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Biggest winners and losers from NFL minicamps

Andrew Luck was a huge winner during NFL minicamps

The conclusion of NFL minicamps signals the final break until the blood, sweat and tears of training camp really sets a new season off in earnest.

It’s easy to get sucked into the news this time of year, since every fan (not to mention those who cover the sport) is eager for some clarity. Not all news is really notable in the month of June, but some things certainly stand out.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the news that’s worth mentioning as we dive into some offseason winners and losers.

Winner: Andrew Luck throws a football!

The video evidence that shows us Andrew Luck is actually throwing footballs is one of the most exciting pieces of news the NFL has received in a long time. When Luck is healthy, the Colts are one of the most entertaining teams in the AFC and have a legitimate chance to compete for a championship.

The Colts continue to preach the message that Luck is going to be ready for training camp, and that he’ll be under center for Week 1. The fact that he was throwing two days in a row during the team’s minicamp is a great sign that these promises aren’t going to be empty.

Loser: Julio Jones contract drama hanging over Atlanta’s head

Contract holdouts are never fun. And they always have the potential to lead to something ugly. The Julio Jones situation in Atlanta could become contentious, especially because he still has three years left on his current deal. The fact he skipped out on minicamp and made it known that it’s due to his desire for a new deal is troublesome, indeed.

This is even more of an issue because the Falcons are desperate to get the offense going after a disappointing 2017 campaign — the first with Steve Sarkisian as the team’s offensive coordinator. If Jones decides to push this issue and holds out of training camp — the Falcons really have all the leverage here due to his current deal, so that’s a bad idea — his absence could mean the entire offense suffers a failure to launch in 2018.

Winner: Jimmy Garoppolo taking full ownership of 49ers offense

49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo during NFL minicamps

All the reports coming out of Santa Clara during the team’s minicamp highlighted how much stronger San Francisco’s defense was compared to its offense. False starts were a huge issue, and Jimmy Garoppolo struggled to connect with his receivers during red-zone drills.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that Garoppolo, who studied behind the GOAT, Tom Brady, his first four years as a pro, grabbed the bull by the horns and took full ownership of the offense. Garoppolo kept his entire offense on the field after practice to fine-tune things and get the false starts under control, which pleased the heck out of head coach Kyle Shanahan. It’s this kind of leadership that has the 49ers excited about the future.

Loser: AJ McCarron not pulling away … from Nathan Peterman

AJ McCarron was excited to win his grievance against the Cincinnati Bengals so that he could have a chance to get out from under Andy Dalton and compete for a starting job. He certainly has that opportunity this offseason with the Buffalo Bills, but unfortunately, he’s doing nothing so far to prove he’s the better man for the job.

According to ESPN’s Mike Rodak, Nathan Peterman is a “serious contender” for the Bills’ starting quarterback job. To open camp in July, Peterman and McCarron will both have a chance to work with the first-string offense, while rookie Josh Allen (more on him later) works with the third-string unit until further notice.

For those who may have forgotten, Peterman struggled to adapt to the NFL game last year as a rookie and was overwhelmed in a major way when he got his chances. Needless to say, if McCarron can’t beat him out, it won’t bode well for his future.

Winner: Deshaun Watson ready to take a big leap

Deshaun Watson’s rookie season was one long burst of fireworks until an ACL injury took him out of action. He broke rookie records and showed he’s definitely capable of becoming an elite player if he can stay healthy.

The sophomore quarterback is already running without a knee brace, and the reports coming out of Houston are filled with superlatives regarding his development. Houston has a real chance to become an elite force in the AFC with Watson at the helm of the offense. Hopefully, the team’s offensive line can protect this young man in the years to come.

Loser: Cowboys’ top pick already injured

The Dallas Cowboys hope they have a long-term answer in the middle of their defense with rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch. The biggest knock on him coming out of Boise State is that he was injury prone during college.

Unfortunately, that label doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon.

Vander Esch was unable to practice during minicamp as he dealt with an ankle injury. According to Drew Davison of the Star-Telegram, the Cowboys expect Vander Esch to be ready for training camp. That’s the good news. The bad news here is that there is an issue already, well before contact has been made.

Winner: Roquan Smith already turning heads in Chicago

This is hardly shocking to those of us who were enamored with Roquan Smith during his tenure at Georgia, but he’s been impressing coaches and teammates already in Chicago.

New teammate Aaron Lynch recently commented that Smith, “doesn’t really attack the game like a rookie,” and noted Smith has “taken to the defense like he has been in it before,” per Colleen Kane of the Chicago Tribune.

Smith is my personal favorite to win Defensive Rookie of the Year honors manning the middle of Vic Fangio’s linebacker-friendly scheme. That he’s already turning heads in Chicago isn’t in the least surprising. But it sure is encouraging and shows he’s up to the task.

Loser: Joe Flacco already on his way out?

Joe Flacco

The quick answer to that question is, probably not. That being said, based on everything we’ve seen occur in the short time since Lamar Jackson has been introduced to the team’s offense, Flacco’s days as the starter for the Baltimore Ravens are numbered.

John Harbaugh has been consistently open about the fact that the Ravens are going to get Jackson involved early and often — every game, in fact — during his rookie season. As if that weren’t ominous enough as it concerns Flacco, Jackson was given first-team reps over Flacco during the final day of Baltimore’s minicamp.

So, clearly, Action Jackson is the future. The only question here is when Flacco’s time will officially be up.

Winner: Cleveland’s offense looks legit

Okay, so it’s early. And okay, so there hasn’t been any hitting yet. But man, based on the word coming out of Cleveland, the Browns actually have an offensive unit this season that could become scary good.

At every single level, the Browns have talent. The offensive line will certainly miss Joe Thomas. But there are strong players across the line. The running backs are talented and diverse. The receivers are very good, not to mention extremely confident in their ability to dominate.

And the quarterback room actually looks good for the first time in ages. It’s looking like Tyrod Taylor will be under center this year, as he continues to earn rave reviews from Hue Jackson. But should he falter, Baker Mayfield can pick up the slack. For once, the Browns have reason to smile.

Loser: Dolphins’ offensive line could be a problem

The Miami Dolphins have all their ponies hitched to the Ryan Tannehill wagon. If he goes down again to another injury, there’s no chance the offense is going to win many games with either Bryce Petty, Brock Osweiler or David Fales under center.

With that in mind, the latest news coming out of minicamp isn’t good.

According to Chris Perkins and Omar Kelly of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, The combination of Ju’Wuan James and Laremy Tunsil at the two offensive tackle spots is a huge concern. This isn’t a new development, of course. Miami has struggled to protect Tannehill pretty much since he entered the league. Hopefully the Dolphins can find a way to fix this problem over the summer.

Winner: Alvin Kamara is sizzling 

Given what he was able to do as a rookie, New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara clearly is a burgeoning superstar. News earlier this offseason that the Saints planned on making him the featured back, even before Mark Ingram’s suspension became known, only accentuates this point.

Illustrating this even more, with Ingram attending minicamp it was Kamara working with the first-team offense, according to Larry Holder of The Times-Picayune. And as he described it, one play during the team’s first minicamp practice “left Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams looking at each other wondering what happened.”

Yeah, that sound you hear is Kamara’s sizzling fantasy stock.

Loser: Earl Thomas situation not what Seattle needs right now

There is never a dull moment for NFL coaches and general managers, but it seems like the situation in Seattle the past few years has been even more volatile than what average teams deal with. After getting rid of Michael Bennett and Richard Sherman recently — Pete Carroll is unabashedly happy they’re gone — the team is dealing with another veteran who is clearly disgruntled.

Earl Thomas wants a long-term deal. He has one year left on his current contract, and aside from a $1.9 million signing bonus there is no more guaranteed cash left. The problem is that the Seattle Seahawks reportedly aren’t keen on doing a new deal, which means the franchise may have seen the last of Thomas.

This is exactly what Seattle didn’t need right now. Thomas is still one of the best players in the league at his position, and he’s been a key member of the Legion of Boom since its inception. The times, they are a-changin’.

Winner: Josh Allen earning rave reviews

Bills quarterback Josh Allen

The Buffalo Bills cannot stop gushing about Josh Allen’s arm talent. He’s wowed his new teammates. Second-year cornerback Tre’Davious White gushed over his arm and said he’ll be a special player, and running back LeSean McCoy had similar comments about his new quarterback recently.

Allen has also already gotten first-team reps, though he’ll start camp as the third-string quarterback.

This is all great news for him and for the Bills. The only thing that gives me some angst over the situation is that I worry Buffalo will get frustrated with McCarron and/or Peterman this year and throw Allen to the wolves too early. He’s a special talent, to be sure. But in no way is this young man ready for what NFL defenses will throw at him.

Loser: Terrelle Pryor not off to a great start in Jersey

It’s starting to look like leaving the Browns was the worst mistake of Terrelle Pryor’s career. Since then, he’s flamed out in his lone season with Washington and is now in a total logjam with a bunch of other receivers on the New York Jets’ depth chart.

Making matters worse, Pryor had offseason ankle surgery, which caused him to miss minicamp. That surgery has put the start of training camp in doubt as well, according to Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News. Needless to say, Pryor is stuck behind the proverbial eight-ball in Jersey right now, and it’s looking like he’ll have his work cut out just to make the final roster at this point.

Winner: Rams gushing about Brandin Cooks 

Brandin Cooks is fast. Did you guys know that he’s fast? Yeah, he’s fast. That’s a fact head coach Sean McVay just cannot stop talking about, and it’s clear he’s giddy to have Cooks on his roster heading into the 2018 season.

“How fast is Brandin Cooks? Is that awesome? How about how fast Cooks looked on that strike? How about how fast Cooks is? Is that awesome? Oh, gosh,” McVay gushed.

Cooks is going to be a key addition to the team’s passing attack, and his ability to consistently win deep will also open things up for running back Todd Gurley.

Loser: Tyler Eifert just cannot stay healthy

When healthy, Tyler Eifert has been a very dangerous red-zone weapon for the Cincinnati Bengals. His 2015 season gave us a glimpse into what might have been, as he hauled in 13 touchdown passes in 13 games that year.

Unfortunately, since then Eifert has played in just 10 total games, earning two starts. And already, the talented tight end is dealing with another injury that kept him out of training camp. Worse still, head coach Marvin Lewis was non-committal about whether Eifert would be ready for training camp.

Winner: Raiders excited about Arden Key

Talent has never been something we’ve had to question when it comes to LSU product Arden Key. It’s been his motivation and dedication that has come under fire in recent years, which is a huge reason why the Oakland Raiders were able to land this first-round talent in the third round during April’s draft.

It’s early, but so far it appears Key is fully engaged in football. The Raiders have been gushing over his raw abilities, and he’s reportedly been dominating first-round rookie Kolton Miller during practices. Key is a first-round talent to be sure. If he remains dedicated to the game, then the sky is the limit.

Loser: Patrick Mahomes struggling

Patrick Mahomes

Don’t freak out, Kansas City Chiefs fans. The sky is not falling. That being said, there has been no shortage of reports coming from Chiefs beat writers about how Patrick Mahomes is struggling so far this offseason.

We’ve heard about these struggles since OTAs, though head coach Andy Reid said he wasn’t worried about them. During minicamp one day, however, Mahomes threw multiple interceptions and even fumbled a couple of snaps.

None of that is great news for a young quarterback who will be thrust into the limelight this year without any real backup plan to speak of. Hopefully, Reid and Co. get the kinks worked out this summer.

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