Things are starting to take shape in the NFL.
Any football fan will tell you how excruciatingly long the off-season truly is. From the closing shot of the Super Bowl to the opening Thursday night kickoff, approximately seven months of time elapses without meaningful NFL games. The resulting phenomenon is, of course, a carefully crafted off-season formula, designed specifically to keep fans engaged in what’s going on, and keep as many eyes and ears on the product as humanly possible.
That’s why fans ears perk up a bit at this time of the year. As has been reported ad nauseum, seven franchises enter mandatory mini-camps this week. While other clubs are holding OTAs as well, the fact that the Bengals, Broncos, Browns, Buccaneers, Cardinals, Lions, and Saints are holding these non-optional sessions really drives home the point that the season is on the horizon.
The presence of mandatory camps is indicative of the fact that things are getting serious, and while it’s a rather small victory for fans, it’s something to get excited about at a time where there simply isn’t a whole lot happening. It gives people the chance to talk about something football-related, at the very least. Rather than discuss the off-field exploits of Johnny Manziel, we can analyze how he looks in practice and whether he’s running with the two’s or three’s. With most NFL training camps set for late July, mandatory minicamps present the best opportunity to gain insight into how all of the individual position battles will shake down, and how teams with new coaches (like the aforementioned Browns, Bucs, and Lions) will adapt to their new playbooks.
Sometimes it’s the little things that make the off-season bearable. Yes, we’re given excellent coverage of free agency, and yes the NFL Draft is an extravaganza all its own, but now is the time where all of the drama and intrigue of those events begins to have an effect on the league itself. With that said, here are a couple of snippets about what’s at stake for these teams as they enter this important week.
Bengals: After another AFC Playoff one-and-done, both of the Bengals’ coordinators bolted, accepting head coaching jobs elsewhere. With Andy Dalton facing quite a bit of scrutiny these days, his contract situation could have an interesting dynamic as the club enters this crucial phase. This is a big year for the Bengals. Perhaps not make or break, but important nonetheless.
Broncos: The Broncos are all in. After signing nearly every big name free agent available in the off-season, Peyton Manning’s club has to be considered a favorite to finish the job this year and win it all. There isn’t much upheaval in Denver. It’s all about one goal. Anything less than a Super Bowl title has to be considered a failure.
Browns: The Browns are a lot closer to contending than most people realize. A draft that saw them acquire an excellent complement to Joe Haden in Justin Gilbert, a potential franchise quarterback in Johnny Manziel, and an additional 2015 first round pick has set them up very nicely for the future. The potential lengthy suspension of superstar wideout Josh Gordon dampens some of the optimism, but this is a big week for new head coach Mike Pettine, as he attempts to make this great franchise relevant again.
Buccaneers: The Bucs had one of the best off-seasons in the league this year. The assembled a great coaching staff led by Lovie Smith, signed some quality free agents, and drafted Mike Evans to complement Vincent Jackson in one of the league’s most physically imposing wide receiver duos in recent memory. It will be interesting to see how new quarterback Josh McCown fares without the guidance of Marc Trestman, but the Bucs have set him up for success this year. Even in a tough division, this could be one of 2014’s surprise teams.
Cardinals: Speaking of surprise teams in tough divisions, the Cards unexpectedly won ten games in 2103, and could be poised for bigger things this year. While the club hasn’t seen much turnover in terms of personnel, one interesting storyline will be the usage of sophomore runner Andre Ellington. Ellington was a complementary player last year, but the dynamic runner figures to be the lead back in 2014. A true play-maker, even a slight uptick in carries could lead to some big numbers for the former Clemson star.
Lions: Now is the time for this team. Much has been made about this the unfulfilled potential of this club, and it’s generally expected that the next step needs to come soon. There is no lack of talent in Detroit, and with a new coaching staff in place a playoff berth is a must. This could be the year the Lions take the next step forward, but it’s not going to be easy in a loaded NFC.
Saints: The Saints are always a contender. Sean Payton’s crew is a perennial NFC favorite. After making great strides as a defense under Rob Ryan last year, the Saints are reportedly seeking more balance on offense in 2014. If the club is able to control the pace of games a bit better this season, “Who ‘Dat Nation” could be in for another exciting year.
There are 25 other teams that will hold mandatory minicamps later on, but for now these seven will take center stage. It should be an interesting week.
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