2018 NFL training camp: Early winners and losers across league

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Andrew Luck is connecting on deep strikes again. Sam Darnold will get back to throwing soon. With every NFL team across the land now practicing in full pads, these are the two NFL stories that stand out most entering the second week of training camp.

The No. 3 overall pick's absence from Jets camp, in addition to Bears linebacker and No. 8 selection Roquan Smith's holdout, gave this late July an old-school feel before Darnold and the Jets finally reached an agreement on a contract Monday. Rookie contract quarrels were common under the old collective bargaining agreement last decade, occasionally re-shaping the start to a player's career. (Philip Rivers comes to mind, when his early absence allowed Drew Brees to remain San Diego's starter in 2004.) Such standoffs have become rare since the new CBA in 2011 and Darnold's return gives him plenty of time to catch up in the AFC's most intriguing position battle.

If late summer is the time to settle the worst contract disputes, it's also when we fully welcome back many of the sport's stars to the field. Deshaun Watson, Carson Wentz and Dalvin Cook were three of the returning standouts that impressed with healthy starts to camp, although none carried the emotional baggage of Luck and his right shoulder. Let's start this week's roundup of camp's early winners and losers in Indianapolis ...

Going up

Andrew Luck's confidence: Luck admitted he did some things that "looked pretty silly on film" in his first practice back on the field Thursday. By Sunday evening -- when he completed 19 of 22 passes during an evening practice, according to the Indianapolis Star -- he was lighting up the Colts' defense again. The deep throws are already back in the mix. Luck is working in a dramatically different offense with a new throwing technique, but the key is that he's working at all.

As much as the Colts insisted all summer that Luck would be fine, seeing him practice pain-free for the first time in years should be a relief for Indy fans and a treat for anyone who loves watching top-shelf quarterback play. The pairing of Luck and new Colts coach Frank Reich will make the sport more fun to watch in 2018.

Star Houston Texans: The best news out of Texans camp is no news. Blessed with a roster full of stars that the other Texas team should envy, coach Bill O'Brien has seen his biggest names arrive at camp with surprisingly few injury concerns.

J.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson and Whitney Mercilus are all flying around the field in West Virginia as if the team's nightmarish 2017 season didn't happen. Jadeveon Clowney is slowly working his way back after offseason knee surgery, but he was participating in team drills by the weekend. This is perhaps the most top-heavy team in the AFC -- and its top players are all on schedule.

The left tackle market: Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews seems to only excel every other season, but that's good enough to earn him a monster extension. The blind-side market is starting to look remarkably similar to the quarterback market that developed four years ago, when any starter at (or better than) league average will earn close to $15 million per season. The Seahawks handed last year's big trade acquisition, Duane Brown, big bucks in an extension that will take him through his age 36 season. The Titans' Taylor Lewan is a true standout at the position and now has the richest deal for any O-lineman in league history, passing Nate Solder's contract from free agency.

It's become increasingly difficult for NFL teams to develop quality tackles out of college, which has only made the successful tackles in the league worth more. Give the Cowboys credit for signing Tyron Smith -- perhaps the best OT in football -- to a 10-year deal back in 2014 that now looks like a bargain.

Big running backs: Todd Gurley's forward-thinking contract will only make it easier for Le'Veon Bell to get paid a year from now in free agency. David Johnson showed up to Cardinals camp on time and could wind up signing his new deal before the start of the season. Despite Ezekiel Elliott's off-field problems, Cowboys COO Stephen Jones is the rare boss who wants to give away big money soon.

"I wouldn't take anybody for Zeke. I think we have the best one in the league," Jones said this week. "I expect him to do special things. Just as I said with Dak, I hope we're looking at big numbers on both of them."

Nick Shook, NFL.com writer: No one breaks down offensive line play like Shook, a mountain of a man writing about guys who are even bigger. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that Shook was the one to get the scoop from Browns legend Joe Thomas that second-round pick Austin Corbett simply isn't going to cut it at left tackle. While the Browns -- and Corbett -- aren't giving up the dream yet, the safe money is on Thomas being right.

Tavon Austin hype: The sight of Austin lining up outside often with Dallas' first-team offense was an early surprise in camp. So was the word from teammate Cole Beasley that Austin is already stepping into a vocal leadership role among the Cowboys' wideouts. The talk in OTAs of transitioning Austin to more of a running back role sounds like smoke in retrospect. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan is testing a lot of formations, with Austin and Beasley as tag-team partners in many of them.

"There could be three plays in a row where Tavon lines up in three different positions," Linehan told me at Cowboys practice last week. "I think [Austin and Beasley] add very effective matchup potential together with us. It's proven. Not just like he's done it in college. We've seen him do it in the pros."

We didn't see it much last year when Sean McVay was Austin's coach, but the Cowboys are just the latest staff to believe in July that they can unlock Austin's potential. The track record says this hope is fool's gold.

John Brown, WR, Baltimore Ravens: Brown is precisely the type of player for which camp reports matter. He's healthy again and lighting up practices again like it's 2015 in Arizona. Now he just has to make it to Week 1 intact, and the Ravens could have a sleeper.

Anthony Miller, WR, Chicago Bears: When reading that a young player has "turned heads" at training camp, it's best to apply caution. When reading it day after day, in sources local and national alike, it's best to lose all perspective, draft Anthony Miller in your fantasy leagues and enjoy the naivete of late-July football, because life is short and joy is to be savored.

With that in mind, some other youngsters who have started to build a case as players to watch in August: Seahawks (starting) running back Chris Carson, Titans receiver Taywan Taylor, Bills defensive tackle Harrison Phillips, Colts receiver Deon Cain and Saints wideout Tre'Quan Smith.

A tough week for ...

Jason Verrett, CB, Los Angeles Chargers: The torn Achilles tendon suffered by Verrett in the team's conditioning test was a heartbreaking way to start camp for Verrett and many of his teammates. Verrett's one of the most popular players on the roster. His setback gave the start to this Chargers campaign a feeling of deja vu.

Drafted in 2014, the No. 25 overall pick has only been able to suit up for 25 NFL games. The Chargers have grown used to playing without him over the last two seasons, and their top three cornerbacks -- Casey Hayward, Trevor Williams and Desmond King -- compare favorably to those on most teams. But the injuries to Verrett and tight end Hunter Henry guarantee -- once again -- that the platonic ideal of the latest loaded Chargers roster will never take the field.

Teams with veteran holdouts: It's truly not a huge deal in the moment for the Seahawks, Raiders and Rams that Earl Thomas, Khalil Mack and Aaron Donald aren't at work yet. Just look at the season Donald put up last year after skipping camp. The bigger issue here is that none of these particular holdouts show any signs of progress. Thomas' standoff with the Seahawks is the most knotty, with the fewest routes to compromise. It would be a surprise if Thomas, Mack or Donald were on the field before the middle of August, when camp officially ends.

Teams with first-round holdouts: It's tricky to know which side to find fault with in rookie contract holdouts, but the current collective bargaining agreement and its slotted contracts should prevent this from happening. That's what makes Sam Darnold and Roquan Smith's absences from camp last week more mystifying. In Smith's case, he's already missed more than a week of practice, and it sure sounds like the Bears are trying to set a new precedent when it comes to how the league's new helmet-to-helmet rule could impact Smith's guaranteed money.

Darnold's contract, meanwhile, was held up by forfeiture language before the two sides reached an agreement Monday. Smith's standoff started two weeks ago, and there's no end in sight. I'm looking forward to all the amateur contract experts formulating their hot takes on how this threatens the sanctity of the game, without truly having any idea who to blame.

Daryl Williams, OT, Carolina Panthers: Williams' injury on Saturday is precisely why players hold out. Underpaid as a second-team All-Pro entering a contract year, Williams suffered a dislocated patella and torn MCL. He will avoid surgery for now, and the injury shouldn't be season-ending, but this is another downgrade for the Panthers' offensive line after losing guard Andrew Norwell in free agency.

Mitchell Trubisky, QB, Chicago Bears: It's important not to overreact to overly glowing camp practices. The same is true when it comes to camp reports about the heavy dose of interceptions coming from Trubisky's right hand on a daily basis, but the trend is something to monitor. The Bears would clearly love for all the giveaways to stop.

Malcolm Mitchell, WR, New England Patriots: The Patriots are thin at wideout, which should make them more patient when it comes to the recovery of third-year receiver Malcolm Mitchell. But camp started with a report from NFL Network's Tom Pelissero that Mitchell underwent a recent "procedure" on his knee and that he's on the trading block. Although he started to get work in with other players on the PUP list over the weekend, it feels like the beginning of the end for one of the smartest, most productive rookie receivers in the Tom Brady era. As Malcolm Butler learned, being a Super Bowl hero doesn't guarantee you much in New England.

Jameis Winston and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Ryan Fitzpatrick is taking the first-team reps. Winston's image was not included on murals for the team's ad campaign, and coach Dirk Koetter has told Winston to not be as vocal in practice. Teammates spent the first day of camp answering difficult questions about Winston, who met with the media for the first time since being suspended three games to start the season for violating the league's personal conduct policy. Take the excitement and hype of the Bucs' last training camp, and this season is essentially the opposite of that.

Robert Griffin III, QB, Baltimore Ravens: If Lamar Jackson is already guaranteed to be active on game days, the chance of RGIII winning the Ravens' backup job is basically over before it started. Griffin is going to need a strong preseason to make the team as a third quarterback.

The Buffalo Bills' quarterback battle: Nathan Peterman was with the first team as camp opened, although Josh Allen was taking a series with the 1s by Day 3. It's not a great sign for AJ McCarron that Peterman has reportedly picked up Brian Daboll's offense faster, and it's not a great sign for anyone on the Bills offense if the team splits first-team reps three ways for long. It's going to be difficult enough for the winner of this battle to survive behind a depleted offensive line with a shaky receiver group. A limited number of camp snaps would only exacerbate concerns about the eventual starter.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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