NFL Youngsters Turning Heads This Offseason
This time of year may not be the most telling when it comes to what to expect for the upcoming season, but Organized Team Activities (OTAs) and minicamps could be viewed as a test drive for the younger guys still looking to improve as professionals.
This slideshow takes us through some of the most impressive first- and second-year players throughout this offseason.
Not all of these players will dominate once the pads come on, but at least they're off to a great start in what they hope will be a highly productive 2013 season.
Tyler Eifert, Tight End, Cincinnati Bengals
It's no surprise that my absolute favorite rookie from the 2013 NFL draft class is already impressing both coaches and teammates in his new, multifaceted role in Cincinnati.
It might be early in the evaluation process, but first-round rookie tight end Tyler Eifert could be the weapon the Bengals have been looking for to help propel Andy Dalton and Marvin Lewis to their first postseason victory with this organization.
According to Joe Reedy of The Cincinnati Enquirer, Dalton praised his new target, saying:
From Day 1 nothing has seemed too big for him. It’s like "you want to go do this, OK I’ll go do this." He does it really well. That’s why we picked him with the first pick, and he’s really well-deserving.
Eifert also showed positive attributes in one of his more concerning phases of the game. Head coach Marvin Lewis had this to say of Eifert, as reported by Reedy:
(Eifert) is as advertised. What I was most impressed with is how he did a great job in the running game and the techniques he’s being taught.
I know he can run and catch, and turn get-back shoulder plays and all those kinds of things that you have to do in tight spots in the NFL. I know he can do all that. But the other stuff was impressive today.
Naturally, we should digest all offseason reports during this time of year with a grain of salt. More valuable projections on Eifert's contributions will come once the pads come on and the hitting begins.
A.J. Jenkins, Wide Receiver, San Francisco 49ers
Around this time last year, reports surrounding A.J. Jenkins' first offseason in the NFL were far from positive.
What a difference a year can make—especially in the NFL.
With numerous injuries at the wide receiver position, the 49ers find themselves in desperate need of a youthful emergence at the position. Who better than Jenkins, last year's first-round selection?
According to Grant Cohn of The Press Democrat, head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman have both been singing Jenkins' praises as he continues to make the most of his opportunity this offseason.
Thought A.J. had his best week of football since he’s been a 49er the last four days of OTAs, which was the last week of OTAs, and he continues to build on that.
I think anybody that’s gone from Year 1 to Year 2, there’s a great window of opportunity to improve in a fashion that you’ll never have again in your career. You’re going from doing things for the first time, to everything you do you’ve already done it. Big strides can be made that way.
Greg Roman echoed those sentiments, saying:
...just made some clutch catches for us when we were moving the ball. Just made plays. Did all the right things, made plays when he had the opportunity. He needs to continue doing that.
If Jenkins can keep this momentum up, he may be able to play a significant role in the San Francisco 49ers offense this season.
Manti Te'o, Linebacker, San Diego Chargers
Manti Te'o could have an instant impact in San Diego with his impressive instincts and unparalleled football I.Q.
In an article from U-T San Diego, linebacker coach Mike McCoy affirmed his approval of the rookie defender with these words:
All he does is show up every day and work... (Te'o) has done a great job of learning all the little details. I think he's a very intelligent football player, good football awareness and everything, so you see what he learned early on and what he's done throughout his football career. It was an easy transition coming here. It's just a matter of learning the language. He's done a great job.
Center Nick Hardwick added these words of encouragement:
I see what's going to be a heck of a football player. He gets good jumps on the snap. He knows where the ball is going. He seems to be really quick to react on it. In the locker room, he's a cool guy. He's easy to be around.
Teammate and fellow linebacker Larry English also spoke positively about Te'o:
He's humble, and he has the right attitude. He's not one of those guys you really want to come in and get on and mess with every day because he's mature and he's doing a good job working.
It appears Te'o has done everything right as a pro up to this point. Earning the respect of coaches and teammates to this degree is usually something that takes at least a few games to achieve. All signs point to a team leader in the making.
Johnathan Cyprien, Safety, Jacksonville Jaguars
When the Jacksonville Jaguars drafted Johnathan Cyprien in the second round, they had a feeling he would be something special. As of right now, all signs are pointing to those predictions being accurate.
The first impressions of Cyprien in a Jaguars uniform came during rookie minicamps. According to head coach Gus Bradley via NFL.com:
(Cyprien) was one guy who really showed up in my eyes. Not only is he playing, but we're watching if they can handle the tempo of practice and the style we're asking. He did a good job leading, too. I was very pleased with his start.
Cyprien is an impressive athlete with immense potential. It should not be a surprise if he ends up starting at safety by Week 1.
Tyrann Mathieu, Safety, Arizona Cardinals
By now, we should all be fully aware of Tyrann Mathieu's controversial story. But beyond the off-field issues, Mathieu is an intriguing undersized talent who could have better playmaking instincts than any other rookie in this year's class.
Sports Illustrated's Peter King attended OTA practice in Arizona and had this to report:
When I watched the other day, Mathieu, working with the first unit for part of the practice, made a diving pass break-up of a [Carson] Palmer throw and was buzzing around plays all through the workout.
The first thing you notice about Mathieu is his size -- at 5-9, he's probably three inches shy of what's optimal for the position -- and the second is his instinct. He's clearly at home on the practice field, pointing out coverages pre-snap and changing direction smoothly.
"He reminds of Troy Polamalu with his closing speed," said Palmer. "He might not be the fastest guy out there, but he can change directions and get to the ball really fast, like Troy."
Obviously, it's far too early to draw any conclusions about Mathieu's career outlook, but he continues to look like a sound investment for a guy drafted in the third round.
Sio Moore, Linebacker, Oakland Raiders
So far this offseason, Sio Moore has looked the part of an NFL linebacker by flying around the field with a ton of energy and intensity that the Raiders defense can surely use.
So far this offseason, Oakland's coaching staff has been using Moore at various linebacker positions.
Head coach Dennis Allen had encouraging words regarding Moore, as reported by Paul Gutierrez of CSNBayArea.com:
His ability to understand multiple positions has been good. He's a guy that, like I said after we drafted him, he loves football. He wants to work. He wants to get better. And he's a guy that I just think is going to continue to get better as he gets comfortable with the scheme.
It's not a far-fetched idea to think Moore could eventually win a starting job on this defense as a rookie. He brings a passion and athleticism to the team that will make it hard to keep him off the field.
Andrew Luck, Quarterback, Indianapolis Colts
Last season, Andrew Luck pulled off one of the most impressive rookie campaigns in NFL history, throwing for more yards than any other first-year quarterback (4,374) ever. What may be most impressive about that is he did it all without the benefits of OTAs or a true NFL offseason last year, as he was finishing up his college degree.
Now with a year under his belt, Luck is looking a lot more comfortable and turning the heads of even the most experienced veterans.
I knew he was a great player. I obviously saw him play in college and also last year.
But I really didn’t know what kind of leader he was in the locker room. It just comes real natural to him. He’s got a great sense of when to pull somebody aside, how to deal with coaches, just how he treats everyone around him. He’s been off-the-charts impressive that way.
He’s earned the respect of this locker room and he’s earned the respect of the people around the league he has to go up against.
Luck has all the makings of a true NFL great. He's poised for another record-breaking season in Indy.
Sheldon Richardson, Defensive Lineman, New York Jets
Sheldon Richardson has already entered the NFL as the No. 1 defensive playmaker of the 2013 draft class. In his first offseason as a pro, he has already turned the head of Rex Ryan, who is very excited to have him on his defense.
CBS New York quoted Rex Ryan, touting his second of two first-round draft picks:
On defense, it’s pretty obvious who popped out there. I mean, Sheldon Richardson was good. I don’t want to put expectations too high, but, yeah, he was impressive to say the least.
Richardson has been lining up all over the defensive line thus far, and he could potentially see significant playing time at nose tackle as a rookie, which would be interesting considering he's less than 300 pounds. His best skill happens to be penetrating offensive backfields.
Denard Robinson, RB/WR/KR/QB, Jacksonville Jaguars
The main reason Denard Robinson is turning heads is because of all the positions at which the Jaguars have been trying him, including quarterback. The plan for this multi-dimensional talent at the moment is to get him about 10 to 15 touches per game, according to general manager Dave Caldwell in a Sirius XM radio interview (h/t SI.com).
Those touches can come in a variety of ways, such as returning kicks and playing as a slot receiver, running back and, as mentioned earlier, quarterback.
The Detroit News reported Gus Bradley as saying:
It was a good start for him, although we don't talk much about the start. We're more concerned about how we finish, but it was good. One of our philosophies on offense is trying to get (the ball) in playmakers' hands. ...
That's why you saw him play some multiple positions just to see what he can do, what he can take on and give him a little bit of a flavor.
Whatever position Robinson ends up playing the most, he should be able to provide some much-needed fireworks for an anemic Jaguars offense.
Vance McDonald, Tight End, San Francisco 49ers
Second-round draft pick Vance McDonald was brought in by the 49ers to provide depth at the tight end position and improve red-zone efficiency. So far, McDonald has been perhaps the most impressive rookie in the 49ers' offseason.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman had this to say about his new tight end:
Vance is doing a nice job. He's progressing nicely. We threw everything at him at two different positions in the offense and he's progressing really well. I like his demeanor and I like the progression he's on.
When asked about his blocking, Roman replied:
Without pads you don't know anything in that regard, other than how does he process technical information, in other words, the technique of things. Which he's doing a very nice job of.
But, until you get pads on, we're all just running around in our shorts. Football is played in pads, and we're trying to get them ready for that time. But, he's doing nice.
Roman makes a great point. It's much easier to look impressive in shorts and a T-shirt. But McDonald's size, speed, strength and athletic ability have clearly been impressive thus far this offseason.