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Chuck Burton/Associated Press
The start of the NFL preseason provides a respite from training camp.
Players no longer have to go against their teammates. Instead, all 32 teams will be in action at some point between Thursday and Saturday.
As such, practices take a step back. The intensity ratchets down as travel and game preparations are made.
Twenty-two teams are in action Thursday, with five more games Friday and Saturday to round out the weekend. But not every major name plans to play.
The Carolina Panthers will rest Cam Newton. Is it the right decision, though?
Elsewhere, versatile weapons are becoming staples of multiple offenses. Defensively, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers endured injury scares.
These topics dominated headlines Wednesday as training camps slowed with Week 1 of the preseason looming.
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Chuck Burton/Associated Press
The Carolina Panthers aren’t going to take any chances with Cam Newton’s recovery from an offseason shoulder injury.
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said Newton won’t play during the team’s preseason opener Thursday against the Chicago Bears, according to CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora.
Rivera’s stated the decision is “just to be careful” and said the franchise signal-caller hadn’t experienced any setbacks in training camp. Newton probably won’t see much action during the preseason.
The Panthers want to make sure Newton is fully healthy for the start of the regular season, which is understandable. However, he is working on tightening his throwing motion while simultaneously trying to build chemistry within the offense.
“It’s still a work in progress,” he said last week, per WFNZ-AM/FM. “One thing I wanted to work on was just being honest with myself. Knowing when to sit out of practice and working on my body. I’m as hungry as ever. But guys that are on board on offense need me to be my best self.”
At some point, Newton must test himself. He’s doing so at times in practice and ripping some throws.
“It’s all good vibes right now,” wide receiver DJ Moore said, per La Canfora.
A week or two from now, the three-time Pro Bowler should test himself against legitimate competition. He’ll need to get hit a time or two and see how the shoulder reacts. Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, for instance, started the first three preseason contests last year after missing the 2017 campaign because of a shoulder injury.
In general, veteran quarterbacks don’t play much in the preseason. But they still want to get on the field, put together a few successful drives and prepare themselves for the regular season.
Newton needs to do the same.
If he doesn’t take the field by Week 3—the so-called dress rehearsal—that should send up a red flag.
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Chuck Burton/Associated Press
Two years ago, the Panthers spent first- and second-round picks to acquire a pair of hybrid players, Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel. A year later, they chose DJ Moore with the 24th overall draft pick.
Since their skill sets overlap, it’s taken time for these weapons to sort out their specific roles.
McCaffrey quickly emerged as an offensive focal point in Carolina. The 2017 eighth overall pick became a second-team All-Pro last season after finishing sixth overall with 1,098 rushing yards and setting an NFL record for running backs with 107 receptions.
McCaffrey was the Panthers’ leading receiver last year, although Moore finished second on the team with 55 receptions for 788 yards. Samuel, meanwhile, continues to grow heading into his third year and seems to have surpassed Moore as Carolina’s top outside threat.
“He’s had a heck of a camp. Watching him improve is amazing,” McCaffrey said, per Max Henson of the team’s official site. “Obviously, he’s got foot speed that’s rare; not just in the league, I’d say in the world.”
Samuel’s explosiveness was evident at Ohio State, where he ran for 771 yards and tallied 865 receiving yards and seven touchdowns on 74 catches during his final year on campus. He then blazed a 4.31-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
Samuel entered the NFL raw, but he’s making strides as a route-runner.
“You know, he’s always been quick, he’s always been fast. He’s just gotten a lot better at his route-running and also great hands,” veteran wide receiver Jarius Wright said, per Henson. “Some of the catches he’s been making are just great catches. He’s still a young player and getting older, so it’s only room to grow.”
The Panthers feature two talented young wide receivers. Samuel’s growth makes the entire offense better.
“He’s light-years from where he was when he came in as a rookie.” head coach Ron Rivera said. “… A lot of it has to do with his work ethic, how hard he has worked, the extra things that he does, the things he does before practice. Then you see him take it and transfer it onto the field.”
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Odell Beckham Jr. is an X receiver by trade, but the Cleveland Browns will utilize the superstar all over the field this season.
The Browns plan to maximize Beckham by working him off the line of scrimmage and in the slot along with using him as a traditional X.
“It’s about moving [Beckham] around, so now, defenses, they cannot just pin him,” wide receivers coach Adam Henry told reporters Tuesday.
Defenses can key in on a specific player if the offense lacks skill-position talent. That isn’t the case in Cleveland, where the Browns feature fellow receivers Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins and Antonio Callaway, tight end David Njoku and running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt (once he returns from his suspension in Week 10).
Beckham’s versatility will make life easier on him and the rest of the Browns’ weapons since head coach Freddie Kitchens and his staff will scheme ways to get everyone open.
“Once you allow everybody to move from different positions, it’s harder for a defense to game-plan,” Beckham said. “It’s harder if Jarvis goes outside or he goes to the single-side receiver, or [Rashard] Higgins, [Antonio] Callaway or any of these other receivers switch or go inside, I go inside, I go outside, line up in the backfield.”
The onus falls on quarterback Baker Mayfield to distribute the ball and keep everyone happy.
“It’s all about timing, precision and accuracy and spacing and distribution, and so it’s critical,” Henry said. “But the great thing about Baker is that he’s a great worker, he’s a great communicator.”
Beckham can serve as the Browns’ top offensive weapon yet fall short of his previous production because of the talent within Cleveland’s offense. But his presence as a multipurpose threat should make everyone better.
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Fullback may be a dying breed, but no one told the Buffalo Bills’ Patrick DiMarco.
The Bills signed DiMarco to a four-year, $8.4 million contract in March 2017. He’s the second-highest-paid fullback in the league behind the San Francisco 49ers’ Kyle Juszczyk, who derived his value from his versatility as a fullback/tight end/H-back/receiver/blocker.
Now, DiMarco is doing some of the same things in the Bills’ offense.
The 30-year-old has turned into a hybrid player during training camp, according to WGR 550’s Sal Capaccio. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll continues to use him as an H-back and tight end because of a lack of depth at the position. Dawson Knox, Tyler Kroft and Jason Croom have all missed time during camp due to injuries.
The eighth-year veteran is a valuable part of special teams, too.
“… Pat DiMarco, I think he’s covered a million kicks, he’s played for a long time, he’s huge in the leadership, in the meeting rooms, on the field, all that stuff, giving me feedback,” special teams coordinator Heath Farwell said earlier in camp, per Nick Wojton of USA Today‘s Bills Wire.
Fullback isn’t a glamorous position, but a player with DiMarco’s versatility can help in multiple areas even if he’s listed as a fullback.
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Le’Veon Bell isn’t the only free-agent running back the New York Jets added this offseason. Ty Montgomery joined the team as well.
Bell will be the feature back, but the Jets coaching staff will use Montgomery in multiple ways, too.
According to Yahoo Sports’ Charles Robinson, the Jets are “amped” about what they’ve seen from Montgomery and plan to put him and Bell on the field together.
Head coach Adam Gase sees the potential in the wide receiver-turned-running back.
“He’s not really struggling with are you a running back or are you a receiver?” Montgomery told the New York Daily News‘ Manish Mehta in reference to Gase. “When we have conversations, he just says, ‘You’re a football player. I know what you can do as a route-runner and I know what you can do running the ball.’ … I feel like a true hybrid in this offense.”
Montgomery never had the opportunity to be a full-blown multipurpose threat with the Green Bay Packers or Baltimore Ravens. The Packers moved him to running back out of necessity, and he concentrated on playing the position. The Ravens barely used Montgomery in 13 games last season.
This season, Montgomery could be utilized correctly for the first time in his career.
Two-back sets with Bell and Montgomery on the field will give defenses headaches since they’re both adept runners and receivers.
“It gives the defense problems, whether it’s a mismatch in the passing game, whether it’s personnel and we’re running the ball,” Montgomery said, per Mehta. “Because of our abilities, it could look like a pass, and we could run the ball. Or it could look like a run and we could throw the ball.”
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NFL coaches want two things during training camp: for their team to improve and stay healthy.
The Pittsburgh Steelers looked like they suffered a major blow Wednesday when medical personnel carted top cornerback Joe Haden off the field. Fortunately, the two-time Pro Bowl cornerback escaped with a “minor ankle” injury, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
With Haden not expected to miss significant time, the Steelers defense should be fine. An extended absence would have crippled the secondary and derailed contract negotiations.
Haden is the stabilizing force among Pittsburgh’s defensive backfield. The Steelers staff can depend on him and place him against an opponent’s top wide receiver.
He sets the tone with fellow outside cornerback Steven Nelson, whom the organization signed as a free agent this offseason, and slot corner Mike Hilton. Artie Burns or Cameron Sutton, meanwhile, are competing for reps and a possible roster spot.
Haden’s representation and the Steelers can also continue to discuss a new long-term contract.
“We’re talking,” he said Tuesday, per the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review‘s Joe Rutter. “I don’t know anything about getting closer yet. It is what it is. It’s going well. I’m very optimistic we’re going to get something done before the first game of the season.”
The timing of the injury could have been awful. Instead, the scare should have reminded the Steelers of Haden’s importance.
“I would like to play here as long as I can,” the 30-year-old cornerback said. “I love the organization, the coaches, my teammates. Everything has been going very, very well here. That’s definitely the plan.”
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Paul Sancya/Associated Press
The Detroit Lions surprisingly signed free-agent defensive tackle Mike Daniels after the Green Bay Packers cut the seven-year veteran.
The front office envisions a dominant defensive front with Daniels, Damon Harrison and Trey Flowers. But all three missed the start of training camp. Only Daniels has even participated in individual drills.
The team’s latest addition hasn’t done any during team sessions, though. Detroit’s medical staff has yet to clear the 30-year-old lineman after last year’s season-ending foot injury.
Daniels said during an NFL Network interview (h/t MLive’s Kyle Meinke) he expects to participate next week when the Lions hold joint practices with the Houston Texans.
“I’ll be able to do some striking with the guys down there when we get to Houston. It’s a process. Honestly, I could play (in the preseason opener) tomorrow, but it’s just a matter of being smart. Just continuing to strengthen everything, continue to get in shape and everything. So it’s just being smart. But I’ll be out there soon.”
The Lions will eventually feature an impressive front. Daniels is still an effective interior pass-rusher as a 3-technique. Harrison destroys run games as the game’s best pure nose tackle. Flowers is a versatile 5-technique capable of rushing passers from the edge or the interior.
All three must get on the field to realize that potential, though.
Daniels will be the first since Harrison is on the physically unable to perform list and Harrison resides on the non-football injury list.
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Chris O’Meara/Associated Press
A calf injury stunted Vita Vea’s rookie campaign after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected him with the 12th overall pick in the 2018 draft.
History appeared to repeat itself this week when the 347-pound defensive tackle suffered a leg injury Tuesday during blocking drills, according to ESPN.com’s Jenna Laine.
Vea underwent an MRI that evening, but he’ll need more tests once the swelling goes down to determine the extent of the injury, according to the Tampa Bay Times‘ Rick Stroud.
The massive defender missed the first three games of the 2018 season and didn’t start until Week 7 because of his calf injury. However, Vea became a wrecking ball through the final six games and graded among the league’s best interior defenders, according to Pro Football Focus.
The second-year defensive lineman’s size and sheer power should pair nicely with signature free-agent signing Ndamukong Suh. But the Buccaneers do have some depth in the event of an injury.
Beau Allen is an experienced veteran who will immediately slide into the starting nose tackle spot if Vea misses significant time. The Bucs re-signed Stevie Tu’ikolovatu for added depth. Tampa Bay’s coaching staff can also move Suh to 1-technique with Rakeem Nunez-Roches at 3-technique in certain packages.
Losing Vea for any amount of time isn’t ideal, but the Buccaneers still hope the injury isn’t severe. The organization should find out later this week since another MRI is scheduled for Friday, per Laine.