Buffalo Bills: The Bills remain in flux in their secondary, just days before their season opener against the Baltimore Ravens. Head coach Sean McDermott said he wasn’t prepared to name the starters at outside corner or nickel corner. At outside corner, it’s Phillip Gaines or Vontae Davis. At nickel, it’s Gaines or rookie Taron Johnson. “Yeah, that’s one of the things we’re looking at right now, whether it’s going to be Phillip or Taron on the inside or Phillip outside. ... We’ve got a little bit of flexibility there so we’ll just see how that comes out,” he said.
Miami Dolphins: Ryan Tannehill is set at starting quarterback, but his backup is undetermined. Journeyman Brock Osweiler is one of four quarterbacks on the roster and said he welcomes the chance to compete. “I think every player in this league is very motivated to prove things on a weekly basis,” Osweiler said. “This is a league that someone is always coming for your job and you’re always trying to keep your job. That’s what makes this league so special is because the competition is always so high. I think we’re all constantly trying to prove something.”
New England Patriots: In the epilog to his Facebook series “Tom vs. Time,” quarterback Tom Brady talked about ways he’s grown weary of football the past few years. “The last couple years, a lot of parts about football weren’t enjoyable when they should’ve been,” Brady, 41, said. “Some of it was my approach. I think any time you’re together with people for a long period of time, relationships ebb and flow. And I think people are just looking for something to write, talk about. ... They want to talk about a lot of drama. I’m sure a lot of teams have things like that. But ours is just to the 10th degree. “
New York Jets: A day after rookie Sam Darnold was named the starting quarterback, veteran Josh McCown said he was “personally bummed” he wouldn’t be the starter but understands the decision. McCown, 39, will mentor Darnold, selected by the team as the No. 3 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. “Obviously, as a competitor, you’d love to play, but I kind of understood which direction it was headed,” McCown, entering his 16th season, told reporters. “I’m excited for our team and excited for the future... We’re backing it 100 percent.”
Baltimore Ravens: Quarterback Joe Flacco essentially missed training camp last summer because of a back injury and was physically limited by the time the regular season began. This summer was different. Flacco logged double time and led extra sessions with new weapons on offense, including wide receivers Willie Snead, John Brown and expected No. 1 target Michael Crabtree. “I definitely feel a lot better, but I don’t think that has anything to do with the confidence that we have as an offense and that I have as a quarterback in this offense,” Flacco said. “Really, the confidence just comes from a good hard offseason, a good preseason and just belief that we have guys up front, outside, behind me, that can make plays.”
Cincinnati Bengals: Only five offensive players logged more snaps for the Bengals than tight end Tyler Kroft did last season. Having Kroft, who had 42 receptions in 2017, alleviates some of the pressure on Tyler Eifert to push himself after a season lost to injuries. Eifert said the Bengals are not placing him on a “pitch count,” per se, but “being smart.” “But you don’t want to have tendencies where it’s obvious in that situation what you’re doing,” he added. “Just being smart about it. I’m sure some games might be different than others where snaps might be higher, but yeah, I think there’s something to that.”
Cleveland Browns: The hamstring issue that limited wide receiver Josh Gordon last week is behind him, he said Wednesday, adding that he’s “100 percent, and I will be 100 percent on Sunday.” Gordon is not expected to start against the Steelers, and head coach Hue Jackson clarified further Wednesday. “I do not think that Josh is going to play the whole game,” Jackson said. “He has not played in a preseason game. He has been in practice. I do not know how many plays a guy can play that has not done as much as everybody else.” Rather than giving Gordon “too much,” the Browns will utilize him in a rotation at “X” receiver with rookie Antonio Callaway, who is expected to start.
Pittsburgh Steelers: James Conner is the purported starter at running back in Week 1 with Le’Veon Bell absent, and the Steelers are not selling the sub as a step down. Conner, in fact, was the highest-rated running back in preseason according to Pro Football Focus grades. Head coach Mike Tomlin said the Steelers are more confident in the running back room this season solely because of Conner. Offensive guard Ramon Foster credited Conner’s work ethic as the reason for the heavy dose of support. “Conner has busted his (butt),” Foster said. “When you’re ready, you’re ready. He’s ready.” Foster did not hold back his thoughts on Bell’s holdout.”What do you do?” Foster asked. “Here’s a guy who doesn’t give a damn, I guess, so we’ll treat it as such. I just hate it came to this.”
Houston Texans: Three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt is hoping for better fortunes after being limited to just eight games over the past two seasons due to back and leg injuries. Watt feels like it has been a long time since he played in a game and understands why outsiders have doubts that he can play a full season. “I’m sure there are a lot of people that are cautiously optimistic,” Watt said. “I’m just looking forward to going out there and playing football, letting it loose, having fun and letting the chips fall where they may. It’s been a long road. It’s been a grind, a lot of ups and downs the last two years. I love this game.” Watt’s first game in 11 months comes against the New England Patriots.
Indianapolis Colts: Quarterback Andrew Luck returns to game action for the first time in 20 months. His passing shoulder is feeling fine but Luck also thinks he will be a better quarterback when he steps on the field against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. “Personally, I feel like I’ve gotten better,” Luck said. “Been on the right arc, the right path. I think this team’s been on the right arc.” New coach Frank Reich will have a first-hand look at Luck in game action for the first time. “What’s exciting for our team and our fans is we get him for 60 minutes,” Reich said. “The longer a guy like that is on the field, the better.”
Jacksonville Jaguars: Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins is in danger of missing Sunday’s opener against the New York Giants due to a core muscle injury. “We’re just going to be smart about it,” Jaguars coach Doug Marrone said. “I feel like he’ll play, but you never know. That’s me saying it — not him or the doctors.” The Jaguars signed the fifth-year pro as an unrestricted free agent in the offseason and he has been running first string ahead of James O’Shaughnessy and Niles Paul. Asked about signing another tight end, Marrone said: “I don’t know if we’re at that point yet in our process.”
Tennessee Titans: Wide receiver Rishard Matthews is expected to be full-go for the contest against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday after recovering from a knee injury suffered early in training camp. Matthews has been highly productive in two seasons with the Titans by catching 118 passes for 1,740 yards and 13 touchdowns in 30 games. “I’m excited,” Matthews said. “And I think I am as good as I am going to be right now. I’m ready to go in there and contribute wherever they need me.” Quarterback Marcus Mariota is pleased to see Matthews running well. “I’m happy to have him out there,” Mariota said. “He’s another weapon for us and somebody that can go out there and make plays.”
Denver Broncos: Dozens of eulogies were written this offseason for the Seahawks’ defense — which said goodbye to longtime stars Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett, Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor — but Broncos head coach Vance Joseph isn’t taking the unit lightly. “On defense, they’ve lost some frontliners, but when you watch the tape, they look like Seattle,” Joseph said. As for whether or not the presence of Earl Thomas — who ended his holdout Wednesday and reported to the team — will affect the Broncos’ preparation, Joseph said it won’t. “You’re studying their defense, not just one player,” he said, before praising Tedric Thompson as Thomas’ replacement during preseason.
Kansas City Chiefs: After overhauling their secondary this offseason, the Chiefs will be counting heavily on a familiar face who was brought back just a few days ago. Veteran safety Ron Parker, who was released by K.C. in March but re-signed earlier this week following his release from the Falcons, is expected to start Sunday against the Chargers. With Eric Berry (heel) uncertain to play and a slew of new pieces at cornerback — Kendall Fuller, Orlando Scandrick, Tremon Smith, Charvarius Ward — Parker is already taking on a major role. “When I came in the building the very first day, I had the young guys already asking me questions about the defense,” Parker told the team’s website with a laugh.
Los Angeles Chargers: How much can the Chargers expect from veteran Antonio Gates in Week 1 against the Chiefs? The 38-year-old practiced Wednesday after re-signing with the team on Sunday, and there should be targets available to him with Hunter Henry out for the season, assuming he gets on the field. “I want to know where he’s at conditioning-wise,” head coach Anthony Lynn said. “He’s practicing today and we’ll see.” Chiefs head coach Andy Reid isn’t ruling out Gates — who has more catches (115), yards (1,431) and touchdowns (17) against Kansas City than any other team he’s faced — impacting Sunday’s opener. “He knows how to take care of himself,” Reid told Los Angeles media on a conference call.
Oakland Raiders: Jon Gruden’s first game back as the head coach of the Raiders won’t just come on “Monday Night Football” — where he was an analyst for nine years — but also against a former protege of his in the Rams’ Sean McVay. Gruden, 55, gave McVay, now 32, his start as an assistant wide receivers coach with the Bucs in 2008, Gruden’s last season in the NFL. The wunderkind then worked on Jay Gruden’s staff in Washington for seven seasons before flying out of the gates as a rookie head coach in 2017, leading the Rams to an 11-5 record. “We gotta slow that rise,” Jon Gruden told reporters of McVay, who has often been compared to Gruden for his mannerisms and youthful offensive mind. “He’s been on fire. We have to douse those flames.”
Dallas Cowboys: Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy, promoting his new children’s book in Dallas, had much to say about the Cowboys heading into the season. He has real worries in one area. “Behind Ezekiel Elliott and that offensive line, there are a lot of things to like about Dallas. My concern for the Cowboys is, who is going to replace Jason Witten? Who is going to replace Dez Bryant? Their defense looks to be very solid, but the concern I think you’d have to have for the Cowboys is their young group of receivers. They lost a lot in those two guys and replacing them isn’t going to be easy to fill that void.”
New York Giants: Drafted as the heir apparent to quarterback Eli Manning, Davis Webb heard late last week he might be traded. Unable to make a trade, the Giants released Webb over the weekend and he awaits his next NFL chance on the practice squad of the New York Jets. Webb addressed the situation with reporters. “They made a decision,” Webb said. “I didn’t agree with it. Not many people did, especially my teammates. At the same time, I’ve moved on. I wish them nothing but the best.”
Philadelphia Eagles: On the eve of the season opener for the Super Bowl champion Eagles, Bud Light unveiled a 9-foot statue outside Lincoln Financial Field. It depicts head coach Doug Pederson at the moment quarterback Nick Foles asked in Super Bowl LII, “You want Philly, Philly?” That was the gutsy reverse pass call that went for a touchdown on fourth and goal to increase the Philadelphia lead to 22-12 over New England. Foles will start the season opener in place of Carson Wentz, who is recovering from a knee injury suffered last December.
Washington Redskins: The Redskins released their unofficial depth chart on Wednesday. The defensive line is filled with youngsters, thanks to the back-to-back draft picks at the position in the first round: Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne. The only member of the group older than age 25 is 31-year-old Ziggy Hood
“I mean, I think it’s a good thing that everybody can grow together but I also think it’s good because they have a guy like Ziggy Hood in the room,” Caleb Brantley 24, said. “I can go to him and ask him about stuff that I might be having trouble with in my career or that I might necessarily don’t now how to do, so he’s been there and he’s a vet and so it’s cool to learn from him.”
Chicago Bears: Two players with potential to bring the biggest impact to the Bears’ defense have limited reps with the first team. Linebacker Khalil Mack, acquired from the Oakland Raiders eight days before the opener at Green Bay, is expected to play in certain packages, coach Matt Nagy indicated. Rookie first-round pick Roquan Smith has “a good chance” of being on the field, but might also get work in only certain packages until he’s fully up to speed. “Whether it’s him playing all the game or whether it’s playing in packages, our coaches will balance that out and they’ll know where he fits within the scheme and what he does best. It’ll probably be a game-by-game thing,” Nagy said.
Detroit Lions: First-time head coach Matt Patricia entered his initial “Regular Season Wednesday” hoping to complete installation of his gameplan for the New York Jets. Patricia said the Jets are “very familiar” after his run as Patriots defensive coordinator. One area of the offense jumped off the film for Patricia besides the “stretch and cut” running game is rookie quarterback Sam Darnold’s effectiveness rolling out. “They can get (Darnold) out either way,” Patricia said. “He’s real effective rolling out to his left and his right — that’s unusual. To be as effective as he is to both sides complements the run game better.”
Green Bay Packers: If the offensive line was not a concern entering the season, seeing the Chicago Bears acquire outside linebacker Khalil Mack on Saturday hit the Packers like a punch in the heart. Injuries decimated the front five during training camp. To prepare for the potential matchup with Mack, who didn’t participate in on-field workouts all offseason with the Oakland Raiders, the Packers spent part of Sunday reviewing film of the 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. “Excellent addition,” coach Mike McCarthy said of Mack. As for protecting Aaron Rodgers from a defense with the potential to put three top-10 picks on the field at linebacker (Mack, Leonard Floyd and Roquan Smith), McCarthy said, “Hopefully, the good Lord has touched us, and we have our injury phase out of the way.”
Minnesota Vikings: Head coach Mike Zimmer has developed several players who developed first on special teams, including wide receiver Adam Thielen and safety Andrew Sendejo. New rules designed to make kickoffs safer are in place, but Zimmer has his doubts players can be protected from high-speed collisions. “I don’t think it will (be safer). Just one man’s opinion,” Zimmer said, adding that eliminating the kickoff is not a great option. “I don’t foresee that either. I think they’ll keep tweaking it and try and figure out a way to do it. I hope it’s safer. Guys are still running back and guys are running forward, they get back there and hitting guys full speed ... I don’t care if they start at the 40-yard line or 30-yard line.”
Atlanta Falcons: The club has ruled out guard Ben Garland (calf) and cornerbacks Isaiah Oliver (ankle) and Blidi Wreh-Wilson (shoulder) from playing in Thursday night’s opener against the Philadelphia Eagles. Perhaps just as concerning is that long snapper Josh Harris (hip) is questionable, but practice squad snapper Jeff Overbaugh received plenty of work this week in case the Falcons need to activate him on game day. Meanwhile, quarterback Matt Ryan is looking forward to getting another chance versus the defending Super Bowl champions, who eliminated Atlanta earlier last postseason. “Once [the hype] settles, it comes down to us, our 11 on the field against their 11,” Ryan said. “It’s a good football team for sure and we are too, so it’s going to be a good, fun game on Thursday.”
Carolina Panthers: Quarterback Cam Newton is opening with a game at home for just the second time in his eight NFL seasons when the Panthers clash with the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday. Newton’s only previous time opening a season at home was disappointing, as Carolina suffered a 12-7 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in 2013. Newton also is opening the season with the third offensive coordinator of his career in veteran Norv Turner. “All in all, the transition has been extremely smooth, and I’m excited about what’s to come for this team,” Newton said. “I’m extremely comfortable and extremely optimistic as far as Sunday and pretty much everybody firing on all cylinders. Hopefully we can be in midseason form.”
New Orleans Saints: The team has just two running backs on the 53-man roster after releasing sixth-round pick Boston Scott on Wednesday. Alvin Kamara and recently signed Mike Gillislee will surely be kept busy in the opening portion of the season with Mark Ingram serving a four-game suspension. It is possible that New Orleans will add another running back prior to game day, or the Saints could promote either Jonathan Williams or Dwayne Washington from the practice squad. There is no uncertainty at quarterback, where Drew Brees is set to begin his 18th NFL season and 13th with the Saints. “I have not seen change,” New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. “I would imagine if I was looking at a time lapse, a series of pictures, maybe there’s certain things.”
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Ryan Fitzpatrick is at the controls of the offense with usual starting quarterback Jameis Winston serving a three-game suspension. Fitzpatrick faces a tough task with the Buccaneers opening at New Orleans and following up with home games against the Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers. Tampa Bay coach Dirk Koetter expresses confidence in Fitzpatrick but also knows he’d prefer to have Winston on the field. “I’m not sure it’s beneficial for any team to be missing their starting quarterback, but you know it is what it is,” he said. “We knew about it. We prepared for it. And that’s that. So, it doesn’t really matter when it was, it happened and we’re going to deal with it.” The Bucs also hope to get left tackle Donovan Smith (knee), who hasn’t missed a game in three NFL seasons, back against the Saints.
Arizona Cardinals: Starting quarterback Sam Bradford said his knee feels “as good as it has in a long time” as the Cardinals prepare for Sunday’s opener, but he also understands the stigma against his durability after he missed almost all of 2017 with a knee issue despite not suffering a new injury. “I think at this point I understand it,” Bradford said. “It just kind of comes with it.” He added he’s thrilled to be back in a position to start and play every week, and he won’t have any regrets if injury strikes again. “If something happens and it doesn’t hold up, I’m going to hold my head high knowing that I put my body and myself in the best possible position to succeed,” he said.
Los Angeles Rams: Though the Rams loaded up at cornerback (Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib) and defensive tackle (Ndamukong Suh) this offseason, many questioned their outside pass rush after they traded Robert Quinn. One candidate to be a surprise contributor off the edge is Dominique Easley, a former defensive tackle listed at 6-foot-2, 273 pounds who the team put at Will linebacker on its official depth chart. Easley missed all of last season with a torn ACL but had 3.5 sacks as a reserve in 2016, and he totaled 10 quarterback hits in 11 games with the Patriots in 2015. Matt Longacre and Samson Ebukam remain the starters, but Easley and rookie Obo Okoronkwo (currently on the physically unable to perform list) could be key factors down the line.
San Francisco 49ers: Entering his fifth NFL season and his first as a full-time starter, Jimmy Garoppolo will open against a team who he thought could have drafted him in 2014. Asked Wednesday if he thought the Vikings might take him back then, Garoppolo replied, “For a little bit, yeah. ... I mean we did a bunch of meetings and everything, they came and worked me out, but things didn’t work out that way.” Mike Zimmer told San Francisco media on a conference call that the Vikings did indeed look closely at Garoppolo, before opting for Teddy Bridgewater via a trade up to No. 32 overall. Garoppolo wound up going 30 picks later to the Patriots, who ultimately facilitated his path to San Francisco with last season’s trade.
Seattle Seahawks: Earl Thomas is back in the building after holding out through the preseason, but will he play in the season opener? Asked on a conference call with Denver media if Thomas will suit up, Seattle head coach Pete Carroll laughed and replied, “We’ll let you know.” Carroll said “there’s all kinds of stuff” he’ll need to see to decide if Thomas will play, adding, “I don’t know what kind of shape he’s in. We’ll figure it out.” For comparison, Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor played in a game four days after he reported to the team following a two-game holdout in 2015. Carroll also expressed confidence in 2017 fourth-round safety Tedric Thompson — who played in nine games as a reserve last season — calling him the “highlight guy” from training camp.
—Field Level Media