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NFL training camp winners/losers: Seven rookies creating a buzz

The first objective of July football is to avoid any actions that harm September football. The Cincinnati Bengals unfortunately didn't last one practice before bad luck struck their best player once again.

A.J. Green's ankle injury was the biggest downer in a week that had its share of bad news for veteran standouts like Taylor Lewanand Golden Tate. Green will get a second opinion on his ankle, according to NFL Network's Tom Pelissero, but a "best-case scenario" (via Pelissero and NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport) involves Green returning in 7-8 weeks, putting his Week 1 availability in doubt. That is, unless you read the Bengals' official website, which suggested four weeks as a potential return date. (UPDATE: On Tuesday afternoon, Rapoport reported that Green underwent surgery on his ankle and is now expected to miss multiple regular-season games.)

This is a situation to monitor for a variety of reasons, including Green's status entering the final year of his contract. The Bengals rewarded Green's sidekick, Tyler Boyd, with a big extension last week, and it's worth wondering if they will be willing to pay Green his market value after a string of injuries since 2015. The Bengals aren't known for blockbuster transactions, but there's a reasonable scenario in which Green becomes one of the best available NFL trade deadline chips in a long time.

That could be months away. The rest of the winners and losers from the first week of training camp are related more to injury news, contracts, depth-chart moves and suspensions than early "he looked good in padless practice" reports, although I'm allowing one section for cautious rookie hype. Let's go:

On the upswing

Matt Patricia, head coach, Detroit Lions: In need of something, anything that defines the Detroit Lions, Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn have built a formidable defensive line. The Lions aggressively courted Mike Daniels after his surprise release by the Packers, foiling Patricia's former boss, Bill Belichick, in the process. The Lions now can rotate Daniels, Trey Flowers, Da'Shawn Hand, Damon Harrison and A'Shawn Robinson on a beefy, versatile front line. Daniels even credited Patricia's "genius" as the biggest reason why he signed with Detroit, although the $7.8 million guaranteed and probable raise from his previous Packers salary likely played a bigger role.

Derrius Guice, running back, Washington Redskins: Guice's availability for the start of training camp was a pleasant surprise as he works his way back from ACL surgery. That alone put him on the borderline of making this list, but his spirited rant about being called injury-prone puts him over the top:

Trey Quinn, wide receiver, Washington Redskins:Coach Jay Gruden confirmed that Quinn, the former Mr. Irrelevant, had the Redskins' slot receiver job locked down. The outside positions, where Josh Doctson, Paul Richardson and rookie Terry McLaurin are all competing, remains less certain.

On-time rookie signings: It's anyone's guess what the next collective bargaining agreement will look like, but there's no denying the current one limits rookie holdouts. That has been especially true this year, after the Jets' Quinnen Williams missed only one day of full practice and Nick became the first member of the Bosa family not to withhold his services in camp. The drastic reduction in rookie pay and its paint-by-numbers slotting re-shaped NFL spending back in 2011, with star veterans getting a bigger share of the pie while some "middle class" veterans lost jobs to players on the affordable rookie contracts that account for a huge percentage of every roster. It will be interesting to see if the NFL Players Association is comfortable continuing that dynamic on the next CBA or if DeMaurice Smith and Co. fight for any adjustments to the rookie contract system, possibly with shorter deals.

Les Snead, general manager, Los Angeles Rams: Early in 2017, Snead's future in Los Angeles was very much up in the air. It was unclear how much say he'd have in hiring a new coach and whether that new coach could even choose to look elsewhere for a front-office partner. Fast-forward 30 months, and Snead received a contract extension through 2023 this week, alongside coach Sean McVay's deal. Credit the Rams for believing this partnership can work, and credit Snead for adapting so seamlessly to the McVay era. St. Louis Rams fans don't want to hear it, but this is one of the smoothest-running organizations in football.

Kalen Ballage, running back, Miami Dolphins: The first few days of every training camp usually come with a few, "Wait, he's taking starter reps?" stories. Ballage, a second-year RB, has consistently played in front of fourth-year speedster Kenyan Drake in early practices, with Drake looking more like a passing-down back. It shouldn't be a huge shock if the Dolphins spread the ball around. Drake is a dynamic talent but has never topped 200 touches in a season, going back to his Alabama days. That's unlikely to change this season, no matter what uniform he's wearing. Drake would make a lot of sense as a trade option for a Dolphins franchise looking to build draft capital.

Maurice Harris, wide receiver, New England Patriots: File the following under sentences I never expected to write: Maurice Harris has been talked up as the best receiver in New England's camp by nearly every Patriots beat writer, with Greg Bedard of Boston Sports Journal saying it's by a "good margin." That doesn't bode well for the strength of the group as a whole, but it's not too early to expect Harris, the undrafted former Redskins receiver, to have a role on Sundays in the autumn.

Kerryon Johnson fantasy owners: When the Lionsreleased Theo Riddick over the weekend, it made it more obvious than ever that Johnson could be the best three-down bargain going in fantasy drafts. His ability to run between the tackles and catch passes sets him apart.

Baltimore Ravens practice entertainment value: After spending last Thursday at Ravens practice, I propose a game for any fan showing up to Owings Mills in the next few weeks: Count how many formations the Ravens show in a given practice. Better yet: Try to find consecutive plays where they line up in the same formation at all. The dizzying variety in coordinator Greg Roman's running game -- and the passing-game options that emerge from it -- has new Ravens lead back Mark Ingram fired up.

"The numerous looks, different entries out of the looks, it's an amazing thing to see as a running back, from my perspective, just how many different runs you can get to and make them look different out of the formations, or how you enter and have the footwork with the quarterback and running back. It's special," Ingram said last week. "The different looks he can give you -- you think something's coming, but something totally different is coming."

The Ravens' approach this season is going to look different than nearly every other team, making it a fun weekly watch for the O-line/run-game nerds among us.

Bobby Wagner, linebacker, Seattle Seahawks: Wagner negotiated the three-year, $54 million extension that will keep him as a centerpiece in Seattle for years to come. With K.J. Wright and Mychal Kendricks alongside the five-time Pro Bowler, the linebacker group figures to be the strength of a Seahawks defense in transition.

Seven rookies worthy of early noise

1) Miles Boykin, wide receiver, Baltimore Ravens: It may be early to compare Boykin to Michael Thomas, but the third-round pick out of Notre Dame is making waves early in Ravens camp. With Marquise Brown still injured and a motley crew of cast-offs and youngsters competing for snaps, Boykin has every chance to be a Week 1 starter. Boykin physically profiles as a No. 1 type of receiver, and he appears to be adapting to the pro game quickly.

2) Rock Ya-Sin, cornerback, Indianapolis Colts: Ya-Sin's already receiving first-team reps on the outside in the team's nickel package. The second-round cornerback has consistently made plays in Colts practice since they drafted him. Suddenly, that Colts secondary looks rather deep.

3) D.K. Metcalf, wide receiver, Seattle Seahawks: The 'Hawks aren't wasting any time putting the second-rounder in two-receiver sets alongside Tyler Lockett. Time will tell if Metcalf can handle the opportunity, but he will be a key player to watch throughout the preseason.

4) Devin Singletary, running back, Buffalo Bills: If T.J. Yeldon is truly the odd man out in the Bills' running back competition, it will probably be because the third-round pick impresses. Singletary's already getting work with the starters.

5) Dexter Lawrence, defensive lineman, New York Giants: The behemoth first-round pick, listed at 6-foot-4 and 342 pounds, has been lining up as the starting 3-4 defensive end early in camp. If he has the requisite quickness, that could present some unique matchup challenges.

6) KeeSean Johnson, wide receiver, Arizona Cardinals: There have been some whispers in Arizona as to whether rookies Andy Isabella and Hakeem Butler are truly ready to make an early impact. That's why the positive buzz around this sixth-round pick is notable. Johnson, not Isabella or Butler, is the only rookie already seeing some first-team reps for a squad that wants to play four wideouts consistently.

7) Kyler Murray, quarterback, Arizona Cardinals:Cardinals fans should not feel guilty about the giddiness that these Larry Fitzgerald quotes on Murray inspire:

"I've never seen a quarterback come in so quickly and be able to command an offense," Fitzgerald told Kurt Warner on "Inside Training Camp Live" Sunday. "I mean, from Day 1, he's out there checking the different plays, sliding the line, different protections, getting us in screens when blitzes are coming. His understanding of the offense is crazy."

Trending down

New York Giants' receiving corps: I thought that the consternation about the Giants' receiver group was overstated entering training camp, as the team had enough competent pass catchers. The key words in the previous sentence: entering training camp. Sterling Shepard's thumb injury is a frustrating start to a crucial season for the team's presumptive No. 1 receiver. Golden Tate's four-game suspension for PEDs thins out the Giants' offense to open the season, pending his appeal. And Corey Coleman's torn ACL removes the favorite for the No. 3 receiver job, although I don't expect any wideout in that role to produce big numbers for Big Blue in 2019.

Perhaps Tate's appeal overturns his suspension, Shepard is ready to go for Week 1 and these stories dissolve like so many other late-July headlines. In the meantime, it's getting hard to shake the black cloud that's been hanging over this franchise after four double-digit-loss seasons in five years.

Seattle Seahawks' defensive line:Jarran Reed's six-game suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy looms large, with the Steelers, Saints and Rams all coming early on the Seattle docket. Reed is the best player on a remodeled line full of question marks, with first-round pick L.J. Collier, free-agent pickup Ziggy Ansah and youngsters Rasheem Green, Quinton Jefferson and Jacob Martin all having the opportunity to step up. This group is a long way from the Cliff Avril-Michael Bennett heyday of pass rushing in Seattle.

Ezekiel Elliott's chances of a new contract: NFL Network's crack Cowboys reporter Jane Slater should settle in and get comfortable making the daily "Zeke still isn't here" updates. There's little reason to believe the Cowboys will offer him a contract he'd accept anytime soon.

The Cowboys have made it clear Dak Prescott is their first priority, and a new contract for the quarterback could arrive in August. Executive vice president Stephen Jones said that Amari Cooper, on the last year of his deal, will get taken care of "for sure." Elliott has two years left on his contract, and any extension is complicated by the position he plays and the domestic violence suspension he was given. It's hard to imagine Elliott taking his holdout into the regular season, but there's no particular reason to believe we'll see him in short order.

The guy who heckles at training camp: It's tough to call anyone a "loser" at this time of year, but it's safe to break out the L-word for the dude at Ravens camp last week yelling things like "Where are you throwing the ball?" at Lamar Jackson during practice. Life is too short to heckle in July, even if you have a miserable home life.

(In fairness, that guy was the exception at a Ravens practice that included more clapping and chanting than any camp practice I've ever been to.)

Tennessee Titans' offensive line:Pro Bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan is expected to miss the first four games of the season after apparently failing a drug test for a banned substance. Right tackle Jack Conklin, who was not able to practice much this offseason, is trying to prove he's all the way back from the ACL surgery that has changed the shape of his career. The Titans' offensive line -- starting with their tackles -- was supposed to be the identity of this franchise. But the group performed at a mediocre level overall last year, and Lewan's absence is only going to make the start of this season tougher.

Washington Redskins' left tackle situation: Let's just say it's not a positive development when the organization is forced to issue denials to a report that their relationship with Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams is fractured beyond repair. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reports there is "no end in sight" to Williams' holdout, which has resulted in Ereck Flowers trying to protect rookie Dwayne Haskins' blind side during practice. That's not fair to anyone involved.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.


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