their starting QB. Make no mistake, Garoppolo’s progress is the biggest key to the Niners success this season. Kyle Shanahan has enough weapons on offense. The front-seven on defense boasts talent to game-wreck. The 49ers are talented enough to finally make a leap in the NFC West if they can stay healthy. The most important health status is that of the QB.
Which of the young receivers will gain Russell Wilson’s trust? Tyler Lockett is the only receiver you can pencil in for reliability. All eyes are on second-round rookie D.K. Metcalf and fourth-rounder Gary Jennings. Will either player stand out during team drills? Third-year pro David Moore showed flashes last season but wasn’t consistent. Will Moore become an offseason darling and turn that hype into steady production this time around? This week will give us an indication of how the coaching staff views each of the young targets heading into training camp.
What does the offense look like under new coordinator Arthur Smith? Little is discussed about the Titans turning to a tight ends coach as the new play-caller after Matt LaFleur left for Green Bay. We know the Titans want to pound the ball more with Derrick Henry, but beyond that we know little about the general makeup of Tennessee’s offense. The three-day minicamp should give us a better indication of how Smith will utilize a newcomer like Adam Humphries, how Corey Davis looks in Year 3, and what to expect from Marcus Mariota entering his pivotal season.
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