"You put the pads on and things are different. It's football. It's real football. All of that stuff kind of melted away for a couple of hours out there."
J.J. Watt's words from last week about returning to the field after a trying offseason capture where the NFL resides in mid-August. Teams practiced in pads for the first time on Monday and the season opener is just over three weeks away. There's going to be a lot to sort through in the meantime, so let's focus on the early camp stories that matter.
1) Gerald McCoy's torn quad tendon was a cold dose of reality on Monday. Actual NFL practices lead to actual NFL injuries. There is a concern that the lack of practice time this offseason could only increase the volume of soft tissue injuries that pop up this time of year.
McCoy will miss the season, and it's worth wondering if the three-time first-team All-Pro will make it back from this injury. Everson Griffen gave the Cowboys' defensive line a major boost when he signed last week, but now the defensive tackle group looks thin. Free-agent pickup Dontari Poe is one starter, and Tyrone Crawford, who has struggled with injuries in recent years, could be asked to play more inside. The Cowboys have mostly drafted well in recent years, but they didn't get anything from 2019 second-rounder Trysten Hill last year. They need him or 2020 third-rounder Neville Gallimore to step up. McCoy wasn't playing at his mid-2010s peak, but he was a reliable pass-rush presence who will be tough to replace.
2) Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith's switch will give the Cowboys a different look. Genuine football news emerging based on practice formations is like seeing an old friend. Vander Esch recently revealed he's taking over at middle linebacker, while Smith switches to the weak side.
As LVE pointed out, there's not always a huge difference between the two spots in today's NFL, when there are usually only two off-ball linebackers playing on passing downs. Still, this should take advantage of Vander Esch's range and Smith's blitzing ability. The young linebacker duo was the key to the team's defensive surge in 2018, and their decline last season (in play and durability) was a big reason why the Cowboys defense was as forgettable as a Jason Garrett press conference.
3) Trae Waynes' injury in Cincinnati gives me deja vu. Last year's Bengals season started going downhill before camp began when No. 11 overall pick Jonah Williams underwent shoulder surgery that ended his season. This year, they already know one of their big free-agent splashes, cornerback Trae Waynes, is out for a chunk of the season after undergoing surgery on a torn pectoral muscle, per NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport and NFL Network's Tom Pelissero.
Third-year pro Darius Phillips is an intriguing potential replacement after picking off four passes in limited action last season, but the Bengals rebuilt their secondary this offseason for a reason. Waynes and his agent were frustrated all offseason that he couldn't complete his physical, delaying his payment from the team. Pelissero reported that the agent warned the team that Waynes wouldn't be able to prepare fully for camp, for fear of getting hurt. While there's plenty of bad luck involved here, this sure feels like a "same old Bengals" type of story.
4) Jets wideout Denzel Mims' injury is another one to watch. Hamstring injuries are notoriously difficult to predict when it comes to recovery. This injury could keep Mims out half a week or for the majority of camp. I point out Mims here because any missed time for a rookie could be devastating this season. There isn't the time to catch up that exists in a normal year. The Jets were counting on the second-round pick to play meaningful snaps at a thin position for them. After projected No. 4 receiver Vyncint Smith also got hurt, the Jets signed Chris Hogan and started giving unheralded second-year player Jeff Smith starter snaps. How teams allot snaps to rookies will say a lot about how September football could look ...
5) In Philadelphia, coach Doug Pederson indicated there may not be many snaps to go around for Jalen Hurts. Fifth-year pro Nate Sudfeld is the Eagles' backup until proven otherwise. Pederson stressed that the team will make sure to get starting QB Carson Wentz and Sudfeld "the reps they need" to prepare for the season. That's a sign that Hurts, the 53rd overall pick in April's draft, is less of a priority in this run-up to the 2020 campaign.
6) A similar redshirt dynamic is possible with Green Bay's Jordan Love. The battle between Love and Tim Boyle for Green Bay's backup quarterback job is legitimate, considering Boyle's experience, arm strength and play during last year's preseason. Reading the glowing practice reports about Boyle from Packers scribes, the 25-year-old Eastern Kentucky product sounds like a mix of Don Majkowski and Paul Bunyan.
7) Jerick McKinnon's impressive early work at camp is worth watching, especially in fantasy leagues. Reporters and 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan note how healthy McKinnon looks after two lost seasons to injury. That was not the case at camp last year, when the running back had clearly not recovered from a torn ACL. Shanahan and general manager John Lynch gave McKinnon big money in March of 2018 to make their passing game more dynamic. He's getting major snaps early in camp. Unless injury strikes again, I'd expect him to be a significant factor in a three-headed backfield with Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman, with the order changing depending on the week. The team's receiver group is a bigger concern ...
8) The 49ers need first-round receiver Brandon Aiyuk to contribute early. With Deebo Samuel uncertain for Week 1 and an otherwise underwhelming receiver group, Aiyuk is slated to start from the jump if he's ready. The early signs are positive, with Aiyuk making plays in the early days of camp. Shanahan says he is "further ahead" of most rookies at this stage mentally because of his approach.
Unfortunately, Samuel isn't the only Niners wideout with injury issues: 2019 third-round pick Jalen Hurd is feared to have a torn ACL, according to Rapoport and NFL Network's Mike Garafolo, which would be a second straight missed season for the intriguing weapon. Aiyuk and Kendrick Bourne are the early favorites for snaps among San Francisco's receivers. Keep an eye on Trent Taylor, as well. Long compared to Wes Welker, he's now being coached by him. Taylor and Jimmy Garoppolo showed chemistry during their stretch together in 2017.
9) Niners cornerback Jason Verrett is another name you may have forgotten that's back in the mix. A Pro Bowler in his only healthy NFL season (2015), Verrett has reportedly shown up looking frisky at 49ers camp, earning some starter snaps. There is room at cornerback opposite Richard Sherman for Verrett to emerge as a legitimate option for snaps.
10) Kenny Clark's contract is more proof that teams can make big deals during the pandemic. I'm surprised by the number of major contracts completed in the last month. Within days of posting my list of the top 25 free agents for next offseason, my No. 2 player (George Kittle) and my No. 6 player (Clark) came to terms.
The contracts are a reminder that teams and players have different priorities than usual. At a time of such economic uncertainty, with the salary cap possibly lowering next offseason, players may be more inclined to take long-term security instead of trying to squeeze every last dollar out of their teams, which often includes a date with the franchise tag. Kittle is one of the most valuable non-quarterbacks in football, even if his hard-earned contract doesn't fully reflect that. Clark, who got a bigger signing bonus and higher average salary, is nearly as unique at his position.
There isn't another true NFL nose tackle with the pass-rush skills Clark possesses. Like Kittle, he's improved every single season and just churned out a dominant 2019 campaign. In Za'Darius Smith and Clark, the Packers have two of the biggest game-wreckers at their respective positions playing next to each other for the foreseeable future. They figure to dominate the right side of Green Bay's offensive line in camp.
11) Billy Turner vs. Rick Wagner is a battle that should concern Packers fans. I assumed Wagner was the favorite to take over at right tackle for Bryan Bulaga after Green Bay guaranteed him $3.5 million this offseason, but the early days of camp indicate it's a battle with Turner. Either way, this looks like a big step down from Bulaga's 2019 play.
12) Alex Smith's remarkable comeback is not the only quarterback story in Washington. What Smith has overcome is worthy of the Comeback Player of the Year award, no matter what happens from here. Any natural apprehension about Smith getting on the field melts away when you see what it means to him and his family.
Smith's time away from football makes any projection a matter of guesswork, but coach Ron Rivera says he'll compete to play like anyone else. Rivera's comments on whether Dwayne Haskins would start at quarterback in the preseason opener -- if they had a preseason opener -- emphasized how open the position remains.
"It would've been Dwayne," Rivera told the Kevin Sheehan Show last week, via NBC Sports Washington. "He is in a competition, the next week would've been Kyle [Allen], and we'd go from there. We're not giving anything to anybody. Everything is going to be earned, and that's one of the things we've talked about. He knows that's how I feel about it, and he is practicing like it. He is very competitive in practice, and he's done an outstanding job. And again, he's got to show he deserves the opportunity."
Haskins remains the favorite to start in Week 1, but that comment gives me Trevor Siemian-in-2016 vibes. There's a non-zero chance Allen starts the opener and a reasonable chance he starts eventually, possibly with Smith in the Josh McCown backup/extra coach role.
13) Melvin Ingram's absence from the field is worth monitoring. As anyone who watched the first episode of Hard Knocks knows, Ingram is at Chargers training camp. He even rapped his own theme music. He has not been participating in practice, however, for what coach Anthony Lynn calls "company business."
It's possible that Ingram could be the first "in-house holdout" of this new collective bargaining agreement. With the new rules requiring teams to fine players if they skip work, one strategy for players looking to get paid could be to show up for camp and be in all the meetings while staying off the field. (And while negotiation takes place behind the scenes.) This is speculation. As NFL Network's Steve Wyche notes, the reason for Ingram's absence remains a mystery. But he's in a contract year, and this explanation would make a lot of sense. It also represents a better compromise to the old system, when holdouts were more contentious, and could be the start of a future trend.
Update: It has since been reported that Ingram is, indeed, unhappy with his contract.