Under-the-Radar Players Who Could Become Big Names in NFL Training Camps
When it comes right down to it, very few NFL players develop into superstars right away. Some play well enough to make a handful of starts in the league, while others show improvement on an annual basis and mature into well-known players.
Yet, there's no magic formula that tells you who will last in the NFL and who won't. If there was, it would make the lives of head coaches and general managers around the league a lot easier.
Fortunately, we do have access to three things that have helped expand the knowledge base of people who follow the NFL. This first is advanced analytics. The second is game tape. And the third is beat writers.
All three things play a crucial role in helping people make smart assessments about particular players.
With the help of advanced analytics, game tape and different articles, I broke down eight under-the-radar players who could become big names during training camp in 2014.
Marquess Wilson, WR, Chicago Bears
When the Chicago Bears drafted Marquess Wilson with the 236th pick in 2013, general manager Phil Emery and head coach Marc Trestman were taking a flier on a player who had once tallied 1,280 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns in a season at Washington State.
Yet there was no guarantee that he could ever regain his old form. Why? Because his collegiate career ended tumultuously, he struggled to adapt to the pro game, and he had a hard time keeping his weight up as a rookie.
The good news is that Wilson appears to be a late bloomer and is making headway heading into Year 2.
Here’s what Adam Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times had to say about the second-year pass-catcher: “Wilson has had a strong offseason, gaining weight and strength and noticeably becoming a better receiver with the guidance of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.”
Even though Wilson’s strong offseason has shot him up Chicago’s depth chart, his role in Trestman’s offense won’t be fully defined until training camp rolls around at the end of July.
Nevertheless, Michael C. Wright of ESPN.com says the Bears are “pretty confident” that Wilson will win the No. 3 wide receiver job over Josh Morgan and Eric Weems.
Based on Jahns’ report and Wilson’s ceiling as a player, it’s safe to say Wright’s assumption is correct. Look for Wilson to be a big upgrade over Earl Bennett in 2014.
Keenan Robinson, LB, Washington Redskins
Drafting Keenan Robinson in 2012 was an easy move for the Washington Redskins. They liked that he was a key contributor on special teams at the University of Texas and an honorable mention All-Big 12 selection.
Moreover, they were hoping he could be the heir apparent to London Fletcher sooner rather than later. Unfortunately for Robinson, injuries have held him back over the course of the last two seasons, so he is a little bit behind in terms of on-the-field development.
But that’s OK because head coach Jay Gruden is confident that inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti will get Robinson up to speed so he can make progress and perform at a high level.
Coincidentally enough, that’s exactly what has happened this offseason.
“We have high hopes for Keenan and we love the progress he’s making,” Gruden said, via Mike Jones of The Washington Post. “Just from a short period of time, he’s one of the guys on the field that stands out. We’ll say, ‘Is that Keenan again?’ He’s doing a great job, so the big thing is keep him healthy. Our strength coaches will be working with him and we’re hoping he has no setbacks from his injury.”
Clearly, things could change at a moment’s notice. But as it stands right now, Robinson has a slight edge over Darryl Sharpton and Akeem Jordan, which is astonishing considering the 24-year-old inside linebacker only has 11 career appearances in two seasons.
Tharold Simon, CB, Seattle Seahawks
Coming out of college, cornerback Tharold Simon was viewed as a Day 3 steal when the Seattle Seahawks selected him with the 138th pick in the fifth round.
Yes, he had his fair share of problems at LSU under head coach Les Miles, but he vowed to clean up his act and commit to a better work ethic in the Pacific Northwest.
So far, so good: Despite being placed on injured reserve in August last year, he has made it a point to take his rehab seriously and put in the necessary work in the weight room.
His hard work and dedication have paid off. According to Danny O’Neil of ESPN 710 Seattle, “Second-year corner Tharold Simon has generated more buzz than any player over the past month.”
This should come as no surprise as he has shown a knack for picking off passes and displaying good technique as an outside corner during OTAs, via Bob Condotta of The Seattle Times.
Nonetheless, the Seahawks are going to try Simon on the inside as a slot corner as well. The coaching staff likes his size (6’2”, 202 pounds), and Jeremy Lane might be too small to effectively cover slot receivers on a weekly basis.
By the sounds of it, Simon will have plenty of opportunities to emerge the way Byron Maxwell did last year.
Khiry Robinson, RB, New Orleans Saints
There were times last season when undrafted free agent Khiry Robinson looked liked the best running back on the New Orleans Saints roster.
In limited snaps, the West Texas A&M product proved he was an aggressive runner who could pick up first downs and force missed tackles.
In fact, on 75 carries (playoffs included), he averaged 4.3 yards per attempt and 2.6 yards after contact. Moreover, he tallied 15 forced missed tackles and 12 first downs.
Surely, Robinson is set for a breakout after an impressive rookie campaign, right? Saints head coach Sean Payton thinks so. Here’s what he said about the second-year tailback on June 3, via Mike Triplett of ESPN.com:
He is someone obviously that has more confidence now. You see him, just from an assignment standpoint, understanding the protections much quicker. That took a while for him last year. I think (with) a year under his belt, the overall understanding of all the things he needs to do at the running back position is a lot better.
It's no wonder why Payton’s mentor Bill Parcells "compared Robinson to Hall of Fame running back Curtis Martin and insisted the Saints use him more."
He has every trait you look for in a Pro Bowl-esque ball-carrier. Expect Robinson to push the envelope and lead New Orleans in rushing in 2014 since Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram are in the final years of their current deals.
Ladarius Green, TE, San Diego Chargers
The San Diego Chargers have had a chance to take an extended look at third-year tight end Ladarius Green with the absence of 34-year-old pass-catcher Antonio Gates.
That’s a plus in view of the fact that Gates’ career is winding down, and Green has been promised a more prominent role in offensive coordinator Frank Reich’s offense.
Gates will still be the Chargers’ No. 1 tight end, yet Kevin Acee of U-T San Diego believes Green will double his production from last year (17 receptions, 367 yards and three touchdowns).
If that ends up being the case, Gates’ snaps will decrease, and 2014 will be his final year in San Diego.
As sad as that thought may be for Chargers fans, it’s for the best. Green is not only the future at the tight end position, but his salary is much more manageable than Gates’.
Jerry Hughes, DE, Buffalo Bills
Under the watch of former defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, Buffalo Bills edge-rusher Jerry Hughes set career highs in tackles (32), quarterback sacks (10), quarterback hits (nine), quarterback hurries (39) and forced fumbles (two) in 2013.
Those numbers are bewildering when one takes the time to examine Hughes’ past, but after such a successful season, you can't help but wonder what was holding him back before.
Was it the coaching he received? Or was it the position he was playing? Most think it was a combination of both. So, I have to ask: Will Hughes build off his surprise year and continue to thrive under defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz?
Coach Schwartz has an inkling that Hughes will continue to flourish in Buffalo’s newly implemented 4-3 scheme.
“You have to sort of reserve a little bit of judgment until the pads come on,” Schwartz said, via Mark Gaughan of The Buffalo News. “But he is a very good pass rusher and we can use him in a lot of different roles. He stood up at times, he’s down at times. Sometimes quarterbacks are going to have to evaluate whether he is a linebacker or a defensive end. I don’t think it’s a whole lot different than some of the stuff he was used for last year."
Schwartz has a point: If the Bills use Hughes similar to the way they did last year, he should continue to thrive, and scheme dependency will prove to be irrelevant.
With that being said, it’s encouraging that Hughes has been a standout player for Buffalo during OTAs. He never got the credit he deserved in 2013, so one can only hope his efforts don’t go unnoticed for a second straight season.
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Minnesota Vikings
I know, some of you may be wondering how a first-round pick can be flying under the radar, but I assure you it’s possible. For a case in point, look at Johnny Manziel versus Teddy Bridgewater.
Manziel has failed to catch Brian Hoyer in the Cleveland Browns quarterback battle, but he still makes the news because of his lavish, wild lifestyle.
Bridgewater, on the hand, is challenging Matt Cassel on a daily basis and is pushing to be the Minnesota Vikings starting quarterback Week 1. Yet, we rarely hear about how well he is doing on the field because he is boring off it.
The reality of that is sad, but it’s OK since Bridgewater continuously impresses the offensive coaching staff. Per Matt Vensel of the Star Tribune, “Norv Turner [offensive coordinator] expected accuracy and decisiveness, but he also said Teddy Bridgewater has been ‘outstanding’ throwing the ball deep.”
If the quarterback competition ends up being close at the end of training camp, Bridgewater should be the opening-day starter for Minnesota.
It’s a good thing head coach Mike Zimmer reiterated to the media that he's not afraid to start Bridgewater Week 1, via Ben Goessling of ESPN.com.
Winston Guy, S, Jacksonville Jaguars
Jacksonville Jaguars safety Josh Evans was the favorite to be the starting free safety after an exciting rookie season. However, things changed rather quickly when his foot was slow to heal after offseason surgery.
Now, the front-runner for the starting free safety job is Winston Guy, who is 24 years old. He was drafted by the Seahawks in 2012 and is extremely familiar with head coach Gus Bradley’s defensive system.
This, in turn, explains why he is leading the charge for the starting free safety job in Jacksonville. Yet, you can’t forget that Guy possesses good size (6'1", 218 pounds), a solid frame and eye-opening speed.
According to Gang Green Nation, he has been clocked as fast as 4.46 in the 40-yard dash. For a player of his size, that’s a very strong speed that appears to translate well to the field.
When you watch him on tape, he attacks the line of scrimmage, is strong in the box against the run and has proved to be a good cover man versus tight ends and bigger wide receivers.
Kudos to Bradley and general manager Dave Caldwell for possibly finding the free safety of the future to pair with the team's strong safety of the future in Johnathan Cyprien.