NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport is traveling around the country on his annual training camp tour, monitoring the sights, sounds and sources of the NFL. While zipping through airports and exchanging rental cars, he filed the following four dispatches from places he's been. (Click here for the first installment of this travel log ... and then click here for entry No. 2.)
New Orleans Saints camp: Yes, Cooks looks that good
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- The notion that a rookie receiver can't come in and immediately play a starring role will be seriously challenged this season. In Buffalo. In Tampa. In Philadelphia. In Carolina. And judging by what has transpired at camp in White Sulphur Springs, in New Orleans.
Brandin Cooks entered the draft as a rare top prospect with no question marks. The 2013 Biletnikoff Award winner took just one pre-draft visit (New York Jets), because NFL teams figured what you see is what you get. And Sean Payton's Saints, looking to complete a youth-oriented remodeling of their receiving corps that began with the draft selections of Nick Toon and Kenny Stills, were so sure he was a sure thing that they traded up to snag him.
So, what exactly did they get? By my eyes, based on the intense practice I saw, the Saints landed a lightning bolt. And they already have a package of plays designed to unleash him.
When I watched, Cooks took a quick screen about 60 yards. He blew through the hash marks on a kickoff return, drawing ooohhhhs and ahhhhhhs from the crowd. He torched former first-round draft pick Patrick Robinson on a post-corner route, finishing the play off with a leaping touchdown catch.
"When you're guarding a guy like that," cornerback Keenan Lewis told reporters a day later, "you've got to make sure that your shoes are very tight, because he will probably leave you out of your shoes."
Not that the Saints' aerial attack needed a ton of help -- they finished second in passing yards last year, after all -- but they got it. And by now, there's no doubt they know what they have in the 5-foot-10 Oregon State product.
Payton has not played into the enthusiasm, harping on the need for Cooks to simply learn his playbook. Cooks hasn't, either, relaying to reporters that teammates have told him, "Don't get complacent." Teammates have jumped on the hype train, though -- likely because they can't help it. Marquee free-agent acquisition Jairus Byrd called Cooks "mature beyond his years."
There are other sturdy young pieces of this offense, too. Left tackle Terron Armstead already has drawn praise from Saints great Willie Roaf. And second-year running back Khiry Robinson could be due for a breakout season, having shown great promise down the stretch last season.
But when the seasons starts, expect your eyes to follow Drew Brees' eyes: right to Cooks.
Baltimore Ravens camp: Flacco renaissance in the offing
ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- While shuffling around before their practice at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, some Ravens coaches were talking about their quarterback.
Joe Flacco's raw skills are always on display, as the 29-year-old boasts what one NFL quarterbacks coach called "unreal arm talent." But before he headed out to practice, a Ravens coach advised me, "Just watch Joe. You'll see what I mean."
What he was alluding to: a technical and fundamental transformation.
Coming off the worst season of his pro career -- one that featured more interceptions (22) and sacks (48) than ever before -- Flacco entered this year with two new instructors: offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and quarterbacks coach Rick Dennison. Jim Caldwell, who served both roles last season, left to become the Detroit Lions' head coach -- and Flacco might have needed a change anyway. The seventh-year pro has landed in a situation with some hard coaching at a time when he craves it. And as Dennison recently told reporters, "He just keeps climbing."
Watch Flacco and what do you see? He's getting the ball out quicker and with more confidence than he has in years. Three- and five-step drops are the norm, with the tempo a bit quicker. On one early play, he not only quickly scanned through each of his progressions with his eyes before checking down, but he also rapidly repositioned his feet. A year ago, it would've been all eyes, feet-heavy. Not now. In 2014, Flacco looks nimble and more efficient.
His supporting cast should provide more assistance than last year's group. And the offensive line looks much improved, which should help Ray Rice bounce back from a career-worst year (after his suspension concludes). No. 27 looks far spryer this fall.
"He has really good burst, acceleration is there, vision is there," coach John Harbaugh said. "Ray looks really good."
So, the stars appear to be aligned for a Flacco resurgence. This team certainly needs it. And watching the quarterback practice -- watching him fire the ball around the field effortlessly -- it looks like Flacco is ready to deliver.
Philadelphia Eagles camp: Offense overshadowing rapidly improving D
PHILADELPHIA -- The breakthrough actually came during a game that Eagles defensive coordinator Billy Davis called "a bad beatdown." Midway through a miserable loss to the Denver Broncos -- a defeat that saw Philly give up 52 points and 35 first downs -- Davis recognized something positive.
"You could see guys were fitting in where they were supposed to, playing with better technique, the coverage was what it was supposed to be," Davis told me after a recent training camp practice at Lincoln Financial Field. "And we started playing better."
The fast-paced, high-octane offense drew the headlines in 2013, as Chip Kelly proved his schemes could work in the NFL. Nick Foles' aerial wizardry and LeSean McCoy's highlight-reel runs popped off our TV screens.
But it was a stunning midseason transformation on defense that led to a playoff run. After yielding that 50-burger to Denver in Week 4, Philly gave up more than 22 points only once, which allowed the team to win seven of its final eight regular-season games. The defensive improvement occurred mostly under the radar, and the 2014 unit will again live in the shadow of Kelly's high-flying offense.
With 10 returning starters, though, Davis has reason to believe this unit will make a splash of its own. At this point in 2013, the defensive coordinator was installing the playbook three calls at a time. Not so much now.
"We've already installed the whole defense," Davis said. "We came in and said, 'The whole defense is up. We're just gonna rep it.' Now the conversations are at a whole other level with the players."
The team's first-round pick, pass rusher Marcus Smith, figures to contribute, though it will be a mild surprise if he's a full-time starter when the season begins. Rookies develop at their own pace, and Smith will begin in the rotation. Generally speaking, the defense will feature more nickel and dime looks, allowing the Eagles to play with a quicker pace.
Of course, the offense still garners the lion's share of attention. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur is excited about Nick Foles, who entered camp as the starter for the first time, and thus, has taken all the reps with new weapons like Darren Sproles. But McCoy might hold the keys in his hands. He showed up to camp leaner and quicker, appearing to be at another level from 2013 (when he led the league in rushing). Consider that Eagles coaches now have a year's experience in knowing how to properly feature their electric back, and the prospects are looking up for 2014. Scary.
Cincinnati Bengals camp: Can Dalton take the next step?
CINCINNATI -- The day before I arrived at the Bengals' practice complex outside Paul Brown Stadium, quarterback Andy Dalton inked a six-year, $96 million extension that -- at the very least -- gives him two seasons and $25 million to prove to the franchise that he is their guy.
But even early in negotiations, the Bengals never wavered in that belief. It might have taken months to settle on a value -- Cincinnati is typically a financially disciplined franchise -- but not on the assumption that Dalton will be under center for years to come. The deal has a max value of $115 million, and the Bengals want nothing more than to pay every single penny of it, as that would mean Dalton will have earned it with unprecedented postseason success for the franchise.
To give an inkling into why the Bengals believe in Dalton, coach Marvin Lewis relayed to me a story from the 2011 pre-draft process. The organization was evaluating quarterbacks, with Cam Newton, Ryan Mallett, Blaine Gabbert and Dalton each invited to town for a visit. The team made up a small packet of plays for the QBs to study -- a mini playbook of sorts -- with the charge that they'd be tested on it during their respective trips to the facility.
During Dalton's "playbook" exam, the TCU product stopped short during one play and told Lewis something wasn't right. The play, which he'd only studied for a few days, didn't make sense to him. Turns out, as Lewis said with a laugh, Dalton had caught a typo in the play call. Seriously. Coaches were at the same time sheepish and impressed. That's next-level recognition.
Now, Cincy just hopes it translates beyond the regular season. (Dalton has guided the Bengals to three playoff appearances in his first three years, but he's yet to log a single postseason win.) New offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, who is running the same playbook from last year but has kicked the tempo up a notch, should help.
"Going into that fourth year, learning something that's maybe a little different from what you've already learned, maybe that propels you forward," Jackson said. "I hope you'll see a little more consistent, poised fourth-year quarterback. Everybody's looking to him. They want to know they got a great leader."
Cincinnati has always been a defense-oriented team, and even with Mike Zimmer gone to Minnesota, budding star coordinator Paul Guenther should keep the unit on the same path. First-round pick Darqueze Dennard has shown better-than-advertised ball skills, which means the Bengals should boast better secondary depth than they've had in quite some time.
But when it comes to January football, the question remains: Can Dalton lead them to new heights? The team believes he can.
Follow Ian Rapoport on Twitter @RapSheet.