It's important, perhaps more than anything else, to note that it is very early in training camp. Everything we hear -- the optimism, the best-shape-of-his-life gushing, the changes in scheme and position -- needs to be taken with a grain of salt.
We're all excited about the return of football. But there's a whole lot of time left between now and Week 1, and plenty more questions left to answer across the league.
With that in mind, I'm diving into a handful of leading topics from "Back Together Saturday."
1) The Dolphins are feeling good in the first week of camp. Miami endured quite an offseason spent in the spotlight on a stage created by the club's own actions. The Dolphins moved on from Brian Flores and replaced him with rookie coach Mike McDaniel, then pulled off a blockbuster trade for Tyreek Hill. Then, the team's social team posted a video that appeared to show Tua Tagovailoa underthrowing Hill during offseason activities, and, well, the reception wasn't the best.
That may have changed for good Saturday when Tagovailoa dropped an excellent pass into Hill's arms for a 65-yard touchdown. It certainly lit up Twitter for a solid hour, with onlookers raving about both the completion and the reaction from fans in attendance.
Even if they're a bit unrealistic, the expectations will only rise from here. McDaniel will spend this camp instituting his vision for an NFL program, which will include working tight end Mike Gesicki as more of a blocker than he's been in his entire NFL career. But if it all pays off -- a big "if" -- it will have been worth it, even if it required a healthy roasting on Twitter in the spring.
2) It's not going to be quite as easy for Matt Rhule to figure out quarterback as we thought. Sure, Baker Mayfield still has the edge, and you won't find many folks believing Sam Darnold can usurp him. But Mayfield isn't off to the hottest start in camp history.
Carolina spent much of Saturday sending the blitz after its quarterbacks, and Mayfield made a familiar mistake on one play, attempting to evade pressure and lofting a juicy pass for a defender to intercept. Browns fans know the sight well, and it sounds as if the Panthers aren't speeding through the struggles of the first days of camp.
Christian McCaffrey even alluded to their early frustrations during an interview on NFL Network, stressing the importance of simply winning team periods against the Panthers' defensive starters. It sounds as if they're not there yet, but the good news is it's early.
Mayfield has been with the Panthers for less than a month. There are going to be growing pains. But before long, fans and coaches will expect him to take control of the competition and make the decision Rhule told reporters wasn't his to decide. It just might take longer than we thought.
3) Speaking of quarterbacks, the Steelers' competition appears to be wide open. The lone returning option, Mason Rudolph, is putting on the best show thus far, while Kenny Pickett is left with the third-stringers. Fans eager to watch the local kid replace Ben Roethlisberger won't like to hear this, but again, it's early.
"Reps are gonna come," Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin said of Pickett, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Brian Batko. "Not only for him, but for everyone. We're at the very early stages of this. Everyone's gonna get an opportunity to show their capabilities, for sure."
This is perhaps the most honest quarterback competition in any camp this summer. Rudolph owns the most in-house experience, while Mitchell Trubisky takes the field as the veteran most likely to win the job. Pickett is Pittsburgh's golden goose, but he's yet to take flight. Steelers preseason games will be worth watching for this competition alone, if nothing else.
4) The Browns are preparing for any scenario under center. Deshaun Watson is the penciled-in starter, but as Cleveland awaits a ruling from his disciplinary hearing, the team would be doing itself a disservice if it didn't prepare for Plan B. The face of that plan, Jacoby Brissett, is receiving a fair chance to properly get ready to take over, as Kevin Stefanski is splitting first-team reps between Brissett and Watson evenly, per NFL Network's Omar Ruiz.
This shouldn't surprise anyone. If anything, the 50-50 split should somewhat soothe Browns fans until U.S. District Judge Sue Robinson's issues her decision. Cleveland would do itself a lot of good by mentally accepting Brissett's involvement in the offense beyond a headset and a clipboard right now, which at the very least would dull the shock value of losing the big-name addition of the offseason. Stefanski seems to be well aware of this reality and is planning accordingly.
5) The Cowboys might be headed toward a running back reckoning. Ezekiel Elliott has not produced in line with his big-money contract, and Tony Pollard continues to linger in the shadows, waiting for his next occasional chance to produce. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones knows both carry value, but he also isn't allocating a good chunk of change for Elliott just for fun.
"Zeke's gotta be our feature, and he is our feature," Jones said during an interview on NFL Network. "We can feature him in a lot of different ways. We all recognize what he does in the passing game because of his protection ability. Don't ever underestimate that especially with Zeke. Zeke takes some tolls when he's out there as a back blocking. So it's critical that we make Zeke -- because he's capable of being that -- really the focus of what we're doing."
It's an interesting scenario, because while Elliott does carry pass-protecting value, Pollard has proven to be a weapon in such scenarios as a pass catcher. Pollard has also shown flashes of being a slashing running back capable of shredding a defense. It's nice to have both back there, but with Elliott's hefty salary and cap hit, it doesn't feel like it's tenable forever.
That would set up a prove-it year for Elliott, a back who still inched past the 1,000-yard mark last season as part of the NFL's No. 1 offense but still wasn't the Pro Bowl-caliber player the Cowboys thought they were securing back in 2019. Opportunity exists once again for Pollard, even if the chances aren't frequent. The Cowboys' RB2 should at least feel good knowing he's on the owner's radar. He's certainly on mine.
6) The Cardinals aren't leaving any stone unturned with Isaiah Simmons. Simmons' leading attribute since his days at Clemson has been his freakish athleticism, so it was no surprise to see tweets flow from Glendale raving over Simmons' ability to keep up with speedy receiver Andy Isabella. We know Simmons is fast. We know he can move. But what Simmons hasn't proven to the football world is whether he can turn that into becoming an effective defender.
Arizona seems to have recognized this, working Simmons into a hybrid role in camp that is described with a familiar position title: star. It's not the same star manned by Jalen Ramsey in Los Angeles, but it is one that requires versatility. Simmons would fill the job of a linebacker and safety in nickel packages, capable of covering pass catchers while also stopping the run in the box. I see it more as a Rams Mark Barron gig than one that will ask Simmons to drop in pass coverage 50 times a game.
Most importantly, the Cardinals need to get legitimate production out of Simmons in Year 3. They can't afford to spend consecutive first-rounders on two linebackers and fail to get quality return on either (the other being Zaven Collins, who started just six games last year). The league is moving toward an era in which we'll see nickel and other sub packages more than traditional base defenses, so the box safety/hybrid linebacker is only going to become more prevalent. It sounds as if Arizona hopes Simmons can be that guy for them for a long time, starting with this camp.
7) The Bengals' path back to the Super Bowl has encountered a detour. Joe Burrow underwent an appendectomy Wednesday and doesn't have a set timetable for a return to camp. Zac Taylor didn't have any updates on Burrow's status Saturday, but did say the quarterback has not returned to the facility since then.
"You want to leave him alone to an extent," Taylor said, via The Athletic's Paul Dehner Jr.
The appendix is essentially a useless organ, so it doesn't seem like a worrisome issue. The greater hurdle for Burrow might be the recovery from being operated on than anything. Still, the timing couldn't be much worse for a quarterback entering Year 3 with the goal of getting his team back to the Super Bowl. The Bengals will have to make do without him for now.
8) Malik Willis' adjustment from Liberty to the NFL isn't going to happen overnight. Willis learned about the intensity of the NFL's spotlight before he'd even reached training camp, and folks aren't ignoring him as he takes his first practice reps in the NFL. It sounds as if his coaching staff isn't, either.
Willis seemed to be slow to process and react during camp on Saturday, especially in non-contact (seven-on-seven) drills in which he held onto the ball longer than usual, per TitanInsider.com's Terry McCormick. Coach Mike Vrabel didn't shy from this afterward, telling reporters they're working on Willis' timing as he adjusts to the pro game.
Those eager to replace Ryan Tannehill with Willis might have to learn to be patient. It sounds like this will be more of a project than a quick succession, which shouldn't surprise anyone, considering where the Titans selected him (the third round) in April.
9) Philadelphia is no longer waiting around for Jalen Reagor to prove he was worth the first-round pick. The Eagles went out and acquired A.J. Brown in the offseason to pair with 2021 first-rounder DeVonta Smith, and it sounds as if they aren't looking back to see if Reagor is keeping up.
"Yeah, we have great depth at the wide receiver position. He's battling. He's battling for a spot, and he is working with the twos right now," Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said of Reagor on Saturday. "He's gotten a lot of balls over the last two days out here, so he's done a nice job and he is battling for a spot, he's battling for his return spot. He's worked hard in the offseason to come back in great shape. That's something that we all noticed in the conditioning test, how good of shape Jalen was in. Yeah, he's just battling for a spot."
Battling for a spot. Got it. That battle is going to come against some stiff competition now that Brown is occupying a roster spot. Philadelphia remains high on the big-play potential of Quez Watkins, while Zach Pascal came over from the Colts to add another option for quarterback Jalen Hurts. There just aren't as many spots to go around these days. This isn't your 2020 bargain-bin Eagles receiving corps anymore.
10) Lastly, we turn our high-definition cameras to Detroit. The Lions are in the HBO spotlight as they begin Year 2 under Dan Campbell, where optimism is as plentiful as the coach’s Starbucks order.
Look, there isn't much revelatory insight to offer here, but how can you not be intrigued by the Fighting Campbells? The coach even admitted Saturday he wasn't on board with the idea of being on Hard Knocks, but has since grown accustomed to the crew's presence, adding he essentially stopped noticing the cameras by Day 4 of camp.
The Lions will be fun to watch this season solely because they're an underdog who appears poised to surprise some folks -- relatively speaking, of course -- in 2022. Their finish to 2021 was inspiring, and it's tough to not like Campbell's approach to leading a woeful franchise toward what he hopes will be a prosperous future. Hard Knocks will give us an inside look at this soon enough.