The end is in sight.
NFL teams start their training camps this week, after another seemingly endless offseason. That means actual football, complete with games that count for something more than bragging rights and practice squad spots, can't be far behind. The speculation, the promises, the hype... all that will only come faster and louder now as teams build toward the regular season. It's football time, and every team still has a chance.
Some rookies start the preseason already in the spotlight. The hopes of their teams, fans and cities already rest on their shoulders, and they haven't even played a down in the NFL yet. These rookies may be already feeling the pressure. Will they deliver?
1. Johnny Manziel, QB, Cleveland Browns
Maybe you've heard of this guy. Johnny Manziel has been making headlines at Texas A&M on and off the field for a few years now. That's what happens when you win the Heisman Trophy as a freshman. Manziel takes his run-and-gun style from College Station to win-starved Cleveland this season. Browns fans are excited -- his jersey is selling fast -- and they expect a lot. The recent return of LeBron deflected some of the attention for now, but The King can't help Johnny Football on the gridiron. And Manziel needs to win the starting job before he can help the Browns.
2. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, Houston Texans
Coming out of the 2013 season, the Houston Texans had a lot of holes to fill. Drafting defensive beast Jadeveon Clowney to play defensive end or outside linebacker fills one of them. Can he single-handedly right the Texans? Probably not. Blockers are a little more formidable in the NFL. Never mind that Clowney doesn't have much to do with fixing a woeful Texans offense. But he will be expected to make plays on a defense with J.J. Watt, Brian Cushing and not much more. The potential is there.
3. Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo Bills
He was the best receiver available in the 2014 draft, and the Bills grabbed him with the fourth pick. And why not? The guy can run, and the guy can catch. What more than that does it take? Well, quite a lot in the NFL. Starting second-year quarterback EJ Manuel is still learning the pro game. Stud receiver Stevie Johnson will be catching balls in San Francisco, so the focus will be on Watkins who is now projected as the number one. Lucky for the Bills, Watkins is already dazzling in training camp. He'll need to keep it up.
4. Michael Sam, DE, St. Louis Rams
The story around Michael Sam is bigger than football. Sam is looking to be the first openly gay player to play in the NFL. And his story, assuming he makes the roster, will be chronicled much more closely than that of the typical seventh round draft pick. It already has been. The book on Sam as a football player is that he's a little small to play defensive line and a little slow to play linebacker. He is, however, strong and durable with a good motor, which helped him become the co-SEC Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. People will be watching him closely.
5. Blake Bortles, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jacksonville Jaguars selected Blake Bortles with the third pick, making him the first quarterback taken in the 2014 draft. Bortles was the least talked about of the three QBs picked in the first round. And playing in Jacksonville, he may stay that way. Bortles has the size and pocket presence, not to mention vision and arm strength, to become an elite passer. He just doesn't have any proven weapons. Running back Maurice Jones-Drew is gone; wide receiver Justin Blackmon is out for the season. Chad Henne may start at quarterback to begin the season, but expect to see Bortles at some point. Just don't expect to see much.
6. Zack Martin, OT, Dallas Cowboys
It wouldn't be training camp if we didn't ask about the Cowboys' chances to win the NFC East and go deep in the playoffs. The answer to both: who knows? The Cowboys will compete in a muddled NFC East, and Zack Martin will certainly help their chances. Martin was one of the top offensive line talents -- and safest picks -- available in the draft. This sturdy, hardworking lineman can play anywhere along the line, though right guard seems to be where he'll land. The likely starting line, as a unit, is young and relatively inexperienced though loaded with talent. If the Cowboys win, they'll be a big part of it. If the Cowboys lose, they'll shoulder a fair share of the blame. To play in Dallas is to be in the spotlight. Welcome to another season of Cowboys' football.
Norm Elrod likes sports and other sanctioned forms of craziness.
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