Early Names Emerging as NFL Training Camp Stars
Training camp isn’t quite as intense as it was back in the 60s and 70s, but it’s more competitive than ever. With the average NFL career right at 3.5 seasons, players of all sorts are fighting for their jobs every day.
Training camp is also a place where stars are born. In 2010, an undrafted wide receiver by the name of Victor Cruz burst onto the scene for the New York Giants. Then, in 2012, outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict impressed with a strong showing during the Cincinnati Bengals training camp. His lights-out performance helped him earn 14 starts at weak-side linebacker last season.
Let’s take the time and look at one emerging training camp star from each division.
AFC East: Ryan Tannehill, QB, Miami Dolphins
Even if second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill hasn’t been able to get on the same page with wide receiver Mike Wallace, he has been nearly flawless during training camp. In fact, Tannehill hasn’t thrown an interception in over a week, according to James Walker of ESPN.com.
At the Dolphins scrimmage this past Monday, Tannehill threw three touchdown passes. One touchdown pass went to tight end Charles Clay, the second one went to tight end Dustin Keller, and the third one went to running back Daniel Thomas on a swing pass, per Walker.
The 25-year-old signal-caller is scheduled to play in this Sunday’s Hall of Fame Game against the Cowboys. Head coach Joe Philbin didn’t go into specifics, but expect him to play around 12 plays, per Chris Perkins of the Sun Sentinel.
The Dolphins have to be happy that Tannehill is having such a strong camp early on. For their sake, let’s hope he continues to progress each day. Some analysts believe Miami has enough talent to push the Patriots in the AFC East this year. The Dolphins will need their quarterback to make the jump up to the next level for that to happen.
NFC East: Brandon Boykin, CB, Philadelphia Eagles
To the detriment of cornerback Brandon Boykin, wide receiver Riley Cooper has been hoarding all the headlines in Philadelphia. Quietly under the radar, Boykin has had the best training camp of any Eagles player so far.
Reuben Frank of CSNPhilly.com said Boykin just looks different. Frank didn’t expand on his phrase. He let Boykin do all the talking:
I just have that confidence now. The game’s slowed down for me a lot since last year, and I think it’s all starting to come together and I’m feeling better. It’s all in the speed and in your knowledge. The faster you can see things developing, the more you’re able to make plays, and that’s what’s happening.
Before camp started, Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams were penciled in at left and right cornerback spots, respectively, but that notion has quickly changed. Currently, one of the starting corner spots is up for grabs because Williams has been dealing with a nagging hamstring injury.
Boykin just needs to continually perform at a high level. Doing so will ensure him the opportunity to open up the season as the team’s No. 2 cornerback. Fletcher appears to have the left cornerback position nailed down.
AFC North: Le’Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Letting running back Rashard Mendenhall walk in free agency is already paying dividends for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Terminating their relationship with the five-year pro out of Illinois gave them the freedom to draft Michigan State’s most dynamic offensive player from a year ago.
Running back Le’Veon Bell is no stranger to success. At the end of his junior season, he had garnered 1,793 yards rushing on 382 carries while scoring 13 total touchdowns.
Every day at training camp, Bell is finding new ways to stand out. Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review went as far as calling him the “real deal” after the team’s second padded practice.
Since camp opened, Bell has shown patience and power as a runner. When Dustin Hockensmith of The Patriot-News asked him about his patience, here’s what he had to say:
It's something as a runner I've always been blessed with. I'm a patient-type of runner. A lot of guys look at me and think I'm a big, physical guy, but I'm more patient than anything. That what makes me successful up to this point.
Furthermore, his pass-blocking skills are starting to come around. That means Bell is the early favorite to open the season as Pittsburgh’s No. 1 back.
NFC North: Kyle Long, OL, Chicago Bears
When the Chicago Bears drafted offensive guard Kyle Long in the first round of this year’s draft, there were more than a few people who called the pick a reach. Some felt Long was too inexperienced and raw to make an impact right away. Others questioned his work ethic because he flunked out of Florida State before he landed on his feet at Oregon.
Long wasn’t going to let a couple of bad decisions from his past derail his pro career. He made sure to put in the necessary work during the offseason to ensure a strong showing in training camp. According to Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune, Long has stood out physically during camp and is a man among boys.
Pompei’s statement should surprise no one. Long has good size (6’6”, 313 lbs) and an even better bloodline. His dad, Howie, is in the Hall of Fame, and his brother, Chris, is a Pro Bowl-caliber defensive end for the St. Louis Rams. Not to mention he was an athletic hotshot at the NFL Scouting Combine, where he ran a 4.94-second 40-yard dash and posted a vertical jump of 28 inches.
NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock called him one of his favorite players in the draft and said he should start immediately. If Long continues to churn out strong performances in training camp, he should have no problem opening the season as the Bears’ starting right guard.
AFC West: Duke Ihenacho, S, Denver Broncos
After spending much of the 2012 season on the Denver Broncos practice squad, Duke Ihenacho is finally getting a shot to start at safety. Prior to training camp, head coach John Fox declared he would hold an open competition at strong safety.
Right now, the open competition features Ihenacho, David Burton and Quentin Jammer. Burton and Jammer have mixed in alongside free safety Rahim Moore on occasion, but Ihenacho has gobbled up a majority of the first-team reps at strong safety.
The undrafted free agent out of San Jose State has been able to stay on the field because of his strong ball skills. Since Denver opened camp, he has displaced veterans Jammer and Mike Adams in the safety rotation on early downs
Even though the job appears to be Ihenacho’s for the taking, he will need to take advantage of the extra practice reps and playing time with the first-team defense during preseason games.
NFC West: Nnamdi Asomugha, CB, San Francisco 49ers
Coach Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers haven’t had much go right during the offseason. First they lost wide receiver Michael Crabtree to an Achilles injury, and then they lost cornerback Chris Culliver to a torn ACL on Thursday.
Luckily, San Francisco has one of the deepest rosters in the NFL. Free-agent signee Nnamdi Asomugha’s role in the secondary was up in the air before Culliver’s torn ACL. That doesn’t appear to be the case anymore.
As Asomugha’s reps have increased during training camp, so has his production. Harbaugh said the 11-year corner had a good first week while making “eye-popping plays.” This is good news considering he spent the last two years of his career getting torched on a weekly basis in Philadelphia.
Despite the high praise from Harbaugh, Asomugha still has plenty of work to do before he locks up a spot on the 53-man roster. He will need to string together a few more fine outings while he holds off Tramaine Brock and Perrish Cox.
AFC South: Coby Fleener, TE, Indianapolis Colts
Last year Dwayne Allen outplayed fellow rookie tight end Coby Fleener by a wide margin. Allen finished the season with more catches, receiving yards and touchdowns. Yet, that all could change in 2013, thanks in large part to Fleener’s health and his renewed confidence.
During Weeks 8 through 11 in 2012, the Stanford product dealt with a problematic shoulder injury that kept him out longer than expected. Fleener vows he is 100 percent healthy and ready to take a big step forward this season. Here’s what he had to say about being comfortable in the offense, per George Bremer of the Kokomo Tribune:
Any time you understand the offense, you feel more comfortable in being able to go out there and run as fast as you can and do your job at full speed as opposed to second guessing.
His more relaxed play not only has his confidence level up, but offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton is showing more confidence in Fleener as well. Since the beginning of camp, Hamilton has been calling more plays for Fleener, and the results have been positive.
Hamilton voiced to Bremer that Fleener is making the type of big-time plays that NFL players are expected to make.
NFC South: Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons
After two top-notch seasons in 2011 and 2012, it’s shocking to believe Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones is only getting better. For his career, the Pro Bowl wide receiver has amassed 2,157 yards receiving on 133 catches and scored 18 touchdowns.
With numbers like that, it’s hard to find areas of weakness in his game. However, head coach Mike Smith told Ian Rapoport of NFL.com that Jones looks considerably stronger with the ball this year. Jones also cut beef and pork out of his diet this past offseason. This, in turn, has helped the wideout feel better overall.
Franchise quarterback Matt Ryan communicated to Rapoport that he believes Jones is ready to take his game to the next level. It’s hard to disagree with this assessment. The three-year player is only 24 years old, and he is fortunate enough to have a wide array of talent around him to make his life easier.
Expect Jones and the Falcons to make a serious push for their first Lombardi Trophy in franchise history.