Football officially, unofficially returns Sunday when the New York Giants play host to the Buffalo Bills in Canton, Ohio, for the 2014 Hall of Fame Game.
The festivities are a welcome sign for fans after having suffered through the post-draft offseason lull. They can be forgiven for not falling in love with the matchup, though, as the Giants are coming off a 7-9 campaign and the Bills went 6-10 for the third consecutive year.
Still, it's football. Better yet, new faces—perhaps the primary reasons fans flock to training camps each year—litter each roster. The rookies are the most critical of these faces, as the draftees fight for playing time and those undrafted scrap for a limited number of spots.
Below provides a glimpse at the top first-year players to key on when the two sides meet.
2014 Hall of Fame Game Information
When: Sunday, Aug. 3 at 8 p.m. ET
Where: Fawcett Stadium in Canton, Ohio
Stream: NBC Sports Live Extra
Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo Bills
Let's make this quick since it is so obvious, but it simply cannot be glossed over—Sammy Watkins is the player to watch Sunday.
The No. 4 overall pick after Buffalo moved up, Watkins has done nothing short of take the league by storm in the infancy of training camps. NFL Network's Jeff Darlington put it best:
If there’s one league-wide conclusion to be made about Week 1 of all camps, it might just be this: Sammy Watkins is going to be a superstar.— Jeff Darlington (@JeffDarlington) July 28, 2014
Want proof? Matthew Fairburn of Syracuse.com has a highlight that contains Watkins blowing by Stephon Gilmore for a touchdown:
We cannot know how much time Watkins will see Sunday, but his ability to make the lives of quarterbacks easier will surely be put to the test with a lineup that includes EJ Manuel, Thaddeus Lewis, Jeff Tuel and Dennis Dixon.
As far as rookie debuts go, though, fans can safely presume Watkins' natural ability will put on a great show, even if he has not fully grasped the playbook just yet.
Andre Williams, RB, New York Giants
The early reviews have been far from glowing (he needs work on passing downs), but Andre Williams, New York's fourth-round pick this year, is set to see a major role next season.
At 5'11" and 230 pounds, Williams already seems to be working his way up the depth chart past a name like Peyton Hillis, as he has been running with the first team at camp in goal-line situations.
Now add in yet another issue with David Wilson—he will be on the sidelines Sunday with an injury—and Williams has a chance to further cement his role in the offense. That is something Giants fans should want to see, as his college numbers show a clear effectiveness the more he was given the rock:
"Being a workhorse at Boston College, every time I lined up I saw eight or nine bodies in the box and now sometimes I am coming out and it's only five or six, so that is definitely a positive," Williams said, per Tom Rock of Newsday.
The pro game is certainly new territory in multiple ways for the Boston College product, and his debut is certainly one to monitor. The majority of the carries by Giants backs next season is still very much up for grabs.
Cyrus Kouandjio and Cyril Richardson, OL, Buffalo Bills
Things are more chaotic in the offensive trenches than the brass in Buffalo could have ever imagined.
Second-round pick Cyrus Kouandjio out of Alabama was a good value at the time, as many agreed he was a crushing run-blocker and prototypical right tackle out of a school that routinely produces quality pros in that manner such as Andre Smith.
Yet, Kouandjio has struggled enormously out of the gate and has already seen his name erased from the No. 1 slot on the depth chart, having been clearly outplayed in camp by the likes of Erik Pears and seventh-round pick Seantrel Henderson (another major name to watch).
Joe Buscaglia of WGR 550 has the scoop:
Kouandjio has not been the player the team was expecting when they selected him in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft. In fact, he has been outplayed by seventh-round selection Seantrel Henderson, who has spent the first week of practice as the first-team left tackle.
Interestingly enough, Cyril Richardson was another downright dominant lineman in college who tumbled on draft day. The Bills scooped him up in the fifth round, although early indications are that he will need a jaw-dropping preseason to procure a starting gig on the interior of the line.
Both men are critical in both the short- and long-term fortunes of the franchise. How they handle their first taste of live pro action will be quite telling as to their developmental pace.
Kelcy Quarles, DT, New York Giants
While names such as Johnathan Hankins and third-round pick Jay Bromley duke it out for playing time next to Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson, an undrafted name with major upside is ready to seize a roster spot.
It was Kelcy Quarles, not Jadeveon Clowney, who led the South Carolina Gamecocks in sacks last season. His 9.5 were a six-sack improvement on his 2012 campaign and a clear sign that his continued development is something to monitor with a keen eye.
Quarles did fall into the realm of the undrafted despite being cleared of wrongdoing in an untimely off-field incident. Dan Wolken of USA Today provided a post-draft nugget that speaks volumes about Quarles' tumble:
Just now seeing that Kelcy Quarles wasn't drafted? That's insane. He's a player.— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) May 11, 2014
The Giants were there to scoop him up and might reap the benefits as early as next season. Quarles is the type of player who trashes a staff's well-thought plans for the upcoming season, but in a good way.
Sunday, he gets his first shot to prove he belongs on the final 53-man roster by getting after Manuel and Co. every chance he gets.