DAVIE, Fla. — What makes a talented player break out in his third NFL season? Sometimes, it could just be that he needed time, or health, or different coaching voices helping him along. Sometimes, it could be that he needed to make major changes in his life before he could make them on the field.
The first three stops on my 2017 training camp tour were the three Florida teams, and I began with the Dolphins, who are extremely excited about the way Parker has looked this offseason. And it’s not just on the field, where Parker showcases a huge catch radius and the ability to high-point the ball and make contested catches. It’s off the field, the way he eats, the way he works out, the way he sleeps. Yes, really.
“We saw it in the middle of the year last year, when he came back from his injury,” Dolphins coach Adam Gase said. “(Receivers coach) Shawn Jefferson did a good job of putting together a program to get him to understand how he has to go about every day of his professional career, from how you sleep, what time you get up, what you put in your body, how you need to study, how you need to practice. And once Shawn kind of put this program together, he really took to it, we noticed a different speed with him in practice.”
Perplexed by Parker’s trouble staying healthy, the sports science-conscious Dolphins began to ask the former first-round pick specific questions about how much water he was drinking every day, what kinds of strength workouts he was doing, what his sleep patterns were. To their shock, the answers to those three specific questions were: not enough, none at all, and inconsistent. It wasn’t that Parker was irresponsible. It was that no one had ever taught him the importance of hydration, nutrition, proper rest. He basically needed someone to set up a program for him and check with him throughout the day to make sure it was working. To hand him a water bottle if he forgot to take enough from the cafeteria. Teach him how to do a hamstring curl.
“You come in here from college, you don’t really think you’ve got to lift weights, but you really do,” Parker said. “And it’s going to pay off big time.”
Parker averaged 41 catches for 619 yards per season in his first two years in the league. The Dolphins expect more, and they believe the changes he has made will lead to big things. A Parker breakout to go with Jarvis Landry and Kenny Stills would give the Dolphins a formidable receiving corps.
“Vante is a freak,” Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi said. “For him personally, it’s just going to be, ‘How great does he want to be?’ and I think he wants to be really great.”
Some other notes from my Florida camp swing, in no particular order:
Branden Albert‘s retirement Monday stunned the Jacksonville Jaguars. Players said they didn’t see it coming, especially since Albert was in the building working out the day before. And while the move seems to clear room for rookie Cam Robinson to start at left tackle, the Jaguars’ coaching staff had a plan in place for Robinson’s Year 1 development and now will have to make changes to it. As one Jaguars source put it, “We wanted him to win the job, not just hand it to him.” There also was a possibility that Robinson would start at left guard with Albert at left tackle, and if that was the plan, they will need to find someone to play guard. The Jags want to run the ball and make things easy on quarterback Blake Bortles. Monday was a setback in those plans.
Second-year pass-rusher Noah Spence is the hot name in Tampa Bay Buccaneers camp. A second-round pick last year after being kicked out of Ohio State for drug use and finishing his career at Eastern Kentucky, Spence had 5.5 sacks while playing his rookie season in a shoulder harness. Surgery to repair the shoulder this offseason has left him feeling very good. And while the front office would like to see him add weight, (a) they believe he will and (b) his defensive coordinator isn’t sure he has to.
“He’s a heavy-handed guy,” Mike Smith said. “When he puts his hands on you, even though he doesn’t carry the weight of an average defensive end, he’s very heavy-handed, and he can play the run.”
Spence loves the defensive line he got thrown into, with veterans Gerald McCoy and Robert Ayers on it. He said Ayers is helping teach him how to channel his on-field temper. Ayers laughed and said he enjoys mentoring because Spence reminds him of himself, and he has experience trying to manage his anger on the field.
“Those are two angry dudes,” McCoy said of Spence and Ayers. “And then we have Clinton McDonald, who’s a nice guy like me, but if you push his buttons, he turns into ‘The Hammer,’ man. He turns into Thor. We call him ‘The Hammer.’ He becomes unstoppable once he gets angry. So I think we’ve got every piece here and there. Will Gholston is ‘The Tight End Punisher.’ Tight ends hate to see Will coming.”
Jags rookie running back Leonard Fournette is a good fantasy play. I’ve covered Tom Coughlin a while, and for the Jaguars’ football boss to talk about a rookie the way he talked about Fournette on Monday is eye-opening.
“Powerful, strong, better hands than I ever thought,” Coughlin said. “Good kid and a good worker. Came in, right after the draft, came in a little heavy, and we talked about it, and he comes in here at 227. He’s a guy that seems to practice well. I think he’s one of those guys that, if you’re in a circumstance, one up or one down in the fourth quarter, he can make a big difference. I think he’s still going to have a lot of gas in his tank, maybe be able to get some of those tough yards at the end of the game.”
Doesn’t sound like the rookie’s going to have to earn his carries ahead of incumbents Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon, does it? Fournette said Coughlin and coach Doug Marrone have “been on me, to get in my books more, learn defenses, stay in shape and keep my weight down, and I like that.”
“I’m used to it,” Fournette said. “Coach (Les) Miles did it. Coach (Ed Orgeron) did it, all my running back coaches did it. It’s tough love, I’m used to it.”
Dolphins coach Adam Gase is worried about one particular broadcaster. Former Bears coach Jay Cutler, for whom Gase was offensive coordinator in 2015, is now a broadcaster. Gase and Cutler are very close — Gase was invited to Cutler’s retirement party a couple of months ago. But he doesn’t expect his former quarterback to hold anything back.
“He will crush me,” Gase said, smiling. “I promise you, he will crush me on the broadcast. If he does one of our games, he’s going to question every play call that I make. I can hear the, ‘I don’t know if I would have called that’ right now. He’ll kill me. He knows all my little annoyances.
Roberto Aguayo‘s job is definitely not safe in Tampa Bay. Bucs people promise they’re not going to sink a season just to prove they were right to trade up and take Aguayo in the second round of the 2015 draft. He’s in a legitimate competition with Nick Folk for the kicker job. As for what went wrong last season, Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said, “I just think there’s a lot of pressure on him, being drafted where he was. And then early in the year, he missed a couple, and in the NFL it’s a you-gotta-execute business.” The pressure definitely is on Aguayo this camp, and if he doesn’t handle it better than he did last year, he could be looking for work in late August.
Jags quick-hitters: The Jaguars are high on third-round defensive end Dawuane Smoot from Illinois and wonder if he can come on the way 2016 third-rounder Yannick Ngakoue did last year to emerge as a starter. Don’t rule out an old Giants-style “NASCAR” package with Calais Campbell moving inside on third downs and Dante Fowler coming off the edge. … Free-agent cornerback A.J. Bouye said he played “sides” most of last season in Houston (each cornerback gets a side of the field) and liked that, but that he sees the value in the team having its top cornerbacks shadowing specific receivers. It’s possible the Jags could play sides with Bouye and second-year corner Jalen Ramsey, though Ramsey is thought to prefer shadowing the opponent’s top receiver. “I’m not worried about it,” Bouye said. “Whatever the coaches decide to do, that’s nothing for me.”
Dolphins quick-hitters: First-rounder Charles Harris could have a big role in the pass rush right away. Veteran Cameron Wake said he and his fellow linemates have found Harris a willing pupil. Harris said he follows Alan Branch around at the cafeteria and eats whatever he eats. … The Dolphins really believe center Mike Pouncey will be ready to start the season and are holding him back in camp because they don’t feel they need to see anything from him at this time of year and that rest is what he needs to be at his best come September. … Moving Laremy Tunsil to left tackle has gone smoothly, and Dolphins people still can’t believe they got him at No. 13 overall in the draft. “I haven’t been around a lot of guys with his skill set,” Gase said. Some in the building compare him to Washington left tackle Trent Williams for his athleticism. … The Dolphins are looking to solidify their defensive tackle rotation with a third reliable piece and are looking to find a third safety to play while T.J. McDonald serves his eight-game suspension.
Bucs quick-hitters: Rookies O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin are turning heads in camp. The Bucs think Howard is NFL-ready as a blocker and an important part of their passing game. Godwin has impressed with his speed, which some say is better than they expected it to be. He can play the slot behind Adam Humphries but also could work outside when DeSean Jackson needs a break. … Second-year linebacker Devante Bond is someone to watch. He was on injured reserve his entire rookie year, but he could be the third starter along with Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David. … The Bucs are holding a four-way competition at safety, with Keith Tandy, Chris Conte, Justin Evans and J.J. Wilcox fighting for two starting spots. … Bucs coach Dirk Koetter’s office displays helmets from every football stop he has made — including an old-style blue-and-white Rams helmet of Highland High School in Pocatello, Idaho, to the defunct San Francisco State Gators program of which he was the offensive coordinator in 1985. That one, he said, his wife got with the help of the wife of fellow San Francisco State coaching alum Andy Reid.