Training camps are the best places to get to know NFL teams, so I went to 11 of them. On the evening of July 27, I flew from New York to Fort Lauderdale with a 13-day plan to drive back and visit as many teams as I could along the way.
In those 13 days, I saw 14 NFL practices (and one Major League Baseball game) in eight states, recorded 67 interviews, checked into and out of 10 different hotels, squeezed through two tubes of SPF 30 sunscreen, consumed 1,794 ounces of water (the equivalent of 90 20-ounce bottles) and racked up 2,128 miles on a rental car I affectionately nicknamed “Freddy.”
I learned a few things along the way, and while this is by no means a complete list of those things, I wanted to share some quick impressions from each camp I visited.
You can check out photos from the trip on my Instagram account @dangrazianoespn and, of course, follow along on various ESPN platforms in the coming weeks as I share more of my reporting with you. In the meantime, here’s a quick-hitter from each of the spots I visited. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Click on the links below to go directly to the write-up about each camp stop:
July 28 in Davie, Florida
This was before all of the excitement — before quarterback Ryan Tannehill got hurt and the team signed Jay Cutler to replace him. I don’t know how all of that affects the team’s excitement over third-year wideout DeVante Parker, so a note on the defense here.
The Dolphins are thin at defensive tackle and will be thin at safety until T.J. McDonald finishes his eight-game suspension, but the big hit they took on that side of the ball is the season-ending injury to rookie linebacker Raekwon McMillan. The Dolphins were hoping to use McMillan this year alongside Kiko Alonso and Lawrence Timmons while grooming him to replace Timmons at middle linebacker. Timmons isn’t likely to stay on the field when they’re in nickel, so they’ll need to find a coverage linebacker from a young group that includes Mike Hull and Neville Hewitt. Overall, the Dolphins’ defense feels a bit thin and can’t take much more on the injury front.
A week ago (when Tannehill was healthy), Dolphins coach Adam Gase told me he was dreading having Jay Cutler call his games on TV. “He will CRUSH me,” Gase said. “I promise you, he will CRUSH me on the broadcast. If he does one of our games, he’s going to question every play call that I make. I can hear the ‘I don’t know if I would have called that’ right now. He’ll kill me. He knows all my little annoyances.” Won’t be a problem now!
July 29-30 in Tampa, Florida
Everyone in the building loves quarterback Jameis Winston, the clear leader of the team at just 23 years old. But that number 23 is worth remembering, and coach Dirk Koetter told me he’s well aware of it.
“Of course we give him things in our system that we want to see him do better,” Koetter said. “But those aren’t things that you just snap your fingers and get better. Those are things you’ve got to chip away at over time.”
I asked for an example.
“An example would be deep-ball accuracy,” Koetter said. “But guess what? Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson aren’t going to go out there and run 60 ‘go’ routes for him. You might get one or two chances a day. You want to get better at it, but you don’t get to throw a million of those.”
In today’s NFL, pleas for patience often fall on deaf ears. But it’s important nonetheless.
I am mesmerized by this massive flag at Buccaneers training camp, and I can’t seem to take a picture that does it justice. Working on finding out exactly how big it is. The Bucs say it’s the largest flying flag in the US that isn’t an American flag, and that they’re restricted as to how high they can fly it due to its proximity to the airport. That is one seriously large flag.
July 31 in Jacksonville, Florida
This was the day when left tackle Branden Albert retired right before practice, which it’s fair to say caught some folks off guard. The Jags already had some questions about how the offensive line would come together, and that bit of news left untested rookie Cam Robinson as the presumptive starting left tackle. I wouldn’t expect the Jaguars’ offense to be overly exciting this season. They have a huge rookie-year role planned for No. 4 overall pick Leonard Fournette, but they also still have Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon and plan to use a fullback in the offense, as well.
I feel like every pass I saw Blake Bortles throw on this day was at or behind the line of scrimmage. Concerns about the line as it comes together and about Bortles’ ability to protect the ball should keep things basic. Wide receiver Allen Robinson did tell me he feels more comfortable in the offense than he did when coordinator Nathaniel Hackett took over midseason, but I came away thinking Robinson could have a tough time putting up huge numbers in his contract year in this offense.
Aug. 1-2 in Flowery Branch, Georgia
The Falcons have a group of 14 players they call the “Chiefs.” This is a leadership group charged with acting as intermediaries between the players and the coaches when the players have concerns. They were elected by their peers following the Navy SEAL training the team went through this offseason, and oddly, they’re sorted by size, not position group. Part of the SEAL training involves tandem log carrying, and obviously they’re not going to pair a 5-foot-9 guy with a 6-foot-4 guy when doing that, so each group elected its own “Chief” and that’s how the group was formed.
General manager Thomas Dimitroff said the preaching and teaching of leadership in Atlanta goes beyond the “Chiefs” program. For example, each level of the defense has sort of a designated captain — Grady Jarrett for the defensive line, Deion Jones for the linebackers and Keanu Neal for the secondary. And they have post-practice developmental sessions for young players they identify as potential future leaders.
“Just giving these guys a sense of what it’s like to be thinking about leadership in their daily lives,” Dimitroff said. “Maybe a guy becomes a ’10’ leader, maybe he becomes an ‘8’ leader. Maybe you have a guy who becomes a solid, average leader. You find out. At least you’re giving them the opportunity and the tools they need to find what they have there.”
Aug. 3 in Spartanburg, South Carolina
Coach Ron Rivera told me he thought the Panthers lost too much veteran leadership between 2015 and 2016. He specifically cited not only the departure of cornerback Josh Norman (whom the team decided to let go when they rescinded his franchise tender), but also the retirements of defensive linemen Jared Allen, Charles Tillman and Dwan Edwards and the departure of Roman Harper.
“So when you look at what we did defensively in free agency, we brought in a guy in Julius Peppers who’s got a tremendous history with us, veteran leader,” Rivera said. “Captain Munnerlyn, tremendous history with us, veteran leader. Mike Adams, tremendous career, veteran leader. So we consciously went out and brought guys back in like that.”
The 2015 Panthers went 15-1 with a supremely confident, veteran-led locker room. They’re trying to recapture some of that. Peppers, in particular, stands out. Even 13-year veteran Thomas Davis marveled at the idea of a player he could look up to as a veteran.
Aug. 4 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia
This was the loudest, most boisterous practice I attended. Some of that comes from coach Bill O’Brien, who is vocal about what he sees that he doesn’t like on the field. But the defense and offense are constantly trash-talking each other and celebrating victories at the other’s expense. The defense was winning more often, though.
Even without J.J. Watt on the field (they have a detailed rest plan for him and expect him to be ready by Week 1 with no problem), Whitney Mercilus was shredding the backup tackles Houston is using while Duane Brown holds out. Brown seems to have a ton of leverage, given the way Houston looks at the tackle positions without him, but I still doubt the team caves in and offers him something new with two years left on his current deal.
I also didn’t get the sense they were anywhere near a new deal with wideout DeAndre Hopkins, who has only one year left on his current contract. Hopkins seems at peace with that and is willing to play out the deal and hit free agency in March if the team isn’t interested in signing him now. The Texans appear to be pretty well locked in on 2017 as a priority, and if Tom Savage isn’t turning it over like crazy, I honestly wouldn’t be surprised to see him start Week 1 ahead of rookie Deshaun Watson.
Spoke with Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins about the team’s QB situation. He likes Tom Savage a lot: “If anybody should be a judge of quarterbacks, I’ve played with the most quarterbacks in NFL history throughout my first four years. So I put the stamp on Savage, and I think that’s all that needs to be said about that.”
Aug. 5-6 in Richmond, Virginia
The team is excited about Junior Galette, the talented pass-rusher who has missed the past two seasons due to injury. Left tackle Trent Williams said Galette is the guy who gives him the most trouble in pass protection.
“He’s so shifty, he stays low to the ground, his first step is tremendous,” Williams said. “Just so much shift. It’s like trying to catch a fish. Even when you think you’ve got him, you don’t really have him.”
Team president Bruce Allen told me he thinks Galette’s first preseason game will be emotional for him, and he agreed that a healthy Galette could be an under-the-radar difference-maker for the Washington defense.
“First of all, I’m an optimist,” Allen said. “On him, I’m also a fan. He has worked so hard for so long to get this opportunity, and [knocks on wood] I hope for him.”
Keep an eye out for Galette. If he can get on and stay on the field, he’ll be hard to miss.
Aug. 7 in Owings Mills, Maryland
I just don’t see how the Ravens are going to score. Especially in a division with potentially explosive offenses in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, it’s tough to imagine an offense whose top running back is Terrance West and top receiver is Jeremy Maclin keeping up.
Baltimore is excited about its defense, though — especially rookie pass-rushers Tim Williams and Tyus Bowser. Ravens players told me Williams has a varied collection of pass-rush moves, the number of which you don’t usually see from a rookie, and that Bowser has had a strong camp. Add in improved health from ageless veteran Terrell Suggs and the arrival of veteran safety Tony Jefferson, and the Ravens should have strong defense.
“We preach about it here. We can’t be good; we’ve got to be great every time we step on the field,” Jefferson said. “Whether you have an outstanding offense or a regular offense, it doesn’t matter as a defense. Defense is big here, and you’ve got to go out there every day, every week in practice and grind and try to be perfect.”
They’ll need to be.
Morning of Aug. 8 in Philadelphia
It was chilly this morning in Philadelphia, but that didn’t stop Eagles players from visiting the Rita’s Italian Ice stand after practice. I enjoyed seeing that little tradition up close. As for the team, I got a sense that the Eagles see themselves as still a work in progress. Not that they can’t contend this year, but I think the main focus is beyond.
For instance, the sense I got was that the additions of veteran wideouts Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith were about helping second-year quarterback Carson Wentz‘s development so the young receivers who will ultimately be “his guys” don’t have to accelerate their own development unnaturally. Long term, the Eagles hope players from a group that includes Mack Hollins, Shelton Gibson, Marcus Johnson and, yes, Nelson Agholor develop along with Wentz and help form his wide receiver corps.
“These young guys begin to work with him, they can kind of grow up together,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson told me. “I can go back to Green Bay, when we had a young Antonio Freeman and Robert Brooks, and we brought in the veteran Don Beebe, Andre Rison. So you bring those older veterans in who can kind of pave the way for the younger guys, and it helps you.”
Eagles players hitting up the Rita’s stand after practice.
Afternoon of Aug. 8 in Florham Park, New Jersey
Heading into Saturday night’s preseason opener, no one was is leading the quarterback competition. The reason Josh McCown has been getting the first-team reps is because he has run a similar offense before, while with the Bears from 2011-13, and Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty have not. But based on the conversations I had behind the scenes, coaches are still waiting for someone from that group of three to perform well enough in practice to claim the job. The hope is that someone separates himself in the preseason games.
Ultimately, the Jets want to see what Hackenberg can do, and the plan as of Tuesday was for him to get the most run in the preseason (and possibly the regular season, too). But he had yet to win the job outright, so it’s still possible they start the season with one of the other two — assuming one of them plays well enough to earn it.
Aug. 9 in East Rutherford, New Jersey
The concern about left tackle Ereck Flowers is real. I couldn’t wring an outright endorsement out of anyone to whom I spoke. Multiple people told me the team has been impressed with the way Flowers has worked this offseason, spending time around the facility and trimming down, as has been covered elsewhere. But his performances in practice against pass-rushers Olivier Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul have left a lot to be desired, and from what I saw, his mopey body language is as bad as ever.
The day I was there, coach Ben McAdoo gave undrafted rookie Chad Wheeler a couple of first-team reps at left tackle. And while that doesn’t signal an outright competition for the starting role, it’s noteworthy that McAdoo wanted to see Wheeler against Vernon in practice, even for a few snaps. If Flowers can’t get the job done, the Giants need to know who they have on their roster who can. They don’t seem eager to move right tackle Bobby Hart over there, and while they believe left guard Justin Pugh can do it, their strong preference is to leave him inside.
The Giants have the highest of hopes this season. And when the Giants hope, they hope higher than anyone. Their defense has a chance to be great, as it was last season. Their offense has a chance to be improved, especially if Brandon Marshall lives up to his history and Evan Engram to his hype. But poor tackle play could cripple the offense’s promise, and the Giants absolutely need Flowers to make progress soon.