Back at home after this year's training camp trip, and I thought I'd pass along some notes from my final few stops. Last week, I filled you in on what I learned at Vikings, Packers and Bears camps. After that, I hit four more stops in Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania before wrapping up the trip.
Saw some practices, did some interviews, tried to get a sense of what's going on with the Colts, Bengals, Browns and Steelers as training camp rolls along. So here's some of what I picked up along the way:
Stop 4: Indianapolis Colts camp
Aug. 3-4 in Westfield, Indiana
There was no Andrew Luck at these practices, as I'm sure you've heard. But while the calf injury that is keeping Luck off the field is worrisome, the sense around the Colts was that he knows what he's doing in terms of injury recovery and that he was likely to return in time for the season. Not a sure thing yet, but that's the sense.
Meantime, linebacker Darius Leonard is a fun guy to talk to.
"I still haven't reached any goals that I have," last year's Defensive Rookie of the Year told me, so I asked what those were.
"For this year? 200 tackles, 10 sacks, 25 TFLs, four interceptions ... the list just goes on. I want to be a Super Bowl champion, Super Bowl MVP, Defensive Player of the Year ... I mean, I just want my name at the top of all lists."
Don't laugh. There are two reasons Leonard thinks he'll be better this year than he was as a rookie.
1. He was playing hurt last year.
"I sprained my ankle in Week 2, Week 3, something like that, and I just had a lot of calcification on it, so after the season -- before OTAs -- I finally had it cleaned up, so I'm feeling a whole lot better now," he said. "I couldn't move around, man. I couldn't plant on it like I wanted to. So I had to take buggy steps [I think he said 'buggy'] a lot. I couldn't plant, point and drive. I couldn't be explosive off of it. But now I feel good about it, I trust it, and I can move a whole lot quicker."
2. The Colts added veteran pass-rusher Justin Houston, and Leonard has been picking his brain.
"Alignments off the tackles, because he knows I blitz a lot, so just teaching me some keys to look at, how they over-set and what to do when they over-set," Leonard said. "As a rookie, I was just going by the book, instead of going off what they gave me. So now, he's teaching me how to read offensive linemen's sets and go off of that."
Last season, everything was new to everyone around the Colts -- new coaching staff, new offense, new defense ... everything. On the offensive side, second-year head coach Frank Reich said things are a lot easier now that players know what they're doing.
Clark: Mayfield could be a top-10 QB this year
Ryan Clark contends that the Browns will live up to the hype this season and Baker Mayfield will enter the conversation about the top 10 QBs in the NFL.
"I feel like, now that everyone knows the schemes, we're getting into the second and third layer of not just coming out in the most vanilla of formations all the time," Reich said. "You know, last year, new offense, new defensive scheme, new special-teams scheme; you tend to keep things very vanilla, very basic. And now, we just feel like we've kind of figured out how we like to use our personnel with different personnel groups, formations, motions, shifts ... so we're able to get to that stuff earlier."
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There are two new wide receivers in Indy to keep an eye on -- veteran Devin Funchess, whose route-running prowess has impressed Reich, and second-round pick Parris Campbell, whom Reich said can definitely help as a rookie once he returns from his early-camp hamstring injury: "We're counting on him to be able to help us," Reich said of Campbell. "Obviously, it's bad timing with an injury like this. Really felt like he was having a really good camp, and we were thinking, 'Whoa, this might happen a little quicker than normal.' If he can get healthy and prove it on the field -- he's still got to prove it; he's shown some good things -- then that role would grow as the year went on."
Marlon Mack said he is focused on staying healthy and on the field as he enters the season as the starting running back. He said he cut fried foods out of his diet and was able to participate in OTAs for the first time. Obviously, a healthy Mack would be a fantasy helper in a Frank Reich offense.
Stop 5: Cincinnati Bengals camp
Aug. 5 in Cincinnati
Things are new in a place where it always felt like nothing would ever change. New coach Zac Taylor, new defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, new schemes, new playbooks ... guys are a little bit refreshed. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap lit up when I asked him how the offense looked.
"That scheme!" Dunlap said. "What they're doing right now looks really good. And for us to see it every day and still be challenged, that says a lot. I personally don't know of an offense that I can say it's like, which is a good thing. Plus, I wouldn't say it if I did."
I must have been there on the wrong day, then, because the offense looked totally overwhelmed by the defense in the practice I watched. Taylor admitted as much afterward, saying it was a tough day for the offense and things have to get better. But this is a banged-up team already -- no A.J. Green or John Ross at wide receiver, and they're a couple of guys short on the offensive line due to Jonah Williams' injury and Clint Boling's retirement. Running back Giovani Bernard didn't practice that day. They're working with several backups, though rookie running back Trayveon Williams had his moments.
Taylor held starting running back Joe Mixon out of most of that practice, and I wouldn't expect to see Mixon much if at all this preseason. Taylor's mentor, Sean McVay, doesn't use Todd Gurley II in preseason games with the Los Angeles Rams, and Mixon (fantasy alert!) is the player through whom this offense is most likely to run.
"Everybody thinks Zac wants to air it out, but I think Zac believes in a balance," Dunlap said. "Joe doesn't take a back seat to anyone in this league, and he's hungry for more. And he can take more."
Mixon told me he likes Taylor's practice plan and how it is geared toward finding the right days to work harder and the right days to incorporate more rest. Mixon expects to carry a big workload this season and believes he is up for it. He told me he is working on the "durability" part of his game.
"I think Coach Taylor does a great job monitoring my workload right now," Mixon said. "But I think, come game time, he's going to let me loose."
As for the 36-year-old Taylor, who was the Rams' quarterbacks coach seven months ago, he doesn't give off a deer-in-the-headlights vibe. He says being around McVay when McVay was a rookie head coach at 31 was a key to his rapid development as a coach.
"I was fortunate enough to be around Sean and was always really impressed with how he handles things at a young age," Taylor said. "And the benefit to working with him was that he was always really open with why he was doing everything. So you felt like, somebody kind of your age going through it and he was really open with why he was doing everything and that enables you, when you get this job, to feel like you've kind of already been in this because I got to watch Sean experience it for two years."
Stop 6: Cleveland Browns camp
Aug. 6 in Berea, Ohio
It's just a little bit tougher to find a seat in the media workroom here than it was last spring and summer, when the Browns were coming off an 0-16 season and Baker Mayfield was working with the second-team offense behind starter Tyrod Taylor.
"Very rarely, when you set your offseason plan into motion, do you expect to hit on 90% of your plan," general manager John Dorsey told me. "But you look at it ... we kind of hit on some things you don't expect to hit on."
The big one, of course, was getting Odell Beckham Jr. in a trade with the New York Giants. Beckham is the biggest star in Browns camp, but as was the case in New York, he is a hard worker in practice who is never late and teammates love him.
"Prime example of not believing in the perception," first-year head coach Freddie Kitchens said.
The story here is whether Kitchens and his staff can mold the Browns' talented group into a real contending team, and Kitchens knows that. He knows what he's looking for.
"I want to see what these guys do now, moving forward," Kitchens told me. "First week's easy. Second week, you start hitting the hump a little bit. I want to see what happens when they start not feeling good. That's when we're going to determine our team.
"I want to see how they're communicating on defense. See how they're coming together on offense, what their chemistry is on offense. See what their ability to come back from a negative play is on offense. Their ability to forget about the last play on defense, just play the next play."
The day I was there was before they traded running back Duke Johnson Jr. to Houston, but I am told that the main reasons they ended up doing that deal were that (A) they loved the price (a fourth-round pick that can become a third-rounder if Johnson is active for at least 10 games this season, which is the highest draft-pick haul in a running back trade since the Trent Richardson deal of 2013), and (B) they are happy with the development of Dontrell Hilliard, a second-year running back from Tulane that they think can do a lot of the same kinds of things Johnson did. That might qualify as a fantasy alert, but it's hard to know for sure how things will be spread around in this loaded-on-paper offense.
Nick Chubb is the starting running back, at least until Kareem Hunt's eight-game suspension ends. And you can expect Beckham and best buddy Jarvis Landry to receive lions' shares of the passing-game targets. No surprises there. Not sure how much more you'll see tight end David Njoku do than he did a year ago. And if you're looking for a third Browns wide receiver to use, I'd put my money on Rashard Higgins before the suspended Antonio Callaway.
The Browns have a couple of roster issues to sort out before the season starts. They need to settle on an offensive line: Second-year guard Austin Corbett hasn't developed as quickly as they had hoped he would after the Kevin Zeitler trade, and veteran Eric Kush looks like the front-runner to start at right guard. They need to decide who their kicker will be between Greg Joseph and fifth-round rookie Austin Seibert. And it's entirely possible that one or both of their rookie linebackers, Mack Wilson and Sione Takitaki, can win starting jobs ahead of veterans Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey. There's a long way to go, but those rookies are having strong camps, and there's a sense that they might be better scheme fits. Could Schobert or Kirksey be a surprise late-camp roster cut that could help out a linebacker-needy team?
Stop 7: Pittsburgh Steelers Camp
Aug. 7 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania
This is the only camp I've been to in which players have been allowed to hit and tackle each other to the ground this much. Coach Mike Tomlin believes in practicing the way you play, and in the past he has used a boxing analogy -- "You wouldn't get in the ring if you hadn't done some sparring" -- to explain his reasoning. It's jarring to see it. Kind of like walking into a restaurant where they allow smoking these days; you're a little bit shocked that there are still places where this goes on.
But it's the Steelers way, and the players buy in. And while everybody is locked in on the Browns in Ohio, they're out here in Latrobe doing what they always do.
"It's calm," guard Ramon Foster told me. "Guys are settling in. It's exactly what you want camp to be. It's dirty, grimy and hard, but what other situation would you rather be in?"
Foster is a good guy to talk to on these trips because he helps with the big picture. Ask him who looks good, and he has a list. He rattles off wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster ("just as sharp"); running back James Conner ("He's comfortable, more sure of what the hell he's got going on"); rookie linebacker Devin Bush ("I'm highly impressed"); and rookie wideout Diontae Johnson ("very savvy").
Foster is especially fired up about linebacker T.J. Watt.
"He's still looking like a god and doing the same exact things you expect him to," Foster said of Watt. "The biggest thing he's doing right now is chasing his brother. So as long as he's chasing him, I think we're in a good situation. He was telling me a story about how he ran up on his brother's notebooks -- how he had stacks and bundles of notebooks and how he just sat there and read through them and was like, 'Whoa, I've got to step my game up.' He realized what it actually takes to do the things that he wants to do from one of the greatest to ever do it."
On defense, the big add is Bush, the first-round pick out of Michigan who the Steelers hope can stabilize the middle of their defense. They're expecting a lot out of Bush in Year 1, as his position carries much responsibility. But Bush told me the offensive linemen are helping him with tips and that playing for Jim Harbaugh while with the Wolverines was a huge help in getting him ready for a big rookie role in the pros.
"It was like a pro schedule," Bush said. "Obviously having Coach Harbaugh as our coach, everything was kind of pro-style, you know, from our special-teams concepts to our defenses to our offenses. So seeing two-back sets and seeing three tight ends in the game is not unusual to me."
And finally, I had to ask Foster about the Browns hype. Not surprisingly, he had thoughts.
"There's always a team here and there every year, escaping injury, escaping a losing skid," Foster said. "The bigger the bull's-eye, the harder it's going to be for you as a team if you're not right-minded. That's the only thing I have to say about that. When you think you have a team you're supposed to beat convincingly and they come out and play you hard as ever, it's because they think you're a team that's really good and you can change their season around. So that's my only hint of advice for a team that's getting that type of press. We've seen other teams. We've been that team. We know there's no off days. You have guys asking questions, 'How did you lose to this team?' Well, it's because you have the bull's-eye. So I have no problems with it. I'm glad it's off of us. It should be exciting. The AFC North is going to be a hard division this year."
More fantasy notes
Smith-Schuster is the No. 1 wide receiver, but as second-year wideout James Washington told me, the Steelers expect teams to key on Smith-Schuster with Antonio Brown now off in Oakland fighting the league on helmet safety. The question is who picks up all those passing-game targets that went to Brown, and while some will surely go to Smith-Schuster, there is opportunity here for Washington, Johnson and even guys such as Donte Moncrief and Ryan Switzer. The sense I got was that Moncrief was the front-runner for the nominal No. 2 wide receiver spot, but again, it depends on whom you talked to. Conner said Washington was greatly improved from last season. Foster brought up Johnson unsolicited. There's some stuff to sort out here yet.