With the unified start to training camp right around the corner on Tuesday, July 27, it's time to get up to speed on all 32 NFL teams. Below, Tom Blair has the lowdown on position battles, key players and notable subplots across the AFC South.
Most important position battle: Running back. The Texans' apparent general offseason strategy of just signing a whole bunch of guys is perhaps best illustrated by the running back room. Houston added not one but two former 1,000-yard rushers (Mark Ingram and Phillip Lindsay), along with a player who has averaged 88 touches over the past five seasons (Rex Burkhead), to a ground attack that already featured theoretical do-everything back David Johnson. Loading up on bodies is not a bad way to try to quickly improve (or at least patch up) a talent-poor roster, especially for a team dealing with an extreme dearth of draft capital. There's probably even room for at least three of these backs to contribute this season -- but the process of allocating snaps will begin in camp. Of the options, the 26-year-old Lindsay would seem to offer the most juice. Though the team is not committed to him beyond this year, Lindsay has a chance to establish himself as a part of whatever core the new Houston regime ends up trying to build.
Newcomer to know/key player returning from injury: Davis Mills, quarterback. The eighth QB off the board in 2021 -- and the 67th player drafted overall -- should probably not be looked to as a potential savior. The fact that Mills was also Houston's first pick of the year says so much, both about Mills' status as a bit of a lottery-ticket developmental prospect and the Texans' lack of franchise-building ammunition in 2021. And yet ... If Deshaun Watson's legal issues keep him from playing this season, or he stays away from camp, or he ends up traded elsewhere, Mills will only have Professional Bridge Tyrod Taylor and, um, Jeff Driskel standing between him and honest-to-god starter snaps. As unlikely as it might seem, a Gardner Minshew-like rocket ride could theoretically begin in August for the ex-Stanford QB. The chances of this happening will go up if Mills can at least begin to earn enough trust from his coaches and teammates in camp to potentially be handed a spot start or two down the road, even if winning the job outright might not seem within reach.
Other subplots to track:
- NFL Network's Mike Garafolo recently used the words "holding pattern" to describe the uncertainty around Watson, both with regard to the allegations he's facing of sexual assault and harassment and his prior request to be traded away from the team. Roster concerns are secondary to the real-world impact of Watson's legal trouble. But Houston will be in a very challenging position if quarterback continues to be such a glaring question mark as camp progresses.
- Depending on what happens with Watson, Taylor could be in line to start on a regular basis for the first time since 2017, which -- no disrespect to Tyrod, who admirably continues grinding for these opportunities -- feels apt for where this franchise is in its competitive cycle right now.
- For the first time since 2010, J.J. Watt will not be a part of the Houston Texans. I'm not sure I expected Whitney Mercilus to be the last pass rusher standing in Houston of the two of them, but there he'll be, putting his hand in the dirt for the first time in a decade, per defensive line coach Bobby King, in the Texans' new 4-3 defense.
Most important position battle: Pass rusher. If draft picks worked like puzzle pieces, Kwity Paye (No. 21 overall) would snap right into place in the defensive front and replace the pass-rush production that was lost with the departures of Justin Houston and Denico Autry. But people aren't puzzle pieces! They have to adapt when faced with new situations. Per NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah, Paye is promising but raw -- and he'll be learning to work from a new spot on the line. If he can progress quickly enough to challenge veteran holdovers Kemoko Turay (who has struggled to stay on the field over the past two seasons), Tyquan Lewis (who's collected just six career sacks in three years) and Al-Quadin Muhammad (five sacks in four years), that will be an encouraging sign for a defense that ranked eighth overall but 20th against the pass in 2020. Second-round pick Dayo Odeyingbo, who tore his Achilles in January, might not be a factor this year, but if he can keep his rehab on track, then all the better.
Newcomer to know/key player returning from injury: Carson Wentz, quarterback. We might not ultimately learn much in camp about Frank Reich's attempt to reanimate Wentz's career. As is the case with most veterans, the best news will likely be no news -- the absence of any reports of injury or serious discord will count as a positive at this delicate stage of the Carson Wentz Project. That said, what happens with Wentz in Indianapolis could have implications for how promising-if-inconsistent young quarterbacks are handled around the NFL. Let's say Reich is able to restore the luster to Wentz's name, or even just make him serviceable again, by planning around his strengths and weaknesses. That should lend a big dollop of credence to the idea that a QB's surroundings are as important to his development as a QB's internal ability. In other words, perhaps Reich will inspire teams to maybe not cut bait on young players who can't singlehandedly win 10 games by themselves year in and year out, and instead focus on giving them what they need to succeed.
Other subplots to track:
- Eric Fisher's recovery from an Achilles tear might not be complete in time for him to man the left tackle spot right away. This shouldn't be a huge issue, with Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly and Braden Smith forming the backbone of the offensive line, but it is something to keep an eye on.
- Wentz could use a hype-generating camp from at least one receiver, whether that's a rejuvenated T.Y. Hilton, a healthy Parris Campbell or even Michael Pittman, coming off a strong rookie season.
- Could Darius Leonard be a whole lot richer by the time camp wraps? Per The Athletic, the linebacker and Braden Smith could land extensions before Week 1, cementing in place two of the core players snagged in the Colts' banner draft class of 2018. In the wake of 49ers LB Fred Warner's five-year, $95 million extension, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported that Leonard is expected to make even more.
Most important position battle: Running back. This one might be less of a battle and more of a sorting exercise. James Robinson is coming off one of the best seasons ever put forth by an undrafted rookie, but there are hints he might not be primed to carry the load by himself for an actual contender, which is what the Jaguars want to be someday. His yards-per-carry mark (4.46) ranked 24th among running backs with 100-plus carries in 2020, and while he was no slouch in the passing game (49 catches for 344 yards and three scores), there's definitely room to diversify the talent base. Enter Travis Etienne, the first-round choice who logged 85 catches over his final two seasons at Clemson and worked as a receiver in rookie minicamp. Etienne carries a snazzier pedigree than Robinson, and it's easy to see new head coach Urban Meyer perhaps gravitating toward the college star, but it's even easier to see Jacksonville finding a way to balance out playing time for both Robinson and Etienne. Oh, and don't forget about seasoned vet Carlos Hyde and his shared Buckeye past with Meyer.
Newcomer to know/key player returning from injury: Trevor Lawrence, quarterback. There could be no other. The franchise-changing moment that has shimmered in the distance for months is about to get a little bit closer. Training camp is still not Week 1, but the Trevor Lawrence era will feel increasingly real -- "full-go" real, if you will -- as the remainder of summer ticks by and we inch toward the day when one of the most hyped quarterback prospects in recent memory takes the field in a game uniform. The Jaguars have recorded just eight winning seasons since their first season in existence, in 1995. They've never had a quarterback start more than 20 games and post a passer rating better than David Garrard's mark of 85.8. It's difficult to overstate the impact of Lawrence's arrival and development on a team that has given fans scant reasons to cheer since entering the world.
Other subplots to track:
- There is plenty of work to be had on the pass-rush front, with only one player (Dawuane Smoot) putting up more than 2.5 sacks in 2020. No one would complain if Josh Allen and K'Lavon Chaisson made good on their first-round pedigrees (and, in Allen's case, the promise suggested by a strong rookie season in 2019).
- The Jaguars have had just one receiver (D.J. Chark in 2019) break the 900-yard mark since 2015. In that span, the newly signed Marvin Jones did it three times (2016, 2017 and 2020). Jones might be 31, but he's by far the most established pass-catcher Jacksonville's seen in more than half a decade.
- Did the Tim Tebow signing awaken some sort of Tebowmania nostalgia you didn't know you had? Well, soak up what you can in camp, just in case the 33-year-old who's never played tight end in the NFL before -- and who hasn't played in an NFL regular-season game at all since 2012 -- somehow doesn't make the team.
Most important position battle: Right tackle. It would be nice for Tennessee to fill the Jack Conklin-shaped hole that has loomed at this spot since the former top-10 pick left via free agency last offseason. Seventh-year pro Kendall Lamm earned respectable grades from Pro Football Focus as a fill-in starter with Cleveland over the last two seasons, but neither he nor Ty Sambrailo seem like a particularly zesty option. More tantalizing: the potential for second-round pick Dillon Radunz to break out and firmly establish himself as a long-term answer with upside. Radunz is credited by PFF with allowing just four sacks in his three seasons at North Dakota State. If Radunz can seize this job in camp, he could help upgrade a weakness while freeing Lamm and Sambrailo to serve as depth-providing backups.
Newcomer to know/key player returning from injury: Julio Jones, wide receiver. Jones gave a last-minute caffeine boost to an otherwise-sleepy offseason for this offense, bringing name-brand power to a spot that Corey Davis filled ably, though not quite memorably. It felt like the Derrick Henry/Ryan Tannehill-led attack that carried Tennessee to consecutive playoff appearances might have hit its ceiling in 2020, with Baltimore limiting a Titans group that ranked second in yards in the regular season to just 209 (and 51 on the ground) in a Wild Card Round loss. Jones is 32 and coming off an injury-hampered season; he's not the lock to produce that he was even two years ago. But he should be able to command as much defensive attention as Davis did, if not more, helping to open things up for Tannehill and A.J. Brown.
Other subplots to track:
- The team's fortunes could turn on the recoveries and health of several players working their way back from injury. Left tackle Taylor Lewan tore his ACL last October; new pass rusher Bud Dupree tore his ACL in December; cornerback Caleb Farley, a first-round pick, underwent back surgery in March.
- Can safety Kevin Byard -- whose defensive rating on PFF took a hit last season, and who failed to log multiple picks for the first time since his rookie campaign in 2016 -- rediscover the form that made him a Pro Bowler and All-Pro in 2017?
- After two solid first pro seasons, defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons feels like one of those players who could start to gather breakout buzz as Week 1 draws nearer.