Skip to main content

Reporters' Notebook

Sam Darnold's arrival, OBJ's good start, Cowboys' new toy

With all 32 teams in the thick of training camp,'s network of reporters collects the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:

-- Odell Beckham's strong start.

-- One former first-round pick who might be ready to break through in Arizona.

-- Two new faces in Dallas making early waves.

But first, Judy Battista chronicles one high-profile rookie's highly anticipated arrival to training camp ...

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Teddy Bridgewater and Josh McCown joked about being the warm-up acts Wednesday -- "I only have three songs and one of them is a cover," McCown said -- and Sam Darnold, two days after he finally signed his rookie contract and reported to training camp, fully assumed his role as headliner of the New York Jets' quarterback room.

Todd Bowles, a Bill Parcells disciple, is loath to single out a rookie -- let alone one who reported late -- for praise.

"It's not too big for him," Bowles said. "He's still got to learn."

But the sense of delight and optimism surrounding the No. 3 overall pick has been obvious since the spring. Jets CEO Christopher Johnson joked that Bridgewater and McCown are happy Darnold is here because their arms are tired from splitting all the reps in the first days of practice, but then Johnson stated the obvious: That's not the only reason everybody is relieved Darnold has reported.

The 21-year-old USC product was uneven on Wednesday, looking smooth and on-target in a series of designed roll-outs, in which he notably had two hands on the football at all times, a point Darnold has worked on since pre-draft preparation began. But he threw an interception after his elbow was hit in 11-on-11 work, and he finished the session with eight completions on 16 passes. With the preseason opener vs. Atlanta still more than a week away, Bowles said he had no thoughts yet about what his quarterback rotation will be.

Darnold is being given every opportunity to win the starting job for the beginning of the regular season, although McCown is working with the first team for now.

"The competitor in me, yeah, I want to start," Darnold said.

That decision is a long way off, and it is a part of a series of determinations Jets officials will have to make about their quarterbacks. The organization loves McCown, who offered steadiness and surprisingly strong play last season and who is viewed as the ideal mentor for Darnold. Bridgewater, who appears to be moving well as he continues his recovery from a devastating knee injury he suffered two years ago, could be attractive to other teams if he performs well in the preseason, although the Jets could choose to keep all three signal-callers in what appears to be a convivial and cohesive quarterback room. Complicating the decision about the starter, the Jets play their first three games in the first 11 days of the regular season, with their fourth at the Jacksonville Jaguars, who boast one of the best defenses in the league. That would be a gauntlet for Darnold.

The rookie, though, is already approaching Year 1 like a veteran. He took the advice of Bridgewater and McCown, who told him to take occasional breaks from football before camp opened, to clear his mind. And while his agent and the team haggled over his contract last week, Darnold was holed up in a hotel that is within walking distance of the Jets' practice facility, watching film of each day's practice on an iPad and throwing passes at a local high school. He said he feels comfortable with the rudimentary parts of the offense, as the Jets installed most of the attack during offseason workouts and minicamps. While Darnold admits he has some catching up to do from the missed practice time, he said he was able to call plays in the huddle and run the offense.

And he was able to laugh off the sarcastic slow-clap greeting he got from his teammates when he jogged onto the field Monday moments after signing his contract and after the practice had already begun.

"That was awesome," Darnold said. "Not really expecting anything. It kind of put all this to the side. It made me feel comfortable. It made me feel part of the team."


ARIZONA CARDINALS: Third year the charm for a former top pick? We've been waiting two seasons for DT Robert Nkemdiche to live up to the athletic prowess that made him a first-round pick. Could this be the year?

Nkemdiche told me that he thinks so, in large part because of two things: 1) the switch to a 4-3 front and 2) a relationship he's built with new head coach Steve Wilks. Wilks echoed those sentiments.

In an even defensive front, Nkemdiche will be asked to penetrate his assigned gap and wreak havoc. The past two seasons, Nkemdiche was tasked with being more of a two-gap tackle, which entailed holding the point of attack to help others make plays. His failure to establish himself in that system made him a rotational player who wasn't consistently impactful.

Nkemdiche told me that the scheme change plays more to his skill set and his mindset.

On the issue of mindset, Nkemdiche is an eclectic young man. Wilks pointed out that he's worked with similar players in the past, like Josh Norman in Carolina. And Wilks said that by letting Nkemdiche be himself -- while being a tough yet positive coach -- they've formed a bond that each thinks has finally flipped the "on" switch in Nkemdiche's pro career.

* * * **

DALLAS COWBOYS: Two offseason additions making strong early impressions. Two players to watch during training camp who could help in areas of need: defensive tackle Jihad Ward, acquired in a trade with the Raiders for WR/KR Ryan Switzer, and rookie wide receiver Michael Gallup.

Gallup turned heads quickly -- well, after an offseason of work -- with his big-play ability. Executive vice president and director of player personnel Stephen Jones told me everyone is impressed with the third-round pick, and that once he becomes consistent learning the offense and dealing with the demands of the NFL, he could emerge as a key target.

As for Ward, who never established himself in two seasons with the Raiders after being picked in the second round, the Cowboys feel he is a perfect fit in Rod Marinelli's 4-3 front. He'll play the 3-technique with hopes that he can create some interior disruption. So far, he's shown well against a strong offensive line. Consistency will be important, but a member of the Cowboys' personnel office said that to this point, they think they've landed a potential impact player.

* * * **

DENVER BRONCOS: Endless search for a third receiver finally over?Broncos rookie WR Courtland Sutton has made at least one highlight-reel catch per day during his first NFL training camp. The second-round pick out of SMU, where he also spent some time on the basketball team, somehow plays even bigger than his 6-foot-3, 218-pound frame. Denver has been desperately trying to find a third pass catcher over the last few seasons, and it appears Sutton will be just that. Several veterans in the secondary have raved about him to me, with one stating, "He's the third receiver. It's already locked in. Everyone knows it." Case Keenum found Sutton in the corner of the end zone on a contested jump ball with four seconds left in an end-of-game period of practice Tuesday. Sutton was a full head and shoulders above rookie CB Isaac Yiadom. It was easily the play of the day.

"He's a big body with great ball skills," Vance Joseph said after Tuesday's practice. "He has strong hands, so even when the ball is contested, he can win. Obviously, you see what he can do."

Sutton told me after Tuesday's practice that building trust with Keenum is what he's trying to accomplish during training camp: "If Case trusts me and looks over and throws the ball, I got to build that confidence and trust-level with him so that any time he's in that situation, he can find 14."

* * * **

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Better run defense this season? It's no secret that the Kansas City Chiefs desperately want to improve a run defense that ranked 25th in the NFL last year. Even with inside linebacker Reggie Ragland currently sidelined with a sore knee, the team is encouraged by the potential of free-agent inside linebacker Anthony Hitchens and rookies like outside linebacker Breeland Speaks and defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi.

"Most people think (stopping the run) starts up front," Hitchens said. "In my mind, it starts everywhere, it's all 11. It starts everywhere. If one guy moves out of his lane or his assignment, it can gash you. For me, it takes 11 guys to stop the run. That's what we're working on right now."

* * * **

MINNESOTA VIKINGS: Rich getting richer with instant-impact rookie class?Vikings coach Mike Zimmer is never in a rush to put rookies on the field. But top draft pick Mike Hughes has already put himself in the mix.

Hughes, the No. 30 overall pick out of Central Florida, continued to be around the ball in the first two full-squad practices I saw this past weekend -- something he was doing all spring, too. The Vikings are training Hughes at nickelback, which he almost never played in college. As one team official pointed out to me, that can be a difficult position to learn, and Hughes has shown an impressive football IQ by taking to it so quickly.

Can Hughes take away snaps from Mackensie Alexander in a deep corner group led by Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes? That remains to be seen. But the Vikings are looking for ways to get Hughes on the field -- including on kick returns, where special teams coordinator Mike Priefer says he's the front-runner.

Keep an eye on second-round OT Brian O'Neill in the preseason, too. The Pitt product put on weight before training camp, reporting at over 300 pounds, and the Vikings are interested to see him in pads to figure out if he can push Rashod Hill at right tackle.

Another position where rookies could factor in: running back. The Vikings have Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray -- and you'd never know Cook is coming off a torn ACL -- but they lost dual-threat back Jerick McKinnon in free agency. A couple of undrafted guys, Mike Boone (out of Cincinnati) and Roc Thomas (Jacksonville State), will have an opportunity to take over that third down-type role. Zimmer brought up Boone's name to me in June as one of the rookies who had impressed him in the spring.

* * * **

NEW YORK GIANTS: Good start to camp for OBJ. The Odell Beckham contract-watch rolled on Thursday, with Beckham's agent watching Giants practice. Beckham has not spoken to the media since training camp opened, but last week, team president John Mara said he expects contract talks to begin in earnest soon. Beckham's appearance at camp is significant, and the Giants have noted his gesture of good faith.

Beckham also looks entirely healed from the ankle injury that ended his 2017 season after four games. During Thursday's practice, Beckham easily cut and stutter-stepped while running routes. And he remains a huge fan favorite -- when he caught a touchdown pass from Eli Manning, the crowd roared, and later, when fans screamed his name, Beckham pumped his fist at them. The Giants are being judicious in how much they use Beckham and others, but head coach Pat Shurmur is pleased with what he has seen.

"He's doing what we expect him to do," Shurmur said. "He's right on track. I think he's very engaged, he's very energetic, he's practicing very well."

In other Giants news, game officials will spend three days at the team's training camp and, as it has been elsewhere, the focus will be educating players and coaches about the two significant rules changes for this season -- the new rule barring contact initiated with the helmet and the revised kickoff rule.

The helmet rule, in particular, has generated conversation since it was announced at the March league meeting. It prohibits a player from using his helmet to initiate contact with an opponent anywhere on the field.

Shurmur said that officials will show videos to players and coaches about how they want plays to look and what will be considered a foul. And he said the Giants will show the officials their own video, with questions that coaches have about how to teach for the new rules.

"It's a chance for them to give us a crash course," Shurmur said.

* * * **

OAKLAND RAIDERS: Rookies could bookend O-line. While the biggest story looming in Raiders camp is defensive end Khalil Mack's holdout in a contract dispute, there are other situations brewing that could make Jon Gruden's return to the Silver and Black very interesting -- especially since they're being stirred by the coach himself.

Left tackle Donald Penn is on the PUP list while recovering from foot surgery. Starting in his place is first-round pick Kolton Miller. The UCLA product was selected to be Penn's eventual replacement, with Miller projected to play at right tackle this season before transitioning to the blind side. That process might be accelerated.

A Raiders coach I spoke with said that Miller is competing for the starting left tackle job now and will be when Penn returns. While Miller is a rookie and protecting Derek Carr is priority No. 1, the coaching staff is willing to let Miller go through some growing pains because it feels the positives will overwhelmingly outweigh the negatives.

Rookie Brandon Parker, a third-round pick, is getting a lot of work at right tackle, and coaches are high on him, as well. Could the Raiders go with two rookies at tackle? That would seem risky, but don't rule it out. Gruden is serious about this competition thing -- if both players can produce and improve on the job, this is a possibility.

* * * **

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: The reigning champs' driving force in 2018. Finding the motivation to repeat in 2018 has been easy for the Eagles. At least it has been so far, according to head coach Doug Pederson. I had a chance to chat with Pederson after practice on Sunday, and he told me the motivation comes from Carson Wentz and the other star players on the team who suffered season-ending injuries and were spectators watching the Super Bowl run from the training room. The underdog label the Eagles ran with in the playoffs last season was created because of the losses of these players.

Jason Peters (ACL) is still one of the best OTs in the game, Jordan Hicks (Achilles) is a playmaking linebacker, Chris Maragos (ACL) is Philly's best special teams player, Darren Sproles (ACL) is back as an offensive weapon and, obviously, Wentz (ACL) proved last year he's an MVP-caliber player.

"They're all back, and they're all pushing the team to get back to the Super Bowl, because they missed it," Pederson told me.

Sproles, at 35 years old, still looks as young and quick as ever. I asked Zach Ertz if Sproles ever ages.

"No," the Pro Bowl tight end replied. "He's Benjamin Button."

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.