NFL Rookies Turning Heads Before Training Camps Even Begin
With training camp a little over two weeks away, the focus of the NFL offseason is starting to shift from a relatively quiet period to an extremely busy one. Johnny Manziel and the rest of the partygoers in the NFL better make their final weekends count, because the battle for their livelihoods are right around the corner.
That's not a shot at Manziel or any of the other rookies who enjoy having a good time; it's just a fair warning based on the fact everything changes once the pads go on. Training camp is all business, especially for rookies, since camp will be their first taste of live game action.
Obviously, every fan has high hopes for his respective team's rookies, but few understand the difficulties young players face. The pro game and the collegiate game are entirely different animals, as the room for error in the pros is incredibly small.
Despite the spike in competition, several rookies have already turned heads in spring practices. With that being said, let's take a look at eight rookies (in no particular order) who have been turning heads before training camp.
Jaylen Watkins, CB, Philadelphia Eagles
Coming out of Florida, cornerback Jaylen Watkins was viewed as a player who displayed versatility and high football intelligence when he was on the field.
In addition to playing both corner and safety for the Gators, Watkins always knew what everyone was doing in Florida’s defense. That was one of the biggest reasons why people said the Eagles stole him in the fourth round of the draft.
Lo and behold, Eagles defensive backs coach John Lovett echoed similar sentiments on June 23 when he spoke about Watkins’ skill set, via Jake Kaplan of The Philadelphia Inquirer:
When you talk to him about his defense at Florida, he knew what everybody did. I talked to the defensive coordinator [D.J. Durkin] down there. They put him in at positions that he hadn't even practiced that week because he knew what everybody was doing. He's really got a great football IQ.
Watkins’ high football IQ has turned heads early on, which could ultimately help him garner snaps as a rookie. Yes, a lot can change once training camp begins on July 25, yet it wouldn’t be wise to count the 21-year-old corner out.
Knowing the playbook and playing with a great football IQ is something few rookies have the ability to do right away. This, in turn, means fellow cornerbacks Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher and Nolan Carroll should be looking over their shoulders.
Brandin Cooks, WR, New Orleans Saints
Even though head coach Sean Payton and the New Orleans Saints had to wait to examine wide receiver Brandin Cooks, the first-round pick out of Oregon State is already making the organization forget about offensive weapon Darren Sproles.
Despite getting a late start due to Oregon State's academic schedule and NFL rules, the Fred Biletnikoff Award winner has turned heads with his game-changing speed.
Here’s what cornerback Keenan Lewis had to say about Cooks after a practice session on June 23, via Aaron Wilson of the National Football Post: “I called him ‘lightning.’ A (defensive back) might be in his back pocket and the next thing you know he's 50, 60 yards down the field.”
Based on Cooks’ past production and the fact that he now has an opportunity to play on the incredibly fast Superdome turf, Lewis’ comments about the rookie pass-catcher should come as no surprise.
Heading into training camp, Cooks is the fourth receiver on New Orleans’ depth chart (behind Marques Colston, Kenny Stills and Robert Meachem), yet that could change as soon the Saints coaching staff gets an extended look at the 186-pound speedster.
Why? Because Cooks plans to spend a lot of time with All-Pro quarterback Drew Brees in the coming weeks to hone his craft. According to Katherine Terrell of The Times-Picayune, “Cooks plans to fly to San Diego to work one-on-one with him and get up to speed.”
By the sounds of things, Cooks won’t be behind the curve for long. Brees is bound and determined to make sure he and Cooks form a formidable duo in 2014.
Preston Brown, LB, Buffalo Bills
When weak-side linebacker Kiko Alonso suffered a torn ACL, pundits believed that the Buffalo Bills would try to replace Alonso’s production with the services of Keith Rivers or Nigel Bradham.
Unfortunately for Rivers and Bradham, Tim Graham of The Buffalo News reported his sources told him that the Bills are looking at third-round pick Preston Brown to replace Alonso’s services.
Considering Bradham turned in an impressive campaign in 2013, the news of Brown’s favorable rise ahead of him is a bit astonishing. However, according to Graham, “Coaches raved behind the scenes about how well Brown practiced.”
Moreover, “The front office was thrilled with how he looked and Tuesday night [July 1] became even more relieved they drafted him.”
Brown’s straight-line speed won’t blow anyone away (4.86-second 40-yard dash), but it’s clear that he knows the playbook inside and out and is versatile enough to play multiple spots in Jim Schwartz’s uptempo 4-3 defense.
It’s also evident that he has a chance to open eyes during training camp as he will come off as a downhill, thumping, tackling machine.
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Minnesota Vikings
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater may have not been the first quarterback selected in this year’s draft, yet that doesn’t mean he won’t be the most successful signal-caller from this year’s class when it’s all said and done.
If early reports are any indication, Bridgewater is head and shoulders above his rookie counterparts prior to training camp. In fact, Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner told reporters that he hasn’t seen a weakness from the rookie.
Via Master Tesfatsion of the Star Tribune, Turner said: "I think in the six-to-eight weeks we’ve had him on the field, I think he’s been put in a position where’s he’s had to make most of the throws he would have to make. I think he can make all the throws he needs to make."
Playing with instincts and anticipation was something Bridgewater did well at Louisville, so Turner’s lofty praise simply confirms what several draft analysts saw when they turned on the tape at the end of his junior season.
Yet, the one thing draft analysts rarely agreed on was the evaluation of Bridgewater’s deep ball. A majority of talent evaluators often knocked the accuracy of his throws deep down the field.
The good news is that Turner has been pleased with the accuracy of Bridgewater’s deep balls since he arrived in Minnesota. Via Tesfatsion of the Star Tribune: “I knew he’d make great decisions, quick decisions, but he has been outstanding throwing the deep ball, which some people thought would be an issue.”
We can all agree that Bridgewater still has a long way to go before he is named the Vikings’ opening-day starter, but it’s safe to say he is the steal of the first round at this point in time.
Brock Vereen, FS, Chicago Bears
As good as the Chicago Bears offense was in 2013, their defense was unwatchable at times, especially safeties Chris Conte and Major Wright. Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Conte and Wright combined for a minus-42.2 overall grade last season.
To no one’s surprise, that was by far the worst combined safety grade in the NFL.
The Bears made it a point to rid themselves of their horrendous safety play by drafting free safety Brock Vereen in the fourth round and signing M.D. Jennings in free agency.
With training camp less than a month away, there’s no guarantee that either player will lock down the back end of Chicago’s defense. But news out of Bears camp as of late has been encouraging thanks in large part to Vereen.
According to Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com, “The Bears clearly like what they have seen from rookie safety Brock Vereen.” Vereen took all the first-ream reps in minicamp.
Furthermore, Vereen said he's getting more comfortable. Via Dickerson: “It's really starting to slow down for me out there. Now, I'm able to react rather than to have to think about it.”
All things considered, that’s encouraging news for the Bears’ defensive staff. Conte and Wright looked lost on a weekly basis last year, so the consistency and smarts Vereen possesses may very well be the answer to Chicago’s problems at the safety position.
The Bears are adamant that they won’t hand Vereen the starting free safety job, but as it stands right now he’s in a good position to run away with it.
Carlos Hyde, RB, San Francisco 49ers
The value of the running back position may be at an all-time low, yet it’s obvious that there are still plenty of talented, young running backs who turned heads this spring.
The most notable is San Francisco 49ers running back Carlos Hyde. Per Bill Williamson of ESPN.com, Hyde "shined out of the backfield as a runner and as receiver" in spring workouts.
Even though Hyde will face plenty of competition for the No. 2 running back job, Williamson said he expects the Ohio Sate product to “get a chance at playing time right away.”
Hyde garnering playing time shouldn’t shock anyone since San Francisco stole him with the 57th pick, yet it should shock you that he has learned the 49ers’ complex offense so quickly.
When Pro Bowl tailback Frank Gore spoke to the media on June 24 about Hyde’s progression, he said Hyde was "doing a great job" in practices, via Taylor Price of 49ers.com.
Hyde isn’t going to leapfrog Gore on the depth chart, but he could easily make a case for more carries/playing time if he continues to impress and learn Greg Roman's offense at an alarming rate.
Timmy Jernigan, DT, Baltimore Ravens
Much like 49ers running back Carlos Hyde, Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan was an absolute steal in the second round.
Leading up to the draft, the draft community had him pegged as a late first-round pick. And if it wasn’t for a diluted urine sample on a drug test at the combine, he probably would have been a first-round pick.
Luckily for the Ravens, his stock fell. And he landed in their laps at No. 48 overall.
Since his arrival in Baltimore, Jernigan has gotten off to a quick start during organized team activities, and he’s quickly caught the attention of his teammates.
“He’s flashing a lot,” left guard Kelechi Osemele said of Jernigan, via Garrett Downing of BaltimoreRavens.com. “He’s playing fast, especially for being a young guy and being thrown in there with the ones every now and then.”
Not only is Jernigan playing fast, but he’s playing with quickness and explosion as well. “Jernigan has been in the backfield, I know we don’t have pads on, but his explosiveness and power [are impressive],” cornerback Lardarius Webb added, via Downing.
At 298 pounds, people questioned Jernigan’s fit in Baltimore’s 3-4 defense. Yet, he has already proved that his size won’t be an issue, because he relies on his burst, strength and technique.
Brandon Williams is listed ahead of Jernigan, but once the pads go on, the rookie defensive lineman will push Williams for a starting job.
Gabe Jackson, LG, Oakland Raiders
At the end of this year’s draft, analysts were quick to shower the Oakland Raiders with praise.
Evaluators lauded the selections of linebacker Khalil Mack in the first round and quarterback Derek Carr in the second round. Yet, possibly the best pick of all was Mississippi State left guard Gabe Jackson.
At the collegiate level, Jackson was a massive, powerful guard who rarely lost at the point of attack. From the sounds of it, the 336-pound mauler has smoothly transitioned into a similar player during his short tenure with the Raiders.
Per Steve Corkran of the Bay Area News Group, head coach Dennis Allen likes what he has seen from Jackson so far but insists he has to keep striving to get better.
Allen said: "Gabe is a good athlete for a player of his size, and he’s got very good power. And he’s a lot better pass protector than people might think. I’ve been impressed with him, I’m pleased with his progress and he’s got to continue to work."
For the first time in a long time, the Raiders have an interior offensive lineman they can get excited about. Shoot, as Dan Hope of Bleacher Report said in his June 27 article, Jackson “could potentially be the league’s best rookie guard this year.”