Mandatory minicamps kicked off all around the NFL this week and, as expected, there was plenty of news to catch up on. There were quarterback battles in some camps. There were grumpy players looking for new contracts in others. This also was a time to get a better sense of how some new additions to rosters had fared and how well some injured players were recuperating.
We all know the usual clichés that emerge this time of year, that you can't tell too much about players until the pads come on. However, that's not entirely true. As much as players make their true impact on the field, there's plenty to discuss about them as the offseason nears a close. In fact, here is the most intriguing player (or players) from each of the 12 NFL teams that opened mandatory minicamps this week.
The easy pick here would be defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, the second overall selection in this year's draft. The fact is that he's expected to be playing at the start of the regular season. The same can't be said for Williams, whom the Lions selected 12th overall after trading up with the Minnesota Vikings. Lions head coach Dan Campbell admitted to local reporters on Thursday that there isn't a definitive timetable set for Williams to return. Campbell said he's hopeful but he doesn't see Williams being ready for training camp as the rookie recovers from a torn ACL he sustained in the College Football Playoff National Championship. This actually conflicts with reports that Williams had been ahead of schedule in his recovery prior to the draft, as the expectation was that he would be ready by August. Regardless, Campbell said the Lions aren't going to rush Williams back onto the field. Williams is an electric talent, a wide receiver so gifted that he might have been the first player taken at that position had he been healthy. The Lions risked so much in moving up 20 spots because they see a future star for quarterback Jared Goff. Now they'll have to wait a little longer to see how that investment pays off.
This will be the third team Watkins has played on in the last three seasons, and he once again is being tasked with a potentially influential role. He was the man who did all the dirty work in complementing Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce in Kansas City. Last season, he was the veteran who was supposed to give Lamar Jackson a steady target in the Baltimore Ravens' offense. Now, he's the most accomplished wide receiver on a team that just traded away the best player in the league at that position, Davante Adams, to the Las Vegas Raiders. The Packers sorely need Watkins to be a difference-maker in a receiver room that includes Allen Lazard, Randall Cobb and rookie Christian Watson. Watkins only produced 27 receptions and one touchdown catch for the Ravens last year. Just as worrisome is the fact that he missed four games, especially since he hasn't played a full season since his rookie year in 2014. The Packers seem willing to look on the bright side when it comes to these facts. Head coach Matt LaFleur recently said a lack of opportunities has more to do with those productivity issues and that Watkins will be counted on to do plenty in this offense. Watkins had better be up to the task. This is a team that has reached the NFC Championship Game in two of the last three years, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers is hungry for another shot at the Super Bowl.
The Colts' All-Pro linebacker just underwent successful back surgery for a lingering issue that wasn't improving. The team is acting like it's not a huge deal, that it might keep him out of training camp for a spell or a little longer. But anybody who knows anything about back problems, let alone back operations, understands they always have the potential of becoming more problematic. This is a season in which the Colts are betting a lot on. They traded for quarterback Matt Ryan and added some key pieces to their defense, veterans like defensive end Yannick Ngakoue and cornerback Stephon Gilmore. The last thing they need is for their best player to be struggling with any kind of limitations. Leonard actually played with a persistent ankle problem in 2021, one that required surgery last summer and never fully healed. The good news is that another operation hasn't been needed to fix that issue. The bad news is the Colts won't really know how significant this back problem is until he's actually playing football again.
There really isn't anybody else who comes close in this category. Adams impacted the Raiders as soon as news broke that Green Bay was trading the All-Pro receiver and he was signing a deal that would make him the league's highest-paid player at his position (a deal that was quickly surpassed by the contract Miami gave Tyreek Hill). Adams left quarterback Aaron Rodgers and a team that has played in two of the last three NFC title games to join quarterback Derek Carr and a team that has qualified for the postseason twice in the last 19 years. Yes, money was a big factor. But Adams is a California native who grew up loving the Raiders and played college football with Carr at Fresno State. This is about a player who believes he can uplift a storied franchise and do that with one of his best buddies throwing him the football. The Raiders don't lack for weapons, as Adams will join Hunter Renfrow and Darren Waller, one of the best tight ends in football. But as Adams said, their success won't happen just because they look good on paper. As he told local reporters, "We got to put in the work."
If there was a telling moment in the press conference just held for All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald after he signed his new contract, it was the question he received about lining up in a defense that now includes Bobby Wagner at inside linebacker. Donald didn't have to say anything. He just smiled real wide, as if the only thing that could come close to his hefty new pay increase was the thought of adding an eight-time Pro Bowl linebacker to a team that just won the Super Bowl. Wagner may be turning 32 later this month, but he's still quite capable of wrecking a game plan. The Rams once again have a star on every level of their defense -- with Jalen Ramsey at cornerback -- and that means they're well-positioned to defend their championship. The major headlines this month might be all about the money being handed out to Donald and wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who signed his own new deal this week. However, all those good vibes won't mean much if the Rams can't make another run. Wagner helps them do that.
The Vikings signed Smith this offseason for a couple reasons. The first is that he's a hell of a pass rusher when he's healthy. A back problem limited him to just two games for the Green Bay Packers in 2021 -- the season opener and an NFC Divisional Round loss to San Francisco -- but he had 26 total sacks in his first two years with the Packers. The other reason why Smith is in Minnesota is fellow Vikings pass rusher Danielle Hunter. Like Smith, Hunter has been fighting his share of injuries recently (a neck injury in 2020 and a pec injury in 2021) but Hunter also has 60.5 career sacks. Put Smith in the same front as Hunter and the Vikings expect big things if everything goes well. Minnesota is shifting to a 3-4 defense, so it'll be moving those players around often to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The coaches have been experimenting with an assortment of options when it comes to that strategy already this offseason. It's just a matter of whether Smith and Hunter and can stay healthy enough to make all those wild dreams come true.
It's been a long time since the Patriots had a wide receiver who could line up on the outside and do some consistent damage. The last time they had a receiver in that position crack 1,000 yards was 2017, when Brandin Cooks accomplished the feat. This is one reason why New England traded a fifth-round pick to the Miami Dolphins in April to acquire Parker. The Patriots need more weapons who can make life easier for second-year quarterback Mac Jones. Parker became the odd man out in Miami after the team traded for Tyreek Hill and signed Cedrick Wilson in free agency. That doesn't mean Parker can't play anymore. The issue with him always has been durability. The only complete season he's played came in 2019, when he also happened to set career-highs in receptions (72), yards (1,202) and touchdowns (nine). Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is hoping that is the player who showed up in New England earlier this offseason. Parker clearly has a lot to learn in his new home -- "The guys who have experience with the Patriots are ahead of the players that have experience with the league, just because they've been here longer and have more familiarity with what we're doing," Belichick told local reporters earlier this week -- but he could offer a huge boost to this offense if he stays healthy.
There’s been nothing but positive vibes surrounding the Giants star running back lately and he’s been expressing that when describing how good he feels. His new head coach, Brian Daboll, sees Barkley as “a talented player” who the Giants are lucky to have on their team. Now it’s just a question of whether all that spring optimism can translate into strong results come the fall. Barkley quickly blossomed into a star his rookie season, winning AP NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2018. He’s been snakebit ever since with injuries sapping his productivity each passing year. The most significant setback was a torn ACL in 2020, and Barkley has since acknowledged that he struggled with his confidence last season after an ankle injury plagued him, as well. Barkley ran for 1,307 yards and scored 11 touchdowns in his first NFL season. He’s had 627 yards and two TDs in 15 games over the last two seasons. Playing on his fifth-year option in 2022, Barkley will need to return to his rookie form or else this could very well be his last go-around in New York.
This should be the most interesting quarterback competition of the summer. The Steelers watched Ben Roethlisberger walk away into retirement without having any true successor in-house at the time. Since then, they signed Trubisky in free agency and selected Pickett 20th overall in this year's draft. How this plays out before the regular season surely depends on how quickly Pickett can learn. For all the criticism of Trubisky at the end of his tenure in Chicago, the player drafted second overall in 2017 still has talent and experience working in his favor. He also spent the past season sitting behind Josh Allen in Buffalo and learning from Brian Daboll, the former Bills offensive coordinator who now works as head coach of the New York Giants. The 27-year-old is the safe choice here. Pickett, 24, is the future of the franchise, the local guy who starred at Pitt and spent his entire career practicing in the same building where the Steelers work daily. They know him better than any other player they could've drafted at the position. The best-case scenario here is that Trubisky is consistent enough to be an effective starter, while Pickett can learn without being thrown into the fire too soon. That sounds good in theory. We'll see how it actually plays out.
After all the offseason talk about Samuel wanting to be traded, he showed up for the team's mandatory minicamp. This obviously doesn't mean Samuel is good with the organization now. It's only an indication that he likely can't afford to stomach the fines that would've come with sitting out this part of offseason activities. Regardless of what's being said publicly -- which at this stage is very little, since it's still not clear what's so aggravating to Samuel in the first place -- this is surely going to come down to money. Samuel has a ton of leverage (he's arguably the best player on the team), and the wide receiver market has been going crazy this offseason. Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan told local reporters that he remains confident the team will get a long-term extension done with Samuel at some point before the season. Shanahan said the relationship was never so far out of whack that it couldn't be fixed. The fact that Samuel was in the building this week is a good sign that things can move in the right direction.
The low-hanging fruit for this conversation at the moment involves wide receiver DK Metcalf not showing up for minicamp this week. The reality is that there doesn’t appear to be any bad blood, just a smart business decision by a talented wide receiver waiting on his own long-term extension. The situation at quarterback is far more interesting. The Seahawks had been set at the position for a decade until they traded Russell Wilson to the Denver Broncos in March. Now they’re trying to determine his successor with a competition between Lock and Smith, both of whom have experienced their struggles in the league. Lock, acquired in the Wilson trade, is the former second-round pick who never found his footing in Denver. The knock on him always has been that he trusts his talent too much, that reckless decision-making undermines his success. The 31-year-old Smith hasn’t been a full-time starter since he was playing for the New York Jets in 2014, but he does have experience working in his favor. He’s also been a backup in Seattle for the last two seasons. Both players will get their opportunities to run with the first team throughout training camp, so there’s a long way to go in this competition. Just know this much: The Seahawks won’t be asking either man to do too much in this offense. This team always has been at its best with a strong run game. A number of offseason moves indicate that head coach Pete Carroll is returning to those roots.
This fifth-year wide receiver was one of the more underrated signings of free agency. He was a productive player in Atlanta, but now he’s joining a team that won the Super Bowl two years ago and sorely wants a shot at a championship. “He has to have a big year,” Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady told local reporters on Thursday. “We signed him to a contract and he has to come in and do a great job. In the time I’ve spent with him, I really enjoy it and I think he has a great opportunity. That is a very important role for an offense that throws the ball as much as we do.” The main reason Gage is so critical to Tampa Bay’s plans is the health of star wide receiver Chris Godwin, who sustained a torn ACL late last season. Godwin should be playing again at some point this regular season, but there also hasn’t been any hard timetable put on his return. That means Gage -- who had 138 receptions over his final two seasons with the Falcons -- will see plenty of targets along with fellow wideout Mike Evans. Brady clearly has set his expectations high for the young receiver. The future Hall of Fame quarterback wouldn’t do that if he didn’t think Gage could deliver.