Rookies to Watch in Training Camps This Summer
Everyone keeps close tabs on first-round NFL draft picks because they often have starting jobs or significant roles handed to them on a platter. It’s rarely a surprise when a top pick unseats a veteran. In fact, it’s expected.
The rest of the rookies have to earn everything they get. Even second-round picks don’t get nearly the same treatment as the players selected just a few picks before them.
Rookies who stand out during the offseason program are typically rewarded with early opportunities during training camp. What they do with those opportunities is what is really worth watching.
So, go ahead and monitor all the first-round picks, but also keep tabs on the following players once training camps fire up next month.
Oakland Raiders: QB Derek Carr
The Oakland Raiders haven’t drafted a good starting quarterback since Ken Stabler in 1968. They’ve tried and failed on numerous occasions, which is why their latest effort is definitely worth watching.
Carr has already climbed the depth chart and will open training camp as the No. 2 behind Matt Schaub. With a strong training camp, the Raiders might even toy with the idea of inserting Carr into game action early his rookie year.
The test will be how Carr performs when there are bodies flying around him. One of the criticisms of Carr was his ability to throw under pressure.
If Schaub falters and Carr shines this summer, the Raiders are going to have a very interesting decision to make. The Raiders don’t have a fifth-year option on Carr because he was a second and not a first-round pick, so getting him on the field sooner wouldn’t be a bad idea.
Philadelphia Eagles: WR Jordan Matthews
The decision to cut DeSean Jackson is one that could leave a lasting impression on head coach Chip Kelly’s legacy with the Philadelphia Eagles. Jackson signed with NFC East rival Washington, which only magnifies the move.
Central to making sure Kelly doesn’t end up regretting it is the development of rookie wide receiver Jordan Matthews. It’s typically very difficult for rookie receivers to be major contributors right away, but Matthews has a chance.
So far, the media reports on Matthews have been glowing. Jimmy Kempski of Philly.com said Matthews looked like the best wide receiver on the team by a significant margin during the limited media-access window.
If Matthews turns into a star, the decision to release Jackson may end up as simply a footnote. That process starts this summer, and neither Riley Cooper nor Jeremy Maclin should be an impediment to opportunities for Matthews to shine.
Kansas City Chiefs: RB/WR De'Anthony Thomas
The Kansas City Chiefs need someone to step up to replace Dexter McCluster both on offense and special teams. De'Anthony Thomas is the likely candidate.
Thomas’ draft stock took a hit when he ran a 4.5-second 40-yard dash at the combine, but he was clocked in the 4.3-second range at his pro day. Thomas has certainly flashed his electric speed in the limited offseason practices up to this point. Adam Teicher of ESPN.com described Thomas' speed as "world class" and thinks the Chiefs will see a reward if he touches the ball at least 10 times per game.
With McCluster, Kansas City’s special teams unit was among the best in the league last year. McCluster also added solid production in the passing game. If the Chiefs don’t want to regress in 2013 after going to the playoffs last year, Thomas needs to be a playmaker.
How Thomas’ speed translates with pads on and how he is used will be one of the key things to watch in Kansas City.
Atlanta Falcons: RB Devonta Freeman
Steven Jackson is still considered the starting running back for the Atlanta Falcons, but he’ll be 31 in July and is coming off the worst season of his career. It might be time for a change in Atlanta.
Enter fourth-round pick Devonta Freeman. He might be a small back, but he’s not one who should be ignored as strictly a change-of-pace or third-down guy.
“We've got some options, and we've got to find out what Devonta Freeman can do," head coach Mike Smith said at Atlanta's rookie minicap in May (h/t Bleacher Report’s Knox Bardeen). "To me, if he can step up and be a good pass-protector, he's got the chance to be a three-down back."
Rotoworld and NBC Sports draft writer Josh Norris said in May that Freeman was his top running back and noted his ability to pass protect. Of course, the Falcons won’t know if Freeman can hold up in pass protection at the NFL level until they put the pads on this summer.
Freeman is worth watching as relatively little stands in his way of significant work as a rookie. That’s not particularly rare for a rookie running back, but for a fourth-round pick to make Jackson an afterthought would be.
Oakland Raiders: OG Gabe Jackson
Offensive guards aren’t very exciting, but if there was one rookie guard worth watching, it might be Gabe Jackson. Like much of its roster, Oakland’s guard position was a disaster in 2013, and Jackson only has to beat Khalif Barnes for the starting job in 2014.
Unlike the guards who were drafted before him, Jackson isn’t a zone guard. The Raiders just want Jackson to push people around on the field. In other words, they want Jackson to be aggressive.
In college, Jackson wasn’t as physically imposing as his 336-pound frame might indicate. Therefore, when the pads go on this summer, the development of Jackson will be something to watch.
If the Raiders are to become the dominant running team they want to be in order to protect Schaub or Carr, they need Jackson to play a style that makes sense for his size at the NFL level. We won’t know if Jackson has made any progress in that area until the players put on pads.
Seattle Seahawks: OT Justin Britt
Does a rookie offensive tackle starting for the defending Super Bowl champions in the NFC West sound like a bad idea? If second-round pick Justin Britt wins the job during training camp, that would become a reality.
Britt is competing with second-year player Michael Bowie for the job. As far as camp competitions for offensive tackles go, this is one of the more interesting ones. Gone is veteran Breno Giacomini, so one of the two young players has to start at right tackle.
It’s impossible to get a true sense of who is ahead before they put on the pads. Once they do, Britt’s development will be something to monitor. If Britt isn’t ready, quarterback Russell Wilson may have to frequently run for his life.
Minnesota Vikings: DE Scott Crichton
Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer got his new job by leading a great defense in Cincinnati largely built around the defensive line. The Vikings have revamped their defensive front since he got the job by adding rookie first-round pass-rusher Anthony Barr and third-round defensive end Scott Crichton. The Vikings also jettisoned veterans like defensive end Jared Allen and defensive tackle Kevin Williams.
Although Barr will overshadow him, Crichton may end up playing more snaps in 2014. Crichton’s ability to stop the run could keep him on the field, particularly if he’s an able pass-rusher.
Maybe Crichton will have more trouble getting the quarterback as a pro, but that’s what we need to see this summer. The only way the Vikings or anyone else can determine that is when they put on the pads. If Crichton is better than advertised, the Vikings may have the makings of a very good young defense.