Prior to training camp, every year, two types of players generate buzz. High-dollar free agents who switched teams during the offseason are always under the microscope, while incoming rookies with high expectations are watched the closest.
The rookies who are watched the closest are also the ones who seem to get fans excited for the season that lies ahead. Different types of players provide different forms of excitement; it just depends on which position the player plays and which team the player plays for.
Let’s break down the 10 most exciting rookies to watch in training camp, in no particular order.
Arizona Cardinals third-round pick Tyrann Mathieu has been known to make headlines in the past for all the wrong reasons, but he has vowed that his old ways are behind him. According to Albert Breer of NFL.com, Mathieu told him that he thinks things are actually going to be different this time.
Let’s hope so. The first-team All-SEC selection has top-notch ability on the football field. Coming out of LSU, scouts loved his scheme versatility and incredible instincts. Moreover, they admired his added special teams value. He has the skill to pull double duty as a kick returner and a punt returner.
Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has been keeping Mathieu busy during minicamps and organized team activities. Marc Sessler of NFL.com noted on June 10 that the 5’9” defensive back was working with the first-team defense as a nickelback. He also spent time at safety, but he was running with the second team while playing free safety.
Mathieu’s performances at both positions had the Cardinals’ coaching staff buzzing by the end of OTAs. The hype is warranted; however, it remains to be seen if he can keep his nose clean. If he can, there’s no reason he couldn’t end up as Arizona’s starting free safety on opening day.
In today’s NFL, general managers, head coaches and offensive coordinators are always looking for dynamic playmakers who put constant stress on a defense. Last year, there were three rookie quarterbacks who took the league by storm.
This year, it appears as if one rookie wide receiver is ready to give opposing defensive coordinators headaches on a weekly basis.
St. Louis Rams first-round pick Tavon Austin has tremendous speed and outstanding route-running ability and is a threat to score on any given play. If you don’t believe me, click here and watch this outstanding highlight video of Austin’s senior season.
The Rams will do whatever it takes to get the ball in his hands. Obviously, he will see plenty of snaps at wideout, but don’t be surprised if you see him line up in the backfield at running back as well. At West Virginia, the kid literally did anything and everything.
Over the course of his four-year collegiate career, he amassed 3,413 yards receiving, rushed for 1,031 yards and scored four touchdowns on kick returns. St. Louis hasn’t had an impact player on kickoff returns since Tony Horne, so Austin could end up vying for the kick-return job during training camp.
The 2012 All-Purpose Performer of the Year embodies excitement, which can only mean big things for an organization that is looking to make its first playoff appearance since the 2004 season.
Early opinions on outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo have been split. Some believe he is a one-trick pony who can only rush the passer, while others believe he has the potential to be a well-rounded player like San Francisco 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith.
Under defensive coordinator Ray Horton, Mingo will have the opportunity to learn from one of the brightest defensive minds in football. This, in turn, will help him evolve into a Pro Bowl-caliber player.
Even though Mingo’s sack totals tailed off last season, San Diego Chargers offensive tackle D.J. Fluker and Jacksonville Jaguars offensive tackle Luke Joeckel showered the No. 6 overall pick in this year’s draft with praise.
"He's a freak athlete," Joeckel told Chris Wesseling of NFL.com. "He's long, he's fast, he's got a good jump on the ball. His speed immediately jumps out at you on tape."
"He's so quick, I'm surprised he's not playing safety," said Fluker, who spoke specifically about Mingo’s strength and work ethic.
In all likelihood, the 22-year-old rookie will be used as a situational pass-rusher. He will be given the freedom to provide game-changing plays by pinning his ears back and relentlessly attacking the quarterback.
Browns fans should be overjoyed because they will have the chance to watch one of the most improved linebacking corps in the league, thanks to Mingo.
Matt Barkley’s fall from grace in 2012 was hard to watch. In 2011, he was one of the most accurate passers in college football, he was a "gamer," and he displayed a keen ability to make great decisions on a continual basis.
If he had come out after his junior season, he would have easily been a first-day pick. Fortunately enough for head coach Chip Kelly, Barkley deferred and came out after his senior season instead. His decision allowed Kelly to draft the second-team All-Pac-12 selection at the top of the fourth round in this year’s draft.
College football’s most pro-ready quarterback undoubtedly has enough talent to push Michael Vick and Nick Foles in training camp. That will ultimately put the Eagles in the national spotlight until Kelly names a starting quarterback.
Over and over, people have said Kelly’s offense doesn’t fit Barkley’s skill set. That’s simply not true for one reason: Fans and media members alike have no clue as to what his offense will even look like in the NFL. Chances are, he will mold the offense around whomever he names the starter.
Based on the tape, Barkley can make every throw, and he is a great leader who is just as talented as any quarterback on Philadelphia’s roster. Let’s also not forget that change can be a good thing. We all know what Vick and Foles can do, but we don’t know what the rookie signal-caller can do.
His impressive play during the preseason will have everyone in the City of Brotherly Love talking.
He’s not a wide receiver, he’s not a running back and he’s surely not a quarterback. So, what is Jacksonville Jaguars fifth-round pick Denard Robinson?
He’s an offensive weapon. If you’re not familiar with the term, it basically means a player is not confined to one position. The player will be used in a wide variety of ways, and he will be seen as a threat to opposing defenses.
This designation for Robinson makes a ton of sense. At the University of Michigan, he played quarterback, running back and wide receiver. In 37 collegiate games, he started 35 games at quarterback and two games at running back.
Additionally, Robinson holds the NCAA record for the most career rushing yards from a quarterback. He was also the first player in NCAA history to throw for 2,500 yards and run for more than 1,500 yards in a season.
General manager David Caldwell and head coach Gus Bradley hope his success in college translates into success at the NFL level. Fifth-round picks are rarely labeled as “exciting,” but when an overlooked player with great instincts and quickness falls in the draft, it’s hard not to get elated.
It’s unique to see an undrafted free agent garner so much attention, but Buffalo Bills wide receiver Da’Rick Rogers deserves it because he is an exceptionally gifted athlete. Buffalo is hoping the best is yet to come.
By no means is Rogers guaranteed a roster spot in 2013, but he will make training camp a must-see in Rochester, N.Y. His ability to come down with the tough catch will have spectators oohing and aahing. Aside from that, he has shown over time that he is a good route-runner who easily separates from opposing defensive backs.
If all goes well for Rogers, he could end up as high as No. 4 on the depth chart by the end of the preseason. According to Chris Brown of buffalobills.com, he’s already climbing up the offensive depth chart. Brown noted that "it was hard not to notice Rogers' exploits in the passing game.”
In addition to his playmaking ability, Rogers’ bravado keeps all eyes on him. Based on Mark Gaughan’s article from May 31, head coach Doug Marrone thought the undrafted free agent was getting a little too cocky at OTAs. He gave Rogers an earful after he stood over cornerback Ron Brooks on a 15-yard touchdown catch.
One has to like Rogers’ confidence when you couple it with his physical prowess. Don’t count this guy out.
I’m sure Manti Te’o would love to forget his senior season at Notre Dame. His poor performance in the national championship game and the whole fake girlfriend debacle left a bad taste in his mouth.
But the past is nothing more than the past. Which means Te’o is out to set the record straight by letting his play do all the talking. So far, so good for the second-round pick. According to Michael Gehlken of U-T San Diego, he has done a great job of picking up the system and earning respect along the way.
Here’s what Chargers head coach Mike McCoy had to say about Te’o:
(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.
Te’o may end up being one of the biggest steals of the 2013 NFL draft. His football IQ is off the charts, and he is a very good tackler with advanced technique. It will take time for him to adjust to the pro game, but he will be surely be a must-watch player during training camp.
When the Steelers drafted Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones in the first round, he was brought into replace veteran outside linebacker James Harrison. Prior to his release, Harrison’s age and bloated contract were working against him. Moreover, the organization wanted to infuse Dick LeBeau’s defense with some young blood.
Jones is the perfect fit for the Steelers' 3-4 scheme. He’s an outstanding edge-rusher who has the skill set to make a living in the backfield. In college, he tallied 28 quarterback sacks, 45.5 tackles for loss and nine forced fumbles. His versatile playmaking ability will help him fit in right away in Pittsburgh.
When training camp begins on July 26, Jones will have a battle on his hands with Jason Worilds for the starting spot at right outside linebacker. His high level of play and lofty draft status should make him the favorite to win the job, but the battle should prove to be exhilarating nonetheless.
To this day, it’s hard to fathom how Jones fell all the way to No. 17 overall. Yes, he had some medical red flags coming out of college, but his production and talent outweigh any potential injury risk.
Expect Jones to be one of the most celebrated rookies at the end of the 2013 season.
I know what you’re thinking: How can I get excited to watch a rookie offensive tackle? Well, here’s how: Focus in on the No. 1 overall pick and analyze the player he will square off against every day. Eric Fisher will have his hands full on a daily basis because he will be going head-to-head with one of the best young pass-rushers in the league.
Left outside linebacker Justin Houston isn’t a household name yet, but he will be by the end of the season. Houston notched 10 sacks, seven quarterback hits and 27 quarterback hurries in 2012. Furthermore, he was Pro Football Focus’ (subscription required) fourth-best 3-4 outside linebacker last year.
Houston’s superior ability as a pass-rusher will challenge the draft’s most elite pass-protector.
Coming out of Central Michigan, scouts compared Fisher to San Francisco 49ers left tackle Joe Staley. The 306-pound tackle will need to hone his technique as a run-blocker if he wants to be as well-rounded as Staley, but experience and added power to his frame will also help Fisher succeed on Sundays.
Without question, D.J. Hayden’s top-notch play at the University of Houston helped him earn a first-round selection in this year’s draft. He will excite fans time and again with his highlight-reel plays in Oakland at left cornerback.
Hayden’s playmaking ability on the field will be fun to watch when the Raiders open camp, but the most exciting thing about this shutdown corner is the fact he recovered from a life-threatening injury. Last year, he tore a vein when he collided with a teammate during practice.
The large vein he tore was called the inferior vena cava. It carries blood from the lower half of the body to the heart. Based on what we know, 95 percent of the time, the injury results in fatality. The injury is often linked to motor vehicle accidents, according to Dr. Walter Lowe (h/t Associated Press).
A unique comeback story makes Hayden’s career a must-follow. Sure, the pick was incredibly risky, but one has to commend Oakland for not being fearful of a freak injury. The odds of the same injury happening again on the football field are about one-in-a-million.
One can only hope Hayden has a long productive career. He’s a heck of a football player, and it’s only proper etiquette to root for a guy who is coming back from one of the most unique injuries in NFL history.