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NFL countdown: 50 days before season, breaking down top storylines as training camps begin

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After a dull summer, Wednesday marks a notable point on the NFL calendar.

Yes, the first group of veterans are reporting for training camp. But the date also marks 50 days until the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears kick off the league’s centennial season. Between now and then, there will be plenty of talk about coaches under pressure, players on the rise and teams taking shape.

With that in mind, here are 50 things to know for training camps:

1. While plenty of teams are keeping the gates open for fans to attend practices, the Eagles will hold just one open session while the Raiders have none. Paranoia is a way of life in the NFL, but this is a losing exercise for all parties.

2. Fans wanting to catch the Silver and Black will have to settle for watching them on “Hard Knocks.” Many will focus on Antonio Brown, Vontaze Burfict and Richie Incognito for any potential confrontations, but the real stars should be Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock, whose football acumen and straight-shooting approaches should be refreshing.

3. No one will face a more intense spotlight this summer than QB Kyler Murray. The No. 1 overall pick drew rave reviews from Cardinals teammates in offseason work, but he’ll be facing heightened scrutiny as the season draws nearer.

4. For all of the scuttle about what Kliff Kingsbury will do for Arizona’s offense, the first-year coach has offered scant details about what the attack will look like. At the very least, the pace should be significantly accelerated from last year’s attack, which averaged a league-worst 14.1 points per game.

5. Fantasy enthusiasts are salivating over what Kingsbury’s offense could do for Arizona’s receiving corps, but don’t forget about RB David Johnson. The do-everything threat still hopes to become just the third NFL player to exceed both 1,000 rushing and receiving yards in the same season, and he said he expects his usage to be similar to 2016, when he led the league with 2,118 yards from scrimmage.6. The Ravens are also set to unveil an offense that backup Robert Griffin III said would “shock some people.” The real stunner would be if Baltimore continued to run the ball 45 times per game, as the team did in Lamar Jackson’s seven regular-season starts.

7. Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, however, already said Jackson wouldn’t maintain his torrid pace of running the ball after the rookie set a record for QBs with 147 carries. As the second-year passer tries to bolster his downfield accuracy, one short-term fix could be plenty of quick hits to rookie speedsters Marquise Brown and Justice Hill.

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8. The Broncos, who play the Falcons on Aug. 1 in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game, kick off camp action as veterans report Wednesday. Have to imagine Denver is chomping at the bit for a refresh as the franchise comes off consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1971-72.

9. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan probably will enjoy more organized sessions, too, after posting a video of his twin sons freelancing on their assigned routes.

10. Welcome back, Jimmy Garoppolo. The 49ers QB said he’s “good to go” for training camp after being limited to individual drills during minicamp while he recovered from last season’s torn anterior cruciate ligament.

11. Has to be a little disconcerting for San Francisco to still not know exactly what the team has in its $137.5 million passer. Garoppolo has never played more than six games in a season and didn’t fare particularly well (718 yards, 59.6% completion rate) in three contests last year.

12. There’s no bigger injury mystery, however, than the one surrounding Todd Gurley. Both the Pro Bowl RB and Rams coach Sean McVay have offered little clarity on the knee ailment that plagued him last postseason, though his trainer said there was an “arthritic component.” With Gurley unlikely to play in the preseason, training camp might be the lone window into his status.

13. Elsewhere in Los Angeles, DE Melvin Ingram declared in late June that his Chargers are the “team to beat” in the NFL. That claim might draw ridicule from some, but from top to bottom, this roster is easily one of the league’s top five.

14. Of course, the Chargers might end up with even more running back drama than the Rams if Melvin Gordon follows through with his holdout threat if not given a new contract or traded. Though Austin Ekeler is a competent fill-in, Gordon has more offensive touches (1,079) in the last four years than any back other than Gurley.

15. Overrated camp trope: The veteran QB who retools his mechanics. Cam Newton might end up enjoying a fruitful 2019, but let’s hold off on any grand proclamations about his reworked throwing motion, especially before he faces a live pass rush.

16. Much more significant for Carolina is how Newton recovers after offseason shoulder surgery. The Panthers were 6-2 before collapsing with a seven-game losing streak, and the team was 2-7 in games decided by seven points or fewer. A significant jump should be feasible.

17. If you’re still getting acclimated to a world in which there’s palpable national excitement about the Browns, you’re not alone.

18. It’s tantalizing to think about what Freddie Kitchens and Baker Mayfield can do together in a full season given that they averaged 6.86 yards per play (a mark that only the 2000 “Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams have surpassed in a full season this century) in the eight games in which the first-year Browns coach served as offensive coordinator last season. And that was before the arrival of Odell Beckham Jr.

19. But for all of the excitement engendered by Mayfield, Beckham and Kitchens, Myles Garrett might be the star in Cleveland poised to take home some hardware this year. The 2017 No. 1 overall pick looks like a top candidate for defensive player of the year after tallying 13 1/2 sacks last year despite, he said, being limited to two pass rush moves by former coordinator Gregg Williams.

20. When the Browns report for training camp on July 24, it will have been 6,044 days (16 years) since the team’s last playoff appearance, marking the longest active drought in the NFL. The Buccaneers (11 years) are the only other team not to make the postseason this decade.

21. It’s not clear how competitive Tampa Bay will be in Bruce Arians’ first year, but at least the team should be entertaining. Putting Jameis Winston in the 67-year-old coach’s “no risk it, no biscuit” downfield passing attack is sure to produce fireworks of some sort.

22. Is Marcus Mariota in a make-or-break year? Hard to fault the quarterback for the injuries and system changes that have plagued him as he prepares for his fifth offensive coordinator in five years. But Tennessee has been stuck on a Möbius strip of mediocrity after finishing the last three seasons at 9-7, and the former No. 2 overall pick hasn’t entrenched himself as the future of the franchise enters the final year of his contract.

23. The Titans can’t match their AFC South rival when it comes to discord, though. How turbulent has the offseason been for the Jaguars? Linebacker Telvin Smith decided to step away from football, defensive end Yannick Ngakoue is mounting a holdout and cornerback Jalen Ramsey pushed back on Tom Coughlin’s criticism regarding his absence from voluntary workouts.

24. Still, CB D.J. Hayden might not have been off-base when he projected that the Jaguars defense would be the NFL’s best in 2019. New QB Nick Foles should merely have to elevate the offense to a level of competence for this team to undergo a significant transformation.

25. And if pressed to pick the one team best poised to make a worst-to-first run in any division (six teams have done so in the last five years), Jacksonville seems like the top choice.

26. Andrew Luck hasn’t enjoyed a fully healthy offseason since 2015, but the strained calf that sidelined the 2018 comeback player of the year looks like a relatively small obstacle given what the Colts QB has faced in past years.

27. It’s clear the Patriots won’t be replacing Rob Gronkowski‘s production or impact with any one tight end on the roster. Maybe the more notable position to watch is wide receiver, where big-bodied (6-2, 228-pound), first-round rookie N’Keal Harry could give Tom Brady a unique target in an undersized pass-catching crew.

28. Both of the Patriots’ first-round picks from 2018 could be facing important camps. Isaiah Wynn is still working his way back from the torn Achilles that robbed him of his rookie season, and veteran guard Joe Thuney has been working as Brady’s blindside protector in his stead. Meanwhile, RB Sony Michel missed minicamp after undergoing a knee scope, per multiple reports.

29. For the last two seasons, the Falcons and Vikings faced preseason questions of whether they would be able to become the first team to play the Super Bowl at their home stadium. The Dolphins, um … shouldn’t have to worry about that.

30. That’s not to say there’s no reason to check in on the happenings in South Florida until Super Bowl LIV, though. First-year coach Brian Flores has plenty of interesting decisions ahead of him, starting with how to handle the derby between QBs Josh Rosen and Ryan Fitzpatrick.

31. As fun as FitzMagic can be, there’s no reason for Flores not to get a thorough view of what Rosen can do while he has the 2018 first-round pick on a bargain of a deal.

32. QB competitions seem to be in short supply with the NFL at a rare point of clarity for starting passers … except in Washington, where Alex Smith’s status is still unknown.

33. Jay Gruden is already the Redskins’ longest-tenured coach in the Daniel Snyder era, but he’s just 35-44-1 without a playoff win in five years. Though Gruden said first-round pick Dwayne Haskins “deserves a shot” to start at quarterback, it’s not hard to see why a coach potentially on the hot seat would prefer to go with veteran Case Keenum for as long as he can.

34. As bad as Washington’s problems behind center are, the offensive outlook will get exponentially worse if the organization doesn’t iron out lingering issues with Trent Williams. The perennial Pro Bowl left tackle did not participate in mandatory minicamp amid reports he was frustrated with his contract.

35. The Giants looked on track to trot Eli Manning out as the unquestioned starting QB for the 16th consecutive year … until coach Pat Shurmur said in June that rookie Daniel Jones was “on track with the goal to be ready to play on Day 1.” Even if that idea is far-fetched, the division of first-team reps in camp bears watching.

36. Strangely, one of the more entertaining position battles is the kicking competition in Chicago. Neither Eddy Pineiro nor Elliott Fry has ever attempted a field goal in the NFL, so maybe the player capable of easing tensions after 2018’s misfires isn’t even on the roster yet.

37. Is it possible for Pittsburgh to enjoy a drama-free summer? Ben Roethlisberger said he expects a return to “normalcy” after the acrimonious departures of Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. Let’s see whether any newfound coherence lasts deep into the season, though.

38. Meanwhile, Bell will be taking handoffs from Sam Darnold in his first training camp action in three years. That’s almost as strange of a sight as the Jets’ redesigned uniforms.

39. Cool move by the Bengals to open camp with a practice in Dayton, the site of the NFL’s first game in 1920. Less cool development: Top pick Jonah Williams likely missing the season with a torn labrum, forcing a reshuffling of an already maligned line.

40. Aaron Rodgers and coach Matt LaFleur caused a stir when they said earlier this summer that they were still “working on” how much freedom the Packers quarterback would have with audibles. But unless they’re saying the same entering Week 1, don’t sound the alarm.

41. Breakout player alert: Lions RB Kerryon Johnson. Detroit is cutting against the grain by employing a run-heavy attack under new coordinator Darrell Bevell, and Johnson was stringing together a strong rookie season (5.4 yards per carry) before a knee injury shelved him for the final six games.

42. Minnesota also looks headed for an offensive recalibration that will place a heavier emphasis on the run game despite affording Kirk Cousins two Pro Bowl receiving targets in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. If the offensive line gels in camp, RB Dalvin Cook could be in for a big year in a zone-blocking scheme well-suited for his skill set.

43. As Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper await contract extensions, the Cowboys look to have most of their offensive pieces in place. Now it’s up to 30-year-old offensive coordinator (and former Prescott backup) Kellen Moore to integrate some creativity into a milquetoast attack.

44. Carson Wentz is a popular pick to be the 2019 MVP, and the third-year QB has plenty going for him if he can stay healthy. One reason for optimism: The downfield passing attack might arrive with the return of DeSean Jackson, who led the NFL last year with 18.9 yards per catch. Philadelphia didn’t have any receivers with more than 20 catches who exceeded 13 yards per catch in 2018.

45. There’s still no resolution for Chiefs WR Tyreek Hill, who has been banned from the team facility after child abuse allegations and could face a suspension from the league. Reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes and an offense that ranked third all time in points scored will be hard-pressed to match last year’s numbers if Hill misses any time.

46. Fitting that the Chiefs are handing their defense over to Steve Spagnuolo, who was famous for his NASCAR packages, as it likely will be off to the races for opponents if the pass rush isn’t in top form. Kansas City will need more than ex-Seahawks standout Frank Clark to replace Justin Houston and Dee Ford.

47. The departure of Clark and the retirement of Doug Baldwin reaffirmed that change is a way of life for a Seahawks team that, if not for QB Russell Wilson and LBs Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, would be unrecognizable from the perennial playoff contenders of just a few years ago.

48. Strange times in Houston, where the Texans will head into the season without a general manager, according to ESPN. If things go south for the AFC South champs, finger-pointing won’t be far off.  

49. RB LeSean McCoy might be making his last stand with the Bills. Buffalo could save $6.175 million with a pre-Week 1 cut of the 31-year-old, who posted a career-low 3.2 yards per carry in 2018. Even if he remains, fellow veteran Frank Gore and rookie Devin Singletary should significantly cut into his workload.

50. Coaches, players and officials will need time in the preseason to sort out the new rules allowing reviews on pass interference plays. Still, won’t it be fitting if Saints coach Sean Payton is the first one to throw a challenge flag on such a play?

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