Recapping the Hottest News from NFL Minicamp Week

The 2014 NFL season is just around the corner. Players and coaches are already hard at work at team facilities. Organized team activities concluded earlier in the month, and now minicamp is wrapping up. There are plenty of news-worthy events going on across the league.

A New Rodgers Emerging in Green Bay—(Richard)

The Green Bay Packers have faced criticism for letting Greg Jennings and James Jones depart in free agency over the past two years. General manager Ted Thompson has filled the voids with the help of draft picks and rookie free agent signings.

Minicamp is a time when young players normally have to fight for extra opportunities—that is, unless the veteran ahead of them is sitting out with an injury or being given extra days off. It’s crucial for rookies especially to take advantage of these opportunities and that’ s exactly what tight end Richard Rodgers has done so far.

Green Bay was in need of a tight end entering the draft. Jermichael Finley is a free agent rehabbing from a spine injury, while Andrew Quarless was only serviceable as a starter last season. The Packers addressed the need in the third round when they drafted another Rodgers from California.

Rodgers came in with a lot of questions. Many draft experts felt the pick was a reach, that Rodgers was more of a fifth-round prospect. Rodgers came into rookie camp wanting to prove the critics wrong and he has done just that. He has drawn significant praise from coaches and Aaron Rodgers, showing off great skills as a receiver and making big catches.

He has been given more opportunities thanks to Quarless and Brandon Bostick sitting out with injuries. It’s a positive step forward for Rodgers after a rough year at Cal. Coaches put Rodgers on a roller coaster ride, having him drop 30 pounds to play wide receiver last season. He also dealt with numerous injuries and started for a team that went 1-11.

If Rodgers can keep his momentum rolling into training camp, there is a real possibility he could surpass Bostick and Quarless on the depth chart. He has taken advantage of early opportunities and that’s all you can ask for from a rookie.

Holdouts Rampant Across the League

While some veterans are taking part in minicamp, others are training at home awaiting new contracts. Money is what drives players—if they don’t feel they are being compensated fairly, they won’t hesitate to skip practice.

That’s been the case so far with many stars—Jimmy Graham, Justin Houston, Andre Johnson and Vernon Davis all skipped minicamp. All except Johnson are seeking more money, while Johnson simply wants out of Texas.

Graham’s holdout is certainly the most captivating. The Saints gave him the franchise tag as a tight end, but he believes he is a wide receiver. The difference between the two is $5 million, more than enough for Graham to file a grievance over. This battle could last awhile and there is no end in sight, so who knows how long Graham may hold out.

Davis has no problem calling himself a tight end, but he wants to be one of the highest-paid tight ends after another strong season. Davis tied a career-high with 13 touchdowns last season in 15 games, to go along with 52 receptions and 850 receiving yards.

The 49ers need Davis—Vance McDonald disappointed as a rookie and he’s Kaepernick’s go-to target. Unfortunately for Davis, he is 30 and behind a lengthy list of other young stars due for extensions. So he may have to just let this battle go and show up to camp.

Houston was one of the Kansas City Chiefs’ star players in 2013—he recorded 12 sacks in 11 games and 10 the year prior. The 25-year-old outside linebacker was set to make just $1.4 million in the final year of his contract, and is now seeking a contract extension. He has certainly earned it—Houston has become one of the best pass rushers in the game and should be paid like one. He should be second in line behind quarterback Alex Smith, and this all should be resolved shortly.

A veteran holding out does have positive ramifications, though. Young players are given more snaps with the first team and every rep helps.

Second-Year Quarterbacks Must Show Improvement

Let’s face it, last year’s rookie quarterback class was very disappointing when compared to the early success over the past four years of rookie quarterbacks. E.J. Manuel was the only first round pick and he disappointed for the Buffalo Bills, while Geno Smith was inconsistent for the New York Jets.

Realistically, expectations were far too high for rookie quarterbacks to begin with. They aren’t supposed to come out firing in their first season. Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III are exceptions to the rule, who just happened to all come at the same time. So Manuel and Smith’s struggles really shouldn’t be all that surprising.

Smith couldn’t have been in a worse situation. He played behind an offensive line that gave up 47 sacks last season and allowed 98 quarterback hits. It’s hard for any quarterback to get into a rhythm when he is constantly getting knocked around. Even when Smith had time to settle for a few seconds in the pocket, the Jets’ wide receivers were mediocre on their best days. Smith threw for over 3,000 yards but completed less than 56 percent of his passes and turned the ball over 26 times.

Manuel was more fortunate to be in a better situation than Smith. He had two quality running backs in C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, along with some nice targets like Stevie Johnson, Robert Woods and Scott Chandler. Like Smith, he played behind a poor offensive line that gave up 48 sacks and 108 quarterback hits. All of the hits led to injuries, appearing in just 10 games and at times playing through an injury.

Now both quarterbacks are completely healthy and enter camp with a full year under their team’s offensive scheme. They have time to get adjusted to the NFL and the sharp learning curve and now can just focus on improving their own game.

Their respective teams also made sure to surround them with more talent—New York brought in Eric Decker and drafted Jace Amaro, while the Bills selected Sammy Watkins with their first pick and made improvements on the offensive line.

Now success rests on their shoulders. It’s all up to them and if they can take that next step to firmly entrench themselves as the starters long-term. It started at OTA’s and has carried over into minicamp, where they can spend more time with coaches and veterans to improve their skill set.

If they can move up the ladder and impress coaches, we should see the Jets and Bills have breakout seasons. The talent is there on both sides of the ball, it will just all come down to how these second-year quarterbacks perform.

49ers Bringing Change to their Offense

After signing Colin Kaepernick to a contract extension, the next question facing the 49ers’ was how they plan to evolve his role in their offense. Everyone can recognize his talent, but we haven’t seen him really take over as the star of this offense.

Kaepernick certainly showed improvement in 2013. He set career-highs in passing yards (3,197) and touchdowns (21). It was certainly a nice progression to see, but the 49ers’ offense still finished 30th in passing yards per game (186.2). This was in large part because of their limited pass attempts—San Francisco threw the ball just 585 times last season, 21st in the league.

The 49ers’ especially struggled in the red zone—on a team with so much talent, you would expect them to finish better than a 53 percent touchdown percentage. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s playbook was very simplistic inside the 20—if the team was handing it off to Frank Gore on a run up the middle, it would be a play action pass to Davis.

Finally, it appears San Francisco is planning serious changes to their offensive game plan. The team has already started implementing their systems and personnel. As CSN Bay Area writer Matt Maiocco wrote, “For the first time in a long time, the 49ers appear capable of putting four wide receivers on the field at the same time.” While it may sound harsh, it’s a telling quote about how simplistic 49ers’ personnel usage was at times.

Heavier wide receiver sets and more spread sets, can only mean good things for Kaepernick’s outlook. He is suited to operate in a spread offense where he can hit the open man or take advantage of an aggressive defense by taking off running downfield. After watching the rival Seattle Seahawks win the Super Bowl, the 49ers are willing to do whatever it takes to prove they are the best team in football.

(Photo credit: @AronYohannes)