NFL training camp notebook: 4 teams that look playoff-worthy, including one that might surprise you

Even in late August training camps, it’s still optimism season in the NFL.

There might be a lingering holdout or injury. An offensive line could be getting holes punched through it. Maybe quarterback development is faltering. But until the first week of the regular season kicks off in September, there is still plenty of time to negotiate with yourself and find reasons for optimism in the coming months.

With my portion of the annual camp tour in the books, I looked back at my notes to find four teams that struck me as playoff-worthy as I exited. I’ve already written at least once on these teams coming out of my visit, but I had a few lingering thoughts.

With that in mind, four teams that struck me as having a postseason look:

Dallas Cowboys

Thoughts when I went through …

On offense: Brandin Cooks is still fast as hell and immediately looked like an upgraded dimension in the offense. But one of the interesting things that a Cowboys source mentioned was that Cooks was so overwhelmingly professional from the second he walked through the door. The source said Cooks had been great at engaging with younger players on both sides of the ball and that he’s the kind of veteran you hope to have in a wide receivers room but don’t always get. It resonated with me that Cooks being so productive and yet on his fifth team in 10 years likely makes some people wonder if he wears out his welcome quickly. If you know his history, you know that’s not the case. And one thing that sticks out is that he was fairly quiet during a three-year stint with the Houston Texans when they were an absolute train wreck. I wouldn’t be surprised if he has a very big year in Dallas and this becomes the home where he finishes out his prime years. Regardless, he’s going to be a big reason why the Cowboys have a playoff offense this season.

On defense: It’s hard to take your eyes off Micah Parsons when he’s on the field. It’s starting to feel like everything he does is next level. The Cowboys weren’t in pads when I was on hand, so I tried to temper any conclusions about individual players. Still, it felt like Parsons was overwhelming anyone who stepped in front of him. Everything that has been written about Parsons working to gain strength during the offseason seems legitimate. It really feels like it’s setting up for this to be a breakthrough season for him in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. The only nagging concern is whether his penchant for going 100 miles per hour all the time is what plays him into some injuries. The added weight and strength should help with that.

A bit more: Rookie defensive lineman Mazi Smith looked pretty good when I was in camp, but more than a few talent evaluators griped about him being a big project when we put him on the 2023 All-Juice Team. This was the guy I really wished I had seen live in pads when I was in Oxnard. … Curious to see how many big 1-on-1s team owner Jerry Jones does this year if it’s a successful season. I’ve heard he’s planning to hold back more than usual with media requests as he leans into his Netflix docuseries. … I thought wide receiver Michael Gallup looked like himself when I came through, but I also wonder if he might be a salary-cap casualty next offseason if he doesn’t really showcase that he can at least be a solid No. 2 again. He should get some significant opportunities next to Cooks and CeeDee Lamb. If he doesn’t pop again, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s a trade chip next offseason.

CANTON, OHIO - AUGUST 03: Mekhi Becton #77 of the New York Jets looks on during the second half of the 2023 Pro Hall of Fame Game against the Cleveland Browns at Tom Benson Hall Of Fame Stadium on August 03, 2023 in Canton, Ohio. (Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images)

New York Jets

Thoughts when I went through …

On offense: They’re happy with what they have between the tackles on the offensive line. But the tackle spots are definitely a white-knuckle situation that threatens to undermine a loaded offense. They need Mekhi Becton to factor back into the right tackle spot. He has too much talent at a position that badly needs it. Without him, those positions could be the team's fatal flaw. The good news with Becton, who will reportedly start the final preseason game at right tackle, is that the Jets feel like he has turned a corner since the Hall of Fame Game and had some of his best weeks since coming back from knee issues. He has been practicing hard and pushing himself through discomfort, which has been a consistent barrier in the past. If the light at the end of the tunnel is real, it would be a huge win for the team’s line.

On defense: If this isn’t the best defense in the NFL, it has a chance to make an argument if everyone stays healthy. The defensive line is elite and is going to give opponents fits all season. Quinnen Williams could be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate with this Jets front. The defensive end spots are four deep with difference-makers who bring a good mixture of veteran experience and young talent. Maybe my only question mark is the rotational linebacker spot, which will be manned by a relatively inexperienced Jamien Sherwood. Other than that (which isn’t overly concerning) there just aren’t any holes here. It will be fun watching head coach Robert Saleh and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich dial this unit up this season.

A bit more: It struck me that the Jets' 2023 draft looks like it could be another good one. Offensive line prospects Joe Tippmann and Carter Warren will be developed over time, but first-round defensive lineman Will McDonald already looks like he’s going to be an absolute monster. During the draft I thought the Jets might have fumbled away an offensive tackle pick and taken McDonald as their backup selection. The Jets protested and said McDonald was always their pick. After seeing him in person, I believe it. His quickness and strength are ready-made as a rookie. He’s also a player who could be rolled inside and out on the defensive line, creating plenty of matchup issues for opponents. I also like fifth-round running back Izzy Abanikanda, who has the kind of special speed that will make him valuable in different packages, possibly as soon as this season. If the two offensive line picks become serviceable players, the Jets will have strung together a great two-year draft run between 2022, when they landed the Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year, and 2023.

San Francisco 49ers

Thoughts when I went through …

On offense: The visit came on a Brock Purdy rest day, so it left me watching Trey Lance and Sam Darnold taking first-team snaps. That was instructive, particularly with Lance, who still lacks comfort under pressure. Watching Lance and Darnold with the rest of the starters, it was clear as a bell why Purdy wasn’t going to be threatened as the 49ers' starter.

But the quarterback position was hardly the only part of the visit that made it worthwhile. The offense is thick with talented players, and the one who looked ready to explode was running back Christian McCaffrey. I’ve seen McCaffrey for years in previous Carolina Panthers camps, and I am hard-pressed to remember when he looked faster, more decisive or simply as complete as he did the day I visited the 49ers. It’s worth noting McCaffrey just turned 27 in June and injuries kept his mileage down in 2020 and 2021. I mention it because the guy I saw reminded me of 2019 Christian McCaffrey, when he put up 2,392 yards rushing and receiving, and had 19 total touchdowns. I wouldn’t rule out a career season from McCaffrey in 2023 … or a debate about a running back being in the thick of the MVP race late in the season.

Christian McCaffrey could be in line for a big season with the San Francisco 49ers. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Christian McCaffrey could be in line for a big season with the San Francisco 49ers. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

On defense: I was surprised that Nick Bosa’s contract hadn’t been squared away by the time I passed through in the first week of August. From everything I had gathered at the time, a $31.7 million to $32 million annual average salary with $100 million-plus in practical guarantees would get it done. Perhaps the only thing that gave me pause on my visit was the suggestion that the Chris Jones holdout with Kansas City might be a fly in the ointment, with two agencies waiting to see where the other might land in their negotiations. It didn’t feel like a real complaint at the time, but both negotiations have dragged on, so perhaps there’s something to it. Either way, there’s little question that Bosa is the key that helps ignite this defense. He’s worthy of an Aaron Donald type of payday. In fact, the 49ers' brass has annually lobbied Defensive Player of the Year voters to consider Bosa on Donald’s level. This payday makes sense. The fact that it wasn’t already done early in camp doesn’t.

A bit more: When I get to training camp and watch a team practice, I make it a habit to go down the roster and circle players who can be difference-makers on game day. It’s a perception exercise, but the 49ers have a lot for August — more than any camp I visited in the past five weeks. One spot I was particularly interested in with San Francisco was right tackle Colton McKivitz. Offensive line continuity is going to be very important for this team, and McKivitz was the significant outlier, having replaced Mike McGlinchey, who signed with the Denver Broncos in free agency. Next to Purdy, the player the 49ers are wagering on more than any other on offense is McKivitz. If he falters, it’s going to have an impact on the 2023 season that ripples. If he succeeds, it’s a gold star for 49ers personnel and the offensive coaching staff. There’s a lot riding on McKivitz, and most individuals outside of the 49ers' sphere don’t really know who he is or why he’s important.

Tennessee Titans

Thoughts when I went through …

On offense: This was one of the most surprising units of my camp tour. With the growth in the game of Treylon Burks, the addition of DeAndre Hopkins and the drafting of running back Tyjae Spears, you could easily see the potential for a better offense than some people have been assuming. You have to see Spears in person to fully appreciate his explosive gear. I have no idea if his knee will hold up in the long run, but I’m betting he does some damage to opponents out of the gate. The Titans will be particularly fun to watch on the plays they utilize Derrick Henry and Spears at the same time. Throw in tight end Chig Okonkwo with that pair and teams are going to have some significant matchup issues before they even get to Hopkins or Burks.

New offensive coordinator Tim Kelly is going to offer a boost, too. I expect we’ll see a ramp up in the creativity right away. The potential fatal flaw, of course, is the offensive line. But it seems like the majority of the league is having issues with their offensive line now. On the bright side, first-round draft pick Peter Skoronski looks every bit like a player who will help anchor this group moving forward — no matter where he ends up playing.

On defense: This is just a really good, solid unit. Top to bottom, the defense is filled with good talent at seemingly every position. They’re experienced, chippy, and beat up the offense pretty good the day I was in camp. If this unit stays healthy, it has a chance to be one of the best Mike Vrabel has ever coached. I suppose the corners scare me at times and that’s probably the position that needs to step up but overall, it’s a defense that should deliver some anxiety to all the bettors who jumped on the Jacksonville Jaguars as the supposedly easy money to win the AFC South this season. If the offense can play slightly above-average football, this defense is going to position the Titans to win plenty of games.

A bit more: While Malik Willis seemed a beat slow at times in the practice I attended, there was no question he looked exponentially more comfortable at quarterback. He definitely took a big step forward developmentally from last season and stepped up after the drafting of Will Levis in the second round. That said, the size and tools Levis brings to the table are undeniable. His arm strength is absurd. Levis is the heir at the quarterback spot after Ryan Tannehill moves on, and it makes me suspect that some of the raving from the Titans about Willis is a reach for some trade traction. But Willis has shown enough of a stride forward to make it worthwhile to let another offseason play out and see where the battle goes.