By Steve Silverman
» More Columns
The NBA and NHL are each in the middle of passionate final series, and baseball is in full swing.
But for many sports fans, the best news is that the start of NFL training camp is a little bit over a month away. Most teams will usually start their full training camp the last week of July, but rookies and first-year players can begin a week earlier.
It won’t be long before teams start hitting again in earnest, and the ever-changing NFL will look quite a bit different in 2015.
While training camp won’t decide anything, it will set the stage for the drama that unfolds during the year. Here are a few of the most worthy stories to follow.
MARCUS MARIOTA TAKES OVER IN TENNESSEE
The No. 2 draft pick is coming off an eye-opening performance at the team’s OTAs. He was impressive with his knowledge of the Titans’ offensive system and his ability to spit plays back at the coaches when asked, and he showed great confidence running the offense.
During the pre-draft season, a number of scouts raised issues about his arm strength and his accuracy on medium- and long-range throws. However, those were the questions that he may have answered best in the OTAs.
His arm was more than strong enough and he was able to hit his receivers in stride when they had a half-step on defensive backs. The big argument against him was that his receivers at Oregon broke wide open, so his accuracy was questioned. He is in the process of making sure that his coaches and teammates know that this is not an issue heading into training camp.
49ERS APPEAR TO BE HEADED FOR DISASTER
Tucked away in his office in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Jim Harbaugh can’t help but smile when he thinks about the San Francisco 49ers.
The Niners made it clear that their marriage with their former head coach was on the rocks early last season, and the front-office split with the quirky head coach undoubtedly played a key role in San Francisco’s disappointing season.
It is likely to get a whole lot worse for the Niners this year. They have been hit with the unexpected/shocking retirements of Patrick Willis, Chris Borland and Anthony Davis, and free-agent losses of Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, Perrish Cox, Chris Culliver and Mike Iupati will make this a long season.
Throw in first-year head coach Jim Tomsula, and the Niners will be hard-pressed to avoid the cellar in the NFC West.
Harbaugh has his work cut out for him at Michigan, but when he needs a laugh he can look at his old team.
GENO ATKINS HAS HIS MOJO BACK
Prior to the 2013 season, there was not a more dangerous interior defensive lineman in the league than Geno Atkins. Marvin Lewis knew that he had a monster in the middle of his defensive line who was capable of destroying the opponents’ running game and also wreaking havoc on opposing quarterbacks.
However, Atkins suffered an ACL injury in 2013, and when he returned last year he was not a productive player and bore no resemblance to an All-Pro defensive tackle. Atkins did not need a lecture from the powers that be in Cincinnati. He knew that his past brilliance would not mean a thing if he could not get back to that level in a hurry.
Atkins looked sharp and explosive throughout the Bengals’ OTAs. He had that dominating first step in the practice sessions, and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said he appeared to be the best defensive player on the team. If he can stay healthy and maintain that performance throughout the summer, the Bengals will have a chance to finally fulfill their potential.
PATRIOTS’ DEFENSIVE LOSSES MAY BE TOO MUCH TO OVERCOME
While no team in professional sports has played as consistently as the New England Patriots have for the last 15 years, Bill Belichick is going to be challenged this year.
We are not even going to get into Tom Brady’s four-game “Deflategate” suspension. Just look at the defensive attrition. The most damaging move was Darrelle Revis’ decision to return to the Jets, but the Patriots have also lost Brandon Browner, Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard from their secondary.
They also decided that nose tackle Vince Wilfork was no longer essential to their success, and linebacker Brandon Spikes was released after a bizarre incident on the highway with his car.
The defensive shortcomings are going to be an issue all year, and this team is going to be quite vulnerable to losing control of the AFC East for the first time in years.
DOUG MARTIN ON HIS WAY TO GIVING BUCS A CREDIBLE GROUND GAME
Injuries have kept Doug Martin from following up on the brilliant rookie season he had in 2012 when he rushed for 1,454 yards. However, he is bound and determined to change that this year. He has gotten into excellent shape by losing weight, has gotten stronger and is running faster than in either of the two previous years.
If Martin can sustain the form he showed in the Bucs’ OTAs through training camp, it will give rookie quarterback Jameis Winston a much better chance of succeeding in his rookie year. The most noticeable difference in Martin’s performance was improved acceleration, which is vital for any running back in the NFL. It’s the difference between getting caught in the hole by a defensive lineman and exploding through it for eight yards or more.