The First Read: 10 biggest questions hovering around NFL’s first wave of mandatory minicamps
The first wave of NFL teams are conducting mandatory minicamps this week, with nine clubs working through their final practices before summer break. This gives coaches the opportunity to take one more snapshot of what they’ll be working with once things get serious with training camps in August. Meanwhile, the players get to handle their final team obligations before jetting off on some much-needed vacations.
We all know major NFL news doesn’t typically occur during this time of year. That doesn’t, however, mean there isn’t plenty to talk about during these sessions. We’ve gone through the hiring cycle for coaches, the spending sprees of free agency and all the scrutiny that comes before and after the draft. The number of star players recovering from serious injuries and major surgeries demand their fair share of attention, as well.
It’s actually a great time for The First Read to delve into some of the major questions hovering around minicamp. We’ll discuss some of the issues involving the teams on the field this week and then return to address storylines for the remaining clubs that will undergo mandatory minicamps next week. There is no shortage of topics to touch on. But these are the ones that rate the highest on this writer’s interest meter right now …
- State of the 2023 Dallas Cowboys: Heat is on Mike McCarthy, Dak Prescott to lead deep playoff run
- Which NFL players will improve in '23? Dak Prescott, James Cook, Kyle Pitts among GUARANTEED risers
- Four teams that greatly helped their quarterbacks in the 2023 NFL offseason — and five that didn't
- State of the 2023 San Francisco 49ers: Super Bowl or bust in Bay Area despite lingering QB question
- 2023 NFL All-Breakout Team, Offense: Kenny Pickett and George Pickens give Steelers bright future
- 2023 NFL All-Breakout Team, Defense: Jaycee Horn and Derrick Brown poised to make noise in Carolina
1) Are the Cowboys better off with Mike McCarthy calling the plays?
The Cowboys’ head coach made a bold decision when he parted ways with offensive coordinator Kellen Moore — especially since Moore helped Dak Prescott play his best football — but it’s not like McCarthy doesn’t have his own set of credentials. McCarthy spent 13 seasons as head coach of the Green Bay Packers, calling plays for all but one of those years. The Packers also finished among the top five scoring teams in the league seven times during that stretch, which is why the common narrative of McCarthy being a stumbling boob never has made sense.
A big part of McCarthy’s downfall in Green Bay was getting sideways with Aaron Rodgers. Prescott is far more likely to be a good solider and work with whatever McCarthy wants to run in his first year as Dallas’ play-caller. It’s already clear that McCarthy is going to put less pressure on his quarterback’s shoulders. This coming version of the Cowboys will be more defense-oriented and less concerned with asking Prescott to create weekly brilliance with his right arm. That’s not a bad thing. The 2022 Cowboys watched their quarterback generate far too many turnovers — including a league-high 15 interceptions — for an offense that lacked a deep threat and didn’t want to fully trust Tony Pollard as the lead back. Dallas now has speedy wide receiver Brandin Cooks in the fold. And with Pollard’s recovery (broken leg) apparently on track, the team figures to make a greater commitment to the 26-year-old back who’s often a big play waiting to happen.
The safe bet here is that McCarthy looks a lot smarter when this year ends. And his team will have its best shot at challenging for the NFC crown.
2) Will Brock Purdy be magical for an entire season?
Everything coming out of San Francisco indicates the 49ers should be giddy about the improving health of their second-year quarterback. Head coach Kyle Shanahan told local reporters this week that Purdy remains on schedule in recovering from elbow surgery — Purdy damaged the ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing arm in the NFC Championship Game loss to Philadelphia — and that means the hype around the Niners will be growing by the minute.
There wasn’t a bigger surprise in the NFL last year than Purdy. The 2022 NFL Draft’s Mr. Irrelevant led San Francisco to seven straight wins in his first seven starts after taking over for the injured Jimmy Garoppolo in December. (And Jimmy G had actually replaced Trey Lance, who broke his ankle in Week 2, thus making Purdy the Niners’ third starting quarterback of the season.) The major question now: What Purdy can do for an encore?
The Iowa State product came out of nowhere to spark the 49ers at a critical juncture in the season. This year, Purdy will face defenses who have studied him more and identified potential flaws. That means more challenges for a young signal-caller who cleared nearly every hurdle placed in front of him as a rookie. The good news is that San Francisco remains loaded. All Purdy has to do is stick to the script that turned him into an overnight sensation in the first place. If he can avoid the easy trap of thinking he has to go above and beyond to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke, he could ride all that talent around him to even greater heights than what San Francisco achieved in the 2022 campaign.
3) Will Vic Fangio turn around the Dolphins defense?
Fangio is one of the most creative defensive minds in football, so it’s hard to see him disappointing in Miami. He’s inheriting a defense that has plenty of individual talent, for one. He’s also working with a team that is blessed with an offense that can generate points in a hurry, which should give him even more opportunities to be innovative with his schemes. Anybody who has followed Fangio’s career understands that he’s a master at creating pressure and his defenses tend to be strong in the secondary. Now look at what he has to work with in Miami. He has two edge rushers who can be devastating as long as they remain healthy (Jaelan Phillips and Bradley Chubb). His defensive backfield is blessed with two cornerbacks who’ve been named first-team All-Pro (Xavien Howard and Jalen Ramsey) and a safety who’s a rising star (Jevon Holland).
It also doesn’t hurt Fangio that the defensive bar is low in Miami, as the Dolphins ranked 24th in the league in points allowed in 2022. There’s a great chance the Fins field a top-10 unit with Fangio calling the shots, even with all of the challenges that come with having Aaron Rodgers and Josh Allen operating in the same division.
4) How much help will the Lions receive from their rookie class?
Draft purists lost their minds when they watched how the Lions attacked the opening stages of this year’s draft. A running back and a middle linebacker going within the first 18 picks, and then a tight end who wasn’t even considered the best in his class coming off the board high in the second round? Yup, Detroit general manager Brad Holmes did all of that. He made those moves because the only thing that matters in the end are results, not where players get drafted. The Lions should be expecting big things from this rookie class because each of their first three selections fills a need. Jahmyr Gibbs is a dual-threat back who can become the consistent weapon D’Andre Swift never turned into. (Holmes traded Swift to the Eagles during Day 3 of the draft.) Jack Campbell is a tackling machine who should boost a run defense that Carolina decimated late in the season, when the Lions were trying to earn a playoff spot. Tight end Sam LaPorta also should be an early starter. The Lions had a huge void to fill at that spot after trading T.J. Hockenson to Minnesota midway through last year.
Look, it’s no secret that the Lions desperately want to be competing in this coming postseason. They have plenty of strengths, and the NFC isn’t exactly flush with strong teams. A big part of those hopes rests on these rookies coming up big. We’ll see if they can deliver.
5) Is there already too much drama around the Raiders?
Let’s begin with starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo signing a waiver related to his offseason foot surgery, a contract addendum that allows the Raiders to terminate his deal and avoid paying his base salary until he passes a physical. There’s also the public complaints offered up by wide receiver Davante Adams, who indicated he wasn’t thrilled with management in a piece published by The Ringer before backtracking a few days later. The Raiders also opened the offseason by dumping Garoppolo’s predecessor and Adams’ close friend, Derek Carr, and trading star tight end Darren Waller to the Giants six months after handing him a three-year, $51 million extension. Saying there’s been some damage control around Las Vegas would be an understatement. It’s gotten to the point where it feels like head coach Josh McDaniels needs to address something controversial at least once a month.
This was always going to be a challenging season for the Raiders, largely because they are the least-talented squad in the AFC West. But when a team has this much smoke around it in the spring, it may only be a matter of time before the whole thing goes up in flames in the fall.
6) Are people sleeping on Deshaun Watson?
This could be the year when Watson reminds people of what he can do when he’s focused and prepared. He spent last season dealing with all of the fallout that came from his well-documented off-field issues, which led to a suspension that cost him the first 11 games of his Browns career. This year, Watson already has told local reporters that he’s feeling more confident and having more fun, which likely means he’s going to be much closer to the player who was often electric earlier in his career.
The Browns are the most talented team Watson has ever played with in the NFL. They’ve been searching for a quarterback who could just be reliable, and now they’re relying on one who completed 70.2 percent of his passes for 4,823 yards and 33 touchdowns (against only seven interceptions) in his last full season. Critics of Watson sometimes talk as if that version of him is long gone. But the far more likely reality is that he underwhelmed in 2022 — completing 58.2 percent of his passes with a 7:5 TD-to-INT ratio in six games — because he legitimately was rusty. That shouldn’t be a problem this fall, when Watson could remind everyone why he was widely regarded as an elite quarterback before all of his legal problems erupted.
7) Will the Seahawks field an elite defense again?
Elite is a strong word — and a stretch at this point. Seattle head coach Pete Carroll should be happy with vastly improved, given how far this unit fell in 2022. The Seahawks never looked worse defensively under Carroll than last season, and there are still questions about how sturdy they will be up front. Seattle fielded the third-worst run defense in the league. They also lacked a dominant pass-rushing presence. The Seahawks did address some of those issues by adding a major free-agent acquisition in defensive end Dre’Mont Jones, but they didn’t snag D-line help with either of their two first-round picks, taking CB Devon Witherspoon at No. 5 and WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba at No. 20. (For what it’s worth, they did select edge rusher Derick Hall early in Round 2.)
Currently, there’s a lot to like about the Seattle secondary. That unit will have Witherspoon and 2022 rookie sensation Tariq Woolen at cornerback, with safety being manned by Julian Love, Quandre Diggs and Jamal Adams (who will be returning from a torn quad tendon that shelved him for nearly all of last season). Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner is back, and the team is hoping Jordyn Brooks can make a strong recovery from a torn ACL sustained in January.
It’s hard to imagine Carroll’s D being worse than last season’s unit. It’s also hard to see this group being drastically better in a season where Seattle will see plenty of teams — Philadelphia, San Francisco and Baltimore included — that can run the football effectively.
8) Can Eric Bieniemy save the Commanders’ offense?
Few teams in recent memory have spent more time trying — and failing — to find an answer at quarterback than Washington. The Commanders have used 14 different players at that position since 2012 and the uncertainty still exists under center as Bieniemy starts his first season as Washington’s offensive coordinator. There are a lot of signs pointing to 2022 fifth-round pick Sam Howell getting the job, but the Commanders also have journeyman Jacoby Brissett, who always seems to be on a roster when everything is about to implode. There’s some intriguing talent at the skill positions — including running back Brian Robinson Jr. and receivers Terry McLaurin and Jahan Dotson — but the offensive line looks shaky at this juncture.
All that said, let’s be real here: This job will say more about Bieniemy’s leadership than his scheming. He has to find a way to turn Howell into a dependable signal-caller or he’s going to need Brissett to do what he does best: use moxie and grit to inspire the people around him. On paper, this isn’t an offense that is going to overwhelm many teams. The key is how much Bieniemy can get his charges to believe, commit and endure. Fortunately, that’s a quality Bieniemy appears to possess in spades.
9) Can Mike Vrabel conjure any more magic with this current Titans team?
Vrabel has earned a reputation as one of the league’s brightest coaches because of the consistency with which he maximizes the potential of his teams. He’s taken Tennessee to the AFC Championship Game (2019 season) and corralled a No. 1 seed in the playoffs (2021), making three total postseason appearances in his five years on the job. The Titans fell one win shy of a third straight AFC South crown last season, with the Jaguars dethroning Tennessee by winning a de facto division title game in Week 18. The Titans lost that game partly because they were tired and beaten up and it felt like a real change in the division was underway.
It’s fair to wonder how much quarterback Ryan Tannehill has left, especially since the Titans have used the last two drafts to select a potential successor (first Malik Willis, then Will Levis). There were trade rumors involving star running back Derrick Henry all offseason, and the 29-year-old is reaching a point where his play could decline in a hurry. The receivers were an issue throughout last season — which is why the Titans are hosting WR DeAndre Hopkins on a free-agent visit — and the offense ranked 28th in scoring and 30th in yards.
There are no easy solutions to be had for this club. That doesn’t mean Vrabel won’t coach his butt off again, but the results could fall far short of his standard.
10) Which team in this current wave of mandatory minicamps will be the most surprising?
The Browns are buried in the shadows of the AFC for obvious reasons. Their own division houses two of the better teams in the league — the Bengals and Ravens — and there are a slew of other potential contenders throughout the conference, including one that just added a Super Bowl-winning head coach (Broncos) and another that traded for a future Hall of Fame quarterback (Jets). However, there is still plenty to like about Cleveland’s potential this fall. The offensive line is still strong. The run game remains potent. The defense has a bona fide superstar in Myles Garrett and a new coordinator, Jim Schwartz, who should help that unit finally reach its potential. There’s also the aforementioned presence of Deshaun Watson, who might even be able to woo DeAndre Hopkins, his old running mate with the Houston Texans, to join him for a last dance.
There are a lot of sexy teams in the AFC — of that there is no doubt. Just don’t be surprised if the Browns push past a few of them for a playoff spot.
Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter.
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