Which 2012 NFL Rookies Are Dazzling in Training Camp?
It's very important for NFL rookies to get off to a hot start in training camp. In most cases, these rookies are battling veterans for the right to begin the season as a starter. Getting off on the right foot is the best way for a rookie to let that veteran know he's a legitimate threat.
Confidence is another reason that finding early success is important. Most of these rookies are leaving college as stars and now have to deal with a major transition. Receiving early praise from the coaching staff is something that can propel a young player to a successful rookie season.
With that said, here are 15 NFL rookies who are dazzling in training camp.
Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
According to Stephen Holder of the Tampa Bay Times, Doug Martin is already receiving the majority of first-team reps. It's widely speculated that Martin will be the featured back in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense. His wide array of skills gives him the versatility to make an immediate impact.
Martin possesses the burst needed to quickly press the hole. It also helps him out-pace defensive angles and pick up big chunks of yardage. His low center of gravity gives him the ability to pick up yards after contact. It's his ability to remain low and maintain balance that helps him break tackles.
In the passing game, Martin is a willing and good pass protector. This is something that rookies typically struggle with, but Martin is already better in this area than LeGarrette Blount. He also is a reliable pass catcher with the burst to create in space.
This is a good football player who has a legitimate shot at winning the Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
Bernard Pierce, Baltimore Ravens
The Baltimore Ravens are searching for someone to be the primary backup to Ray Rice, and they appear to be giving Bernard Pierce a shot to win the job.
Rice has been a very durable player, but an injury can occur out of nowhere. The Ravens' reliance on the running game means they must have a capable backup in order to keep the offense running.
Pierce is a solidly built running back who does a good job picking up positive yardage. He doesn't have great speed and is more of a grinder. In order for him to be really effective, he'll need the Ravens' offensive line to open some nice running lanes.
However, he has enough talent to play a complementary role and even fill in for Rice in the case of a short-term injury.
Travis Benjamin, Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns are desperate for playmakers at the wide receiver position. That's why the apparent progress made by Travis Benjamin is good news.
According to Vic Carucci of the Cleveland Browns website, Benjamin has looked much improved from rookie camp:
The fourth-round choice from Miami consistently ran routes with greater precision than he demonstrated in rookie minicamp, full-squad minicamp, and OTA workouts. He also caught everything that came his way, and the speedster showed even greater explosiveness after getting the ball in his hands.
Benjamin tied Stephen Hill for the fastest time at the combine with a 4.36 40 time. His type of speed is something that isn't shared by the other receivers on the roster. He'll get a good opportunity to earn playing time just based on this fact.
Robert Turbin, Seattle Seahawks
The Seattle Seahawks are prepared to give Robert Turbin a major role this season, and that role could grow if Marshawn Lynch faces a suspension. During the early part of training camp, Turbin has been able to impress the coaching staff. He brings a good combination of quickness and toughness to the lineup.
I was very surprised to see how long he lasted in last April's draft, as I had him rated as a late-second round prospect. This is a guy that can both break off a long run and be effective between the tackles. He has an excellent second gear that makes him a threat to score from anywhere on the field.
If Lynch is forced to sit out a couple of games, expect to hear a lot about Turbin in the national media. He has the talent to turn some heads early in his career.
Brandon Weeden, Cleveland Browns
Dazzling might be a bit strong of a word to describe Brandon Weeden's performance early in training camp. However, he's already receiving the bulk of the first-team reps, which shows the Cleveland Browns are serious about letting him open the season as the starter. He's going to have plenty of opportunities to display his passing talents.
Cleveland's coaches have tried to play it safe by saying Weeden isn't guaranteed the starting job. However, no team drafts a 28-year-old quarterback in the first round if it plans to sit him on the bench. Weeden's age and Colt McCoy's inability to show a lot of progress is why Weeden is getting the first-string snaps.
The biggest thing keeping Weeden from making an early impact is his ability to pick up the offense. He's used to running Oklahoma State's spread attack, and adjusting to the West Coast offense could take some time. However, Weeden has enough arm talent to make plays despite not being completely comfortable with the playbook.
David Wilson, New York Giants
David Wilson has a great chance to make a major impact this season for the New York Giants. So far he's taking advantage of this opportunity. Wilson has really impressed everyone at Giants training camp, especially Eli Manning, who stated, "He’s explosive, so that’s kind of exciting" (via New York's Daily News).
The Giants offense is at its best when they're able to feature a strong two-running back system. Losing Brandon Jacobs isn't a major blow because Wilson brings a lot more versatility to the table. The one-two punch of Ahmad Bradshaw and Wilson has a chance to be really special.
All offseason, the Giants have been talking about Wilson's explosiveness. There's no doubt Kevin Gilbride is drawing up some plays to feature Wilson's game-breaking speed.
Cliff Harris, Philadelphia Eagles
Cliff Harris is a former projected first-round pick who went undrafted because of off-field issues. However, he appears to have found a home with the Philadelphia Eagles. His play on the field has caught the eye of Andy Reid:
He did some good things. Yesterday he learned a couple lessons down in the red zone. We ran the same route against him today and he broke it up, so that’s a good sign when they can learn from their mistakes.
It appears that Harris will get an opportunity to earn a significant role on special teams. His ability as a return man could help the Eagles take some responsibilities away from DeSean Jackson. Harris' dynamic return skills give him a great shot to make the roster.
Evan Rodriguez, Chicago Bears
In moving away from Mike Martz's offensive system, the Chicago Bears are looking to increase the involvement of the tight end. Rookie Evan Rodriguez is as dangerous a pass catcher as any tight end on the roster. His first day at training camp showed glimpses of what he can bring to the table.
Mike Tice is looking to increase the explosiveness and consistency of the Bears' passing attack. His plan is to heavily feature Brandon Marshall but also work in the tight ends.
Rodriguez only has to beat out Kellen Davis and Matt Spaeth for playing time. Of that group, Rodriguez is the most physically talented and possesses the most upside.
Ronnie Hillman, Denver Broncos
Willis McGahee is the lead back for the Denver Broncos, but Ronnie Hillman is making a push to earn a role in the offense. Hillman has shown excellent quickness in the early part of training camp. He could be used as the main change-of-pace back.
McGahee is more of a grind-it-out type of runner who doesn't have great speed. The Broncos need a quicker back to come in and provide a game-breaking element to the running game. Hillman has the speed to break off big chunks of yardage.
He's also elusive enough to contribute in the passing game. Look for the Broncos to draw up some plays that get Hillman the ball in space.
Dont'a Hightower, New England Patriots
The New England Patriots appear ready to make Dont'a Hightower the starting strong-side linebacker. According to Greg Bedard of the Boston Globe, Hightower has taken the majority of the first-team snaps at the position. Bobby Carpenter is his main competition, but this camp battle should be over soon.
Hightower is also getting some time as the second-team middle linebacker. His versatility is something that will help him make an early impact. Look for Bill Belichick and company to rotate Hightower all over the field, especially in passing situations.
New England needs to find players to help generate pressure on the quarterback. Hightower has some natural pass-rush ability and should be worked into the game plan. Throughout his college career, he was used at the defensive end position, where he employed a wide array of pass-rush moves to get after the quarterback.
Alshon Jeffery, Chicago Bears
The Chicago Bears are looking to increase the production of their passing game this season. Rookie Alshon Jeffery figures to play an important role. According to Mark Potash of the Chicago Sun-Times, Jeffery is playing like a seasoned pro.
His size and leaping ability make him an excellent target for Jay Cutler. He does a great job going up and attacking the ball at its highest point. He'll be able to learn a lot from Brandon Marshall, who has a similar skill set.
The Bears didn't move up in the second round to have Jeffery sit on the bench. There's little doubt that Mike Tice will draw up some specific plays to feature Jeffery.
Josh Gordon, Cleveland Browns
Josh Gordon gained a ton of attention leading up to the supplemental draft. Many evaluators pointed to his good size and quickness as reasons why he'll succeed in the NFL. Gordon has done a great job making a quick adjustment to the talent in the NFL.
The Cleveland Browns might not have a choice but to work Gordon into the lineup. This is a team that doesn't have many good offensive weapons. If Gordon shows enough potential during training camp, look for him to see significant playing time early in the season.
Cleveland wants to make Trent Richardson the focal point of its offense, but he needs someone on the outside to draw defenders out of the box. Gordon has the talent to threaten the defense and keep it from stacking the box.
Bill Bentley, Detroit Lions
The Detroit Lions have some issues in the secondary, which were made worse by the release of Aaron Berry. This roster shakeup, combined with the team's overall struggles stopping the pass, has the potential to derail the team's playoff hopes. Luckily, rookie Bill Bentley is showing signs that he can contribute this season.
So far, Bentley has done a great job earning the attention of the coaching staff. He's a fearless player who boasts excellent quickness. It helps that he gets to line up against players like Calvin Johnson, Titus Young and Nate Burleson every day in practice.
Detroit is going to give Bentley every opportunity to earn significant playing time. Getting off to a strong start will only help his chances of opening the season as a starter.
Stephon Gilmore, Buffalo Bills
Stephon Gilmore is an excellent all-around football player. He does a great job in coverage and isn't afraid to support the run. His good balance and short-area burst help him quickly click and close on the football.
Gilmore is already turning heads at Buffalo Bills training camp. Wide receiver Stevie Johnson had the following to say (via NFL.com):
I don't know how to say it, but he's up there with some of the DBs in the league who've been playing for a couple of years, and he hasn't even played one play. Really, I don't want to speak too highly, but it's hard to not speak highly of somebody that can play as well as he has from rookie minicamp all the way up until now
The Bills need Gilmore to make an instant impact if they want to find a way to make a playoff appearance. They spent a lot of resources this offseason to upgrade the defensive side of the ball. It's the balance between offensive and defensive success that propels teams to successful seasons.
Stephen Hill, New York Jets
The New York Jets want their offensive identity to focus on a strong running game. However, they'll need the passing attack to provide enough explosive plays to draw defenders out of the box. This is one of the main reasons Stephen Hill figures to have a significant role in the offense.
Hill has a great combination of size and speed. This makes it difficult for anyone to match up with him in one-on-one situations. He proved this early in training camp when he beat Darrelle Revis deep down the sideline. Hill needs time to develop, but his raw talent is enough for him to earn playing time.
Rex Ryan was impressed by Hill's physical play as a run-blocker, stating (via newyorkjets.com), "The most impressive thing today, there was the catch over Revis even though Revis had great coverage, but on a running play, I saw a block and I saw a corner go down."