Tue May 17 6:22pm ET
By DAVE CAMPBELL
AP Pro Football Writer
Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook laughs with his teammates as they take part in drills at the NFL football team's practice facility in Eagan, Minn., Tuesday, May 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)
Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter takes part in drills at the NFL football team's practice facility in Eagan, Minn., Tuesday, May 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)
Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O'Connell directs his team in drills at the NFL football team's practice facility in Eagan, Minn., Tuesday, May 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)
Minnesota Vikings linebacker Za'Darius Smith takes part in drills at the NFL football team's practice facility in Eagan, Minn., Tuesday, May 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)
Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson takes part in drills at the NFL football team's practice facility in Eagan, Minn., Tuesday, May 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)
EAGAN, Minn. (AP) Danielle Hunter became the youngest player in NFL history to reach 50 sacks, an athletic marvel for the Minnesota Vikings who was as durable as they come in this violent sport.
About 2 1/2 years later, with his gaudy sack total stalled out from consecutive injury-wrecked seasons, Hunter has found himself in sort of a reinvention mode.
After legitimate question about whether he'd return this year to the salary-cap-strapped Vikings, Hunter is not only back on the roster - and healthy - but flanked by a new pass-rushing pal on the opposite side of the defense in Za'Darius Smith.
''It kind of hurts just watching people play when you're not able to play, so I'm happy just to be back with my teammates,'' Hunter said Tuesday, after one of the 10 organized practices the Vikings are allowed this spring prior to mandatory minicamp.
The Vikings converted an $18 million roster bonus into a signing bonus to spread out the cap hit and thus lessen the burden of his contract this year, but there's another megadeal awaiting him as long as he doesn't succumb to more serious injuries. Whether that comes with the Vikings or another club has yet to be determined.
''He's a really great player, so you don't just move on from great players very easily,'' new general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah said in March.
Hunter befriended Smith, who was then with the rival Green Bay Packers, at the Pro Bowl after the 2019 season when they were teammates on the NFC squad. Their relationship goes back to the 2015 draft class as products of the mighty SEC, with Hunter out of LSU and Smith from Kentucky.
The Vikings made Smith, who is coming off a major back injury that limited him to one game in 2021, their top signing in free agency with a contract worth up to $47 million over three years.
''Just to be able to be here and have a chance to be on the opposite side of him is wonderful, man. I just can't wait,'' Smith said.
Hunter is officially an outside linebacker now, no longer listed as a defensive end as the Vikings switch their base scheme from a 4-3 to the 3-4 alignment Smith played in with the Packers.
As Hunter was quick to note Tuesday in his first interview session with reporters since last Sept. 29, the Vikings lined up in a 3-4 defense often at Arizona on Sept. 19 to try to contain dual threat quarterback Kyler Murray. Hunter had three sacks in that game. So he's not concerned about a significant transition, from working out of a three-point stance to standing up on the edge.
His primary focus these days is just relishing being back on the field again. After a herniated disk in his neck required surgery and sidelined him for the entire 2020 season, Hunter was back in his usual form until he tore a pectoral muscle during the Oct. 31 game against Dallas. After a three-month rehabilitation, he said, he was back to normal strength.
''Anything can happen out there while I'm playing, you know?'' Hunter said. ''I love the game of football. That's why I'm here. If I didn't like it, I wouldn't be here.''
The Houston Texans have been sued for allegedly enabling former quarterback Deshaun Watson's behavior during massage-therapy sessions. The lawsuit accuses the team of being aware of Watson's alleged behavior during massage sessions and that "individuals within the Texans organization knew or should have known of Watson's conduct." The lawsuit also states the team provided Watson with resources to conduct his therapy sessions, including "rooms set up for him at the Houstonian Hotel, massage tables provided to him for private massage sessions, and a NDA provided to him from the head of Texans' security." Watson is facing potential discipline from the NFL, and his hearing before disciplinary officer Sue Robinson is set to begin Tuesday. Hopefully, we'll get more clarity soon on a potential 2022 suspension for Watson.
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson confirmed that he added 12 to 15 pounds of muscle mass this offseason. He said he usually played at between 205 and 208 pounds, but he's now at 220 pounds. "I just wanted to do it. See how I look, see how I feel," Jackson said. "And I feel good." The 25-year-old has been training hard in the offseason, and the ball was leaving his hand in a different way with more zip on his passes when he reported to mandatory minicamp. Jackson also worked with 3DQB throwing mechanics coach/trainer Adam Dedeaux this offseason. He finished last year on a disappointing note when he missed the final four games of the year due to an ankle injury, but Jackson is motivated to rebound and he has the talent to finish as a high-end QB1.
Miami Dolphins defensive back Eric Rowe has the ability to play both safety and cornerback, but he will likely play a depth role this year with Jevon Holland and Brandon Jones ascending as the starting safeties early last season. If the Dolphins chose to trade Rowe, they would save $4.55 million and incur just $525,000 in dead money. If Rowe remains with Miami, they'll be paying him $5.075 million. The 29-year-old finished with 71 tackles (43 solo), four passes defensed and three forced fumbles in 17 games (four starts) last year in his third season with the Dolphins. Rowe was originally a second-round pick in 2015 by the Philadelphia Eagles out of Utah.
Buffalo Bills speedy wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie appears to have an early lead in the battle to take over Cole Beasley's slot receiver role in 2022, but veteran Jamison Crowder looked solid during offseason workouts in his first year with the team. Crowder dealt with injuries in his final year with the New York Jets, but he might have found a good fit with the Bills. The competition between McKenzie and Crowder for playing time in the slot will be one to watch in training camp. The 29-year-old played in only 12 games in 2021 and finished with 51 catches for 447 yards and two touchdowns, but he managed 833 yards and six touchdowns as recently as 2019 with the Jets, and Crowder could be a sleeper in the slot if he wins the competition and gains quarterback Josh Allen's trust.
New England Patriots wide receiver Tre Nixon spent all of last season on the practice squad, but the seventh-round pick in 2021 has a close bond with second-year quarterback Mac Jones, and he's made an early case this offseason as a player to watch when training camp begins at the end of July. Nixon drove to the stadium every day last year with Jones as they took their COVID-19 tests together before entering the facility. The Patriots already have DeVante Parker, Jakobi Meyers, Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne and second-round rookie Tyquan Thornton, but none of them are established receivers in the NFL, so Nixon could make some noise in the pecking order if he plays well during training camp.
Baltimore Ravens fourth-round rookie tight end Isaiah Likely has impressed this offseason with his ability to get open and his large catch radius. "Watch out for this guy," safety Tony Jefferson said. "He's going to be really good." Likely caught several touchdown passes during red-zone drills as the star of the final day of mandatory minicamp. Quarterback Lamar Jackson said "the sky's the limit" for Likely. The 22-year-old from Coastal Carolina was extremely productive in college, and he finished 2021 with 59 catches for 912 yards and 12 touchdowns, but he's a little small and slow at his position by NFL standards. Mark Andrews is the clear No. 1 pass-catching tight end for Baltimore, but Likely is one to keep an eye on as he competes with Josh Oliver and fellow rookie Charlie Kolar this summer.
Cleveland Browns former second-round safety Grant Delpit has battled injuries, including an Achilles tear in his rookie season in 2020, but he's now a projected starter entering training camp after surging this offseason. Delpit intercepted quarterback Deshaun Watson on several occasions in team drills. The combination of Delpit and John Johnson III could make the Browns safeties a major strength in 2022. Delpit missed all of his rookie season and finished with 66 tackles (43 solo), three tackles for loss, one interception, three passes defensed, one forced fumble and one sack in 15 games (seven starts) last year. If the 23-year-old can stay healthy, he could be a force for the Browns.
Pittsburgh Steelers rookie tight end Connor Heyward, the younger brother of Steelers pass-rusher Cameron Heyward, impressed in offseason workouts and showed chemistry with first-round quarterback Kenny Pickett during minicamp. The sixth-round selection is expected to be a hybrid tight end/fullback in an offense that values versatility in its skill players. The 23-year-old has mostly been working with the tight ends and receivers, so he's unlikely to be competing for the fullback spot with Derek Watt in training camp. It remains to be seen if Heyward will actually become a threat as a pass-catching tight end in Pittsburgh, but he's one to watch moving forward because of his versatility.
Houston Texans quarterback Davis Mills pointed to second-year wide receiver Nico Collins as a player who stood out this spring. Mills said Collins has a "good grasp of this offense" and "his talent is off the charts." Mills also said that the team needs to "find ways to get (Collins) the ball" this year. The 23-year-old wideout has looked stronger this offseason after hauling in 33 of his 60 targets for 446 yards and one touchdown in 14 games in his rookie campaign. Collins appears to have also improved his chemistry with Mills, which is extremely important. Along with veteran Brandin Cooks, who is the Texans' unquestioned No. 1 receiver, Collins is poised to improve in his sophomore season in 2022.
Denver Broncos cornerback Michael Ojemudia has drawn a ton of praise during organized team activities and minicamp this offseason. He was thrown into the starting lineup as a rookie due to injuries on the roster in 2020, but he played sparingly last year after suffering a severe hamstring injury in the preseason. But when the Broncos took a cautious approach to Ronald Darby's shoulder injury during OTAs, Ojemudia quickly grabbed the attention of the new defensive staff and worked with the starters. The 24-year-old was played in practices like the No. 4 corner behind Patrick Surtain II, Darby and K'Waun Williams. Ojemudia played in just two games last year, but he had 62 tackles (55 solo), six passes defensed and four forced fumbles in 16 games as a rookie.
Kansas City Chiefs safety Juan Thornhill is healthy for perhaps the first time since he tore the ACL in his left knee as a rookie in 2019, and he was impressive during offseason workouts. With Tyrann Mathieu now gone, the Chiefs will ask Thornhill to take on a bigger role in their secondary. "I'm committed to doing that," Thornhill said. Those are big shoes to fill, but the 26-year-old from Virginia is up to the task after producing a career-high 64 tackles (43 solo), one interception, three passes defensed, one forced fumble and a fumble recovery in 17 games (12 starts) in his third season with KC in 2021. Thornhill has 163 total tackles (118) in his three NFL seasons, and he could easily force his way onto the IDP radar in a bigger role this year.
The New York Jets expect defensive end Carl Lawson (Achilles) to be ready for Week 1 against the Baltimore Ravens after he suffered an Achilles injury during last year's training camp that caused him to miss all of 2021 in his first season with the team. Early in training camp this summer, the Jets might opt to err on the side of caution and keep Lawson off the field to give him more time to rehab. The 26-year-old signed a three-year, $45 million deal before getting injured last year. The former fourth-round pick by the Cincinnati Bengals in 2017 out of Auburn had 5.5 sacks, a career-high 36 tackles (18 solo), four tackles for loss, 32 QB hits and two forced fumbles in 16 games in his last season with the Bengals in 2020. A healthy Lawson would be great news for the Jets defensive line.
New York Giants rookie defensive lineman Kayvon Thibodeaux (hip), who was the fifth overall pick in this year's draft, said he'll be ready for training camp at the end of July after sustaining a minor hip injury in spring practice. "I'm fully healthy, I'm doing fine," Thibodeaux said. "I'm back training and I'll be ready to go for training camp." In his three seasons at Oregon, Thibodeaux has 126 tackles (84 solo), 19 sacks, seven passes defensed and three forced fumbles. His presence should help improve a Giants pass rush that had just 34 sacks last year, which was tied for 22nd in the league. Injuries could be an issue for the 21-year-old, who battled ailments in his final two seasons in college.
Washington Commanders wide receiver Terry McLaurin is signing a three-year contract extension on Tuesday that is worth up to $71 million in new money that puts him amongst the league's top-five highest-paid receivers, according to sources. The Commanders said all along that McLaurin wasn't a trade candidate after he held out of offseason workouts, including minicamp, and the 26-year-old will stick around for at least three more seasons in D.C. The former third-rounder has produced back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons in Washington with sub-par quarterback play, and he's scored 16 times in his three NFL seasons. McLaurin will have Carson Wentz throwing him passes in 2022, and he'll be a solid WR2 target going into his fourth season.
Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield isn't completely ruling out the possibility of a reconciliation with the team in the event that the NFL suspends Deshaun Watson for the entire 2022 season, but the disgruntled QB also said the Browns would have to be the ones to start the process. "I think for that to happen there would have to be some reaching out," Mayfield said. "But we're ready to move on, I think -- on both sides." If Watson is suspended the Browns are expected to roll with Jacoby Brissett. Cleveland has discussed trading Mayfield with the Carolina Panthers, but a deal won't happen unless the Browns agree to eat more of Mayfield's almost $19 million guaranteed salary. Mayfield is also rehabbing from offseason shoulder surgery, but he should be ready for the start of the 2022 season for the Browns or whichever team pulls the trigger and trades for him.
Dynasty | Steelers receiver Chase Claypool needs to rebound after a poor second season Dynasty Analysis: Following an impressive rookie season, Claypool struggled with consistency in 2021, seeing his touchdown total drop from nine in 2020 to only two in 2021. Fellow receiver Diontae Johnson is clearly the WR1 in the offense but Juju Smitch-Schuster has moved on and will be on the receiving end of passes from Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City. For Claypool, who "needs to expand his route tree and get away from the bad habit of falling when he's tracking a deep ball," the future is now and the lights are on with the expectation that he'll begin the season as the team's WR2. Chase Claypool, DLF's WR34, is clearly a high-risk, high-reward WR3 option in dynasty may also be negatively impacted by quarterback play in the near-term.
Dynasty | Giants receivers, including sophomore Kadarius Toney, could benefit from an improved offense providing more freedom, movement and an expectation of big plays. Dynasty Analysis: New head coach Brian Daboll has brought an entirely new style to the offense and will feature "moving parts all day long" said receiver Sterling Shepard. Coming from Buffalo, which finished near the top of the league in yardage and points, Daboll has overhauled the offense to provide more freedom and give receivers "a lot of leeway to win" in the words of second-year player Kadarius Toney. If there's more movement, freedom and space available in the passing game, this would seem to benefit the dynamic Toney who figures to be a prominent fixture in three-receiver sets. There aren't many more difficult projections than the Giants in 2022 but if Daboll is able to transfer his offensive success from Buffalo to New York, Kadarius Toney, DLF's WR53, could be an intriguing dynasty sleeper.
Dynasty | Steelers rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett worked with the third-team offense exclusively Dynasty Analysis: This comes as no surprise and all expectations have been that Pickett wouldn't be rushed under-center with both Mason Rudolph and newcomer Mitchell Trubisky as more experienced options. Trubisky is fully expected to be the starter though things could get more interesting as we near mid-season if the team has fallen from playoff contention. Pickett, 2022's 20th-overall selection and first quarterback off the board, has been dogged by questions about his hand size which may have contributed to 38 collegiate fumbles. He's listed as DLF's QB23 and rookie QB1 while coming off the board sometimes as late as the third round of dynasty rookie drafts.
New York Jets DE Carl Lawson (Achilles) is expected to be ready for the start of the regular season, according to ESPN.