The Most Scrutinized Player in Every NFL Training Camp
With coaches, media and fans present, every player is being watched closely in NFL training camps throughout the league, but some face greater spotlights than others.
From rookie quarterbacks like Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater to players like EJ Manuel and Trent Richardson who are expected to take a major step forward this year, there are select players at each camp on whom all eyes are focused.
The word “scrutiny” often comes with a negative connotation, but at this point of the year, it’s not necessarily a bad thing if a player is being scrutinized. What is true for all of the players on this list is that there are unanswered questions—questions they are trying to answer affirmatively in camp—about how effectively they can contribute to their teams in 2014.
As training camp rolls onward and the preseason begins this upcoming week, each of these players needs to showcase his talents or the scrutiny will only increase.
Arizona Cardinals: QB Logan Thomas
Logan Thomas is not expected to play at all in 2014, but he’s already under the gun as the Arizona Cardinals seek to determine whether he could be an adequate replacement for Carson Palmer at quarterback when Palmer’s contract expires after this season.
Among the signal-callers in this year’s rookie class, no one has more outstanding physical traits than Thomas. A 6’6”, 248-pound passer with a rocket arm and impressive athleticism, Thomas has the potential to emerge as Arizona’s franchise quarterback, but he must significantly improve his accuracy and decision-making that plagued him throughout his collegiate career.
Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said after the team’s first practice that Thomas “still has to learn when to throw the ball extremely hard and when to throw it accurately,” according to ESPN.com’s Josh Weinfuss.
Bleacher Report’s Shaun Church said Thomas had ups and downs in his first training camp practice:
The rookie fourth-round pick looked like just that a couple of times during his first professional fully padded practice. But Thomas was accurate for the most part and even showed some touch at times when he needed to take something off a throw.
Thomas’ game is still in its developmental stages, and in regards to what he could be for the Cardinals, the summer of 2015 will be far more telling than this year’s camp will be. Nonetheless, the preseason will be an opportunity for Thomas to instill confidence that he could be an integral part of the franchise’s future.
Atlanta Falcons: WR Julio Jones
When healthy, Julio Jones is one of the most explosive receiving playmakers in the NFL. That’s why he’s received the most attention of any player in Atlanta Falcons training camp thus far as he makes his comeback from a foot fracture that ended his 2013 season in Week 5.
He hasn’t always been available for scrutiny in camp, as he is currently on a schedule of “practicing one day and taking the next day off,” according to D. Orlando Ledbetter of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. When he has been on the field, however, he “appears to be fully recovered,” according to Ledbetter.
“Jones apparently hasn’t lost much speed, as he got open deep on the left sideline and caught a 40-yard Matt Ryan pass with cornerback Desmond Trufant in coverage,” Ledbetter wrote following Thursday’s practice.
ESPN.com’s Vaughn McClure has backed up that assessment, stating that Jones is “stopping on a dime” and “showing no ill effects” in practices.
There might still be some uneasiness surrounding Jones’ health until he is practicing every day and able to prove his speed in game action. So far, however, it seems all systems are go.
Baltimore Ravens: RB Bernard Pierce
Off the field, no player in the NFL has been scrutinized more heavily in the past week than Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who was suspended for the first two games of the upcoming season following a domestic violence incident this summer.
On the field, that means the eyes of many will be on Bernard Pierce, who is expected to replace Rice in the lineup for the first two games.
Pierce is recuperating from offseason shoulder surgery, after which the big between-the-tackles runner’s weight ballooned to 248 pounds, according to Jeff Zrebiec of The Baltimore Sun. He’s back in shape now—he reported to camp at a weight of 222, according to Zrebiec—and has performed admirably in practice:
The way that the third-year back has hit the hole and initiated contact is a good indication that Pierce isn't concerned — mentally or physically — with the strength of his surgically-repaired right shoulder. His quick cuts and shiftiness speak to the importance of his offseason workout regimen and just how dangerous he could be in new coordinator Gary Kubiak's offense, which emphasizes a power running game.
If the Ravens are counting on Pierce to play a big role in the first two games and potentially beyond, they need him to run more effectively than he did in 2013, when he averaged just 2.9 yards per carry. Changes to the offensive scheme and upgrades to the offensive line, however, are expected to help bolster his play.
Pierce has felt the effects of the early scrutiny nonetheless, according to a July 27 report from Jamison Hensley of ESPN.com:
Bernard Pierce learned how much attention is paid to an NFL starting running back after looking on Twitter following Saturday's practice...It was reported that Pierce had walked off the field with a team doctor 30 minutes before practice ended, causing social media in Baltimore to explode.
Hensley went on to add: "Pierce's Twitter account was overrun with comments such as ‘You suck’ and ‘You're soft.’ Pierce, who left early because of effects from the heat, said he couldn't believe the response and blocked several critical fans."
Buffalo Bills: QB EJ Manuel
If the Buffalo Bills are going to snap the NFL’s longest playoff drought, they need second-year quarterback EJ Manuel to stay healthy—and show significant development.
Manuel is coming off a disappointing rookie year in which he was healthy enough to play in only 10 games, though he was not particularly efficient or consistent when he was on the field. Despite his first-year struggles, Manuel is still the clear-cut starter in Buffalo, so his progression has certainly been the big story of Bills training camp thus far.
So far, it’s unclear whether Manuel has made enough progress to be significantly better in his sophomore campaign, according to Mark Gaughan of The Buffalo News.
Manuel has not looked great the first week of training camp. He has looked good at times. He has made some sharp, impressive throws. His arm strength is excellent. But there are enough times in every practice in which he doesn’t get the ball out of his hands quickly to make one pause. Should he look more sure of himself?
The jury is out, and it’s probably unreasonable to think it would be any other way early in the second training camp for the Bills’ franchise quarterback.
The real test of Manuel’s improvement or lack thereof will start Sunday, when he leads the Bills offense in the Hall of Fame Game versus the New York Giants. Yes, it’s only preseason, but the repetitions will be important for Manuel, who needs to prove against a live pass rush that he can overcome his issues with inaccuracy and poor touch.
Carolina Panthers: WR Kelvin Benjamin
Kelvin Benjamin isn't as polished as the other rookie wide receivers selected in the first round of this year’s draft, but the pressure is already on the No. 28 overall pick to perform for the Carolina Panthers.
Drafted by a team that did not bring back a single receiver who caught a regular-season pass for Carolina last year, Benjamin is expected to see a significant share of targets right away.
Training camp got off to a good start for Benjamin, according to Joseph Person of The Charlotte Observer, who wrote that Benjamin went “high to snare several of Cam Newton’s passes during the opening practices.”
Unfortunately for the rookie wideout, his progress has been stunted by a bone bruise suffered in practice on July 27.
As Panthers coach Ron Rivera has acknowledged, according to Bill Voth of BlackAndBlueReview.com, Benjamin would benefit from as many reps as possible. The 6’5”, 240-pound receiver has exceptional size that should result in frequent mismatches, but he has to polish his route-running and use his hands better in catching the ball in front of his body before he can expect to succeed consistently against NFL defensive backs.
The good news for the Panthers is that Benjamin’s injury was not worse. He returned to practice Saturday, according to David Newton of ESPN.com, and flashed signs of being the team's No. 1 receiver.
That’s important for Carolina, which has very little in terms of depth at the receiver position outside of Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant. According to Newton, the Panthers used Brenton Bersin, who went undrafted in 2012 and has yet to play in an NFL game, in Benjamin’s place on the outside in three-receiver sets while Benjamin was out.
Chicago Bears: FS Brock Vereen
The Chicago Bears desperately need better play at the safety position this year than they had last season. That’s why Brock Vereen, although he was only a fourth-round pick in this year’s NFL draft, is expected to be a starter as a rookie.
That expectation came together when Vereen was taking all of Chicago’s first-team reps at free safety by the end of OTAs. An athletically gifted player with experience playing a number of spots in the defensive backfield, it’s not farfetched to think that Vereen could already be the best player in an otherwise uninspiring group of safeties in Chicago.
Despite making enough of an impression in the spring, Vereen has been given a reality check thus far in training camp. According to Bob LeGere of the Daily Herald, Vereen opened camp as a starter but has been relegated to second-team duty in the past couple of practices, as the Bears have been giving other safeties, such as Danny McCray and Adrian Wilson, the chance to work with the first-team defense.
That’s not to say Vereen won’t ultimately win the battle at free safety. His explosiveness, ball skills and overall upside make him a more promising candidate to start there than players like M.D. Jennings and Chris Conte, who have already proven their futility as starters.
Hub Arkush of ChicagoFootball.com told Bleacher Report's Adam Lefkoe that he expects Vereen to play right away.
Vereen’s early success is a promising sign, while the depth chart changes make it clear that the team still thinks he has a long way to go in his development. As the preseason games begin, he should have the biggest opportunity to seize a starting job if he plays well.
Cincinnati Bengals: RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis
A real understanding of how much BenJarvus Green-Ellis can bring to an offense in 2014 may need to come from other teams across the NFL, because his current squad, the Cincinnati Bengals, could end up releasing him.
Green-Ellis has been Cincinnati’s starting running back for the past two seasons, but he’s down to third string on the depth chart this summer, behind second-year back Giovani Bernard and rookie Jeremy Hill, according to ESPN.com’s Coley Harvey.
It’s unlikely the Bengals will tinker much with that depth-chart alignment, as Bernard and Hill have been second-round picks in the past two drafts and have more explosiveness and upside than the regularly unspectacular Green-Ellis.
In response to the speculation that Green-Ellis’ future with Cincinnati could be in jeopardy, Bengals running backs coach Kyle Caskey has said that Green-Ellis “is still one of our guys” and that “nothing's been taken away from Benny,” according to Harvey.
But as the Bengals could save $2.3 million by cutting Green-Ellis, it would surprise no one if they release “Law Firm” in favor of Rex Burkhead or Cedric Peerman. Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio has also said he wouldn’t “be shocked if a market emerges” for Green-Ellis, as some teams’ running back depth charts have already been hit by early injuries.
Cleveland Browns: QB Johnny Manziel
The scrutiny that surrounded Johnny Manziel’s highly public social life all offseason has followed him to the field in training camp as the rookie quarterback has failed to stand out in his competition with Brian Hoyer to be the Cleveland Browns’ starting quarterback.
According to Newsday’s Bob Glauber, Manziel’s struggles have been readily apparent thus far in training camp.
It doesn't take long to see that Johnny Manziel isn't ready. Just stand on the sideline at a Browns practice and you'll know.
Watch Brian Hoyer run the first-team offense with confidence and precision, hitting his receivers in stride, comfortably executing offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's complicated system.
Then watch Manziel work with the second-team offense.
He underthrows what should be an easy pass on an "out" route. He has a snap sail over his head in the shotgun formation. He misses a receiver over the middle on another route.
Despite the issues Manziel might be having early on, and that Hoyer has taken all the first-team repetitions thus far, the quarterback competition is not over. Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has said that Manziel will soon start taking some of the work with the first-team offense, according to Mary Kay Cabot of The Plain Dealer.
Regardless of how the practice repetitions are divided, Manziel’s place in the spotlight is not about to diminish anytime soon. Either way, if he wants to make a serious run at the starting job before Week 1, he must show continued improvement, especially in preseason games.
Dallas Cowboys: CB Morris Claiborne
In his first two NFL seasons, Morris Claiborne hasn’t panned out to be the player the Dallas Cowboys expected to get when they traded up to select him with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2012 draft. He has battled injuries and when he has been on the field, he has given up plays while the playmaking ability he consistently showed at LSU has failed to emerge at the pro level.
Going into 2014, Claiborne has to prove that he is capable of being the starting cornerback he is expected to be in Dallas, while many throughout the preseason will expect to see him slip up again.
Early on in training camp, Claiborne seemed to be making positive progress, according to Tom Ryle of Blogging The Boys.
Claiborne is getting raves from everyone. He is showing the talent and skills that led Dallas to trade up for him him the first place. It is starting to look like he was held back by the health problems that kept him out of so much training the first two seasons in Dallas. With a healthy offseason to build on this year, he is putting on quite a show.
ESPN Dallas' Todd Archer was not quite as enthused by the cornerback’s progress, stating Friday that “Claiborne is competing better, but he's given up plays, too.” More concerningly, however, Claiborne has had another injury setback, as he is dealing with tendinitis in his right knee, according to ESPN Dallas' Tim MacMahon.
Claiborne returned to practice Saturday, The Dallas Morning News' Jon Machota reported, which is a good sign for his health. But he must remain healthy and continue to make progress if Dallas is going to be able to rely on him as a starting cornerback this year.
Denver Broncos: RB Montee Ball
When called upon as a rookie, Montee Ball performed adequately, rushing for 559 yards and four touchdowns on 120 regular-season running attempts. He still has a lot to prove in his second NFL season, in which he is expected to become the feature running back for a team, the Denver Broncos, that had the NFL’s No. 1 offense in 2013.
Eyes are on Ball in training camp to see if he looks as though he can shoulder the load for Denver’s backfield and take over the role held by Knowshon Moreno this past season. So far, he has been impressive, according to ESPN.com’s Jeff Legwold.
“He’s shown vision in the run game, decisiveness in his cuts and consistent, quality work in the passing game,” Legwold writes. “He’s poised for a big season and perhaps even the first 250-carry season for the Broncos since Reuben Droughns had 275 carries in 2004.”
Ball has the advantage of playing in an offense that is so prolific passing the ball that defenses are unable to stack the box against opposing running backs. Even so, he wasn’t nearly as impressive or reliable for the Broncos as a rookie as he was during his record-setting collegiate career with the run-heavy Wisconsin Badgers.
Running backs can be tough to evaluate in the training camp setting, so where Ball really needs to start standing out is in the preseason. The hope is that Ball can step in and emerge as one of the NFL’s most productive young rushers in his second season.
Detroit Lions: TE Eric Ebron
Physically, Eric Ebron has all the tools to be the NFL’s next great playmaking tight end. He’s more of an oversized wide receiver than he is a traditional in-line TE, but the 6’4”, 250-pound weapon combines great size with enough speed to stretch the field, the quickness to extend plays in the open field and good vertical athleticism.
Ebron labels himself on Twitter as a “pass catcher” rather than a tight end, an idea that stemmed from the great debate over Jimmy Graham’s position this offseason. If that's how Ebron expects to contribute primarily, however, he must consistently catch the passes thrown his way.
That has not been the case for the No. 10 overall pick so far in training camp, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. Birkett reported earlier this week that Ebron had “an inordinate number of dropped passes that have negated his big-play ability” through the first two practices of the Detroit Lions’ training camp, which got off to the latest start among all NFL teams’ summer sessions this year.
The Lions aren’t going to give up on Ebron even if he continues to struggle—he’s too dynamic and the team invested too much to not give him every opportunity to establish himself in a key role on its offense, even in his rookie year. As a result, he’ll continue to be monitored heavily and expected to progress not only in his ability to catch the ball cleanly, but also to block and to learn multiple positions.
His inconsistent hands, however, should sound the alarm bells for those who are banking on him to be an impact player in 2014. If he is going to get consistent playing time on a roster that also includes Brandon Pettigrew and Joseph Fauria at tight end, he needs to be trusted to secure the throws that come his way.
Green Bay Packers: TE Colt Lyerla
It’s unusual for an undrafted rookie struggling in training camp to draw significant attention on a national scale; it’s typically just assumed that player is not good enough for the NFL and will be released. Colt Lyerla, however, is not your typical undrafted rookie.
A dynamic offensive playmaker who has highly intriguing athletic traits and can line up all over the field, Lyerla was expected to be an early-round draft pick until he quit the Oregon football team last October. Just weeks later, he was arrested for cocaine possession.
Upside alone led some analysts to think that Lyerla would compete for serious playing time, potentially even a starting job, on Green Bay’s talent-lacking tight end depth chart.
That is in part, however, because his off-field issues had been scrutinized with far more intensity than his on-field play prior to his signing with the Green Bay Packers this offseason. Now that training camp is underway, his flaws as a football player have also become clear.
By the third day of camp, Lyerla was relegated to scout team work—even behind fellow not-nearly-as-well-known undrafted rookie Justin Perrillo—at the bottom of Green Bay’s tight end depth chart, according to ESPN.com’s Rob Demovsky. He performed well in the Packers' August 1 practice, according to Fox Sports Wisconsin’s Paul Imig, but Imig also called that “the first time in training camp” that Lyerla “made a good impression.”
Despite his early problems that have left him at the bottom of Green Bay’s depth chart, hope will continue to be held out that Lyerla can make good on his potential to bolster a tight end group that has no clear starter. It’s a long shot at this point that Lyerla will even make the regular-season roster, but if he is to be cut, he’ll remain in the spotlight until that actually happens.
Houston Texans: RB Arian Foster
Arian Foster made it clear early in training camp that he just wants to “be the best teammate he can be,” but he also needs to prove that he’s healthy. After missing the second half of last season with a back injury, the Houston Texans running back missed multiple practices at the end of July, according to ESPN.com’s Tania Ganguli.
"You know, he’s doing OK," Texans coach Bill O'Brien said on Foster, according to Ganguli. "It’s kind of a day-to-day thing. It’s nothing serious. I would assume, guess you can’t assume anything, but I would assume he would be back pretty soon."
Texans fans and Foster’s fantasy football owners alike could be concerned with the health of the running back until he gets back to participating fully in practices and games. He’s known to be capable of being one of the league’s best runners when healthy: He had at least 1,224 yards and 10 touchdowns every year from 2010-12.
That’s what the Texans need him to be. While they are expecting new additions like quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney to push the team in the right direction after it lost its final 14 games of the 2013 season, Foster’s health is also key to the Texans’ ability to bounce back this year.
Indianapolis Colts: RB Trent Richardson
Trent Richardson’s first season with the Indianapolis Colts went disastrously. Acquired two games into the year for a first-round draft pick, the second-year running back showed a surprising lack of explosiveness out of the backfield and averaged just 2.9 yards per carry in his 14 regular-season games with Indianapolis.
Despite his struggles last season, the Colts invested far too much in Richardson to give up on him already. Just 23 years old and the No. 3 overall pick of the 2012 NFL draft, he still possesses the most upside of any running back on the Colts’ roster.
It remains to be seen whether Richardson’s 2013 struggles were a byproduct of his having to learn a new system or whether they are simply indicative that he will be a bust. Colts fans, however, don’t want to wait to find out if he can make good on the promise he showed as a collegiate player at Alabama.
Richardson has already missed some practices in training camp due to a hamstring injury, according to CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora. Upon his return to the field Wednesday, Colts fans heckled him after he ran into a pile on red-zone drills, according to Bleacher Report’s Kyle Rodriguez.
The Colts have to give Richardson the opportunity to bounce back—their only running back with a proven history of success is Ahmad Bradshaw—but they shouldn’t be too patient with him if he continues to struggle.
Jacksonville Jaguars: QB Blake Bortles
Blake Bortles is not expected to start as a rookie, but like the other quarterbacks selected in the early rounds of this year’s draft, his franchise’s future is expected to be built around him. As a result, Bortles’ progress has been a hot topic of Jacksonville Jaguars training camp thus far.
So far, the No. 3 overall pick from Central Florida has made a positive impression. According to USA Today’s Jim Corbett, Bortles “has exceeded offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch's expectations” and has displayed a “grasp of the playbook” and “pinpoint spirals.”
Even so, Bortles does not appear to be making a serious push yet for Jacksonville’s starting job. Incumbent starter Chad Henne has taken all the first-team reps thus far in Jacksonville, according to Corbett, and Fisch reportedly said that the team is not planning to give Bortles a preseason start over Henne.
Bortles might have the highest ceiling of any quarterback in this year’s rookie class, which is why he was the first signal-caller drafted, but the Jaguars seemingly recognize that he remains a developmental prospect whose accuracy, footwork and decision-making must continue to be scrutinized and improved.
According to ESPN.com’s Michael DiRocco, Henne has performed “solidly” thus far in camp, while “Bortles is making progress, but he still has a long way to go before he can push Henne out of the starting job.”
Kansas City Chiefs: RB Knile Davis
The Kansas City Chiefs avoided a lengthy holdout with Jamaal Charles when they signed their star running back to a two-year, $18.1 million contract extension. Even so, they presumably want to see more from Knile Davis, a third-round pick in the 2013 draft, in his second NFL season.
Davis ran for just 242 yards and four touchdowns on 70 carries as a rookie, but he has an intriguing combination of size and burst that gives him the potential to create problems for opposing defenses.
Where he could hold the most value is in short-yardage situations, as he has more bulk and power between the tackles than the speedier Charles. According to Sports Radio 810 WHB’s TJ Carpenter, Davis has been impressive in red-zone work thus far.
“Knile Davis has been excellent in goal line situations, haven't seen him fail to score yet at camp,” Carpenter tweeted.
Davis, who had one kickoff return touchdown last season, also holds potential value on special teams. According to ESPN.com’s Adam Teicher, Davis will be Kansas City’s main kickoff returner this year, although Chiefs special teams coordinator Dave Toub has said the team could use rookie De’Anthony Thomas on some kickoff returns as well.
“There might be a situation where you might have Knile and him in the game at the same time and have a special return designed specifically for De’Anthony,’’ Toub said. “He can do a lot of different things that Knile can’t. Knile is more of a power, speed, straightahead [runner]. That fits our scheme but you can do other things with De’Anthony.’’
Miami Dolphins: RB Knowshon Moreno
When the Miami Dolphins signed Knowshon Moreno to a two-year contract this offseason, they did so because of his success in 2013 with the Denver Broncos. As the feature running back for the AFC champion this past season, Moreno rushed for 1,038 yards and 10 touchdowns.
In his first four seasons with the Broncos, however, Moreno had just 2,430 total yards and 16 touchdowns, through which he battled injuries and poor play throughout. So far, there is significant concern that Moreno’s 2014 season will look more like his first four years than his most recent campaign.
Before training camp even begun, incumbent Dolphins starter Lamar Miller had established himself “clearly ahead of Moreno on the depth chart,” according to Adam H. Beasley of The Miami Herald. During spring workouts, Moreno acknowledged he was not in game shape, Beasley reported.
Since then, things have only looked worse for Moreno. He underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in late June, and it remains unclear whether he will return to action this preseason, according to Beasley.
Moreno proved last year that despite the injuries that have plagued him throughout his NFL career, he can be a productive runner and receiver out of the backfield in the right system. To this point, however, it doesn’t seem to be materializing in Miami.
Minnesota Vikings: QB Teddy Bridgewater
As the Minnesota Vikings’ first-string quarterback job remains up for grabs, the attention has been on Teddy Bridgewater, the No. 32 overall pick in this year’s draft, and his effort to beat out Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder, both of whom started games for the Vikings last season, to become an immediate starter.
To this point, the Vikings haven’t made an indication as to who they expect to win the job. Cassel has taken most of the first-team snaps, while Bridgewater has worked with the second-team offense ahead of Ponder, but offensive coordinator Norv Turner has said “preseason games will weigh heavily in [head] coach [Mike Zimmer]'s decision," according to Andrew Krammer of 1500ESPN.com.
That means the quarterback competition is still far from being decided, as the preseason has yet to begin. So far, media who have been present at Vikings training camp believe Bridgewater is closing the gap on Cassel.
Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune, who previously thought it was a “slam dunk” that Cassel would be Minnesota’s Week 1 starter, wrote earlier this week that he “won't be surprised if Bridgewater is the starter in Week 1.”
“I don't know if it's 50-50 odds but this coaching staff clearly has confidence in Bridgewater and they don't sound opposed to starting him right away if he wins the job in camp and preseason games,” Scoggins said.
According to Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer, Bridgewater has “definitely been more impressive” than the Vikings expected him to be at the start of training camp.
Bridgewater’s play will continue to be dissected in every practice and every game as the rookie tries to prove he’s ready to lead the Vikings offense. At least to this point, he's making enough progress to keep himself in the competition.
New England Patriots: TE Rob Gronkowski
By the start of the 2012 season, just two years into his NFL career, Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots had already established himself as the league’s best tight end. Both a skilled downfield pass-catcher and a powerful in-line blocker, Gronkowski broke records for tight ends in 2011 with 1,327 receiving yards and 17 touchdown catches.
He’s continued to be one of the Patriots’ best players when he has been on the field in the past two years, but he’s had issues with staying healthy. He broke his forearm multiple times in 2012, missed the first six games of last season after back surgery and then suffered a season-ending torn ACL in December.
Given his recent history of injuries, Gronkowski’s health has been a point of focus thus far in Patriots training camp. The good news for New England is that he has not missed any practices and appears to be healthy.
“Gronk firing off the line, planting hard, cutting and catching passes from Brady,” Ben Volin of The Boston Globe tweeted Thursday. “Doesn't look like someone coming off a torn ACL/MCL.”
He has been limited to individual drills thus far, according to Lorenzo Reyes of USA Today.
"Obviously I'm not 100% right now, because otherwise I'd be doing everything," Gronkowski said, according to Reyes.
Despite his early limitations, Volin’s report makes it seem likely that he will be ready to go for the Patriots’ season opener, barring any further injury setbacks. It’s likely the Patriots will rest him during the preseason to mitigate risk, but as Bleacher Report’s Cian Fahey wrote this week, Gronkowski can still be the NFL’s best tight end in 2014 if he is healthy.
New Orleans Saints: CB Champ Bailey
Those with high expectations for Champ Bailey expect him to be a starting cornerback for the New Orleans Saints opposite Keenan Lewis, but he has to prove this preseason that he is still capable of playing a significant role on an NFL defense.
In his prime, Bailey was one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks. He played in 12 of 13 Pro Bowls between 2000-12. A player who will garner Hall of Fame consideration after his career, Bailey still carries the reputation of a potential impact player for an NFL secondary.
However, the reality might be that Bailey is no longer an adequate option to start in an NFL secondary. Injuries limited him to playing just five games in 2013, and he struggled in coverage when he was on the field. According to SI.com’s Greg A. Bedard, early indications during a training camp practice were that Bailey, now 36 years old, has not bounced back well.
“Former Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey is not going to help this team as much as the Saints had hoped,” Bedard wrote. “He’s extremely average at this point. He’s lost a step, is much stiffer in the hips and is relying even more on his mind to make plays.”
Bailey sat out practice on Friday with an undisclosed injury, according to ESPN.com’s Mike Triplett. If he wants to play a significant role for the Saints this year, he needs to be healthy and playing up to form. Should he be unable to impress this preseason, it’s possible he could be a candidate for release.
New York Giants: WR Odell Beckham Jr.
The New York Giants wouldn’t have used the No. 11 overall pick in this year’s draft on Odell Beckham Jr. if they didn’t think the rookie wide receiver from LSU could make an immediate impact in 2014. A hamstring injury suffered on the first day of training camp might limit his ability to contribute early on in his rookie season, however.
One of Beckham's spikes "got caught up in the shoelaces of cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie's cleats," according to ESPN.com’s Dan Graziano, which caused "heavy inflammation and blood" in the receiver's hamstring. He has been fielding punts during practices, but has not participated in receiver drills and will miss Sunday’s preseason-opening Hall of Fame Game, according to Graziano.
Tom Coughlin has expressed his frustration with Beckham’s injury, calling his absence from practice “more than a little disappointing,” according to Jordan Raanan of NJ.com. The Giants would certainly like to get Beckham as many practice reps as they can get him; if he continues to be limited throughout the summer, Beckham might not be prepared for a significant role in the New York offense this fall.
If he's healthy, Beckham should be able to bring explosive speed, route-running skill and impressive agility to the field. At this point, however, he “seems more complement than competition,” with Rueben Randle set to start opposite Victor Cruz in two-wide sets, according to Ebenezer Samuel of the New York Daily News.
New York Jets: QB Geno Smith
The New York Jets don't have a serious quarterback competition, but their incumbent starter must continue to show improvement. Michael Vick has repeatedly stated this offseason that he expects to be the Jets' backup quarterback, but calls from New York fans for Vick to get a shot to start won’t stop until Geno Smith proves he can lead New York to victories.
Smith started all 16 games for the Jets as a rookie last season, and he never quite looked to be ready. He completed just 55.8 percent of his passes and threw 21 interceptions compared to just 12 touchdowns.
As a result, he is very much under the gun this summer to show development in his accuracy, decision-making and mechanics.
According to NFL Network’s Kimberly Jones, Smith has looked “more comfortable” and “in control” at Jets camp thus far. Darryl Slater of The Star-Ledger has reported that Smith has looked “steady, for the most part, in this camp.
Steady is exactly what the Jets should want Smith to be, considering he had 25 total turnovers this past season. He needs to stand out this preseason, however, to instill widespread confidence in his ability to enable the Jets to contend for the postseason.
Oakland Raiders: QB Matt Schaub
Matt Schaub opened himself up to a great deal of scrutiny in 2013, when he threw 14 interceptions despite appearing in just 10 games. After tossing a pick-six in an NFL-record four straight games, the Houston Texans ended up benching him for half the season in favor of Case Keenum.
Despite his rough year that led to his exit from Houston this offseason, Schaub is trying to establish himself as a starter once again for the Oakland Raiders.
The Raiders did not make a big investment in Schaub—they only had to trade a sixth-round pick to the Texans to acquire him—but they have insisted all along that they view him as their starter for the 2014 season, even after investing a second-round pick in drafting Derek Carr, who threw for 5,083 yards and 50 touchdowns at Fresno State last season.
As soon as Schaub slips up, speculation will start that Carr should get an opportunity to win the starting job. So far, however, Schaub has reportedly asserted himself well.
Jerry McDonald of the Bay Area News Group wrote Wednesday that Schaub had “been extremely sharp since the Raiders went to padded practices Sunday.” Head coach Dennis Allen said, according to Bleacher Report’s Chris Hansen, that Schaub has “done everything that we’ve asked him to do.”
Schaub has had his moments reminiscent of last season. During practice Thursday, Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson picked him off on back-to-back plays and returned one for a score, according to Hansen.
One practice won’t make the Raiders scramble to change their depth chart. If Schaub can perform steadily this preseason, he’ll maintain the starting job heading into Week 1. His recent history of disappointing play, however, makes it more likely that he will be picked apart any time he has a bad practice or game performance.
Philadelphia Eagles: QB Nick Foles
One would think that Nick Foles’ 2013 season, in which he led the Philadelphia Eagles to an NFC East title and had an exceptional touchdown-to-interception ratio (27 TDs, 2 INT), would be enough to sell himself as the team’s franchise quarterback. Still, with only 16 starts under his belt, he has some skeptics to win over.
CBS Sports’ Pete Prisco is among those who have described Foles as “overrated.” He’s being watched with a more critical eye this summer than some of the NFL’s more experienced starting quarterbacks, and has apparently been “good in camp,” but “not great,” according to Jeff McLane of The Philadelphia Inquirer.
“His success this coming season should not be taken for granted,” McLane wrote. “He has obvious talent, but as (Eagles head coach Chip) Kelly likes to say when asked which area he would like to see his quarterback improve in, Foles has room to grow in each department.”
Make no mistake about it: Foles is Philadelphia’s clear-cut starter, and his performance throughout the 2013 season was enough to indicate that he could be a very good NFL quarterback for many years to come. In some minds, however, the jury is still out, and it seems that both Kelly and outside observers still want to see the third-year signal-caller make strides this summer.
Pittsburgh Steelers: OT Mike Adams
One would think the Pittsburgh Steelers want to see Mike Adams, their 2012 second-round pick, establish himself as a quality starter or at least as a reliable swing backup at offensive tackle this year. So far, it sounds as though that has not been the case in training camp.
Adams, an Ohio State product, has started 16 games between the left and right tackle positions in his first two NFL seasons, but has struggled mightily, especially against outside pass-rushers, when he has played.
Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Adams “is following up his poor 2013 season with an equally dismal start to training camp.” According to Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, who expected Adams to push Marcus Gilbert for the starting right tackle job, Adams was “absolutely run over” by defenders in back-to-back practices earlier this week.
A 6’7”, 323-pound offensive tackle who has enough athleticism that he should be able to envelope and control edge defenders, Adams would have a shot at starting if he performed well all summer. Kelvin Beachum and Gilbert are decent offensive tackles, but the jury is still out on whether they can be long-term starters.
Instead of pushing them, however, it sounds as though Adams is getting pushed around. If he wants to have a long-running NFL career and compete for starting jobs again, he needs to get better quickly.
San Diego Chargers: LB Manti Te’o
For as much scrutiny as Manti Te’o dealt with last year following the revelation by Deadspin that his girlfriend whose death had been highly publicized was actually a hoax, his rookie season proved to be forgettable on the field. He had 61 tackles in 13 games, but unlike his career at Notre Dame, he made few impact plays.
The focus on Te’o this summer is not on his personal life, but on how he can contribute to the San Diego Chargers defense.
He underwent surgery this offseason to repair a fractured foot that limited him in 2013, according to Eric D. Williams of ESPN.com, but has been a full participant in training camp. According to Williams, he is already starting to show the ability to create takeaways that he was known for with the Fighting Irish.
Te’o came into training camp “5 pounds lighter and a lot leaner,” reported Alex Flanagan of NFL Network. According to Michael Gehlken of U-T San Diego, “Te'o looks more comfortable in space this year,” showing “better awareness.”
As a rookie, Te’o was a decent starter but easily overlooked. This year, early reports are generating promise that he could be ready to further elevate his game.
San Francisco 49ers: RB Carlos Hyde
Before training camp had begun, it seemed as though Carlos Hyde was in line for a quiet rookie season with the San Francisco 49ers. Although the OSU product might be the most talented running back in his rookie class, the second-year back was expected to gradually work his way up a depth chart that includes Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James.
Now that Hunter has suffered a season-ending ACL tear and James has a dislocated elbow, Hyde appears to be in line to start the season as San Francisco's No. 2 running back behind the 31-year-old Gore, whose carries the 49ers might want to start decreasing.
The No. 57 overall selection in this year's draft, Hyde is a big between-the-tackles runner who has the power to drive through defenders but also impressive burst and quickness for his size. He's unproven but has been impressive thus far, according to ESPN.com's Bill Williamson.
"Hyde is getting extensive work in training camp," Williamson wrote. "Offensive coordinator Greg Roman was highly complementary of Hyde. Roman said Hyde has done everything asked of him."
Learning is a big part of the process for a rookie as he acclimates to playing with his new team, but Hyde is off to a good start in that capacity, according to Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.
The ultimate compliment for Carlos Hyde this summer would be that he runs like Frank Gore.
The second-best endorsement? Hyde already received it this week when two of the 49ers’ most important offensive coaches said the rookie running back learns like Gore, whose ability to pick up plays and process schemes has been called savant-like by 49ers coaches beginning with Mike Nolan.
Seattle Seahawks: RB Christine Michael
Few players generated more buzz during the OTA/minicamp season than Seattle Seahawks running back Christine Michael. As Marshawn Lynch threatened a holdout and some even speculated he would retire, Michael reportedly stood out in practice sessions and generated hype about a possible breakout season.
Lynch ended his holdout earlier this week after accepting a $1.5 million raise. He has not yet returned to the practice field, according to Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times, but should continue carrying the load for Seattle after averaging more than 300 carries over the past three seasons.
Even so, there's an expectation that the Seahawks could give their other running backs more opportunities for carries in 2014.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has regularly praised Michael. Recently, Carroll said he was "really proud of the progress he's made" and that it looks like Michael is "absolutely ready and he's really tuned in," according to ESPN.com's Terry Blount.
Not everyone is convinced, however, that Michael is in line to take on a significant role in 2014, especially since the Seahawks also have another promising young back in Robert Turbin.
"I've been told by a reliable source that Robert Turbin is far closer to being an NFL starter than Christine Michael, mentally," NFL.com's Michael Fabiano wrote Monday.
Both Michael and Turbin should see plenty of opportunities to run the ball, as the Seahawks are likely to rest Lynch for most of the preseason. Michael has outstanding physical gifts that give him the potential to emerge as a feature back, but he still has to show it outside of the practice setting.
St. Louis Rams: CB Janoris Jenkins
After releasing Cortland Finnegan this offseason, the St. Louis Rams are banking on Janoris Jenkins, in his third NFL season, establishing himself as their No. 1 cornerback. He's shown flashes of that ability in his first two years in the league, but he has also given up too many big plays.
According to Nick Mensio of Rotoworld, that has continued to be the case in training camp.
"Janoris Jenkins getting roasted on the reg," Mension tweeted during training camp earlier this week.
Regardless of how well or how poorly Jenkins performs the rest of the summer, he's a safe bet to be in the Rams' starting lineup. He has been for the first two years and although Trumaine Johnson, Brandon McGee and second-round draft pick LaMarcus Joyner should all see playing time at cornerback this year, Jenkins is the only one with the qualities of a No. 1 starter on the outside.
The Rams will certainly want to see more consistency from Jenkins, however, by the end of the preseason. In a secondary that does not include many experienced players, St. Louis needs Jenkins to be its star on the back end of the defense.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins
Austin Seferian-Jenkins missed all of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' spring workouts while recovering from foot surgery, so he has been a subject of focus with his return to the field in Buccaneers training camp.
A big, athletic former basketball player, Seferian-Jenkins has the potential to be a difference-maker over the middle as both a pass-catcher and blocking tight end. The second-round pick from Washington is one of two early-round rookies, along with Tampa Bay's first-round pick Mike Evans, who is expected to add size and immediate playmaking ability to the Buccaneers passing offense.
Early on in training camp, Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith acknowledged that Seferian-Jenkins was "behind a lot," according to Roy Cummings of The Tampa Tribune.
Since then, however, Seferian-Jenkins has reportedly been making fast progress. NFL Media's Daniel Jeremiah tweeted Wednesday that the "Bucs are pumped about ASJ's play in camp," as the tight end has "picked things up quickly and made a lot of plays."
Seferian-Jenkins must continue his progress and make plays in the preseason, but as the Buccaneers have very little depth at the wide receiver position, Tampa Bay will likely utilize two-tight end sets often and count on Seferian-Jenkins if he shows he can be a difference-maker.
Tennessee Titans: CB Tommie Campbell
As the Tennessee Titans seek to find Alterraun Verner's replacement for their starting lineup at cornerback, a window of opportunity was open for fourth-year player Tommie Campbell to work his way up the depth chart and earn some playing time. So far, however, it sounds more likely that he will be released than be any significant factor in the Titans secondary.
"The way Tommie Campbell is playing right now, he doesn't look like an NFL player," ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky wrote Saturday. Adding context, Teresa Walker of The Associated Press (h/t SFGate.com) wrote that Campbell was beaten twice by Titans receiver Justin Hunter for touchdown passes in Friday's practice alone.
Hunter is an emerging player with tough-to-defend size, but reports have been consistent in stating that Campbell, who has great size in his own right as a 6'3" cornerback, has been unable to keep up in practices.
The starting competition is narrowing down to Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Coty Sensabaugh, according to Joe Fann of TitansOnline.com, while it seems Campbell is going in the other direction. Jordan L. Churchill of Music City Miracles says he doesn't "see him surviving the first wave of cuts."
Washington Redskins: OT Morgan Moses
The No. 66 overall pick in this year's draft, Morgan Moses was expected to compete right away for the Washington Redskins' starting right tackle job, but he's reportedly been a huge disappointment thus far.
Moses has to make a transition from left tackle, the position he played the past two years at Virginia, but he was a right tackle for the first two years of his collegiate career. That past experience apparently hasn't helped him thus far in practice.
Adjusting to Washington's offensive system has been a problem for Moses, according to Jason Reid of The Washington Post, who wrote at the start of camp that Moses looked "indecisive on running plays" and "equally uncertain in pass protection."
As Moses gains experience over the course of the summer, he should become more comfortable, at least with the mental aspect of the game. To this point, however, third-year tackle Tom Compton has outperformed Moses, according to Mike Jones of The Washington Post.
During one-on-one drills with pass-rushers, Compton has held his own at a higher rate than has Moses. You can tell Moses is still getting used to the speed and strength that NFL players possess. Compton also has looked more consistent in run-blocking than has Moses.
All statistics courtesy of NFL.com unless otherwise noted.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.
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