McCaffrey, Cook among rookie runners turning heads

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While a pair of first-round quarterbacks -- Mitchell Trubisky and Patrick Mahomes -- feel destined for redshirt rookie campaigns, that's not the case with this year's newbie running backs.

As training camps forge into their second week, a rash of rookie runners are making compelling cases for heavy workloads right away:

» In Carolina, Christian McCaffrey's early handiwork compelled fellow back Jonathan Stewart to call the first-round pick "a special player," saying: "He's pretty unstoppable as far as coming out of the backfield running routes. I can tell you now there's not going to be anybody in this league that can cover him 1-on-1."

Drawing "oohs and ahs from fans" at camp, McCaffrey has shown tantalizing lateral agility and unusual open-field artistry. With Carolina planning to feature more quick-strike throws on offense, McCaffrey's in position to shine as a tremendous fantasy -- and real-life -- hero out of the gate.

» While it's truly strange to see Adrian Peterson in a Saints uniform, his former club in Minnesota feels fine about the progress of Dalvin Cook. "[He] tries to make the most of every rep he gets," offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said, per ESPN. "You see him do a lot of things really well, and if he does make a mistake, he's able to correct it and move on. ... I think he's going to have a bright future."

With Jerick McKinnon banged up and Latavius Murray still recuperating from ankle surgery -- and admitting Monday that no timetable exists for his return -- Cook has taken a decisive early lead for a starting gig that could net him 300-plus carries as a rookie.

» Saddled with shaky Blake Bortles under center, the Jaguars have been open about their desire to field a run-first offense.

"Zero," Doug Marrone bluntly answered during organized team activites in June when asked how many times a game he wants to see Bortles throw the ball. "For me, I'd like to run the ball every play. I want to go back to the old way. I want to change the game."

This is excellent news for fourth-overall pick Leonard Fournette, who suddenly looks like the beating heart of a pass-averse attack set to ship football back to the 1970s.

» "There's no question that rookie running back Joe Mixon is the most impressive of the newcomers," wrote longtime Bengals reporter Geoff Hobson.

A rare combination of blinding speed, physicality and pass-catching prowess, Mixon posted better pro day measurables than Ezekiel Elliott and could earn a starting role long before September. Just as McCaffery gives the Panthers an electric athlete with the ability to transform that offense, Mixon's early work in Cincy is another reminder that this year's crop of rookie runners has the potential to go down as one of the finest backfield classes in many years.

Here's what else we learned from Monday's training camp action:

1. Is Colin Kaepernick's much-ballyhooed unemployment finally nearing an end?

Ravens brass confirmed over the weekend that the team has been in contact with the former Niners quarterback and is weighing the option of signing him.

While guys like Austin Davis and Josh Johnson draw paychecks, Kaepernick has generated scant interest since opting out of his contract with San Francisco in March. He could help the Ravens, though, with Joe Flacco battling a bad back and backup Ryan Mallett staging intense on-field meltdowns during camp.

Kaepernick generated massive attention last season by kneeling during the national anthem to raise awareness for social injustices. As a result, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said the team has reached out to its players, sponsors and fans -- and even Ray Lewis -- to gauge the reaction of a potential Kaepernick signing.

After the team was "inundated with phone calls" from fans over the prospect of signing Kaepernick, Bisciotti told the crowd at Sunday's fan forum: "I hope we do what is best for the team and balance that with what is best for our fans. Your opinions matter to us."

John Harbaugh's opinion matters, too, with the coach revealing he's had "great conversations" with Kaepernick, whose protests boil down to someone exercising a basic American right -- no matter how anyone feels about the message. From a football perspective, this signing simply makes sense for the Ravens.

2. If you're Tyreek Hill, how do you top last year's tremendous rookie campaign? BJ Kissel of the team's official website believes Kansas City's uber-fast receiver and return man is ready to jump to the "next level."

"They think he is just fast, but he is a really technically sound receiver," cornerback Marcus Peters said of Hill. "He is just a little dude, but he is in a big man's body. He is one of the best receivers in our league right now."

3. Don't hold your breath for a ruling on the Ezekiel Elliott front. NFL Network's Tom Pelissero reported the league will not announce any potential discipline this week.

4. Packers coach Mike McCarthy sees plenty of promise in Ty Montgomery:

5. Jaguars players have openly talked about making a playoff push this season, with defensive lineman Malik Jackson boasting "we're going to win the Super Bowl." That feels insane, although Jacksonville's talent on defense is juicy. Optimism is tempered by Bortles, the fourth-year quarterback who flatlined in 2016. Coach Doug Marrone acknowledged he was "concerned" after watching Bortles toss a whopping five picks during Saturday's practice. On Monday, Bortles turned it around, completing 14 straight passes at one stage and refusing to turn the ball over. It's a start.

6. The Jets are widely viewed as a disaster heading into the season, but hope abounds at the back end of Gang Green's defense, where rookie safeties Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye have thrived. "I can't speak for other people's safeties on their team. But for rookie safeties, from the average that I've been around, they're a lot farther along," coach Todd Bowles said of his two backstops. Bowles isn't one to gush over players, so this praise carries weight for a team desperately in need of some good news.

7. With Doug Martin facing a three-game suspension to start the season, Bucs general manager Jason Licht told ESPN the team will lean on a committee to fill the void with Jacquizz Rodgers, Charles Sims, Peyton Barber and Jeremy McNichols. Licht went on to say Martin might not have a starting job when he returns from his punishment -- a statement we're simply not buying.

8. The Jets insist they aren't tanking this season -- and Roger Goodell believes them.

Transaction Corner


1. As veteran players return to work, training camp historically generates at least one surprise retirement. That came Monday morning with Branden Albert's decision to walk away from the NFL after nine seasons. Albert had been working as Jacksonville's starting left tackle following an offseason trade from Miami. His late-summer decision to bolt leaves second-round pick Cam Robinson as the favorite to take over the role. Meanwhile, Jacksonville will recoup the 2018 seventh-round draft pick they sent to Miami in their offseason swap for Albert.

2. The Texans added safety depth with the signing of former Jets defensive back Marcus Gilchrist to a one-year contract.

Injury Updates


1. Could Mike Williams miss the entire season? Chargers coach Anthony Lynn suggested the first-round receiver could be lost for the year because of his lingering back injury. "I'm hopeful that it's not [season-ending], but who knows?" Lynn said, via ESPN.com. "It could be. I don't know." Los Angeles has plenty of depth in the passing game, but losing Williams for the year would serve as another reminder that no team in football has uglier luck when it comes to injuries.

2. The Dolphins plan to lean heavily on Jay Ajayi this season, but those plans are on hold after the featured back left Monday's practice with a potential concussion. The Pro Bowler plowed his way to 1,272 yards and eight touchdowns last season.

3. Packers defensive tackle Montravius Adams could be sidelined until the regular season after suffering a stress fracture in his foot. Green Bay's third-round pick will have a tough time carving out a large role early in the year.

4. NFL Network's Steve Wyche reported that Cowboys left guard Chaz Green, in competition with Jonathan Cooper for the starting job, sustained a shoulder injury and will be out for roughly a week. Green will not play in Thursday's Hall of Fame Game against Arizona.

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