Early Stock Up, Stock Down for Key Players in NFL Training Camps
It's the same story each year in training camp around the National Football League, especially early on. There will be premature reports that specific players are performing much better than originally anticipated, while stars are starting to fade out.
Lost in this continual cycle of news is the fact that we are still in early August, about five weeks from the start of the regular season.
So much can change between now and then.
With that in mind, it really is important to take a look at what is going on around the league. Is EJ Manuel really going to beat out Kevin Kolb for the starting quarterback job in Buffalo? What is going on with all of the injuries to skill-position players?
The answers to these questions will help us figure out who is currently seeing their stock rise and who is falling out of favor.
That's exactly what this article is going to focus on.
Stock Up: EJ Manuel, Quarterback, Buffalo Bills
The Buffalo Bills didn't select EJ Manuel in the first round of April's draft to have him ride the pine.
New head coach Doug Marrone is attempting to begin his NFL head coaching career by teaming up with a young quarterback, and the Florida State product could emerge out of camp as the Week 1 starter.
Peter King of Sports Illustrated had the following to say about Manuel during his visit at Bills camp in late July:
Manuel’s been good in all regards so far a week into camp. That’s too early to draw any conclusions on anything, except this: You get a good feel that the future of the offense, and the quarterback, is in good hands here.
While King is right in that it is too early to draw any conclusions, suggestions from around camp indicate that Manuel has separated himself from veteran free-agent signing Kevin Kolb, per WGR 550 Sports Radio.
Manuel does a much better job (than Kolb) of trying to sidestep the pressure, or at least trying to unload the ball quickly when he sees a blitzing opponent coming free. Perhaps a step forward for the rookie, Manuel took a set of first-team repetitions during a stretch of no huddle 11-on-11's.
Buffalo isn't necessarily in win-now mode, which would normally suggest that Kolb would have the advantage. Even if Marrone and Co. think the Bills can contend, Manuel might just be the better option, both short term and long term.
We'll have to wait to see how this all pans out. The best indication will be who gets first-team reps in Buffalo's third preseason game.
Stock Down: Dennis Pitta and Jeremy Maclin
The Baltimore Ravens were relying on Dennis Pitta to be a huge part of their offense this season, especially with the departure of wide receiver Anquan Boldin to San Francisco in the offseason.
It's all but a foregone conclusion that Pitta will have no impact for the defending champions in 2012 after it was announced that he fractured and dislocated his hip in the opening days of camp.
As it relates to the Ravens, they are in deep trouble on offense. Boldin and Pitta combined for nearly 200 targets last season. Youngsters like Tandon Doss and even rookie Aaron Mellette will have to step up if Baltimore's passing game is to show any consistency in 2013.
New Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly was relying on Jeremy Maclin as his team's No. 1 wide receiver entering the season. Unfortunately, like Pitta, Maclin too suffered a devastating injury at the worst possible time.
ESPN's Adam Schefter summed up this situation best on Twitter immediately after the news broke: "One of the toughest parts of the Dennis Pitta-Jeremy Maclin season-ending injuries: Each was in last year of his contract."
It is now going to be up to wide receiver DeSean Jackson to step up this season. The veteran has combined for just 1,661 yards and six scores the last two seasons after back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns.
A plethora of unproven youngsters behind now-No. 2 wide receiver Jason Avant will also get their shots to prove they can make an impact.
Stock Up: Ronnie Hillman, Running Back, Denver Broncos
All expectations heading into training camp pointed to rookie second-round pick Montee Ball winning the starting running back job in Denver. The idea here is that a contending team doesn't spend a high-round pick on a running back unless it expects him to be an immediate contributor.
In addition, Denver spent this early-round pick on Ball after picking up former San Diego State running back Ronnie Hillman in the third round of the 2012 NFL draft. The selection of Ball could have been seen as a sign that the Broncos weren't sold on Hillman.
Not so fast, my friends.
At this point, it appears that Hillman is running away with the starting running back job, per Mike Klis of The Denver Post.
Hillman has maintained his starting position through every stage this year. Through the voluntary organized team activities that McGahee skipped. Through the mandatory minicamp when McGahee was cut. Through the first week of training camp.
The next round is preseason games, starting with back-to-back road games Aug. 8 against the San Francisco 49ers and Aug. 17 against the stout Seattle Seahawks.
You had better believe the depth chart won't be affected by the leading rusher alone.
This shouldn't come as much of a surprise to those of us who scouted Hillman heading into the 2012 draft. While there were issues with pass protection last season, that's to be expected for a rookie running back.
Knowshon Moreno, if he makes the club, will definitely play a role in 2013. He is still Denver's best pass-protecting running back, but if Hillman continues to improve in that area of his game, it's likely that he may end up as the unquestioned featured back behind Peyton Manning.
Stock Down: Kevin Kolb, Quarterback, Buffalo Bills
Kevin Kolb came to the Buffalo Bills to compete for a starting gig after what proved to be a disastrous two-year tenure in Arizona.
Apologists for the veteran quarterback have pointed to a lack of an offensive line in Arizona as a primary reason for why he struggled in the desert. After all, the Cardinals have allowed a ridiculous 112 sacks since the start of the 2011 season.
Even behind that offensive line, Kolb had a strong start to the 2012 season. He threw eight touchdowns compared to three interceptions and won three of his five starts before suffering a season-ending injury in October.
The expectation here was that Kolb would act as a stopgap for rookie first-round pick EJ Manuel.
However, it doesn't appear that this is a likely scenario just a few days into training camp. According to WGR Sports Radio in Buffalo, Kolb has struggled a great deal:
For the third straight day, rookie quarterback EJ Manuel was clearly the better on the field between he and veteran Kevin Kolb. It would be awfully tough for Manuel to be worse than Kolb over the past three days, though.
Someone shouldn't win an open competition in only four days, but the evidence is suggesting that Manuel may not be that far away from taking it. The rookie's record to this point has been 3-0-1 against Kolb.
Could Kolb be in the midst of the David Carr syndrome? He tends to struggle in the pocket with the presupposition that pressure is there when it really isn't. As you already know, that's not a recipe for success in the NFL.
While early, Kolb could be losing out on what would likely be his last opportunity to enter an NFL season as a starting quarterback.
For that, his stock is down.
Stock Up: Colin Kaepernick, Quarterback, San Francisco 49ers
After taking over for Alex Smith in the second half of the 2012 regular season, Colin Kaepernick never looked back. He led the San Francisco 49ers to a division crown before two outstanding postseason performances in route to a Super Bowl berth.
What Kaepernick did on the field was awe-inspiring.
Despite this, there has been some concern over his ability to take the next step, especially after defenses find a way to guard against the read-option.
If the offseason and early parts of training camp are any indication, Kaepernick is fully prepared to take his game to an elite level.
One of the areas that Kaepernick struggled with as a sophomore last season was touch. He didn't seem to understand when to take something off the ball on intermediate routes. That caused an increase in drops from pass-catchers in San Francisco.
According to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, Kaepernick has improved a great deal in this aspect of his game.
Kaepernick has vastly improved the touch on his passes -- even since the end of last season...Kaepernick lofted a beautiful screen pass over outside linebacker Cam Johnson that dropped into LaMichael James' hands just a couple yards away along the right side. On the next play, he demonstrated a feathery touch on a pass to Frank Gore on the left side.
Sports Illustrated's Peter King, who visited 49ers camp in Santa Clara in late July, filed the following report about how Kaepernick might have even improved his on-field speed, which is a scary thought for defenses around the NFL this season.
I think it’s foreign to most of us that a player can significantly improve his speed, but Colin Kaepernick thinks he’s done just that this offseason. He trained in Atlanta with some speed technicians, including long-jumper Dwight Phillips.
Considering that Kaepernick already possesses the single-game NFL rushing record for a quarterback, any additional speed to burst through the line could make him an unstoppable commodity in the ground game.
As was evidenced by Kaepernick's performance against the Atlanta Falcons in the playoffs, he can stay in the pocket and beat teams with that rocket arm. Adding yet another dimension in terms of touch on the pass, as well as more speed on the ground, would quickly put him into the elite quarterback category.
As it is, Kaepernick still has only 10 NFL starts under his belt. We need to see a larger sample size during the regular season before anointing him the next great quarterback.
Stock Down: Jonathan Martin, Offensive Tackle, Miami Dolphins
The Miami Dolphins lost franchise left tackle Jake Long to the St. Louis Rams in free agency and expected second-year offensive lineman Jonathan Martin to take over that role in 2013.
If early indications from Dolphins camp are true, Martin still has a long way to go from what was a rookie campaign filled with struggles in pass protection.
According to Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald, Martin isn't transitioning well to the left side.
(Olivier) Vernon has owned Martin since the opening of camp and today was no different.
Vernon had three sacks against Martin during team periods. It's great news for the defensive end. For the Dolphins starting left tackle, it is looking problematic at this point.
Now just imagine how much Martin will struggle going up against actual starting defenders in the regular season. With all due respect to Vernon, who is a good player, Martin will face tougher opponents in the regular season.
The second-year offensive tackle better get his act figured out in relatively short order. Miami will face the Cleveland Browns, who possess a trio of solid pass-rushers, in Week 1.
Not only is this problematic for Martin, it could be a huge blow for young quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The Texas A&M product surprised many people with above-average play as a rookie, but he needs the pass protection to hold up if he is going to take his game to the next level in 2013.
This is definitely something to watch in the coming weeks.
Stock Up: Le'Veon Bell, Running Back, Pittsburgh Steelers
No one really questioned Le'Veon Bell's ability to shoulder the load leading up to the 2013 NFL draft. The issue that many saw with Bell is that he didn't show explosive playmaking ability on tape.
This is also one of the primary reasons that Bell fit perfect into what Pittsburgh has on offense. It's a ground-and-pound attack, which relies heavily on physicality at the line and downhill running ability.
According to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Bell was "working with Pittsburgh Steelers starters" in camp.
Bell went more often than any running back, 10 times, in the traditional Backs on 'Backers drill -- a pass-rushing, full-bore one-on-one confrontation pitting linebackers against blocking running backs.
Then when the first offense took the field to end practice with 11 on 11, Bell was the halfback for four of the five plays, running on three of them.
As a second-round pick for a team that relies heavily on the draft, there really wasn't much question about whether Bell would see a lot of action this year. That said, the fact that he opened up camp with the first team tells us exactly how head coach Mike Tomlin and Co. feel about him.
Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com pretty much confirmed what many of us were already thinking: Bell will be Pittsburgh's starter when camp breaks late this month. "Jonathan Dwyer has lost a lot of weight, and Isaac Redman remains in the mix, but they probably are competing for the right to back up Bell."
Pittsburgh might not be adverse to going to the committee approach, but Bell's value is as an every-down running back. After all, he did touch the ball 420 times in 13 games with Michigan State last year.
Stock Down: Hakeem Nicks, Wide Receiver, New York Giants
Tom Coughlin has recently shown a bit of frustration over the Nicks situation, per ESPN New York.
It's frustrating, but I've gotta learn to control myself when it comes to that as well, and just realize, you know what, he's trying like heck to get out there... He knows he needs to practice and work at it. He came in excited about being able to go, and then had this little groin injury which I hope is not gonna set him back for very long.
Entering a contract year, Nicks needs all the necessary practice and must be 100 percent heading into the regular season to show that he is worth a long-term contract. The veteran receiver has missed games in each of his first four seasons with the Giants and is what you would call an injury concern.
Nicks' 692-yard performance this past season was the lowest output of his career, which has also raised questions about his ability to be a top-tier target in the passing game. In addition to his recent setback, Nicks might be facing a challenge from second-year wide receiver Rueben Randle.
According to Ebenezer Samuel of the New York Daily News, Randle had an outstanding start to the Giants camp, even prior to Nicks' injury.
Rueben Randle showed himself capable of being a deep threat Monday. Nicks didn’t make a single catch — and wasn’t even targeted — so Randle, who replaced Nicks on the first team on several snaps, dominated, catching a long TD, and adding a TD in red zone drills as well. He also barely missed on a third TD catch in the corner of the end zone.
In terms of upside in the passing game, Randle brings more to the table than Nicks. That said, if the free-agent-to-be is healthy, he will be the No. 2 wide receiver opposite Victor Cruz.
Stock Up: Coby Fleener, Tight End, Indianapolis Colts
New Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton knows full well how a productive Coby Fleener can help quarterback Andrew Luck in the passing game. After all, he helped lead the well-oiled Stanford Cardinal offensive attack during the Luck years.
Part of the hiring process for Indianapolis to replace Bruce Arians had to be the comfortable relationship that both Luck and Fleener have with Hamilton.
So it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the coach is propping up the young tight end, via Kevin Bowen of the Colts' official website: "He's (Fleener) probably having the most productive camp, including his time at Stanford, that I've seen."
This has the potential of being huge for the Colts heading into the regular season. Young quarterbacks tend to rely a great deal on tight ends as safety valves between the hashes. Colts general manager Ryan Grigson recognized this when he selected both Fleener and former Clemson standout Dwayne Allen immediately after Luck in the 2012 draft.
Fleener, who was selected before Allen, wasn't as productive. He recorded just 26 receptions and two touchdowns in 12 games.
If Luck can get these two to be consistent performers at tight end, the Colts offense may take its game to the next level in 2013.
Vincent Frank is an NFL featured columnist at Bleacher Report.