4 teams that seem noteworthy, including one that might surprise you

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Even in late-August training camp, it’s still optimistic season for the NFL.

There may be an interception or a lingering injury. There may be holes in the offensive line. Quarterback development may have faltered. But until the first week of the regular season kicks off in September, there’s still plenty of time to negotiate with yourself and find reasons for optimism in the months ahead.

With my part of the annual Camp Tour in the books, I looked back in my notes to find four teams that struck me as worthy of the playoffs when I came out. I’ve already written at least once about these teams that came out of my visit, but I had a few stuck-on thoughts that I didn’t have time to share as I bounced from one team to the next.

With that in mind, four teams strike me as having a postseason appearance:

Thoughts when I passed…

in crime: Brandin Cooks is still very quick and immediately looked like an upgraded dimension on offense. But one of the interesting things that the Cowboys source mentioned is that Cooks was very professional from the second he walked through the door. The source said that Chefs has been great with younger players on both sides of the ball and that he’s the kind of veteran you wish he was in a wide receiving room but don’t always get. It resonated with me that the chef being so productive and yet on his fifth team in 10 years is likely to make some people wonder if he is quickly exhausting his welcome. If you’ve now been his past date, you know that’s not the case. And one thing that really stands out is that he was fairly quiet during his three-year stint with the Houston Texans when they were absolute train wreckage. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a very senior year in Dallas and that home became where he finished his senior years. Regardless, he’s going to be a big reason why the Cowboys have been on offense this season.

In defense: It’s hard to take your eyes off Micah Parsons when he’s on the field. He’s starting to feel like everything he’s doing is next level. Cowboys weren’t in the pads when I was on hand, so I tried to soften any conclusions about individual players. But even with that in mind, I felt Parsons was overpowering anyone who stood in front of him. Everything that has been written about Parsons working to gain strength during his break seems to be legit. It really looks like he’s preparing for this to be a great season for him in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. The only nagging concern is whether his penchant for going 100mph all the time is causing him some of the injuries. The added weight and power should help with that.

little more: Rookie defensive lineman Mazie Smith looked pretty good when I was at camp, but more than a few evaluators understood him to be a pretty big draft when we put him to the 2023 All-Juice team. This was the guy I really wished I could see alive in the pads When I was in Oxnard. … Curious to see how many great 1v1s owner Jerry Jones does this year if he’s had a successful season. I’ve heard he’s planning to fall back more than usual with media requests while he tends to Netflix documentary series. … I thought Michael Gallup, wide receiver, looked like him when I came in, but I also wonder if he might be a victim next season if he doesn’t really show he can at least be a strong No. 2 again. He should get some big chances alongside Cooks and CeeDee Lamb. If he doesn’t show up again, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s a commercial chip next season.

New York Jets

Thoughts when I passed…

in crime: They are happy with what they have among the tackles up front. But tackle points are definitely a spirited stance that threatens to undermine a loaded attack. The truth is, they need Mekhi Becton to get back into the right tackle spot. He simply has a lot of talent in a position that needs it most. Without it, these situations could be a huge disadvantage. Good news with Becton, who would start the final preseason game at right tackle, is that the team feels like it has turned a corner since the Hall of Fame game and has had some of its best weeks since returning from his knee problems. He’s been training hard and pushing himself through the upset, which has been a constant barrier in the past. If the light at the end of the tunnel is real, it would be a huge win for the team’s line.

In defense: If this isn’t the best defense in the NFL, she has a chance to make an argument if everyone stays healthy. The defensive line is the elite and will give opponents bouts throughout the season. Quinn Williams could be a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year with this Jets front. The defensive endpoints are four points deep with the linebackers bringing a good mix of veteran experience and young talent. Perhaps my only question mark would be the rotational full-back spot, which would be managed by the relatively inexperienced Jamin Sherwood. Other than that (which isn’t overly worrisome), there aren’t any gaps here. It will be fun to watch Saleh and coordinator Geoff Ulbrich order this unit this season.

little more: It struck me that the 2023 Jets draft looks like it could be another good one. Offensive line projections Joe Tippmann and Carter Warren will evolve over time, but first-round defensive lineman Will McDonald already looks like he’s going to be an absolute monster. During the draft, I thought the Jets had fumbled an offensive pick and took McDonald as a backup option. The Jets protested and said McDonald was always their choice. After seeing it in person, I think so. His speed and strength are ready as a beginner. He’s also a player who can roll in and out on the defensive line, creating plenty of matching problems for opponents. I also love the return of Ezzy Apanyakanda in Round 5, who has the kind of special speed that will make him valuable in a few different packages, perhaps as soon as this season. If both offensive lines become serviceable players, the Jets will have put together an impressive two-year draft between 2022, when they picked up both offensive and defensive rookie of the year, and 2023.

Thoughts when I passed…

in crime: The visit came on Brock Purdy’s rest day, so it left me watching Trey Lance and Sam Darnold take first-team shots. This was helpful in its own way, especially with Lance, who still lacked comfort under pressure. Watching both Lance and Darnold along with the rest of the starters, it was clear as a bell why Purdy wasn’t threatened as a 49ers starter. But the quarterback position wasn’t the only part of the visit that made it worthwhile. The offense is full of talented players, but the one who looked absolutely ready to explode was running back Christian McCaffrey. I’d seen McCaffrey for years at former Carolina Panthers camps, and it’s hard for me to remember when he seemed quicker, more decisive, or simply as complete as he did the day I visited San Francisco. It should be noted that McCaffrey just turned 27 in June and injuries have kept his yardage down in both 2020 and 2021. I mention this because the guy I saw reminded me of Christian McCaffrey of 2019, when he racked up 2,392 yards rushing and receiving and had 19 total touchdowns. . I wouldn’t rule out a career season from McCaffrey in 2023…or a discussion about stepping back in the midst of a late-season MVP race.

Christian McCaffrey could be in line for a big season with the San Francisco 49ers.  (AP Photo/Jeff Chew)

Christian McCaffrey could be in line for a big season with the San Francisco 49ers. (AP Photo/Jeff Chew)

In defense: There’s a lot we can talk about with the defence, but I was at least a little surprised that Nick Bosa’s contract hadn’t been out by the time I got through in the first week of August. Of everything she’s amassed in that time, the average annual salary is $31.7 million to $32 million with work guarantees of over $100 million. Perhaps the only thing that made me pause on my visit was the suggestion that Chris Jones’ hold-up with Kansas City might be a fly in the ointment, with two agencies waiting to see where the other might land in their negotiations. It didn’t sound like a real complaint at the time, but both negotiators dragged on, so maybe there’s something to it. Either way, there is no doubt that Bossa is key helping to ignite this defense. He deserves an Aaron Donald-type payday. In fact, the Brass 49ers annually lobby Defensive Player of the Year voters to consider a boss on the level of Donald. This payday makes sense. The fact that it wasn’t done early in camp doesn’t.

little more: When I get to training camp and watch team practice, I make it a habit to roster and circuit players who can be real difference-makers on game day. It’s an exercise in perception, but the 49ers have it a lot for the month of August. More than any camp I’ve visited in the past five weeks. But one spot that I was particularly interested in with San Francisco was right to deal with Colton McKevitz. Offensive line continuity is going to be very important to this team, and McKivitz was the important ultra, having replaced Mike McGlinchey, who signed with the Denver Broncos in free agency. Next to Purdy, I think the 49-year-old is betting more than any other player in attack is McEvitz. If he falters, it will have an impact on the swinging 2023 season. If he succeeds, it will be a gold star for the 49ers and offensive coaching staff. There’s a lot riding on McKivitz, and most individuals outside the 49ers field don’t really know who he is or why he’s important.

Thoughts when I passed…

in crime: This was one of the most surprising units of my camp tour. With the growth in the game of Treylon Burks, the addition of DeAndre Hopkins and drafting running back Tyjae Spears, you can easily see the potential for a better offense than some people had assumed. You have to see Spears in person to fully appreciate the explosive equipment he has on hand. I have no idea if his knee will hold up in the long run, but I’d bet he does some damage to opponents right out of the gate. The Titans will be especially interesting to see plays used by Derrick Henry and Spears at the same time. Throw in Chig Okonkwo with this pair and the teams will have some serious head-to-head trouble before they get to Hopkins or Burks. New offensive coordinator Tim Kelly will also provide a boost. I expect to see an increase in creativity right away. The potentially fatal flaw, of course, is the offensive line. But the majority of the league seems to have issues with their offensive line now. On the bright side, first-round draft pick Peter Skoronski looks like a player who will help this group move forward — no matter where he ends up playing.

In defense: This is just a really good and solid unit. From top to bottom, the defense is full of talent seemingly in every position. They are experienced, chippy, and hit the offense well the day I was at camp. I actually think if this unit stays healthy, it has a chance to be one of the best Mike Vrabel has ever coached. I suppose angles freak me out sometimes and maybe that’s a situation that really needs to escalate. But overall, it’s a defense that should cause some concern to all bettors who jumped on the Jacksonville Jaguars as the supposed easy money to win in the AFC South this season. If the offense can play slightly above average football, this defense will position the Titans to win a lot of games.

little more: While Malik Willis seemed sluggish at times in the training I attended, there was no question that he looked exponentially more comfortable in the quarterback position. He definitely took a huge step forward developmentally from last season and went up after drafting Will Levis in the second round. However, the scale and tools that Levi’s brings to the table are undeniable. His arm strength is ridiculous. I believe Levis is the future quarterback heir after Ryan Tannehill’s transfer, and it makes me suspect that some raving of the Willis titans is the arrival of some trade. But I think Willis has shown enough step forward to make it worth it to let another off-season kick in and see where the fight goes.

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