Many coaches say no player is above the team. Few coaches truly practice such preaching. And that's why the Baltimore Ravens' release of safety Earl Thomas on Sunday was so surprising.
This was not about performance; Thomas settled into the Ravens' secondary last season with excellent play down the stretch. And the team has little depth at the safety position. This was not about money; the Ravens can expect a protracted fight to get some of Thomas' guarantees back.
This was about the Ravens' organizational standards and team chemistry. Jeff Zrebiec of The Athletic reported that Thomas was routinely fined throughout this training camp for undisclosed reasons. There was a "long list" of players Thomas clashed with and he reportedly missed multiple team meetings last year, including one after Baltimore's playoff loss. There were reasons to be worried about Thomas' well-being entering this season and the Ravens decided the risk wasn't worth it.
Cutting him was a big risk, too. The Ravens' secondary is the strength of their defense, and now third-year pro DeShon Elliott, with 40 NFL snaps to his name, will take over as a starter. Some team will sign Thomas in the coming days and get more talented. Baltimore made the rare decision that talent isn't everything.
After our first full week of padded practice, here's a look at the rest of the winners and losers around training camp.
Raiders rookies: A day doesn't go by without a glowing practice report about the latest exploits of Raiders rookie wideouts Bryan Edwards and Henry Ruggs III. I list Edwards first there intentionally, because the third-round pick's readiness to contribute may be a bigger surprise. On an offense that will feature multiple tight ends and a fullback often, Raiders coach Jon Gruden will have a lot of diversity with a top-four receiver set of Tyrell Williams, Ruggs, Edwards and Hunter Renfrow -- though Williams' torn labrum, which he'll attempt to play through, is definitely concerning.
Surprise first-round cornerback pick Damon Arnette is also reportedly winning the battle to start over Prince Amukamara opposite Trayvon Mullen, according to Tashan Reed of The Athletic. Combine this class with the Raiders' boffo 2019 rookie crew and Las Vegas will be incredibly young and a product of general manager Mike Mayock's vision.
Cam Newton: What little competition was likely to take place between Newton and Jarrett Stidham already appears over. Stidham is struggling with a hip injury, while Newton's workload has increased daily in Foxborough. Don't be surprised if the Patriots build a run-first offense around Newton's skill set.
"The improvements that [Newton] is making on a daily basis are sometimes (equivalent to) what you could see (from) some other guys that have been in the same system for a few years make on a monthly basis," Patriots quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch said this week.
The 49ers' Trent Williams trade: San Francisco's acquisition of Williams could prove to be the most valuable transaction of the offseason. If Williams is right, he's a top-three NFL left tackle. Williams has reportedly been giving Nick Bosa fits in practice, which is all the proof that anyone should need that Williams is back to his old self. (Bosa vs. Williams also sounds like the best one-on-one matchup in all of training camp.)
Aldon Smith's readiness: The Cowboys took a gamble by signing Smith after four seasons out of the NFL. With the former top-10 pick named one of the most impressive players on the roster by multiple beat reporters following one week of camp, it's safe to say Smith showed up taking this final chance at a career seriously.
The Saints' defense: The daily story out of New Orleans has reflected a broader trend around the NFL: The defenses are ahead early. While that's no surprise with the Patriots and Jets, it's fascinating to read about the Saints' sneaky-deep defensive line having its way up front. And the best New Orleans secondary in memory, which includes breakout candidate Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (aka Ceedy Duce), has also made a lot of plays, even when Drew Brees is at the controls.
Jameis Winston, Saints quarterback: Winston's decision-making has reportedly been erratic, like most of the offense. But he's had splash days, whereas the now 30-year-old Taysom Hill inspired this quote from coach Sean Payton after returning to the team following the birth of his son:
"I told him (Sunday), 'Listen, you're practicing a little bit like you delivered the baby, [rather than] your wife.' "
Darrel Williams: Yes, Clyde Edwards-Helaire is going to test the boundaries of value in an Andy Reid offense, but I've been curious to see who steps up as CEH's tag-team partner. Williams is the clear No. 2 after two weeks of practices, making him a worthy late-round target in fantasy leagues. (The Around the NFL Podcast's fifth annual Fantasy Extravaganza on Wednesday will have plenty more where that came from.)
In other Chiefs backup news, Chad Henne officially locked up the No. 2 job behind Patrick Mahomes, with Matt Moore possibly an option for one of the newly created veteran spots on a practice squad.
Brian Hill, Falcons running back: Speaking of backup running backs to watch, Hill appears to be the clear No. 2 behind Todd Gurley. It won't be a surprise if Hill enjoys lead-back moments as a result of Gurley struggles or health issues. Hill currently may have more ability to make defenders miss than Gurley.
Frank Gore, Jets running back: I know it doesn't mean that much, but it's remarkable that Gore is still inspiring quotes like the following one from Connor Hughes of The Athletic in the year 2020:
"The most impressive running back at Jets camp is Frank Gore. I don't think it's really close, either."
That's an Inconvenient Truth for Le'Veon Bell after a lot of self-generated offseason hype.
Chargers' wide receiver depth: NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reports that starter Mike Williams is "week to week" with a shoulder sprain and his status for Week 1 is uncertain. This is especially concerning because of Williams' history of nagging injuries and the Chargers' lack of depth at the position. Jalen Guyton may next up to get snaps on the outside. Late-round rookies K.J. Hill and Joe Reed will get more opportunities. None of the above has ever caught a pass at the NFL level, making this a group screaming for a veteran pickup.
Josh Norman, Bills cornerback: Signing Norman to an aggressive one-year contract was one of the biggest calculated risks taken by Bills general manager Brandon Beane. Norman was not effective when he was on the field last season in Washington. Now, after suffering a hamstring injury, he will be out for "some time," according to coach Sean McDermott. Only half of Norman's $6 million contract was fully guaranteed, so his status is one that is worth watching leading up to Week 1. Levi Wallace is a capable starter if Norman isn't ready or doesn't make the team.
A.J. Green truthers: I'm among the true believers who expect Green to re-emerge as a top-10 receiver when he's on the field again. At some point, however, the Bengals' No. 1 option needs to prove he can stay healthy. He's been out for virtually all of camp with a hamstring injury. Green, 32, missed seven games in 2018 and all of last season with lower-body ailments. With Green out of the mix, Auden Tate took center stage at the Bengals' scrimmage. Tate showed late last season he is worthy of snaps despite the Bengals' depth at the position.
Marcus Mariota, Raiders quarterback: When one beat writer notes how sluggish Mariota has looked in training camp, I take note. When three of them write about what a poor week Mariota had, he makes the column. It's not a huge shock that Mariota's throws haven't looked great in practice because it's been a while since his throws looked great in games. Jon Gruden's offense is also a complicated system to pick up quickly. With that said, any pressure that Derek Carr could have felt based on Mariota's contract is dissipating by the day. Carr clearly gives Las Vegas the better chance to win in Week 1, Week 10 and Week 17.
Jordan Love, Packers quarterback: It's not that Love has done anything wrong in camp. It's just that he's not the second-best quarterback. Tim Boyle, who flashed in the preseason last year, showed up to camp with a full understanding of Matt LaFleur's offense. Boyle also has a big arm and has impressed nearly everyone watching Packers practice, including Aaron Rodgers. This is what's called a good problem.
Darrell Henderson, Rams running back: The new-look Rams backfield is down a member after Henderson suffered a hamstring injury in the team's scrimmage. Rookie Cam Akers is the most dynamic player in the group and has been my heavy favorite to lead the team in yards this year. Veteran Malcolm Brown may be the most complete option. Even when Henderson gets healthy, it's hard to see where he fits.
NFL Fans: Losing the preseason is a setback for the diehards. Losing access and information during training camp is another strike. The lack of access for reporters is understandable during the pandemic, but it creates a ripple effect. There are fewer interesting stories and less knowledge of what's happening inside team headquarters.
The NFL's newly established limits to what reporters can pass along to their readers is less understandable. Like other businesses, it appears NFL teams are using the pandemic as an excuse to install policies they probably wanted to try out anyhow. Some teams are not enforcing the rules surrounding basic information like passing along depth charts. Others are enforcing it strongly, which caused a mini-revolt in Green Bay. If it feels like there's less interesting news coming out of these camps, that's by design.