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Press Coverage

2020 NFL training camp: Intriguing storylines in unprecedented times

In's Press Coverage series, columnists Judy Battista, Jeffri Chadiha, Michael Silver and Jim Trotter engage in a back-and-forth discussion on a timely topic, issue or theme. In this edition, JUDY BATTISTA kicks off a run-down of the most enticing subplots at the outset of training camp.

Do you remember when we thought Tom Brady's decision would be the biggest story of the offseason? That was back in the early days of March, which is to say, the Before Times. Before the country, and the NFL along with it, shut down to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the murder of George Floyd unleashed nationwide protests and a long-needed reckoning on race and police brutality. Before Commissioner Roger Goodell apologized, Washington finally retired its racial slur of a nickname, and weeks of negotiations were held on the health and financial impact of playing football through a global health crisis. And, of course, before Brady picked Tampa Bay as his new home.

Now, after the most unimaginable offseason in history, it appears training camps are actually opening on time this week. That is the most significant sign that the NFL will indeed begin what will almost certainly be a most challenging regular season as scheduled on Thursday, Sept. 10 in Kansas City.

Almost nothing about this season is likely to be entirely normal, but one thing hasn't changed: The opening of camps spurs anticipation for all the stories we hope to see. That is particularly heightened now, because there were none of the usual sneak peeks afforded by minicamps and OTAs.

As the NFL springs to life again -- not virtually, but for real this time -- my Press Coverage colleagues and I want to talk about that. With so much going on, what are you most intrigued by as camps open?

My choice is pretty obvious: I want to see just how the NFL functions in the age of COVID-19.

I want to see if a Buster Posey-level NFL star opts out of the season. I want to see how many players test positive after the initial intake period, when we expect the positive tests to be high. I want to see how the altered training camp schedule -- with a nearly three-week acclimation period before any contact is allowed -- affects player performance and injuries. I want to see how the lack of offseason work impacts what football looks like. I want to see how the teams that went through the biggest offseason changes -- four teams have new head coaches and offensive and defensive coordinators -- manage all that unfamiliarity. I want to see who besides undrafted free agents really misses preseason games. And finally, most sobering, I want to see if teams can avoid outbreaks to keep the season going. To me, nothing that happens on the field will be more interesting than whether the extraordinary precautions put in place can make safe the sport with the most close contact and whether anything the league does can provide lessons for the rest of us. There is so much that is unknowable about the upcoming season -- including whether it will finish -- but we'll have at least some of those answers in the next few weeks.

Mike, Jim, Jeffri: What do you think?

MICHAEL SILVER: Judy nailed it: As the most surreal offseason in history gives way to the most tenuous of all preseasons, it's really, really difficult to predict how things will play out, from health-and-safety scenarios to what takes place on the field. As one head coach told me recently, "The team that wins the Super Bowl will be the team that figures out how to manage COVID-19 the best. There are going to be some challenges that we can't possibly foresee."

That applies to those of us who cover the league, as well. For starters, we at NFL Media will be avoiding air travel during training camp, meaning Judy will inevitably visit the impressionistic art exhibit that is the New York Jets. You know, the ever-in-flux franchise that just traded its best player, safety Jamal Adams, to the Seattle Seahawks, creating hope for the future but even less optimism for the present.

Meanwhile, since Seattle's a quick drive from my Northern California home -- OK, it's a very long drive, but it's less long from my home than it is from anyone else's who covers the league at our place -- I'm hoping to get a sense of the early impact made by the newly acquired leader of the Legion of Boom 2.0.

First of all, I'll give some credit to Adams, who was upset that the Jets wouldn't meet his long-term contract plea and badly wanted out. Contractually bound to the team for two more seasons, as per the terms of the deal he signed (in conjunction with the CBA-negotiated rules that mandate such things) after the franchise selected him sixth overall in the 2017 draft, he was short on leverage but long on strategic acumen.

Having essentially called Jets GM Joe Douglas a liar upon learning he was being shopped before the trade deadline last October, Adams took things up a notch last week. First, he pounced on published reports detailing investigations of Jets owner Woody Johnson for a potential ethics violation and racist and sexist comments to staff members while serving as the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, tweeting, "We need the RIGHT people at the top. Wrong is wrong!" Granted, Johnson's alleged behavior made him an easy target, but Adams knew what he was doing when he publicly blasted one of the billionaires who signed his paychecks.

Then, in an interview with Manish Mehta, a columnist for the New York Daily News -- a.k.a. the Replace Adam Gase Tribune -- Adams blasted the Jets' head coach, declaring that Gase isn't "the right leader for this organization to reach the Promised Land."

Lo and behold, when the Seahawks stepped up with a hefty offer that included a pair of first-round draft picks, Adams was granted his wish and sent off to the Pacific Northwest, a land which promises to showcase some very compelling football in 2020 and beyond.

The Seahawks gave up a lot, but I think it's a great move. They were very, very good in 2019, beating the 49ers once (when S.F. was undefeated in November) and coming within a few inches of a sweep and an NFC West title. Forced to fight their way through a daunting division that should be even stronger in 2020, they're clearly going after it, which falls in line with the text I got from coach Pete Carroll on Saturday shortly after the trade was announced: "You're either Competing or you're not!!!"

It was the latest high-risk/high-reward move by Seattle general manager John Schneider, who I believe is the best in the business. For what it's worth: I also believe, based on my numerous conversations with people around the league, that if you polled NFL personnel people and coaches, Schneider would be chosen the best GM in the game today, a mythical title he inherited from the great Ozzie Newsome.

In the wake of the 2017 season, during which Schneider and Carroll essentially rebuilt on the fly, the idea was to construct a new identity around quarterback Russell Wilson on offense and middle linebacker Bobby Wagner on defense. Wagner, who recently turned 30, is a terrific player who has helped hold the Seahawks' D together these past two seasons, but he needs help.

Adams, a prolific and physically imposing leader who makes plays from sideline to sideline -- and from the deep middle to the opposing quarterback's pocket -- can help in many, many ways. Most notably, he can help shape a new identity.

I understand why the Jets made the deal, and the picks they got (along with safety Bradley McDougald) in the trade may allow them to get better at multiple positions down the road. That said, there are only so many luminous players like Adams, and I don't like the Jets' odds of finding another one -- at any position -- with the extra draft capital they obtained.

The Seahawks, meanwhile, have a chance to recapture the Earl Thomas-style playmaking magic that characterized their exceptional defenses during the glory years of the Carroll era. And something tells me that Adams, who'll almost certainly get a fat contract from his new employer in short order, will love playing for Carroll, a defensive genius who'll help conjure up some very creative ways to deploy him.

JIM TROTTER: One of the more intriguing storylines is the Bears' quarterback situation, where the team has declared an open competition between incumbent Mitchell Trubisky and journeyman Nick Foles. The team had hoped to use offseason workouts and preseason games to determine the winner, but that won't happen after the pandemic erased both on-field workouts and preseason games. Now what? It will be fascinating to see how coach Matt Nagy ultimately chooses a starter -- and, make no mistake, the consequences of his decision could extend to the coach's office and front office, where the jury is still out on general manager Ryan Pace. The Bears have finished last in the division three times and third among four clubs another time in Pace's five seasons, and part of the issue has been his inability to find impact players at the top of the draft. First-round selections Kevin White and Leonard Floyd are no longer with the team, and Trubisky might not be around after this year if he doesn't show consistent playmaking ability.

The fact that the Bears chose not to exercise the fifth-year option on Trubisky's contract -- which could have guaranteed him nearly $24 million in salary in 2021 -- was a clear indicator they are not confident he will be the player they envisioned when they traded up to the second spot in the 2017 draft to select him, ahead of quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. And the decision to trade a fourth-round pick to Jacksonville for Foles, then sign him to a deal that reportedly includes $24 million in guarantees while declaring an "open competition" at the position, spoke louder than any words they could have said.

Trubisky looked like a solid pick in his Pro Bowl season of 2018: In 14 games, he completed 66.6 percent of his passes for 3,223 yards with 24 touchdowns and 12 interceptions while rushing for 421 yards and three scores. But last season, he threw for just 17 touchdowns in 15 starts and had a league-low average of 6.1 yards per pass attempt. His struggles were the primary reason the team sought out Foles, who previously won a Super Bowl in his second stint with the Eagles and has familiarity with the offense from his time with Nagy in Philadelphia and Kansas City. But the addition is far from a sure thing. Foles has started more than eight games only once in the last six campaigns and has total of 13 starts over the past four regular seasons.

If both Foles and Trubisky flame out, the likelihood of the Bears moving out of the bottom half of the division is far-fetched, which could lead to ownership taking a long look at both the coaching staff and the front office. And for that reason, the Bears' QB competition is one of the more intriguing storylines entering training camp.

JEFFRI CHADIHA: Since we debuted "Press Coverage" with a conversation about Cam Newton a few months ago, I'm going back to that well now that he's found a new home. We all speculated that New England made the most sense for Newton after the Carolina Panthers released him and he drifted through free agency with little interest. The Patriots had the most uncertainty at quarterback -- with second-year signal-caller Jarrett Stidham and journeyman Brian Hoyer being the only serious candidates for the job -- and Newton needed a place where he had the best chance to start. Today, Newton has a one-year deal that gives him the chance to redeem himself with the league's best head coach, Bill Belichick.

There's no doubt Newton is the most talented quarterback on that roster. In a more normalized offseason, he'd probably have the job nailed down already. So that brings me to the first major question in this marriage between Newton and Belichick: What exactly is the Patriots' offense going to look like if Newton ends up running the show?

I've long suspected Belichick has been eager to utilize more of the designed quarterback runs that have pervaded the league in recent years. That stuff was never an option when Tom Brady was under center, and for good reason. Stidham is far more athletic and capable of weaponizing his legs while running an offense than Brady. On that same note, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has proven to be quite creative in how he plays to the strengths of his quarterbacks. If the Patriots already were planning to use their quarterback more in the run game, then Newton obviously will have a much easier transition after signing in July.

That leads us to the next question: How durable can Newton be? Cam was healthy enough to pass a physical when he signed, but he's also been beaten up over the last three years. He's had two shoulder operations since 2017 and his 2019 season ended after two games following a Lisfranc fracture of his left foot. We don't know what impact those ailments will have on Newton. After all, he turned 31 in May. He already was trying to transform himself into a quarterback who relied more on his supporting cast and less on his athletic ability in his last two seasons in Carolina. As dangerous Cam he was in his 20s, it's hard to imagine him crashing into defenders every time he has that opportunity. As was the case with the Panthers, Newton will have to find the right balance between being a facilitator and trying to play Superman.

Finally -- and this is the one thing everybody must be eager to see -- I want to watch how Newton and Belichick co-exist. Newton even acknowledged that he pondered that question when he made the move. It's one thing to recognize the tall task of replacing a future Hall of Famer who won six Super Bowls with the Patriots. It's a different matter altogether when considering how somebody as free-spirited and eccentric as Newton fits into the most button-downed culture in the league.

To be honest, I suspect there will be fewer issues here than most people seem to anticipate. Newton has about six months to set his career back in a positive direction. He's obviously a colorful personality but that sometimes obscures the fact that he's a tremendously hard worker, one who possesses the kind of toughness that teammates love seeing in a quarterback. Belichick also has more of a light-hearted side than he ever shares in public. If the worst thing you can say about Newton is that he posts cryptic statements on Instagram, he will get along just fine in New England.

This situation ultimately is the most intriguing because of what's at stake. We will be watching Newton perform under conditions that we've never seen, with him literally fighting to restart his career. We'll be watching Belichick lay the foundation for what his team really will be in the post-Tom Brady era. I agree that COVID-19 overshadows everything at the moment. However, this will be the storyline that packs the most punch if/when we start looking for something else to capture our attention.

BATTISTA: Funny, I find Brady in Tampa to be most compelling for many of the reasons Jeffri lays out about Cam in New England. With or without these unusual circumstances, Brady's season would have been riveting. That he is joining a new team for the first time after two decades of dominating the NFL in New England -- a team that has legitimate championship aspirations -- with none of the traditional offseason work only heightens the anticipation. And that it is a team that has some top-level receiving options -- something he did not have much of last season in New England -- and a coach like Bruce Arians only makes me want to watch him more.

Last season was such a disappointment for Brady: 60.8 completion percentage, first-round playoff exit, obvious shows of frustration almost every week. Mike Evans and Chris Godwin -- and Rob Gronkowski! -- should help answer the question of whether Brady's performance had dropped off that significantly because of age or because he simply had no trust in the receivers around him.

Brady ran offseason workouts with some of his new teammates in Tampa, even going against the union's suggestion that they stop, but I do wonder how much he will be affected by the compressed time to get ready. Brady certainly knows how to take care of himself, but he is also a demanding task master who expects his receivers to be in the right place at the right time. There is talent in Tampa, but has it had enough time to mesh with Brady? When we finally get to focus on the game, that's what I'll be watching.

SILVER: I know we've talked a lot about the Seahawks in the wake of the Adams deal, and deservedly so. I know we've been excited by the Cardinals since they swung the big trade for DeAndre Hopkins in March, and there's a ton of buzz about Kyler Murray possibly making a major breakthrough in Year 2. And I remain interested in the Rams: While there are plenty of skeptics, I believe Sean McVay can reinvigorate the franchise he took to the Super Bowl two seasons ago and put L.A. in position for another playoff run.

And yet, with all of that said, the best team (on paper) in football's best division remains the defending NFC champion San Francisco 49ers. And even with the loss of star defensive lineman DeForest Buckner, there are reasons to believe the Niners could be even better in 2020.

Specifically, Kyle Shanahan's offense could be even more explosive, which is kind of scary. For starters, there's all kinds of excitement about former Arizona State wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, the second of the team's two first-round picks in April's draft (the other, ex-South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, will try to replace Buckner). With Deebo Samuel coming off a standout rookie season -- and a broken foot that could cause him to miss a few games early -- the Niners should eventually have a pair of studs on the outside for Jimmy Garoppolo, whose favorite target, George Kittle, is the league's top tight end.

But there's more. Jalen Hurd, a physically imposing third-round pick in the 2019 draft, is back after missing his entire rookie season with a back injury. And Trent Taylor, who also missed the 2019 campaign in the midst of enduring five foot surgeries, is attempting to fulfill his promise as a threat in the slot, under the tutelage of a guy who knows a bit about thriving there: 49ers receivers coach Wes Welker. Taylor was so impressive during the 2019 offseason that coaches and teammates kept telling me about him in our conversations, all of them predicting big things. One very knowledgeable source told me last summer that Taylor would make the Pro Bowl based on the team's plans for him. If the 5-foot-8, 180-pounder can recapture that promise, it could be really, really fun to watch.

Finally, there's running back Jerick McKinnon, who is attempting to come back after having missed the last two seasons with knee issues. When the Niners gave McKinnon a four-year, $30 million deal on the first day of free agency in 2018, they viewed the former Vikings player as an important part of Shanahan's evolving offense. In essence, McKinnon's exceptional versatility made him the ultimate chess piece, someone who would allow Shanahan to switch formations seamlessly at the line of scrimmage and help create mismatches. Yet a torn ACL just before the start of the 2018 season and a subsequent ACL surgery one year later have kept McKinnon from playing a meaningful down for the Niners -- so far. Now 28, McKinnon, who agreed to a reduced contract in March, will be trying to pull off a very difficult comeback. If he somehow does, Shanahan and run game coordinator Mike McDaniel will be able to showcase even more creativity in their already cutting-edge attack.

Seeing Hurd, Taylor and McKinnon on the practice field would be a training-camp highlight in and of itself. I'll cross my fingers and drive to Santa Clara soon.

CHADIHA: I'll give this much to Mike's proclamation: The 49ers certainly are the best team in the best division in football. However, I'd like to see what happens with the team that actually had the best record in the league when the 2019 regular season ended. That would be the Baltimore Ravens. You know -- the same 14-2 squad that looked like it was about to roll to the Super Bowl until the Tennessee Titans changed those plans in the AFC Divisional Round.

We've heard a lot of talk from Kansas City about how the Chiefs plan on winning multiple championships in the coming years. The 49ers also have a strong enough roster to avoid a Super Bowl hangover, while the New Orleans Saints have spent the last three seasons wondering why they can't break through and claim another title. Meanwhile, the Ravens have a team brimming with talent and a third-year quarterback, Lamar Jackson, who is the reigning league MVP.

As electric as Lamar was in 2019 -- when he amassed 3,127 passing yards, 1,206 rushing yards and 43 total touchdowns -- the narrative around him all year will focus on his growth as a passer. Jackson improved markedly in that area last season. He'll have to be even better this fall, as his inability to make plays downfield were a major factor in the Ravens' inability to mount a comeback in that upset playoff loss to the Titans.

Anybody who watched Jackson's maturation in 2019 knows he's capable of putting in the work to evolve even more as a passer. What we can't know is how an entire offseason plagued by COVID-19 impacted those efforts. It's also apparent that the Ravens are as loaded as they've ever been. They bolstered an already strong defense (with free-agent defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe, as well as first-round pick Patrick Queen, the best linebacker in the draft) and added another tough ball-carrier to a record-setting rushing attack (running back J.K. Dobbins).

It's very possible that the Ravens could benefit from the chaos caused by COVID-19 this offseason. The lack of practice time during the offseason and the loss of preseason games means physical teams like Baltimore will have an advantage. It already was difficult to defend Jackson and that offense when teams had a full six months to prepare for it. Imagine how dangerous that unit will become when it faces opponents who haven't spent ample time operating in full-contact drills or working on tackling.

This literally could be the best chance these Ravens have at claiming a Super Bowl. Jackson is still operating on his rookie deal and the only player Baltimore lost of any consequence was Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda, who retired in March. The Chiefs deserve to be favorites, as they have the best quarterback on the planet in Patrick Mahomes. However, there were a lot of people who believed in the Ravens when last season's playoffs began. There will be even more if Jackson takes the next step in his development.

TROTTER: Jeffri, if Jackson takes his game to a level noticeably higher than it was a year ago, we might have to broaden the discussion of "best quarterback on the planet." Another QB I expect to make a quantum leap this year is Arizona's Kyler Murray. Last season, he lacked protection up front and prime playmakers on the perimeter. That won't be the case this year with the upgrades on the line and the addition of All-Pro wideout DeAndre Hopkins. And with the key additions Arizona has made on defense -- notably first-round pick Isaiah Simmons, plus cornerback Patrick Peterson being available for Week 1 after missing the first six games last season while serving a league suspension -- the Cardinals should be able to get the ball back to Murray an extra one or two series a game. That should spell trouble for opponents.

But just as I'm intrigued by what will take place on the field, I'm equally interested in what we will see off it: Specifically, how will Commissioner Roger Goodell handle alleged violations of the league's personal conduct policy reaching the highest levels of several organizations? Multiple owners have come under a searing spotlight, including Washington's Dan Snyder, whose organization is facing sexual harassment accusations from 15 female former employees. And whether it's the Patriots' Robert Kraft (charged with two misdemeanor counts of soliciting prostitution in February 2019) or the Jets' Woody Johnson (he has been accused of making racist and sexist comments to employees as the U.S. ambassador to the U.K.), these are litmus tests for the league. How these situations are handled will go a long way toward determining its credibility when talking about creating a safe, diverse and inclusive working environment. The commissioner has been criticized previously for acting too swiftly when disciplining players, so any extended delay with owners figures to raise eyebrows as well as suspicions of a double-standard. Remember, we've been told previously that owners would be held to a higher standard. These situations will help show whether the commissioner's actions will match his words.

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