The Colts are back in quarterback purgatory, while three of the Cowboys’ biggest stars can’t get on the field. Yup, the first week of training camp has a way of making those preseason magazines feel prematurely stale.
It’s still early. Last Friday, the day before the Bucs became only the third team allowed to put their pads on, coach Bruce Arians told Tom Brady that “soccer practice” season was over. The rest of the league can join the Bucs in pads by Tuesday, and then competition for jobs will pick up. In the meantime, let’s break down what we learned from our first set of practices for the 2021 season:
1) Carson Wentz’s foot surgery makes the Titans the AFC South favorites, if they weren’t already. Colts coach Frank Reich announced Monday that Wentz will be out 5-12 weeks following foot surgery to repair an injury that became apparent during one of the first practices of camp last week, when Wentz reportedly felt his foot “pop.” If nothing else, dealing with the fallout from the surgery could be better than the uncertainty that would have followed if Wentz had instead tried to rehab the injury without undergoing surgery.
That said, it’s fair to wonder about Wentz’s mobility and readiness whenever he does return to the field. He will have missed all of training camp in his new-old system with Frank Reich, who was Wentz’s offensive coordinator with the Eagles in 2016-17. There were already plenty of reasons to doubt whether Wentz would succeed in Indianapolis, primarily his 2020 tape. Wentz has always struggled to make quick decisions with the ball, instead relying on his athleticism to bail him out of difficult situations. Requiring a compromised post-surgery Wentz to win with decision-making rather than second-reaction plays is essentially requiring him to not be Carson Wentz.
That “5-12 week” range is a large one. The Colts open the season with five straight opponents that won at least 10 games in 2020, so it’s not exactly a great time of year to be experimenting with unproven quarterbacks.
The Colts signed Brett Hundley over the weekend in the wake of Wentz’s injury. The young journeyman immediately becomes the team’s most accomplished quarterback on the roster (nine career starts) and is probably a better option to play than 2020 fourth-round pick Jacob Eason, who has reportedly struggled in practices thus far. Still, Reich said Monday that the job was Eason’s to lose.
“He’s gotta earn it, but he’s in the driver’s seat,” Reich said.
Sixth-round rookie Sam Ehlinger and 2020 undrafted free agent Jalen Morton are also there, but I don’t expect any of them to start Week 1 if Wentz can’t make it back in time. And I don’t think the Colts should stop quarterback-shopping just because Wentz is expected to be back this season. Their season could be all but over by the time he’s ready to play again, and there’s no guarantee he’ll stay on the field once he’s back.
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The situation reminds me of 2017, when I traveled to Indianapolis to watch Scott Tolzien, Stephen Morris and Phillip Walker struggle to complete half their passes in training camp practices while then-starter Andrew Luck rehabbed before ultimately missing the whole season. The Colts wound up acquiring Jacoby Brissett, and he was on the field before the season-opener was over.
Brissett, now a backup in Miami, probably isn’t available this time around. Nick Foles, who is in Chicago, would be a logical target because of his history with Frank Reich in Philadelphia — except for Foles’ history with Wentz. But the Colts shouldn’t be worried about optics or even Wentz’s feelings. Brissett, Gardner Minshew, Marcus Mariota or even Cam Newton could possibly be targets as August winds down, but I suspect Wentz’s expected return will prevent the Colts from being aggressive.
The worst outcome here is that Wentz returns early at less than 100 percent and then struggles, leaving the Colts with more questions at quarterback than ever. For all the team building general manager Chris Ballard and Reich have done in recent years, the Colts’ defense has a lot of new parts up front and some new offensive line questions, with free-agent addition Eric Fisher recovering from a torn ACL at left tackle and center Ryan Kelly already out a few weeks with an injury. The receiving weapons (T.Y. Hilton, Michael Pittman, Parris Campbell) aren’t better than league average.
The AFC South could wind up like last year’s NFC East, which featured a team with a losing record making the playoffs. The Jaguars are coming off a one-win season, and the Texans have the worst roster in football. There’s no sense in the Colts giving up the ghost in the first week of August, but Mike Vrabel’s staff in Tennessee should recognize their opportunity.
The Titans have an experienced coaching staff that has put up a winning record in three straight seasons. They have a veteran roster, a new Hall of Famer to play with in Julio Jones and some new defensive pieces that look good on paper. This is their division to lose.
2) COVID-19 is still having a major impact on how the NFL season is conducted. Washington Football Team coach Ron Rivera, who pointed out he is immunocompromised after his recent bout with cancer, all but begged his players to be vaccinated. Washington reportedly has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the league and now has seven players on their COVID-19 list, including guard Brandon Scherff.
Lamar Jackson tested positive for COVID-19 for a second time to start training camp, leaving Sammy Watkins to catch passes from Trace McSorley and Tyler Huntley in practice. Raiders running back Theo Riddick retired after testing positive for COVID-19, with teammate Josh Jacobs saying the test result was the last straw for Riddick.
Vikings rookie quarterback Kellen Mond tested positive, with fellow quarterbacks Kirk Cousins and Nate Stanley also out of practice as close contacts; the team announced Monday that Mond, Cousins and Stanley were all placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Jake Browning, who is vaccinated and not subject to the same rules, has taken upwards of 80-100 throws per day as the only quarterback in camp in the meantime. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was not thrilled.
“You know, quite honestly, after everything we went through last year, I’m not surprised one bit,” Zimmer said Saturday. “I am disappointed that this happened. I’m frustrated, not just with my football players who didn’t get vaccinated, but I’m frustrated with everybody (who didn’t). We’ll just do the best we can. It’s just disappointing.”
3) Incidentally, Sammy Watkins is looking like he’s back to form in Ravens camp by all accounts. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman said he was one of the best receivers in the league! I’m hesitant to buy into too much Watkins offseason hype after hearing it all before, but that sort of belief from the Ravens coaching staff shows what type of role Watkins can expect if he stays healthy.
4) The Ravens’ signing of the 32-year-old Justin Houston, like the Steelers’ signing of the 32-year-old Melvin Ingram, shouldn’t be overlooked. Houston was still a capable starter last year for the Colts, and the Ravens have a way of getting the best out of a savvy veteran like Houston. Between Houston, second-year defensive tackle Justin Madubuike and rookie first-rounder Odafe Oweh, the Ravens may find some pressures in surprising places for their seemingly depleted pass rush.
5) Dolphins coach Brian Flores said Monday that talks with disgruntled cornerback Xavien Howard are moving in the “right direction,” a sign that Howard’s trade request is going to result in a similar outcome as Aaron Rodgers’ recent displeasure with the Packers. Howard continues to sit out of practice, but it sounds like he could return to the field, possibly with a cosmetic adjustment to his contract, like shortening the deal.
6) Patriots receiver N’Keal Harry also requested a trade this offseason, but it’s hard to imagine there was much of a market for him after two disappointing years. Harry now says he’s all for making the Patriots’ roster, and Bill Belichick says they have a great relationship. The 2019 first-round pick would probably be the Patriots’ fourth receiver if he were to make the team. Belichick likely isn’t interested in depleting the depth of a position group with so many question marks.
7) Eagles first-round pick DeVonta Smith is officially “week-to-week” after hurting his knee over the weekend. I’ve seen enough “week-to-week” camp designations in Philadelphia to assume that means at least two weeks — indeed, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Smith is expected to miss 2-3 weeks. That’s nothing to panic about, but it also wouldn’t be a surprise to read a June 2022 article describing how the receiver never quite caught up to speed after missing his first NFL training camp.
8) Every camp injury seems to come with the assurance that “there’s no need to worry” or it’s “nothing serious.” Some of those efforts to calm the public will be proven right. Some will be proven misleading. The reality is that no one knows, because the human body is complicated, and teams don’t sit players for weeks for no reason. They want them out there!
This is even true of Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott taking off some time for a sore shoulder. No matter how much he’s running in practice or telling us it doesn’t matter, the fact is that the Cowboys needed an MRI on his throwing shoulder. And now it’s not clear if he’ll be out a few days or, based on reports, a few weeks.
Hopefully, the injury turns out to be of limited impact. But this is the same organization that didn’t even tell us DeMarcus Lawrence had back surgery this offseason until they absolutely had to. They insist that injury is of no concern. Amari Cooper, now on Month 7 of rehab after his ankle surgery, is also apparently of no concern whatsoever!
I would love anyone banking on the most optimistic projections regarding these injuries to undergo rehab on their back or ankle for seven months and then say it’s minor. Maybe all three Cowboys will be fine. Maybe none of them will be truly 100 percent. In the NFL, we never seem to know until the following offseason, when beat writers write an explanatory column with the player admitting they “were never quite right.”
9) Enough with the doom and gloom in Dallas. It’s worth pointing out that left tackle Tyron Smith and linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, two of the most gifted talents at their positions in football when they are right, showed up to camp looking as healthy and fresh as they have in years. They would make an enormous difference for the Cowboys if they are at their best.
10) Even players on the field can raise concerns about injuries. I was not excited to see the report from longtime Dolphins beat writer Adam Beasley, now writing for Pro Football Network, that No. 6 overall pick Jaylen Waddle is still walking with a limp, and there’s concern he doesn’t yet have the explosiveness he had before the injury that impacted his National Championship game appearance.
11) There is no historical precedent for what’s happening in Houston with Deshaun Watson. He’s a proven top-five quarterback who is currently being investigated for criminal complaints by the Houston police and facing over 20 civil allegations of sexual assault and misconduct while he attempts to continue his career.
He has been allowed to return to the field while the legal cases are in process. Except he’s lining up as the Texans’ fourth quarterback while we read reports that they are willing to trade him. The Texans’ actions indicate they don’t have plans to actually suit him up on Sundays, which means this state of limbo cannot last as is. Someone needs to clarify what Watson’s status is for 2021 sooner than later. Pretending he’s the Texans’ QB4 is not sustainable.
12) I thought it was fascinating that Browns owner Jimmy Haslam quietly mentioned a contract extension for Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta on the same day the team confirmed running back Nick Chubb’s new three-year, $36 million deal. DePodesta is such a big part of the history of sports analytics that Jonah Hill essentially played him in Moneyball. The analytics community in football has been tied for so long to the notion of devaluing running backs, but Chubb’s contract was an example of how that discussion has evolved.
Chubb probably could have pushed for more money, but the $20 million fully guaranteed he received represents a big pay raise without putting the Browns at long-term risk. It’s essentially a two-year deal, not so different from the one the Titans signed Derrick Henry to last year. It’s not that running backs don’t matter. The very best of the best, like Henry and Chubb, are well worth rewarding — just not with the types of deals that Todd Gurley or Ezekiel Elliott received, which guaranteed quarterback-like money deep into those players’ contracts.
13) I try to avoid falling for first-week camp hype, especially when the story is about how a shifty slot receiver can’t be covered in non-padded practices. That said, I’m falling for all the Adam Humphries stories in Washington! Ryan Fitzpatrick got Humphries paid by serving up over 100 targets per season when they were together in Tampa. Humphries’ Tennessee run was injury-marred, but he’s still only 28 years old and clearly has the trust of his quarterback. If nothing else, Humphries adds another capable set of hands to the most fun on-paper Washington offense since the turn of the century.
14) It’s pretty clear Akhello Witherspoon is Seattle’s new No. 1 cornerback, wrote Michael Shawn-Dugar of the Athletic. That puts D.J. Reed at No. 2 and Marquise Blair as the likely favorite for the nickel corner job. Each player has some upside, but this is a long way from the Legion of Boom, without any sure things.
15) Jamal Adams is essentially having a “hold-in” in Seattle while he waits for a new contract, watching practices from the sidelines. The reality that neither Adams nor Pete Carroll appears to be sweating the situation indicates a deal is likely to come soon.
16) All signs out of 49ers camp indicate that Trey Lance is rolling. I’ve believed all along he will be the 49ers’ Week 1 starter if he excels in training camp and the preseason. It’s very early, and the Niners are sticking with Jimmy Garoppolo publicly, but the rookie looks on track thus far, just like Robert Griffin III did back in 2012, when he was going through camp with Kyle Shanahan in Washington.
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