Graziano: What I learned on 11-team NFL training camp road trip

From ESPN - August 13, 2017

Training camps are the best places to get to know NFL teams, so I went to 11 of them. On the evening of July 27, I flew from New York to Fort Lauderdale with a 13-day plan to drive back and visit as many teams as I could along the way.

In those 13 days, I saw 14 NFL practices (and one Major League Baseball game) in eight states, recorded 67 interviews, checked into and out of 10 different hotels, squeezed through two tubes of SPF 30 sunscreen, consumed 1,794 ounces of water (the equivalent of 90 20-ounce bottles) and racked up 2,128 miles on a rental car I affectionately nicknamed "Freddy."

I learned a few things along the way, and while this is by no means a complete list of those things, I wanted to share some quick impressions from each camp I visited.

You can check out photos from the trip on my Instagram account @dangrazianoespn and, of course, follow along on various ESPN platforms in the coming weeks as I share more of my reporting with you. In the meantime, here's a quick-hitter from each of the spots I visited. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Click on the links below to go directly to the write-up about each camp stop:


Day 1: Miami Dolphins

July 28 in Davie, Florida

This was before all of the excitement -- before quarterback Ryan Tannehill got hurt and the team signed Jay Cutler to replace him. I do not know how all of that affects the team's excitement over third-year wideout DeVante Parker, so a note on the defense here.

The Dolphins are thin at defensive tackle and will be thin at safety until T.J. McDonald finishes his eight-game suspension, but the big hit they took on that side of the ball is the season-ending injury to rookie linebacker Raekwon McMillan. The Dolphins were hoping to use McMillan this year alongside Kiko Alonso and Lawrence Timmons while grooming him to replace Timmons at middle linebacker. Timmons is not likely to stay on the field when they are in nickel, so they will need to find a coverage linebacker from a young group that includes Mike Hull and Neville Hewitt. Overall, the Dolphins' defense feels a bit thin and ca not take much more on the injury front.

Days 2 and 3: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

July 29-30 in Tampa, Florida

Everyone in the building loves quarterback Jameis Winston, the clear leader of the team at just 23 years old. But that number 23 is worth remembering, and coach Dirk Koetter told me he's well aware of it.

"Of course we give him things in our system that we want to see him do better," Koetter said. "But those are not things that you just snap your fingers and get better. Those are things you have got to chip away at over time."

I asked for an example.

"An example would be deep-ball accuracy," Koetter said. "But guess what? Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson are not going to go out there and run 60 'go' routes for him. You might get one or two chances a day. You want to get better at it, but you do not get to throw a million of those."

In today's NFL, pleas for patience often fall on deaf ears. But it's important nonetheless.

Day 4: Jacksonville Jaguars

July 31 in Jacksonville, Florida

This was the day when left tackle Branden Albert retired right before practice, which it's fair to say caught some folks off guard. The Jags already had some questions about how the offensive line would come together, and that bit of news left untested rookie Cam Robinson as the presumptive starting left tackle. I would not expect the Jaguars' offense to be overly exciting this season. They have a huge rookie-year role planned for No. 4 overall pick Leonard Fournette, but they also still have Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon and plan to use a fullback in the offense, as well.

I feel like every pass I saw Blake Bortles throw on this day was at or behind the line of scrimmage. Concerns about the line as it comes together and about Bortles' ability to protect the ball should keep things basic. Wide receiver Allen Robinson did tell me he feels more comfortable in the offense than he did when coordinator Nathaniel Hackett took over midseason, but I came away thinking Robinson could have a tough time putting up huge numbers in his contract year in this offense.

Days 5 and 6: Atlanta Falcons

Aug. 1-2 in Flowery Branch, Georgia

The Falcons have a group of 14 players they call the "Chiefs." This is a leadership group charged with acting as intermediaries between the players and the coaches when the players have concerns. They were elected by their peers following the Navy SEAL training the team went through this offseason, and oddly, they are sorted by size, not position group. Part of the SEAL training involves tandem log carrying, and obviously they are not going to pair a 5-foot-9 guy with a 6-foot-4 guy when doing that, so each group elected its own "Chief" and that's how the group was formed.

General manager Thomas Dimitroff said the preaching and teaching of leadership in Atlanta goes beyond the "Chiefs" program. For example, each level of the defense has sort of a designated captain -- Grady Jarrett for the defensive line, Deion Jones for the linebackers and Keanu Neal for the secondary. And they have post-practice developmental sessions for young players they identify as potential future leaders.

"Just giving these guys a sense of what it's like to be thinking about leadership in their daily lives," Dimitroff said. "Maybe a guy becomes a '10' leader, maybe he becomes an '8' leader. Maybe you have a guy who becomes a solid, average leader. You find out. At least you are giving them the opportunity and the tools they need to find what they have there."

Day 7: Carolina Panthers

Aug. 3 in Spartanburg, South Carolina

Coach Ron Rivera told me he thought the Panthers lost too much veteran leadership between 2015 and 2016. He specifically cited not only the departure of cornerback Josh Norman (whom the team decided to let go when they rescinded his franchise tender), but also the retirements of defensive linemen Jared Allen, Charles Tillman and Dwan Edwards and the departure of Roman Harper.

"So when you look at what we did defensively in free agency, we brought in a guy in Julius Peppers who's got a tremendous history with us, veteran leader," Rivera said. "Captain Munnerlyn, tremendous history with us, veteran leader. Mike Adams, tremendous career, veteran leader. So we consciously went out and brought guys back in like that."

The 2015 Panthers went 15-1 with a supremely confident, veteran-led locker room. They are trying to recapture some of that. Peppers, in particular, stands out. Even 13-year veteran Thomas Davis marveled at the idea of a player he could look up to as a veteran.

Day 8: Houston Texans

Days 9 and 10: Washington

Day 11: Baltimore Ravens

Day 12: Philadelphia Eagles

Day 12: New York Jets

Day 13: New York Giants


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