What we learned by watching the Lions and Titans practice
The NFL preseason still has two weeks to go, but training camps across the league officially ended this weekend. Teams returned home, and players can sleep in their own beds again. Regular-season rules now apply to practices, which means they are closed to the public and open to the media only during stretching and warm-ups.
Your faithful columnist also returns home from a short camp tour last week. Instead of spending a third week in Foxborough, I hit the road to check out Detroit and Tennessee, two teams that are chock full of ex-Patriots and interesting story lines.
We already wrote about LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis, have a nice spread on Malcolm Butler in Sunday’s paper, and stories on Mike Vrabel, Matt Patricia, and Nate Solder forthcoming. But here are some other thoughts and observations from a week on the road, where we watched the Lions practice with the Giants and the Titans practice with the Buccaneers:
■ One of the bigger disappointments of the Lions-Giants practice was seeing rookie Saquon Barkley sitting on the sidelines and not participating because of a hamstring injury. Barkley sat out practice all week and Friday’s preseason game, though it appears the Giants are playing it safe with their first-round pick. He still wore his jersey and took mental reps in practice.
But boy, is the pressure on Barkley and the Giants for him to have a big year. Giants general manager Dave Gettleman ignored the detractors and the injury risk at running back by drafting Barkley No. 2 overall, giving him the highest guarantee of any running back in the league ($31.19 million over four years).
For the pick to pay off, Barkley has to make an immediate, Pro Bowl-caliber impact — say, lasting 16 games, and rushing for 1,200-plus yards. Yet he’s already dealing with a hamstring injury? And admitting that he needs to take better care of his body? Yikes.
■ It was tough to get a good feel for the Lions after spending just one day there. Patricia doesn’t offer much during his pre-practice news conferences, and only five or six players stopped for interviews after practice. One noticeable standout was seventh-year receiver Marvin Jones, who is coming off his first 1,000-yard season. He displayed an impressive catch radius on Tuesday and came down with several tough catches in traffic, including a touchdown in team drills.
But Patricia clearly has his team’s attention. He went to six Super Bowls with the Patriots, winning three. The Lions have won just one playoff game since 1957.
“I just feel like he demands greatness,” fifth-year cornerback Nevin Lawson said. “I try to soak in everything that he says and talks about, because I know he’s seen what greatness looks like. He’s a high-demanding guy — even if you think you’re doing good, you’re probably not doing good, so the expectation is very high.”
■ Spending two days at Titans camp was an eye-opening experience, especially for a reporter who mainly deals with the Patriots. While the Patriots (and Lions) require media to watch practice in a designated area in the end zone, the Titans allow reporters to watch all of practice from the sidelines, as long as they stay along the outsides and don’t walk in the middle. I was literally standing in the middle of the Titans’ bench during a scrimmage with the Buccaneers, waiting for someone to yank me out of there, but it never happened.
Of course, there are still rules, such as no photography or video during team periods, and no direct quoting of coaches talking to players. But it was an unbelievable way to watch practice — like watching a live episode of “Hard Knocks.”
You see how the coaches interact with the players. You hear the Titans special teams coach yelling at a youngster that they can’t have seven players on one side of the line during a field goal. You hear players chatting about their teammates and opponents. And like NASCAR, you don’t get a good feel for the speed of the action until you watch it from up close.
■ The one player who stood out when watching the Buccaneers: second-year tight end O.J. Howard. The 19th overall pick last year, Howard is noticeably big on the field — 6 feet 6 inches and 250 pounds — and has the athleticism to dominate linebackers and safeties. Sure enough, I overheard several Titans defenders saying they couldn’t believe how big and athletic Howard is. Howard caught six touchdown passes as a rookie and could be in for a big year if the quarterbacks can get him the ball.
■ Speaking of, it was interesting to see Ryan Fitzpatrick take the bulk of the work with the starting offense over two days. Jameis Winston will be suspended for the first three games, and the Buccaneers have spent training camp getting Fitzpatrick ready to go. Whether it’s also part punishment for Winston, it was interesting that the Bucs didn’t get more first-team work for their potential franchise quarterback, who is in a make-or-break year as the team decides whether to keep him on his fifth-year option next season. For what it’s worth, I wasn’t overly impressed with Winston’s throwing mechanics — he has a big arm but a lot of wobble in his throws.
■ Winston isn’t the only Buccaneer in a make-or-break year. Coach Dirk Koetter is on the hot seat after no playoffs in two years and a 5-11 record last year. And the Bucs face quite the challenge to start the regular season. Their first three games are at New Orleans (11-5 last year), vs. Philadelphia (13-3), and vs. Pittsburgh (13-3), which is the toughest three-game stretch to open the season by any team in the 53-year Super Bowl era, per NFL research. And he’ll have to navigate those games with Fitzpatrick, his journeyman backup. Good luck.
■ The Titans have one of the deepest cornerback groups in the league, with Butler joining Logan Ryan and last year’s first-round pick, Adoree’ Jackson. Interestingly, when the Titans were in base defense last week, Jackson and Ryan were the outside corners, and Butler, the $61 million free agent signing, was on the sideline. When the Titans went to nickel, Ryan kicked to the slot and Butler took over at right cornerback.
Butler spent two days scrapping with DeSean Jackson and Mike Evans, looking just like the player who battled Julian Edelman and Tom Brady for four years in practice. Butler certainly wasn’t perfect, but he was great in team drills on Wednesday, knocking two consecutive passes away from Evans, who stands 6 inches taller. Butler also got under Evans’s skin, as Evans complained to the officials about defensive holding.
■ Speaking of officials, the crew at the Titans-Buccaneers practices, headed by referee Clay Martin, also worked Lions-Raiders joint practices the week before. Martin, an NFL official since 2015, is one of four new referees this season. One of the officials from his crew noted that it was rare to work two camps in a preseason. But with so much turnover in officiating this offseason, the NFL is making sure its officials are getting plenty of reps in camp, too.
GIVE AND GO
Many 2014 WRs failed to stick
If 1983 was “the year of the quarterback,” the 2014 NFL Draft was definitely “the year of the wide receiver.” Twelve receivers were taken in the top two rounds, five of them have made the Pro Bowl, and the draft produced star players such as Odell Beckham, Mike Evans, Jarvis Landry, plus solid contributors such as Brandin Cooks, Sammy Watkins, and Allen Robinson.
But a funny thing has happened to the receivers, as they hit free agency this past summer or are set to become free agents next year — despite their success, their original teams didn’t want to keep most of them.
Of the 12 receivers taken in the first or second round in 2014, only Evans, Marqise Lee, and Davante Adams have gotten second contracts from the teams that drafted them. Evans re-signed with the Buccaneers this offseason for $55 million guaranteed, Lee will get $16.5 million guaranteed over the next two years with the Jaguars, and Adams re-signed with the Packers on New Year’s Eve for $32 million over the next two seasons.
Beckham is still to be determined, as he is playing on his fifth-year option and is being patient with his extension negotiations with the Giants.
Otherwise? Cooks is now on his third team despite three straight 1,000-yard seasons. Watkins is now on his third team despite catching 25 TD passes in four seasons. Landry made three Pro Bowls in Miami but was traded him to Cleveland. The Jaguars let Robinson walk away and sign with Chicago. All four players got paid big money, just not by their original teams.
Kelvin Benjamin is on his second team, playing on his fifth-year option this year with Buffalo. The Seahawks let Paul Richardson walk, and he got $13 million guaranteed over two seasons from Washington. Cody Latimer was a bust in Denver, and he’s hoping to catch on with the Giants. Jordan Matthews scored 19 touchdowns in three seasons with the Eagles, but he flamed out with the Bills, was released this month by the Patriots, and is currently out of the league.
It’s an interesting postscript to a draft class that looks, on paper, to be one of the best ever.
Brady’s deal aimed at Gronk?
A few Patriots thoughts:
■ Tom Brady’s amended contract was a bit of a head scratcher, as he didn’t get extra years tacked on, he didn’t receive a big signing bonus, and he only got $5 million in incentives, which he has to earn with top-five performances in several statistical categories.
But I wonder — was Brady really doing management a favor? You’ll notice the Patriots haven’t announced a new contract with Rob Gronkowski, who not only wants a pay increase from $8 million, but wants it in the form of guaranteed money, not incentives, like he received last year.
But now the Patriots can go to Gronk and say, “We didn’t give Brady any extra guaranteed money, and we’re not going to do it for you, either.” If Brady can only get incentives, maybe that’s all the Patriots are willing to give Gronk.
■ We all assume that the Patriots will try to draft their next franchise quarterback next April. And they certainly have the extra draft picks to do it. But as one league source told us, don’t be surprised if Teddy Bridgewater eventually ends up in New England, or even for Jacoby Brissett to return.
With Sam Darnold looking more and more likely to win the starting job, and Josh McCown getting a $5 million signing bonus to mentor him, Bridgewater is squarely on the trading block this camp, a source confirmed. Bridgewater has earned $1 million from the Jets already, but his $5 million salary isn’t guaranteed until Week 1, and he has an additional $9 million in incentives. The Jets almost certainly won’t do a trade with the Patriots, but Bridgewater will be a free agent again next year.
■ As for Brissett, he isn’t going anywhere this year, given Andrew Luck’s tenuous shoulder injury. Our league source said the Seahawks recently offered a second-round pick for Brissett, who was coached last year in Indianapolis by current Seahawks quarterbacks coach Brian Schottenheimer, but the Colts passed. This jibes with owner Jim Irsay’s recent comments, that the Colts wouldn’t even trade Brissett for a first-round pick.
But next year is a different story, and Brissett will be a free agent after 2019. The Patriots liked his toughness and composure, and they could look for a reunion down the road.
The new helmet penalty is causing confusion and drawing the ire of players and fans alike so far, but it’s part of a three-pronged initiative by the NFL and chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills this year called the “Injury Reduction Plan” after reported concussions increased by 16 percent last year.
One prong involves rule changes, such as the new 15-yard helmet penalty and the new kickoff rules. Another prong involves better-performing helmets, which we have seen in players such as Brady, who switched to a different model after his previous one was deemed unsafe by the NFL.
The third prong is requiring teams to share more information about concussions that occur during practices. The NFL asked teams to review their practice schedules and monitor contact drills during the early weeks of training camp. And when a player suffers a concussion in practice, the league requires the team to share the time during the preseason that it occurred, the drill in which it took place, and the player’s position.
Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey made plenty of news last week by trashing about half of the league’s quarterbacks, but he was absolutely correct in his evaluation of his own quarterback, Blake Bortles. The Jaguars went conservative in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship game and couldn’t hold on to a 20-10 lead. “We should have trusted him more to keep throwing it,” Ramsey told GQ. “We kinda got complacent and conservative. And I think that’s why we lost.” . . . Good for rookie linebacker Roquan Smith for sticking to his principles and not caving on the Bears’ insistence that his contract contain language that would void all of his guarantees if he were suspended for an on-field incident (such as the new helmet rule). Per Pro Football Talk, the team eventually relented and came up with a compromise that Smith’s guarantees would only void if he were suspended for three games or more. Shame on the Bears for taking a hard-line stance for so long and not meeting in the middle sooner . . . Bills fans flooded Andy Dalton’s foundation with donations in January after the Bengals quarterback beat the Ravens in Week 17 to get the Bills into the playoffs. Last week, Dalton announced his foundation’s board will be traveling to Buffalo soon to make a significant contribution to the Roswell Park Cancer Center . . . Great scene at Titans camp on Wednesday. A random fan presented second-year receiver Corey Davis with a football — the one he caught in the playoff loss to the Patriots in January for his first career NFL touchdown. Davis tossed the ball in the air, and teammate Quinton Spain handed it to a Titans fan in the stands. The unnamed fan came to Wednesday’s practice to return it, 215 days later. “I never thought I’d see this ball again, so it’s awesome, man,” Davis told the Titans’ website. “There’s some good people out there. That was so nice of him.”