NORTHBOUND ON HIGHWAY 75, Adel, Ga. — There are lonelier stretches of American highway than this. The six-hour drive from Jaguars camp in Jacksonville to Falcons camp in Flowery Branch, Ga., can be broken up nicely by counting the comically frequent appearances of billboards for the Magnolia Plantation, a curiosity to two Pennsylvania natives making the trek from northern Florida up through Philadelphia over the next seven days.
Boasting nuts, jams, jellies and LARGE CLEAN BATHROOMS, there is no way to escape the allure of this roadside behemoth which—no exaggeration—must have been advertised in 45, 100-foot-wide advertisements in one five-mile stretch. In a lot of ways, it’s like the NFL this time of year. Impossible to ignore. Impossible to look way.
But that’s why we’re here. Over the next three weeks, team MMQB will be on the road throughout the southeast, northeast, Midwest, and west to bring you wall-to-wall coverage of training camps. The newsletter will look a little different, with more capsules from our various locations and fewer outside links, but we don’t think you’ll mind.
It’s an unusual summer. The typical potpourri of preseason news stories—player weight gains, weight losses, new systems, holdouts, panicked contract extensions and emerging unknown rookies—will collide with the growing shadow that the national anthem policy is placing over the start of the season. Make no mistake: Teams, coaches and players are feeling it too.
Like Magnolia Plantation, The Morning Huddle will be a one-stop shop with the best original content and links from our team of writers. We also welcome you to hit us up and let us know where we should go, who we should talk to and what we should eat and drink along the way. The best part of a long road trip is having plenty of good—and new—friends to spend it with.
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NOW ON THE MMQB: Andy Benoit’s thoughts on the 2018 Colts, perhaps the biggest enigma in the NFL this year … Player-coach relationships, and Jon Gruden: Was it just the normal love/hate, or something deeper? … Jalen Ramsey is the best corner in football already. What happens next? … and more.
TRAINING CAMP TIDBITS, JULY 26
FOXBORO, Mass. — After an offseason full of speculation on where he’s at mentally and physically, Patriots QB Tom Brady looked just like he did at the team’s June minicamp—locked in and ready. Outside of being picked by Elandon Roberts in group work, Brady had a clean day of work, and even led the offense on a lap around the field after Brian Hoyer fumbled a snap with the second team. Rob Gronkowski looked as monstrous as always. There’s a chance that all the drama of the last year catches up with the Patriots in 2018 (my sense is there’s still some lingering discord in the building). It just wasn’t visible on this overcast, drizzly morning. —Albert Breer
DUVAL, Fla. — Blake Bortles was answering questions about the Super Bowl. The Jaguars quarterback, the butt of all the jokes, the one-time tosser of wounded duck footballs, is now piloting a legitimate contender to win the AFC. He seemed… in control.
“Our goal is to make the playoffs, win the AFC South and win the Super Bowl,” he told a small group of reporters here at TIAA Bank field. “That’s the three we wanted to do last year. Obviously we came up short of reaching that goal. But it does feel like it’s unfinished business.”
Bortles looked good Thursday considering he’s breaking in new targets. Free agents Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Donte Moncrief were both in the mix. It could come down to Bortles’s ability to aid in the development of some younger talent on the back end of the roster.
Despite sharing a division with Andrew Luck and Deshaun Watson, Bortles may be the most interesting player in the division right now. Jacksonville’s offense is suited for his comfort, but can stretch as far as he’d like it to go. With a thinner, arguably faster Leonard Fournette at his disposal, could we see him regain a similar situational aggressiveness that got him on the radar back in 2015.
GREEN BAY, Wisc. — The Packers opened camp as they always do, on child-sized bicycles. The tradition never gets old. Kids give their bikes to players and either walk alongside or hop on the back pegs to make their way across the street from Lambeau to the practice field. Receiver Randall Cobb and his kid raced past other Packers who were taking it slow on their baby bikes. One mom pointed out running back Aaron Jones to her son, who couldn’t have been more than three years old. “There’s Aaron Jones, remember he rode your bike last year?” His eyes got wide as he saw Jones pass. If I hadn’t grown up a Bears fan, I might be able to admit that being a young Packers fan looks pretty awesome.
On the field, free agent signee Jimmy Graham was hard to miss, standing 6′ 7″ and wearing black and yellow cleats with bright green spikes. Aaron Rodgers targeted Graham several times and the crowd went wild when he hit Graham on a crossing route.
Clay Matthews had the quote of the day during the team session. At one point, Rodgers’s offense stalled. From the sideline, Matthews yelled loud enough for fans and media to hear, “C’mon Aaron, get your offense together!”
The biggest change this offseason for the Packers is probably the culture change on defense. Mike Pettine, former Browns head coach and Bills and Jets defensive coordinator, is replacing longtime defensive coordinator Dom Capers. Pettine is installing a new defense he describes as multiple, with a disguise element. From one practice, the defense appears to be blitzing more than last season. Rex Ryan, who worked side-by-side with Pettine in Baltimore and with the Jets, told ESPN that Pettine’s fast-paced defense makes it fun for the players, and, “if you love the game, then these guys died and went to heaven in this system.”
The players seem to agree with Ryan’s hyperbolic take. “He believes in letting you play football,” says cornerback Tramon Williams. “Bottom line is, if my guy is better than your guy, he is going to let you be better than that guy. Unlike some other coaches, who might put a leash on you too much. He’s not going to put a leash on you, that’s what guys love.
“We’ve had one day so far,” says third-year defensive end Dean Lowry. “But I can tell you that as a D-lineman we are really attacking this year, so it is fun for us.” —Kalyn Kahler
ELSEHWERE IN THE NFL
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BUFORD, Ga. — After seven hours in the car, sometimes you just need Def Leppard beer and Brussels sprouts.
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