Graziano: Fantasy tips and nuggets from Bears, Packers and Vikings camps

ByDan Graziano ESPN logo
Sunday, August 4, 2019

As an NFL reporter, you try to track everything that goes on around the league all the time, but it's a lot, and some things slip through the cracks. Which is how you arrive at the second day of Vikings training camp, look out at the practice field and think to yourself, "Oh, right. They hired Gary Kubiak."

This is why it's good to go on a training camp tour every year. You can get into some of the stuff that happened in the offseason that you maybe didn't dig into as much as you wanted. You can get a sense of what's happening with teams as they put themselves together for the season. You can pick up a fantasy football tip here and there.

I am currently on my fourth stop of seven on this year's tour, perhaps watching Colts practice as you read this. But I wanted to empty my notebook a bit from my first three stops -- Vikings, Packers and Bears -- and share a little bit of what I've learned so far:

Jump to a team:

Vikings | Packers | Bears

Stop 1: Minnesota Vikings camp

July 28-29 in Eagan, Minnesota

Coach Mike Zimmer said one reason he wanted to bring in Kubiak to work with newly promoted offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski is because Kubiak always frustrated him as an opponent. Zimmer pointed to the back-to-back seasons when the Kubiak-coached Houston Texans eliminated the Bengals (for whom Zimmer was the defensive coordinator) from the playoffs with T.J. Yates and Matt Schaub at quarterback. "I don't know if I ever beat him," Zimmer said.

But perhaps a bigger reason is that Kubiak's offensive background is similar to that of Mike and Kyle Shanahan, who were Kirk Cousins' first coaches when he was drafted by Washington back in 2012. Cousins grew up as an NFL quarterback in a similar system.

"Somebody once told me, 'Your offense should be what the quarterback does best,'" Zimmer said. "And [Cousins] is very, very good at play-action pass, he's very good at getting the ball out quick, he's very good at doing the things we're asking him to do now. And so I think that offense is going to be a good fit for him."

Now, a couple of things here. Stefanski is the offensive coordinator and is in charge. Kubiak and some of the assistants who came with him have brought some philosophical schematic ideas that Stefanski is incorporating. And Cousins says that while, yes, the stuff Kubiak brought with him is familiar from his early days in the league, it's different from what he was doing under Jay Gruden in Washington and under John DeFilippo in Minnesota last season.

But while Cousins, his contract and the expectations left over from that and the Vikings' 13-3 season in 2017 are major storylines at Vikings camp, you can't talk to anybody there without hearing about how they're going to run the ball more in 2019. Dalvin Cook is healthy, and people are raving about the third-year back.

"He's special. He's as good a runner as I've been around, and I've been around some good ones, one of maybe the best ever," said tight end Kyle Rudolph, a former teammate of Adrian Peterson in Minnesota. "Dalvin is just -- he has vision. I'll never forget when he came in as a rookie. In OTAs, the run game never looks good. Yet this guy always seemed to stretch a play, put his foot in the ground, and then all of a sudden he's 10 yards down the field and he never got touched. He just has that unique vision and skill set and then obviously all of the physical tools are there as well."

Cook is healthy for the first time since that rookie season and said he's fired up after an offseason during which he didn't have to spend all of his time rehabbing.

More fantasy notes

  • If you're drafting Cook and looking for a handcuff, third-round rookie Alexander Mattison is the guy the Vikings think could be their Latavius Murray replacement.
  • Don't be surprised if rookie tight end Irv Smith Jr. is a factor as a pass-catcher in Year 1. Stefanski told me Smith and Rudolph are different kinds of tight ends -- Smith is an "F" tight end who can move all around the formation, while Rudolph is more of a classic "Y" tight end -- and it'd be no surprise to see them on the field together often.

Stop 2: Green Bay Packerscamp

July 30-31 in Green Bay, Wisconsin

Before I left Vikings camp, I had the chance to talk to cornerback Xavier Rhodes about his process of preparing each week to cover the other team's No. 1 receiver. I asked him who was the toughest to face, and he said Davante Adams of the Packers.

"The key with him is his releases," Rhodes said. "His game has elevated. It's crazy how, when he was a rookie and to now. I used to follow Jordy Nelson, and we weren't worried about Davante Adams at all. And all of a sudden he comes into the picture as one of the best receivers in the game, and his release game, his release technique is just awesome, it's flawless. He's come a long way."

So the Packers are set at No. 1 receiver, but there are questions (fantasy alert!) about how the depth chart fills in behind him. From conversations with the staff there, it sounds as if the coaches think second-year wideout Marquez Valdes-Scantling has the best chance to develop into something special, though they all caution that he's still young and needs time and work. I also got the sense that the coaches thought Geronimo Allison, who has been working more as an inside receiver than on the outside, was behind the rest of the receivers for much of this summer as he continued to recover from last year's core-muscle surgery.

I was interested to hear Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst say, when I asked what drew him to new coach Matt LaFleur, "I really thought it would be a really good match, not only short term with Aaron [Rodgers] but kind of long term with what we're looking to do, developing quarterbacks."

There's so much focus on how LaFleur will mesh with his quarterback this season that it's easy to forget the Packers are always a long-term-thinking organization. If LaFleur doesn't get a long leash, that would be quite uncharacteristic of the Packers. His predecessor, Mike McCarthy, coached there for 12-plus years. Mike Sherman got six years before that. Ray Rhodes got only the one, so it's not as if there's no precedent, but he followed seven years of Mike Holmgren. Green Bay likes stability, and Gutekunst said LaFleur's relative lack of experience wasn't an issue for him.

"All these guys have got to go through a process where they learn how they're going to do it," he said. "But my thing with him was I knew he was going to do what it took to figure that out. He wasn't one of those guys that was so married to a certain way that, as we went, if we thought the best thing to do was change, he wouldn't be open-minded about it. Which I think is important in today's NFL."

As for that LaFleur-Rodgers relationship, the coach told me, "Honestly, I don't think it could be going any better right now," and I must have smiled or something, because he then said, "Seriously." LaFleur's been in every meeting Rodgers has been in -- though they acknowledge that will have to change once the season starts -- and talks to him on off days. The communication between the two, he says, is vital for overcoming the inevitable adversity that an NFL season will force them to confront.

"Everything's great, but there's going to be times where there's adversity, and they'll have to work through those things," Gutekunst said. "But knowing both of them, that's what I'm confident in. They're going to get together and they're going to iron it out. As long as they're willing to work through it, they're fine. It's when you get guys that aren't willing to work through it that it's a problem."

It's fair to assume we'll keep a close eye on this situation.

More fantasy notes

  • LaFleur keeps talking up tight end Jimmy Graham, who had just two touchdowns in his first season in Green Bay. "Jimmy looks fresh," he told me. LaFleur said that Graham has helped him communicate some of the concepts of LaFleur's zone running scheme to the linemen and backs. I'm not sure if that means a bigger role and more production for the 32-year-old Graham this season, but if they can't sort out No. 2 WR, who knows?

Stop 3: Chicago Bears camp

Aug. 1-2 in Bourbonnais, Illinois

Oh, man, the kicking thing. Every time a kicker lines up for a field goal in Bears practice, the fans, still stinging from the double-doink miss that ended Chicago's playoff run last season, fall into a hush. The kick goes in, huge cheer. It misses -- groan.

You have a pretty good roster if your biggest question is kicker, and that's where the Bears are now. Eddy Pineiro and Elliott Fry are alternating days -- one guy gets every kick one day, the other gets every kick the next. Special-teams coordinator Chris Tabor says the idea is to let them prepare as if they would for a game day. Both guys are impressing so far. On reputation, Pineiro has the bigger leg, but Fry has added 13 pounds since spending the spring kicking for the Orlando Apollos of the Alliance of American Football and has hit a couple of very long ones in the past week. It's also possible, of course, that the Bears' 2019 kicker is currently on another roster. But for now, the coaches like the way these two are stepping up to the competition.

Another Bears storyline is new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, who might be in the toughest spot of any coach in the league. If the Bears are dominant, can Pagano really get any credit, since they were dominant last season? And if they slip at all, he could wear the blame. Bears defensive players told me there are some scheme changes with Pagano, as you'd expect with any change of coaches.

"You've just got to be able to grasp the new concepts and also retain the old concepts," defensive lineman Akiem Hicks told me. "It's all just about a beautiful mesh, and we'll see how it all works out. At this point, we're just taking what we're learning and apply it on the field. And we're nowhere near done perfecting. And we all have our moments."

From the outside, it's easy to take an if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it view of the Bears defensively. But the players believe they can maintain the 2018 excellence and keep forcing turnovers at a crazy rate -- they led the league with 36 takeaways.

On offense, I enjoyed talking to coach Matt Nagy about how he alters his personnel every week to fit the matchup, which sounds like a lot of work to me, but he loves it.

"The volume really isn't that bad, just because a lot of concepts are similar," Nagy said. "We change it up by who we're playing and what we do, but we can't overdo it because then the guys won't play fast. But our guys are all different. It's not like we have a bunch of tall, slow receivers. We have a great mix. So when you have that, you can put them in different spots -- put them in the backfield, maybe throw it, and they have to respect that. Defenses have to practice for it.

"I don't know who's going to have the big game," he said. "It depends on what that defense is going to give us. Everybody's live on every play. We're never going to have one guy, I don't think, receiverwise that you see every week who has nine catches for 140 yards and two touchdowns. That's just not us."

So, fantasy alert! Maybe stay away from the Bears' wide receivers too high, though Allen Robinson's teammates volunteer his name when you ask who looks particularly good out of that group.

Nagy also likes the versatility of his running back group, which includes holdover do-everything Tarik Cohen, free-agent signee Mike Davis and rookie third-rounder David Montgomery.

"Our versatility at that position makes it hard for defenses," Nagy said. "Because all three of them can run between the tackles, all three of them can beat linebackers and safeties one-on-one, and all three of them know this offense really well?"

Even the rookie, I asked? Nagy said Montgomery is turning the heads of his veteran teammates.

"He's a dog," safety Eddie Jackson said. "He's got it early. A lot of guys don't have it early, but he's got it early. Takes coaching and installs it into the game. He's the truth. He's going to be something special."

It's hard to know (fantasy alert!) exactly how things will work out at running back from week to week, but I get the sense they'd like Montgomery to develop into an every-down back and that it could happen sooner rather than later.

"I tell people he kind of reminds me of Saquon [Barkley]," cornerback Prince Amukamara said, and I said wait a minute, and he said, "No, just from his build, his movements. Obviously, Saquon has put it on tape and is on a whole different level, but I see a little bit of that in him."

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