Biggest training camp storyline for each NFL team

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

It’s the most optimistic time of the NFL calendar. All 32 teams are on equal footing with even some of the worst organizations thinking they can compete for a playoff spot.

Among those, the Cleveland Browns are about to be in the spotlight following the second winless 16-game season in NFL history. On the other end of the ledger, the New England Patriots head into camp following what was a drama-filled offseason for the team.

Over in the NFC, Captain Kirk is running the ship for a contending Minnesota Vikings squad while the Los Angeles Rams are looking like top-end Super Bowl contenders minus one small thing. It’s in this that we look at the top training camp storyline for each NFL team.

Arizona Cardinals: Josh Rosen’s opportunity

Despite handing Sam Bradford $20 million for one season, Arizona has not locked in on him as the starting quarterback. Sure the face of the franchise thinks Bradford should start over rookie top-10 pick Josh Rosen. But that is in no way etched in stone. Bradford will be held back in camp due to injury concerns that have derailed his career. It’s in this that Rosen will be given every opportunity to prove his worth during the summer.

Is Arizona locked in when it comes to competing for the NFC West title? We’re not too sure. If not, there’s a reasonable chance the UCLA product could get some early-season play. Heck, Rosen starting Week 1 is not completely off the table.

Atlanta Falcons: Finding the right mix in Steve Sarkisian’s offense

Matt Ryan is a former NFL MVP. They don’t grow on trees. Devonta Freeman has performed like a beast in recent seasons. Julio Jones might be the most dynamic receiver in the entire NFC. These components are not the reason why Atlanta’s offense went from averaging 33.8 points per game under Kyle Shanahan in 2016 to scoring nearly two touchdowns less per outing last season with Sark calling the shots. If this offense doesn’t look like a well-oiled machine during training camp, the issues we saw last season will likely extend to the regular year. That’s not what Falcons fans want to hear after a disappointing divisional round exit in 2017.

Baltimore Ravens: Lamar Jackson’s first camp

Joe Flacco is Joe Flacco. There’s no other way to go about explaining him. He has not been a starter-caliber quarterback since leading Baltimore to the Lombardi back in 2012. That’s why the Ravens traded back into the first round of April’s draft to select this former Heisman winner. Simply put, Jackson will be the talk of Owings Mills during camp. He has a real opportunity to at least earn playing time early in the regular season. At the very least, this is what the Ravens have been telling us publicly. Jackson is the outlier here, not Flacco. That will make him the biggest storyline as Baltimore’s preseason camp beings.

Buffalo Bills: Three-headed quarterback competition

There’s an old adage around the football world. It’s something akin to, “if you have more than one quarterback, you don’t really have any.” The idea is that unless a quarterback is etched in stone as the starter, your team’s situation at that position will be less-than-ideal. It almost seems as if this was written for the Buffalo Bills.

Fresh off their first playoff appearance since 1999, the Bills traded Pro Bowl quarterback Tyrod Taylor. They then added veteran backup A.J. McCarron after he was signed on the cheap. Oh, and second-year quarterback Nathan Peterman stands a chance to start after tossing five interceptions in one half of football as a rookie. Meanwhile, the wildly erratic Josh Allen exists. Like it or not, this competition will be the talk of Western New York during the summer.

Carolina Panthers: New pass catchers for Cam Newton

Super Cam asked for new targets early in the offseason after his receivers failed to do anything of substance in 2017. Carolina responded by trading for veteran Torrey Smith and selecting wide receiver D.J. Moore in the first round of April’s draft. Heck, it even added a depth option in that of Jarius Wright. We’re not too sure what all of this is going to do behind Devin Funchess on the depth chart. What we do know is that it’s a much better group than Newton had to throw to last season. We’re especially interested in seeing how the former MVP connects with Moore during camp. The Maryland product could be a real game changer as a rookie.

Chicago Bears: Matt Nagy’s offense and Mitchell Trubisky

As Trubisky was out there struggling last season, then head coach John Fox decided that in-game adjustments didn’t really make any sense. You know, actually being the head coach of a football team. It sounds harsh, but Trubisky’s rookie campaign was defined more by ineptitude within the coaching circles than anything else.

Now, starting anew under the offensive-minded Matt Nagy, expectations might very well be unreasonably high in the Windy City. But at least, they have expectations. After tossing seven touchdowns in 12 starts last season, it’s going to be interesting to see how Trubisky takes to Nagy’s offense during camp. After all, he just took part in his first full NFL offseason and it was under a well-respected offensive mind.

Cincinnati Bengals: John Ross’ defining moment

Defining as in, is Ross already a bust? Ross was the No. 9 overall pick in last year’s draft and failed to record a single catch during his rookie season. That’s certainly an impressive accomplishment. Rashaun Woods would be proud.

Now, with Cincinnati relying on a capped-out veteran in Brandon LaFell and a third-year receiver in Tyler Boyd, it’s high time that Ross has a defining game moment outside of his Seattle comfort zone. Should that not happen, this dude will be a bust before catching a single pass during the regular year. Ouch.

Cleveland Browns: In the spotlight

Who doesn’t find it hilarious that Cleveland was selected for HBO’s Hard Knocks after completing just the second winless 16-game regular season in NFL history? It’s made a bit more comical by the fact that Hue Jackson returns as head coach after posting a 1-31 record in his first two seasons.

The good news? Cleveland has some excitement heading into camp. Really. Rookie No. 1 pick Baker Mayfield will be challenging former Pro Bowler Tyrod Taylor for he starting job. Jarvis Landry joins Josh Gordon to form a dynamic one-two punch at receiver. Meanwhile, the Browns are absolutely stacked at running back. This team is in the spotlight during camp, but it might not be a total failure. Imagine that.

Dallas Cowboys: Life without Dez and Witten

Dallas might think it has solid replacements for these two all-time franchise greats in that of Allen Hurns and Rico Gathers, respectively. That’s fine. But until we see this new cast of pass catchers connect with Dak Prescott, questions are going to be abound. Prescott’s own struggles a sophomore last season magnifies this. If he was unable to do anything of substance with Bryant and Witten on the field, what are we to expect from the young signal caller? More than anything else, that will be that biggest storyline at the Star in Frisco this summer.

Denver Broncos: Paxton Lynch’s last opportunity

Now that the Broncos are settled at quarterback with Case Keenum, the question becomes whether John Elway and Co. are ready to completely cut ties with this former first-round pick after just two seasons. As he was a football player, Elway is too proud of a man to admit a mistake. But at what cost? Teams typically employ two active quarterbacks on game day, saving a spot for another position. Will Lynch be given a real opportunity to earn that spot simply because of where he was drafted? Former Mr. Irrelevant, Chad Kelly, might have something to say about that. It’s certainly an intriguing storyline.

Detroit Lions: Competition at running back

There’s a darn good chance that former starting running back Ameer Abdullah won’t break camp on the Lions’ 53-man roster. Detroit selected the studly Kerryon Johnson from Auburn in the second round of April’s draft. It also added veteran LeGarrette Blount to the mix in free agency. With catch-first back Theo Riddick already guaranteed a roster spot, that might very well leave Abdullah out in the cold. Though, the competition between Johnson and Blount for primary ball-carrier duties will be the larger story during Lions camp.

Green Bay Packers: New coordinators

Offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett and defensive head man Dom Capers were replaced by former NFL head coaches Joe Philbin and Mike Pettine, respectively. It’s a dramatic change for longtime Packers lead dog Mike McCarthy, one that suggests he might very well be on the hot seat.

With more experience helping him on offense, McCarthy is hopeful a healthy return of MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers will help that unit turn it around big time. Meanwhile, Capers’ ouster on the other side of the ball was a long time coming. With previous success as a defensive coordinator, Pettine should excel in Green Bay. Though, it’s certainly going to be interesting to see how smooth the transition goes during the summer.

Houston Texans: Health of Deshaun Watson and J.J. Watt

Strangely, the AFC South has become one of the most competitive divisions in football. That will be taken to a whole new level in 2018 should these two dynamos return to full health. And at this point, it seems that both Watson and Watt will be full participants in camp. Houston couldn’t ask for more. Watson was on a record-setting pace as a rookie last season before ultimately suffering a torn ACL. He’s a legit MVP candidate entering his sophomore campaign.

On the other hand, the 29-year-old Watt is coming off a two-year span that saw him play a total of eight games. Prior to that, Watt earned three NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards in four seasons, recording 69 sacks in the process. It will be interesting to see how he rebounds during camp.

Indianapolis Colts: Andrew Luck, duh

Andrew Luck was a huge winner during NFL minicamps

Indianapolis fully expects Luck to be back for camp after missing last season with a shoulder injury. But we’ve heard this story over and over again from the franchise. How they’ve handled the Luck situation remains one of the biggest black eyes in the modern history of the NFL. That’s not hyperbole. It has threatened to derail one of the most promising careers in today’s NFL. Needless to say, how Luck looks and performs during camp will tell us everything we need to know about both the quarterback and his organization heading into the 2018 season.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Acting like real contenders

Shockingly, Jacksonville came really close to unseating the New England Patriots in last year’s AFC Championship Game. It was a performance for the ages, led by one of the most dominating defenses in the league. The crazy thing here is that said defense includes youngsters such as Jalen Ramsey, A.J. Bouye, Myles Jack and Telvin Smith who have not hit their prime.

Heading into the 2018 season, it’s all about showing the maturity that comes with being a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Yes, that includes the recently extended Blake Bortles and second-year running back Leonard Fournette on offense. What we see from this team during camp will tell us the story.

Kansas City Chiefs: It’s Patrick Mahomes’ team

Taking control and leadership of the Chiefs won’t start Week 1 against the Los Angeles Chargers. For the second-year quarterback, it began immediately after Kansas City dealt Alex Smith. The next step in that maturation process for Mahomes will be to take control of his entire team during camp. This means putting players on blast behind the scenes, owning up to his own mistakes and carving out his own leaderhip niche. Mahomes might have one of the strongest arms in the game. He’s as skilled as any young signal caller. Those aren’t the only two components to success in the NFL. The sooner he realizes this, the better it will be for Kansas City.

Los Angeles Chargers: Emergence of elite football in Southern California

There’s a sense in Los Angeles that these Chargers are for real. Considered by most to the odds-on favorites in the AFC West, it’s all about Anthony Lynn’s squad building off a tremendous final three quarters of the 2017 campaign that saw the team post a 9-3 record. Philip Rivers is playing the best ball of his career. He has a legit supporting cast, led by running back Melvin Gordon and wide receiver Keenan Allen. The Chargers’ defense is one of the tops in the entire NFL. None of this means Los Angeles can afford to start slow out of the gate like it did last season. That’s why camp is so important for this squad.

Los Angeles Rams: Aaron Donald 

Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald

At this point, it seems readily apparent that reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald will holdout of training camp. It’s a pretty ridiculous situation for a Rams team that gave fellow defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh a large one-year contract in free agency and after recent acquisition Brandin Cooks was made one of the NFL’s highest-paid receivers.

Why not pay the league’s best defensive player what he’s worth? Whether it’s this summer or next March, Donald is going to completely reset the market. Why hold off on the inevitable at the cost of destroying everything you’ve built under the savant that is head coach Sean McVay? A lengthy holdout through camp could have wide-ranging early-season ramifications for the NFC West’s best team.

Miami Dolphins: Moving on from last season’s disappointment

Back in 2016, it seemed like head coach Adam Gase had changed the culture in South Beach. Miami earned its first playoff appearance since 2008 and was seemingly on the right track. Starting with the team’s handling of Ryan Tannehill and eventual decision to replace the injured quarterback with Jay Cutler, things went downhill fast last season.

Jay Ajayi proved to be a malcontent and was traded. Ndamukong Suh created issues himself within the organization. Now that both are no longer with the team and Tannehill is back healthy, the hope here is that Miami’s lack of cohesion last season was an outlier, not the overriding theme of Gase’s tenure. With new veteran pieces such as Frank Gore and Danny Amendola in the mix, it will be interesting to see if this squad changes its tune during camp.

Minnesota Vikings: Captain Kirk

Fresh off signing the first fully guaranteed multi-year contract in league history, Kirk Cousins finally feels like a wanted man. That’s something he never had in Washington. It should also lead to a renewed sense of leadership for the captain in his first camp with the Vikings. It’s something Cousins needs to take seriously, especially now that he heads a team with championship aspirations. More so than that, we’re intrigued to see how Cousins blends in with a talented group of skill-position players, including running back Dalvin Cook and wide receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs under first-year Vikings coordinator John DeFilippo.

New England Patriots: Drama, and a lot of it

Reports of a rift between head coach Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft gave in to retirement talk surrounding star tight end Rob Gronkowski. Heck, there’s still a chance Gronk is moved by Week 1 after committing to play this coming season. In between, Tom Brady was absent from organized team activities for the first time in years. Is Brady angling for a raise after taking considerable pay cuts to help New England extend its dynasty? This is a whole lot of drama for a team that’s earned eight Super Bowl appearances in the Belichick era. If any team can overcome these issues, it’s the Patriots. But it’s still something to keep an eye on as camp stars.

New Orleans Saints: Alvin Kamara’s featured role

With Mark Ingram suspended for the first four games of the season, New Orleans’ training camp will be spent getting this second-year back prepped for a featured role. Given that Kamara put up 1,554 total yards and 13 touchdowns en route to earning Rookie of the Year honors last season, the excitement is real in the Bayou. Said excitement could soon give in to the reality that Kamara has never really held down a featured back role dating back to his college days at Tennessee. Remember, the third-round pick ran the ball just 120 times as a rookie. He also never attempted more than 107 carries in his two seasons with the Volunteers.

New York Giants: Odell Beckham Jr.

Giants star WR Odell Beckham Jr.

After initially saying he would be present for the start of camp this summer, it’s now an open question whether OBJ will head to East Rutherford with the rest of his teammates. The story is by now well known. Looking for a new contract that will make him the highest-paid receiver in the game, Beckham is set to become a free agent following the 2018 campaign.

Following a 2017 season in which he missed all but four games to injury, Beckham’s importance to the Giants took a new meaning. This offense struggled mightily in his absence. And even with rookie No. 2 pick Saquon Barkley handling the rock at running back, Beckham remains the team’s most important offensive player.

New York Jets: Is Teddy a starter or a trade chip?

After signing an incentive-laden one-year contract in free agency, Bridgewater is seemingly 100 percent and ready to make a play for the Jets’ starting job. This comes after he tossed a total of two regular season passes over the past two seasons following a devastating knee injury back in the summer of 2016. With Sam Darnold and Josh McCown also vying for the starting job, the Bridgewater situation could go multiple ways. Reports over the past couple months indicate that the Jets might very well look to trade him should he show himself well during camp and the preseason.

But there’s also a solid chance that he earns the team’s starting job outright, forcing Darnold to be the No. 3 quarterback during his rookie campaign. Should Teddy perform well and fail to earn the job, he’ll more than likely be moved. If he struggles, there’s a possibility the former Vikings first-round pick is relegated to third-string duties. That makes Bridgewater the biggest storyline in Jets camp, even ahead of Darnold himself.

Oakland Raiders: Gruden’s first camp in nearly two decades 

Gruden was brought in on a 10-year contract to help establish a much different culture after struggles under Jack Del Rio last season. Whether this will equate to a contending team in Oakland after last year’s regression remains to be seen. What we do know is that Gruden has acted the part of the team’s general manager in his first offseason with Oakland since all the way back in 2001. The roster has been molded to fit his narrative. Veterans such as Jordy Nelson and Doug Martin were added to an offensive core that includes the under-performing Derek Carr and Amari Cooper. How this culture comes together this summer will tell us a lot about the Raiders’ direction moving forward.

Philadelphia Eagles: Carson Wentz’s injury

We’re getting some mixed signals as to whether Wentz will be ready for training camp after suffering a torn ACL late last season. Suggestions for most of the offseason were that he’s doing well in recovery. Though, recent indications are not as positive. The defending champs can take it easy with Wentz during camp. He’s unlikely to see a whole lot of action in the preseason. Instead, it’s more about the practice work Wentz is able to put in over at NovaCare. If there’s any hiccups in the quarterback’s return from such a devastating injury, suggestions that Nick Foles might continue to start under center early in the season could ramp up even more. It’s a major storyline for an Eagles team looking to repeat as champs.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Le’Veon Bell holdout

Now that the two sides were unable to come to terms on a long-term contract prior to the mid-July deadline, Bell will be a training camp holdout for the second consecutive season. Last year saw him report to the team less than a week before Pittsburgh’s regular season Peter. Based on the rhetoric we’re seeing from his sides, said holdout could now last into the regular year.

Bell reportedly turned down a five-year, $70 million extension prior to the deadline. That’s a clear indication the two sides are far apart. Simply put, it’s not a good situation. For a team with Super Bowl aspirations, missing the game’s best running back at any point during the season would be a major blow. Until that comes to fruition, second-year back James Conner will be featured in Pittsburgh’s offense. That’s also a major storyline given that he could ultimately replace Bell as the starter.

San Francisco 49ers: It’s Jimmy GQ’s team

Not only will this be Jimmy Garopolo’s first training camp as a member of the 49ers, it’s his first training camp as QB1. That’s a much different ball game than existing behind Tom Brady’s shadow in New England. Now that Garoppolo has been handed one of the richest contracts in league history and with expectations skyrocketing in Santa Clara, it’s going to be interesting to see how he handles the role of team leader.

If his first offseason as a member of the 49ers is any indication, the team is in good hands here. Though, camp itself is much different than. organized team activities. All eyes will be on Jimmy GQ as pressure mounts for him to lead this previously downtrodden organization back to its glory days. That starts in camp.

Seattle Seahawks: Lesion of Doom?

Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor are gone from the artists formerly known as the Legion of Boom. The only holdover here being an All-Pro safety in Earl Thomas who is destined to holdout of camp. That right there is the biggest story heading into camp. Will Thomas report? If not, will Seattle decide to trade him prior to Week 1? And even with Thomas in the mix, Seattle’s secondary is a shell of its former self. Can the team have success relying even more on Russell Wilson and what could still be an imbalanced offense? So many questions for Seattle as the offseason draws to a conclusion and camp gets going.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Jameis Winston situation

Winston is suspended for the first three games of the regular season after assault allegations become public record. This doesn’t mean the quarterback will be away from camp or the preseason. He’ll be there as QB1. The spotlight will then be on the young man, primarily as a way to look at how he handles media-related questions about the situation at hand. The Buccaneers themselves are also in a bit of a pickle here. Do they continue to give Winston the keys to the franchise moving forward? What happens if this blows up throughout training camp? So many questions. Yet, so few answers.

Tennessee Titans: The new backfield component

Two years ago, it was Derrick Henry and DeMarco Murray who completed the best running back duo in the AFC. The two combined for 2,291 total yards and 17 touchdowns. Though, they didn’t necessarily complement one another greatly. Now that Murray is retired and the Titans signed Dion Lewis away from New England back in March, this entire dynamic has changed. Henry is certainly the featured back with Marcus Mariota in Tennessee’s backfield. But Lewis brings that ability to catch passes. How the Titans initially utilize these two backs during camp practices will tell us a lot about how they’re going to be featured during the regular season.

Washington Redskins: Alex Smith in D.C.

One of the most underrated football players of our time, Smith replaces Kirk Cousins in Washington after having led Kansas City to a 50-26 record in five seasons. That’s an average of 10 wins per season. To put this into perspective, the Skins have reached the 10-win plateau just twice this millennium. Certainly, things are different in D.C. Smith doesn’t have an elite running game to rely on. His wide receiver situation is questionable, at best. Meanwhile, talented tight end Jordan Reed has proven to be an injury-plagued enigma. We really want to see how Smith takes to his leadership role in his first camp in the nation’s capital.