Highlighting the Latest Buzz Around Every NFL Team Heading into Training Camp
If you're getting anxious for NFL players to strap on the pads and start playing football, the wait is almost over. Training camps are set to begin throughout the league next week, and all 32 teams will be buckling down in their preparation for their preseason and regular-season games.
Once training camp begins, fans of every franchise will be able to see a clearer picture of what teams will look like in 2014. Each depth chart is still to be determined by position battles that will, in many cases, be decided based upon what happens in practices this summer.
As training camp leads into exhibition games and toward the contests that matter, there will be many evaluations to be made based upon which players stand out, who disappoints and where injuries strike.
Until then, hype for the upcoming season is mostly speculation and projection, but most of that is rooted in precedent, whether that be what veteran players have demonstrated in previous season or how young players performed in offseason workouts and in their collegiate days.
For now, every team in the NFL is tied at 0-0, and there's reason for everyone in the league to have excitement.
Arizona Cardinals: Rob Housler Plummeting Down Tight End Depth Chart
Many expected the 2013 season, Rob Housler's third in the NFL, to be a breakout year for the athletic Arizona Cardinals tight end. He failed to meet expectations, catching just 39 passes for 454 yards and one touchdown in 13 games.
Hype around Housler has always been about potential and not production, even when he was a collegiate prospect coming out of Florida Atlantic, but it would be hard to blame the Cardinals if they're ready to give up on him. He's a flex tight end who isn't much of a blocker, yet he has not had any significant production as a pass-catcher.
According to ESPN.com's Josh Weinfuss, Housler appears to be "sitting at No. 4 right now behind John Carlson, Jake Ballard and rookie Troy Niklas" on the Cardinals' tight end depth chart.
"He's just not the type of tight end head coach Bruce Arians prefers," Weinfuss wrote Saturday. "Arians may have inherited Housler, who's in the final year of his rookie contract, but that doesn't mean he has to keep him."
Carlson "impressed the most during organized team activities and minicamp" among the Arizona tight ends, according to Weinfuss, while Ballard and Niklas are big tight ends who are strong in-line blockers but also reliable pass-catching targets over the middle.
Arians and general manager Steve Keim weren't running the show in Arizona when Housler was a third-round pick in the 2011 NFL draft, so they shouldn't feel much pressure to keep him if he fails to perform. Unless he can stand out in training camp and move up the depth chart, he's a likely candidate for trade or release.
Atlanta Falcons: Devonta Freeman Could Push for Feature Back Role
Running back is a position where rookies, even those selected in later rounds, are expected to be able to contribute right away. So it shouldn't come as a surprise if Devonta Freeman sees immediate playing time in the Atlanta Falcons backfield, despite the Florida State product's fall to the fourth round of this year's draft.
Freeman is a short back at just 5'8" and 206 pounds, but he hits holes hard, runs tough between the tackles and shifts with good quickness. Coming off a productive three-year career for the Seminoles, he could emerge as Atlanta's best running back, and potentially lead the depth chart, in 2014.
With 10,681 yards and 62 touchdowns in 10 seasons, Steven Jackson has been the most consistent, reliable tailback of the past decade. That said, the soon-to-be 31-year-old ball-carrier started to show his age last season—his first with the Falcons—when he averaged a career-low 3.5 yards per attempt and finished the season with just 543 yards on the ground.
As recent history has shown a clear trend of running back performances declining once a player at the position enters his 30s, it's likely that Jackson's best years are behind him. Meanwhile, Freeman was impressive in offseason workouts, according to ESPN.com's Vaughn McClure.
"If he [Freeman] looks as good in pads as he did in shorts, Jackson might have a battle on his hands," McClure wrote.
Baltimore Ravens: Bernard Pierce Expected to Open Season as No. 1 Running Back
The Baltimore Ravens had the NFL's worst yards per rushing attempt average (3.1) last season, and a disappointing sophomore year for Bernard Pierce was a big reason why. Despite carrying the ball 44 more times in 2013 than he had as a rookie, his 436 rushing yards were actually 96 fewer than he had in 2012.
The big tailback didn't show much explosiveness last year, but the Temple product will be expected to bounce back in 2014. Jeff Zrebiec of The Baltimore Sun calls Pierce "the obvious favorite to carry the load" at the start of the season, as Ravens lead running back Ray Rice is expected to be suspended for multiple games following his indictment on domestic violence charges this offseason.
Poor play by the running backs wasn't the only reason the Ravens struggled on the ground last year, as their offensive line was unable to provide a consistent push up front, but Pierce has to play better to keep the starting role, even in a fill-in capacity. He hasn't shown much ability in pass protection or as a receiver out of the backfield, while he has failed to assert his size to consistently break tackles for bigger gains.
Part of the reason Pierce is considered a shoo-in for that role is that Baltimore has limited talent at the position. Still, there's little reason fourth-round pick Lorenzo Taliaferro and veteran Justin Forsett shouldn't get a legitimate shot at forging ahead of Pierce on the depth chart, considering Pierce's lack of success in 2013.
Regardless of who's toting the rock at various points throughout the season, Baltimore must have better production from its rushers to get its offense back on track.
Buffalo Bills: Preston Brown Could Fill Kiko Alonso's Place in Lineup
Buffalo Bills training camp will be the first in the league to open when the team holds its opening practice of the summer session at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford, New York, on Sunday. The biggest story going into that camp is, quite significantly, the team's task to replace Kiko Alonso. The star of the Bills' linebacker corps recently suffered a season-ending ACL tear.
There is no linebacker on the Bills roster with the range, coverage ability and all-around skill set that Alonso has. The team shouldn't expect one player alone to be able to handle the full responsibilities of Alonso, who played every defensive snap for the Bills in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
With that being said, the Bills must determine in training camp and the preseason who is the most adept player on their team to fill Alonso's shoes at weak-side linebacker, the position he was set to play in the Bills' 4-3 defense in 2014, even though he worked as a middle linebacker in the 3-4 scheme in 2013.
That player, according to Tim Graham of The Buffalo News, could be rookie Preston Brown, who Buffalo selected out of Louisville in the third round of this year’s draft. Brown "was outstanding at the team's voluntary workouts and minicamp," according to Graham, and worked with the first-team defense in nickel packages in spring practices.
Brown isn't nearly as athletic as Alonso, and he projects more ideally inside than he does outside. But while Nigel Bradham and Ty Powell have more demonstrated athleticism and coverage ability, neither has been more than a role player thus far in his NFL career.
Whether Brown ultimately takes a starting spot alongside Brandon Spikes and Keith Rivers in Buffalo's base defense will depend on how well he performs in training camp. At the least, he’ll likely play in a rotational role, and there's no reason he shouldn't get every opportunity to beat out Bradham and Powell for the job.
Carolina Panthers: Wide Receivers Need to Step Up This Summer
There isn't much familiarity between the quarterback and his receivers in the Carolina Panthers passing offense. While Cam Newton is back as one of the league's most talented young quarterbacks, he has a brand-new set of wideouts, as Carolina's top four wide receivers from last season are all with new teams for 2014.
Making matters worse, Newton was limited in spring practices after undergoing offseason ankle surgery. Newton, his backup quarterbacks and his new receivers will try to catch up by meeting for throwing sessions this week prior to the start of training camp, according to USA Today's Tom Pelissero.
Despite that, it could be a long road ahead for Carolina's receivers this summer.
Jerricho Cotchery is likely to be the Panthers' No. 1 wideout. The 10-year veteran is coming off a solid season with the Pittsburgh Steelers in which he caught 46 passes, including 10 touchdowns, for 602 yards. He doesn't fit the standards of a typical receiver at the top of an NFL depth chart, but he's the most experienced and well-rounded player Carolina has at the position.
Opposite him, the starter could be one of two other veteran free agent-additions, Jason Avant or Tiquan Underwood, or a rookie in first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin. Benjamin, a 6'5" target out of Florida State, is a massive pass-catcher who has the most upside of any receiver on the team, but he is somewhat unpolished and must develop quickly this summer.
To this point, it remains unclear how the Carolina receivers will stack up this season. It will certainly be a focal point of training camp coverage for those who cover the team, and the picture will start to emerge in the preseason.
Chicago Bears: QB Jay Cutler Making 'Incredible Progress' This Offseason
The Chicago Bears have no doubt that Jay Cutler is the right man to lead their offense. They made that clear this offseason when they signed Cutler to a seven-year contract in which his first three years of salary—totaling $54 million—are guaranteed.
Many have questioned that investment. Cutler hasn't proved himself to be a championship-caliber quarterback in the first eight seasons of his career, and when he missed five games due to injury last season, fill-in starter Josh McCown played better than Cutler had.
With that being said, Cutler still has some of the best physical tools among all NFL quarterback. It's possible the rocket-armed gunslinger's best football is still in front of him, and he has made "incredible progress" this offseason, according to Bears quarterback coach Matt Cavanaugh.
"Every little fundamental we've talked to him about, he's embraced, and it's like night and day," Cavanaugh said of Cutler, according to CSNChicago.com's Chris Boden.
Cutler had a career-best 89.2 quarterback rating in 2013 and will come back this season with a year of familiarity working with Cavanaugh, head coach Marc Trestman and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer. Trestman has a long history of successfully developing quarterbacks; if Cutler can stay healthy in 2014 and continue to improve, the Bears will be serious playoff contenders in the NFC.
Cincinnati Bengals: Andy Dalton Playing for a Long-Term Contract
In June, NFL Media's Ian Rapoport (h/t Kevin Patra of NFL.com) reported progress was being made toward a long-term extension for Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, who is entering the final season of his rookie contract. To this point, however, no deal has been agreed upon.
There's still time for there to be an agreement before or during training camp, but it seems increasingly likely that if Dalton wants a lucrative long-term deal, he'll have to earn it with improved performance in 2014.
Bengals owner Mike Brown was noncommittal about re-signing Dalton in a March interview with Paul Dehner Jr. of Cincinnati.com. He should be. The Bengals have been knocked out in the first round of the playoffs in three consecutive years, and struggles from Dalton—he has thrown six combined interceptions in those three losses—have been in large part to blame.
Other members of the Bengals organization, however, have thrown their support behind the fourth-year signal-caller.
Cincinnati coach Hue Jackson told NFL Media's Mike Silver last week that he would "jump off a building with this guy [Dalton], because I believe in the things he's trying to accomplish with his career." Dalton's leading receiver of the past three years, A.J. Green, also backed up his quarterback during an interview on NFL Network's Top 100 Reaction Show last week.
"I know he's my guy," Green said, according to Patra. "I don't want any other quarterback throwing me the ball."
Cleveland Browns: Brian Hoyer Healthy for Quarterback Competition
Once Cleveland Browns training camp begins with its first practice July 26, there will almost certainly be daily updates from the local and national media in Berea, Ohio, on the quarterback competition between Brian Hoyer and first-round pick Johnny Manziel.
Hoyer led the Browns to wins in his first two starts for the team last season but suffered a torn ACL in his third start, which ended his season. His participation was somewhat limited in OTAs as he continued to recover, but he told 92.3 The Fan's Daryl Ruiter on Saturday that his knee is healthy and he will be a full participant in training camp.
"I'm ready to go so can't wait for Day 1," Hoyer told Ruiter. "I'm not looking for anything to be handed to me and I know Johnny [Manziel], he's going to push me to his full extent. I'm looking forward to just going out there and playing football and competing so it's an exciting time."
Following spring workouts, Browns coach Mike Pettine said Hoyer will enter training camp as the starter, according to Mary Kay Cabot of The Plain Dealer.
Hoyer is a more experienced signal-caller and more polished pocket passer than Manziel is coming out of Texas A&M, so he deserves to open camp with the top spot of the depth chart. That said, Manziel is a dynamic athlete with rare playmaking ability, and the Browns wouldn't have invested a first-round pick in him if they didn't expect him to emerge as a starter within his first couple seasons in Cleveland.
It's likely the quarterback competition will have more to do with Manziel's development than it will Hoyer's, as Hoyer has a more established NFL skill set, whereas Manziel's ceiling is significantly higher. Nonetheless, it's an important step for Hoyer, as the incumbent, that he is healthy and ready to defend his case for being the right man to lead the Browns offense, at least for 2014.
Dallas Cowboys: Rebuilt Linebacker Corps Taking Shape
Like the aforementioned Buffalo Bills, the Dallas Cowboys suffered a devastating blow earlier this offseason when the star linebacker of their defense, Sean Lee, went down with a torn ACL, an injury that is expected to sideline him for the entire season.
Lee is one of the NFL's best middle linebackers when healthy, so his injury forces the Cowboys to adjust the entire unit to compensate for losing him.
Justin Durant, who played strong-side linebacker last season but was not a three-down player, is expected to take over Lee's position in the middle, according to ESPNDallas.com's Todd Archer. That makes Kyle Wilber, who moved from defensive end to linebacker last season, the likely choice as the team's starting strong-side linebacker.
Second-year linebacker DeVonte Holloman could factor into the competition at strong-side linebacker, while rookie Anthony Hitchens could battle Durant in the middle. The Cowboys also added a troubled but prominent name to the equation earlier this month when they traded a 2015 sixth-round pick to the Baltimore Ravens for a seventh-round pick and linebacker Rolando McClain, who had previously intended to retire.
Performances in training camp and the preseason could certainly shake up Dallas' linebacker depth chart, where weak-side linebacker Bruce Carter is the only starter returning in a role he played throughout 2013. Regardless of how it stacks up, Dallas needs the players in first-team roles to play better than they did last season, as Lee was the team's only consistent performer at linebacker.
Denver Broncos: Chris Harris Still Recuperating from Torn ACL
In three seasons with the Denver Broncos, Chris Harris has advanced from being an undrafted rookie to emerging as one of the NFL's best cornerbacks. His status for training camp and the start of the 2014 season, however, is in question after he tore his ACL during a playoff game in January.
Harris was able to participate on a limited basis in OTAs and "ran full speed, sprinted, backpedalled and turned," according to Lauren Giudice of DenverBroncos.com. That doesn't necessarily mean he will be ready to go for training camp, though.
"Harris said he is about 80 to 85 percent healthy right now and that he will see Dr. [James] Andrews at the end of July to assess his progress," Giudice wrote.
In his training camp preview, Andrew Mason of DenverBroncos.com said of Harris, "It would be no surprise if he opens training camp on the physically unable to perform list as he completes rehabilitation." With that in mind, it's no guarantee that Harris will be ready for the Broncos' season opener against the Indianapolis Colts on Sept. 7.
"If I'm not ready for Week 1, there are no negatives," Harris said, according to Mason. "This team, they need me December, January and February, when the big games come. If I'm not ready by Week 1, which I know I should be ready, then it's no big hurt."
As long as Harris is on the field, he should immediately reprise his role as a starting outside cornerback who shifts inside to cover the slot in nickel packages.
If not, the Broncos could turn to Kayvon Webster, who "worked extensively against first-team receivers during OTAs and grew more comfortable against that level of competition as the sessions progressed," according to Mason, to fill the role. Any time missed by Harris could also provide an opening for first-round pick Bradley Roby, should he develop impressively in training camp, to work his way into the lineup.
Detroit Lions: Theo Riddick Garnering High Expectations from Teammates
From the outside looking in, one would not expect Theo Riddick, after a nondescript rookie season in which he gained just 51 yards on 13 offensive touches, to be a prime candidate for a breakout season in 2014. Some of his Detroit Lions teammates, however, are expecting big things.
In the words of MLive.com's Justin Rogers, "No Detroit Lions player has generated more buzz this offseason than running back Theo Riddick."
One of the players who has raved about Riddick's potential is backup quarterback Dan Orlovsky. According to Rogers, Orlovsky said on the Ross Tucker Football Podcast that Riddick "wasn't covered a single time in OTAs and minicamp":
I think it's even going to be easier when he gets pads on because once linebackers just try to start colliding him, and that's what teams started to do with (Darren) Sproles sometimes, you hit the home run one out of every 10 plays. Then nine out of 10 times, Sproles wins. And that's what I think Theo's going to do that for us.
The comparison to Sproles, who has been one of the best receivers out of the backfield among NFL running backs over the past six years, is high praise for Riddick. But Orlovsky isn't the only one touting Riddick as a player on the rise. Lions running back Joique Bell said that if Riddick "keeps doing what he's been doing, he'll be a Pro Bowler in no time," according to Rogers:
Just some of the moves you see him do in practice, against some of the linebackers, we sit back in the meeting room, we sit back we laugh, "You get them every time with the same move." You can't stop it.
The only thing I can say is he's going to keep learning and keep getting better.
Riddick has clearly become well-liked among his teammates, given these lofty assertions about his talent. NFL Media's Daniel Jeremiah has also tabbed Riddick as his favorite sleeper for the 2014 campaign.
The bar is being set much higher for Riddick than might be realistic for a third-string running back coming off a rookie season that lacked impact, but if he can live up to the hype, the Lions will have a three-headed monster of versatile backs with pass-catching ability in Reggie Bush, Bell and Riddick.
Green Bay Packers: Rookie Tight End Richard Rodgers Could Be an Impact Player
The Green Bay Packers have no clear starter at the tight end position, but if Richard Rodgers can keep the momentum from what was reportedly a fantastic spring, he could work his way to the top of the depth chart in training camp.
Rodgers has been drawing praise from many sources this summer. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, with whom the tight end shares a surname and school (both played at California), said he thinks the third-round pick will "push for some playing time if he can transfer what he's done in the spring now to the fall," according to Rob Reischel of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
"When we made the pick, some of the so-called experts on the draft channel said he was a late sixth-round pick...which is pretty laughable when you watch the talent he's got and the ability," the quarterback said. "You have to be excited about his body type and the hands. He's made some incredible catches, makes it look easy."
Richard Rodgers separated himself "as an MVP of organized team activities," according to Tyler Dunne of the Journal Sentinel, and was described as an "Underwear League MVP" by Vic Ketchman of Packers.com.
He had an underwhelming career at California that lacked production, and he's neither an explosive athlete nor a refined blocker, but he has impressive size (6'4", 257 lbs), good body control and great hands.
Many expected Rodgers to be more of a project than an immediate contributor, but Andrew Quarless and Brandon Bostick are his most formidable competition to start. Some think talented-but-troubled undrafted rookie Colt Lyerla could be the first-year tight end to break out for Green Bay in 2014, but Rodgers is the more likely young gun to steal the starting job.
Houston Texans: Andre Johnson Seeking Trade, But Team Not Looking to Deal Him
Evidently, Andre Johnson would prefer to spend the 2014 NFL season with a team other than the Houston Texans. According to NFL Media's Ian Rapoport, the veteran wide receiver has told the Texans he wants to be traded.
Per Rapoport, Johnson "would restructure his contract to help a potential new team get under the salary cap." Rapoport said there are four teams who have expressed interest in trading for the seven-time Pro Bowler.
Despite Johnson's wishes, it's unlikely a trade will occur. John McClain of the Houston Chronicle gave several reasons why:
The Texans want him to finish his career in Houston. They know they are a better team with him. And they don't want to set a precedent for similar situations that might develop in the future.
Additionally, the Texans would still owe Johnson nearly $12 million in dead money if they traded him, according to Spotrac.
It’s easy to see why other teams—Rapoport has mentioned the New England Patriots, Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders as potential landing spots in a trade—would be interested in Johnson. He has seven career seasons with at least 1,100 receiving yards, including a 1,407-yard season on 109 catches last year.
For those same reasons, it's easy to see why the Texans don't want to simply cave to his trade request. For what it's worth, Johnson told NFL Media's Marcus Smith last week he "hopefully" will be at Houston's training camp, despite his decision to sit out offseason workouts.
Indianapolis Colts: Trent Richardson Will Get Shot to Start but Must Perform
Trent Richardson's first season in Indianapolis went disastrously. In 14 regular-season games with the Colts, who acquired the then-second-year running back before Week 3 from the Cleveland Browns in exchange for a first-round draft pick, Richardson averaged just 2.9 yards per carry and scored just three touchdowns.
When Richardson entered the league out of Alabama, most tabbed him for greatness when the Browns selected him with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2013 draft. The team was apparently underwhelmed with him just two games into his sophomore campaign when it decided to trade him.
So far, it looks like trading him when they did was a far better decision than holding out hope that he would play up to his potential. The Colts, however, do not have the luxury of potentially trading Richardson without losing massively on their investment, so they must make an effort to salvage his career in 2014.
ESPN.com's Mike Wells expects Richardson to get the first shot at being the Colts' starting running back this year. He adds, however, that "Richardson will have to produce right away."
Richardson's main competition for the No. 1 tailback job, Ahmad Bradshaw and Vick Ballard, are both coming off injuries that cost them most of the 2013 season. Both of them, however, have been more effective backs when healthy than Richardson was for the Colts last season.
Given the Colts' investment in Richardson, his upside and his youth at only 23 years old, it makes sense that they should give him the opportunity to redeem himself in 2014. But they shouldn't hesitate to shake up the rotation—and accept that trading for him was a mistake—if he fails to play up to his ability.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Toby Gerhart Could Have a Breakout Season
Toby Gerhart spent the first four seasons of his NFL career in the shadow of Adrian Peterson, the league's preeminent talent at running back, as his backup for the Minnesota Vikings. After signing with the Jacksonville Jaguars this offseason, it could be time for Gerhart to break out.
NFL Media's Daniel Jeremiah said Gerhart's name is one that "keeps coming up" in his conversations with personnel executives around the NFL as a player with "high expectations for 2014." He's certainly expected to have the opportunity for a big year; Jaguars coach Gus Bradley said Gerhart will be the team's "bell cow" back this season, according to NFL Media's Marc Sessler.
Gerhart's career stats include only 1,305 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns, but he hasn't seen the field much. Although he had only 36 rushing attempts last year, he averaged an impressive 7.9 yards per carry.
A big, strong runner with solid speed for his size, Gerhart was a very productive collegiate back at Stanford who really has not had the opportunity to show the extent of what he can do as an NFL player. But while he should be a clear-cut choice as Jacksonville's feature back, on a depth chart where his top competition is Jordan Todman and Denard Robinson, Bleacher Report's Ty Schalter is among those who think the expectations some have for Gerhart might be a bit too lofty:
After averaging just 57 carries in his first four years, [Michael] Turner pounded the rock an amazing 376 times in Atlanta for 1,699 yards, 17 touchdowns, a Pro Bowl berth and a first-team All-Pro nod his first season as a starter. That kind of production isn't impossible for Gerhart.
Yet given the state of the Jaguars offensive line—and a passing game featuring Chad Henne throwing to two rookies—it's more likely that Gerhart mixes solid, reliable utility with flashes of a little bit more.
Kansas City Chiefs: Travis Kelce Could Become a Key Player in Offense
Travis Kelce was a third-round pick in the 2013 draft, but he has yet to see the field for the Kansas City Chiefs, as he missed his entire rookie season with a knee injury that required microfracture surgery.
The Cincinnati product missed offseason workouts as he continued to recover from the injury but is expected back for training camp, according to Terez A. Paylor of The Kansas City Star. Health is a concern for Kelce, but Paylor expects the tight end to see "lots of playing time in a pass-catching role" should he be on the field.
ESPN.com's Adam Teicher says the Chiefs "would like to use a lot of two-tight end formations" but were unable to do so consistently because of injuries to Kelce, Tony Moeaki and Anthony Fasano. That could become a staple of their offense this year, Teicher believes, if Kelce and Fasano are healthy.
Coming out of college, there was a lot to like about Kelce as a prospect. He has great size, at 6'5" and 255 pounds, but is also a very good athlete who can stretch the field and extend plays with the ball in his hands.
Getting back to full participation in training camp would be an important step for Kelce, as he essentially goes into 2014 as a rookie given his lack of play last year. Nonetheless, there's reason to believe he can be a significant pass-catching threat and bolster the Chiefs offense this season.
Miami Dolphins: Lamar Miller Has Good Shot to Retain Starting RB Job
In a disappointing sophomore season, Lamar Miller failed to stand out as the Miami Dolphins' feature back. He ran for just 709 yards and two touchdowns on 177 carries.
Miller is a big back with an explosive burst, but he hasn't found much NFL success yet. It seemed he was being pushed down the depth chart this offseason when the Dolphins signed veteran free agent Knowshon Moreno, who is coming off a career-best season with the Denver Broncos.
However, Moreno has struggled this offseason with the injury problems that have plagued his entire NFL career to date. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Moreno could miss time in training camp after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery in June.
Even before his surgery, Moreno was reportedly unimpressive. According to ESPN.com's James Walker, Miller worked with Miami's first-team offense, ahead of Moreno, during offseason workouts. Walker wrote in early June that Miller made more plays in the running game than Moreno, who seemed to be "working his way into shape."
If Miller can impress early in training camp while Moreno continues to work his way back, the incumbent starter should retain his spot atop the depth chart, at least for the start of the 2014 season. Danny Williams of SB Nation's The Phinsider thinks Miller "is the running back who best suits the Dolphins new offense under coordinator Bill Lazor."
"Miller's ability to get the edge on any given play due to his speed makes him the perfect back for an offense that will feature many outside zone runs," Williams wrote. "If he doesn't take advantage and become the Dolphins' Week 1 starter then he may not be starting material anyway."
Minnesota Vikings: Offensive Skill-Position Rookies Could Make Immediate Impact
Two of the Minnesota Vikings' draft picks in May, the final selection of the first round and the No. 96 overall pick in the third round, originally belonged to the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. The two players selected at those spots could make an immediate impact for the Vikings offense in 2014.
The No. 32 overall pick, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater from Louisville, is as likely to be an immediate starter as any rookie signal-caller in the league this year. The most polished, NFL-ready passer from this year's draft class, Bridgewater has the tools to succeed quickly and has been praised consistently by his coaches this offseason.
Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner told KFAN FM 100.3's Paul Allen last week, according to Vikings.com's Mike Wobschall, that Bridgewater "has been really, really impressive and a lot further along than I expected him to be." Head coach Mike Zimmer, meanwhile, has said Minnesota is "not afraid" to start the rookie quarterback if he proves to be the best man for the job, according to ESPN.com's Ben Goessling.
That doesn't necessarily mean Bridgewater will be starting come Week 1. He still has to beat out veterans Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder, who split starting duties for the Vikings last season. That said, Bridgewater should be a long-term upgrade over Cassel and Ponder, and Minnesota shouldn't hesitate to insert him into the lineup once it feels he is ready.
Bridgewater isn't the only offensive skill-position rookie who stood out for the Vikings this spring. Third-round pick Jerick McKinnon, a running back from Georgia Southern, has drawn high praise from his teammate, Adrian Peterson, who is arguably the league's best player at his position.
"He's pretty impressive and there's not too many guys who impress me like that, especially rookies coming in," Peterson said of McKinnon, according to Master Tesfatsion of the Star Tribune. "He's been able to do some real good things in the offense, picking it up well and just his running style."
McKinnon, an explosive playmaker with a rare combination of speed, agility and size, should be an intriguing player to watch in 2014. He poses no threat to Peterson's job, but the Vikings should look for creative ways to capitalize upon McKinnon's versatility—he played a number of different positions in college—and physical skill set.
New England Patriots: Competition Expected on Interior Offensive Line
The New England Patriots have maintained consistency over the past two years with a starting interior offensive line of left guard Logan Mankins, center Ryan Wendell and right guard Dan Connolly. But while Mankins is a six-time Pro Bowler, Wendell and Connolly have both been underwhelming starters who often get overpowered by stronger defensive linemen.
If the Patriots were fully satisfied with their starting five up front, they wouldn't have selected three offensive linemen in this year's draft. Although center Bryan Stork and guard Jon Halapio weren't selected until Day 3, both rookies are expected to compete for immediate playing time.
Stork, a fourth-round pick out of Florida State, is considered to be "a viable competitor for the starting center job in training camp" by ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss. However, he had some issues in spring workouts; WEEI's Christopher Price said Stork "took a lot of laps (at least three, by our count) after botched snaps."
Halapio, selected from Florida in Round 6, "stood out as a first-year player who appeared to get plenty of reps with what looked like a reasonable facsimile of the No. 1 offense" in OTAs and minicamp, according to Price. Reiss wrote that he would not be surprised if Halapio competes for playing time.
Wendell and Connolly remain the favorites to start heading into training camp, but Stork and Halapio could legitimately push them for their jobs if they impress this summer. Connolly could be a candidate for release, as Bleacher Report AFC East lead writer Erik Frenz noted in a Boston.com article, while Wendell is the weak link of the offensive line incumbents.
New Orleans Saints: Deadline Looming for Jimmy Graham to Sign Contract Extension
There's a good chance that the news on this slide could be rendered obsolete within the next 24 hours, let alone before the start of training camp, but the primary concern for the New Orleans Saints right now should be their efforts to sign star tight end Jimmy Graham to a long-term contract extension.
In one of the NFL's most high-profile stories of the summer, Graham lost his grievance against the league in which he argued that he should be considered a wide receiver, not a tight end, for franchise tag purposes.
As a result, Graham will receive $7 million, not the $12.1 million his tender would have been valued at as a wide receiver, if he signs his franchise-tag tender with the Saints this year.
This could give Graham incentive to sign a long-term contract with the Saints this offseason, but that would have to happen by Tuesday, the deadline date for a franchise-tagged player to sign a multi-year contract, according to NOLA.com's Jeff Duncan.
The Saints themselves should have incentive to get Graham signed for as long as possible, as he is one of the league's elite players at his position—tight end, to be clear—and is just 27 years old. Possessing an exceptional degree of athleticism at 6'7" and 265 pounds, Graham has accumulated 301 receptions for 3,863 yards and 41 touchdowns in just four NFL seasons.
If an agreement is not reached this week, it's likely Graham will play out 2014 on a franchise tender and then resume negotiations with the Saints next offseason. It's also possible he could choose to hold out, at least until the end of training camp or possibly through the 10th week of the season, before signing his tender, according to Duncan.
Update: Graham and the Saints have agreed to a four-year deal worth $40 million with $21 million guaranteed, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.
New York Giants: Weston Richburg a Candidate for Multiple Starting Jobs
The New York Giants seemingly selected Colorado State product Weston Richburg in the second round of this year's draft for him to be a long-term upgrade at center, but the interior offensive lineman could also contend for the starting job at right guard for 2014.
Ultimately, where and if Richburg sees playing time this season will depend not only on how well he performs in training camp, but also upon the performance and health of center J.D. Walton and right guard Chris Snee. Walton missed the entire 2013 season after surgery on an injured ankle that also limited him to four games in 2012, while Snee played just three games last year before season-ending hip surgery.
At his natural position of center, Richburg could easily prove to be an upgrade over Walton from the get-go. Walton worked with the first-team offense in spring workouts, according to Conor Orr of The Star-Ledger, but ESPN.com's Dan Graziano believes the battle between Richburg and Walton "could absolutely go either way."
"The Giants won't be afraid to start Richburg at center if they think he's ready, but they also don't rush rookies if they're not ready just because they were high picks," Graziano wrote.
That said, Richburg has taken repetitions at guard this spring, according to Orr, and could be a candidate to start at right guard as Snee is also coming off elbow surgery. Should Snee be deemed unfit to play, Brandon Mosley, James Brewer and/or John Jerry could be candidates to start in his place, but there's no reason Richburg shouldn't get a shot as well.
A 50-game starter at Colorado State, Richburg is technically sound, agile, physically strong and ready to take on playing time quickly. So it should come as no surprise, even if it means a temporary move to guard, if he is on the field Week 1.
New York Jets: Chris Johnson Expects to Have Impact, but How Much Will He Play?
The New York Jets made a number of high-profile additions this offseason in an effort to bolster their offense, including the move to sign speedster running back Chris Johnson.
Johnson has a reputation for unreliability, but that's not supported by statistics, which show that he has rushed for at least 1,000 yards in all six of his NFL seasons to date. But since his 2,006-yard season in 2009, he's never quite seemed to live up to expectations, including his own.
Never one to be bashful, Johnson has once again set the bar high for himself, probably to an unrealistic extent.
Johnson said recently that he does not expect to be in a time share in the Jets backfield this season, according to NFL Media's Dan Hanzus. He also told Bleacher Report's Adam Lefkoe that he expects to run for "at least 1,500" yards this season, which would be his highest total since 2009.
It's more likely, however, that Johnson will split carries with Chris Ivory. While Johnson gives the Jets a new dimension of burst and speed, Ivory is a bigger back who is stronger between the tackles. Fewer repetitions for Johnson might also make him more effective.
"We're going to have to be strategic in how we use him, and when we use him, to keep him fresh so that he can be the explosive guy that I know that he can be," Jets running backs coach Anthony Lynn said in June, according to NJ.com's Dom Cosentino.
For what it's worth, Johnson isn't the only one speaking highly of his potential to be a playmaker in New York.
"He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer," Jets offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said, according to ESPN.com's Rich Cimini.
Oakland Raiders: Offense Expected to Revolve Around the Ground Attack
Facing some uncertainty at the quarterback position, where Matt Schaub will look to have a bounce-back season for the Oakland Raiders while trying to fend off rookie challenger Derek Carr to win the starting job, the Raiders could go with a run-heavy offensive game plan in 2013.
The Raiders signed veteran running back Maurice Jones-Drew this offseason. The 29-year-old appears to be past his prime, but if both he and Darren McFadden can stay healthy at 2014, Oakland could have a strong one-two punch out of the backfield.
That’s certainly what they’re banking on according to another new acquisition, left tackle Donald Penn. The veteran offensive lineman told SiriusXM NFL Radio earlier this month that the Raiders plan to “run the ball, run the ball, then run it again, until the defense stops us.”
That might be a smart plan for the Raiders, who were sixth in the league last season in yards per carry (4.6).
To sustain that success, however, Oakland’s 2014 running backs need to step up their game. Rashad Jennings, Oakland’s leading rusher from last season, left for the New York Giants in free agency. McFadden averaged just 3.3 yards per carry last season, while Jones-Drew averaged 3.4 with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
If unable to stick to its strategy of running the ball often, it could be a rough year for the Oakland offense. Schaub and Carr both represent potential upgrades over the team’s 2013 quarterbacks, Terrelle Pryor and Matt McGloin, but Schaub is not a big-play passer, and expectations should be set low for Carr’s rookie year.
Philadelphia Eagles: Allen Barbre Expected to Start Season at Right Tackle
Although the NFL has yet to make any announcement on his status, Philadelphia Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson is expected to be suspended for the first four games of the season after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs, according to Paul Domowitch of the Philadelphia Daily News.
Should that be the case, the Eagles are expected to turn to Allen Barbre to play in Johnson’s place. During an interview with 94WIP’s The Mike and Ike Show earlier this month, running back LeSean McCoy expressed confidence in Barbre’s ability to take on the role:
Lane is real good. I think as a rookie, the things that he’s accomplished, it only gets better and he looks in good shape from the small camps we did have. So it might be tough, but the good thing about it [Allen] Barbre—a guy we paid some money to—he’s a good backup man and he’ll play. I think he’ll make some plays where—obviously you’ll want Lane in there, but Barbre I think does a good enough job where you don’t see a big difference.
It’s a stretch to assume that Barbre, who has been in the league since 2007 and has just seven career starts, can step in without the Eagles experiencing any drop-off at right tackle. But like Johnson, Philadelphia’s No. 4 overall pick in the 2013 draft, Barbre is a very good athlete at the position, as noted by Philly.com’s Jimmy Kempski.
So can the Eagles survive with Barbre at right tackle for a few games while Johnson serves his suspension? Absolutely. He may even be better in pass protection than Johnson is at this stage in his career. However, he is by no means as physical a presence as Johnson as a run-blocker.
The Eagles will miss Johnson, but it’s not as though Johnson has emerged as a great offensive tackle yet in his career. As long as Barbre isn't a complete liability on the right side, Johnson’s absence shouldn’t be overly noticeable for four weeks.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Martavis Bryant Could Make Immediate Impact in Red Zone
Martavis Bryant, whom the Pittsburgh Steelers landed with the No. 118 overall pick in this year’s draft, is among the most likely candidates to emerge in 2014 as a steal in his rookie class. A big-play threat from Clemson who possesses the prototypical measurables of a No. 1 wide receiver, Bryant could be a tough matchup for opposing cornerbacks on the outside.
Bryant has great downfield speed, but what Pittsburgh might really look to exploit in the receiver’s first season is his size. Wide receivers coach Richard Mann told Steelers.com that the team plans to “utilize his talents in the red zone.”
“He’s a big guy, different from what we’ve had, as far as his length,” Mann said of the 6’4”, 211-pound receiver with 32.625-inch arms. “He has a big reach. He has good speed. So we can use him in various ways, as far as cleaning things out. He’s also a deep threat. He does have the speed.”
As his size and 39-inch vertical jump will give him a distinct advantage over most cornerbacks in jump-ball situations, it’s easy to see how Bryant could make an impact for the Steelers right away. He could play a similar role close to the end zone as Jerricho Cotchery, who left as a free agent for the Carolina Panthers, did in his 10-touchdown year last season.
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley said in June that Bryant still has “a long way to go,” according to Dave Bryan of SteelersDepot.com. In his time at Clemson, it was clear Bryant had some issues with catch consistency and needed to become a more complete route-runner.
Nonetheless, it’s likely that the Steelers will get Bryant on the field in 2014, even if only in a situational role that emphasizes his ability to post up over smaller defenders to catch touchdown passes.
San Diego Chargers: Ryan Mathews to Continue Carrying the Load
San Diego drafted Ryan Mathews to be a feature back in 2010, and that’s always what he’s had the talent to be, but injuries have plagued him throughout the first four years of his career. He is coming off a strong 2013 season, however, in which he ran for 1,255 yards and six touchdowns on 285 attempts.
At his best, Mathews is a well-rounded back with the size and strength to pound through contact between the tackles, yet he also has an athletic burst for more explosive gains. Coming off a strong season, Mathews is expected to continue being San Diego’s bell-cow runner, despite the team’s addition of Donald Brown to a running back depth chart that also includes Danny Woodhead.
Woodhead is a great receiver and pass protector out of the backfield, while Brown averaged 5.3 yards per carry with the Indianapolis Colts last season, so both of them should see significant playing time. Still, there’s little reason for the Chargers to go away from Mathews being their lead back as long as he stays healthy.
With three strong backs in tow, ESPN.com’s Eric D. Williams expects the Chargers to “lean on” their running game, despite the re-emergence of Philip Rivers as a star quarterback this past year.
San Francisco 49ers: Holdouts Likely for Two Key Offensive Players
As the San Francisco 49ers prepare for another run at an NFC title while playing in the league’s toughest division, it would behoove them to have all of their key players participating fully in training camp. That might not be the case, as tight end Vernon Davis and right guard Alex Boone are expected to continue holdouts into the summer session.
CSNBayArea.com’s Matt Maiocco reported Saturday that he is “hearing no way RG Alex Boone reports on time without a new contract.” Boone has just two years and less than $5 million remaining on his contract, according to Spotrac.
According to ProFootballTalk.com’s Mike Florio, “a source with knowledge of the situation tells PFT that, at the present time, Davis would not be reporting” to training camp. Davis has two years and slightly more than $14 million left on his deal, according to Spotrac.
It’s fair, especially in Boone’s case, for these players to expect more money and job security. Both are among the league’s premier players at their position, and they know that the 49ers can ill afford to be without either of them. Boone is a strong presence as both a run-blocker and pass protector, while Davis is a dynamic athlete with big-play ability as a flex pass-catcher.
This might force the 49ers to negotiate with these players to get them back in the fold, but they might not be willing to do.
That said, it might not even be necessary. As Florio notes, “the team will be able to fine them $30,000 per day and also to pursue a portion of any signing bonus money previously paid” if each of them decides to boycott camp. These fines and potential for lost money could be enough to quickly convince the players to return to the team and negotiate from there, albeit with a little less leverage.
Seattle Seahawks: Christine Michael Could Give Seahawks Two Star Running Backs
Marshawn Lynch has some of the most unusual public antics of any star player in the NFL, but despite a June report from NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport that the eighth-year running back could retire, Lynch reported to the Seattle Seahawks’ mandatory minicamp and should remain the team’s feature back in 2014.
As long as Lynch is healthy and engaged, there’s no reason his role should decrease this season. Beast Mode has had tremendous consistency for Seattle over the past three seasons, rushing for at least 1,200 yards and 11 touchdowns each year.
Upon his arrival at minicamp, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said he has not approached the concept of Lynch having a reduced role in the team’s backfield, according to ESPN.com’s Terry Blount.
"Marshawn has been the guy for us and we love the way he plays and everything he brings to this team,” Carroll said. “He's never taken a step backwards for us. He's never disappointed us."
That said, Seattle appears to have a back ready to push Lynch for playing time. Second-year tailback Christine Michael has been a recipient of hype throughout the offseason, and the Seahawks want to increase his carries this year, according to Blount.
That’s not saying much—Michael had only 18 carries in 2013—but he has received no shortage of praise from his coaches. Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said in June that Michael had “turned the page on last year and we really like what we’re seeing right now,” according to Stephen Cohen of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
How and if the Seahawks can increase Michael’s work without diminishing Lynch’s load remains to be seen, but there’s reason to believe they’ll make every effort to get him involved. He was never consistently productive in college, but he has a truly rare combination of size, speed and explosiveness.
“When Christine Michael gets his chance regular season '14, provided he's healthy, he'll show he's the most gifted RB drafted in past 5 yrs,” ESPN’s Louis Riddick tweeted in June.
St. Louis Rams: Zac Stacy Could Be Pushed for His Starting Job
It would come as a surprise if Zac Stacy, coming off an impressive rookie season in which he rushed for 973 yards and seven touchdowns, doesn’t continue to be the St. Louis Rams’ feature running back in 2014. Nonetheless, Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has indicated there will be competition at the position in training camp.
“Right now, competition is for who’s the starter," Schottenheimer said in June, according to ESPN.com’s Nick Wagoner. "We’re just going to let them all roll and see what happens. You saw some guys that worked with the young guys today. Zac’s obviously a really, really good player, but we’re going to create competition for all the guys.”
As Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted, that’s “probably more coach-speak than anything else.” But it’s reasonable to think that the Rams, who used a third-round draft pick on Auburn tailback Tre Mason this year, want to make Stacy, who averaged just 3.9 yards per carry in 2013, earn the right to retain his spot atop the depth chart.
At the very least, Stacy could give up some carries to Mason—or Benny Cunningham or Isaiah Pead—after taking 250 rushing attempts as the workhorse back last year. It’s unlikely the Rams would have invested in Mason, a shifty and athletic runner who was highly productive against SEC competition last year, if they didn’t expect him to steal some immediate playing time.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Austin Seferian-Jenkins Ready to Go for Training Camp
Austin Seferian-Jenkins was a second-round pick in this year’s NFL draft, but the tight end’s career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has gotten off to a slow start. He was limited in rookie minicamp while recovering from a stress fracture in his foot, and then he was forced to miss the Buccaneers’ OTAs and minicamp due to NFL rules because his school, the University of Washington, remained in class until mid-June.
He’s finally set to take the field later this month. Seferian-Jenkins told Greg Auman of the Tampa Bay Times last week that his “foot feels really good” and that he feels “very comfortable and confident” about being ready for training camp.
Seferian-Jenkins acknowledged that his lack of practice time thus far is going to leave him with “a little bit of a learning curve” in camp, according to Auman, but he believes he can overcome it.
"The only thing you can really do is try to learn the formations and concepts, the methodology of the offense, but there's nothing that substitutes for the hands-on experience of being out there running routes, and getting the timing down with the quarterbacks, the communication, all that stuff," Seferian-Jenkins said. “I'm just going into it one day at a time and will be working really hard."
Assuming he sustains his health, expectations will quickly become high for Seferian-Jenkins. Both a skilled pass-catcher and a forceful blocker, Seferian-Jenkins is a massive, athletic playmaker over the middle who could push for an immediate starting job if he develops rapidly.
Tennessee Titans: Blidi Wreh-Wilson Could Be Alterraun Verner’s Replacement
The Tennessee Titans have big shoes to replace at the cornerback position, where Alterraun Verner was a second-team All-Pro in 2013. They still have one very good starter outside in Jason McCourty but need someone to step up to lessen the blow of Verner’s departure on the other side.
Blidi Wreh-Wilson might be the top candidate to step up and take on a first-team role in 2014. He didn’t play much on defense as a rookie, but the 2013 third-round pick has the tools to develop into a very solid NFL cornerback.
Wreh-Wilson is a tall, athletic cornerback who demonstrated at Connecticut that he plays with physicality and has good ball skills.
So far this offseason, Wreh-Wilson has been competing with third-year pro Coty Sensabaugh for the Titans’ No. 2 cornerback job. The pair alternated between outside cornerback and nickel slot cornerback in spring workouts, according to Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean, “and will likely do the same when training camp begins on July 26.”
Wreh-Wilson has a significant height advantage over Sensabaugh and is better suited to play outside, while Sensabaugh has more experience playing inside. If Wreh-Wilson can make the strides expected of him this summer, the starting job should be his to lose.
Washington Redskins: Robert Griffin III Looking Poised for a Bounce-Back Season
Robert Griffin III’s career thus far is a tale of two seasons. In 2012, the Washington Redskins quarterback was phenomenal and won the Associated Press NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award. In 2013, after suffering a torn ACL in a playoff game, Griffin never looked like the same player and ended up being benched for Washington’s final three games of the season.
Entering 2014 with a new coaching staff leading the way, expectations are high for Griffin to return to his rookie form and potentially even exceed it.
“He looks like he is exactly what he was in the 2012 season,” Washington offensive coordinator Sean McVay told ESPN 980 earlier this month, according to Dan Steinberg of The Washington Post.
A big part of Griffin’s rookie success came in his ability to not only pass the ball strongly and efficiently, but also to make plays with his legs as a runner. Seemingly at least than 100 percent healthwise last season, Griffin didn’t have the same dual-threat playmaking ability, and both his passing and running suffered significantly as a result.
“I think people underestimate when you have a brace on your knee how much that truly restricts you,” McVay said. “I think being able to take that off, he looks extremely explosive.”
RG3 has also made improvements mentally this offseason, McVay said in the interview:
He did a great job picking up the new terminology that we’re using — and we will still do some similar things that we’ve done in the past that have been able to give us some success these last two seasons. But he did an excellent job, and I think he and Jay [Gruden] have a great rapport that they’re getting ready to continue to develop as the season moves forward and as we go into the future.
If Griffin is back to his old form and getting better as McVay suggests, he could be in for an outstanding 2014 campaign and could help bring the Redskins back to contention in the NFC East.
All measurables courtesy of NFL.com unless otherwise noted.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.