Rookies off to Hottest Starts in NFL Training Camps

Andrea HangstFeatured Columnist IVAugust 2, 2014

Rookies off to Hottest Starts in NFL Training Camps

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    Bill Wippert/Associated Press

    NFL training camps present our first opportunities to see this year's rookie class in full pads, giving us a glimpse of what we can expect from them in the upcoming season. 

    Some rookies look like, well, rookies. Others, however, begin to separate from the pack, looking more like experienced veterans than players entering their first professional season.

    Here are 10 rookies who have already generated buzz. Whether it's because they are taking the reins of a positional vacancy, pushing a veteran down the depth chart or making the most of an opportunity resulting from another player's injury, these are the rookies making their marks heading into the first week of the preseason.

LB Jadeveon Clowney, Houston Texans

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    Jadeveon Clowney is showing no ill effects of last month's sports hernia surgery.
    Jadeveon Clowney is showing no ill effects of last month's sports hernia surgery.Associated Press

    When first overall draft pick linebacker Jadeveon Clowney underwent sports hernia surgery in June, it was expected he'd be ready for the start of the Houston Texans training camp. And ready he was, even though he was admittedly not at 100 percent health when camp kicked off. 

    Even a healing Clowney has been impressive. He nearly flattened teammate Dennis Johnson in Monday's fully padded practice, pulling up at the last minute in what could have been a repeat of the hit that put him on the map at the 2013 Outback Bowl. 

    On Wednesday, Clowney worked with the first-team defense at outside linebacker. Clowney's camp doesn't appear to be having a slow start despite last month's surgery. Little by little, we're seeing more of what made him a household name and the No. 1 pick of the draft. When fully healthy, he should be a force to be reckoned with. 

RB Terrance West, Cleveland Browns

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    The Cleveland Browns have been serious about improving the run game this offseason, first by picking up veteran Ben Tate and then by drafting Terrance West in the third round of this year's draft.

    West has been turning heads since training camp began. He "put on a clinic" on the first day, according to ClevelandBrowns.com's Kevin Jones.

    Head coach Mike Pettine added: "I was a little shocked with Terrance today. I had to double check my roster card to make sure I was looking at the right number. He did some nice things in the one-on-one period. That's always a bonus when you have a running back that's not just one-dimensional."

    West has continued to make an impression with both the fans and the media, and Pettine has noted just how much passion West has for football. Suddenly, Tate has competition for the starting job, which isn't a bad thing considering the Browns finished tied for 27th in rushing yardage last season.

WR Brandin Cooks, New Orleans Saints

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    While New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees has a knack for turning straw receivers into gold, just based on the few days of training camp already completed, it looks like rookie Brandin Cooks came into the league already given the Midas touch.

    Described as "faster than everyone" on the Saints defense by CBS Sports' John Breech, Cooks has been lighting up the practice field daily. The man tasked with replacing the fast and versatile Darren Sproles seems up for the challenge, with The Times-Picayune's Larry Holder noting Cooks' particular skill in the screen game. 

    Brees knows how to make the most out of his weapons. If this is what Cooks is capable of, then the void of Sproles' departure seems very much filled.

LB C.J. Mosley, Baltimore Ravens

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    C.J. Mosley is already earning respect from veteran Ravens.
    C.J. Mosley is already earning respect from veteran Ravens.Uncredited/Associated Press

    The Baltimore Ravens needed to add some speed and aggression to their linebacking corps this year, and they may have just found the solution in rookie C.J. Mosley. Mosley, who had 319 career tackles at Alabama, along with 6.5 sacks and five interceptions, is a versatile player who can rush the passer as well as work in coverage. 

    Mosley already made an impression in OTAs and minicamp, playing with the first-team defense, and has been pushing incumbent Arthur Brown for the starting job. He's also been turning the heads of veterans now that training camp is underway, per Garrett Downing of BaltimoreRavens.com.

    Quarterback Joe Flacco said, "He is a natural, man—looks like he covers ground out there really well," while fellow linebacker Terrell Suggs has noticed how well he's taken to the defense, adding, "He caught on to the defense really fast. His attention to detail is very intriguing."

    After playing in a pro-style defense in Alabama, Mosley should have a smooth transition to the pros. His skills at every phase of the defensive game make him an asset to the Ravens and a standout so far in camp.

WR Sammy Watkins, Buffalo Bills

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    There are few rookies shining as brightly in training camp thus far as the Buffalo Bills' Sammy Watkins, giving credence to the Bills' decision to trade up to get the receiver in the first round of the draft.

    Watkins stood out immediately when training camp began, and it has only continued. From catching passes while double-covered to one-handed grabs that went instantly viral, Watkins has clearly been a standout. CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora describes Watkins as a "star" who will significantly improve quarterback EJ Manuel's progress.

    Watkins has already been exciting to watch in practices. In actual football games, it will be hard to keep eyes off him as well. He may just be the most talented, explosive receiver of this year's rookie class.

RB Carlos Hyde, San Francisco 49ers

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    In May, the San Francisco 49ers' decision to draft former Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde in the second round seemed to be another example of the team simply getting richer at a position of strength. Now, one week into training camp, Hyde has an opportunity to be Frank Gore's backup and get up to 30 percent of the team's carries this season.

    Hyde's stock is on the rise because Gore's primary backup, Kendall Hunter, tore his ACL, ending his season. Fellow Niners back LaMichael James is shelved for at least a month with a left elbow injury. Marcus Lattimore remains on the physically unable to perform list. Hyde suddenly has been thrust into the spotlight.

    Hyde is an all-around back—an aggressive runner who is also strong as a pass protector and a receiver. General manager Trent Baalke is confident that Hyde will deliver for his team this year, saying, via Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle:

    You have to like his pad level, his vision, his feet. He's a 235-pound back that has small-man movements. He gets his feet in the dirt quick. ... He's just a natural runner and you can see that. There are things he's going to have to work on—and we certainly will—but you have to like what you see early on.

    Circumstances might have put Hyde in a more prominent role, but his talents are what will keep him there. Suddenly, a front-runner is emerging in the battle to not just spell Gore this year but to eventually take his job.

WR John Brown, Arizona Cardinals

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    It started with rookie minicamp, when reports started surfacing that Arizona Cardinals wide receiver John Brown was "blowing everyone away," according to a team source who spoke to Kent Somers of The Arizona RepublicExplosive and sudden. "Great hands and a better route runner than we even thought," added the source.

    It continues in training camp, with the third-rounder out of Division II Pittsburg State turning heads with his touchdown grabs. His routes are crisp, he's excelling in padded practices, and he may just wind up the team's starting slot receiver when camp wraps. 

    Brown was a relative unknown when the Cardinals drafted him in May, but he's becoming one of the most talked about rookies because he's excelling when it matters most. Defensive end Calais Campbell told the media Brown is a "future star." That endorsement should not be taken lightly.

RB/WR Dri Archer, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Dri Archer has been turning heads at Steelers camp as a runner, receiver and returner.
    Dri Archer has been turning heads at Steelers camp as a runner, receiver and returner.Associated Press/Associated Press

    It was easy to see offensive coordinator Todd Haley's influence in the Pittsburgh Steelers' selection of speedy running back-receiver hybrid Dri Archer in the third round of this year's draft. One only has to look at Dexter McCluster, whom Haley selected and coached for the Kansas City Chiefs, as an example of Haley's interest in versatile, fast and small offensive skill players.

    Though the Steelers don't regularly employ a player of Archer's skill set, it does appear Archer will have a big role to play for the team this year. Archer has been serving as a slot receiver with the first-team offense in four-receiver sets and has also been a first-team punt returner. And he has already "broke off a number of long runs," according to Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

    Archer may have the job McCluster once held in Kansas City, but Haley sees a bit more of another Chiefs player in Archer—Jamaal Charles (minus 20 pounds, of course). For Archer to have success in Pittsburgh, he needs to find a niche, but it appears he's begun to carve one out for himself even in these early days of training camp.

LB Preston Brown, Buffalo Bills

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    When Buffalo Bills standout linebacker Kiko Alonso went down with a torn ACL, it was believed that Nigel Bradham had the best chance to replace him on the starting lineup. Now, Bradham himself will be suspended for the first game of the season. The window is wide open for rookie Preston Brown to earn himself a full-time starting job.

    Brown was a standout during OTAs and minicamp, so much so that it appeared he'd be leapfrogging Bradham even before the suspension was announced.

    Tim Graham of The Buffalo News reported last month that "coaches raved behind the scenes about how well Brown practiced. The front office was thrilled with how he looked and Tuesday night became even more relieved they drafted him after word came about Alonso's injury."

    Now, Brown is working with the first-team offense as the nickel linebacker, showing off the versatility he displayed in college at Louisville, where he had 98 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in his senior season. Injuries and suspensions may have given him this opportunity, but his performance thus far proves this is something he could have earned even without the losses of Alonso and Bradham.

WR Jordan Matthews, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Chip Kelly's fast-paced Philadelphia Eagles offense needs players with a high motor. Eagles quarterback Nick Foles needs a playmaker to replace DeSean Jackson. Both may have found exactly what they needed in rookie receiver Jordan Matthews.

    There has been nothing but praise being reported about Matthews' performance at training camp thus far, where he's mainly been working with backup quarterback Mark Sanchez.

    Brandon Lee Gowton of Bleeding Green Nation was at Eagles camp on Wednesday and said that "Matthews did a great job of working the middle of the field and getting open. Matthews is a monster with yards after the catch because of how hard he runs once he gets the ball." He also noted that "in a one-on-one WR/CB drill, Matthews dominated his competition."

    Hall of Famer Michael Irvin was also impressed by Matthews, telling PhillyMag.com's Tim McManus on Friday, "I like what I see out here. I like what I see physically as to body type, body size and everything. And then I like what I see internally as far as work ethic and most importantly, a strong desire to be the best." He also called him a faster Marques Colston.

    The praise extends to the coaching staff as well, with offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur saying on Thursday, "He can play anywhere. He's got size. He's good against bump-and-run coverage. His spacial awareness is good." There has been a resounding vote of high confidence in Matthews thus far this summer, which, if founded, should result in a productive rookie season.