First-Round Rookies with Most to Prove in 2014 NFL Training Camps
Every first-round pick from the 2014 NFL draft will be expected to learn, develop and prove themselves during their teams’ training camps, which will begin later this month. The ramifications of how well each rookie performs, however, will be greater for some Day 1 selections than others.
By virtue of being chosen within the top 32 slots of the draft, all first-round rookies are expected to immediately compete for significant playing time. Some of them will be Week 1 starters, while others will work their way up to starting roles over the course of their first years.
It varies greatly by situation as to how much of each rookie’s playing time is dependent on training-camp competition. Some of the highest draft choices, such as Houston Texans pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney and Atlanta Falcons right tackle Jake Matthews, are already virtual locks to start. Other first-round selections, however, truly will be fighting to earn playing time this summer.
For each of the following eight rookies, how much each of them will play remains very much undecided. While all of them have the talent to be impact players from day one, each of them still must prove themselves in camp and in the preseason to earn significant playing time this upcoming year.
Anthony Barr, OLB, Minnesota Vikings
Forbidden by NFL rules from participating in organized team activities (OTAs) while he completed his final semester at UCLA, Anthony Barr hasn’t had as much opportunity to learn and show himself on the field as most of his rookie peers.
That missed time could cost Barr, because although he had enough potential to warrant the No. 9 overall pick, the first-year Minnesota Vikings linebacker has a variety of flaws in his game that he must rectify.
A 6’5”, 255-pound player with explosive athleticism, Barr has the physical tools you expect from a top-10 defensive draft choice.
He is a skilled pass-rusher off the edge, as evidenced by his 23 sacks in just two seasons on defense at UCLA. But while he should certainly get his fair share of opportunities to edge-rush in passing situations, his main position is projected to be strong-side linebacker, where he must become a more natural tackler and coverage player in space.
Barr, who might have been a more natural fit for a 3-4 defensive scheme and still has a lot to learn to achieve first-year success in Minnesota, has acknowledged that missing OTAs raises the bar for the rest of his summer, per Master Tesfatsion of the Star Tribune.
“There’s a little bit of a learning curve missing OTAs, but it kind of is what it is,” Barr said. “I’ve just got to catch up and continue to watch film and continue to get better.”
Eric Ebron, TE, Detroit Lions
There’s little doubt that Eric Ebron, a 6’4”, 250-pound tight end with terrific athleticism out of North Carolina, will be an immediate receiving weapon and mismatch creator for the Detroit Lions offense. But despite his tantalizing physical tools, his role for his rookie season remains unestablished and contingent upon his ability to be more reliable as both a pass-catcher and blocker this preseason.
If Ebron can smooth out the kinks in his game, the No. 10 overall pick could be a star as early as the upcoming season. Essentially an oversized wide receiver, Ebron can play inside and outside, is tough to defend over the middle and has the speed and agility to extend plays in the open field.
His physical traits, reminiscent of a basketball player, have drawn Ebron some generous, yet possibly attainable in time, comparisons to New Orleans Saints standout Jimmy Graham.
New Lions offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, who came to Detroit after seven seasons with the Saints, even acknowledged after the draft, per DetroitLions.com’s Tim Twentyman, that there are things his offense “did with Jimmy in New Orleans that we will be able to do with Eric.”
Even with all the hype, however, Ebron needs to perform well this summer to have a consistent role in the Detroit lineup. He “struggled with drops early in OTAs,” according to Kyle Meinke of MLive.com, and “spent most of OTAs and minicamp working with the second unit.”
Part of the reason Ebron is not a sure bet for the starting lineup is that Brandon Pettigrew, the incumbent starter at tight end, is a better blocker than the rookie. That’s unlikely to change in the next couple of months, but what’s most important for Ebron is that he catches the ball cleanly and runs crisp routes.
If Ebron can prove his value to the team as a pass-catcher, and especially if he can do so from spots all over the field, the Lions will find plenty of ways to get him involved in the offense whether he is a starter or not.
Johnny Manziel, QB, Cleveland Browns
As much, if not more, attention has been paid to Johnny Manziel’s off-field activities as anything the Cleveland Browns rookie has done on the gridiron so far. However, once training camp arrives, focus on the No. 22 overall pick will shift to whether he can beat out Brian Hoyer for Cleveland’s starting quarterback job.
While Manziel might have indeed been asked by the Browns' brain trust to “tone it down” in regard to his partying and posting on social media, as reported by ESPN’s Chris Mortensen (h/t Mary Kay Cabot of The Plain Dealer), Cleveland’s quarterback battle should ultimately come down to which player performs more effectively in training camp and the preseason.
Coming out of spring workouts, Hoyer was considered to be “securely ahead” of Manziel by Browns head coach Mike Pettine, according to Cabot. Pettine also said at the time that Hoyer’s head start on winning the job is not “insurmountable,” but the coach’s statement makes it clear that if the new kid on the block from Texas A&M is going to win the job, he’ll have to clearly outperform the veteran this summer.
If the Browns didn’t believe Manziel had the ability to do so, they wouldn’t have traded up from their second first-round pick to select him. An always dangerous playmaker with a strong arm, good athleticism and an uncanny ability to extend plays, Manziel’s upside and ability to intimidate defenses is far greater than that of Hoyer.
That said, Manziel is going to have to display improved passing accuracy from the pocket—as well as footwork and composure within it—to beat out Hoyer, who was impressive in three starts last season before tearing his ACL. Known to be a reckless gunslinger to an extent, Manziel must also prove that he can read NFL defenses and avoid making careless mistakes.
As Manziel can bring a dynamic to the field that Hoyer simply does not, Cleveland should give Johnny Football every opportunity to win the job right off the bat. However, if the team comes away from camp unsatisfied with Manziel’s development, it could be some time before he sees significant playing time in the regular season.
Jason Verrett, CB, San Diego Chargers
Even with the San Diego Chargers’ recent addition of former Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Brandon Flowers, who should take over one spot in the team’s starting lineup, the path remains open for rookie Jason Verrett to be a regular on the field from day one.
Verrett, selected with the No. 25 overall pick out of TCU, has all the tools, except ideal size, to be a starting cornerback in the NFL. An explosive athlete who flows naturally through his hips and uses his hands well, Verrett plays with physicality and technical soundness that enables him to overcome measuring just 5’9” and 189 pounds.
As long as the skills Verrett displayed in his three years as a starter at TCU translate smoothly to the NFL, he should be a playmaker in the San Diego secondary and an immediate upgrade in the lineup over Shareece Wright.
Projecting Verrett into an important role in 2014 remains a bit concerning, however, as his participation was limited throughout offseason workouts. He underwent shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum in March and has not yet been cleared for contact drills, according to ESPN.com’s Eric D. Williams.
In minicamp, Verrett was impressive in limited work, according to UTSanDiego.com’s Tom Krasovic. The rookie cornerback sat out team drills but “caught passes overhead” and displayed quickness, per Krasovic.
Not being able to fully participate in practices could hamper Verrett, especially if the Chargers expect to throw him into the fire at cornerback, one of the toughest positions for a rookie to play.
He still has time—and certainly the talent—to beat out Wright, but he must come out of the gates strong and take advantage of his opportunities to impress in training camp. If he cannot set himself apart, it’s more likely the Chargers could opt to work him in somewhat more gradually as the team’s third or fourth cornerback.
Deone Bucannon, SS, Arizona Cardinals
As the Arizona Cardinals will likely be forced to begin the upcoming season without hybrid free safety/slot cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, who is still recovering from a torn ACL suffered in December, they could be banking on the potential for Deone Bucannon to be another playmaking addition to their secondary.
The No. 27 overall pick out of Washington State, Bucannon certainly looks the part at 6’1” and 211 pounds, with a 4.49-second 40-yard dash time. He is a rangy athlete and hard hitter who has the potential to be a big-play spark in Arizona’s defensive backfield.
All of that, however, doesn’t necessarily mean Bucannon is ready to start in an NFL secondary. At Washington State, he played with an overaggressive tendency that led to some game-changing moments but more mistakes; he needs to play with more discipline and control to succeed as a next-level starter.
Bucannon missed some time in OTAs with turf toe, and although he returned for minicamp, according to ESPN.com’s Josh Weinfuss, he must make consistent progress in training camp to earn a starting job outright.
The Cardinals were “quite pleased” with the performance of second-year safety Tony Jefferson, who has the skills to legitimately hold Bucannon out of the lineup, in OTAs and minicamp, according to Weinfuss.
Ultimately, however, the Cardinals wouldn’t have made Bucannon one of the draft’s most unexpected first-round selections unless they believed he could be an impact player and a leader for their secondary.
He made an impression with his intelligence in spring workouts; Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell is among those who have noted that Bucannon “understands the game at a high level,” according to Jess Root of SB Nation’s Revenge of the Birds. Beyond that, Arizona will be looking for Bucannon to stand out from the pack at strong safety from here on out.
Dominique Easley, DT, New England Patriots
Having torn ACLs in each of his knees within the past three years, Dominique Easley must prove, on his return to the football field with the New England Patriots, that he can stay healthy through the rigors of an NFL training camp and preseason.
Before his most recent injury, which he suffered during a practice this past September while playing at Florida, Easley had emerged as one of the most disruptive interior defensive linemen in college football. Known for his ability to explode off the snap and burst at the line of scrimmage, Easley impressed the Patriots enough to be selected 29th overall, even with his health concerns.
The biggest question concerning Easley is whether he will have lost any of his signature quickness during his injury-recovery period. He could be exactly what the Patriots have needed for years as an inside pass-rushing threat who can beat opponents with his athleticism but also his hands, but all the projections of his potential stardom are contingent upon his ability to return from injury without any lingering effects.
He was a full participant in at least one practice of New England’s mandatory minicamp, according to Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald, but training camp will be the first opportunity for an extended look at the rookie defensive tackle since his injury.
If Easley can shake off the rust quickly and prove to be at full strength throughout the summer, he could end up in line for significant playing time by the time the season begins.
He’s unlikely to be a rookie starter, except in the event of an injury to Vince Wilfork or Tommy Kelly at defensive tackle, but New England should look to rotate him in frequently, especially in packages designed to optimize the team’s pass rush.
Jimmie Ward, CB/S, San Francisco 49ers
Like Verrett, Jimmie Ward’s opportunity to impress his NFL team has been delayed in the aftermath of a predraft surgery. The No. 30 overall pick underwent a foot procedure in March and was held out of practice drills in OTAs and minicamp, according to Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group.
A safety at Northern Illinois, the All-American is expected to play slot cornerback in his rookie season.
Ward is a fluid athlete who has experience playing against slot receivers and has demonstrated coverage skills, but he still faces a transition to not only play a new position, but also to play against significantly tougher competition than he faced on a week-to-week basis in the Mid-American Conference.
As a result of the pending transition upon which Ward has been unable to make on-field progress by virtue of his recovery from injury, 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has said that Ward cannot be penciled in yet as the team’s top slot cornerback, according to Inman.
"I don't think you can assume that," Fangio said. "He's going to certainly get every opportunity to, but he's missed all this time, he's learning, he's a rookie, etc. We'll all have to be a little patient with him."
Ward certainly should get the lion’s share of opportunities to take on that role, as the 49ers have a serious lack of talent and depth at the cornerback position, but he’s going to have to be a quick study in training camp.
Having not already had the opportunity to experience growing pains in his new role and environment, Ward will have to quickly overcome mistakes this summer to prove that he’s worthy of significant playing time from Week 1.
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Minnesota Vikings
While the Jacksonville Jaguars have held their stand publicly that they intend to sit No. 3 overall pick Blake Bortles for a year behind incumbent starting quarterback Chad Henne, and the Cleveland Browns have made it clear that Johnny Manziel is facing an uphill battle against Brian Hoyer, the Minnesota Vikings have left their quarterback competition open, according to Fox Sports North’s Brian Hall.
That leaves a wide window of opportunity for No. 32 overall pick Teddy Bridgewater to seize Minnesota’s starting signal-caller job in his rookie year. The most polished pocket passer from this year’s quarterback draft class, Bridgewater has the accuracy, footwork, mechanics and defense-reading ability to succeed if called into duty in 2014.
The rookie from Louisville has already impressed his coaches. Vikings coach Norv Turner, per Hall, described Bridgewater as being “very accurate,” making “great decisions” and being “outstanding throwing the ball deep, which some people thought that was going to be an issue,” in OTAs and minicamp.
Despite the praise he has already received, Bridgewater’s potential climb to the top of the depth chart has only just begun. He must continue to be sharp, precise and consistent in displaying his arm strength throughout training camp and the preseason to earn the first-team job ahead of veteran Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder.
Yet, as neither Cassel nor Ponder has established himself worthy of being Minnesota’s long-term starter—Cassel was better than Ponder last season, but it was not by a wide margin—the Vikings shouldn’t back away from Bridgewater starting as a rookie if he can legitimately outperform the incumbents this summer.
All measurables courtesy of NFL.com, unless otherwise noted.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.