"The defense is ahead of the offense."
In my effort to read the beat writers of all 32 teams over the first two weeks of NFL training camp, that phrase was the most common sentiment. So don't panic if your quarterback is struggling: It's going around!
It's hard to separate the news from the hype at this time of year, but I will try below. Here's what we've learned in camp so far, broken into various storyline sections.
HEALTHY AND LOOKING GOOD
1) Michael Thomas practicing without incident on the first day of training camp was big enough news. The fact that he's been roasting Saints cornerbacks of late should have Jameis Winston very excited. (Winston, however, left practice with a foot issue on Monday.) Thomas was among my top players to watch in camp, and after joining team drills Saturday, he's passing every test with flying colors.
2) I really try to avoid "best shape of my life" tropes, but I'm falling for the "Frank Clark is fit" stories in Kansas City after a few lost seasons for the well-compensated edge rusher. The 29-year-old sounds like a player who knows he's at a career crossroads and probably would have been cut if not for the way his contract was structured. If Clark keeps the form he's shown, according to practice reports, the Chiefs could suddenly have solid pass-rush depth with rookie George Karlaftis turning heads and veteran Carlos Dunlap joining the fray.
KEEP AN EYE ON THIS GUY
3) Isaiah McKenzie's modest extension this offseason could turn into a steal for the Bills. He's taken hold of Buffalo's slot receiver role over veteran Jamison Crowder.
4) Darius Slayton took third-team snaps in the Giants' Blue-White Scrimmage on Friday. New York's starting trio of wideouts is set to be Kenny Golladay, Kadarius Toney and rookie Wan'Dale Robinson. Toney and Robinson are taking daily practice snaps in the backfield, too. I consider it significant Toney isn't being used on kick returns. The G-Men are counting on him, very possibly as their top receiver.
5) 2017 Buccaneers second-rounder Justin Evans, a safety who hasn't played a snap in the NFL since 2018 because of injuries, has flashed at Saints camp. He's looking like a lock to add more quality depth to possibly the deepest secondary in football.
6) Every day, I look for how San Francisco quarterback Trey Lance is doing, and every day, I find that Brandon Aiyuk sounds like the best player at 49ers camp. I'm all in on Aiyuk having a post-hype Pro Bowl season as he enjoys the relative quiet with coach Kyle Shanahan bugging rookie Danny Gray throughout practice.
"It's nice to have another receiver that Kyle can annoy and leave me alone," Aiyuk told reporters.
7) It's August, and Parris Campbell is getting practice hype at Colts camp. We've been here before, but the 2019 second-round pick has the chance for a big role, and I'm rooting hard for the Chris Wesseling favorite after all the injuries Campbell has battled over the last four years.
8) I mentioned how seemingly every city has reports about the defense being ahead of the offense. That hasn't been the case in Detroit, where Jared Goff has been lighting it up by all accounts. Playing behind potentially the league's best offensive line will give Goff a chance to keep up his excellent end to last season.
CAUSE FOR CONCERN
9) The Patriots are really installing a zone-blocking scheme out of nowhere under apparent new play-caller Matt Patricia. This is a huge departure from their more traditional (and successful!) gap-heavy power rushing attack. Even Patriots.com's Evan Lazar wrote that Mac Jones looks "out of sync and sometimes uncomfortable," a far cry from his rookie camp.
Jones himself said he was getting "his feet wet in the new offense." Oof. It shouldn't be a shock the new look hasn't produced immediate results in practice, considering New England ran the old system, installed by Charlie Weis, for the last 21 years.
10) This sentence from the aforementioned Patriots.com story was even more eye-opening than Jones' struggles: "Jalen Mills has already solidified himself as New England's top cornerback."
11) It's officially time to worry about the Packers' offensive line. The unit has struggled in camp, right tackle Elgton Jenkins appears likely to start the season on the PUP list and no one knows when left tackle David Bakhtiari will return.
12) Bears coach Matt Eberflus was noncommittal about presumptive No. 2 receiver Byron Pringle's availability for Week 1. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reports that N'Keal Harry has a high ankle sprain. There have been other more minor injuries to Justin Fields' already-thin crew. At some points over the weekend, according to The Athletic, Fields was throwing to a three-receiver set of Chris Finke, Nsimba Webster and Isaiah Coulter.
13) If you are looking for a fly in Buffalo's Super Bowl ointment, cornerback depth has been a concern throughout August, according to Joe Buscaglia of The Athletic. Tre'Davious White is coming off a torn ACL, first-round pick Kaiir Elam has reportedly looked like a rookie and veteran Dane Jackson has been uneven.
And I wrote the above paragraph before Elam was picked on during the team's scrimmage Friday. By Sunday, Elam and sixth-round rookie Christian Benford were splitting snaps with the starters opposite Jackson. The cornerback group is under a particularly bright spotlight with safety Jordan Poyer currently out with an elbow injury and the Rams up first on the regular-season docket.
14) New Bengals right tackle La'el Collins (back) hasn't practiced yet. That's the biggest concern in a weird Cincinnati camp where there are essentially no starting jobs up for grabs and Joe Burrow is doing gassers in a cart.
15) Eleven months removed from his initial foot injury, Panthers cornerback Jaycee Horn is still not right. His intermittent availability at Panthers practice is a worry. With Horn still out of team drills (and practice entirely for a stretch of days), another former top-10 pick, C.J. Henderson, has been taking starter reps.
16) Matthew Stafford had a procedure on his elbow this offseason and he's still in pain when he throws the ball, even though he hasn't thrown the ball much this offseason. It's hard to know how his situation will unfold, but the Rams quarterback looked good uncorking some deep throws over the weekend.
17) The Commanders have struggled to get quality work accomplished because the offensive line is completely overwhelmed by injuries. Furthermore, wide receiver Curtis Samuel has been in and out of practice, while Carson Wentz's erratic accuracy has been a daily story.
18) The report from Rapoport that the Bears were listening to offers for 2021 second-rounder Teven Jenkins probably spelled the end of the offensive tackle's time in Chicago. For now, he's back practicing with the Bears reserves.
POSITION BATTLE UPDATES!
19) Mitchell Trubisky has been treated like a starter in Pittsburgh, getting nearly all the first-team reps. First-round pick Kenny Pickett has been stuck with the third team. Trubisky hasn't exactly set himself apart with his performance, however, and Steelers scribes still cling to Mason Rudolph being the team's most accurate quarterback.
20) The Panthers aren't handing No. 6 overall pick Ikem Ekwonu a starting job. Second-year pro Brady Christensen has outplayed him in pass protection, according to Joe Person of The Athletic, although Ekwonu at left tackle with Christensen at left guard is still the setup that makes the most sense.
21) A slimmed-down Mekhi Becton practicing every day while transitioning to right tackle was a huge win for the Jets for a few weeks. Then he was seen with a knee brace on Friday and left practice Monday with an apparent leg issue. (Just before publishing, Jets coach Robert Saleh said "it doesn't seem like a big deal." But later on Monday, NFL Network Insiders Mike Garafolo and Ian Rapoport reported that the injury is more concerning than the team originally believed.) Becton could be the X-factor for the entire offense, and right tackle is a natural fit for the mauler.
The Jets had veteran free agent Duane Brown at their facility Saturday and are discussing a possible contract with him. My guess is that Brown would only sign to start.
UPDATE: Becton suffered an avulsion fracture of his right kneecap during Monday's practice and is likely to miss the season, NFL Network Insiders Ian Rapoport and Mike Garafolo reported on Tuesday.
22) The Ravens need a receiver or two to step up this season. In camp thus far, it's been James Proche, per Jeff Zrebiec of The Athletic. Proche and Devin Duvernay are the top candidates to start opposite Rashod Bateman. A late-camp veteran addition can't be ruled out.
23) Tampa Bay swapped in Shaq Mason for free-agent departure Alex Cappa at right guard, but that's not the only change to the Bucs' interior offensive line. Robert Hainsey has taken over at center following Ryan Jensen's injury, while there is a four-way battle at left guard. According to Pewter Report, Aaron Stinnie was essentially benched after blocking Bucs defensive lineman Logan Hall into Jensen, causing the Pro Bowl pivot's injury.
24) Another interesting early development in Bucs practices: Safety Antoine Winfield Jr. has replaced Sean Murphy-Bunting as the team's slot defender.
25) Drew Lock started the Seahawks' scrimmage hitting his first 10 passes on two touchdown drives, according to Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times. Lock reportedly outplayed Geno Smith throughout the scrimmage, mostly against Seattle's starting defense. Geno was solid, if unspectacular, which is similar to most of his camp reviews. I thought Lock would get more first-team reps going forward, but it didn't happen Sunday.
26) If the season started today, the top three Cowboys wideouts would likely be CeeDee Lamb, rookie Jalen Tolbert and Noah Brown. An undrafted rookie named Dennis Houston has been getting some time with the ones!
27) The Falcons have benched guard Jalen Mayfield in practices in favor of veteran Elijah Wilkinson. Mayfield, a third-round pick last year, struggled badly as a rookie.
28) While the Cardinals are taking 2021 first-round pick Zaven Collins off the field on passing downs and talking about his learning curve, they are creating a new "star" position for Isaiah Simmons. The whole idea of Simmons and Collins playing next to each other at inside linebacker appears canceled, with the team confident in Simmons' versatile star power while doubtful of Collins' progress.
29) Philadelphia's defensive line is so deep that stalwart pass rusher Brandon Graham is lining up with the backups -- and he doesn't seem to mind one bit, saying he is excited to be the best role player he can be.
30) Eagles coach Nick Sirianni noted that 2020 first-round pick Jalen Reagor is just "battling for a spot" on the team. He might just get it. According to Bo Wulf of The Athletic, Reagor is enjoying his most consistent camp.
31) Kellen Mond was talked up as potential competition for Kirk Cousins a year ago in Minnesota. Now there's talk he's not a lock to make the team.
32) Jonas Griffith appears all but locked in to Denver's second linebacker spot next to Josey Jewell. Griffith has reportedly even taken some snaps as the lone linebacker on the field in certain formations.
33) Through practices and Sunday's intersquad scrimmage, it looks pretty clear Joshua Palmer is the Chargers' third receiver. Jalen Guyton is slated to be a deep-threat No. 4. Meanwhile, the battle to back up running back Austin Ekeler appears wide open between Larry Rountree, Joshua Kelley and rookie Isaiah Spiller.
34) A source told Jeff Schultz of The Athletic that the Falcons will not release Deion Jones. The linebacker is recovering from a shoulder injury and the team hasn't been able to trade him.
35) The Cowboys' acquisition of Anthony Barr was made in part to free up Micah Parsons to rush the passer from the edge more, according to defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. That's a trade-off worth trying. Parsons' versatility makes him a unicorn, but the more edge snaps he gets, the better.
36) Denver's Tim Patrick was one of the league's most improved wideouts over the last few seasons, but a torn ACL shelves him for the 2022 campaign. The injury underscores the importance of Jerry Jeudy becoming more consistent in Year 3 and of Courtland Sutton rediscovering his own pre-surgery form.
THE BROWNS ARE DEPRESSING
37) Nothing should surprise me when it comes to the NFL, but Browns running back Kareem Hunt asking for a new contract and sitting out of team drills two days after Deshaun Watson's six-game suspension was appealed by the NFL is something. Cleveland has bigger issues, and Hunt is making more with the Browns than he'd make elsewhere if he were available. Hunt is eighth among all running backs in terms of his 2022 cap hit. He managed just 78 carries last year due to injury. He had 43 carries in 2019 after being suspended eight games for two violent incidents, including one where he pushed and kicked a woman.
The Browns told Hunt he wouldn't be traded, and the running back returned to team drills on Sunday after a two-day hold-in that will reportedly result in a fine.
38) At some point, it's going to be weird if Jacoby Brissett isn't getting more first-team snaps in Browns camp behind Deshaun Watson. While Watson's situation remains fluid, Brissett is currently set to start the first six games of the season and theoretically could start the whole season, depending on how the NFL's appeal on the length of Watson's suspension goes.
39) No rookie receiver in football has helped his stock more in training camp than Packers fourth-rounder Romeo Doubs, who's hauling in spectacular sideline catches from Aaron Rodgers on a daily basis. It will be a surprise at this point if Doubs isn't playing significant snaps Week 1 and if he's not ahead of second-rounder Christian Watson in the pecking order. Watson remains on PUP. It's not crazy to imagine Doubs starting.
40) The Texans are going to be as interesting as their young players' development allows. Perhaps it's just in-building hype, but they have a group of players -- from rookie corner Derek Stingley Jr. and rookie safety Jalen Pitre to quarterback Davis Mills, rookie running back Dameon Pierce and expected No. 2 receiver Nico Collins -- who are worth watching in the preseason and beyond. Pierce has a shot to start in Year 1 and be a fantasy league winner.
41) The Seahawks have a five-way battle for their two starting cornerback spots. Rookies Coby Bryant and Tariq Woolen have a legit chance. Woolen is a fifth-rounder with outrageous measurables (6-foot-4, 210 pounds, 4.26 40) and reportedly looked the part lining up as a starter in the team scrimmage. This feels like Pete Carroll's last, best chance to build a defense that matters.
42) Lions sixth-round linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez was called the "surprise of camp" by MLive.com and the Lions' team website. He's taking first-team reps in the middle. The Lions are looking for both a partner and replacement for veteran Alex Anzalone.
43) Micah Parsons' Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign was teased in last year's Hall of Fame Game. Did Travon Walker just do the same in last Thursday's HOF Game? The No. 1 overall pick's power rush is going to be a problem for sub-standard starting tackles.
44) Walker's fellow first-round pick in Jacksonville, linebacker Devin Lloyd, has yet to practice in camp. Another Jags rookie, Chad Muma, replaced him in the preseason opener and had his share of struggles.
45) Sometimes a rookie whom I should know more about shows up to training camp and makes it clear he's going to be a Day 1 starter. By all accounts, Colts safety Nick Cross is one of those guys this year, and he is just what the Colts need after Khari Willis' surprise retirement. Cross, a late third-round pick in April, is someone to watch in the preseason.
46) Colts tight end Jelani Woods was a draftnik favorite and could have been one of those rookies. But it sounds like he's struggling badly at camp, according to Zak Keefer of the Athletic, and is no higher than fourth on the tight end depth chart.
47) Chiefs seventh-round pick Isiah Pacheco just moves different. He's making noise in a wide-open running back battle and is now getting some snaps with Patrick Mahomes. Pacheco looks likely to be part of the team's game day roster as a kick returner. He's earned a long look in the preseason for a potential Week 1 role.
WEIRD COACH STUFF
48) Giants coach Brian Daboll isn't allowing the media or fans to tape or post any clips from practice after a few popped up last week. Daboll clearly believes it's a competitive advantage. Dan Duggan of The Athletic reports that Daboll has staffers monitor other teams with less stringent video policies.
49) Based on Lovie Smith's comments this month, don't expect Houston's new head coach to just roll out his usual Tampa 2 this season. First of all, he was a lot more varied late last season -- to mixed results -- as the Texans' defensive coordinator. The selections of Derek Stingley Jr. and Jalen Pitre in the first two rounds of April's draft indicate Smith is looking to do things differently.
50) Don't overreact to how Josh McDaniels used Josh Jacobs in the preseason opener. First of all, he used all of his running backs. Jacobs still went first, followed by rookie Zamir White and veteran Kenyan Drake. Both Jacobs and Drake looked good, and their salaries are guaranteed. @RapSheet says the Raiders aren't looking to trade Jacobs. McDaniels, like Bill Belichick, figures to be unpredictable with preseason player usage.
51) The Patriots extending Davon Godchaux was quite a surprise early in camp, although the team needed to free up some cap space. Belichick calling Godchaux "one of the best defensive tackles in the league" was an even bigger surprise. Belichick is firmly in his phase of saying and doing whatever he pleases, if he wasn't already there a decade ago.
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