Fact or Fiction for the Biggest NFL Training Camp Rumors So Far
When the Detroit Lions hit the field for practice Monday afternoon, all 32 NFL training camps will be underway.
The league’s summer session is only just beginning, but there are already reports emerging throughout the country of players who are stepping up and others who are struggling as each team prepares for the 2014 season.
While the observations, rumors and buzz can rapidly trigger excitement or panic for fans, no training camp report should be consumed as gospel. New cautionary examples arise every year regarding practice sensations who flounder disappointingly when the actual games begin.
Nonetheless, the insight emerging from practices around the league has given football fans their first real conversation fodder—at least, that which pertains to what actually happens on the gridiron—in months. So while we can’t be sure what will translate from the practice fields to the stadiums, we can assess the likelihood of what a number of early indications will lead to this year.
Teddy Bridgewater Making Push for Starting Job in Minnesota
If you spent any time following the 2014 NFL draft this spring, you probably already knew that Teddy Bridgewater’s performance would be a hot topic of the training camp season.
Considered the top quarterback in the draft class by many media analysts, Bridgewater was actually the third signal-caller selected. Despite his fall to the final slot of the first round, the No. 32 overall pick could end up being the first rookie quarterback to win a starting job this year.
Before training camp opened last week, Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said Matt Cassel was the “No. 1 guy going into training camp” on the team’s quarterback depth chart, according to Matt Vensel of the Star Tribune. But according to Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer, that’s something Minnesota might already have to reconsider.
“Hugeeee optimism here for Bridgewater's future,” Glazer tweeted while in Minnesota. “He and Cassel pretty much splitting reps. May not be Week 1 starter but he's definitely been more impressive than they expected.”
Glazer’s tweet might have been a bit misleading; according to ESPN.com’s Ben Goessling, Cassel has taken most of the first-team snaps. But as training camp has only been underway in Mankato for less than a week, the order of Minnesota’s depth chart has plenty of time to change.
If Bridgewater is going to win the Vikings’ starting job by the season opener, he’s going to have to earn it. The Louisville product is going to have to be consistently as impressive as he has reportedly been thus far.
That said, Minnesota should give Bridgewater every opportunity to win the job. While Cassel’s play was steady in 2013, Teddy has better physical tools and higher upside. If he’s already exceeding the expectations of a team which deemed him worthy of a first-round selection, he should get numerous opportunities to work with the first-team offense this preseason.
Brian Hoyer Separating from Johnny Manziel in Cleveland
The other highly anticipated rookie-versus-veteran quarterback battle takes place in Cleveland Browns training camp, where Brian Hoyer is attempting to fend off a challenge from No. 22 overall pick Johnny Manziel.
So far, so good for Hoyer, at least in the eyes of media, such as USA Today’s Lindsay H. Jones, who have been present for the opening sessions of Browns camp.
“If the Cleveland Browns quarterback competition were only two days long, Brian Hoyer would be the winner, and it wouldn't be close,” Jones wrote.
“Through the first two practices, Hoyer and Manziel have gone through basically the same script of plays,” Jones added, with Hoyer running with the starters and Manziel manning the second-team offense.
While Jones also clarified that the competition is far from over and that the Browns have not yet added read-option plays and designed quarterback runs to the script, she said Hoyer has been “the clear leader” thus far.
It’s not just Jones who thinks so. According to ESPN’s Bob Holtzman, the expectation among Browns players is that coach Mike Pettine will name Hoyer as the team’s starting quarterback “well before” the team’s third preseason game.
It will come as a surprise if Manziel, an exciting dual-threat quarterback who will add playmaking ability to the field that every defense must account for, doesn’t get a shot to play at some point in his rookie season. After all, it’s hard to believe that the Browns would have drafted Manziel in Round 1 if they didn’t think he could make an impact sooner than later.
To this point, however, all indications have been that Hoyer is far ahead of the developing Manziel in the quarterback competition. As Manziel progresses, he could catch up.
But because the rookie has to become more comfortable in pocket-passing situations, it makes sense for the Browns to proceed with the idea that Hoyer, who played well in three starts before tearing his ACL last season, should lead them into battle in Week 1.
Markus Wheaton to Play a Big Role in Pittsburgh Steelers Offense
Entering his second NFL season, Markus Wheaton is a popular choice to be a breakout player for the Pittsburgh Steelers this year. According to CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora, that expectation is as much internal as it has been external.
“Wheaton is having another strong start to camp and his role will increase greatly, several Steelers people said,” La Canfora wrote Sunday.
Wheaton didn’t play much as a rookie—he finished the 2013 season with just six receptions for 64 yards. Even so, he has drawn comparisons to former Steelers standout Mike Wallace (see video above) and was selected as the No. 20 player on NFL.com’s “Making the Leap” countdown of projected breakout players for 2014.
Wheaton battled injury and lack of opportunity last year, but that should change if he can stay healthy this season. Following the departure of Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery this offseason, Wheaton is the favorite to be Pittsburgh’s No. 2 wideout opposite Antonio Brown.
He has all the tools to not only take over Sanders’ role, but also to be just as productive. By playing with toughness and attacking the ball in the air, Wheaton plays bigger than a typical 5’11”, 182-pound receiver. He is a former track star who also has impressive lateral agility and runs precise routes.
Wheaton could face competition for his starting job from rookie Martavis Bryant, who has just as much speed as Wheaton but also terrific size (6’4”, 211 lbs). However, the fourth-round pick needs to become a more diversified route-runner and more consistent hands catcher, which should give Wheaton the edge on a starting job this year.
Buffalo Bills Could Trade C.J. Spiller
In another report from training camp for CBS Sports this weekend, La Canfora kindled reaction from Buffalo Bills fans when he suggested that the team’s star running back, C.J. Spiller, could end up becoming a trade commodity.
I'd expect the Bills to field calls for running backs if contending teams continue to lose them (Vick Ballard and Kendall Hunter already out for the year). Buffalo has more backs than it needs, probably, and C.J. Spiller, in the final year of his deal and with no extension in sight, could be the odd man out.
I anticipate Fred Jackson being a Bill for life, and he could end up with a few new years on his deal, and the speed of Bryce Brown is impressive. Anthony Dixon supplies depth. A trade market for Spiller could well develop over the next month.
Spiller’s days in Buffalo very well could be numbered. He has the ability to become a free agent after this season, and he suggested in April that he would reach out to former Bills free safety Jairus Byrd, who joined the New Orleans Saints via free agency this offseason, according to ESPN.com’s Mike Rodak.
It’s also a possibility that Spiller could lose a share of his carries this season. Brown possesses a similar skill set, was acquired for a conditional 2015 fourth-round pick during this year’s draft and was impressive early in camp, according to BuffaloBillsDraft.com’s Glenn Gifford.
But unless the Bills believe that a Jackson-Brown tandem can be just as effective as the Spiller-Jackson one-two punch—and have no confidence or intent in re-signing Spiller in 2015—they shouldn’t look to trade their most dynamic offensive playmaker.
The suggestion that Jackson “could end up with a few new years on his deal” is probably inaccurate, as he is already geriatric for a running back at 33 years old. Brown, meanwhile, has talent, but he only has 1,018 yards of actual offensive production in two NFL seasons.
Even in a disappointing, injury-riddled 2013 campaign, Spiller ranked 15th in the NFL with 933 rushing yards. He is the most explosive playmaker the Bills have in their backfield.
If Buffalo has serious plans on making a playoff push in 2014, trading Spiller is not the way to go.
Andre Williams to See Immediate Goal-Line Work for Giants
As the New York Giants have already been practicing for nearly a full week—only the Buffalo Bills, their opponent in Sunday’s preseason-opening Hall of Fame Game, started before them—there has already been plenty of information to glean from their training camp.
One of the more interesting nuggets thus far—at least if you’re a fantasy football player—is that Andre Williams, New York’s fourth-round pick in this year’s draft, could emerge as a touchdown vulture in his rookie season.
He’ll have to prove he can fight his way to the end zone to keep that role, but it could enable him to make a significant impact in his rookie season, despite the fact that he’s likely to stay behind Rashad Jennings and David Wilson on the overall depth chart.
Williams, who scored 18 touchdowns for Boston College in 2013, is a good fit for goal-line work. At 5’11” and 230 pounds, he’s a big, strong runner who has proven his ability to pound the ball between the tackles, truck through contact and consistently fall forward.
Jennings has similar size to Williams (6’1”, 231 lbs) but just 13 touchdowns in four NFL seasons. Peyton Hillis, a 6’2”, 250-pound running back who currently sits third on New York’s depth chart, could also be used as a goal-line specialist.
Even so, it makes sense for the Giants to utilize Williams in that capacity. It can keep Jennings fresher to run in other areas on the field, and it could save them a roster spot if Hillis’ presence is deemed unnecessary.
Lamar Miller to Emulate LeSean McCoy in Miami
Last season was supposed to be a breakout year for Miami Dolphins running back Lamar Miller. His play fell short of expectations. The 2012 fourth-round pick averaged just 4.0 yards per carry and finished the season with 709 rushing yards and only two touchdowns.
Despite his failure to stand out in 2013, Miller is expected to remain Miami’s feature back in 2014, even with the offseason free-agent signing of Knowshon Moreno. As a result, hype surrounding his potential is once again burgeoning in South Florida.
“With Bill Lazor running the offense, there’s a hope in Dolphins camp that Miller can play the role of LeSean “Shady” McCoy — the Eagles’ running back who was wildly productive during Lazor’s year with coach Chip Kelly in Philadelphia,” per Adam H. Beasley of the Miami Herald.
From a speed standpoint, Miller—who ran a 4.40-second 40-yard dash at the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine, according to NFL.com—is actually more explosive than McCoy. It’s a massive stretch, however, to compare his skill set to that of the Eagles standout.
McCoy led the NFL with 1,607 rushing yards and 2,146 yards from scrimmage in 2013. He has exceptional lateral quickness, which makes him special as a runner, while he is also a skilled pass-catcher.
Miller has impressive straight-line speed, but the capacities that make McCoy an All-Pro are lacking in the Dolphins back’s game. He didn’t show consistent ability to make defenders miss last season, while he ranked second to last among running backs in receiving yards per route run, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
All measurables courtesy of NFL.com, unless otherwise noted.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.
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