Hot or Not

NFL Hot or Not: Rookie running backs turning heads in camp

With 32 training camps in full swing, Marc Sessler dishes on what's hot -- and what's not -- in the NFL:

WHAT'S HOT

  • 2020 remains a cunning vampire, but a dose of normalcy approaches. After floating in stasis on a vague horizon, football -- real-life tackle football -- is in the atmosphere (masks still required). I'm suspicious of the product we'll witness out of the gate. Vexed rookies whipped into the fire and wacky flags galore as hamstrings pop to and fro. I'm convinced teams will lean basic early, with stables of runners and extra tight ends to prop up work-in-progress offensive lines. That would mean promising debuts for a handful of first-year backs already generating buzz.
  • Case in point: Clyde Edwards-Helaire, the Chiefs first-rounder gushed over by quarterback Patrick Mahomes as "playing fast" with "incredible vision" for a newbie. Fantasy Heads fanned themselves as ESPN's Louis Riddick advised in early August to make Edwards-Helaire the "first overall pick" in your draft. Venerable scribe Peter King whistled a similar tune after spending a week with Kansas City brass, saying of CEH: "Draft him in the first round of your fantasy draft. Believe me, you'll thank me for that tip on the LSU rookie." With Damien Williams opting out, the stars have aligned for Edwards-Helaire, chosen at the same No. 32 spot where Baltimore snagged Lamar Jackson in 2018. It only seems fair the Chiefs would acquire another weapon, right? I'm picturing the scene up Valhalla as Football God Stanley runs into the room. "Fellas!" he wails to the other football gods, busy smoking cigars, sipping Cognac and watching an old Belichick-Brady double feature from the Aughts. "I've just figured out how to make the Chiefs even more annoyingly unstoppable: We give 'em this Clyde Edwards-Helaire guy and have him blow up for 1,700 total yards and 13 scores! They're just chess pieces, fellas! We're in control!"
  • Fellow rookie Jonathan Taylor faces more competition in Indy, with Marlon Mack tabbed to start the opener in Jacksonville. Coach Frank Reich maintains creative freedom, though, dropping the ol' "ride the hot hand" line to explain how touches will distribute beyond Week 1. The Athletic's Stephen Holder noted Monday that Colts backs were "consistently getting to the second level" behind the NFL's nastiest O-line during a pads-on session of "legit physical play." This after the Colts tweeted out slo-mo clips of Taylor dancing through defenders to Tchaikovsky beats from The Nutcracker. Nothing short of gridiron erotica for humans based in Indiana:
  • On Monday's Around the NFL Podcast, we cited a handful of teams deserving more love. Dan Hanzus and I think the Steelers are sitting on a gold mine, Chris Wesseling pointed to the Colts and Gregg Rosenthal named the Eagles. Makes plenty of sense. Carved into pieces by injuries a year ago, Philly's offense returns with a healthy Carson Wentz and new juice at wide receiver. First-rounder Jalen Reagor was called "impressive" by head coach Doug Pederson and "explosive" by his quarterback. Reagor's 4.47 speed amps up an air attack that saw 196 catches go to tight ends Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert and running back Miles Sanders, while no receiver grabbed upwards of 43 lobs. Beyond Reagor, fellow rookie John Hightower is generating buzz as a potential starter, while sixth-rounder Quez Watkins (who runs a 4.35) should make an impact, too, after Marquise Goodwin opted out. They need Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson to stay in one piece -- and Sanders back on the field to face Washington in Week 1 -- but the Eagles resemble a new creation.
  • Arrow up on O.J. Howard, the Bucs tight end who fizzled under coach Bruce Arians a year ago to the tune of 34 catches and one measly score. Obsessives linger over Rob Gronkowski, but King came away from Bucs camp predicting Howard will lead the position in snaps. Meanwhile, longtime beat writer Rick Stroud offered this: "Nobody can cover him. His feet are moving better in the run game. His hands are not failing him in the pass game." Howard himself pointed to Tom Brady's impact after the 43-year-old passer noticed the tight end was losing speed on his routes while looking back for the ball. Brady asked Howard to "keep his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage, run as fast as he can and trust" the throw. Tracking passes made sense with Jameis Winston at the motherboard. With Brady at the wheel, Howard is back in business.
  • Shout out to fantasy analysts Kate and Michelle Magdziuk for their eternal devotion to Bills rookie runner Zack Moss. They're onto something, too, with the 5-foot-9 hammer "flying through blocks," unfurling "explosive" runs up the gut and leaving The Athletic's Matt Fairburn to wonder if the "impact Moss can have this season has been undersold." Nobody's thumbing their nose at Devin Singletary. These two backs form a tantalizing combo, with Singletary's exciting upside and Moss playing the role of a front door on wheels set to make mincemeat of lesser men.
  • Juggling a career with young children at home during CoronaTime: Not ideal. That report was due an hour ago, but now you've got a young tyke melting down after his soggy bowl of Cap'n Crunch toppled onto the living room carpet. It's easy to feel adrift, but NFL Network's Aditi Kinkhabwala is the fighter we need:

WHAT'S NOT

  • Based on data transmissions out of Cincy, Joe Burrow will find his way into the HOT section of this writing experiment sooner than later. "He really breathes life into this offense, into this team," said Bengals coach Zac Taylor. Less sexy: Burrow's offensive line, which features no player grading higher than 63 out of 100, according to Pro Football Focus. It helps to have tackle Jonah Williams back from last year's season-killing shoulder injury, but wayward line play equals poison for young passers (see: Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield).
  • The lifelong Browns fan within senses trouble ahead. First-time coach Kevin Stefanski has brought a sense of organization to a team lost at sea in 2019. Still, a suspect linebacker room was scattered after second-year starter Mack Wilson suffered a knee injury. Hope remains for his return, but Grant Delpit's season is over after the rookie safety went down with a torn Achilles on Monday. Delpit was thriving in camp and viewed as a critical piece at safety. Starting corner Greedy Williams is banged up, JC Tretter is nursing a knee, the playbook is entirely new and Cleveland flies to Baltimore in two-and-a-half weeks for a showdown with MVP Lamar Jackson and the agitated Ravens. I don't love it.

Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter @MarcSessler.

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