Early in my years covering the NFL, some executive or coach used the phrase “it takes time to turn a battleship” when describing his team. For the life of me, I can’t remember who it was, yet that expression never resonates with me more than a training camp stop where you know it’s going to be a long season ahead for that team.
Sometimes these kinds of teams are purposely scheduled for visits in order to see what the ground floor construction looks like. Other times you show up and suddenly realize that a team has much further to go than previously thought. This year’s camp tour had both, so I went back to my notes and settled on four teams that are in for a long season. Three of them are the types you’d expect to show up on this list. One surprised me.
All of them deserved a brief look back that adds to what I wrote when I passed through over the past month.
With that in mind, four teams that struck me as having a lot of work ahead:
Thoughts when I went through …
On offense: I was surprised at how I felt coming out of this camp. I’m reticent to buy into Sean Payton instantly transforming some of the problems by playing veterans deep into preseason games and laying down the law at every turn. Denver might be more disciplined and organized where it needed it most (on offense), but something still feels off. Maybe I overestimated Payton’s hiring as being the finger-snap that would instantly turn the Broncos around.
One thing that bothered me when I first watched practice was seeing Greg Dulcich being used as a sort of special package player. Initially it felt like a head-scratcher given the mismatches Dulcich’s speed and athleticism can create. But then I saw some of the Broncos' early blocking issues and it became more clear why Adam Trautman is the first-team tight end. Maybe I’m overthinking it, but the Broncos having protection problems again — and it might be just a camp thing — has me applying the brakes a bit.
I don’t think Wilson wants to get hit at this stage of his career. He’s going to need an upper-tier line performance for this to be a potential playoff team. And I wouldn’t count on that unit until the linemen prove it with a few months of consistency.
On defense: I am less concerned.
This should be a really good unit. If you believe what the staff is selling, rookie linebacker Drew Sanders is going to do some big things this season. His skills are exciting and clearly the Broncos have plans down the line to move him around in ways that opponents might not expect. Don’t be surprised if there are some designed packages that pop up aiming to utilize him in the pass rush with Frank Clark and Randy Gregory. When Baron Browning comes back from knee surgery, Denver could have a hellacious pass rush with that quartet.
It will also be heavily leveraged on things going right — with the balky knees of Gregory and Browning holding up; Clark staying away from soft tissue injuries; and Sanders coming along quickly in the scheme. If that materializes, the Broncos are going to have a defense that will wreak some havoc.
A bit more: The sledgehammer comments Payton made about former Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett early in camp raised a lot of eyebrows across the league, but the tactics and timing made a lot of sense. His team was basically a captive audience at that point in camp, and there was no way anyone in the building would miss the message. Payton had been asked about Hackett a million times before USA Today got to him. What he ultimately did felt very intentional. But the thing that blew the minds of Payton’s friends across the league was when his criticism extended so far inside the building with individuals he continues to work with on a daily basis. To those who know Payton well, it stood as a good reminder that Denver is not New Orleans and that Payton is going to have to learn that or basically change the culture himself by running over people. Which he might end up doing. With the Saints, Payton could light up practically anyone he wanted in the organization and nobody would blink. He’s not there yet in Denver.
Thoughts when I went through …
On offense: There’s going to be a lot of measuring and cutting in store for the Cardinals, even with a significant portion of the 2022 roster already gone. Quarterback Kyler Murray is working from a clean slate with new head coach Jonathan Gannon and general manager Monti Ossenfort, and we’ll see what kind of on-field impression he can make at some point this season. But there are already some interesting things happening on offense without him.
The staff was really excited about the early strides of rookie quarterback Clayton Tune, who was processing well and looking comfortable enough to possibly push for starting consideration in Murray’s absence. If that happens and Tune continues to impress, the Cardinals will have landed a cheap backup quarterback in the fifth round out of Houston.
Wideout Michael Wilson was also the talk of camp. But the most intriguing thing I noticed was first round pick Paris Johnson Jr. looking very much like he is immediately capable of locking up the right tackle spot. That would be a big win for the first draft of the new regime. Regardless of what happens with Murray, it would mean the franchise is set at the offensive tackle spots. That’s a great start. If Wilson stays healthy and continues to trend in the right direction, that’s a good-looking draft already. All in all, there’s no telling where this offense is going until Murray gets back. But between Johnson, Wilson and Tune, there’s been some optimism and youth injected into the unit.
On defense: If there is a clean-slate player on this side of the ball who has plenty to prove, it’s Isaiah Simmons. He didn’t have his fifth-year option picked up by management and is entering the final year of his contract. It’s clear the staff is looking for focus and consistency from Simmons, but there also seemed to be subtle vibe that Simmons isn’t a great fit schematically (or with the physical mentality Gannon wants to have on the field). He’s definitely missing something in the development equation and has a lot to prove. It’s doubtful there would be any offers, but I’d bet the Cardinals would pick up the phone on trade calls between now and the Oct. 31 deadline. It’s more likely that Simmons is in his last season and walks in free agency next offseason.
A bit more: Gannon and Ossenfort seem like a good fit together from a personality standpoint. I like that Gannon has a decent amount of scouting experience in his background from earlier in his NFL career. That could be a piece of synergy that has been missing in this franchise, with a coach and GM who share some common personnel vantages. The one thing they both seem to agree on: They would prefer to build this team from the ground up with some patience and good drafts. If the 2023 class continues on its current track and that’s representative of the personnel strengths of this regime, it would be a big stride in the right direction. Of course, there might still be a major decision in the future with Murray — and that could define this regime more than anything else.
Las Vegas Raiders
Thoughts when I went through …
On offense: I’m not really sure what to think of the Raiders. But quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo isn’t going to morph and suddenly become one of the league’s best deep-ball passers. He’ll be what he is — effective in the short and intermediate scheme, but not a world-beater. That makes me wonder about the Davante Adams fit. I’m not sure I buy that his fit with Garoppolo will be any better than Derek Carr, and I definitely don’t think he’s in Aaron Rodgers territory. I wonder how badly this team and Adams need to get off to a good start before other franchises start staring at that Oct. 31 trade deadline and wonder if there is some way to make a deal happen. Financially, it looks like a mess. And I highly doubt the Raiders would be willing to part for Adams without at least some solid draft pick compensation. It’s not an easy fit, but teams are already looking at Adams and thinking about that October deadline.
On defense: It’s hard to know what is real in camp or preseason games, but the defense looked like it had the most juice when I passed through. Defensive end Maxx Crosby is one of the best players in the league. The pass rush should be the strength of the team if first-round rookie Tyree Wilson can come in and hit the ground running. But it also feels like something has to be done with Chandler Jones. He showed up slimmer for camp and dedicated to bouncing back from a bad 2022, but I still doubt he’ll be on the roster next season. Like Adams on offense, that will make him a potential trade rental. It’s another situation where it might take the Raiders struggling out of the gate and a contender needing an edge rusher who wouldn’t cost an arm and a leg in trade compensation. That’s quite a few things that have to fall right, but again, Jones is a player who doesn’t make sense here if the Raiders aren’t winning now.
A bit more: Tight end Michael Mayer, cornerback Jakorian Bennett and wideout Tre Tucker all flashed in practice and made me immediately like this 2023 Raiders draft class. Wilson is off the shelf and quarterback Aidan O’Connell is raising some eyebrows. If Wilson is worth his lofty draft status and O’Connell proves to be more than just a capable backup, something intriguing has been laid down to build on. Head coach Josh McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler would like to build this team by stacking classes and growing young players in the culture, rather than trying to microwave the roster again. If the 2023 draft class has a good season, it should buy some patience in a more classic build from team owner Mark Davis.
Los Angeles Rams
Thoughts when I went through …
On offense: Head coach Sean McVay and general manager Les Snead talked a lot about how excited they were that Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp were back in the fold, but I couldn’t get away from three nagging thoughts with this unit. First, they are thin pretty much everywhere on experienced talent. It feels like injuries to any starter would have a bigger impact on this team than most and cause a cascading impact across the board. Second, they are going to be figuring it out on the offensive line most of the season, and that’s never a great feeling. There aren’t a lot of playoff teams with this much work to do on the line. And the third thought: The wide receiver group doesn’t feel dynamic or deep beyond Kupp, and that (along with the line) seems to put exponentially more pressure on Stafford. Van Jefferson is there at the No. 2 spot, but you don’t see many NFL wideouts have their big breakout seasons all the way into Year 4. The staff loves rookie Puka Nacua, who has been in Kupp’s hip pocket since he arrived. But they need to see him stay healthy for a season before they’ll know if he can develop into a player they can count on. Top to bottom, it feels like an offense where everything has to go perfectly in terms of scheme and health. That rarely happens.
On defense: I can’t remember the last time I saw a defensive roster that looked so different 19 months after a Super Bowl win. Physically, Aaron Donald looked fantastic, but it’s hard to know who his reliable running partners are going to be on the unit. They think linebacker Ernest Jones is going to be more of a household name around the league by the end of the season, but the most important person tied to this unit is going to be coordinator Raheem Morris. It’s going to be constant on-the-job learning that is going to start with identifying who can translate their talent into regular-season games and then how to scheme around those guys. It will be curious to see how this all impacts Donald, who will likely have more of an uphill climb than ever before as opponents are able to devote the lion’s share of their energy and focus on him until someone else forces the spotlight elsewhere.
A bit more: It struck me that Snead is now entering his 12th year as general manager, which makes him the third-longest tenured “titled” GM in the league if you don’t count the de-facto guys (Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown and New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick). Only the New Orleans Saints’ Mickey Loomis and Seattle Seahawks’ John Schneider have held their GM titles longer.
What’s most remarkable is Snead is approaching what will be arguably the single most difficult turn in his career, when he will have to replace both a Hall of Fame quarterback in Stafford and a Hall of Fame defensive tackle in Donald, who will go down as one of the most dominant defensive players in NFL history. Snead is well aware that it’s coming, too. He mentioned on my visit that it occurred to him that the Rams will likely have to completely overhaul how they scheme their entire defense when Donald is gone — and that finding another quarterback with the skills of Stafford usually takes years, if not decades. Snead has a considerable challenge coming.