With the preseason in full swing and the 2017 regular season fast approaching, NFL.com's network of reporters gets you up to speed with the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:
OXNARD, Calif. -- Late Monday afternoon, Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott was one of the last players to walk down a long alley that leads to the team's practice field. The NFL's leading rusher from a year ago proceeded onto the field walking between two large groups of fans as they chanted repeatedly, "Free Zeke."
This was the Cowboys' first practice since last Friday, when the NFL handed down a six-game suspension to Elliott for violating the league's personal conduct policy, the culmination of an investigation by the NFL into domestic violence accusations made against him by a woman identifying herself as his former girlfriend. Head coach Jason Garrett obviously addressed the situation with his entire team after the ruling came down. But the suspension was also then discussed between Elliott and the players that would be directly filling his place if the suspension is upheld. Elliott, who has denied the accusations, filed his appeal on Tuesday.
Veteran running back Alfred Morris told me they briefly tackled the elephant in the room as a position group in their meeting room, put it all on the table and haven't talked about it since. The other backs know they have to step up and fill the void left by one of the best in the NFL and feel prepared for the challenge that lies ahead. After all, the top two replacements -- Morris and Darren McFadden -- are veterans who both have multiple 1,000-yard seasons under their belts.
I'm told Elliott has just been going about his business and waiting to see what transpires as the process plays out. It's really the only thing he can do. Quarterback Dak Prescott said Elliott hasn't shown any level of frustration and has continued to display "positive energy." He added that "he's been the same Zeke" since the suspension.
But what will or could change for the Cowboys with Elliott out of the picture for any length of time? It could be a lot. It could be very little. Prescott listed the possible effects himself on Tuesday.
"A huge impact," Prescott said about the loss of Elliott on a podium behind the end zone of the practice field. "I mean, obviously, his ability to run the ball. And as you said, making the defense load the box and giving us one-on-one on the outside. Not only that, but keeping our defense off the field and keeping their defense on the field for a long time."
Prescott finished in saying it's not just Elliott, but the offensive line and the wide receivers that create their offensive formula. But if Prescott is aware of all of those effects and can easily run down a list of them, there has to be some concern. And what, if anything, changes for Prescott without the threat of Elliott on the field? We'll get to that, but first, let's look at Elliott's replacements.
Yes, Dallas has the best offensive line in football. After missing a few practices and the first preseason game -- one he probably wouldn't have played in anyway -- with a back issue, left tackle Tyron Smithreturned to the practice field this week. That was key for a group that needs to stay healthy and dominant while Elliott is unavailable. The group now has added pressure to carry more of the load, and as right tackle La'el Collins said this week, they're aware of it.
Elliott's suspension currently sits at six games, and since Dallas' bye week falls on Week 6, Elliott wouldn't be able to return until Oct. 29 against Washington in Week 8. Compounding the problem is the fact that the Cowboys' first four games (vs. Giants, at Broncos, at Cardinals, vs. Rams) are against teams that finished with top-10 defenses last season.
So let's assume the line does its job. We could see the team turn to a running back committee when it comes to filling Elliott's production. Most likely, the bulk of the work will be handled by McFadden and then, after him, Morris.
As Morris said this week, "One of the cliché sayings in this league is, 'You're always one play away from being a starter.' "
You could say one suspension away, in this case.
In 2015, when the Cowboys finished 4-12, McFadden did finish fourth in the NFL in rushing behind this line. And as Garrett reminded everyone this week, McFadden did it despite not becoming the featured back until the sixth game of that season. The former first-round pick feels he can do anything this team asks him to do and physically feels great after missing 13 games with an elbow injury last season. But McFadden is in his 10th NFL season, a territory where production can be questionable from a running back.
Morris reached 1,000 yards in three of his four seasons in Washington before coming to the Cowboys as a free agent in 2016. Even with his track record of being durable, he changed his training and diet this offseason. Morris also now understands the offense much better than last year, and he feels he's playing much faster, because he isn't thinking nearly as much. But after posting 13 touchdowns his rookie season, Morris has 18 scores in the last four years combined, and he carried the ball just 69 times for 243 yards last season.
With all of that said, Collins told me you can't make up for the loss of Elliott, because of his "presence in the backfield and what he does to defenses." It's no secret Elliott is a player opposing defensive coordinators scheme against all week, someone defenses are aware of on every single play on Sundays. Will that attention throughout the week and on game days be as intense with McFadden or Morris carrying the ball? Probably not.
That leads to this question: Will Prescott see looks from defenses that he didn't see last year when Elliott was lined up behind him? Most likely, things will get harder for him in terms of what defenses throw at him. NFL Media analyst Bucky Brooks pointed out exactly the effect Elliott has on defenses after I tweeted what Collins said about his running back.
Last season, Prescott completed 72.6 percent of his passes when Elliott was on the field and just 60.1 percent when he wasn't. Prescott's passer rating also dropped from 112.7 to 92.6 without Elliott. Another element that has been tossed around: Perhaps Prescott can use his legs more often during the time Elliott is out. He used his legs in college at Mississippi State and is a more-than-capable runner.
"I'll leave that up to the coaches," Prescott said when asked. "That's not necessarily in my hands, to create more plans for me running. But if I had to guess, I would say I wouldn't think so. Just in the fashion I said, we have the running backs that have done it in the league for a long time, so it's not a panic here."
The assumption would be that Prescott has the ability, and when things break down, he can use his legs to his advantage when he chooses. But it doesn't appear likely the coaching staff is going to design plays for him to simply run. The last thing the Cowboys need while Elliott is out is an injured Prescott -- especially when there's no Tony Romo to come riding in on a white horse to replace him.
Prescott has shown that every time something has been thrown at him during his short time in Dallas, he's adjusted to it and found a way to succeed. It would not be surprising to see him step up and take on more of the offensive responsibility without Elliott, whether anyone will openly talk about it having to happen or not.
Throughout camp, receiver Dez Bryant and Prescott have been on the same page. But will Bryant see defenses shift extra help his way with Elliott out of the picture, thus negating the need to add another body to the box? Possibly. Then the onus falls on the other receivers on the roster to become bigger playmakers. But no one on the Cowboys' roster, and few across the league, can do what Bryant does. So finding a way to continue to create opportunities for Bryant would have to become more of a priority, even if it becomes more difficult -- though not impossible -- to do with Elliott suspended.
There are few backs in the league who can do what Elliott does. Will the Cowboys miss him for however many games he misses? Of course. But their success during his absence may hinge on their ability to adjust offensively to the adjustments opponents make defensively. That could define the opening stretch of the season for Prescott and the Cowboys.
NOTES FROM AROUND THE REST OF THE LEAGUE
Tight end Adam Shaheen -- a somewhat-surprising second-round pick out of Division II Ashland -- was drafted for his receiving ability, but he's blocked better than expected so far in camp. Shaheen (6-foot-6, 270 pounds) looks a little like Kansas City Chiefs star Travis Kelce in pads; whether he can develop into that type of all-around threat obviously remains to be seen.
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DETROIT LIONS: Eric Ebron catching on. Tight end Eric Ebron surely has heard plenty about how the Lions chose him 10th overall in the 2014 NFL Draft -- two spots before the New York Giants selected star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. But the Lions feel good about how Ebron has grown in their offense. His production has increased each season -- he had 25 receptions as a rookie, then 47 and 61 in the following years -- and Lions head coach Jim Caldwell expects to see more positives this fall.
"I want to see steady improvement," Caldwell said. "He almost doubled his output from his first to second year. He nearly did the same from his second to third. Now that he's going from his third to fourth year, we don't want to see a decline. He's obviously not going to double his output, because he's not catching 120 balls in an offense where we spread the ball around. But you'll see him be more explosive."
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They signed two players who can set the edge in Jabaal Sheard and John Simon. Fellow free-agent signees Johnathan Hankins and Al Woods have shown up well inside so far. Early returns also have been good on a couple of draft picks added to the defensive front: edge player Tarell Basham (third round, out of Ohio) and defensive tackle Grover Stewart (fourth round, out of Albany State).
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LOS ANGELES CHARGERS: Fight on. Almost as soon as the Chargers announced their move to Los Angeles, they unveiled a slogan -- "Fight For L.A." -- that seemed, at least partially, to challenge the Rams' sales and marketing teams to openly compete for the loyalty of Angelenos. Last week, during the second of two joint practices between the Chargers and Rams, that "fight" was on the field, in a literal sense, with players coming to blows three times.
Both teams said that they'd avoid these skirmishes during games -- the penalties and risk of ejections are not worth the hostilities -- but Gordon did tell me, at this stage of training camp, an intense, adrenaline-filled practice can help with team-building.
"Your brother's going to war, you have to be there to back him up," Gordon said, "You can't be afraid, you can't be scared. Sometimes you've got to get in there, even if it's not your character."
"I love it when it's sparking like that," Johnson told me.
First-time head coaches Anthony Lynn (Chargers) and Sean McVay (Rams) each told me they never seriously considered cancelling practice, instead teaching their teams to play with composure once feathers have been ruffled.
"We can't have this happen during the game, and if we're able to maintain our poise, then that's what will keep us out of bad situations that occur," McVay said, "as a result of keeping that composure during those crunch-time situations."
The "Fight for L.A." continues Aug. 26 at the L.A. Coliseum, when the Rams host the Chargers for each team's third preseason game.
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MINNESOTA VIKINGS: Rookies on a roll. The Vikings gave their rookies 347 snaps on offense and defense last season, the fewest of any team in the NFL. Look for that to change in 2017, and not just because this year's top pick, running back Dalvin Cook (Round 2, No. 41 overall), appears primed for immediate impact.
When I asked Vikings coach Mike Zimmer this week what has him excited about this team, he mentioned Cook ("At times, when he has some space to run in, it's like, 'This guy's different,' " Zimmer told me) as well as three other rookies: offensive linemen Pat Elflein (drafted in the third round) and Danny Isidora (fifth) and linebacker Ben Gedeon (fourth).
Elflein figures to start at center, though he has been working at guard while veteran Alex Boone rests a knee. Gedeon has been getting first-team reps at weak-side linebacker. And Isidora has impressed since rookie camp, to the point he's pushing for a shot to start at guard, too.
As for last year's rookies, top pick Laquon Treadwell (Round 1, No. 23 overall) -- who played just 80 offensive snaps over nine games and had one catch as a rookie -- was having a good offseason before suffering a hamstring strain a couple of weeks ago, Zimmer said. He returned to team drills Tuesday.
On Tuesday, Bridgewater went through an extensive workout on a side field -- doing different types of pocket movement, dropbacks, rollouts and throws -- without a brace on the left knee he dislocated nearly one year ago.
It's highly likely Bridgewater will open the season on the physically unable to perform list. But could he be available at some point in 2017?
"I really couldn't tell you. I'm hopeful that he is," Zimmer told me. "The kid's working his rear end off. But I don't know if it's three weeks from now or a year from now. He has to finish this last little jump that he's got to go. I've asked the same question you have to the trainers, to doctors -- it's really the same answer. No one is for sure."
What is that last jump?
"It's being able to play the game athletically," Zimmer said. "I'm sure if we were throwing 7-on-7, he could do it all day long. But it's not playing the game. So ... the doctors and the medical people are not going to put him on the field until he can be able to go out there, protect himself and do all the things that he needs to do."
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OAKLAND RAIDERS: Karl Joseph ready to star in the secondary. Second-year safety Karl Joseph has made a huge jump and, according to one assistant coach, is poised to have a breakout season. He continues to find himself around the ball and in position to make plays in the pass and run games, but his command of the defense and overall comfort level have impressed.
Joseph told me that one of the key scheme changes has been the move to play him and fellow starter Reggie Nelson as right and left safeties instead of strong and free. That allows the Raiders to disguise packages and simplifies some of the varied duties that they've been asked to execute, Joseph said.
"That's key for us," Joseph said. "Last year, when I came down, teams knew I was mainly in position to help with the run, and they would adjust. It was easier for them to diagnose. Not now."
Veteran Sean Smith appears to have lost his starting left cornerback job to T.J. Carrie. Smith struggled last season, and one coach said his sense of urgency has not been consistent thus far. Smith is working in nickel packages, but the one-time big free-agent acquisition appears to be diminished. Smith had some issues in the preseason opener, but one coach said he is being asked to learn some new roles and is going through some natural adjustment issues.
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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: Thomas Rawls coming into his own. We know the Seahawks' defense is stacked, but so is their running back group. Much of the offseason discussion has been about tailback Thomas Rawls battling Eddie Lacy for the starting job. When I asked a team official about how that competition is going, the conversation centered almost exclusively on Rawls. Plagued by leg injuries early in his career, Rawls is now healthy -- and it's showing, according to the team official. More importantly, Rawls had to deal with some familial issues last season, and the native of Flint, Michigan also got involved in some civic issues in his hometown, including the fight to address Flint's water crisis.
Rawls is managing the off-field issues much better. Combined with his health, he has been outstanding thus far, the source said. Rawls started the team's preseason opener vs. the Chargers, with Lacy being the No. 2.
C.J. Prosise is third, but rookie Chris Carson has also drawn positive reviews from coaches and others with the team. The 6-0, 218-pounder from Oklahoma State is the hard-driving, zone-scheme-style runner the Seahawks prefer, and he could end up not just providing depth, but getting some valuable reps.
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TENNESSEE TITANS: Holding steady on offense. It's a popular notion that the Tennessee Titans are gearing up to be more wide-open this year. After boasting the NFL's third-best rushing attack in 2016, they used the fifth overall selection in the draft on explosive wide receiver Corey Davis and also signed free agent wide receiver Eric Decker in June. However, that doesn't mean this team is ready to have third-year quarterback Marcus Mariota flinging the ball all over the field.
The offense "ain't changing," said Titans head coach Mike Mularkey. "If you go back and look at this offense -- and you take third downs and two-minute situations out -- it's about 50-50 run-pass. ... So you have to be careful what you think. We're going to do what we have to do to win on Sundays."