The NFL offseason is winding down, as a number of teams wrapped up their final mandatory minicamps on Thursday. It was a week featuring contract negotiations, high-profile stars searching for new homes and some drama involving one notable Buffalo Bills wide receiver. Usually, this is the time of year when coaches and players are preparing for some well-deserved time off. The final stages of this offseason clearly gave us a little more intrigue than anticipated.
Those weren't the only interesting things that happened during this week of minicamps, though. Plenty of teams are excited about the development of younger players, the undeniable energy that results from coaching changes and the possibilities that lie ahead in the fall. Issues that must be sorted out remain in certain sectors of the league, but there's also ample optimism brewing in other parts. In fact, several teams believe they have a legitimate shot at this season’s championship.
This second minicamp edition of The First Read will focus on some of the major things we learned as the offseason wraps up. Last week was about questions that needed answers. This week will be about takeaways at the end of minicamps.
1) The Stefon Diggs situation bears watching.
Bills head coach Sean McDermott tried his best to control the damage following Diggs' absence from Buffalo's minicamp on Tuesday. After telling reporters he was "very concerned" about Diggs not participating in mandatory minicamp, McDermott said on Wednesday that it was an "excused absence" and that any issues were "resolved." Diggs returned to practice on Wednesday, but this whole situation was just flat-out weird. The last time we had seen the Pro Bowl wide receiver, he was erupting on the sidelines during a Divisional Round playoff loss to the Bengals. Then came Tuesday.
It's a safe bet that more details will emerge at some point to explain what's going on here, but this much we do know: Buffalo can't afford this type of drama. The Bills are trying to keep pace with two teams that have beaten them in the last two postseasons (Kansas City and Cincinnati) and they're going to face far more pressure to maintain their dominance in the AFC East (with the Jets and the Dolphins loading up for their own pursuits of a championship).
Diggs is one of the most important players on Buffalo's roster, so making sure he and McDermott are on the same page has to be a priority.
2) Jordan Love is finding his way in Green Bay.
Love could end up being one of the league's biggest surprises if he's able to handle the pressure that comes with succeeding Aaron Rodgers.
Like Rodgers, Love spent the first three years of his career sitting and watching. Love has been open about how difficult that process was, but he's also talked about the benefits. He's basically had a front row seat to everything that Rodgers did. That should help him immensely as he walks into his first season as a starter.
Love displayed flashes of what he could become during a loss to Philadelphia last season, when an injury sidelined Rodgers. He obviously has the physical traits, but that game revealed some critical growth and maturation in his skills. Add in the fact that Green Bay has invested heavily via the draft in the weapons around him -- the Packers selected wide receiver Jayden Reed and tight ends Luke Musgrave and Tucker Kraft in this year's draft after grabbing three wide receivers in the 2022 draft -- and you can see how this could be a great setup for Love.
Head coach Matt LaFleur already has tried to temper expectations, especially because Green Bay has spent the last 30 years relying on Hall of Fame quarterback play. However, that doesn't mean the Packers aren't optimistic about what Love can be. LaFleur has had three years to learn what his quarterback can do, and Love has spent that time as best as he possibly could. Those factors should result in more success than some people might expect.
There aren't many quarterbacks who could generate a significant amount of buzz after leading a three-win team, but Fields is deserving of the hype. He was one of the few positives for the Bears during a rough 2022 season, when he ran for 1,143 yards, threw for 2,242 yards and accounted for 25 total touchdowns. Now it's worth wondering if can take the giant step that Hurts made as the Philadelphia Eagles' quarterback last season. Hurts was more dangerous as a runner in his second NFL season, too. Then he vaulted into superstardom by developing into an efficient passer, as well, one who capitalized on all the weapons around him.
Fields has a chance to do similar things in his third year. His coaches already are raving about how much he’s grown relative to where he was at this time last year. He's now in his second year in the offense run by coordinator Luke Getsy. The Bears also have done what the Eagles did for Hurts, upgrading his supporting cast. The offensive line should be improved. Wide receiver D.J. Moore arrived via the trade that sent Carolina the draft's first overall pick, while another receiver, Chase Claypool, has benefited from a full offseason with Fields after being acquired at midseason last year. This isn't to say the Bears are going to make a huge leap to playoff contenders. It's only to point out that Fields displayed some serious star power at times last year. All he has to do is look at Hurts to see what's possible as he takes the next step in his development.
4) The Giants should work out a new deal with Saquon Barkley.
Barkley wasn't happy to receive the franchise tag from the Giants earlier this offseason and he sounded frustrated recently when asked about the progress in contract talks, declining to rule out sitting the season out. He told local reporters that he's not looking to reset the running back market with a new deal. The problem is the Giants are in a position where their most talented offensive player also has an injury history that would make any team proceed with caution. Barkley played in just 15 games combined during the 2020 and 2021 seasons, when he rushed for 627 yards. He then returned to his familiar form last season, running for 1,312 yards and tying for the team high in receptions (57). Barkley might play an undervalued position, but he's easily the most important player on the Giants roster. It's difficult to see quarterback Daniel Jones living up to his new deal without Barkley on the field next season -- and it's even harder to see head coach Brian Daboll looking as smart as he did in winning Coach of the Year in 2022 if he's without the star running back. There's always frustration at this time of year, when teams and players are trying to figure out contracts. It becomes a different story once the deadline for signing franchise-tagged players to multi-year contracts arrives on July 17. The Giants know how vital Barkley is to their success. They would be best served by getting a deal done before that deadline.
5) The Chiefs will maximize this latest group of wide receivers.
There are two ways to look at this one. The first is quarterback Patrick Mahomes has proven he can do just about anything. He lost Pro Bowl wide receiver Tyreek Hill in an offseason trade last year and went on to win both the league MVP and Super Bowl MVP awards. That tells us he's more than talented enough to work with the targets the Chiefs give him. The other thing to consider is the experience level of the receivers around him. Aside from Marquez Valdes-Scantling -- who had 42 receptions for 687 yards last season -- Kansas City will be relying largely on wideouts who didn't have leading roles in the offense in 2022. The group consists of returning players (Kadarius Toney, Skyy Moore and Justin Watson), a free-agent acquisition (Richie James) and a rookie (second-round pick Rashee Rice). There will be a lot asked of them, especially after the departure of JuJu Smith-Schuster, who proved to be quite a reliable weapon before moving over to New England in free agency. There's no doubt the Chiefs still expect Travis Kelce to be the best tight end in football. Valdes-Scantling also proved in the AFC title game that he can make critical catches when needed. The big question comes down to how much Mahomes can help the rest of that crew prosper. He's done it before. Odds are he'll do it again.
6) Sean Payton will turn the Broncos into contenders.
Payton has been at work since he arrived in Denver with the intention of creating the right culture for a team that expected to contend last season before that dream turned into a nightmare. He's talked openly about giving the offensive line a much-needed makeover. He's focused on the subtle intricacies that can help his wide receivers play at a higher level, including blocking in the run game. Payton also made it clear that some of the perks quarterback Russell Wilson reportedly enjoyed under former head coach Nathaniel Hackett -- like giving Wilson's personal performance team access to the facility -- won’t be happening during Payton's tenure. All of these are positive steps forward for a franchise that has more than enough talent to be a player in the AFC. Payton is deliberately building a mindset in this squad that will be critical if Denver wants to be taken seriously. I expect this to be a physical, tough-minded group that will run more and be better prepared in critical situations. The Broncos also will benefit from the return of key starters who were lost to injury in 2022, most notably running back Javonte Williams, left tackle Garett Bolles and wide receiver Tim Patrick. Sure, the team's success will depend heavily on Wilson rebounding from last year's horrific campaign. To me, it's a given Payton will help any quarterback play better. The tougher task will be recalibrating this team to play like a cohesive unit. So far, it seems to be heading in the right direction.
7) The Bengals need some young players to grow up fast on defense.
Cincinnati lost one of the best safety duos in the league this offseason when both Jessie Bates III (Falcons) and Vonn Bell (Panthers) departed in free agency. Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said he didn’t want to think about such a doomsday scenario playing out, and now he's spent the last few months preparing for life without them. The Bengals have high hopes for second-year pro Dax Hill -- their first-round pick in 2022 -- and he's a more gifted athlete than either of his predecessors. Those physical skills will give Anarumo more options in coverage, but it will take time for Hill to develop the savvy that made Bates and Bell so dangerous. The Bengals signed Nick Scott to be Hill's new running mate. He spent four seasons with the Rams and helped that team beat Cincinnati in Super Bowl LVI. He enjoyed his best season in 2022. The Bengals understand this won't be an easy transition. However, they've added depth through the draft (with edge rusher Myles Murphy, cornerback DJ Turner II and safety Jordan Battle) while also retaining a key defender like linebacker Germaine Pratt. It's going to look different on the back end in Cincinnati moving forward. It will be worth watching to see how the rest of the defense makes it easier on those new faces.
8) Brian Flores has a tough task in Minnesota.
The Vikings' new defensive coordinator has the credentials the team needed for somebody hired to improve a disappointing defense. The problem is there are a lot of question marks on the depth chart. The Vikings already traded one edge rusher, Za’Darius Smith, to Cleveland. Their best player at that position, Danielle Hunter, is unhappy with his contract, and Minnesota is fielding calls from teams interested in trading for him. The secondary was a disaster last season, as Minnesota fielded the second-worst pass defense in the league (the Vikings ranked 28th in points allowed as well). GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah added defensive end Marcus Davenport and cornerback Byron Murphy in free agency, but Flores is going to have to work some serious magic to get the defense turned around in a hurry. The Vikings fired last year's coordinator, Ed Donatell, after one season. Perhaps Flores will get a little more leeway given the time he spent running a Super Bowl-winning defense in New England and building a feisty defense during his tenure as head coach of the Miami Dolphins. My concern is that he won't have the personnel this season to do the job to his liking.