NFL

Top eight storylines for NFL training camps

Ezekiel Elliott Dallas Cowboys Philadelphia Eagles
Vincent Frank
Written by Vincent Frank

Now that the NFL is into training camp season, it’s finally time for teams to look ahead to the 2017 campaign. From quarterback competitions throughout the league to three California teams set to play under first-year head coaches, there’s a lot of stories to focus on as camps get going.

Though, issues surrounding two of the best running backs in the game will be the talk of the water cooler. Will Le’Veon Bell report to Pittsburgh Steelers training camp in a timely manner? Bell has yet to sign the franchise tag tender thrown his way and seems to be upset over his contract.

Meanwhile, in Dallas, there’s some major concern that Ezekiel Elliott might be suspended by the NFL due to a plethora of off-field incidents. Will that dark cloud hang over the Cowboys for the duration of camp?

These are among the top-eight storylines for NFL training camps.

1. Cleveland Browns’ quarterback situation 

DeShone Kizer throws during Cleveland Browns OTAs

Coming off a one-win season, Cleveland really isn’t facing pressure to contend immediately. Surely, second-year head coach Hue Jackson and Co. would love to improve leaps and bounds. But expectations have to be muted. This remains one of the most talent-stricken rosters in the NFL.

It’s led to widespread speculation that Cleveland might very well go with rookie second-round pick DeShone Kizer under center out of the gate. He was extremely impressive during off-season workouts. And while the Notre Dame product remains incredibly raw, he has to be seen as the future at this position in Cleveland.

Kizer will be going up against the likes of Cody Kessler and veteran acquisition Brock Osweiler for the starting job. Both bring something different to the table. Kessler was pretty darn impressive in limited playing time as a rookie. Meanwhile, Osweiler offers more starting experience than Kessler and Kizer combined.

With all that said, Cleveland might very well be best off simply going with Kizer here. He will struggle at times. And in reality, the chances of the Browns jumping any other team in the AFC North remains unlikely. Why not throw Kizer out there and see what he can offer?

After all, Cleveland is flush with five picks in the first two rounds of the 2018 NFL Draft. It’s one of the most-talented quarterback classes in recent league history. If Kizer proves himself to be a downright failure, that enables Cleveland to gain a clearer picture of its rebuild process. If he succeeds, then other areas of the roster can be addressed early and often next spring.

2. Le’Veon Bell 

Le'Veon Bell Antonio Brown, Jan 8, 2017; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) celebrates with Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) after scoring a touchdown against the Miami Dolphins in the AFC Wild Card playoff football game at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Bell doesn’t have to report to camp until he signs the franchise tender. He will not be fined. And we fully expect the Pro Bowl running back to milk this time as a way to prove a point to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Bell is seeking a long-term deal that would make him the highest-paid running back in the NFL.

Pittsburgh seems to be in a holding pattern here, especially after it offered a lucrative contract prior to the deadline for an extension earlier in July (more on that here).

There’s definitely a lot to look at here. On the field, Bell has proven himself to be right up there with Ezekiel Elliott and David Johnson as one of the most-dynamic backs in the game. Last season saw him put up nearly 1,900 total yards in just 12 games.

The issue with Pittsburgh holding tight on not upping its offer is the fact that Bell was suspended the first three games of the season for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. He then underwent off-season surgery to repair a groin injury. Off-field issues coupled with continual injury problems has played a major role in negotiations between the two sides.

Should Bell decide to hold out through training camp, it could end up causing a large rift within the Steelers’ locker room. In fact, there’s been a couple messages thrown Bell’s way by Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown just recently.

“We need him (Bell). I need him,” Brown said, via ESPN. “If we’re going to do what we desire to do, we need every guy a part of the organization in a helmet to be there committed to the cause.”

We don’t need to tell you how rifts between star teammates can impact the ability of a squad to overcome every other obstacle a season brings. This will all be thrown out the window should Bell report early. But the expectation as of now is that he will be a lengthy “hold out.” For a Steelers team with Super Bowl expectations, that’s most definitely a less-than-ideal scenario.

3. Checking in on Marshawn Lynch’s return

The Oakland Raiders finished last season sixth in rushing. It’s a stat most don’t pay attention to, especially considering the likes of Latavius Murray, DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard were nothing to really write home about. Add in just how dominant the Raiders’ offense was through the air and that’s magnified even further.

What makes Lynch’s presence on his hometown Raiders so intriguing is just how good Oakland’s offensive line was from a run-blocking perspective last season. Simply put, Gabe Jackson and Kelechi Osemele absolutely dominated the trenches against AFC West competition.

After taking a season off, it’s quite possible that a re-energized Lynch could be back up to his old tricks with the Raiders in 2017. All reports from off-season activities indicated that he looked spry. In the end, this could be an absolute boon for a Raiders team that clearly has Super Bowl aspirations.

Let’s also not forget that Washington and Richard combined for over 1,200 total yards while averaging a robust 5.6 yards per rush last season.

If these three backs can help the Raiders’ rushing attack reach elite status, Derek Carr and Co. could very well flush out the Patriots to earn a spot in the Super Bowl. How Lynch looks during camp and the preseason will go a long way in determining whether this actually happens and how much he plays.

4. Injuries

Teddy Bridgewater

Last year saw the Minnesota Vikings’ world turn upside down after starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater suffered a devastating knee injury during the summer. It was a major blow for the team’s hopes of returning to the playoffs. It also forced Minnesota to exhaust a first-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft in order to acquire Sam Bradford from the Philadelphia Eagles. It’s these types of injuries that can impact the NFL regular season.

We’re not going to sit back and project certain players to get injured. That would be in poor taste. But we do know that valuable players will indeed go down to season-ending injuries during training camp and the preseason.

This puts the NFL in a tough situation. Sure it wants an entertaining preseason product. It also wants to make sure interest in the game is there once the regular season comes calling. Unfortunately, limitations teams have in terms of off-season workouts have led to an increase in training camp and preseason injuries.

Heck, it was just earlier this month that members of the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers broke from their rivalry to workout together in Hawaii. Such is the nature of the beast when players themselves are forced to work out on their own without the supervision of a coaching staff or organization-wide medical teams.

Football fans and analysts the world over want to see every player come through training camp without injuries. It just leads to a better regular-season product. Unfortunately, this simply has not been the case in the modern NFL. If we see a multitude of top-end players go down this summer, it might force the NFL to act.

5. Finding something that works in Seattle

Russell Wilson gets sacked, a big problem for the Seahawks heading into training camp

The Seattle Seahawks are not being bandied about as title contenders heading into training camp. This, despite the fact that Seattle is coming off an NFC West-winning 2016 campaign. Instead, the likes of the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers are being mentioned as legit title contenders over Seattle. And there are a few solid reasons for this.

Despite Russell Wilson’s ability to avoid serious injuries, his offensive line has been an unmitigated disaster over the past several seasons. That didn’t change in 2016, with Wilson being pressured at the third-highest clip in the NFL. This is an absolutely shocking statistic considering the quarterback’s ability to break from the pocket and avoid pressure. It also tells us a story of a Seahawks front office, led by GM John Schneider, who has failed to give Wilson a decent offensive line.

This past offseason was no different. Seattle added former Jacksonville Jaguars first-round bust Luke Joeckel in free agency during the spring. Joeckel, who has yet to prove himself to be a starter-caliber offensive lineman in the NFL, will compete to start at either left tackle or left guard.

Incumbent left tackle George Fant was a downright disaster at that position last year. This isn’t too much of a surprise, especially considering it was the first time Fant had played the blindside since eighth grade. Seriously, eighth grade. Mark Glowinski will switch to right guard after starting all 16 games on the left side last season. Glowinski and center Justin Britt remain Seattle’s two top offensive linemen. That’s definitely not saying too much about this unit.

Then, at right tackle, 2016 first-round pick Germain Ifedi will get a chance to start after an injury-plagued and ineffective rookie season. He will compete with rookie mid-round pick Ethan Pocic, who played primarily at center while at LSU. Ouch.

Seattle’s offense took a major step back in 2016. Some of that had to do with the absence of Marshawn Lynch. Though, the team’s offensive line surely didn’t help Wilson out in the passing game. This was magnified by a lackluster rushing attack that finished with its worst ranking of the Pete Carroll era. In this, Seattle decided to take a chance on an injury-prone and recently out-of-shape Eddie Lacy to team up with another injury-prone back, Thomas Rawls.

Should the Seahawks’ running game fail to do anything of substance in 2017, it will put more pressure on Wilson to succeed through the air. And with one of the least-proven and talent-stricken offensive lines in the NFL, that could spell doom for Carroll and Co. It will definitely be interesting to see how this plays out during training camp.

6. Potential veteran cuts

We focused on this a bit earlier in the month. Every single year, there are some veterans who find themselves as surprise cuts during the summer.

Is it possible that new San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan decides to move on from Carlos Hyde completely? This seems to be a decent end result given recent reports and the fact that San Francisco is incredibly high on rookie running back Joe Williams.

What about Jamaal Charles in Denver? The former All-Pro running back signed a team-friendly deal with his former AFC West rivals. Immediately, questions arose about whether Charles himself was guaranteed a roster spot. Given that he’s not 100 percent ready to return to the field, that remains a real possibility.

Not only will this depend on Charles’ ability to remain healthy, what we see from C.J. Anderson and Devontae Booker during camp would play a large role in Charles’ future in Denver.

We’re also intrigued to see how the New York Jets’ quarterback situation plays out. Free agent acquisition Josh McCown has the inside slant to start.

However, it’s the battle between two unimpressive youngsters in Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg that is most intriguing. There’s a real chance Hackenberg, who was selected in the second round just over a year ago, will be cut loose. To say he was not impressive during offseason workouts would be a major understatement (more on that here).

We can go up and down the line, focusing on one player from each team. Heck, maybe that’s a solid article idea. In any event, look for some surprise cuts during camp.

7. California’s trio of new head coaches 

Out in California, all eyes will be on Los Angeles and Santa Clara, where a combined three coaches will take over new teams. In Southern California, this includes the newly-minted Los Angeles Chargers and head coach Anthony Lynn.

Can the former Buffalo Bills interim man prove to be worthy of a long-term gig with the Chargers? Lynn had been a finalist for multiple head coaching jobs in the past. But after Mike McCoy failed to help the Chargers out of mediocrity, they turned to the long-time assistant.

With Philip Rivers entering the twilight of his career, the Chargers remain in win-now mode. Unfortunately, this is a team that has not won more than nine games since 2009 and is coming off its worst two-year run since the ill-fated Ryan Leaf era.

Remaining in Los Angeles, the Rams returned home last season to less-than-stellar reviews. It led to the firing of Jeff Fisher and some absolutely abysmal play from rookie No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff. In all, the Rams put up a grand total of four wins themselves.

With Fisher now somewhere roaming an airport, former Washington Redskins offensive coordinator Sean McVay has been called on to run the ship. He also brought over long-time assistant coach Wade Phillips to coordinate the defense after he had a ton of success in Denver.

Still talent stricken and attempting to figure out what they have in Goff under center, the 2017 season will primarily be defined by how Los Angeles’ group of youngsters perform. That includes Goff and fellow former top-10 pick Todd Gurley, who struggled significantly as a sophomore last season.

Feb 9, 2017; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan during a press conference at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Though, the biggest turnabout in California has to be what the San Francisco 49ers did. After going through three head coaches in as many seasons, San Francisco turned to a prodigy of an offensive mind in Kyle Shanahan.

He’s the reigning NFL Assistant Coach of the Year and just helped lead his former Atlanta Falcons team to the Super Bowl. Teaming up with first-year general manager John Lynch, Shanahan has changed the entire landscape of the 49ers’ roster. By our projections, the 49ers will have upwards of 30 new players from their two-win 2016 campaign.

No one expects San Francisco to contend for a playoff spot, but this is a much more talented squad than the one we saw take the field last season. Brian Hoyer gives a veteran presence under center. Meanwhile, the 49ers’ defense is absolutely loaded with young talent. At the very least, 2017 should be an exciting season for fans in Northern California.

8. Ezekiel Elliott and the Boys

Will Elliott be suspended? That’s the biggest question surrounding the defending NFC East champions heading into training camp. By now, the Elliott story is well known.

The league is on the verge of wrapping up its investigation of multiple off-field incidents, including domestic violence allegations. With this, there’s a decent chance Elliott himself will be suspended for some time to start the regular season. Heck, it appears that Dallas is already making contingency plans.

As one of the top teams in the NFL, Dallas simply needs to make sure Elliott keeps his nose clean off the field. After all, there’s been a whole plethora of off-field incidents surrounding this squad over the past two years. And for his part, Elliott is likely the team’s second-most important player behind second-year backfield mate Dak Prescott.

An All Pro performer, some could make the logical argument that Elliott himself was a MVP candidate as a rookie. He put up nearly 2,000 total yards and 16 touchdowns while averaging 5.1 yards per rush.

Unfortunately for the Cowboys, their training camp will be marred by Elliott’s off-field drama. Will the NFL make a determination early in camp? If not, how will that impact the early part of Dallas’ regular season schedule?

And if Elliott himself were to be suspended for some time, how would this impact the Cowboys’ hopes of returning to the Super Bowl for the first time in well over 20 years? That’s a major storyline.

About the author

Vincent Frank

Vincent Frank

Editor-at-large, Sportsnaut.

“You were born with wings, why prefer to crawl through life?” Rumi