I did it for you, folks. Make no mistake. I didn't want to hop on a plane in late July and leave the oppressive humidity of the East Coast for a long stretch of perfect, breezy California sunshine. I did it for work. For football journalism. For the people. For you.
This year's camp tour took me (mainly) west. I saw the Rams and Chargers in Southern California. I went to Minnesota for a day, then back to California to see the 49ers and Raiders, up to Seattle to see the Seahawks and then back to Cali for a day with the Cowboys. Seven hotels, six one-way flights, five rental cars, four days on TV, three trips to In-N-Out Burger, two hotel laundry days and one oversized, nearly spent can of spray-on sunscreen. All for you.
The point, of course, was to talk to as many of the people as possible who play for and run those teams. To learn. To educate myself so I could pass that information along to you to make you a better educated football fan and, in this case, fantasy football player.
Oh, yes. Much of the information I glean from talking to sources on these trips is especially useful for those of you who are preparing for your fantasy football drafts in the next couple of weeks. So here you go: 15 fantasy tips I learned on my 2018 training camp trip.
1. All systems go for Dalvin Cook
Cook isn't even wearing a brace on his surgically repaired knee. He's full-go in practice and told me his focus this offseason has been learning and applying lessons that will help him take better care of his body "because in college, you know, you just do your thing." I got the sense around the Vikings that the offense will lean heavily on Cook, especially early, while new quarterback Kirk Cousins and new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo get to know each other. For his part, Cook says his focus going into the season is trying to start games faster: "Get on the defense early, so we can open this thing up for those receivers we've got. That's why we paid these guys. But for me, I've always been a guy who was going out there trying to feel a defense out. Now I want the defense to feel me out. Gonna flip the script on that."
2. What was that about Cousins again?
Yeah, sorry. Cousins obviously has a lot going for him in Minnesota, with guys such as Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, Kyle Rudolph and Cook to throw the ball to. I believe he's in position to have a big year. But my conversation with him gave me the feeling that he's still settling in.
Now, this was a July 31 conversation, which means there's plenty more settle-in time before the games count. But a couple of people around the league have told me they're waiting to see what DeFilippo installs before predicting big things for Cousins. He has succeeded in structured systems run by coaches such as Kyle Shanahan and Jay Gruden, and it's possible that DeFilippo's system will put Cousins in a similar position to succeed. But some believe he could struggle if the system forces him to freelance too much and make plays on his own.
One of those people, believe it or not, is Kirk Cousins, who brought it up unsolicited when I lobbed him the old standby training camp question, "What part of your game are you working on?"
"I'd love to be a better quarterback off-schedule when the pocket breaks down," Cousins said. "Although, I have been a very good quarterback, I believe, on keepers, meaning bootlegs outside the pocket, which are very similar to off-schedule plays. So I'd like to see that translate more, where when a dropback breaks down and I leave the pocket, I can have the same kind of production that I've had when we've run bootlegs and things like that."
Seriously, a lot of guys answer that question with stuff like "everything" and "consistency." Props to Kirk for helping us with specifics.
3. Oh, and yeah ... the Vikings' defense
I know we all say don't draft defenses early, but when the time comes and someone already has grabbed the Jaguars ... In my whole trip, I didn't see a defense that looked better in practice than Minnesota's did the day I was there. The pairing of Sheldon Richardson and Linval Joseph on the defensive line is going to wreck a lot of people's Sundays.
4. What Jimmy Garoppolo did last season was nuts
I loved this nugget from my interview with Jimmy G, talking about the difference now that he has a whole offseason instead of just a couple of days to learn Shanahan's offense. I asked, "So this year it's really studying, whereas last year it was CliffsNotes?"
"Yeah, on a good week it was CliffsNotes," he said. "Sometimes, he would call something, and I'd be in the game like, 'I'm not sure what this side has, but I know what this side has, so we're going to run it to this side. So now it's full understanding and things slow down, which in a quarterback situation is the best thing." If you needed another reason to like Garoppolo's chances this season, there you go.
5. I wouldn't reach for Jerick McKinnon
The 49ers' big free-agent running back signing is going 30th on average in drafts, which means late third, maybe early fourth round, depending on league size. I don't see too many guys behind him whom I'd rush to take ahead of him (though my hunch is Joe Mixon's opportunity in Cincinnati might be larger than McKinnon's in San Francisco), but I wouldn't move him up too far, based on the conversations I had while at 49ers camp.
Shanahan definitely has a role in mind for McKinnon, but I don't think it's "bell-cow running back." Before you point out that they gave him $7.5 million a year, you should know the Niners don't think that was an overspend. They believed the running back market was depressed (pre-Todd Gurley, at least) and that $7.5 million per year for a versatile running back who can catch the ball and run it was a better financial play than, say, spending the $9.6 million the Jaguars spent on receiver Donte Moncrief. McKinnon fits in a lot of ways, but Matt Breida should have a role in this offense too, and don't be surprised if there are weeks when Breida is the early-down guy and outscores McKinnon even in PPR leagues.
6. Marquise Goodwin is a different story
Currently being drafted as the No. 41 wide receiver, right behind Sterling Shepard and somehow 23 picks later than teammate Pierre Garcon, Goodwin is -- I believe -- underrated. The 49ers view him as their clear No. 1 wide receiver, and so does he. Long known as a speedster, Goodwin improved enough as a pass-catcher last season that one of his coaches told me, "Now he has the mindset that he really believes he's the best." Confidence oozes out of Goodwin, and he's the most known quantity among the Niners' pass-catchers. Garcon is a reliable, old Shanahan favorite but not as explosive as he used to be. If there's a sleeper in this group, it's probably rookie Dante Pettis, who coaches say is showing a remarkable ability to get himself open. If he picks up the offense quickly, he could be a factor right away.
7. Multiple reasons to expect Melvin Gordon to get better
Chargers coach Anthony Lynn told me that one of his regrets in his first year was not getting Gordon more work in the passing game. He believes Gordon can help more as a receiver out of the backfield. That's after a season in which Gordon had 58 catches (tied for eighth among running backs and 47th in the league), so if you're playing PPR leagues and wondering about Gordon, that should perk up your ears. Lynn thinks backup Austin Ekeler showed enough last season that he feels OK about spelling Gordon in the running game if the Chargers need to do that to get Gordon more involved in the passing game.
As for Gordon, his goal is to deliver more explosive plays, and he told me that he thinks the addition of center Mike Pouncey is the key to that.
"It means everything," Gordon said. "We had [Matt] Slauson, but Slauson's more of a guard. Now we've got a true center, so I'm happy. Just a guy getting off blocks, getting downfield on a 'backer, that helps plays go a long way. He can help with those explosive plays. It'll be a big difference -- someone who can move out there. Slauson was more of a powerful man, run you over. Pounce can get to the second level quick."
8. Mike Williams could be a touchdown-maker
The Chargers' first-round pick in the 2017 draft suffered through an injury-plagued rookie season but says he feels healthy now and is working in practice to develop trust with quarterback Philip Rivers. When I asked Williams what the team could do to overcome the loss of tight end Hunter Henry, he mentioned a specific way the Chargers have been working to find use for his massive size.
"I've got a big role in the red zone right now," Williams said. "Henry was a big red zone threat, and that's a spot where I can help. So we're working on a lot of that stuff right now."
9. Amari Cooper is the Raiders WR you want
The Raiders are a mystery team this season. After spending a couple of days with them, I'm still not sure whether they'll be a good team, a bad team or somewhere in the middle. I'm not sure they know either. But what I did come away believing is that Jon Gruden's offense plans to throw, throw and throw some more -- and that Gruden wants the whole thing to run through Derek Carr, with Cooper as his No. 1 receiver. Gruden told me veteran Jordy Nelson was brought in, in part, to help Cooper elevate his game. It seems clear that Gruden and the Raiders coaches want to lean on Cooper as the star of the passing game and work off that.
10. The second Raiders WR you want is ... Ryan Switzer?
Maybe, maybe not. But on the days I was there, Gruden was talking up Switzer as a player who has shown more than the coaches expected as a slot receiver. The WR picture in Oakland is wide-open after Cooper right now, with Gruden still not sold on Martavis Bryant and Nelson heading into his age-33 season. Seth Roberts is still on the team but is a candidate to be traded by camp's end -- especially if Bryant starts to show more consistency. But Switzer is a sure thing to make the team because of his role as a return man, and it seems that there's a regular role in the offense for him too. If you're in a deep league and need receivers late, this is a guy who could be a Derek Carr safety net. Honestly, it's not as if the Raiders are going to lean on the running game out there.
11. Brandin Cooks should deliver more production for the Rams than Sammy Watkins did last season
The Rams wanted Watkins back but were outbid by the Chiefs. Then they traded for Cooks, ostensibly to replace Watkins as the "X" receiver in Sean McVay's offense. But McVay had some interesting things to say when I asked him about the comparison between those two players:
"I think there's a lot of ways I could have done a better job using Sammy, just in terms of getting him more opportunities and really just getting him more touches, things like that," McVay said. "But I think, as we get more comfortable with understanding what exactly does Brandin do best, there's a lot of ways that we anticipate using him: moving him around the formation, not necessarily just exclusively playing the X, but on the outside, in the slot ... I think he's a rare type player. He's obviously had the deep ball production, but I think he can do a lot of other things as far as the short and intermediate game as well because he can beat bump-man, he's got real aggressive hands, real good step to the football, and you look at the way New England used him and even New Orleans on the jet sweeps and different things like that."
Quarterback Jared Goff said receivers Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp know all of the WR positions on the Rams' offense already, which means the ability to move Cooks around the formation could make this an unpredictable fantasy offense week-to-week. But the Rams should run enough plays and score enough points that everyone delivers value.
Here's @dangerusswilson putting in work at @seahawks camp, where the notion that this is a team on the way down hasn't really penetrated. "The philosophy doesn't change; the people change," coach Pete Carroll told me after practice Monday. "And they bring their dynamic and their special qualities and their uniqueness to it, and becomes them." #football #trainingcamp #seahawks #nfl #seattle
12. Chris Carson is the No. 1 running back in Seattle
This is one of the first things you realize when you show up at Seahawks camp. Carson is getting the first-team reps, and everybody is talking about how great the dude looks. Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright offered a bit of an old-school comparison that should hold particular appeal for people (like me!) who were playing fantasy football 15-20 years ago:
"He reminds me a lot of Fred Taylor. That's a good comparison for him," Wright said. "Fred Taylor was just all cut up and kind of stickily built. He's just straight-ahead, man, and he can make you miss in the open field too. He'll be fun to watch."
Yeah, I know the Seahawks drafted Rashaad Penny in the first round (get to that in a sec), and obviously things change as the season goes along. But Carson was a hot name coming out of last year's Seahawks camp before he got hurt, and assuming he stays healthy, the bet here is that he leads the team in RB touches in 2018.
13. But you should draft Rashaad Penny too
They didn't take him in the first round to NOT use him. People I asked about this situation in Seattle said the reason behind the Penny pick was that the Seahawks needed another explosive player in the running game in addition to Carson and that their 2017 season was a lesson in the need for multiple options at running back. They had so many injuries at that position last year that quarterback Russell Wilson led the team in rushing by 346 yards, with 586.
A couple of things to remember here: First, the Seahawks' program is based on development, and they usually draft players with an eye toward using them down the road. Ideally for Seattle, Carson can handle the No. 1 running back workload this season, Penny slides in as a useful backup and change-of-pace guy, and Penny is a better player for the experience next year or the year after when his role increases. Second, the Seahawks have a very unsettled situation at wide receiver, with Doug Baldwin the No. 1 but in his usual specific role and Tyler Lockett the most likely candidate for the No. 2 receiver role. There's a pretty good chance the running backs will figure prominently into the passing game, in which case there'll be plenty of touches to go around. Don't reach for Penny, but don't forget about him -- especially in keeper leagues.
14. Not even the Cowboys know who's going to catch the ball
They're not trying to kid anybody. You ask their decision-makers, "Who's going to catch the ball?" and the answer comes back, "Yeah, we need to figure that out. But that's what camp is for." They have a month until the season and need to sort out roles in the passing game, where right now they have slot man Cole Beasley set and believe they can throw it more to Ezekiel Elliott. Beyond that? Your guess is as good as mine. The Cowboys really like rookie Michael Gallup, but he has a long way to go as far as learning the offense. Allen Hurns and Terrance Williams haven't been fully healthy. Tavon Austin and Deonte Thompson are in the mix. Geoff Swaim and Blake Jarwin are getting some attention at tight end, but there are other guys in the mix too.
The Cowboys are going to be a run-heavy team. They make no secret of that. But Dak Prescott will have to throw the ball sometimes, and it's too early to know for sure who (besides Beasley and Elliott on the short stuff) will be on the other end of those throws.
15. And, oh yeah ... draft Elliott
This should be a no-brainer, but there's no reason to be any less excited about Ezekiel Elliott than there was either of the past two years. Given the fact that he was a rookie in 2016 and was facing suspension in 2017, there might be reason to be more excited. If you're picking fourth and Le'Veon Bell, Todd Gurley and David Johnson are gone, you're still fine. Don't overthink it.