Under-the-Radar Players Making a Name for Themselves in NFL Minicamps
While the vast majority of NFL coverage is squarely focused on the elite and well-known, there are a number of under-the-radar players currently making a name for themselves in minicamps.
Every year, players emerge from obscurity to make a significant impact on their club's fortunes, and this campaign will be no different. That's why minicamps in June—a normally overlooked event in the sports cycle—are so underrated and vital. They provide the first glimmer of emergence for hitherto overlooked prospects.
The players that made this list did so because they've performed above expectations at OTAs and minicamps so far, earning them the praise of coaches and teammates. These athletes haven't yet earned serious media exposure, but that can all change with exceptional play this autumn.
It's important to note that early offseason practice sessions are not the end-all, be-all of player evaluation; just because a player looks great in shorts in June doesn't mean that will translate to success in pads in October. But that possibility does exist, and that's why these performances are noteworthy.
Here are the under-the-radar players making a name for themselves so far in NFL minicamps.
Tyler Bray, QB, Kansas City Chiefs
Once upon a time, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Tyler Bray was a highly regarded prospect at the University of Tennessee.
But questions about his leadership abilities and lack of consistency led to Bray going undrafted in 2013, and he eventually landed in Kansas City with coach Andy Reid.
And while the 6'6" Bray didn't throw a pass in 2013 as the club's third passer (behind starter Alex Smith and top backup Chase Daniel), he is finally flashing the skills that made him such an attractive option in the first place.
Count Reid among those impressed by Bray's ascendance, as the coach said the following to Terez A. Paylor of the Kansas City Star:
You get thrown into the NFL as a quarterback, you grow up fast. I think (Bray has) done that. I like the way he handles himself around the players. Sometimes when you’re one of the younger guys that … is picked up and brought to a team, you can be a little brother, and that’s not the way he’s approached it. He’s kind of worked his way in where he’s gained the respect of the players that are around him. I’m proud of him for that.
It's worth noting that Bray isn't a lock to make the club. The Chiefs drafted former Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray in the fifth round of last month's draft, and both Smith and Daniel remain on the roster as well. In order to stick around in Kansas City, Bray will likely have to beat out both Daniel and Murray in training camp.
Given his phenomenal physical tools and continued maturation, however, Bray shouldn't be counted out.
Cole Beasley, WR, Dallas Cowboys
Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Cole Beasley stepped into a fairly prominent role last season in the team's passing attack and asserted himself quite well.
Playing primarily out of the slot, the diminutive (5'8", 174 lbs) Beasley hauled in 39 receptions for 368 yards and two touchdowns, and he earned the trust of quarterback Tony Romo.
And now, Beasley appears ready to take on a much larger part in the offense, as he's starred at team OTAs.
Speaking to Carlos Mendez of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Cowboys receivers coach Derek Cooley gushed over Beasley, saying, "(Beasley has) really expanded his route inventory, so because of that, he’s going to be a much better player than he was last year. And he was really valuable to us last year.”
Dooley went on to discuss Beasley's ability to operate both out of the slot and on the outside, and he praised his growing versatility.
With former receiver Miles Austin off to Cleveland, Beasley has a Texas-sized opportunity to make a major impact.
And according to Dooley, it's been so far, so good.
Brian Quick, WR, St. Louis Rams
Since being selected in the second round of the 2012 draft, St. Louis Rams wide receiver Brian Quick has disappointed.
Quick has only hauled in 29 receptions and four touchdown catches in two seasons, and he finished 2013 ranked as Pro Football Focus' 84th-best receiver (subscription required).
But Quick looks to be on the up-and-up, as he's flashing his considerable physical talents at team OTAs. He's caught the eye of offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, who praised the third-year pass-catcher while speaking to Nick Wagoner of ESPN.com:
Probably the most improved player I've seen is Brian Quick. He's doing a great job. Another guy that we're giving an opportunity to, he's competing for playing time and he's made the most of his opportunities. He started today, again just moving guys around in and out of the lineup trying to create competition, and he's stepped up and made a lot of big plays for us.
The Rams declined to draft a wide receiver last month, and the club is set to trot out a variety of uninspired options this year. Given the dearth of quality receiving threats in the Gateway City, Quick has a shot to earn playing time and dazzle this season.
Johnathan Hankins, DT, New York Giants
New York Giants fans surely groaned when the club lost stud defensive tackle Linval Joseph to the Vikings this offseason.
But Big Blue backers shouldn't be so, well, blue. That's because Joseph's replacement, Johnathan Hankins, looms as a potential star on the team's defensive line.
Hankins, the club's 2013 second-round pick (out of Ohio State), came on strong toward the end of last season and proved to be an adept run-stopper.
In fact, Hankins' performance was so noteworthy that he was named as the club's "2014 secret superstar" by Pro Football Focus.
Giants coach Tom Coughlin is expecting Hankins to slide into the starting role vacated by Joseph, telling Paul Schwartz of the New York Post, “It’s his turn. That’s why he’s here.’’
It's conceivable that the gargantuan (6'2", 320 lbs) Hankins could materialize as a major player in the middle of the Giants defense—and help fans forget about the departure of Joseph.
Koa Misi, LB, Miami Dolphins
To say the Miami Dolphins linebackers collectively had a poor year in 2013 would be like saying the Miami Heat performed poorly in the NBA Finals against San Antonio.
In order to shake things up, the Dolphins have (at least temporarily) moved outside linebacker Koa Misi into the middle, and the early returns on the experiment have been favorable.
Misi actually played well last season, finishing the campaign as Pro Football Focus' 14th-ranked 4-3 outside linebacker (subscription required), but he has a whole new set of responsibilities now. As the middle linebacker, he's now calling the defensive plays and getting his teammates set pre-snap.
Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle has been encouraged by Misi's progress at the "Mike," telling James Walker of ESPN.com, "I think so far, so good. We've been pleased with the way it's working out."
Misi has a major shot to evolve into a big-time player on the Dolphins defense. If he can successfully navigate through the nuances of his new position, it'll be a major boon to the club's playoff hopes.
Jamie Collins, LB, New England Patriots
New England Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins came on strong toward the end of his rookie campaign in 2013 and was an absolute monster in the club's divisional-round playoff victory over the Colts, notching a sack and interception of Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck.
And if OTAs are any indication, Collins is looking to build upon that performance and ascend to greater heights in 2014.
Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich has noticed growth in Collins' game, as he told Ben Volin of the Boston Globe:
There’s always a huge difference in that second year in just having that experience and that confidence. It’s not easy as a rookie. You’re going through a long year there with the [scouting] combine and get drafted, then come in and learn the playbook. You don’t get much time off. That second year, you kind of have been there, done that, and now it’s just go out there and play ball. He definitely has all the tools to do anything he wants in this league. He just has to go out there and do it.
Collins is expected to start this year alongside Chandler Jones and Jerod Mayo, and he is poised to become a mega star if he continues to exhibit the form he flashed this past January.
Darius Slay, CB, Detroit Lions
Detroit Lions cornerback Darius Slay struggled as a greenhorn in 2013.
The then-rookie failed to intercept a pass in 13 games (four starts) and finished the year as Pro Football Focus' 92nd-ranked cornerback (subscription required).
The Lions will need a better showing from Slay in 2014 if they're to contain the high-octane offenses of division rivals Green Bay and Chicago. And thus far in minicamps, Slay hasn't demurred from the challenge.
In fact, the emergence of Slay allowed the Lions to release cornerback Chris Houston. There's little doubt Slay will be counted on in a big way this year.
Lions coach Jim Caldwell spoke of Slay's rise to Tim Twentyman of DetroitLions.com:
Obviously, we all know and realize that (Slay) does indeed have skill and ability. The guy can run. He can flat run, he can jump. He’s got all the physical tools that you’re looking for. He’s just lacking a little bit of experience. It’s been a couple months now we’ve been working and he’s grown. He’s gotten a little bit better. He’s coming along. He’s more confident. It’s a new scheme, but he’s making good progress. We feel good about where he’s heading.
Slay projects as a starter for the Lions, and if he can continue to emerge, it will serve a dual purpose: First, it will make the team look wise for passing on selecting a cornerback in the first round of last month's draft, and second (and more importantly), the pass defense will be far superior to what it was a year ago.
Dwayne Gratz, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars
The first draft for a new head coach and general manager combination is an extremely vital one, as they seek to restock the cupboard that got their predecessors dismissed in the first place.
The players selected are generally counted upon to help lay the foundation for future success, and Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Dwayne Gratz is no different. Gratz was the team's third-round selection in 2013, the inaugural draft of coach Gus Bradley and general manager David Caldwell.
Bradley had previously served as defensive coordinator of the Seahawks, who have been buoyed by the strength of their secondary in recent years. Gratz is clearly expected to play a major role in the Jaguar's defensive fortunes, both in 2014 and beyond.
And luckily for the Jaguars, Gratz looks ready to improve upon what was a successful rookie season, one in which he intercepted two passes in eight starts and finished the year as Pro Football Focus' 38th-ranked cornerback (subscription required).
Gratz spoke of his maturation to Ryan O'Halloran of the Florida Times-Union, saying:
I think I’ve had a good month. It always takes time, especially at the cornerback position, to build that confidence that you need. But I think I’ve built up enough to play at a high level. It took me a little while to get things together, but I think I’m doing pretty decent.
If Gratz can excel for the Jaguars, the 2014 season might turn out better than most pundits forecast it will.