NFLTR Review: Which Camp Narratives Should You Buy? 

What’s fluff and what’s real so far during training camp? We try to answer this week in NFLTR Review: 

  • Retirements, brawls and injuries. What’s going on with the Giants?
  • Should the Bengals be worried about a slow start? 
  • What to make of the 49ers’ QB situation? 

Buy or Sell? Training Camp Narratives

The Giants are in trouble

Sometimes camp narratives are a harbinger of things to come. Other times they fizzle out into nothing. Any time there’s a consistent drumbeat, though, it’s an indication that there might be real substance to what you’re hearing coming out of camp. 

When it comes to the Giants, the drumbeat has not been good. In fact, there hasn’t been much good news at all coming out of New York. A non-exhaustive list of happenings in the Meadowlands this month: 

  • A brawl involving the entire team in which QB Daniel Jones ended up at the bottom of the pile
  • Four players retiring in the middle of camp, at least one of whom said openly it was because of HC Joe Judge
  • Big-money free-agent WR Kenny Golladay hurting his hamstring, and before that struggling to establish a rapport with Jones
  • First-round WR Kadarius Toney seemingly finding new ways to miss practice each week, whether it’s the COVID-19 list or cleats that don’t fit
  • Star RB Saquon Barkley — their best offensive player — potentially being out until Week 3, though he did return to practice this week

Now in isolation, none of these things will individually submarine the Giants. Taken in totality, though, there is a lot of negativity surrounding this team as it enters a season that’s kind of a big deal. 

2021 will have massive implications for the futures of guys like Jones and GM Dave Gettleman in New York. The Giants expect to take a step forward in Judge’s second year in the program and went on a spending spree in free agency to plug holes all across the roster. If it all doesn’t come together in a satisfactory way, it will cost people jobs. 

Judge made headlines at about this time last year for his old school methods, including penalty laps for players who made mistakes in practice. It’s straight out of the Bill Belichick playbook, which hasn’t really worked for any of his understudies anywhere else besides New England. Still, the players, with a few notable exceptions, seemed to buy in last year and finished the season strong. So far during camp, team leaders like Jones, WR Sterling Shepard and DB Logan Ryan have backed Judge wholeheartedly. 

However, if Judge’s methods don’t get results — and that means wins — that buy-in from players won’t be as strong. And there are enough signs in training camp that consistently getting wins might be a problem for the Giants this year. 

The Bengals offense might not be as good as everyone thinks

Entering 2020, there’s a lot of excitement surrounding the Bengals offense. 2020 No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow looked impressive as a rookie and the Bengals have a group of skill-position talent that’s among the best in the league, including RB Joe Mixon and Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and this year’s first-round pick, Ja’Marr Chase, at wide receiver. 

There are a few crucial stumbling blocks that threaten to derail the hype train, however, and we’ve seen those during training camp. Burrow’s first season was cut short by a brutal knee injury, and while he’s back at practice and on track to play Week 1, it doesn’t look like he’s back from the injury quite yet. 

It can take players a full year and sometimes longer to completely trust the surgically repaired knee in a game. Burrow’s legs aren’t as critical a component of his game as someone like Kyler Murray, but he did lean on them quite a bit to bail him out of jams as a rookie. He could be more confined to the pocket in 2021, at least early on. 

If that’s the case, Cincinnati’s issues on the offensive line offer another layer of bad news. The team hoped bringing back OL coach Frank Pollack would help guys like LT Jonah Williams, G Michael Jordan and G Quinton Spain develop and play to their potential, with major new additions including RT Riley Reiff and second-round G Jackson Carman. However, the line has struggled some during camp and the depth has been tested with Reiff out. Carman has yet to seize a hold of a starting job as well. If the line doesn’t improve, it’ll exacerbate the issues surrounding Burrow’s knee. 

Will the receiving corps be able to get open quickly enough to make up for things if the offensive line is bad? So far, the early returns on that have been shaky. Chase has had some issues separating and has dealt with a bout of the drops. While the Bengals might eventually be able to put things together, so far this doesn’t feel like an offense that’s going to come roaring out of the gates. 

Elijah Moore is a budding star

There might not be a bigger training camp star in the league than Jets second-round WR Elijah Moore. The praise for him has consistently flowed since his first practice with the team. Beat reporters are running out of ways to describe how dominant Moore has been in practices with the team, and some have said he already looks like the best player — let alone rookie — on the team. 

Whether it’s behind the scenes or in press conferences, Jets coaches can’t help but rave about the second-round rookie as well. The talent is obvious, but Moore’s professional approach has endeared him as well. Jets HC Robert Saleh called him an “old soul.”

“The amount of time that guy puts into it — he wants to be as good as he can possibly be,” Jets OC Mike LaFleur said via the Athletic’s Connor Hughes. “He’s ultra prepared. He knows what he’s doing. He’s extremely detailed. That’s what’s cool about him — when he makes a mistake or doesn’t know what he’s doing, he just flat out doesn’t know what he’s doing. It’s not because he made that mistake the day before or two days before. He rarely makes the same mistake, if ever.”

Now, we obviously haven’t even seen Moore in a preseason game yet, so some pumping of the brakes is required here. Wide receiver is an incredibly tough position to transition to the NFL from college, and even if Moore is ahead of the game, we should still expect him to look like a rookie at times. Especially when he’s not going up against a Jets secondary where the top two corners are Blessuan Austin and Bryce Hall

Still, it’s pretty obvious the Jets have a really good, potentially special, player on their hands. 

Trey Lance is pushing, hard, to start Week 1

Apparently 49ers HC Kyle Shanahan had so much fun playing coy during the pre-draft process about the quarterback position that he decided to keep it up with the starting job competition. I kid, somewhat. Shanahan has been fairly consistent with his messaging that Jimmy Garoppolo is the starter and first-round selection Trey Lance would have to be a pretty special rookie to change that. 

The thing is, Lance has shown so far during camp that he just might be that dude. He’s consistently wowed, not just with his arm but with his maturity and command of what is a complicated system. His physical gifts are off the charts and he changes the entire nature of the offense. Garoppolo isn’t a threat to keep the ball on a zone read and race 50 yards for a touchdown if you lose contain. 

Everyone is sensitive to Garoppolo, but players have had a hard time keeping a lid on their excitement about Lance. USA Today’s Doug Farrar, a Seattle-based writer who’s covered the league for more than a decade, says the parallels between when Russell Wilson instantly won over the Seahawks are hard to ignore. The train for Lance starting is picking up steam and it’s getting harder and harder not to see Garoppolo being collateral damage. 

It’s a little interesting to see how Shanahan’s tone has changed the more he sees from Lance. He went from dismissing the idea of Lance starting Week 1 to now discussing the idea of a platoon between the two, both to take advantage of Lance’s mobility and perhaps to give himself a door to put him in the lineup permanently. 

I do believe Shanahan when he says he doesn’t plan to cut Garoppolo and would only trade him if he got a major return (which is unlikely). And his rationale for having Garoppolo as the incumbent does make some sense, as no rookie quarterback has even made it to the Super Bowl. Garoppolo has, and San Francisco is 22-8 with him as the starter. 

Still, Lance has been too good and San Francisco has invested too much in him as the future of the franchise. If he’s ready, he’ll play. It’s looking more and more like that will be Week 1. 

Tua the gunslinger

Last year, it was clear the Dolphins never took the training wheels off QB Tua Tagovailoa. His intended air yards per attempt (courtesy of Pro Football Reference) ranked just 28th out of 41 qualifying passers in 2020. He completed just 10 of 29 attempts of 20+ yards down the field, while his deep ball attempt rate was 29th out of 39 qualifiers, per Pro Football Focus

That’s changed during training camp. It’s been bombs away for Tagovailoa and the Dolphins offense. He’s regularly hit deep completions to a varying cast of targets and teammates have raved about how much more confident he looks. 

Miami made it a point to add more speed around Tagovailoa on offense this offseason, and while free-agent addition Will Fuller remains out with an injury, 2020 opt-out Albert Wilson has been an unexpectedly pleasant surprise. Between them and first-round rookie Jaylen Waddle, plus holdovers DeVante Parker, Preston Williams and Jakeem Grant, Miami’s receiving corps looks significantly better than it was a year ago. 

Tagovailoa and the Dolphins still have to carry this momentum over to when the games start to count. On paper, Miami’s defense is supposed to be pretty good but they’ve been largely without star CB Xavien Howard. It’s impossible not to feel encouraged by the reports of Tagovailoa’s progress so far, though. We might get to see this year the star everyone thought we’d see coming out of Alabama. 

This Week In Football

  • Thirteen months ago, Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes signed what at the time looked like a gargantuan deal worth $45 million per year, $10 million over the previous bar at the position. Smart observers pointed out, however, that it wouldn’t take long for that deal to look like a bargain. Three quarterbacks have now signed major extensions — Deshaun Watson ($39M), Dak Prescott ($40M) and now Josh Allen ($43M) — to nearly close the gap with Mahomes. Allen’s six-year, $258 million pact is the latest. Even if Allen has just one season of the kind of production needed to justify this deal, he looked like the real deal this past season, winning over me and many more skeptics. He still has kinks in his game to work out but that’s all they are. From Buffalo’s perspective, this deal doesn’t get heavy until 2023 whe the cap should be well on its way to rising again. Win-win for both sides. 
  • Allen wasn’t the only player to get big money. The Colts finalized a deal with LB Darius Leonard that makes him the highest-paid off-ball linebacker of all time. The five-year, $99 million deal puts Leonard just shy of the $20 million a year mark, with more than half of that figure guaranteed for at least injury. Leonard might not be as good in coverage as 49ers LB Fred Warner but he’s been a stat-sheet stuffer with impact plays since arriving in Indianapolis. 
  • Miami ended the months-long saga with CB Xavien Howard, as the two sides were able to reach a financial compromise. Howard got more incentives this year, guarantees this year and next year and “assurances” from the Dolphins they would look at his deal again next year. That’s worth filing away in the back of your mind as another potential flashpoint but for now, Howard is happy and on board in Miami. Which is great news for a Dolphins team that has high hopes for the season. 
  • In what’s turning into a weekly update of As The Deshaun Turn, the latest on Texans QB Deshaun Watson is that Houston is actually not in any rush to dump him. Two weeks ago, all signals were that the Texans were ready to make a trade and cut ties with their controversial star quarterback, but now the word is that the Texans haven’t given up hope on wooing him back. The obvious takeaway from reading between those lines is the Texans feel like they’ve been lowballed. Watson’s ongoing legal situation means no team can justify making a huge investment until there’s a resolution to the 22 cases of sexual impropriety he faces in civil court. The Texans feel like they can’t trade him until they get a package that justifies it. So for now, everyone waits. 
  • Whenever regimes change in the NFL, there’s collateral damage as the new coach or general manager brings in “their guys” which necessitates sending the holdovers packing. That’s essentially what happened when Jacksonville traded LB Joe Schobert to the Steelers as Pittsburgh was in the middle of a game Thursday night. He solves a hole Pittsburgh had at inside linebacker and probably came fairly cheap, so it’s a solid move for the Steelers. It’s not a cheap move for Jacksonville, as a year after signing Schobert to a five-year, $53.75 million deal, they cut bait after paying $15-plus million for one season. 
  • Teams are willing to take a value bath like that sometimes to get their guys. Even so, it’s still odd to see someone like Jaguars CB C.J. Henderson, a top-ten pick just last year, already rumored to be on the trade block. It puts all the attention Jacksonville paid to the position this offseason in perspective as more than just taking the phrase “you can never have too many corners” literally. If Jacksonville wants to move Henderson, they’ll have a market. The Saints have expressed interest, as they were in need of a boost even before Patrick Robinson abruptly retired on Tuesday. 
  • Speculation naturally turned to whether the Jaguars would be interested in swapping Henderson for WR Michael Thomas, whose relationship with the team was the subject of additional scrutiny this week. After a turbulent 2020 season when Thomas dealt with injuries and conflicts with both teammates and coaches, Saints HC Sean Payton made a pointed comment in a press conference regarding Thomas not getting surgery on his ankle soon enough this offseason. Thomas responded with a tweet clearly aimed at the team, setting off a wave of trade speculation. However, the two sides appear motivated to hash things out rather than pursue a trade, which makes sense when you remember New Orleans would be stuck with $8.9 million in dead money this year and $22.7 million next year if they traded Thomas. 
  • Talks appear to have stalled with a pair of safeties who are candidates to reset the market at the position. The Bengals and Jessie Bates are no longer making progress in negotiations and at this point it appears Bates will play out his contract year. He’s a very good safety even if he’s not a household name, so it would be interesting to know where each side had his value pegged. Broncos S Justin Simmons leads the market at $15.2 million. Cincinnati will have the franchise tag to fall back on next offseason which will probably be in the range of $13-$14 million. Meanwhile, the Seahawks and Jamal Adams have also hit a roadblock. Adams isn’t holding out of camp but he isn’t practicing either. The two sides appear to have the general parameters of a deal worked out at $17.5 million a year but are stuck on about a $2 million difference in guaranteed money. After giving up two first-round picks to acquire Adams, the Seahawks basically have no choice but to get this deal done.

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