New season. New players. New vibe.
Nothing in the NFL stays the same -- except for the things that do.
With a few weeks of training camp in the books and Week 1 of the preseason underway, we're tracking some developments with big-picture ramifications. Let's take the pulse of the league, Schein Nine style: Who has progressed, regressed and stayed the same?
1) Tennessee Titans
Marcus Mariota is back from the fractured fibula he suffered last December, and that's kind of everything. Mariota had put together a very strong -- efficient (26:9 TD-to-INT ratio) and clutch -- 2016 campaign before breaking his leg on Christmas Eve. The fact that he's fully practicing and all set to start the preseason opener is everything for the Titans. Mariota is going to enjoy a fantastic season in Year 3, which will allow the Titans to really break through.
Yes, I'm very high on this team -- the early stages of August have only boosted my bullishness.
Tennessee has a top-three offensive line, with stud tackles Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin leading the way. And no team has a more physically imposing 1-2 RB punch than the Titans: DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry absolutely punish defenses. Corey Davis' hamstring injury is a bummer, but he has time to get right. And the speed and hands he's displayed in practice make it clear why the Titans spent the fifth overall pick on the 6-foot-3 receiver. Davis is a legit No. 1 receiver, which makes tight end Delaine Walker and versatile wideout Rishard Matthews that much more valuable. Plus, Eric Decker's veteran presence -- and nose for the end zone -- will pay dividends.
The Titans' defense will be stout and well-coached under the great Dick LeBeau. Veteran pass rusher Brian Orakpo's fresh off a resurgent, Pro Bowl season; Jurrell Casey remains one of the more underrated defensive studs in football; and first-round pick Adoree' Jackson adds some juice to the secondary.
These Titans have the look of a playoff team. That's the expectation -- to return to the postseason for the first time since 2008.
2) Cleveland Browns
Jamie Collins remains a multi-talented chess piece who's squarely in his prime at age 27. And first-round pick Jabrill Peppers brings another versatile skill set to this defense. Meanwhile, two-time Pro Bowl CB Joe Haden's talking about being the healthiest he's been in years. First-year defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has a lot to work with here.
On the other side of the ball, quarterback Brock Osweiler suddenly seems rejuvenated. Could this be another case of Hue Jackson working wonders? We'll have to see how the preseason plays out. But DeShone Kizer has shown signs of being further along than we were led to believe in the pre-draft process. He'll definitely see game action this year -- the only question is when. After all, the Browns need to figure out if he's a long-term answer, because the 2018 NFL Draft seems like it's going to be loaded at the QB position. (Or could Jimmy Garoppolobe in play in free agency?) Personally, I like Kizer's upside. And whoever is playing quarterback will be helped by a rock-solid offensive line.
This team has talent. This team is interesting! Print the T-shirt now: "Browns football ... not that bad."
3) Minnesota Vikings' run game
Cook, whom the Vikings traded up to acquire in Round 2, has made quite an impression at training camp. Just ask head coach Mike Zimmer.
"The first thing the veteran players I've talked to about him say is, 'This guy gets it.' " Zimmer told The MMQB's Albert Breer last week. "He understands protections, he works hard, they see how he interacts in the locker room, and that's part of it. And then, when you have a special player -- like when we got [linebacker Anthony] Barr -- they say, 'Hey, man, this guy is different than other guys.' "
He is Offensive Rookie of the Year material and a major upgrade over what Minnesota had in the backfield last year.
4) Ty Montgomery
I've been a vocal critic of general manager Ted Thompson for not legitimately addressing the Packers' needs at running back, along the offensive line and all across the defense. The running back position, in particular, really bothered me this offseason. Green Bay could've (should've) drafted Dalvin Cook. Yes, I'm aware the Pack drafted three RBs on Day 3. But, as Mike Zimmer touched on just above, Cook is different. I at least would've signed a proven veteran like LeGarrette Blount.
But Montgomery is off to a great start in his first full season as an NFL running back. Mike McCarthy has raved about the 24-year-old all camp. Just look what he said to NFL Network's Tom Pelissero:
"He's the full threat. He can obviously run it, he can catch it, he can displace and run routes and catch it. He just needs the reps in pass protection, because he's actually really high in ability for pass protection. That guy's a stud now. He's got it in his body. He's a very good young player."
McCarthy isn't typically prone to hyperbole in camp, so this goes noted -- especially to someone like me, who's been skeptical about the converted receiver.
5) Baltimore Ravens
Joe Flacco can't practice with a back that just won't stop barking. And that's what back injuries do: linger. Quite nerve-wracking, especially when it's the back of your franchise quarterback. Ryan Mallett is currently the starter. And practice for the 29-year-old journeyman has reportedly been a pickfest, which hardly counts as a surprise, considering Mallett's mistake-prone career.
Baltimore's had a bad start to camp -- to say the least -- and unfortunately, I think it's a harbinger of things to come in the 2017 season.
6) Indianapolis Colts
It goes without saying, but ... under no circumstance should Indy rush Luck back. Of course, the Colts are irrelevant if Luck misses substantial time or isn't fully healthy.
Suddenly, that AFC Championship Game appearance in the 2014 campaign -- which seemed like the beginning of another special era in Indy -- feels like it was eons ago. Frank Gore certainly isn't happy with the way things have been going.
"I thought I was one of the missing pieces they needed to get them over the top," Gore said late last month, via CBS 4 in Indianapolis. "Coming in and what it was and going backwards, that's tough."
7) New York Jets
I think when you look at the Jets' schedule and roster in an objective manner, it's fair to believe the team will finish in the 0-2 win range. Forecasting an 0-16 season wouldn't qualify as a hot take. Not at all. The bold move would be projecting something like 4-12, given the dearth of talent in the depth chart. Just look at the receiver position. After cutting Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker loose, Gang Green received a death blow last week, with the season-ending injury to Quincy Enunwa. Rattling off names at the receiver position now is like when the diabolical owner's putting together a roster at the beginning of "Major League." This guy here is dead. ... Cross him off then.
And I haven't even talked about the quarterback position.
I think the Jets' strategy of breaking it down to build it back up is better than last season's approach. (Basically, apply a Band-Aid when you need surgery.) If they get a franchise quarterback in the 2018 NFL Draft, this awful year could end up being the best thing to happen to the Jets. But it's going to be quite a painful 2017.
8) Denver Broncos
I keep waiting for Paxton Lynch to dazzle and take a stranglehold of the Broncos' quarterback job. Instead, Trevor Siemian appears to have the upper hand, just like he did when he outstripped my expectations last year. Siemian gets the first go of it with the first team in the first preseason game. That's significant. It's also not good.
The Broncos need Paxton Lynch to live up to his first-round pedigree and show off the athleticism and arm that made the 6-foot-7, 244-pounder attractive to John Elway in the first place. When it comes to quarterback, the Broncos don't need solid -- they need some juice. Otherwise, 2017's going to be another playoff-free season in Denver, another waste of Von Miller and the best cornerback combination in the NFL.
9) Miami Dolphins
Truth be told, I think Jay Cutler is more of Adam Gase's guy than Ryan Tannehill. But I'll call it a push, based upon Cutler's brief retirement and the limited time he has to get on the same page with his new receivers. This is a fine fit, though, given the dire circumstance this team found itself in just a week ago.
Honestly, I think this is going to work out so well that Cutler will be the starting quarterback for the Dolphins for a few seasons. That's the power of Gase and the unique nature of the Gase-Cutler rapport. Cutler will equal the efficient year he enjoyed with Gase as his offensive coordinator in Chicago two years ago. In fact, I'm kinda tempted to put this up in the PROGRESSION section. Oh, well -- too late now.
Bottom line: Miami is exactly where it was before Tannehill's knee setback -- maybe even better off.