NFL Training Camp: 16 Best NFL Rookies That Will Struggle to Win a Spot
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Each team expects its highly-drafted rookies to be integral parts of the franchise’s future, and most rookies are expected to make an immediate impact. Some NFL rookies, however, may not get their opportunity in 2012.
All 16 of the following rookies have the skills and potential to be very good NFL players, but they may not be able to earn spots in the lineup in their first year.
Detroit Lions OT Riley Reiff
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No. 23 overall selection (Round 1)
Pre-Draft Prospect Rank: No. 12
The Detroit Lions drafted Riley Reiff to be the franchise’s starting left tackle for many years, but that reign may not begin until the end of the 2013 season, when longtime starter Jeff Backus’ contract expires. As a rookie, Reiff may not end up cracking the starting lineup at all.
At 34 years of age, Backus’ career is nearing its end, but he still has one or two more solid years left in him. However, according to The Sports Xchange (via CBSSports.com), Reiff is viewed by Lions head coach Jim Schwartz as a left tackle, and he will have a chance to compete for the starting job.
That said, Backus is likely to retain his starting spot for 2012. Reiff should also compete with Gosder Cherilus at right tackle, where he could be an upgrade, but he is most likely to play a role similar to that of Nate Solder last season with the New England Patriots.
A 2011 first-round pick, Solder was the backup at both offensive tackle spots, but ended up starting 13 games due to injuries. Reiff will likely hold the same role this season and be the next man up if injuries strike either Backus or Cherilus.
Houston Texans OLB Whitney Mercilus
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No. 26 overall selection (Round 1)
Pre-Draft Prospect Rank: No. 24
Whitney Mercilus was drafted as the Houston Texans’ replacement to star pass-rusher Mario Williams, who left for the Buffalo Bills as a free agent, but that does not necessarily mean he will start as a rookie. Last year, when Williams missed the majority of the season after suffering a torn pectoral, first-year starters Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed filled in very well, and neither has the intention of handing their starting spot over.
That is not to say Mercilus will not have an impact as a rookie. Regardless of which two players are selected to start, all three should receive significant playing time as they rotate in and out with one another.
Mercilus is the most explosive pass-rusher of the entire trio, so it is very possible that he could be used only in pass-rushing situations as a rookie, as he develops as a run stopper while transitioning to a new position (outside linebacker) after playing defensive end at Illinois.
Nonetheless, expect a battle in what could be a struggle to earn a starting spot as a rookie.
Chicago Bears WR Alshon Jeffery
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No. 45 overall selection (Round 2)
Pre-Draft Prospect Rank: No. 22
The Bears entered last offseason with a major need for a playmaker at the wide receiver position, but they addressed that need on March 13 when they traded for Brandon Marshall. That did not stop the Bears, however, from using a second-round draft pick on another wideout, Alshon Jeffery.
Jeffery is a gifted receiver with great hands, size and downfield playmaking ability, and he should make an early impact with the Bears, but a starting spot could be tough to come by as a rookie. With Marshall locking up one spot, Jeffery will face stiff competition from Earl Bennett and Devin Hester for the No. 2 receiver spot.
Jeffery has the most upside as a flanker of any of the three, but Bennett, who signed a four-year contract extension last December, is the likely favorite to earn the job with Johnny Knox, a starter last year, recovering from a broken vertebra.
Regardless of what role Jeffery plays, he should make an impact as a rookie, but if Bennett earns the No. 2 spot, Hester should start in the slot, leaving Jeffery to compete with Dane Sanzenbacher, Devin Thomas and potentially Knox (if healthy) for the team’s fourth receiver spot.
Jacksonville Jaguars DE Andre Branch
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No. 38 overall selection (Round 2)
Pre-Draft Prospect Rank: No. 48
Andre Branch is an athletically gifted pass-rusher, but he needs to develop as a run defender. He should be ready to contribute right away as a situational pass-rusher, but as he acclimates to the NFL, he may have a tough time unseating Austen Lane as a starter, with Jeremy Mincey locking down the other side of the line.
Branch has more natural ability than Lane, but he needs time to season his game, especially as a run defender. Assuming Lane has a strong camp, expect Lane to win the starting job, but with Branch spelling him as a situational pass-rusher.
This could be an interesting battle that comes down to Branch’s ability for his game to develop quickly enough to catch up with his potential.
Philadelphia Eagles DE Vinny Curry
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No. 59 overall selection (Round 2)
Pre-Draft Prospect Rank: No. 46
While Vinny Curry does not have the athletic ability that the aforementioned Branch has, he is a well-rounded defensive end who was very productive at Marshall in his senior season, tying for third nationally with 22 tackles for loss. Unfortunately, he was drafted onto a roster that leaves little room to crack the lineup as a rookie.
The Eagles already have a tremendous pair of starting defensive ends in Jason Babin, a second-team AP All-Pro last season, and Trent Cole, previously a second-team AP All-Pro in 2009. Another talented defensive end in Philadelphia is Brandon Graham, a 2010 first-round pick with the ability to be a defensive difference-maker, though he has battled injuries throughout his first two seasons.
That leaves Curry fourth on the depth chart, and that is likely where he will stay for his rookie season unless injuries hit. Curry could jump ahead of Graham if he has a very strong camp, but if he does not and the top three defensive ends stay healthy, he could be hard-pressed to find playing time in his rookie season.
Green Bay Packers CB Casey Hayward
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No. 62 overall selection (Round 2)
Pre-Draft Prospect Rank: No. 58
Casey Hayward is a very good all-around cornerback, a playmaker with great ball skills who covers well in man-to-man and is a sound tackler. However, he joins a Green Bay Packers team that is already deep at the cornerback position.
Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams should be set as starters, while Sam Shields is a talented nickel cornerback. While Hayward is good enough to play right away and push any of them for playing time, he will most likely spend his rookie season as the fourth cornerback, playing only in dime packages unless injuries strike any of the top three cornerbacks.
Hayward will find his way on the field in certain packages and on special teams, but earning significant playing time will be a challenge in his rookie season.
Pittsburgh Steelers OT Mike Adams
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No. 56 overall selection (Round 2)
Pre-Draft Prospect Rank: No. 32
On May 17, Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that second-year offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert would remain at right tackle, leaving the door wide open for Mike Adams to take over as the team’s starting left tackle. However, the Steelers’ re-signing of veteran Max Starks on July 17 could close that door.
Considering that Starks went unsigned until last week, he is far from a lock to start for the Steelers, especially following two consecutive injury-riddled seasons. However, he will definitely be battling Adams for the starting job and is a sign that the Steelers may not believe in Adams being ready to start in 2012.
While Adams is talented, he could certainly use more development and may not be ready to handle the responsibility of being a starting left tackle as a rookie. He's likely best suited to spend his rookie season as the backup offensive tackle, ready to step in at either spot should Starks or Gilbert be injured.
San Diego Chargers DE Kendall Reyes
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No. 49 overall selection (Round 2)
Pre-Draft Prospect Rank: No. 52
Kendall Reyes has big potential as a defensive end in the Chargers’ 3-4 defensive scheme, but as he transitions from playing defensive tackle at Connecticut, he will have a tough time earning a starting spot in training camp.
With 2011 first-round pick Corey Liuget likely to have one starting spot locked down, Reyes will have to unseat Vaughn Martin, who had a breakout year in 2011, to earn a spot in the starting lineup. Reyes has the talent to push for Martin’s spot, but is best suited to be a rotational player off the bench as he learns the ropes as a rookie.
Veteran defensive end Jacques Cesaire could also push Reyes for playing time, so Reyes’ ability to learn his new position quickly will be important for the amount of snaps he receives this season.
San Francisco 49ers WR A.J. Jenkins
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No. 30 overall selection (Round 1)
Pre-Draft Prospect Rank: No. 108
The San Francisco 49ers certainly expect wide receiver A.J. Jenkins to be a big playmaker going forward in their passing offense, as they invested their first-round draft pick in him, but that investment is unlikely to pay a major dividend until his sophomore season.
Jenkins was not the only wide receiver the 49ers added this offseason. They also signed Randy Moss, who is expected to start alongside Michael Crabtree, and Mario Manningham, who should continue playing the slot receiver role that he did with the Super Bowl-winning New York Giants last season.
This should leave Jenkins fourth on the depth chart, and he will not have much room to move ahead of any of those three. Jenkins, however, will be groomed as a rookie behind Moss, who is only signed to a one-year contract, in hopes of him being ready to take over as the team’s No. 1 receiver in the 2013 season.
Cincinnati Bengals DTs Devon Still and Brandon Thompson
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Still - No. 53 overall selection (Round 2)
Pre-Draft Prospect Rank: No. 28
Thompson - No. 93 overall selection (Round 3)
Pre-Draft Prospect Rank: No. 26
With a solid corps consisting of Geno Atkins, Domata Peko and Pat Sims at defensive tackle, the Cincinnati Bengals did not need to draft a defensive tackle early in the 2012 NFL draft. That did not stop them from doing so not only once, but twice, in the first three rounds.
The Bengals got two great values with the draft selections of Devon Still and Brandon Thompson, but it is unclear how they will factor in as the Bengals’ defensive tackles in 2012. Atkins is a lock to start, and it would come as a big surprise if Peko loses his starting nose tackle spot next to him.
This means Still and Thompson will not only be battling the returning veterans, including the starters and Sims, but each other for playing time. Considering the importance of rotating defensive linemen to keep players fresh, both players should find playing time, but they will be hard-pressed to push for a large number of snaps.
New York Giants CB Jayron Hosley
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No. 94 overall selection (Round 3)
Pre-Draft Prospect Rank: No. 42
Even with the free-agent departure of Aaron Ross, one of last season’s starting cornerbacks for the New York Giants, Hosley will have a hard time cracking the lineup as a rookie.
Terrell Thomas, who was a starter in 2010 but missed all of last season with a torn ACL, is expected to return to his starting role across from Corey Webster. His competition will not come from Hosley, but from Prince Amukamara, a 2011 first-round pick for whom expectations will be high after a disappointing, injury-riddled rookie year.
Hosley should be able to beat out Bruce Johnson for the fourth cornerback role and make an impact on defensive dime packages and special teams, but he will not crack the top three on the depth chart unless injuries strike again this season.
Miami Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill
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No. 8 overall selection (Round 1)
Pre-Draft Prospect Rank: No. 54
Tannehill’s inclusion on this list may be inaccurate, as he is more likely to not be a part of the starting quarterback battle at all than to “struggle” to win it. However, as a top-10 overall draft selection who may not play a single snap in his rookie season, he could not be excluded.
Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald is one of numerous reporters covering the Dolphins to report that Tannehill is expected to be the third quarterback this season, while incumbent Matt Moore and veteran free-agent addition David Garrard battle to start in 2012. For Tannehill, a quarterback with very promising physical tools but who needs to develop significantly to be a successful NFL starter, a “redshirt” season in his rookie year would be the best thing for him going forward.
Tannehill may be the most talented quarterback on the roster, but as the Dolphins are looking at the situation realistically, they realize Tannehill is not ready to start immediately and that they are unlikely to be AFC East contenders in 2012.
Therefore, the best avenue is to determine the most capable veteran to play out this season, while developing Tannehill as the long-term signal-caller.
Detroit Lions WR Ryan Broyles
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No. 54 overall selection (Round 2)
Pre-Draft Prospect Rank: No. 66
Ryan Broyles is a well-rounded wide receiver who was very productive in his collegiate career at Oklahoma, but he is a long-shot to crack the top three of the Detroit Lions’ receiver depth chart in training camp.
The Lions have an established top trio of wideouts in Calvin Johnson, Titus Young and Nate Burleson. Broyles has the talent to surpass Burleson as the No. 3 receiver, but he is likely to be set back from that chance because he is still recovering from a torn ACL suffered last season.
Broyles is expected to participate in training camp, according to MLive.com, but as he gets back up to speed, the Lions should view him as their fourth receiver for the 2012 season. He should still get on the field and make plays, but his serious push for the second or third receiver spot is likely to come in 2013.
Denver Broncos RB Ronnie Hillman
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No. 67 overall selection (Round 3)
Pre-Draft Prospect Rank: No. 113
Ronnie Hillman is a gifted running back prospect and a very good receiving back with great speed. While running backs often have the earliest opportunity to contribute among rookie players, that may not be the case for Hillman.
Hillman has the talent to be one of the team’s top two running backs, but he will have to win a battle. After rushing for 1,199 yards last season, Willis McGahee should remain the Broncos’ starting running back, which will leave Hillman in a battle with Knowshon Moreno for the No. 2 spot in the backfield.
Moreno has been a disappointment since he was a 2009 first-round pick, but he is a talented runner whose biggest problem has been staying healthy. He is a bigger, more complete back than Hillman, and he is going to make it tough for Hillman to move higher than the third spot on the depth chart in training camp.
Buffalo Bills OLB Nigel Bradham
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No. 105 overall selection (Round 4)
Pre-Draft Prospect Rank: No. 57
Bradham is an athletic, instinctive outside linebacker with the all-around game to start as a rookie at either strong- or weak-side linebacker, but he is an underdog to win that battle in training camp.
Bradham took repetitions with the first-team defense in OTAs, according to BuffaloBills.com, but that was when veterans Nick Barnett and Kirk Morrison, the expected starters, were sidelined.
Bradham cannot be ruled out of the battle, especially considering Morrison only had seven tackles as a backup for the Bills last season. However, as the Bills transition to a 4-3 defense, he is expected to take on a bigger role this season as an outside linebacker, and Bradham will likely start out his NFL career as the primary backup, ready to step in if any of the Bills’ starting linebackers are injured.
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Dan Hope is an NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Hope.