Minicamp madness: What to watch for as teams take the field

BY Alex Marvez • June 15, 2015

The NFL’s version of summer vacation is about to commence.

But before players on 26 teams enjoy a much-needed break ahead of the start of training camps in late July and early August, there is a minicamp to attend. FOX Sports Senior NFL Writer Alex Marvez evaluates one burning question for each club heading into practices that will run Tuesday through Thursday league-wide. (Well, almost league-wide ... six teams held their minicamps last week.)

New Orleans: What is the health status of Junior Gallette?

As first reported by FOX Sports NFL Insider Mike Garafolo, Gallette injured his pectoral muscle and could be facing surgery that would sideline him for part or all of the 2015 campaign. As his medical options are being finalized, the Saints need to find a potential replacement for their top pass-rusher in minicamp practices. Anthony Spencer and Parys Haralson are veteran options but both have seen better days. The Saints will be closely monitoring whether Hau’oli Kikaha, a 2015 second-round pick from the University of Washington, could be ready for extended action. Although he posted an NCAA-high 19 sacks last season, Kikaha must prove he won’t be a liability against the run if used as more than a situational defender.

Atlanta: Who will become the favorite to replace running back Steven Jackson heading into training camp?

Devonta Freeman and rookie Tevin Coleman are in a tight battle for the starting spot, but don’t discount Antone Smith. He could become this year’s version of Baltimore’s Justin Forsett, another 29-year-old running back who flourished in the same zone run-blocking system that new Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is installing. Smith averaged 6.3 yards on his 144 carries as a backup last season before breaking his leg on special teams in November.

Carolina: How much ground can rookie linebacker Shaq Thompson make up after missing earlier offseason practices?

Because classes at the University of Washington were still in session, NFL rules prohibited Thompson from participating in early Panthers practices. Thompson returned last week and began working as the backup strong-side linebacker behind A.J. Klein. Ideally, Thompson learns the defense quickly enough to supplant Klein and start. The Panthers believe Thompson is athletic enough to stay on the field for all three downs along with Keuchly and Davis, both of whom excel in run-stuffing and pass coverage. Thompson put his time apart from the Panthers to good use by taking classes toward his undergraduate degree in American ethnic studies.

Tampa Bay: What members of the rookie class appear primed to make an immediate impact for the NFL’s worst team in 2014?

Although he took second-team snaps behind Mike Glennon in a recent OTA session, quarterback Jameis Winston still has the inside track for the starting spot. Two second-round picks (Penn State left tackle Devin Smith and Hobart – yes, Hobart -- right guard Ali Marpet) are being given every opportunity to claim first-team gigs. Plus, the Bucs are hoping for a battle between fourth-round choice Kwon Alexander and incumbent Danny Lansanah at strong-side linebacker. Where all four rookies stand should be clearer at the end of minicamp.

Washington: How far along is the offensive line?

The Redskins don’t just have a new offensive line coach in the renowned Bill Callahan, who helped mold what is considered the league’s best unit in Dallas. They also have a different mix of starters trying to gel as right tackle Brandon Scherff and right guard Spencer Long join the unit. Washington plans to incorporate more power blocking in 2015 that would fit with the style of rookie running back Matt Jones while keeping the zone principles better suiting starter Alfred Morris. Improved pass blocking from 2014 is a must as well if quarterback Robert Griffin III is to get back on track.

New York Giants: Is 2015 first-round draft pick Ereck Flowers ready to start at left tackle?

The Giants could be in trouble if he isn’t. The initial plan to stick Flowers at right tackle as a rookie was scrapped when Will Beatty suffered a pectoral muscle injury expected to sideline him until November. If Flowers isn’t ready to protect quarterback Eli Manning’s blindside, left guard Geoff Schwartz or right tackle Justin Pugh would likely assume the responsibility. New York’s minicamp allows the Giants to tinker with different starting combinations. One option: shuffling Pugh to right guard and placing backup Marshall Newhouse at right tackle. The Giants could get a better evaluation of Flowers if the team’s top pass-rusher was practicing but Jason Pierre-Paul has skipped the offseason program since being named New York’s franchise player. Giants head coach Tom Coughlin said last month that he hopes Pierre-Paul attends the minicamp, but as an unsigned player, he faces no fine for skipping the workouts.

Dallas: Who will emerge as the leading candidate to replace running back DeMarco Murray?

Joseph Randle is running away with the job – literally – as Darren McFadden and Ryan Williams are hampered by hamstring and knee ailments. Although Randle’s 2014 season was encouraging, the Cowboys continue to seek competition at the position. Lache Seastrunk, a 2014 sixth-round pick by Tennessee, was added to the mix last week and other roster additions could be forthcoming depending on how well this current group of RBs fares prior to the regular season.

Philadelphia: Who will steal the spotlight in the four-ring quarterback circus?

Sam Bradford remains the favorite to start but won’t be full-go as he continues to recover from a second major knee surgery. Mark Sanchez should get the bulk of first-team reps in 11-on-11 drills, which cracks open the door for him to make a legitimate pitch for the first-team role. The third-string battle is just as juicy with Matt Barkley trying to fend off a Tim Tebow challenge.

Minnesota: How much work will some key injured starters be getting?

Outside linebacker Anthony Barr, defensive end Brian Robison and right tackle Phil Loadholt are set for their first offseason practice snaps but none off the three are expected to fully participate in these gatherings.  The Vikings hope the trio will be full-go by the start of training camp.

Detroit: How is the defensive line shaping up post-Ndamukong Suh?

This minicamp will be especially valuable to Haloti Ngata, who has struggled in adjusting to a role that requires him to attack rather than occupy blockers like when he played end in Baltimore’s 3-4 scheme. The Lions also need another 4-3 defensive tackle to step up and replace Nick Fairley, who, like Suh, left Detroit in free agency during the offseason. Tyrunn Walker, Caraun Reed and rookie Gabe Wright are battling for Fairley’s vacated space. The starting left end spot on the opposite side of Ziggy Ansah is up for grabs as well. The Lions will be closely monitoring the progress of 2014 fourth-round pick Larry Webster, an athletic freak who didn’t dress last season while making the major transition from playing at Division II Bloomsburg.

Green Bay: Who will emerge at inside linebacker?

Clay Matthews is versatile enough to continue excelling inside alongside starter Sam Barrington. But if the Packers want to move Matthews back to outside linebacker or he gets injured – something that has happened far too often during his stellar career -- a third LB option is a must. The Packers would love if 2015 fourth-round pick Jake Ryan is ready to play immediately. The other top contenders are two more third-day picks from the Packers in previous drafts – Carl Bradford (2014) and Nate Palmer (2013).

Chicago: Will Kyle Long permanently shift to right tackle?

Offseason rumors about this possibility came to fruition last week when Long was moved outside from his customary right guard spot with starting tackles Jermon Bushrod and Jordan Mills missing practice with injuries. One option would be keeping Long, one of the NFL’s best guards, at RT and switching Mills inside. The Bears haven’t committed to that configuration but minicamp could determine whether it’s in the works. Long isn’t opposed and Bears head coach John Fox acknowledged he “can play just about anywhere across the o-line.”

AFC EAST

New England: Which backup quarterback will step up with a four-game NFL suspension looming for Tom Brady?

Jimmy Garoppolo was initially considered the clear choice to start during Brady’s absence, but such standing seems far less certain now. The second-year passer had a five-interception showing in a recent OTA session that was open to the media.  Whether a reaction to that, pure coincidence or response to whatever flaws got reserve Garrett Gilbert waived, the Patriots added a veteran quarterback to the roster last week in journeyman Matt Flynn. He could be the fall-back option if Garoppolo isn’t ready to replace Brady, who is set to meet with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on June 23 to appeal his “Deflategate” punishment.

Buffalo: Who will emerge as the frontrunner to start at quarterback?

New head coach Rex Ryan recently joked that his team “won’t have LeBron (James)” at quarterback. But will the Bills even have the equivalent of Kyrie Irving or Matthew Dellavedova under center? None of the three QB contenders – Matt Cassel, E.J. Manuel or Tyrod Taylor – have taken control of the first-string spot during earlier offseason work. Buffalo’s minicamp could go a long way toward determining who gets the initial starting nod entering training camp.

Miami: Will the Dolphins be able to feel confident about the play of their guards?

This is the biggest weakness on Miami’s overhauled roster with Dallas Thomas – who was a mess when forced to play right tackle last season – and the unproven Billy Turner manning the starting spots. How well Thomas and Turner fare in minicamp could determine whether the Dolphins decide to make a strong push to sign Evan Mathis, a quality guard who was released last week by Philadelphia.

Pittsburgh: How far along is Pittsburgh’s new secondary?

The Steelers are undergoing a significant overhaul with safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor retiring and Brice McCain – a nine-game starter in 2014 -- leaving in free agency to Miami. The Steelers are hoping for four things: 1) Cornerback Cortez Allen can rebound from losing his starting job last season; 2) Free safety Mike Mitchell feels more comfortable in the defense after an underwhelming first season in Pittsburgh; 3) Rookie cornerbacks Senquez Golson (second round) and Doran Grant (fourth) immediately push for snaps; 4) Shamarko Thomas proves a competent replacement for Polamalu, a future Hall of Fame selecton whose skill set was so distinctive that Steelers brass have already said they don’t expect anyone to fill his shoes entirely.

Baltimore: Can strong safety Matt Elam keep his starting job?

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome and his top-notch personnel staff usually don’t miss on first-round draft picks. That’s what makes Elam’s failure to become a difference-maker in his first two NFL seasons so surprising. The Ravens re-signed Will Hill – a talent with a history of failed drug tests – to push Elam for the first-string role.

Cincinnati: Who will emerge as quarterback Andy Dalton’s likely backup?

Dalton hasn’t missed a start during his first four NFL seasons, but the Bengals would breathe a little easier if A.J. McCarron, Josh Johnson or Terrelle Pryor takes command of the second-string duties. McCarron, the former Alabama star chosen in the fifth round of the 2014 draft, missed most of his rookie season with shoulder soreness. Johnson and Pryor are mobile journeymen, although the latter has experience playing under Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson from when both were in Oakland during the 2011 campaign.

Cleveland: How comfortable is Johnny Manziel in a new offense?

There is little doubt that Josh McCown will enter the regular season as Cleveland’s starting quarterback. However, the minicamp will help gauge the progress – if any -- Manziel has made following a ruinous rookie season on and off the field.

Houston: Will head coach Bill O’Brien name a starting quarterback between Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett by the end of minicamp?

While he didn’t dismiss the possibility when speaking last Friday with Texans media, O’Brien said doing so at that point of the offseason would be “tough.” “I don’t see either guy right now going out there and just totally separating himself from the other guy,” O’Brien continued. “I think both guys are good players and they’re very competitive, but you never know. If one guy goes out and just doesn’t have a great day and the other guy has a great day, not saying you’d make a judgment there right that day, but you’d have to take that into account. Right now, that hasn’t happened so I don’t see that really happening.”

Jacksonville: Will defensive end Chris Clemons arrive for his first on-field work this offseason?

That’s the hope of Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley, who needs Clemons to spearhead the pass rush once again following the season-ending knee injury suffered by first-round pick Dante Fowler Jr. in a rookie minicamp. Bradley told Jaguars media the biggest thing he will be getting out of Clemons’ appearance is “how he is and the shape that he is in. Obviously we’re not going to come out here and get 10 reps and try to get him caught up and everything. But to see him out here and be around his teammates and see where he’s at will be good.” There’s a good reason for the 33-year-old Clemons to appear: He’ll forfeit a $25,000 workout bonus and face a $60,000 fine by skipping the minicamp.

Tennessee: How much work will Dorial Green-Beckham receive at practice?

Marcus Mariota isn’t the only rookie the Titans would love to make an instant splash. Green-Beckham was drafted in the second round to boost a receiving corps sorely lacking a big-play threat. Green-Beckham, though, has already fallen behind. He injured a hamstring in an early practice and head coach Ken Whisenhunt has said Green-Beckham needs to lose some weight. Green-Beckham also didn’t play in college last season because of transfer rules, which makes missed practice time even more damaging to his quick development. Even so, never discount someone with Green-Beckham’s physical gifts from splashing early.

San Diego: Will free safety Eric Weddle report for minicamp?

Agent David Canter posted on Twitter that Weddle will attend after skipping OTAs over unhappiness with his contract. During a radio interview last week on 1090-AM in San Diego, Chargers general manager Tom Telesco said the club was “just not at their numbers right now.” Canter’s response on Twitter: “Lies.” “The team never discussed a single dollar amount,” Canter wrote. “We never exchanged proposals or concepts. Never got there.” Weddle is set to earn $7.5 million in the final season of a five-year, $40 million contract. Jimmy Wilson and Jahleel Addae have taken Weddle’s snaps in practice, but neither is anywhere near the same level of player or leader at this point in their careers.

Kansas City: Will unsigned outside linebacker Justin Houston report for minicamp?

“He probably won’t,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said last week. Kansas City is without Houston’s services until the NFL’s reigning sack leader signs his franchise tender or a multiyear deal. Houston’s absence from offseason practices has provided much-needed extra reps for 2014 first-round pick Dee Ford. He struggled to make the adjustment from college defensive end to outside linebacker in his rookie season.

Seattle: Why do the Seahawks have only one minicamp practice?

For the second time in three years, the Seahawks were found guilty of having too much contact during their offseason practices in 2014. The result was the loss of two minicamp practices and a total of $300,000 in fines for head coach Pete Carroll and the franchise itself. The NFL and NFL Players Association were tipped off to the latest violation when a fight broke out between cornerback Richard Sherman and wide receiver Phil Bates during practice.

St. Louis: Why are the Rams the only NFL team that isn’t holding a minicamp?

“I didn’t think it was necessary,” coach Jeff Fisher told Rams media last week. “When you look actually at the veteran minicamp, it’s really no different than an OTA. You’re allowed to go on the field once. You get to have a walk-thru. You get to keep them in the building for 12 hours rather than six. I personally think that’s too much and too long during the offseason.

“I’ve just always been one of those that has been opposed to the mandatory minicamp, especially back in the days when you’ve got to go on the field twice a day. It just made no sense to me that you’re taking professional athletes and making them practice twice a day in the middle of the offseason. It didn’t make sense -- probably because I hated it.”



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