2020 NFL training camp: Thirteen individuals with the most work to do before kickoff
It is the middle of August. NFL teams just put on helmets for the first time since the Super Bowl. The season starts in four weeks.
This unprecedented sprint to Week 1 will be a challenge for every player and coach, but it will be a taller mountain to climb for some. Below is an incomplete list of humans with the most to accomplish in the next month:
Tom Brady, quarterback, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Brady’s comments about learning a new playbook being “really tough” were blown out of proportion, but they still speak to the 43-year-old’s anxiety on time missed this offseason.
“I think conversations we probably would’ve had in April, we’re having now,” Brady told reporters.
Brady is playing catchup in the most crucial offseason since his ACL-tear recovery in 2009. No quarterback relies more on knowledge before the snap to win. When Brady hesitates, he struggles. In a season where teams won’t have as much time to install an offense, the edge could go to quarterbacks with superior continuity or athleticism. That’s not Brady.
Inevitably, Brady just won’t be able to grasp certain things about his new offense — and new teammates — until the regular season starts, but the future Hall of Famer has thrived for longer than any quarterback ever because he has all the answers to the test before it starts. The next month will be an incredible cram session.
A.J. Terrell, cornerback, Atlanta Falcons: Congrats on going 16th overall, A.J.! Now, take over as a starter instantly, cover Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley in practice and justify the front office passing on CeeDee Lamb on draft day.
Jay Gruden, offensive coordinator, Jacksonville Jaguars: This is a reminder for the fans out there who forgot Gruden is Gardner Minshew’s new sensei. Gruden’s offenses are always more creative than given credit for, the Jaguars’ offensive line is stable for once and there’s a frisky receiver group in place to support the second-year quarterback. If Minshew can gobble up Gruden’s wordy playbook in time, Jacksonville’s offense will be sneaky watchable.
Chan Gailey and Tua Tagovailoa, offensive coordinator and quarterback, Miami Dolphins: It’s up to Gailey to prepare Tagovailoa for his first NFL season, while also getting the rest of the Dolphins on the same page in a new offense. The offensive line is filled with new faces, including two highly drafted rookies, OT Austin Jackson and OG Robert Hunt. Ryan Fitzpatrick’s experience with Gailey should help smooth over some bumps, but splitting QB reps will be a tricky balancing act. This could be the second straight season in Miami where winning games feels like a bonus, with Tua’s development more important than any box score.
Joe Philbin, offensive line coach, Dallas Cowboys: Joey Phibs is back! Mike McCarthy’s pal from Green Bay will undertake one of the thorniest endeavors in coaching: taking over a legendary unit. Center Travis Frederick has retired, while left tackle Tyron Smith is coming off his lowest-graded season by PFF since 2012. There are still the ingredients here to be great, with right guard Zack Martin and right tackle La’el Collins in their primes. But there’s more downside with this unit than there has been in a long time. Greatness is the expectation when it comes to the Cowboys’ line, the wellspring for a juggernaut Dallas offense in waiting. The best Philbin can do is keep this group on schedule.
Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene, tight end, New England Patriots: If you aren’t familiar with the Patriots’ dueling third-round picks, you aren’t alone. They were not at the top of a relatively weak tight end class. Yet still, no rookie tight ends have a better chance to play right away.
Following veteran Matt LaCosse’s opting out of the 2020 season, the Patriots have virtually no one else at the position. Bill Belichick loves his tight ends, and the last Patriots reboot in 2010 also included a pair of rookies at the position named Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, who combined for 87 catches and 16 touchdowns in Year 1. No one is expecting Asiasi and Keene to approach that level of production, but this New England offense desperately needs some youth and speed to emerge. There aren’t many other options on the roster.
Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback, Pittsburgh Steelers: The history of quarterbacks over 35 years old missing all (or most) of a season before returning as a starter comes down to Vinny Testaverde and … that’s it. Svelte Ben is a unique talent in a passer-friendly era, but the precedent for his return from such a serious injury at age 38 is non-existent. If he gets through August with puff pieces still flowing, then optimism is warranted. But there’s a big difference between spinning passes for social media hype videos and surviving an NFL training camp, much less a season.
Joe Burrow, quarterback, Cincinnati Bengals: I love Burrow’s LSU tape. Who doesn’t? I love the pass-catching options he has in Cincinnati. I like everything I hear from Bengals coach Zac Taylor and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan. I don’t love that Burrow will have less practice time on the field before the regular season than any healthy top pick, well, ever.
Scott Turner, offensive coordinator, Washington Football Team: There’s a trend among many of these choices. New coaches or new players, with new schemes to learn or install. Turner’s task is particularly daunting because he’s doing it with a second-year quarterback in Dwayne Haskins whom he inherited, a promising No. 1 receiver (Terry McLaurin) and very little else that can be relied on. Second-year slot receiver Steven Sims Jr. could be a nifty weapon, and rookie running back Antonio Gibson, who can also play receiver, can make plays if he doesn’t drown in a shower of fantasy football love. He was also a third-round pick.
The Football Team’s roster — this will never get old — looks unfinished. Don’t be surprised if veteran offensive linemen and skill-position players are added to the mix. Turner can’t be sure what he’s working with.
Brandon Aiyuk, wide receiver, San Francisco 49ers: Deebo Samuel’s foot injury sped up Aiyuk’s timeline to produce. The first-round pick is a YAC monster who is expected to take Jimmy Garoppolo’s short passes a long way. Kendrick Bourne is the best healthy returning receiver in a quietly underwhelming group, making Aiyuk’s quick transition crucial to the 49ers’ success. If you are a looking for reasons the 49ers could regress, start with the receivers before heading to the secondary.
Phil Snow, defensive coordinator, Carolina Panthers: Snow, a 64-year-old who was last in the NFL as a position coach for the 0-16 Lions, may be inheriting the league’s worst defense. It’s on the new coordinator to integrate Carolina’s entire draft class into a defense with at least seven new starters. The 2019 Panthers’ defense struggled mightily — giving up the second-most points in the league — and now the new coaching staff is tasked with replacing Luke Kuechly, James Bradberry, Mario Addison, Gerald McCoy, Eric Reid and Bruce Irvin in one offseason.
There is front-seven talent to work with in Kawann Short, Brian Burns, Shaq Thompson and top-10 pick Derrick Brown, but the cornerback group is woefully thin. Snow must get a lot of rookies ready in a short amount of time, in a position he’s never held before.
Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.
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