Under-the-Radar Players Who Will Shine in Rookie Camps
It’s not uncommon for under-the-radar prospects to make an immediate splash with their new NFL teams. Once players start competing against tougher competition, it’s easier to tell which ones are going to make an impact at the next level.
The cream of the crop should rise to the top, but every year, a few rookies outshine the household names. Players like Rod Streater, Dezman Moses, Vick Ballard, Alfred Morris, T.Y. Hilton, Chris Givens, Dwayne Allen, Casey Heyward and Alfonzo Dennard shined last season despite not being top prospects.
A rookie’s first chance to really impress his coaches comes at rookie minicamp. Here’s a look at a few under-the-radar players that will shine during rookie minicamps.
Devonte Holloman, Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys had a few head-scratching picks in the draft, but scooping up Devonte Holloman in the sixth round wasn’t one of them. Holloman is expected to be great on special teams, but has a chance to really shine in Dallas if given the opportunity.
Holloman may not be the most athletically gifted linebacker, but he’s a former safety with coverage skills. When it comes to impressing at rookie camp, a linebacker who can cover is going to get the attention of coaches.
Bleacher Report's Sigmund Bloom wrote in his scouting report of Holloman that he "might be the most instinctive linebacker in the draft." If Holloman can show off those instincts during rookie minicamp with his coverage skills, it’s hard to imagine he doesn’t separate himself from a lot of the other rookies.
Etienne Sabino, New York Giants
The New York Giants don’t have a ton of depth at linebacker, but they found a potential gem in Etienne Sabino as an undrafted free agent. Sabino was a 4-star high school recruit and Rivals.com’s No. 1-ranked inside linebacker in 2008, but he fell off the map a little bit at Ohio State.
Sabino has NFL size at 247 pounds and was even productive at Ohio State in his limited experience (107 tackles and 10 tackles for a loss in 21 games as a junior and senior). Although Sabino didn’t blow things up at the combine, he did put up a respectable 24 reps on the bench press.
Once Sabino gets into camp, his versatility and ability will be on display. Bleacher Report's Scott Carasik only listed Sabino’s ability in coverage and his tackling form as weaknesses in his scouting report. If accurate, Holloman is going to shine in rookie camp and even push for playing time in 2013.
Sabino will likely be a good two-down defender right away with some upside as a pass-rusher too. Sabino’s character, ability to back up multiple positions and play special teams will make him a favorite of the coaching staff.
Quinton Patton, San Francisco 49ers
Maybe Quinton Patton isn’t totally an under-the-radar player, but he was drafted in the fourth round behind 14 other receivers. Patton’s talents clearly went unnoticed by the NFL’s talent evaluators to the extent that Ace Sanders and Chris Harper were off the board before his name was called.
Oddly enough, Patton was 20 minutes away from not being able to participate in the rookie minicamp because he hopped a plane to the Bay Area, rented a car and headed for the 49ers’ headquarters. NFL teams have 24 hours to bring draft picks to the facility; after that they have to wait for rookie minicamp.
Patton has already made an impression on his head coach, but can further his case for significant playing time with an impressive minicamp. Patton’s eagerness to work hard is what will set him apart from most rookies, but it would be a mistake to overlook his on-field ability.
On Patton's route-running skills, Bleacher Report's Sigmund Bloom writes: "Patton creates a lot of separation with sudden breaks and throttle-downs in his routes. He understands how to turn a cushion into room to operate and how to get free of tight coverage close to the line of scrimmage."
Patton has been praised for his route-running skills, and rookie defensive backs aren’t going to be able to stick with him. Patton could potentially have a very productive rookie minicamp and force his way on to the field as a slot receiver in San Francisco as a rookie.
Lerentee McCray, Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos clearly like Lerentee McCray, as they gave him a hefty $17,000 to sign as an undrafted free agent, according to the Denver Post. Indeed, the Broncos got a player that has the potential to turn heads during rookie minicamp.
McCray was a pass-rusher at Florida and struggled at times to earn playing time, but in Denver, he will have a shot to compete for the starting job at inside linebacker. If McCray can’t make the transition smoothly in year one, he’ll still be the perfect backup at multiple positions.
There aren’t many pass-rushing linebackers like McCray, and that makes him a fortunate find for the Broncos. He can at least play special teams and provide depth behind Von Miller.
The best-case scenario is that McCray mounts a legitimate challenge to be Denver’s two-down starter at middle linebacker. His diverse set of skills make him a candidate to shine during rookie Denver’s rookie minicamp in Miller’s pass-rushing role and at middle linebacker.
Sam McGuffie, Oakland Raiders
Outside of being a YouTube sensation in high school, Sam McGuffie is a relative unknown. McGuffie never turned into a prolific player in college despite being a top recruit. The former Michigan running back transferred to Rice, where he had some injury issues, switched positions and never reached his full potential.
Like Rod Streater a year ago, McGuffie could make some noise during rookie minicamp because of his amazing athleticism. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.37 seconds with a vertical jump of 40.5”, a broad jump of 11’2” and a short shuttle of 4.02 seconds, according to NFL.com.
Had McGuffie been invited to the combine, his measurables would have all been top four at the receiver position. He is also built like a running back and projects as an ideal slot receiver with the ability to turn small gains into big plays.
Stepfan Taylor, Arizona Cardinals
The Arizona Cardinals have a shaky running back situation. Rashard Mendenhall and Ryan Williams are two veteran options, but the Birds also drafted Andre Ellington and Stepfan Taylor in the sixth round of the draft.
Taylor played in a pro-style offense at Stanford, was a productive runner and is a proven pass-protector. Considering that the Cardinals offensive line still needs a lot of work, they are going to need as much help from the running back as possible.
While other rookies are struggling to grasp the playbook, Taylor will just be able to focus on his performance. Having one less thing to worry about should make him a top performer during rookie minicamp.
Conner Vernon, Oakland Raiders
The Raiders did a good job of finding an undrafted gem at wide receiver last season and they have two more candidates this year. Sam McGuffie is a hyper-athletic guy with relatively low college production, and Conner Vernon is a technician that was very productive in college.
Vernon will really shine during rookie minicamp because defensive backs seem to have more trouble slowing down receivers that run good routes than players with great athleticism. It makes sense because teams often use base formations on offense and defense at minicamp.
It’s unlikely that plays will be run that are designed to take advantage of a specific player’s ability until much later in the process. Vernon will have an advantage until he has to face more experienced NFL cornerbacks during organized team activities.
Jordan Poyer, Philadelphia Eagles
Jordan Poyer was once considered a Day 2 prospect, but he tumbled down the board until the Philadelphia Eagles finally selected him in the seventh round. Poyer’s fall has taken him from a prospect that was expected to produce to one that is now flying under the radar.
Poyer also will not be able to participate in the Eagles’ organized team activities because NFL rules do not allow him to attend workouts until his class graduates on June 15. That means his best chance to make an impression is during his rookie minicamp.
He has good ball skills, as he intercepted seven passes in 2012. Nothing puts a cornerback prospect on the map like turnovers as defenses try to limit prolific passing attacks. Poyer will make a few plays during minicamp just to make sure the Eagles don’t completely forget about him on a crowded depth chart.
Cameron Lawrence, Dallas Cowboys
It’s tough to bet against a player that came to college as 200 pounds, gained weight and was massively productive in the SEC. The now 230-pound Cameron Lawrence still needs to get bigger, but he had 120 tackles last season with his smaller frame at Mississippi State.
Lawrence is your classic high-character, high-motor player that is instinctual, disciplined and smart, but lacks the physical traits to be a great NFL prospect. Players like him always seem to make the roster because they can contribute on special teams and sometimes develop into starters if given enough time.
Lawrence is the kind of guy that is going to get praise from the coaching staff immediately for his effort, motor and scrappiness. The low-contact minicamp will also disguise Lawrence’s size deficiency and enable him to always be around the ball.
Bacarri Rambo, Washington Redskins
Even though the Redskins picked up safety Phillip Thomas in the fourth round, they couldn’t pass on the value that Bacarri Rambo presented in the sixth round. Rambo is a good player, but his teammates at Georgia overshadowed his contributions. Six other Georgia defenders were drafted ahead of him, including safety Shawn Williams and cornerback Sanders Commings.
Despite how Rambo was viewed at Georgia, it’s not unreasonable to think that he could end up starting at some point for the Redskins in 2013. Rambo has good ball skills; he intercepted 14 passes over the past three seasons. Rambo is also a good tackler that is willing to deliver a big hit, which are two good traits for a strong safety.
Rambo’s size and athleticism should enable him to keep pace with Thomas during Washington’s rookie minicamp. Rambo should be able to use his ball skills to grab a couple balls out of the air and put himself in a position to push the veterans for a starting job if he’s willing to work hard and learn the scheme.