20 NFL Rookies Set to Steal a Spot in Training Camp
Once upon a time in the National Football League, rookie seasons were generally seen as developmental years, and even first-round draft picks were not necessarily expected to emerge as immediate contributors.
Not anymore. Teams now expect all 53 players on their roster to be able to contribute on any given week, meaning that rookies must contribute early to keep their jobs.
This puts added pressure upon the shoulders of NFL rookies, especially those who are drafted early. This can also be very good for rookies, however, because even late-round draft picks and undrafted free agents have a chance to compete for starting spots and earn immediate playing time.
As a result of these increased expectations, most early draft picks will be expected to start immediately. For the purposes of this slideshow, I have highlighted rookies around the league who may not be expected to start immediately, but who could earn a starting spot in training camp by outperforming their veteran counterparts.
Indianapolis Colts: Josh Chapman, NT (Alabama)
The Colts are switching to a 3-4 defense this season, but they do not have an established nose tackle on their roster. Fifth-round pick Josh Chapman was selected to be the long-term answer at the position, and he should have a chance to earn the starting spot if his health allows.
Chapman has been unable to participate in OTAs and minicamp as he recovers from knee surgery, but he is expected to return in time for training camp, according to Chapman’s agent via NFL.com. Veteran defensive tackle Antonio Johnson should go into camp as the starter, and Chapman’s missed time due to injury will undoubtedly be a setback.
However, Chapman is a more traditional nose tackle than Johnson, and he has the talent to win the job if he is healthy and prepared.
St. Louis Rams: Sammy Brown, OLB (Houston)
Even though Brown was an undrafted free agent, emerging as a starting outside linebacker is not out of the question for him as a rookie. The Rams are very weak at linebacker outside of starting middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, leaving the window open for all of the Rams’ rookie linebackers to earn immediate playing time if they impress in training camp.
Brown was a highly-productive player at Houston who led the NCAA in tackles for loss last season. He needs to improve as a tackler and run defender, but he is an athletic playmaker who can rush into the backfield and make plays.
He is better suited to be a situational player in the NFL, but given the slim resources that the Rams have in their linebacker corps, he is among their best options.
Veteran free agent signings Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Mario Haggan should start camp as the starting outside linebackers, but neither player has established himself as a starting-caliber linebacker in the NFL.
The competition should be heavy at the position, with Brown leading the way, but seventh-round pick Aaron Brown (Hawaii) and undrafted free agents Alex Hoffman-Ellis (Washington State) and Noah Keller (Ohio) should also be a part of the competition for starting spots.
Minnesota Vikings: Josh Robinson, CB (UCF)
Josh Robinson should have an opportunity to compete for one of two starting cornerback positions in this year’s training camp. While Antoine Winfield and Chris Cook are returning starters, both players missed significant time last season
Winfield is turning 35 this month and his best football may be behind him, while Cook has been a disappointment in his first two seasons while dealing with injuries and off-field concerns. Robinson, a third-round draft pick, is an athletic, playmaking cornerback who has the talent to make an immediate impact and compete for a starting spot.
My expectation is that Winfield and Cook will initially hold down the starting spots, but Robinson will contribute immediately and end up securing a starting spot by the middle of the season if Winfield does not play up to his old level or Cook continues to disappoint or struggle with injuries.
Cleveland Browns: James-Michael Johnson, OLB (Nevada)
Scott Fujita is suspended for the first three games of the season by the NFL, which leaves an opening for a starting strong-side linebacker. Veteran backup Kaluka Maiava will be the early choice to fill in for Fujita, but it also presents a great window of opportunity for fourth-round pick James-Michael Johnson.
Johnson is a solid all-around linebacker who is a good fit to move from middle linebacker to strong-side. With Fujita being 33 years old, Johnson could be viewed by the team as the long-term answer at the position.
If Johnson performs well in training camp, he will have an opportunity to start not only temporarily, but also potentially establish himself as the starter going forward. In addition to Maiava, he will also have to compete against another rookie, sixth-round pick Emmanuel Acho, who could make a play at the starting spot as well.
Washington Redskins: Chase Minnifield, CB (Virginia)
Chase Minnifield could be one of the most impactful and immediate contributors from this year’s class of undrafted free agents.
Minnifield, once a likely second-round draft pick, dropped out of the draft completely due to concerns following microfracture knee surgery, but he is already practicing with the team and performing well, according to Rich Campbell of the Washington Times.
DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson should be entrenched as the Redskins’ starting cornerbacks, but the depth chart is wide open after them, and Minnifield is a polished cover corner who could be ready to take on the nickel cornerback role as a rookie.
If Minnifield has a strong training camp and preseason, expect him to not only make the Redskins’ roster, but play frequently.
Miami Dolphins: Josh Kaddu, OLB (Oregon)
The Dolphins will be relying upon numerous new defensive talent as they switch from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 base defense under new head coach Joe Philbin. One of those players will be fifth-round pick Josh Kaddu, who should have an immediate opportunity for a starting outside linebacker position.
Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett can be penciled as the starting middle and strong-side linebackers, but the weak-side linebacker position could be up for grabs. Koa Misi should enter camp as the starter, but he has been a disappointment in his first two NFL seasons, and could also face a league suspension following an arrest on battery charges.
Kaddu is an athletic, instinctive linebacker who may not be a big-impact player, but he is a good fit to play weak-side linebacker and he could give Misi a surprise challenge for the starting job. Free agent signee Gary Guyton will also be in competition for the starting spot, but Kaddu should get a fair shot.
Carolina Panthers: Josh Norman, CB (Coastal Carolina)
Captain Munnerlyn has been a decent starting cornerback for the Panthers, but there is certainly room for improvement. Expect the Panthers to open up the competition for the second starting cornerback spot across from Chris Gamble in training camp, and fifth-round pick Josh Norman will be among those battling for a chance to crack the starting lineup.
Norman has to make a tough transition from FCS football to the NFL, and long speed could be a concern for him as a sideline corner, but he is a physical and instinctive defensive back who has a game well-rounded enough for him to win the starting job.
He may not be able to beat out Munnerlyn and second-year cornerback Brandon Hogan as a rookie, but at the very least, Norman should find the field this year as a nickel or dime cornerback and play on special teams.
Buffalo Bills: Nigel Bradham, OLB (Florida State)
The Bills have a solid starting trio of linebackers with Kelvin Sheppard in the middle, Nick Barnett on the weak side and Kirk Morrison on the strong side. That trio, however, could be challenged by rookie Nigel Bradham, a fourth-round pick.
Bradham is an athletic, well-rounded playmaker who has the talent to start at strong-side linebacker, and he could make a run at Morrison’s job.
Morrison did not play much last season as a reserve, and his game has dropped off over the past few seasons. This should end up being a tight competition, but it would not come as a big surprise if Bradham were to take on the starting role as a rookie.
Kansas City Chiefs: Jeff Allen, G (Illinois)
Jeff Allen was a second-round pick by the Chiefs for a reason. Ryan Lilja is a veteran left guard with 89 career starts, but his best years are behind him. With Lilja entering the final year of his contract with the Chiefs, Allen is going to get a real opportunity to take Lilja’s starting job.
Allen is making a transition from left tackle to guard, so he will have to make the transition quickly to warrant insertion into the starting lineup. If Allen adjusts quickly to the Chiefs’ offense and playing in the NFL, however, he could end up starting as a rookie.
Arizona Cardinals: Jamell Fleming, CB (Oklahoma)
Greg Toler is a solid cover corner who was good enough to earn a starting cornerback spot in 2010 and good enough to make Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie expendable in a trade with Toler penciled in as a starter.
However, he missed the entire 2011 season with a torn ACL, and although he is a decent starter, his game is better suited to play inside as a nickel or dime cornerback.
The second starting spot that he currently holds across from Patrick Peterson will be up for grabs in training camp, and third-round pick Jamell Fleming has an opportunity to win that battle.
Fleming is a physical, instinctive cornerback who needs to become more fluid in his hips, but he has the game to be a No. 2 cornerback. He tackles well and has good ball skills, and could be a solid complement in the secondary to Peterson.
He is a polished player who should be able to contribute as a rookie, and it could end up being as a member of the starting lineup.
Philadelphia Eagles: Brandon Boykin, CB (Georgia)
The Eagles’ top two starting cornerbacks are set as Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, but fourth-round pick Brandon Boykin has a very good shot to beat out veteran Joselio Hanson for the nickel cornerback job.
Hanson has considerable experience playing the slot corner position for the Eagles, but according to the Philadelphia Daily News, he has been told that he must compete to win that job this year. Hanson has played well in his years with the Eagles, but Boykin is a more athletic cornerback with more playmaking ability.
Boykin has big potential, and he is ready to step in and contribute as a nickelback right away and play that position for many years to come.
New York Jets: Demario Davis, ILB (Arkansas State)
Bart Scott turns 32 prior to the start of the 2012 season, and his time as a starting inside linebacker and even as a member of the New York Jets could be nearing its end. Scott is expected to be pushed for his starting job in training camp by third-round pick Demario Davis.
Rich Cimini of ESPN New York has noted multiple times that head coach Rex Ryan has praised Davis’ quick progression and leadership ability, even comparing him to legendary linebacker Ray Lewis, who Ryan coached as defensive coordinator in Baltimore.
Meanwhile, Scott’s best football seems to be behind him, which could lead the Jets to turn to a rookie to start next to David Harris in the middle of the defense.
Cincinnati Bengals: Marvin Jones, WR (California)
The Bengals brought in a rookie wide receiver last season in No. 4 overall pick A.J. Green, and he made an immediate impact, establishing himself as one of the NFL’s best wideouts in only one season.
This season, the Bengals will once again be counting on its rookie wide receivers to step up, and there is good chance that one will crack the starting lineup.
Following the free agency departures of Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell, the best candidates to start as the No. 2 wideout this season are rookies Mohamed Sanu, a third-round pick, and Marvin Jones, a fifth-round pick.
Sanu was the higher draft pick, but he is better suited to be an inside possession receiver, while Jones has the combination of size, athleticism and playmaking ability needed to play on the outside.
The Bengals have some talented veteran receivers, including Jordan Shipley, Brandon Tate and Andrew Hawkins, but none of them are well-suited to play the No. 2 role. Because of that, a rookie will most likely steal this starting spot, and I think that Jones, who has more natural talent as a wide receiver, can win the battle over Sanu.
Detroit Lions: Dwight Bentley, CB (Louisiana-Lafayette)
Aaron Berry is coming off of a fairly strong season, and he is expected to replace Eric Wright as the No. 2 starting cornerback. That said, he will not simply be handed the starting job, as he will have to win a competition against numerous other talented cornerbacks on the Lions’ roster.
Veteran cornerbacks Jacob Lacey and Alphonso Smith will be in the battle for the starting job, but the player with the best chance to beat Berry in the battle could be third-round pick Dwight Bentley.
Bentley is a small cornerback, but he is an instinctive, athletic playmaker with very good ball skills.
Bentley is best suited to play at nickel cornerback, and that is a role he can most likely earn this season. I expect Berry to win the battle for a starting job, but that Bentley can beat out Lacey and Smith to play the majority of snaps as the slot corner.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Drew Butler, P (Georgia)
In each of the past two seasons, Jeremy Kapinos has signed on to become the Steelers’ starting punter following a season-ending injury to Daniel Sepulveda. Kapinos remains a member of the Steelers’ roster, but Sepulveda is no longer with the team, meaning that the Steelers will now be looking for a new long-term punter.
Kapinos has performed respectably in his stints with the Steelers, but he has failed to stick anywhere as a starting punter in five NFL seasons. That leaves the door open for Drew Butler, an undrafted free agent signing, to win the punting job and become a potential long-term answer for the Steelers at the position.
Butler had a disappointing senior season, which led to him going undrafted, but he has a strong leg and won the Ray Guy Award, given to the NCAA’s best punter, as a sophomore.
I like Butler’s chances to earn the spot over Kapinos in a battle that should continue until final cuts are made.
Denver Broncos: Ronnie Hillman, RB (San Diego State)
Willis McGahee had a strong 2011 season as the Broncos’ feature back, but at 30 years old, he is starting to get old for an NFL running back. Meanwhile, former first-round pick Knowshon Moreno has had a disappointing start to his career.
This leaves the window open for third-round pick Ronnie Hillman to earn the Broncos’ starting running back job.
McGahee appears to still have another year or two of quality rushing left in him, so Hillman will most likely be battling Moreno for the second-string role.
At the running back position, however, starting has become almost irrelevant, as all teams now use two or three running backs in a game and usually spread out carries. Even if McGahee is the feature back, Hillman should get a strong share of carries if he can earn a spot ahead of Moreno on the depth chart.
Houston Texans: Brandon Brooks, G (Miami-Ohio)
The Houston Texans are replacing former starter Mike Brisiel at right guard. Antoine Caldwell was expected to be his successor, but the Texans drafted a massive, powerful guard in Brandon Brooks in the third round. According to Texans head coach Gary Kubiak via houstontexans.com, Brooks will compete with Caldwell for the starting spot.
Caldwell’s experience makes him the favorite, but Brooks has big upside. He has tremendous size and strength, while possessing good feet for a man of his size.
Brooks should earn a place in the Texans’ starting lineup sooner rather than later, and chances are quite good that he will end up beating out Caldwell to start this season.
New Orleans Saints: Nick Toon, WR (Wisconsin)
The Saints lost one of their most explosive offensive playmakers, Robert Meachem, to the San Diego Chargers via free agency. As a rookie, fourth-round pick Nick Toon could play a significant role in replacing him.
On a roster that already includes Marques Colston, Lance Moore and Devery Henderson, Toon is unlikely to crack the starting lineup this season. That said, the Saints use three- and four-receiver sets often, meaning that if Toon can earn the team’s No. 3 or No. 4 receiver role, he will get playing time and significant opportunity to contribute.
According to Mike Triplett, Saints columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayne, via Twitter, Toon has stood out thus far in the team’s OTAs. This is a good indication that Toon is putting his skills on display in New Orleans, and that he will be ready to get on the field and be a playmaker this season.
Green Bay Packers: Casey Hayward, CB (Vanderbilt)
The Packers have a very solid returning top trio of cornerbacks in Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams and Sam Shields. However, a strong training camp and preseason from second-round pick Casey Hayward could cause the Packers to reshuffle their cornerback depth chart.
Hayward is an instinctive cornerback who was very productive as an SEC cornerback, has very good ball skills and tackles soundly. Having drafted him in the second round, the Packers should have plans for him to compete for immediate playing time, which means that the three returning veterans could be forced to compete to hold their spots.
My prediction is that experience will prevail early on, with Woodson and Williams remaining starters while Shields plays nickel cornerback.
That said, Hayward can still see the field as a fourth cornerback, and it should not be long before Hayward finds himself in a prominent spot in the lineup, especially considering Woodson is aging at 35 years old.
New York Giants: Rueben Randle, WR (LSU)
The Giants drafted Jerrel Jernigan in the third round of the 2011 draft with a vision of him emerging as a dynamic slot receiver. However, as Victor Cruz emerged in an incredible breakout season last year, Jernigan barely saw the field.
Jernigan could be in line for increased playing time in his sophomore season, following the free agency loss of Mario Manningham to the San Francisco 49ers. That seems much less likely, however, following the second-round selection of Rueben Randle.
Randle is likely to jump immediately in front of Jernigan on the depth chart and become a replacement for Manningham in the lineup as the Giants’ third receiver.
Additionally, Hakeem Nicks broke his foot in OTAs, and if he is not ready for the start of the season, Randle could have an opportunity to step in for him immediately as a starting outside receiver across from Cruz. Regardless, Randle is in good position to move into the lineup immediately and could deprive Jernigan of his chance to contribute once again.
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32 NFL Rookies Currently Battling for 53-Man Roster Spots
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