Training camp is finally here! And thus begins an annual summer ritual in the NFL ...
The return of football means the return of football chatter. And let's be honest: Much of the chatter is, well, hot air. You have guys making headlines in late July and August who, in many cases, just won't be factors from September through February.
But not to fear: The Schein Nine is here!
Allow me to keep you focused this training camp. Avoid getting bogged down in the minutiae! Here are nine things we SHOULD be talking about in the coming weeks:
1) The QB situation we should be talking about: Joe Flacco's recovery
Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Jets just reached an agreement. Going forward, we're certain to hear a bunch about the quarterback competitions in Denver, San Francisco and Cleveland. But I'm here to say that everyone should pay close attention to what's going on at Ravens camp. Joe Flacco's health is, quite simply, everything for Baltimore. Yes, Joe Flacco is elite. He's a Super Bowl champ with a rocket for an arm. Flacco leads by example -- and the Ravens follow.
Baltimore placed six players on the Physically Unable to Perform list to start camp. Flacco was not one of these players. Highly significant. The Ravens QB ripped up his ACL last November, so being ready for everything at training camp counts as a big deal.
The Ravens had incredibly bad luck with injuries last year. As USA Today recently pointed out, eight Week 1 starters in 2015 went on to suffer season-ending injuries, with Flacco, Terrell Suggs, Steve Smith Sr. and Justin Forsett being the most prominent. No wonder Baltimore crashed and burned to 5-11 -- the first losing season in the eight-season John Harbaugh era.
If Flacco can stay healthy and be on the field for Week 1, that will be a good way to flip the script. This organization, with a great coach and front office, should return to solid ground in 2016. With a healthy Flacco, Baltimore will be in the mix for the playoffs. With an injured or compromised Flacco? Baltimore will be in trouble (again).
2) The head coach we should be talking about: Chip Kelly
Of course it's Chip Kelly. It's always Chip Kelly.
Chip Kelly The General Manager got Chip Kelly The Coach fired in Philly. Frankly, his general personality didn't appear to help him much, either. But I digress. I was happy to see Kelly get a second chance with the San Francisco 49ers.
Say what you will about Kelly's personnel savvy (or lack thereof), but the guy can coach. In three years with Philadelphia -- a team that went 4-12 in the season prior to his arrival -- Kelly logged two 10-win seasons, one division title and an overall record of 26-21. Could do much worse than that.
Now let's see what he learned from his first pro coaching assignment. How will his relationships be with the players and the front office? What about implementing his system? Does he have a quarterback? Is Blaine Gabbertreally leading this competition? Can he reboot Colin Kaepernick's once-promising career?
There's always so much intrigue with the quirky coach.
But the expectations are low around Kelly's new team. The roster is pretty bare. Honestly, San Francisco might be the worst team in the NFC. I love Chip, but the Niners are so far away from where they were just a few years ago under Jim Harbaugh.
Could Chip shock the world with his offense? Will he combust? I can't wait to find out.
3) The coordinator we should be talking about: Ken Zampese
I thought the Bengals should've kicked Marvin Lewis up to the front office and/or promoted Hue Jackson to head coach. It didn't happen. Marvin is still the head man in Cincinnati. Jackson is now serving that role with the division-rival Browns. And consequently, Ken Zampese has been promoted from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator of the Bengals.
Zampese is a well-respected quarterback guru. Andy Dalton's been getting his tutelage since Day 1 in Cincy -- and the Red Rifle just enjoyed a breakthrough statistical season (66.1 completion percentage, 25:7 TD-to-INT ratio, 106.2 passer rating). Now it's up to Zampese to get more out of Dalton in the biggest moments.
This is a pressure-packed job, considering the last two Bengals OCs (Jay Gruden and Jackson) have parlayed success into head-coaching gigs.
4) The contract-year player we should be talking about: Le'Veon Bell
Bell is facing a four-game suspension for missing several drug tests, as reported by NFL Media's Ian Rapoport. This would be his second multi-game suspension in as many seasons. Bad look for Bell, Mike Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Steelers. The gifted running back needs to take responsibility and act like a professional. He needs to prioritize football and care about Steeler Nation. With games against the Redskins, Bengals, Eagles and Chiefs -- three of whom made the playoffs last season -- to start off the season, Pittsburgh will miss this dynamic weapon in the run and pass games. (Yes, DeAngelo Williams is a very solid backup option, but he's not Le'Veon Bell.)
There is no doubt about Bell's ability, but his availability sure leaves something to be desired. In addition to the suspensions, Bell has finished each of the last two seasons on the sideline due to injuries. This is a huge concern for the Steelers. Can Bell be trusted by the Steelers (or another team) for 2017 and beyond? That's a legit question. And right now, I highly doubt it. That's going to cost him money.
I'll be fascinated to how Bell performs this year. He is a star back in a contract year on a high-profile team. But he just doesn't seem to get it.
5) The rookie we should be talking about: Ryan Kelly
While Ezekiel Elliott will be my preseason pick for Offensive Rookie of the Year -- and honestly, he could become an MVP candidate if the Cowboys live up to my expectations and win 10 games -- the player I'll be focusing on this August is Colts center Ryan Kelly.
Finally, Indianapolis GM Ryan Grigson spent some serious draft capital on O-line help for the great Andrew Luck. (In addition to Kelly in Round 1, the Colts took OT Le'Raven Clark in Round 3.) Kelly was a star for Nick Saban at Alabama. He should be an instant plug-and-play-well rookie. If Kelly lives up to expectations, has a good summer and it clicks when the games count, there will be a positive domino effect on the rest of the line. And, of course, Luck will be able to breathe.
Indy can win a lot of games by allowing No. 12 to get comfortable in the pocket.
6) The second-year player we should be talking about: Marcus Mariota
Jameis Winston is ready for prime time under new Bucs coach Dirk Koetter. Amari Cooper is vital to the Raiders living up to my AFC West title expectations. And Todd Gurley has all the talent in the world (though he might not have much support around him in the Rams' offense). But I want to talk about Marcus Mariota.
The quarterback's 2015 season prematurely ended with a sprained MCL in December, but don't let that cloud his solid rookie effort. No, he wasn't as impressive as Winston, Cooper or Gurley, but Mariota proved he can play in the NFL. And he did so while dealing with a midseason coaching change in Tennessee. No more questions about whether or not his game will translate to Sundays.
Now, the Titans have some stability, and they added a pair of physical running backs in veteran trade acquisition DeMarco Murray and rookie Derrick Henry. Plus, they beefed up the O-line with the first-round selection of tackle Jack Conklin. Watching Mariota's development in camp is important. I want to see growth as a thrower and leader.
7) The injured player we should be talking about: J.J. Watt
Don't overthink this. Watt's already a legendary player, an all-time great defensive lineman. He plays through pain and routinely dominates. He is Superman, a complete game-wrecker. But surgery to repair a herniated disk is a legit deal. The back is tricky. There can be complications. And think about what Watt does for a living, essentially slamming into 300-pounders each and every snap. Watt penned an open letter to fans saying he'll be back on the field "very soon." While I always give Watt the benefit of the doubt, color me a tad skeptical.
8) The free-agent signee we should be talking about: Josh Norman
I still can't believe Carolina GM Dave Gettleman haphazardly jettisoned Norman and didn't get anything in return. Norman was a bona fide star for the Panthers last season, earning first-team All-Pro honors.
Norman, who is never shy, will be the talk of Redskins camp. And his absence from Carolina will stimulate conversation all season long.
9) The last-chance veteran we should be talking about: Anquan Boldin
This development just popped up this week -- and it's worthy of our attention. I really like the Lions' pickup of Boldin. He still can catch the ball. He still can block. He still can go over the middle on third down and still can score in the red zone. Anquan Boldin is a pro's pro.
The guy was solid in San Francisco, but it's clear his better days are in the rear-view mirror. Don't expect the Boldin from Arizona or Baltimore. But he can still catch 50 passes from Matthew Stafford while aiding the young receivers, tight ends and backs, and supplying Jim Caldwell with a strong leader in the locker room.
Boldin is the epitome of class and one of my favorites. And he still has a little gas left in the tank.