From Arizona to Washington, keep an eye on these players and coaches as OTAs begin
Organized team activities, despite limited contact, can be a springboard for the season
NFL players are back at work. Actually, they have been since April. Every team had offseason workouts scheduled before the NFL draft, but the league really ramps up for next season with the beginning of organized team activities.
OTAs are practices in which contact is limited. Despite the league-imposed restrictions on hitting, coaches consider the sessions invaluable for evaluating their teams. For a player coming off a great season, OTAs can be a launching pad to another big year. For a player who struggled, OTAs are a fresh start. And for rookies, the light practices provide the first chance to show what they’ve got.
As OTAs kick off this week for some teams and next week for most, here’s a look at storylines for each.
In 2015, the Arizona Cardinals used a third-round pick (86th overall) to draft running back David Johnson out of Northern Iowa. The move didn’t inspire long-winded praise from analysts. Sure, Johnson had potential. Some scouts thought he could be productive as both a runner and receiver out of the backfield. But he was a third-rounder. How good would Johnson be? As it turned out, very good. After a solid rookie season, Johnson had a breakout year in 2016, leading the NFL in yards from scrimmage with 2,118. He also matched an NFL record established by Hall of Famer Barry Sanders: Johnson and Sanders are the only players in league history with 15 consecutive 100-yard rushing games in one season. Not bad for a guy who heard 85 names called in the draft before his. The Cardinals found a gem in Johnson. Now, Arizona’s coaching staff must devise even more creative ways to use him. Gotta feed the brother.
Let’s start by acknowledging that running back Devonta Freeman is a straight baller. Not only is the versatile runner/receiver among the league’s most productive backs, but he also blocks with the same determination he shows while trying to reach the end zone. Freeman has earned his strong cred in blitz pickup. That established, Freeman’s brutal blunder in pass protection late in the Super Bowl was a major factor in the Falcons’ stunning loss to the New England Patriots. Freeman whiffed on his blocking assignment, and Dont’a Hightower’s strip-sack of Matt Ryan proved to be a momentum-changer as the Patriots rallied from a 25-point deficit and won in overtime. Freeman is a former fourth-round pick (103rd overall in 2014) who displayed his mettle to become a key part of Atlanta’s powerful offense. Freeman will need every bit of his mental toughness to block out what happened to him and the Falcons and move on.
You had to wonder how Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs would roll last season. Entering his 14th year in the league, T-Sizzle was at a crossroads. A torn Achilles tendon in Week 1 ended his 2015 season. Many players fail to make it all the way back from that injury, let alone those with as much experience as Suggs. Fortunately for the Baltimore Ravens, Suggs proved he still had a lot left. He led the Ravens with eight sacks and was their only consistent edge rusher. The Ravens will try to get another solid year out of the 2011 Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year. The Ravens have to manage his snaps carefully. They should start planning now.
Lorenzo Alexander traveled a long, winding road to become an elite edge rusher and All-Pro outside linebacker. He was an undrafted rookie free agent in 2005 out of the University of California. He was released by the Carolina Panthers and the Baltimore Ravens. Finally, Alexander stuck with the Washington Redskins and became a special-teams standout. Then in his first season with Buffalo, Alexander finished third in the NFL in sacks in 2016 with 12½. Alexander capitalized on an opportunity while the Bills’ 2016 No. 1 pick, Shaq Lawson, was injured. The Bills expect big things from Lawson. Alexander has shown he responds well to challenges.
At first glance, wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin had a good season, especially after missing all of 2015 because of a torn ACL. Look closely, however, and you’ll see that Benjamin wasn’t consistently effective. The Panthers need Benjamin to be a true No. 1 receiver for superstar quarterback Cam Newton. Carolina recently exercised Benjamin’s fifth-year option despite concerns about his weight. The Panthers showed their belief in Benjamin. It’s time for him to show them it’s justified.
Jordan Howard was the best rookie running back not named Ezekiel Elliott. And considering that Elliott benefited from running behind an offensive line considered second to none, Howard actually had a better season, some NFL people will argue. This much is fact: The Chicago Bears hit a home run in getting Howard in the fifth round (he was the 150th overall selection). Chicago definitely is set at running back. As for most of the Bears’ other positions, things could be better.
A hamstring tear late in the season really messed up wide receiver A.J. Green and the Bengals’ offense. In each of the previous five seasons, Green had at least 1,000 yards receiving and six touchdowns and the Bengals reached the playoffs. While missing six games in 2016, Green failed to reach 1,000 yards and scored only four touchdowns — the fewest of his career. The Bengals missed the postseason. Coincidence? We think not. For Cincinnati to rebound, the perennial Pro Bowler must stay healthy in 2017. It’s as simple as that.
One of only seven African-American head coaches in the league, Hue Jackson had a trying first season with the Browns. Jackson did everything he could to help quarterback Robert Griffin III revive his career. However, Griffin couldn’t get it done and the Browns moved on. Coming off a 1-15 season in which they were as bad as their record indicated across the board, the Browns must show significant improvement in their second season under Jackson. Otherwise, Jackson may not get a third season.
America’s Team is now Dak Prescott’s team. After longtime Dallas quarterback Tony Romo suffered yet another major injury in the preseason, the Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year saved the Cowboys. Romo has moved up to the television booth, making Prescott the undisputed leader of one of the most iconic teams in professional sports. The Cowboys couldn’t have done better with the fourth-round pick (135th overall) they used on Prescott, who will always be in the spotlight. He’ll have to keep shining in it.
Von Miller is still the best edge rusher in the game. Just ask any team that has faced the All-Pro outside linebacker during the past six seasons. And Miller was typically sensational last season: He finished second in the league with 13½ sacks. The Denver Broncos, though, dropped from first overall in defense during their Super Bowl championship season to fourth while missing the playoffs. Will Miller lead the Broncos’ defense back to the top?
The retirement of superstar wide receiver Calvin Johnson opened a huge hole in the Detroit Lions’ offense. The team signed Marvin Jones to help fill the void, and the former No. 2 wideout for the Cincinnati Bengals played well. The Lions are counting on Jones to have a career year. Don’t be surprised if he does.
Green Bay Packers
A season after being an emergency replacement, Ty Montgomery could open 2017 atop the Green Bay Packers’ depth chart. The Packers know they can count on Montgomery, who got it done when called on despite dealing with an illness related to sickle-cell trait.
DeAndre Hopkins has proved he’s one of the game’s best wideouts. He’s a big part of a team that’s loaded at many positions. You’d really like to see how great Hopkins could be if he ever played with an elite quarterback. With the passers on the Houston Texans’ roster, Hopkins won’t get the chance to do that this season. Look for the Texans to lean on Hopkins more than ever.
Frank Gore was 33 last season. Really. He just didn’t play like it. Generally speaking, running backs lose a lot after they turn 30, but Gore just keeps on going. In his 12th season, the five-time Pro Bowler rushed for at least 1,000 yards for the ninth time. This week, Gore celebrated his 34th birthday. Can’t wait to see what the “old-timer” does next.
Marqise Lee was one of the nation’s best wide receivers while at the University of Southern California. But in his first two years with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Lee had only 52 receptions combined. He just couldn’t get going. Last season, Lee did. He made a big impact, finishing second on the team in receptions and yards receiving. Beginning his fourth season, Lee looks like a guy who’s finally ready to take off.
Kansas City Chiefs
Coach Andy Reid, who knows a thing or two about quarterbacks, was determined to get Patrick Mahomes. The Kansas City Chiefs made a big move up the draft board to select Mahomes 10th overall. Mahomes has the luxury of watching veteran starter Alex Smith this season. Still, Reid needs to get Mahomes ready. The clock has started.
Los Angeles Chargers
It’s not often that a player attends a Division II school, goes undrafted, is waived, signs with a practice squad and then becomes a baller. Coming out of tiny Western Oregon University, Tyrell Williams has already beaten the odds. QB Philip Rivers wouldn’t have made the move from San Diego to Los Angeles without his favorite target, who figures to get better in his third season.
Los Angeles Rams
Todd Gurley has to get his groove back. After he made such a splash en route to being selected the 2015 Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year despite playing only 13 games, Gurley couldn’t break free in 2016. Fortunately for Gurley, the Los Angeles Rams are under new on-field management. First-year head coach Sean McVay is all about getting Gurley back on track.
It took Cameron Wake so long to reach the league, it seems he’ll never leave. The defensive end is coming off one of his best seasons. The Miami Dolphins noticed, rewarding him with a contract extension. But Wake is 35. The Dolphins know they’ve got to use him wisely.
Will quarterback Teddy Bridgewater ever return from that devastating noncontact knee injury he suffered last August? Bridgewater and the Minnesota Vikings haven’t said much about the rehab process.
New England Patriots
For a while, it appeared that top-notch corner Malcolm Butler could wind up playing elsewhere. With Butler’s return to the New England Patriots, their secondary is ridiculously loaded. The rest of the NFL just can’t catch a break.
New Orleans Saints
Mark Ingram topped 1,000 yards rushing for the first time in his career. Then the New Orleans Saints signed three-time rushing champion and former NFL MVP Adrian Peterson. How will Ingram and Peterson fit together? Will the Saints’ backfield be too crowded? The New Orleans coaching staff has a lot of work to do.
New York Giants
Brandon Marshall left the New York Jets in free agency to join the New York Giants, which is great news for Odell Beckham Jr. Although Marshall isn’t the dominant player he once was, he still possesses big-play ability. With Marshall on the field, it should be much harder for opponents to concentrate their efforts on slowing Beckham. This could be a great pairing.
New York Jets
Head coach Todd Bowles got off to such a promising start with the New York Jets. The team won 10 games in his rookie season and seemed to be moving in the right direction. But in a quarterback league, you can’t win without a quarterback. The Jets’ quarterbacks, to put it nicely, are awful. People around the league say Bowles is a good brotha. If only he had a good quarterback.
The only question remaining about Khalil Mack is whether he’ll become an all-time great. He possesses the rare combination of talent and determination to make it happen. And Mack has emerged as such a great leader in Oakland, California, the question often comes to mind: What were the Buffalo Bills thinking when they traded up to draft Sammy Watkins instead of the former State University of New York at Buffalo standout in the 2014 draft?
Alshon Jeffrey is a true No. 1 receiver. That’s what the Philadelphia Eagles needed. The only thing is, Jeffrey struggled with the Chicago Bears because of injuries. The Eagles need him to stay in the game and mentor their young wideouts.
Whenever the experts pick winners and losers immediately after the draft, remember this: Antonio Brown was a sixth-round pick (195th overall). The dynamic wideout is arguably the best player at his position in the game. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ receiving corps should be bolstered by offseason additions. Just don’t expect Brown to slow down.
San Francisco 49ers
Defensive end Solomon Thomas was the first draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers’ new regime. They expect him to anchor a rebuilt defense for about a decade. So, no pressure.
Although quarterback Russell Wilson is still fabulous, the Seattle Seahawks fell short of reaching the Super Bowl the past two seasons. Also, their defense isn’t quite as awesome as it once was. Great quarterbacks are judged on Super Bowl titles. Wilson will have to do more.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
DeSean Jackson will spend the next couple of months getting comfortable with his new teammates. And when the speedy wideout is comfortable, that’s usually bad news for the rest of the league.
His nightmarish experience in Philadelphia behind him, DeMarco Murray re-emerged as a big-time back in Tennessee. Does he have another big season in him?
Redskins coaches believe third-year wideout Jamison Crowder will be a superstar. Well, team decision-makers sat on their hands while DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon left in free agency. Crowder will get many opportunities to prove his worth. For the Washington Redskins’ sake, they had better be right about him.