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Stars return: 12 takeaways from first full week of OTAs

The first full week of organized team activities just concluded, and it marks an important milestone:

The week also signals a great time for optimism as NFL stars return to the field from injury. Just this week, Carolina's best receiver Kelvin Benjamin was back on the field for the first time since tearing his ACL last year. Andy Dalton was back under center again after missing the insane end to Cincy's season. Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy, badly missed last year, looked spry in Detroit. Dante Fowler, the No. 3 overall pick in 2015, is ready to "turn it loose" in Jacksonville. Even Jadeveon Clowney is 100 percent at the moment.

"I feel like a kid in the candy store. I feel great," Ravens second-year receiver Breshad Perriman said after missing all of his rookie season.

'Tis the season of candy store dreams. Here's what else we learned after one week of OTAs:

  1. Two key players not yet on the field: Seahawks running back Thomas Rawls and tight end Jimmy Graham. While coach Pete Carroll said Graham will be "back sooner" than people think, he admitted Rawls is further ahead in his recovery. Carroll didn't sound like he expected either player to be ready for training camp, but the team is hopeful that both could be ready for the regular season. While Rawls gets healthy, the team is rolling with Christine Michael as their No. 1 running back.
  1. It's worth watching how quickly rookies rise up the depth charts, even if the true competition doesn't start until August when training camp is underway. The Bills promised three rookies starting jobs before they practiced once (and before one of them, Shaq Lawson, underwent surgery). Other teams like the Cowboys make their players "earn" it.

For now, Ezekiel Elliott is running behind Darren McFadden at Cowboys practice. Elliott admitted there was a big adjustment in Dallas compared to Ohio State practices.

"It's a lot faster pace," Elliott said Wednesday via the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "The game moves so much faster. Yesterday, I'm not going to lie, I was a little bit shell-shocked."

Don't expect Elliott to stay behind McFadden for too long, although the presence of a quality backup could allow the Cowboys to keep Elliott under 300 carries.

  1. Don't look for the Cowboys to deal McFadden or Alfred Morris anytime soon. Cowboys VP Stephen Jones said other teams showed interest in the veteran running backs during the draft, but the Cowboyswant to hold on to McFadden and Morris. That could change in August if Lance Dunbar is back from ACL surgery. Meanwhile, former starting Cowboys guard Ronald Learywants out and is staying away from practice in hopes of a potential trade.
  1. Panthers second-round pick James Bradberry has Josh Norman's number (24) and could have his starting job. With Bene' Benwikere injured, Bradberry has already been lining up with the starters in Carolina. Third-round pick Daryl Worley also has a chance for big snaps.
  1. Saints OTAs felt particularly buzzy this week, even before Sean Payton and Rob Ryan's back-and-forth about who was to blame for last year's Saints defense. Safety Jairus Byrd, who could be running out of chances in New Orleans, is out until training camp again with a knee injury. Drew Brees is still looking for a new contract and it's starting to sound like he could play out his contract year without a deal. Second-year defenders Stephone Anthony and Hau'oli Kikaha are changing positions, with Anthony taking Kikaha's spot at strong-side linebacker and Kikaha becoming an edge pass rusher.

Payton confirmed that 2015 first-round pick Andrus Peat will start this year at either right guard or right tackle. This year's second-round pick, wideout Michael Thomas, is already getting run with the Saints starters. And we sounded the trope alert after reading how much better C.J. Spiller looks this year.

  1. Not all the injury news this week was sunny. We learned that Lions presumptive starting running back Ameer Abdullah is coming off January shoulder surgery, which was successfully covered up until now. It raises fresh questions about Abdullah's ability to handle the rigors of handling the majority of carries in Detroit. Theo Riddick and Zach Zenner are next in line for an uneven Lions roster.
  1. The Lions aren't wasting any time with first-round pick Taylor Decker. He was already playing left tackle at practice, with 2012 first rounder Riley Reiff playing on the right side. Decker and Reiff should both be starters, but they are competing to see who plays where.
  1. Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert's injury suffered during the Pro Bowl turned out to be more serious than indicated back in February. His recent ankle surgery could keep him out into the regular season. Andy Dalton will be under pressure after losing Eifert, Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson during the offseason.

Before transitioning out of the tight end injury part of the program, we also learned this week Steelers free-agent pickup Ladarius Green is out for OTAs after ankle surgery. And Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta is making positive strides in another comeback attempt from his hip surgeries. Baltimore is crowded at the position with Pitta, Benjamin Watson, Crockett Gillmore and Maxx Williams each in the mix. After the injury apocalypse of 2015, the Ravens will gladly have too many bodies.

  1. That's the good Ravens news. The bad news starts with another Jimmy Smith foot surgery. Also: the latest Trent Richardson comeback attempt is going as you'd expect.

The biggest embarrassment of the week for Baltimore came when the league took three OTA sessions from them for violating the league rules on offseason practices (in addition to fining the team and coach John Harbaugh). This wasn't the first time. For a team with huge questions at defensive end, inside linebacker and secondary, any missed practices are an annoyance.

  1. It was a bad week for tackles recently drafted as top-five overall picks. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer went out of his way to say that Matt Kalil is not guaranteed a starting job. The man replacing him with the first team during the week was third-year undrafted player Jeremiah Sirles. In Jacksonville, No. 2 overall pick Luke Joeckel is battling uphill to start.
  1. Another recent struggling top pick is getting the offseason "clean slate with a new coach" routine. Justin Gilbert, the No. 8 overall pick in 2014, who couldn't even get on the field consistently last year, was lining up with the starters in Cleveland.
  1. The Packers got their first look at Eddie Lacy since coach Mike McCarthy publicly warned him in January about getting his weight down. While Lacy looked better, ESPN's Rob Demovsky reported he still weighs in the 240s. McCarthy indicated Lacy had more work to do.

"Eddie will be fine," McCarthy said. "I believe he'll hit the target that we're all looking for when the lights come on."

Until then, let's hope for a Memorial Day weekend heavy on protein and short on surprising NFL headlines. Most of the league will be back with the second week of OTAs on Tuesday.

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