Training camp narratives: Separating hype from truth

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Training camp is a finicky beast.

Upon its launch, everyone from the casual fan to the diehard fantasy-head is suddenly flooded by an unruly firehose of data and hot-to-the-touch takes after months of summertime silence from the NFL.

In response, a laundry list of unrelenting offseason narratives are either bolstered by real-life events or cracked like an egg once and for all.

I'm here to both bolster and crack, dear reader. Here's a handful of hyped-up storylines yours truly is turning a suspicious eye toward -- and a few with legitimate legs:

Three hype trains bound to veer off the tracks

1) Every team has a perfectly functional -- maybe even brilliant -- starting quarterback now: I tweeted out an open question on Saturday: Is it possible the Earth has finally produced 32 starting-caliber quarterbacks at the same time?

We feel closer than ever before this century, with a five-pack of rookie passers all showing promise while a handful of newly assigned veterans -- Tyrod Taylor in Cleveland and Sam Bradford in Arizona, for starters -- have imbued previous signal-calling black holes with new hope. That said, a few teams remain a work in progress:

a) Josh Allen's titanic arm strength alone is worth the price of admission, but his first preseason game also confirmed a need to improve flashes of inconsistent footwork and questionable decision-making, especially in the face of pressure. He's an exciting presence, but a quarterback who might need a full year to bloom. AJ McCarron and Nathan Peterman have been unfairly dismissed all offseason -- I'm not here to do that -- but this quarterback room has plenty to prove before we green-light Buffalo as ready to fly.

b) The Broncos' Case Keenum is coming off a brilliant campaign in which he shut people up on a weekly basis. It's thrilling to watch a critically lashed performer blow up lazy, accepted narratives, but some context is required. Keenum added value with his best season to date in Minnesota -- yet, part of that sky-high performance was the result of being packed into a Vikings offense riddled with starry skill-position players and supported immensely by a Super Bowl-caliber defense. Fast-developing rookie wideout Courtland Sutton helps, but Keenum will be asked to lift Denver out of the mire more than once for an attack with plenty of questions.

c) The Chiefs and Bears have intriguing young passers, but we need to see more from both players before assuming either team is set under center. Yes, Mitch Trubisky's arrow is pointing up with offensive-minded coach Matt Nagy replacing John Fox. Andy Reid can also be trusted to milk the most out of Patrick Mahomes, but the latter rolls into September with one NFL start under his belt. Growing pains for both young arms can be expected.

d) This year's wildly enticing rookie class is destined to make starts across the board. The Jets' Sam Darnold is the favorite to play right away, while the Browns' Baker Mayfield, the Cardinals' Josh Rosen and Allen should all see meaningful snaps in 2018. If Lamar Jackson is the outlier with Joe Flacco entrenched as the lead guy in Baltimore, he's also a lock to be sprinkled into the offense. If all five fulfill expectations, this class will rival 1983 as the greatest pack of quarterbacks since the merger. Plenty of us, though, felt the same way after Robert Griffin III won Offensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2012 and looked poised to blow up the NFL alongside Andrew Luck.

2) The offseason hype-bunny Bears will sneak into the playoffs: Back to Nagy, who left Kansas City draped in glowing praise from Reid. His presence in Chicago brings legitimate excitement to a team long stuck in the mud. The Bears under Fox refused to generate even a sand particle of intrigue on offense, with the former regime handcuffing Trubisky from wire to wire as a rookie.

There's a lot to like: Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel bring veteran experience and proven production to the receiving corps, while Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen form a versatile duo on the ground. On defense, first-round linebacker Roquan Smith is finally inked. The world is brighter for the Bears, but we're a year too early for playoff fantasies in one of the more stacked conferences of the past two decades. All bets are off come next season, but Chicago's first order of business is showing it can compete against a pair of in-house division heavies in Green Bay and Minnesota.

3) The Browns will stick to their plan with redshirt nominee Baker Mayfield: What we saw from Mayfield in his first preseason game was enough to galvanize this psychologically badgered fan base. The first overall pick in the draft showed juicy footwork, field vision and arm capability while generating a handful of big plays downfield and with his wheels.

Tyrod Taylor is no afterthought after putting together a stellar training camp and comprehensively winning over his teammates. The coaches believe in him, adore his work ethic and feel he can start the entire way. I don't doubt their intentions today, but let's talk after Cleveland squares off against the Saints, Falcons, Chiefs, Ravens and twice against Pittsburgh before their Week 11 bye.

While Darnold is just 21, Mayfield turns 24 next offseason. The franchise must find out what it has in the rookie during games that matter. If you're Hue Jackson, you're also tasked with keeping this coaching staff employed. It's not a knock on Taylor, but it would be a vast upset if Mayfield doesn't make starts in 2018. The brutal schedule, Baker's age and on-field potential -- and the elongated, brutal nature of the pro football season -- all but guarantee it.

Two storylines with legs

1) The new helmet rule will cause chaos, confusion, exasperation and enmity out of the gate: The catch rule has been tweaked -- thank you, football gods, if you truly exist (do you?) -- but football watchers were given new material to freak out over with the league's newfangled helmet rule. The Hall of Fame Game saw officials toss a flock of yellow cloth over hits that, in years past, would have gone unmarked.

"It is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent," the new rule states.

As my man Will Brinson from CBS Sports pointed out, The problem for the NFL is players are lowering their helmets constantly, in all different situations.

A pair of eyebrow-raising flags were called around the rule in this past weekend's Chargers-Cardinals game. Both calls generated reaction for this reason: The penalized hits appeared kosher to the untrained eye -- and to former players. Ex-NFL fullback Ron Wolfley, calling the game for Arizona, was nonplussed after seeing replays of Cardinals safety A.J. Howard draw a flag for unnecessary roughness on Sean Culkin, screaming of the Los Angeles tight end: "Look! He's put the ball away. He's become a runner. The hat was right on the ball!"

On a subsequent flag thrown against Travell Dixon -- in which the Cardinals safety appeared to make a clean tackle but was pegged for leading with the helmet -- Wolfley went berserk, wailing, "Come on! Come on! ... He didn't go linear! He didn't duck his helmet, that's not the way it was explained. If you keep your head up ... man!"

The common retort is that zebras are pouring it on heavy in the preseason to make a clear statement to players and coaches about the new rules. The problem, either way, is that these August calls have mystified viewers and participants.

The onus now falls on teams to tutor players on how to avoid these flags -- essentially changing the way many have played the game since Pop Warner -- but any new rule requires clarity. That's what's missing in some instances, and the NFL has an issue on its hands as it rightfully aims to reduce head injuries and dangerous collisions.

2) We're staring at the best version of the AFC North in a million moons: This rough-and-tumble division is back in business.

The Steelers must figure out how to mask over the loss of linebacker Ryan Shazier, but the offense remains stocked with the league's finest power trio in Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown -- not to mention one of the NFL's best No. 2 wideouts in JuJu Smith-Schuster.

The Ravens have a renewed Flacco under center, a reimagined receiving corps and a super-charged defense littered with youthful talent and veteran leadership. Rookie passer and uber-athlete Jackson is bound to contribute with a handful of snaps each game. The Bengals, meanwhile, are much-improved on offense with Joe Mixon ready to assume workhorse duties and lightning-quick second-year receiver John Ross set for a major role.

All three of these teams can -- and should -- make the playoffs in a weakened conference. Even the Browns have a chance to make noise with their best roster since Cleveland's return in 1999 and what appears to be two(!) functional quarterbacks. Heady times, indeed!

Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter @MarcSesslerNFL.

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