The NFL is almost back. Did it ever really go away?
The 2020 season moves a step closer this week as veteran players become the final batch to report for training camp on Tuesday, following on from the arrival of rookies, quarterbacks and injured players last week.
- NFL roster sizes cut, pre-season cancelled
- Giants, Jets to play without fans at MetLife Stadium
- NFL: Fans must wear face masks
It promises to be training camp like never before as players, coaches and other relevant personnel are greeted by health and safety measures designed to protect them amid the coronavirus pandemic. That means daily testing for at least the first two weeks, limits on capacity in gyms and meeting rooms and a reduced roster size.
With pre-season cancelled, training camp awaits as the sole opportunity for rookies to catch the eye and new head coaches to put months of virtual meetings into practice. And let’s not forget the training camp battles after a dramatic off-season of trade and free agency business.
We examine some of the things to look out for…
Tight ends in Tampa Bay
Where better to start than in Tampa Bay? Stage to both the biggest story in free agency and, come February, Super Bowl LV.
Quarterback Tom Brady is greeted by a contrasting situation at tight end after a 2019 season in New England that saw Ben Watson lead the position group in receiving yards.
Rob Gronkowski has come out of retirement to team up with his old friend, with the pair currently fifth on the list of most prolific touchdown combinations in NFL history.
O.J. Howard, a first-round pick in 2017, is meanwhile still striving to assert himself as a recognised weapon after recording just one touchdown catch last year and there is also the added veteran experience of Cameron Brate. The trio’s combined skill-set makes for an intriguing battle at camp.
Do not be surprised to see lots of 12 and 13 personnel packages for the Buccaneers in 2020.
Niners need playmakers
If the Super Bowl hangover is real, last season’s NFC champs have already got a head start.
Emmanuel Sanders had already left San Francisco for New Orleans in free agency when rookie standout Deebo Samuel suffered a broken foot while working out in June. In early July, running back Raheem Mostert requested a trade unless his salary increases.
The question is: who will step up if both are absent? Will rookie receiver Brandon Aiyuk be ready to play straight away? Or will San Francisco have to trot out a not-so-ideal trio of Kendrick Bourne, Dante Pettis, and Jalen Hurd in Week One?
Similarly, oft-injured vets Tevin Coleman and Jerick McKinnon will be battling it out if Mostert is not around. The 49ers may need to show their depth.
An RB battle in Denver
The Denver Broncos appeared to buy into the increasingly common ‘one-one’ running back punch this off-season as they acquired former Los Angeles Chargers Pro Bowler Melvin Gordon on a two-year, $16m deal.
He enters the backfield alongside undrafted success story Phillip Lindsay, who has produced consecutive 1,000 yard rushing seasons since going overlooked through seven rounds in 2017.
While Lindsay looks to provide further evidence as to why he warrants a new deal further down the line, Gordon will be working to rediscover the 2017 form that amounted to a career 1,105 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in his only ever 16-game season.
Beneath the pair, third-year back Royce Freeman and 2020 undrafted free agent LeVante Bellamy will likely be competing for the third running back job.
Is Cam guaranteed to start?
It made all the headlines. It was all we talked about for a few days. But realistically, will Cam Newton be the man to replace Tom Brady and help the Patriots immediately compete again? Or will Jarrett Stidham – who spent most of the summer as the presumed starter – impress with his growth and knowledge of the system?
It is certainly Newton’s job to lose. He is a former first overall pick and NFL MVP while Stidham is a fourth-rounder who has thrown four passes as a pro (and had one of those returned for a touchdown).
That said, Newton has regressed since his supreme 2015 season. Multiple injuries, a dip in production, and no playoff wins since then left him unwanted by the rest of the league. While we expect to see ‘Superman’, Stidham could give him a run for his money.
Who is Deshaun Watson’s new go-to guy?
In the strangest move of the summer, the Houston Texans shipped off four-time All-Pro and Pro Bowler DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona, with running back David Johnson coming the other way.
Since quarterback Watson became a Texan, Hopkins had accumulated 315 receptions, 4,115 yards and 31 touchdowns and was the clear No 1 option. In fact, he was targeted more than twice as many times (150) as second option Will Fuller was last season (71).
The wideout depth chart now seems bare. Fuller and new addition Brandin Cooks are speedsters, Kenny Stills has never been a top option, and Randall Cobb mostly plays underneath. The variety is there, but do they have the talent?
In his best season with the Cardinals (2016), Johnson amassed a huge 120 targets on the way to 80 catches and 879 yards through the air, so if healthy he will be a safety net for Watson, but the team needs receivers to win on the outside. Who will step up?
Pressure on for Trubisky
By now Mitchell Trubisky will be used to the constant scrutiny as the quarterback the Chicago Bears drafted ahead of Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson.
The No 2 overall pick from 2017 will have a Super Bowl winner in Nick Foles breathing down his neck this summer after he and his mammoth contract were traded by the Jacksonville Jaguars this off-season in exchange for a compensatory fourth-round pick.
Trubisky had impressed in 2018 as he threw for 3,223 yards, 24 touchdowns and 12 interceptions while showcasing his ability on the ground with 421 rushing yards for three scores. He was unable to build on that last season, finishing with 3,138 yards for 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, with his rushing yards dropping to 193 as the Bears ended 8-8.
This season may well be Trubisky’s last chance to prove he can be a long-term option in Chicago after the organisation declined his fifth year option in May. Bears general manager Ryan Pace stated in April that it would be an ‘open competition’ between Trubisky and Foles for the starting job.
Who will step up in Green Bay?
For the past two seasons, Aaron Rodgers has been extremely efficient – with 51 touchdowns to just six picks. However, it feels like a far cry from the early 2000s in which he was both efficient and aggressive.
He had Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, while James Jones was a solid option. Greg Jennings and Donald Driver featured in Rodgers’ early years. He thrived with talented receivers around him.
In 2019 and 2018? Outside of Davante Adams and his combined 296 targets, 194 catches, 2,383 yards and 18 touchdowns, who has there been to throw to? Rodgers has looked to a washed-up Jimmy Graham and combination of dart-throws.
Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Allen Lazard, Equanimeous St. Brown certainly do not strike fear into opponents, but they are all the Packers have right now. Devin Funchess was brought in during free agency, but he has underwhelmed in his five-year career so far. Which of these players will help Rodgers ‘air it out’ this year, or are those days gone?
Matt Rhule’s defensive overhaul
Rookie head coach Matt Rhule is among those who would have benefited most from a conventional off-season as he looks to shape his Carolina Panthers team.
The Panthers used all seven of their Draft picks on defensive players in April after seeing seven-time Pro Bowler Luke Kuechly retire and the likes of Mario Addison, Vernon Butler, Gerald McCoy, Bruce Irvin, Dontari Poe and James Bradberry all move on to other teams.
They leave behind a group of young defensive linemen with the opportunity to step up as leaders, giving first-round pick Derrick Brown and second-round defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos a chance to make an immediate impact.
It also opens the door to Efe Obada to increase his involvement, with Rhule said to be “really, really high” on the International Player Pathway product.
Will the rookie quarterbacks make an immediate impact?
Every summer, claims are made about whether rookie quarterbacks are ‘pro-ready’ or ‘too raw’ to be thrown straight in.
The situation sometimes determine if they are Week One starters but often, rookies come in and are simply too impressive to ignore. Russell Wilson immediately ousted free-agent signee Matt Flynn. The Eagles traded starter Sam Bradford when they saw Carson Wentz in the flesh. It took the Texans half a game to put Deshaun Watson in.
This year, while Joe Burrow has zero competition for the starting role in Cincinnati (sorry, Ryan Finley), both Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert are expected to begin behind veterans Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tyrod Taylor. How long will that last?
Tagovailoa, absent of an injury, is regarded as one of the most talented prospects in recent college football history while Herbert will ultimately be the man to replace Philip Rivers. Why wait?
A hidden star?
With pre-season cancelled and training camp rosters set to be reduced from 90 players to 80, it might have never been more difficult for undrafted free agents to make themselves heard. But that promises to make any breakthrough story all the more fascinating.
Victor Cruz is a prime example of why training camp can be a special period having going undrafted in 2010 before winning his place on the New York Giants’ roster and going on to help the team win a Super Bowl. The Broncos’ Phillip Lindsay himself is another beacon of hope, as are former Super Bowl champions Chris Harris Jr and Michael Bennett.
Who can shine? Who can make a name for themselves?
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