Impressive NFL OTA Performances We Can't Ignore
As the NFL calendar turns to June, hope springs eternal. Almost every player looks like a world-beater in shorts, and fanbases bubble with optimism over performances in offseason team activities (OTAs).
While it can be easy to buy into incongruous hype at this time of year, there are still a number of impressive NFL OTA performances we can't ignore.
The players (and coach) on this list made it for a number of reasons:
- Some of them are incoming rookies who will be heavily counted upon to produce as neophytes.
- One is an All-Pro who is recovering successfully from various maladies.
- And the only coach on this list has inspired confidence and awe among players from the other side of the ball.
In this column, we'll examine:
- The progress of two rookie quarterbacks and one passer who is earning rave reviews in a new city.
- The best receiver in the league and a rookie pass-catcher who is turning heads in the City of Brotherly Love.
- The fortunes of two rookie linebackers, as well as the sterling play of a greenhorn tight end.
- An offensive coordinator's exciting new system.
Here are impressive NFL OTA performances we can't ignore.
Houston Texans QB Tom Savage
When the Houston Texans selected quarterback Tom Savage in the fourth round of last month's draft, it was widely assumed he'd be their passer of the future.
But if he continues to impress, Savage could find himself playing sooner rather than later.
We’re putting him in difficult situations and if he does make a mistake, we slow it down on tape, slow it down in the meeting room, and then give him the same situation the next day. Tom’s done a good job of trying to handle those things throughout the nine days of practice.
It's unlikely that Savage will be the team's Week 1 starter; that distinction belongs to veteran signal-caller Ryan Fitzpatrick. But if Fitzpatrick struggles and the Texans fall out of contention, don't be surprised if Savage is given an opportunity over current backup options Case Keenum and T.J. Yates.
The smart money is on Savage starting at least one game for the Texans this season.
Oakland Raiders QB Derek Carr
The Oakland Raiders grabbed their quarterback of the future in the second round of last month's draft, nabbing former Fresno State passer Derek Carr.
And while it was presumed Carr would sit for all of 2014 behind veteran Matt Schaub, that might not necessarily be the case.
Speaking on NFL Network's Total Access, NFL.com's Albert Breer reported that Carr has given the Raiders coaching staff reason to believe he could potentially play and/or start this season.
After a recent OTA practice, Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olson lavished Carr with praise to Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle:
I really, really like (Carr). Everybody knew he was accurate, but he is more accurate than we thought. … We’ll have to wait and see how he does against a live rush, but so far his intelligence, accuracy and quickness in getting the ball out has been excellent.
Olson added: "We drafted a pretty good player (in Carr). He is very intelligent, and he may not need to redshirt. We like his comfort level. Right away, you can see that this is not too big for him."
That's high praise for a rookie passer, and given Schaub's struggles last season in Houston, it's not outside the realm of possibility that Carr sees significant action under center in 2014.
Seattle Seahawks QB Terrelle Pryor
Russell Wilson is obviously entrenched as the starting quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks. Authoring an outstanding first two seasons and winning a Super Bowl will earn you that kind of job security.
But the role of his top backup is very much up for grabs. Earlier this offseason, the Seahawks traded for former Raiders signal-caller Terrelle Pryor, and he's embroiled in a battle with incumbent Tarvaris Jackson for the right to play behind Wilson.
And while Pryor initially struggled upon his move to the Pacific Northwest, he's made strides over the past few weeks. In fact, Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell recently raved about Pryor's progress, saying this to Bob Condotta of The Seattle Times:
I think the thing that’s impressed me the most is just how he’s worked. You hear things and don’t quite know anything about him but kind of the reputation he has before. Coming in, he’s done a really nice job of spending time here in the building. Spent time with Russell. Spent time with his coach. He’s working really, really hard to get it.
Pryor dazzled at points last year in Oakland, but his play was ultimately too uneven. If he can perform consistently well at practice in Seattle, he could end up as Wilson's primary backup.
Miami Dolphins OC Bill Lazor
The only non-player to make this list, Miami Dolphins offensive coordinator Bill Lazor has received admiration for the system being installed in South Beach.
Lazor came to the Dolphins after a year as the Philadelphia Eagles quarterbacks coach, where he worked under Chip Kelly. And he's bringing the same uptempo approach to Miami.
Count Dolphins cornerback Cortland Finnegan among those impressed with Lazor's philosophy, as he told the assembled media (via the Sun Sentinel):
I’ve never seen anything this fast. It’s great. It’s going to be great for us as an offense and defense. To go against one another, compete at this level and do it with this many bullets flying and people running around. So I’m enjoying it.
The contrast between Lazor's high-octane offensive assault and the unimaginative system employed by former coordinator Mike Sherman will be interesting to observe.
And if Lazor's unit can perform in a similar fashion to Kelly's Eagles, the Dolphins could be a surprise postseason entrant come next January.
Detroit Lions WR Calvin Johnson
Detroit Lions All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson was marvelous in 2013 but had his fewest receptions and receiving yards in a season since 2010. Part of that can be attributed to a nagging knee injury that forced him to miss two games, including the season finale.
But after undergoing offseason surgery on both a knee and finger, Johnson is feeling better, and that's bad news for defensive backs around the NFL.
Lions center Dominic Raiola knows how important it is to have a healthy Johnson in the lineup, as he told The Associated Press (via USA Today):
It's nice to have him back and working at full strength. I'm so happy for him. The guy's so tough. It's hard to get him out of there. He'll play through anything. For him to be healthy right now and being out there with the team, that's big time.
Johnson has been lighting it up in OTAs, as Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com writes in this recent practice report:
The player of the day was (Calvin) Johnson. The All-Pro wide receiver looked like his normal self for the first time all spring. He caught essentially everything that was thrown to him throughout the day, ran crisp routes and crushed pretty much all of the Lions defensive backs when he was matched up with them. He was a big part of why the offense looked better than it has all spring.
If Johnson is back at the height of his powers, the Lions loom as an explosive offense and a potential playoff team. That's how important the man known as Megatron is to the team.
Philadelphia Eagles WR Jordan Matthews
Philadelphia Eagles fans might have been upset when the team released receiver DeSean Jackson earlier this offseason, but the team drafted a pass-catcher in the second round who has earned high praise in OTAs: Jordan Matthews.
Jimmy Kempski of Philly.com recently reported that Matthews has "looked like the best (receiver) on the team," and that "it hasn't been close."
Matthews starred at the collegiate level at Vanderbilt, where he became the all-time receptions leader in the history of the SEC. He's strong and physical (6'3", 212 lbs), has great hands and profiles as an excellent fit in coach Chip Kelly's offense.
If he continues to surge, Matthews could make Eagles fans forget about Jackson come September and emerge as a key cog in the Eagles' offensive machine.
Green Bay Packers TE Richard Rodgers
With former tight end Jermichael Finley currently on the free-agent market and unlikely to return to Green Bay, the Packers need a player to emerge at the position to catch passes from quarterback Aaron Rodgers this season.
Enter third-round draft pick Richard Rodgers, who has turned heads at OTAs with his athleticism and hands.
Rodgers (the quarterback) gushed over Rodgers (the tight end) to Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com:
Matt [Flynn] and I were just talking about it, how when we made the pick some of the so-called experts on the draft channel said he was a late sixth-round pick, [where] they had him as far as a grade, which is pretty laughable when you watch the talent he's got and the ability, especially some of the plays he made today.
It's worth noting that while Rodgers has impressed, it hasn't come in pads, and he has work to do as a blocker. But his performance at OTAs has certainly been encouraging and has promulgated the idea that he could replace Finley as the team's primary pass-catching tight end.
Pittsburgh Steelers LB Ryan Shazier
The Pittsburgh Steelers selected linebacker Ryan Shazier in the first round of last month's draft to inject speed and playmaking ability to a defense sorely in need of both.
And the early returns have shown he's capable of doing just that.
Shazier is the fastest linebacker to enter the NFL since Brian Urlacher was drafted by the Chicago Bears in 2000, and the Steelers and their fans are right to be excited by his potential.
If he can emerge as a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate, it could be enough to push the Steelers back into the postseason for the first time since 2011.
Kansas City Chiefs LB Dee Ford
There is ridiculous hyperbole. There is outrageous hype.
And in a league all by itself has been the praise heaped upon Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Dee Ford, the team's first-round pick in last month's draft.
Consider this quote from fellow linebacker Tamba Hali, who told The Huntsville Times (h/t Chris Wesseling of NFL.com):
If anybody reminds you of Derrick Thomas, (Ford) should pretty much remind you of Derrick Thomas with his first step. He gets off the ball so fast it's scary. I just kept rewinding (the video) yesterday just looking at his first step. I don't know if he times it, but his first step is incredible.
The late, great Derrick Thomas was a Hall of Famer and one of the finest players in the history of the Chiefs organization. While Ford has undoubtedly been splendid in OTAs, comparing him to Thomas at this point would be like suggesting Brooklyn Decker could one day have the acting career of Meryl Streep.
Regardless, Ford's explosive first step should excite teammates and fans alike. The Chiefs pass rush crumbled down the stretch in 2013 thanks to injuries to Hali and battery mate Justin Houston, and Ford was drafted to ensure that doesn't happen again.
And given that the Chiefs play in a division with star quarterbacks Peyton Manning (Denver Broncos) and Philip Rivers (San Diego Chargers), it's not hyperbole to suggest Ford's continued progress could be key to the team's success.