Predicting the NFL's Top 8 Rookies Based on Early OTA Showings
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports
Teams around the NFL have begun their offseason programs, with organized team activities (OTAs) currently underway or just ending for most. This is one of the first times we can take close looks at the rookies of the league and see how they're faring as drills get more complicated and depth charts start to be worked and reworked.
Though fully padded, contact-filled practices don't start until training camps later in the summer, we can still take notice of the rookies who are starting to separate themselves into first-year starters. Here are the eight most impressive rookies based on what we've seen in OTAs thus far.
RB/WR Denard Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars
For many fifth-round draft picks, the road to a starting job is a hard one, often requiring the rookie to unseat an established veteran.
That's not the case for offensive jack-of-all-trades Denard Robinson of the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jaguars need all the weapons they can get, and Robinson has already impressed with his versatility and speed.
Already, Robinson stands to get 10 to 15 total touches per game as both a running back and wide receiver. And it appears that the former Michigan quarterback may get time at his old position this year as well, with reports out of May's OTAs that he was lined up in the shotgun formation.
With such a broad skill set, Robinson can be a dangerous asset for the Jaguars as long as his on-field performance matches his billing. So far, it has, which means he's on his way to having a successful rookie campaign.
OT Lane Johnson, Philadelphia Eagles
Even top-five draft picks need to earn their jobs in the starting lineup, including offensive tackle Lane Johnson. He was taken by the Philadelphia Eagles to help boost an offensive line that gave up too many sacks last season to have an effective passing game.
Johnson started the first round of OTAs with the second team, but made a good enough impression to be moved to first team right tackle for the second round of OTA practices, which began at the end of May.
Though the move was partially out of necessity—Jason Peters isn't around, and Dennis Kelly switched to left tackle, resulting in Johnson working with the starters on the right—the hope is that the move is permanent for Johnson. So far, it appears that Kelly may not be getting his job back once the season begins.
One thing that has been impressive about Johnson is his versatility. His collegiate background as a tight end has allowed the Eagles to use his athleticism and move him around in offensive formations, including blocking defensive backs on screen plays. That will earn him some serious mileage in his rookie season.
WR Robert Woods, Buffalo Bills
The Buffalo Bills went all in on wide receivers this year, drafting Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin and taking Da'Rick Rogers as an undrafted free agent. Of the three rookies, Woods has made the biggest impression so far.
Woods, who missed the first week of OTAs because of the NFL's rules regarding college graduation, came back to the team looking very NFL-ready. Quarterback Kevin Kolb was immediately impressed by his mistake-free route running.
When a rookie can take the field at OTAs and look like a veteran player, the odds are high that he'll make a major impact in his first season.
WR Conner Vernon, Oakland Raiders
Undrafted rookie wide receiver Conner Vernon stepped into the Oakland Raiders' OTAs with a few strikes against him. First, he went undrafted, meaning he's got quite the ladder to climb to make the Raiders' 53-man roster. Second, Oakland doesn't have a lack of receivers at the moment, which means Vernon needs to stand out to even get enough reps and prove he's not expendable.
So far, it looks like Vernon could easily land himself a roster spot this year. Raiders head coach Dennis Allen was effusive in his praise for the rookie; his was the only name that came to mind when Allen was asked about who stood out at OTAs.
Vernon is a slot receiver, making him Jacoby Ford's second fiddle. But Ford has a history of injury, which could earn Vernon significant playing time in his rookie year. In fact, Vernon's presence could ultimately make Ford the expendable receiver in Oakland, not the other way around.
TE Tyler Eifert, Cincinnati Bengals
Generally, first-round draft picks hope to make major impressions starting with their very first practices. So far, it appears that Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert is about to earn himself significant playing time in his rookie season despite the team already having a starter in Jermaine Gresham.
Eifert is a talented receiving tight end who can line up all over the field—out wide, in the slot, underneath—which makes him a useful weapon for third-year quarterback Andy Dalton. The mismatch nightmare of an effective two-tight end offense is what the Bengals are aiming to have, and based on Eifert's OTAs performance, they can certainly achieve it this year.
Dalton has praised Eifert's ability to understand his new offense immediately, and A.J. Green has called Eifert a "natural" when it comes to his pass-catching ability. Eifert's presence on the field with Gresham has also opened up Green for scoring opportunities at OTAs, proving that in today's pass-heavy NFL, a two-tight end system is of major benefit.
WR Aaron Dobson, New England Patriots
The New England Patriots have voids to fill at wide receiver, and based on OTAs thus far, it appears that rookie Aaron Dobson could very well have one of those spots locked down.
Dobson has had a strong showing at OTAs, making impressive catches that seem to indicate a starting job is in his future. Still, a few drops have some worried that he has concentration issues to work on.
Helping him out, however, is the fact that tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski and receiver Julian Edelman have all missed significant practice time, which has allowed Dobson more opportunity to get in sync with quarterback Tom Brady. That could certainly pay off when the time comes for him to take the field in the regular season.
QB Geno Smith, New York Jets
The New York Jets' quarterback competition is in full swing. Though rookie Geno Smith started out the offseason working with the second team, he's moved to working with the starters in recent OTAs. All indications are that he and Mark Sanchez will alternate time with the first team while the Jets try to figure out who will be their guy come September.
Smith's OTAs performance has so far been solid, including an outing with the first team in which he completed eight of his nine pass attempts despite also taking two sacks. The incomplete pass was a drop, and Smith's ability to handle pressure was notable.
Sanchez has been more erratic in practices thus far, but that doesn't mean his starting job is in jeopardy yet. However, if Smith continues to improve while Sanchez remains inconsistent, Smith could very well end up under center in Week 1. Ultimately, his success, like Sanchez's, will rely on the offensive line, which was poor last year.
WR Terrance Williams, Dallas Cowboys
The battle for the Dallas Cowboys' third wide receiver duty seems to be down to Dwayne Harris and rookie Terrance Williams, but the edge looks to slowly be tipping in Williams' favor.
Williams will enter his first season behind Dez Bryant and the oft-injured Miles Austin on the depth chart, but he's been impressive enough thus far that Tim Cowlishaw of the Dallas Morning News believes Austin will lose his roster spot entirely in 2014 because of Williams' rookie-year performance.
While it's a bit early to make certain proclamations about the Cowboys' 2014 roster, the fact Cowlishaw was moved so much by Williams' OTAs performance to make such a bold prediction certainly indicates a solid rookie year is ahead for the receiver.