Top 15 Must-Watch NFL Players at Training Camp

Andrea HangstFeatured Columnist IVJuly 17, 2014

Top 15 Must-Watch NFL Players at Training Camp

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    Jets quarterback Geno Smith, in his second year in the NFL, will have a lot of pressure on his shoulders in training camp.
    Jets quarterback Geno Smith, in his second year in the NFL, will have a lot of pressure on his shoulders in training camp.Mel Evans/Associated Press

    NFL training camps open for all teams within the next 10 days, signaling the true beginning of pads-on football practices.

    With the pads on, the stars and starters begin to separate themselves from the backups and those fighting to keep their jobs. It also marks the return of veterans and those injured last season, players who are trying to hold on to their starting status.

    Position battles become even more compelling than they were during minicamps and OTAs. Who rises and who falls makes all the difference as rosters are cut from 90 men to the eventual 53.

    These players are what make training camp such a must-watch period for NFL diehards. Here are the top 15 players to keep your eyes on as July turns into August and August turns into the start of the 2014 NFL season, based on position battles they will be embroiled in, who is an up-and-coming star and major injuries key players are trying to overcome.

No. 15: RB Zac Stacy, St. Louis Rams

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    Zac Stacy is fighting to keep his starting job in training camp.
    Zac Stacy is fighting to keep his starting job in training camp.Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Heading into the 2014 season, it seemed a given that St. Louis Rams running back Zac Stacy would reprise his role as the team's starter. After all, he led the Rams with 250 carries for 973 yards and seven touchdowns last year, and no one behind him on the depth chart came anywhere close to his number of touches.

    But now, it appears that Stacy will have real competition in the form of 2014 third-round draft pick Tre Mason. Though Stacy has the endurance to carry the football, as evidenced by his workload last season, he isn't as multifaceted as the rookie from Auburn.

    Mason has speed and elusiveness on his side; Stacy, on the other hand, managed to force just 29 missed tackles in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), tied for 17th in the league. The Rams may prefer a one-two punch of Mason and Stacy rather than putting all of their rushing eggs in Stacy's basket. 

    The starting job seemed to be a given for Stacy prior to May's draft. Now, he'll be fighting for his place on the depth chart with Mason. The pads coming on will determine the winner and, ultimately, what the Rams run game will look like this season.

No. 14: TE Colt Lyerla, Green Bay Packers

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    Colt Lyerla has a number of obstacles to overcome to make the Packers' 53-man roster.
    Colt Lyerla has a number of obstacles to overcome to make the Packers' 53-man roster.Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Colt Lyerla was one of the most promising tight ends heading into this year's draft, at least from an athletic standpoint. At Oregon, he caught 34 passes for 565 yards and 11 touchdowns. However, he quit the team halfway through the 2013 season and subsequently was arrested for cocaine possession.

    His off-the-field problems couldn't make up for his impressive scouting combine performance, where he ran a 4.61-second 40-yard dash and had a 39-inch vertical leap. He went undrafted in May only to be picked up by the Green Bay Packers, who need to replace Jermichael Finley.

    Lyerla isn't a lock to be the team's starting tight end or even to make the 53-man roster. He has veterans Andrew Quarless and Brandon Bostick ahead of him, and the Packers used their third-round draft pick on the position, taking Cal's Richard Rodgers.

    However, Lyerla has a natural athleticism and great pass-catching skills. As long as his character concerns are behind him, he has all the tools to rise to the top of the roster in training camp. He's worth watching this summer to see if he can turn his problems around and become the latest risky undrafted rookie to make an impact in the NFL. 

No. 13: RB Lamar Miller, Miami Dolphins

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    Lamar Miller must prove he can be an all-around running back.
    Lamar Miller must prove he can be an all-around running back.USA TODAY Sports

    Last year, Lamar Miller was supposed to carry the Miami Dolphins' run game on his back. Though he did lead the team in rushing yards with 709, he had only 177 carries and two touchdowns. He wasn't an all-around running back—he only caught 26 passes for 170 yards, and he struggled as a blocker. It was a disappointing season.

    Miller has a chance to redeem himself this year, however.

    When the Dolphins brought in free-agent Knowshon Moreno, it was seen as a sign that the team might not be entirely confident in Miller. When Moreno showed up to Miami's offseason program out of shape, the window opened a little wider for Miller. And now that Moreno is slated to miss at least part of training camp after undergoing knee surgery in June, the starting running back job appears to be Miller's to lose.

    Now in his third season, Miller should be on the precipice of a breakout year. As The Phinsider's Danny Williams points out, new Dolphins offensive coordinator Bill Lazor's system is well suited for the kind of outside zone running that is Miller's strength.

    Miller's pass-catching and blocking, however, are still works in progress. If he cannot improve in those two areas, the Dolphins may have no choice but to split his on-field time with Moreno once healthy. This training camp could be Miller's last chance to be a true starter and not just a bit player in Miami.

No. 12: TE Ladarius Green, San Diego Chargers

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    Training camp is the next step in the ascendancy of Ladarius Green in San Diego.
    Training camp is the next step in the ascendancy of Ladarius Green in San Diego.Rob Carr/Getty Images

    When you think of athletic, fast, pass-catching San Diego Chargers tight ends, you think Antonio Gates. Of course—Gates is a three-time All-Pro, an eight-time Pro Bowler and has 9,193 receiving yards and 87 touchdowns over 11 seasons.

    However, the Chargers have a young tight end with Gates-like qualities in Ladarius Green, and he seems poised to break out in his third NFL season. Green had 17 receptions for 376 yards and three touchdowns last season, netting him a 22.1 yards-per-reception average. With Gates now 34 years old, it seems like a good time for Green to become more involved in San Diego's passing game. 

    Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers has developed incredible chemistry with Gates, which is partially why Green has been in the shadows. But with Green now having two years of NFL experience to his name and so much upside as a receiver, there's no way Rivers will be able to ignore him this year.

    Expect to see a number of two-tight end sets being explored during the Chargers' training camp and a lot more of Green working with the first team. That should continue into the regular season, where Green might actually surpass Gates in receptions and yards. Green is the under-the-radar player to keep an eye on during training camp this year.

No. 11: DT Geno Atkins, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Geno Atkins has been sitting out while recovering from his ACL tear. The timetable for his return is not yet clear.
    Geno Atkins has been sitting out while recovering from his ACL tear. The timetable for his return is not yet clear.Al Behrman/Associated Press

    In 2012, Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins was the best player at his position, and it wasn't even close. He notched 39 tackles, 12.5 sacks, defended two passes and forced four fumbles. On a strong and deep defense, Atkins was the standout, earning All-Pro honors for his efforts.

    He was on a similar pace in 2013, earning six sacks before falling to an ACL tear on Halloween. Though the Bengals had the players to replace him, their run defense in particular suffered.

    According to ESPN's Coley Harvey, the Bengals gave up 3.7 yards per rush with Atkins and 4.3 without him. They also allowed 90 or more rushing yards to their opponents six times in Atkins' absence and were particularly weak up the middle, where Atkins would normally be located.

    Both the Bengals and Atkins have been keeping his status for this summer close to the vest. The Bengals are hopeful, but as Harvey noted, "it's anyone's guess" as to when he'll be able to practice and play.

    Though Devon Still and Brandon Thompson can play his position in the interim, the Bengals defense would be significantly better off with a healthy Atkins in the starting lineup. The start of training camp should shed some light on exactly what Atkins' timetable truly is. 

No. 10: QB Teddy Bridgewater, Minnesota Vikings

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    Bridgewater's accuracy and deep ball have both been good in OTAs and minicamp, but it will take more than that to win the Vikings' starting quarterback job.
    Bridgewater's accuracy and deep ball have both been good in OTAs and minicamp, but it will take more than that to win the Vikings' starting quarterback job.Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

    When the Minnesota Vikings traded back into the first round of the 2014 NFL draft to select quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, it was clear that Bridgewater would be the team's future at the position. The present, however, was a different matter.

    Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer made it clear in June that the competition would be open between Bridgewater, Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel, dispelling the notion that Cassel had the Week 1 job already locked down. As training camp approaches, it looks like Bridgewater might be getting the edge.

    Offensive coordinator Norv Turner praised Bridgewater's deep passing, something that had been questioned heading into the draft. Speaking to Fox Sports North's Brian Hall last month, Turner had this to say:

    "One of the things that has been the most impressive to me is, I knew he'd be very accurate, I knew he'd make great decisions, quick decisions, but he's been outstanding throwing the ball deep, which some people thought that was going to be an issue."

    Meanwhile, ESPN's Ron Jaworski has ranked Cassel last among the league's potential starting quarterbacks for this season, and seemingly no one has Ponder as truly in the mix to start. Though Zimmer won't be announcing his starting quarterback until training camp is well underway, Bridgewater is the only man in the competition who is drawing any significant praise.

    Of course, Cassel's—or even Ponder's—NFL experience could trump Bridgewater's arm talent when it comes to actually executing a professional offense. The battle is still very much on for the Vikings' starting quarterback job. It's not yet Bridgewater's to lose—it's still his to win. 

No. 9: WR Andre Johnson, Houston Texans

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    When—if at all—will Andre Johnson rejoin the Texans?
    When—if at all—will Andre Johnson rejoin the Texans?USA TODAY Sports

    Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson is not happy with his longtime team and he's missed all of the team's offseason program to this point. The situation has escalated, with Johnson asking the Texans for a trade. That's something the team won't do—his dead money is too great, his value to the team too high for the team to move him, according to the Houston Chronicle's John McClain.

    Still, the stalemate appears ready to continue into training camp. Johnson, speaking with NFL Media's Marcus Smith, said he'll "hopefully" attend Houston's camp, adding, "We'll see what happens." He was equally noncommittal when asked about his team's Week 1 opener against Washington, saying, "I don't know. I can't answer that question."

    Though the Texans believe they can retain their star receiver despite his dissatisfaction, they may have no choice but to soldier on through the summer and perhaps into the regular season without him. This is a standoff without a solution presently, and it will be interesting to see how the battle between Johnson and his team plays out. 

No. 8: LB Preston Brown, Buffalo Bills

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    Rookie Preston Brown appears poised to take over the injured Kiko Alonso's weak-side linebacker job.
    Rookie Preston Brown appears poised to take over the injured Kiko Alonso's weak-side linebacker job.Bill Wippert/Associated Press/Associated Press

    When Buffalo Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso went down with an ACL tear earlier in July, ending his 2014 season before it began, it sent shock waves through a defense that was one of the league's best last season. 

    Alonso played 1,176 defensive snaps last season, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), more than any Buffalo defender. As the team's weak-side linebacker, Alonso had 87 combined tackles, two sacks, four interceptions, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. Replacing a player of his talent and production was going to be difficult.

    It appears the Bills are readying a rookie, Preston Brown, to take Alonso's place this year and not Keith Rivers nor Nigel Bradham, according to The Buffalo News' Tim Graham.

    Graham reports that the 2014 third-round pick has been "outstanding at the team's voluntary workouts and minicamp. Coaches raved behind the scenes about how well Brown practiced." This echoes the sentiment of NFL Network's Mike Mayock, who described Brown as a three-down linebacker.

    The Bills caught lightning in a bottle in 2013 with Alonso, who was as high impact a rookie linebacker as one will see in the NFL. Perhaps they have it again in the versatile Brown, who can tackle, rush the passer and play coverage much in the same mold as Alonso. His name will likely come up again and again as one of the most impressive players in Buffalo's training camp this summer. 

No. 7: WR Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina Panthers

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    Kelvin Benjamin needs to turn into a first-team fixture in training camp.
    Kelvin Benjamin needs to turn into a first-team fixture in training camp.NELL REDMOND/Associated Press/Associated Press

    When the Carolina Panthers lost both Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell in free agency, the question looming over their offense was large and obvious: What are they going to do in the passing game this year?

    Though they added two veterans in Tiquan Underwood and Jerricho Cotchery, the receiver to watch in training camp this year is 2014 first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin.

    Benjamin has practiced as the team's X, or No. 1, receiver in OTAs and minicamp, but it will take training camp for him to really begin to grasp his new team's offense and try to own that role with the first team full-time.

    At this point, it appears he's being eased in with offensive packages tuned to his strengths, according to Crawford Rundlett of Cat Scratch Reader. Wide receiver brings with it a steep learning curve in the NFL, especially in the first year. However, Carolina's dearth of receiving options means the team will hope Benjamin progresses faster than is typical.

    Most importantly, Benjamin is the future at the position for the Panthers. He needs to develop chemistry with quarterback Cam Newton, begin to master the offense and make a case for why he should be on the field as often as possible this year. The Panthers offense will hinge on how good of a training camp Benjamin has.

No. 6: RB Trent Richardson, Indianapolis Colts

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    This summer could be Trent Richardson's last chance to prove he's an every-down back.
    This summer could be Trent Richardson's last chance to prove he's an every-down back.Stephan Savoia/Associated Press

    Running back Trent Richardson's NFL career was supposed to be bright. Selected by the Cleveland Browns with the third overall pick of the 2012 draft, Richardson was thought to be the first truly can't-miss running back prospect in years. 

    Instead, injuries marred his rookie year, in which he rushed 267 times for 950 yards and 11 scores, averaging 3.6 yards per attempt. The Browns, under new management, then traded Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts for a first-round draft pick in Week 3 of last season. Things didn't get better for Richardson in his new home.

    In 2013, Richardson had 157 carries for the Colts, netting him just 458 yards—a 2.9 yards-per-carry average—and three touchdowns. If he's going to be worth the first-round pick the Colts spent to pick him up, he'll need to have a much better 2014, and that begins with training camp.

    ESPN's Mike Wells reports that Richardson will get the first crack at winning the starting job over fellow veterans Ahmad Bradshaw and Vick Ballard. The Colts apparently still believe that Richardson can be their three-down back, according to CBS Sports' Ryan Wilson.

    However, as Wells notes, "Richardson will have to produce right away because it's unlikely the Colts will wait for him to get going if Bradshaw and Ballard are producing when given the opportunity." The team's patience for the third-year back is not infinite. 

    Though it may take until the regular season for Richardson to prove he can keep the Colts' starting running back job, this summer's training camp will be his first opportunity to make it his own. He has a lot of competition and not much production to his name. The pressure on Richardson is high, and how he responds could determine his ultimate fate in the NFL. 

No. 5: QB Geno Smith, New York Jets

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    Can Geno Smith stave off Michael Vick's challenge?
    Can Geno Smith stave off Michael Vick's challenge?Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

    It's expected that Geno Smith will be named the New York Jets' starting quarterback this year, but the matter of when and what that ultimately means makes him a player to watch during training camp. 

    Smith had a shaky rookie season, completing only 55.8 percent of his passes for 3,046 yards and throwing 12 touchdowns to 21 interceptions. The team rid itself of fellow quarterback Mark Sanchez in the offseason, but it brought on Michael Vick, who could put pressure on Smith in the coming weeks. 

    Rich Cimini of ESPNNewYork.com notes that Smith will be getting 70 to 75 percent of first-team reps in training camp instead of the typical 90 percent given a presumed starter, just in case Vick has to take over for him at any point in the season. That doesn't indicate that the Jets have full confidence in Smith just yet, and there is an opening, however slight, for Vick to surpass him and get the start in Week 1.

    This isn't a quarterback controversy per se, but it could evolve into one, especially if no starter has been named well into preseason games being played. At the very least, Smith will need to prove he's getting better because Vick is more than capable of narrowing the gap between the two.

    It's Smith's job to lose, but if he's constantly getting picked off or throwing inaccurately in training camp, he could certainly see his chances to start slip away.

No. 4: DB Tyrann Mathieu, Arizona Cardinals

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    Tyrann Mathieu tore his ACL and LCL in December; when will he be ready to return to the field?
    Tyrann Mathieu tore his ACL and LCL in December; when will he be ready to return to the field?Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Seven months ago, promising Arizona Cardinals defensive back Tyrann Mathieu tore his ACL and LCL, putting his 2014 season in jeopardy. Though he said earlier in July that he's running at 60 to 70 percent and the team hopes he'll at least be available for individual drills once training camp begins, they don't know when he'll be fully cleared to practice. 

    Mathieu had an incredible rookie season that resulted in him being ranked as the third cornerback in the league, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He had 65 tackles, one sack, two interceptions, nine passes defensed and a forced fumble while playing all over the field as a hybrid slot corner-safety.

    Now, the questions pile up after the injury. When will he be cleared for full contact? Will he see any preseason action? Will the Cardinals err on the side of caution and place him on the physically unable to perform list to start camp, or even the season? Will he physically be the same player when he retakes the field?

    Most of these questions will be answered between the start of the Cardinals' training camp and its end. Though the Cardinals aren't hurting at defensive back depth, Mathieu has proven to be a game-changing player. We just have to wait and see how long it takes him to return to form. 

No. 3: QB Robert Griffin III, Washington

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    Washington needs to strike a balance between protecting Robert Griffin III and allowing him to be himself.
    Washington needs to strike a balance between protecting Robert Griffin III and allowing him to be himself.USA TODAY Sports

    Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III's 2013 season was vastly different than his rookie debut in 2012. Limited by ACL and MCL tears he suffered in the previous year's playoffs, Griffin was less effective as a passer and less mobile when taking off. 

    His completion percentage dipped to 60.1 percent, down from 65.6 percent the previous year. He threw 16 touchdowns to 12 interceptions, compared to 20 touchdowns and five picks in 2012. And his rushing attempts and yardage declined significantly as well, with just 86 attempts netting him 489 yards and no touchdowns. 

    As a passer, Griffin has looked to improve this offseason, working with quarterbacks coach Terry Shea to tweak his footwork and throwing motion. But the real question is how he will hold up when running the ball and how he'll fit in with new head coach Jay Gruden's offensive scheme. 

    Griffin must be smarter when he decides to run—namely, sliding to avoid hits rather than taking them. With Gruden putting together the offense, Griffin will likely be spending more time in the pocket. However, Griffin is not a full-time pocket quarterback; he does have to be unleashed.

    The question is how Gruden can strike a balance between Griffin being protected as a passer and allowed to play the game to his strengths. It will be interesting to see how this process evolves during training camp. 

No. 2: LB Jadeveon Clowney, Houston Texans

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    Jadeveon Clowney is coming off of hernia surgery, but the first overall draft pick would command training camp attention regardless.
    Jadeveon Clowney is coming off of hernia surgery, but the first overall draft pick would command training camp attention regardless.USA TODAY Sports

    When linebacker Jadeveon Clowney was selected by the Houston Texans with the first overall pick in the NFL draft, it was clear the microscope would be turned on him during the offseason's workouts and into training camp. 

    Clowney joins a Texans team that has been known for its defense, especially with fellow vicious pass-rusher J.J. Watt in the fold. But the question remains whether Clowney will be as dominant a force in the NFL as he was in college.

    The intrigue only continues after Clowney underwent surgery to correct a sports hernia that dated back to last season at South Carolina. He's expected to be ready in time for training camp to begin, however, and we'll get our first look at the first-rounder in full pads on an NFL practice field. 

    Clowney alone won't be the one to take the Texans back to the top of the AFC South after last season's disappointing 2-14 finish. However, the hope is that he can help his team's defense become one of the most dominant.

    Before he can start hunting big game—like Colts quarterback Andrew Luck—Clowney has to have an impressive and healthy training camp.

No. 1: QB Johnny Manziel, Cleveland Browns

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    It's Manziel's world, we're just living in it.
    It's Manziel's world, we're just living in it.USA TODAY Sports

    We've all heard the stories. The inflatable swan. The money phone. The incessant documentation of how Johnny Manziel spent his summer is quickly coming to an end with the Cleveland Browns rookies reporting to training camp on July 23.

    Now, it's about football for Johnny Football. The battle against Brian Hoyer for the Browns' starting quarterback job begins in earnest in a week, and we'll now have Manziel the football player to incessantly follow. 

    Though Hoyer is coming back from an ACL tear suffered last October, he's expected to retain his starting job, at least initially. Head coach Mike Pettine said last month that he's not particularly interested in starting a rookie quarterback this year, and general manager Ray Farmer said only injury would result in Manziel getting the Week 1 nod.

    With Hoyer at 100 percent health, the competition can take a step forward. It's hard to imagine Manziel being kept off the field very long considering his first-round draft pedigree, the resounding belief he's the team's quarterback of the future and how successful he was at Texas A&M. But Hoyer is going to be tough to beat out.

    Even if Hoyer keeps hold of the starting job, until Pettine pronounces him "The Guy" later this summer, all eyes will be on Manziel's progress. Interest in Manziel doesn't appear to be waning anytime soon.