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Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press
Bill Belichick‘s approach to training camp speaks for the entire league.
“Right now, what I’m trying to think about is how to have a good practice today, how to get off to a good start and how to build on that,” the New England Patriots head coach said Thursday, per Boston.com’s Mark Dunphy.
Survive and advance.
Individuals are being evaluated every day, every snap and every second of training camp—whether it’s 90-plus degrees outside, storms are rolling through or teams are in the classrooms, discussing assignments and/or performances.
Only 53 active rosters spots are available for each of the 32 franchises, and those are precious. So, players must do their best to impress with every opportunity, especially after the pads are on and the crackalackin’ starts.
Most teams are still in their first week of camp, and much has to be decided between now and September. In some cases, the picture is already becoming clear, while others growing murkier.
Tuesday’s practices are a continuation of this process, and several organizations may have the solutions to a few problems or found more issues along the way.
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Jim Mone/Associated Press
Even before the Minnesota Vikings took the field Tuesday, the franchise became better positioned to win a Super Bowl.
Stefon Diggs agreed to a five-year contract extension worth $81 million, including over $40 million guaranteed, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. The new deal is tied for second in total worth among wide receivers with the Houston Texans’ DeAndre Hopkins and the Los Angeles Rams’ Brandin Cooks, per Spotrac.
The agreement is speculative in nature since the 24-year-old Diggs has yet to realize his full potential, and its impact extends far beyond the 2018 campaign. Last season, Diggs ranked 25th overall with 849 receiving yards, and he finished 427 yards behind team leader Adam Thielen.
The Vikings know their window to compete for a Super Bowl isn’t closing soon, and they now have Diggs, Thielen, safety Harrison Smith, defensive ends Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen, linebacker Eric Kendricks, cornerback Xavier Rhodes, defensive tackle Linval Joseph, offensive tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers, center Pat Elfein, running back Dalvin Cook and quarterback Kirk Cousins signed through at least the 2020 campaign.
“I love it,” Cousins said, per the Minneapolis Star-Tribune‘s Andrew Krammer. “Continuity, to me, is very important. And it’s not a luxury we have in the NFL these days. There is a lot of change year in and year out, so I’ve come to expect that and understand you can’t use that as an excuse.”
General manager Rick Spielman set up his team for success this offseason despite plenty of uncertainty after a 13-3 campaign. He addressed Minnesota’s two biggest problem areas in free agency by signing Cousins and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson. With extensions for Hunter, Kendricks and Diggs, Anthony Barr is the only core piece slated to become a free agent in 2019.
Right now, though, Diggs is the latest young target to strike it rich among an ever-evolving wide receiver market.
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Steve Helber/Associated Press
Alex Smith is far more mobile than Cousins, and the Washington Redskins coaching staff plans to take advantage of its quarterback’s athleticism.
One could say the offense is becoming more modern. Instead of having its quarterback stand behind center all the time, Washington has been incorporating “more college-style option plays in the backfield,” according to Jake Kring-Schreifels of the team’s official site.
Multiple options exist, with Smith’s mobility at the center of everything.
Washington can utilize the zone read since edge defenders will have to respect the veteran’s ability to pull the ball and gain significant yardage. It will almost certainly include run-pass options as well, since they’re complementary play calls and Smith is adept with his post-snap reads. Shovel passes are another option, especially with the talented backs on Washington’s roster.
“He’s just not a thrower, he can run—you have to respect his run. We got a little bit of option stuff coming in and stuff like that,” right tackle Morgan Moses said, per NBC Sports Washington’s J.P. Finlay. “It helps us all out as an offense.”
A revamped running game featuring rookie Derrius Guice, Samaje Perine, Rob Kelley and Chris Thompson will also benefit as Smith grows more comfortable with his wide receivers. Jamison Crowder in particular has already developed into the signal-caller’s favorite target. Kring-Schreifels reported Washington’s defense grew “frustrated with how open Crowder became.”
Smith may not pass for as many yards as Cousins, but his presence makes the unit far more dangerous.
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Bigger isn’t always better, but the Patriots believe Trent Brown’s size (6’8″, 380 lbs) may be what they need to protect Tom Brady’s blind side.
“Trent’s got great size—rare size—and is very athletic,” Belichick said Monday on Sirius XM NFL Radio’s Moving the Chains (via NESN’s Zack Cox). “He’s light on his feet, has good balance and is a good athlete for a man of his size. Similar to [Patriots right tackle Marcus] Cannon on the other side. Marcus is another big kid [6’6″, 335 lbs] that’s very athletic. We’re fortunate there. We’ll see how it goes.”
What Brown lacks in agility he more than makes up for with his length (36-inch arms). Defenders simply have trouble circumnavigating another human being with so much girth, even if he’s still adjusting to left tackle after starting on the right side for the San Francisco 49ers.
“It’s definitely an adjustment,” Brown said, per Cox. “It’s not as easy as people may think it is. It’s not just as simple as flipping your feet and having a different high leg. But I came in my rookie year playing swing tackle; I got a little bit of practice at it. I’m just trying to get this left side down now.”
The Patriots coaching staff is giving Brown all the reps he needs with the first team. According to Mac Cerullo of the Daily News of Newburyport, the massive blocker “looked dominant” throughout the first week of camp and remained ahead of first-round pick Isaiah Wynn on the depth chart.
Many projected Wynn as a guard during the draft process, and Brown’s emergence at left tackle may force the rookie to another position or onto the bench.
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Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Danny Shelton never lived up to expectations as the 12th overall pick of the 2015 draft, so the Cleveland Browns shipped him and a 2018 fifth-round pick to the Patriots in exchange for a 2019 third-round selection. Shelton has never displayed much upside since he’s basically served as a two-down run defender during his first three campaigns.
The Patriots, however, think the 345-pound nose tackle could develop into something more.
“We’ll see how it goes,” “… We’ll see how he does with us in our packages. … We did some in the spring, but we haven’t really gotten to a lot of third-down work yet. That’ll be coming later this week, and we’ll give the players an opportunity, see how it goes and build it from there.”
Shelton established himself as a top prospect after a highly productive senior campaign in which he managed 93 total tackles and nine sacks for the Washington Huskies. Yet he’s never showed the upfield explosiveness necessary to become a sub-package option. Even at his size, the interior defender struggles to disengage from blocks and collapse the pocket.
Despite his previous play, Shelton believes he can become an interior pass-rusher under Belichick’s tutelage.
“That’s the ultimate goal, but right now, it’s just playing what the coaches want and competing,” he said, per Kyed. “That’s the best part of the game, really.”
The fourth-year veteran will get a chance to prove himself. The Patriots staff shouldn’t expect much, though.
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Saquon Barkley and Will Hernandez were expected to immediately start after the New York Giants used their first- and second-round picks on the running back and guard. B.J. Hill’s acquisition in the third round didn’t come with the same expectations.
Yet, Hill is well on his way toward helping the Giants’ 2018 rookie class become the league’s best. Hill continues to work alongside Damon Harrison and Dalvin Tomlinson as a part of New York’s first-string defensive front.
“I think they were a little bit disruptive at times,”. “But no, B.J. Hill has come in really fast. And then [Dalvin] Tomlinson, Dalvin is a really good player. I’m getting used to them. Now you see them in there with pads on. I’m getting a quicker, better feel for how we’re going to rotate those guys in there.”
Harrison, of course, is the game’s best run defender as the nose tackle, according to Pro Football Focus. But he’s equally effective in a three- or four-man front. Tomlinson, meanwhile, played well as a rookie. But the team needed another big body to complete the transition into defensive coordinator James Bettcher’s preferred 3-4 scheme.
Josh Mauro’s four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances gives Hill opportunities in his development, but the North Carolina State product is an explosive upfield defender who continues to improve with each practice session.
“B.J. has a lot of potential,” Tomlinson said prior to Monday’s practice. “He’s getting better and better each day out there. I’m looking forward to playing with him in the games on Sunday. I like him. He comes in and works hard every day. He really has a lot of potential.”
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As Vita Vea peddled his way around the practice fields Tuesday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers experienced relief after finding out the 6’4″, 347-pound defensive tackle didn’t suffer a severe leg injury during Sunday’s practice.
“It was better than we thought,” head coach Dirk Koetter told reporters Tuesday, via the Buccaneers’ official website. “What he described—what Vita described when it happened—was what you would think if a guy tore his Achilles, which would be a yearlong injury, so thankfully it was not that.
“It’s a calf injury, and he’s going to be out for right now, but it’s not what it could have been. So, in that respect, we’re better off than we thought we were.”
Tampa Bay invested plenty in its defensive front this year after finishing dead last in overall defense and sacks during the 2017 campaign.
Vea is the fulcrum. The rookie’s size and strength at the point of attack will allow everyone else to accomplish more. Gerald McCoy won’t face as many double-teams. Defensive ends Jason Pierre-Paul and Vinny Curry, meanwhile, will benefit from the pocket collapsing. His presence in the lineup is crucial for the unit to improve upon last year’s pathetic effort.
“He’s a big, strong anchor point, and he can rush the passer,” defensive coordinator Mike Smith said during the early portions of training camp, per the Tampa Bay Times‘ Rick Stroud. “So we’re excited. It’s early. We’ve got to just keep tugging along and find out the right [defensive line] mix.”
Fortunately, the Bucs haven’t lost the 12th overall pick for the season. Koetter didn’t provide a specific timetable, but Vea will be back sooner rather than later.
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Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
Don’t hold your breath waiting for Khalil Mack to sign a long-term extension with the Oakland Raiders. At this point, the organization hasn’t talked with his representation since February, and there are no offers on the table, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport.
The report came less than a day after head coach Jon Gruden downplayed Mack’s importance.
“We weren’t very good last year on defense with Khalil Mack,” Gruden said during an interview on NFL Network (via Pro Football Talk’s Michael David Smith). “… We’ve got to get a better pass rush, we’ve got to play better defense, period. And we hope Khalil gets here, but in the time being, we’ve got plenty of guys who need work.”
General manager Reggie McKenzie didn’t offer any clarity either.
“Khalil is my guy,” McKenzie said, per The Athletic’s Vic Tafur. “… It’s unfortunate that we have to go through this. But his camp decided to do it this way … and Khalil is not the first guy to hold out. But we’ll get through this. But there is nothing really to report. He is going to hold out until he gets an extension, and that’s where we are.”
Rapoport’s report combined with the Raiders’ comments point toward an extensive and contentious holdout. Financial flexibility is also an issue. Oakland needs to create salary-cap space to make an offer commensurate with Mack’s value, since the team only has $4.5 million available, per Spotrac.
The situation is quickly souring for the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year, and it could mean the difference between Mack re-signing or considering other options after the 2018 campaign.
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Stephen Brashear/Associated Press
A healthy team is one thing general managers and coaches pray for at night. Teams want their projected starters, especially their top performers, to remain healthy during training camp.
The Seattle Seahawks aren’t so fortunate. Both their leading receiver, Doug Baldwin, and their second-best pass-rusher, Dion Jordan, will miss significant portions of training camp and the preseason.
Head coach Pete Carroll said Baldwin, who managed 991 or more receiving yards in each of the last three seasons, is dealing with an unspecified knee injury, per ESPN.com’s Brady Henderson:
“We’re gonna give him a couple weeks here before we bring him back out to make sure that we’ve ramped him back up properly. He came into camp a little bit off and we just want to make sure that we take care of him. … He’s doing some special treatments to make sure that we’re taking care of him, and we want to bring him back into shape so we can really get him ready for the long haul.”
Carroll’s unwillingness to specify Baldwin’s injury combined with his description of the receiver being “a little bit off” makes one wonder if the situation could linger into the regular season.
Jordan, meanwhile, is dealing with a “stress issue” in his leg after requiring offseason surgery on the other one.
“He’s going to be [out] a while,” Carroll said, per the Tacoma News Tribune‘s Gregg Bell.
With both contributors laid up for an unspecified amount of time, the Seahawks are looking for help.
“We are always shopping,” the coach added.