2022 NFL training camp storylines, Kyler Murray’s deal and more

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With the start of 2022 NFL training camps across the league, here’s a list of 10 things we’re looking for throughout the summer.

– Trey Lance and the Niners

This will be the team to watch all summer. The San Francisco 49ers reached the NFC title game last year and led in the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Rams before safety Jaquiski Tartt dropped an arm-punt from Matthew Stafford. Now, Jimmy Garoppolo is looking for a trade (more below) and Trey Lance is the man under center.

Lance is fascinating. The Niners gave up three first-round picks to select him No. 3 overall in 2021. However, he’s only thrown 101 passes across North Dakota State and San Francisco over the past two years. Is he the answer? Is he Jordan Love, the sequel? We’re about to find out.

– Cleveland, Cleveland, Cleveland

The Cleveland Browns are always interesting, and this offseason displayed that fact and then some. Cleveland signed quarterback Deshaun Watson to a fully-guaranteed $230 million deal after sending three-first round picks to the Houston Texans, while knowing a suspension was coming.

For starters, what is the length of Watson’s ban? Additionally, will Jacoby Brissett be able to keep Cleveland afloat during Watson’s anticipated absence? If so, the Browns are one of the more talented teams in football. How far can they go in the AFC, all while being booed heavily in every building they enter … including in some corners, their own?

– What’s the story in Tampa Bay?

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are toeing the line between experience and being old. The question is whether they can stay on the right side of the divide for another campaign. The Bucs have one of the league’s most-ancient rosters, helmed by 45-year-old Tom Brady. And yet, they’re a justified Super Bowl favorite.

After losing head coach Bruce Arians, tight end Rob Gronkowski, edge rusher Jason Pierre-Paul, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, safety Jordan Whitehead, and guards Ali Marpet and Alex Kappa among others, is Tampa Bay going to be as strong as the previous two years?

– Russell Wilson takes the reins in Denver

After toiling with the Seattle Seahawks last season amidst injury and a declining roster, Russell Wilson was given new life with the Denver Broncos. In Denver, Wilson finds a first-time head coach in Nathaniel Hackett, terrific weapons and a solid defense. What does it add up to?

Wilson is 34 years old and critics believe his best days are left in the Emerald City. In a division with Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert, does Wilson and his team have enough to not only compete with, but actually surpass some of the AFC’s elite?

– Aaron Rodgers and the Packers reshape their identity

These aren’t your father’s Packers. Or even your older brother’s. After trading away receiver Davante Adams this offseason and replacing him with vet Sammy Watkins and second-round rookie Christian Watson, Green Bay is clearly leaning into a new identity of defense and ball-control offense.

The good news? The Packers have elite defensive talent on all three levels, one of the league’s best offensive lines and two excellent running backs in A.J. Dillon and Aaron Jones. The big question will be on 3rd and 8, where is the ball going?

– The new-look Chiefs’ attack without Tyreek Hill

There wasn’t a non-quarterback move which reverberated more this spring than the Kansas City Chiefs’ decision to trade Tyreek Hill to the Miami Dolphins. With Hill gone, the Chiefs attempted to rebuild their defense with youth, while surrounding quarterback Patrick Mahomes with new weapons in rookie Skyy Moore, and veteran receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling.

But does it work? Smart money says bet on Mahomes and head coach Andy Reid to author one of the league’s best attacks. The talent is still excellent, especially when factoring in the offensive line. The big question is whether Kansas City will attempt the same amount of chunk-yardage throws, or if we’ll see Reid return to his roots and run more West Coast offense.

– The Rams look to repeat

This is a simple one. The Rams are trying to become the first team to repeat as champions since the 2003-04 New England Patriots. Since that group, the only squads to even reach a second consecutive Super Bowl are the 2013 Seahawks, the ’18 Patriots and the ’20 Chiefs.

Can Los Angeles finally break the drought of repeat champs?

– Which quarterback starts for the Steelers?

This is the best (only) battle to watch across the league at the most-important position. The Pittsburgh Steelers have a placeholder in Mitchell Trubisky trying to keep the starting job for one season against first-round pick, Kenny Pickett.

With Pittsburgh, the defense will lead the way followed by running back Najee Harris. The case for Trubisky? The Steelers have a bad offensive line and Trubisky is both mobile and not a long-term investment. The case for Pickett? He’s the future, and there’s nobody ahead of him worth getting a look at.

– Can Baker and the Panthers get off the ground?

Earlier in July, the Baker Mayfield saga finally ended. The former No. 1 overall pick went to the Carolina Panthers for a conditional 2024 fifth-round pick. Suddenly, Carolina had an intriguing upgrade at quarterback, while Mayfield got another opportunity to prove his value.

For the Panthers, this is a big year. Another bad campaign and head coach Matt Rhule is likely gone, and Mayfield is hitting free agency. However, if Mayfield thrives and former All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey stays healthy, perhaps Carolina can make a run at a wild card spot in the weak NFC.

– It’s Tua Time in Miami after huge offseason

It’s now or never for Tua Tagovailoa with the Miami Dolphins. After watching Miami add receiver Tyreek Hill and left tackle Terron Armstead alongside head coach Mike McDaniel, it’s clear the Dolphins are attempting to give Tagovailoa a terrific shot to succeed.

If Tagovailoa doesn’t have a career year that puts Miami in the playoffs, there’s going to be rampant speculation about whether the Dolphins — who have two first-round picks in ’23 — address the quarterback spot and jettison their incumbent youngster.

Power rankings

Top 10 win-total bets for the 2022 season (Odds via WynnBet)

1. Baltimore Ravens (OVER 9.5)
2. New Orleans Saints (OVER 8.5)
3. Chicago Bears (UNDER 6.5)
4. Kansas City Chiefs (OVER 10.5)
5. New England Patriots (UNDER 8.5)
6. Tennessee Titans (UNDER 9.5)
7. Carolina Panthers (OVER 6.5)
8. Atlanta Falcons (UNDER 4.5)
9. Minnesota Vikings (OVER 8.5)
10. Jacksonville Jaguars (OVER 6.5)

Quotable

“I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting old. It’s just not right for parents to bury their kids. It’s just not right. I know every family there probably works their butts off just to do what they do. … The last thing they needed was to shell out thousands of dollars for something that never should have happened.”

– Former Los Angeles Raiders running back Bo Jackson on paying for funeral costs in Uvalde

God bless you, Bo.

My thought? Until the United States changes its gun regulations, the government should be forced to pay the full funeral costs of every mass-shooting victim.

Podcast

Random stat

On Nov. 17 1940, the Chicago Bears lost 7-3 to the Washington Redskins. Three weeks later, the teams met again for the NFL Championship Game.

Chicago won 73-0, a margin which remains the largest for any game in league history.

Info learned this week

1. Jimmy Garoppolo doesn’t have much of a market for 49ers

San Francisco is letting Jimmy Garoppolo seek a trade. It might take awhile.

While Garoppolo’s time in San Francisco was clearly up the moment he stepped off the field in SoFi Stadium following last season’s NFC Championship Game defeat, the process of his moving on has been laborious.

In the ensuing months, Garoppolo needed shoulder surgery. While recovering, the Niners watched a slew of quarterback trades go down, filling needs across the league. Now healthy, Garoppolo don’t have an obvious suitor unless the Seahawks want to improve from a four-win, last-place team to a seven-win, last-place team. The Browns have been a popular rumor, but would Cleveland really give up another draft pick to land Garoppolo, especially if Watson will soon return?

For the 49ers, the best move is waiting. San Francisco has the luxury of going through camp with Garoppolo on the roster, serving as insurance for Lance — whether for bad play or injury — while also seeing if another team suddenly needs a starter. If so, the Niners have leverage and can get a better return. And, if nothing materializes, general manager John Lynch can then release Garoppolo and save $27 million against the cap.

Ultimately, the Niners could decide holding onto Garoppolo will be distracting for all involved and move him one way or another soon. But if San Francisco wants the best deal possible, waiting is the correct call.

2. Packers placing Bakhtiari on PUP is very concerning

On New Year’s Eve 2020, All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari was injured in practice, tearing his ACL. The Green Bay Packers are still awaiting his return.

Although Bakhtiari did play in Week 18 on a limited basis last season, he was held out of Green Bay’s Divisional round loss to San Francisco two weeks later. Now, after missing all of OTAs and minicamp, Bakhtiari is on the Physically Unable to Perform list to start training camp.

Head coach Matt LaFleur and the Packers can project all the confidence they want, but something is clearly amiss in Bakhtiari’s rehab.

Of course, this is a 30-old man who stands 6-foot-4 and 310 pounds. Returning from a serious knee injury is daunting, and it appears to be a lingering issue for the offense’s most-important player save quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

Without a healthy Bakhtiari, the Packers have a gaping hole to fill. Perhaps it’s with a veteran free-agent such as Duane Brown, who made the Pro Bowl last season with the Seattle Seahawks but is currently facing an August court date following his arrest on a gun charge. Maybe it’s a young guy on the roster like Yosh Nijman, who at 26 years old has limited experience.

Regardless, Bakhtiari’s status is a major concern.

3. Patriots’ indecision on coordinators spells serious uncertainty

Who needs coordinators? Apparently not the New England Patriots.

Last week, the Patriots announced they won’t name either position for the upcoming season. Instead, Bill Belichick stated there’s no reason to figure out who will call plays, with the campaign more than a month away.

Belichick will get by with this because he wears six Super Bowl rings as a head coach, and fair enough. But frankly, this is nonsense.

New England hasn’t won a playoff game in three seasons. The roster is one of the league’s worst. The Patriots are trying to build up their second-year quarterback in Mac Jones, and they’ve failed to give him a single top-tier weapon along with what appears to be a disorganized hierarchy on the sideline.

If this was any other organization, it would be getting crushed locally and nationally. But the Patriots, who have enjoyed historic success since 2001, are largely forgiven.

Again, to a degree, rightfully so.

But the Patriots should be questioned for their decision-making, because in recent years, it’s led to a bunch of losing in big games.

4. Mahomes’ deal remains master stroke by Veach, Chiefs

We saw the Kyler Murray deal (a ton on that below) earlier this week. Next year, we’ll start honing in on new contracts for Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow. But we should appreciate the foresight by Chiefs’ general manager Brett Veach and quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

Mahomes is the most valuable player in football. Yes, Rodgers is the reigning two-time MVP and Aaron Donald is arguably the best defensive tackle ever, but if every player became a free agent tomorrow, Mahomes would get the most money. Rightfully so.

After winning Super Bowl LIV, Mahomes signed a 10-year, $450 million extension to stay in Kansas City through his age-36 season. He could have signed a shorter deal to hit the market when it explodes from gambling, streaming and television money in a few seasons. He could have included opt-outs to make sure he maximized his earning potential.

Instead, Mahomes took long-term security while providing the Chiefs with flexibility.

This is the time to point out Mahomes isn’t exactly in dire financial shape following his mega-deal, but context matters. His thought process was intentional. And now, making less per year than Murray and almost certainly less than Herbert and Burrow will be, Mahomes is happy with his lot. He wants to win, and the Chiefs have a contract built to allow them aggressiveness in that pursuit.

Take a look at this quote from Friday. It might be the most refreshing thing you read for months.

“When I signed my deal, I knew I was going to be set for life regardless of how the market [went]. You just keep playing. Money is one thing but when you get those Super Bowl rings at the end of your career, I think that’s going to be the thing that you look back on. I think I’ve made enough money on the football field and off of it as well that it won’t matter at the end of the day.”

The Chiefs signed Mahomes to a generational contract in terms of years and wealth. Mahomes signed on understanding what it meant, good and bad, and both he and Kansas City are in tremendous shape because of it.

5. Titans, Willis agree on deal; worth monitoring QB situation

Malik Willis is under contract, and Ryan Tannehill is officially on notice.

It must be said nobody expects Willis to play meaningful snaps this season with Tannehill healthy. The Titans are a playoff contender after leading Tennessee to the postseason each of the last three seasons, there’s a track record and respect between the two sides.

Yet with Willis, a third-round pick from Liberty who many believe could have gone about 60 picks earlier, there’s undeniable potential.

Willis is an electrifying talent, perhaps the best athlete the NFL has at quarterback save for Lamar Jackson. He’s incredible with the ball tucked while also possessing arm strength most only dream of. The Titans know this. They also know he’s very raw and in need of both time and repetitions before seeing real game action.

However, if the Titans falter offensively without A.J. Brown on the outside, the Nashville radio switchboards will be lit with calls of giving Willis a chance. And with Tennessee able to cut bait after this season on Tannehill’s deal, Willis’ timeline could be sped up if the right circumstances present themselves.

Two cents

Love the throwbacks. Keep ’em coming.

The New York Giants, New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons all unveiled their throwbacks, with Big Blue harkening back to the ’80s, Pat Patriot reemerging and Atlanta is going with the red helmets of yesteryear. Each should be permanent looks, but at least we’re headed in the right direction.

With the NFL throwing out its old rule of one shell for each club, the combinations should be endless. Frankly, the Denver Broncos need to rediscover their classic vibes of the ’70s and ’80s. The same is true for the New York Jets. If the Tennessee Titans don’t give us the Houston Oilers’ classics, that’s a football tragedy. The list goes on and on.

Point is, the NFL is better with throwbacks. The best-looking season in league history is 1994, when the 75th anniversary had teams celebrating old looks and in some cases, looks that never happened in the first place. It was insane, and it was beautiful.

The NFL gets plenty wrong, but this one, it got right.

Inside the league

Kyler Murray signed a five-year, $230.5 million deal on Thursday, with $160 million guaranteed.

For the Arizona Cardinals, it means security and cost-certainty. For the Baltimore Ravens and Lamar Jackson, it means a tough negotiation.

After watching Murray ink the same term and overall value (save $500K) as Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson did this spring, the Ravens had to be worried until they saw the guarantee. Murray got $70 million less, meaning it’s a much more standard contract in terms of where the position was going before Watson’s mammoth pact.

Undoubtedly, Baltimore general manager Eric DeCosta will attempt to negotiate off Murray’s contract, saying Watson’s deal was an outlier. Jackson will surely argue he’s a better, more accomplished player than Murray. There’s little reasonable pushback to that line of thinking. Jackson would be fine in requesting five years, $250 million, fully-guaranteed.

Had Murray have gotten the same contract as Watson in terms of guarantees, Baltimore would have no leverage. Now the Ravens have some, and it could make it much tougher to negotiate with Jackson, who could site Watson, not Murray, as the contract to work from.

Meanwhile, assuming Jackson’s deal gets done in the next nine months or so, that structure will be the tiebreaker for Burrow and Herbert. At that point, the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Chargers will know which contract is the outlier between the three (Watson, Murray, Jackson).

It all sets up for some fascinating talks across the table in key AFC cities.

History lesson

Since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, the Seattle Seahawks are the only team to have switched conferences twice. But there’s a fun story there, and they’re not the only ones involved.

In 1976, Seattle and the Buccaneers were expansion teams. Initially, the Buccaneers were in the AFC West and the Seahawks resided in the NFC West. Then, one year later, Seattle took Tampa Bay’s spot while the Buccaneers joined the NFC Central. In 2002, the Seahawks reclaimed their roots in the NFL’s most-recent realignment.

But why did the NFL move both franchises around after one year? Because the plan was to make sure each team played every other organization at least once across their first two respective seasons. How? By having Seattle and Tampa Bay play each other each year, and then facing every conference opponent once. Pure madness.

Parting shot

One of the most compelling division races this year could be the NFC East.

While the Giants appear at the start of a relaunch, the Commanders should contend alongside the Philadelphia Eagles to challenge the Dallas Cowboys.

Washington added quarterback Carson Wentz and rookie receiver Jahar Dotson, before extending star wideout Terry McLaurin on a three-year deal. The result should be an improved aerial attack to compliment a defense which starred in 2020, and then surprisingly struggled in ’21.

As for Philadelphia, nobody had a better offseason. I detailed the Eagles’ moves and their motives earlier this spring and believe they’re set up for success, with some elite defensive talent and an offense anchored by a great line, a promising young quarterback and three quality weapons in tight end Dallas Goedert and receivers A.J. Brown and Devonta Smith.

While the NFC East might not provide top-tier Super Bowl contenders, it could give us high drama.

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