NFL teams have begun reporting to training camp, meaning real football is just around the corner.
While fans are never going to learn all there is to know about a team from watching camp practice, it does provide the first glimpse at some of the burning questions raised over the offseason.
Here are some of the biggest things to watch as NFL training camps get underway.
The Miami Dolphins Offense
Few teams made as many seismic offseason moves as the Miami Dolphins, and this is the first chance we get to see how it all knits together.
Firstly, Mike McDaniel comes in as the new head coach to take on the role of developing Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback.
Additions of Terron Armstead and Connor Williams along the offensive line should propel a unit that was historically bad in the right direction. Miami’s line surrendered 235 total pressures last season, 21 more than any other side.
Tyreek Hill joins a receiving corps that includes the closest thing the rest of the NFL has to Tyreek Hill (Jaylen Waddle), and how those players combine in the same passing offense will be a fascinating dynamic to monitor.
For the first time, evaluating Tua may actually be a fair exercise as opposed to years past — when he has been working behind a completely non-viable offensive line. The Miami offense will be one of the league’s most intriguing units this season, and this will be the first look at it.
The Green Bay Packers Wide Receivers
The receiving corps had been identified as too thin — even with Adams on the roster. Now they need to make sense of a depth chart with no obvious No. 1 receiver.
Second-round pick Christian Watson and fourth-rounder Romeo Doubs will get opportunities, but Allen Lazard likely begins with a significant advantage, given the trust he's already built with Rodgers. Lazard has never seen more than 59 targets in the regular season, but he does clearly have the trust of Rodgers, and passes thrown his way in Green Bay have yielded a passer rating of 128.9 for his career.
Sammy Watkins may have the most natural No. 1 receiver skill set, but injuries are a constant battle that has derailed his career. His career year of 2015 saw him generate 2.68 yards per route run on his way to his only 1,000-yard season, but since that year, he has failed to clear 2.0 yards per route run in any single campaign.
QB Russell Wilson in a new system with the Denver Broncos
Denver’s roster has been “a quarterback away from contending” for more than a year. And for much of that time, many assumed Aaron Rodgers would be that quarterback. It ended up being Wilson.
Seattle and head coach Pete Carroll came under tremendous criticism for failing to maximize Wilson’s talents, often seeming to keep the ball out of his hands more than teams with elite quarterbacks should and seemingly failing to be as efficient as they could because of it.
It was largely taken as fact that they were the problem, but for the first time, we are going to see what Wilson looks like in a totally new environment and to what extent the characteristics of his play are inherent in his game.
Wilson has as many seasons in the NFL with an average time to throw above 3.0 seconds as he does under it, and his career average is exactly 3.0 seconds, which would rank among the slowest quarterbacks every season.
Of course, that figure is skewed high because of his ability to scramble and extend plays, but finding the correct balance between those plays and the easier, efficient, quicker passes is critical for his success with the Broncos.
It’s been assumed that Wilson and the Broncos under head coach Nathaniel Hackett will be a seamless connection, but building something that can succeed may take some time.
A.J. Brown’s impact on the Philadelphia Eagles
Few offseason moves excite me more than the addition of A.J. Brown to the Philadelphia Eagles offense — not just because of what he brings to the table but because of what it can do to elevate the play of people already in the offense.
Brown has an elite skill set that has allowed him to dominate in the NFL, particularly against aggressive press-man coverage. No matter how you look at the numbers, Brown consistently ranked among the top receivers in the league against press coverage over the last couple of years. That’s the biggest concern after seeing DeVonta Smith in his rookie year.
Brown’s arrival alleviates those concerns, allowing Smith to settle into a role where he can excel as a Z receiver, away from the physicality that his 166-pound frame may continue to struggle with. Smith caught only 11 of the 27 contested targets he saw in Year 1, and he only generated 41 contested targets throughout his entire Alabama career — such was the potency of that offense.
Brown also brings a different skill set than the rest of the receivers in Philadelphia and could potentially unlock untapped potential in Jalen Hurts, who was sometimes reluctant to put the ball in the air and give his receivers a chance to make plays.
Maybe Brown’s superior physical presence gives him new confidence in those opportunities, which would catapult his performance forward in a significant way. Seeing how that dynamic plays out in camp will be an important situation to monitor.
Healthy Baker Mayfield in an “Open Competition” in Carolina Panthers Camp
The Baker Mayfield slander has spiraled out of control over the offseason. Mayfield went from a perfectly viable starting quarterback to somebody no different than Jacoby Brissett. One absurd claim even suggested that Mayfield doesn't even possess a top-64 arm.
Carolina, understandably, doesn’t want to anoint him the starter without him earning it, but any open competition with Sam Darnold will surely end with one clear winner — Mayfield.
Darnold has earned overall PFF grades between 64.7 and 55.2 across his four-year NFL career. Mayfield, playing with a torn shoulder, only sank as far as 63.6, albeit with a better supporting cast. Mayfield has one of the five highest big-time throw rates in the league since he was drafted, and his turnover-worthy play rate is almost a full percentage point better than Darnold’s.
How good Mayfield can be and whether he is worth investing in as a starting quarterback is still very much up for debate, but he should be a clear winner of any open competition with Darnold, locking up the starting job some time in training camp.
Second-Year Quarterbacks: Mac Jones, Trevor Lawrence and more
The quarterback class of 2021 was supposed to be one for the ages, but only Mac Jones — ironically the player who took the most criticism pre-draft — emerged from his rookie season with more credit in the bank than he entered it with among the first-rounders.
It will be interesting to monitor how the other players fare in their second training camp and preseason. Trevor Lawrence was billed as a generational talent but put up an overall PFF grade of 59.6 in Year 1, just ahead of Zach Wilson’s 59.3. Justin Fields flashed potential in a poor situation in Chicago but struggled a lot under pressure, while Trey Lance couldn’t even get on the field outside of Jimmy Garoppolo getting injured.
Lawrence and Wilson should have vastly improved environments around them entering Year 2, while Lance could be handed the starting job in an already-great situation. Justin Fields may have the worst roster in football around him as the Bears begin their rebuild, making all of the situations fascinating to watch in their own way.
NFL Rookie Standouts
It doesn’t get broader than this, but every year training camp is the first real chance to see where the draft community — and NFL at large — got it wrong.
Which rookies will immediately show that they are better players than they were given credit for? Performing well at training camp doesn’t mean those players will succeed when the real games begin on Sundays, but the players who dramatically outperform their draft position tend to be obvious from a very early stage. Some rookies are already in a situation with an obvious path to playing time, but others are simply going to earn those spots with dominant displays in practice and training camp. Few things are more fun than identifying those surprise stars and tracking their progress.