Early Studs and Duds from NFL Training Camps
NFL training camps come with a subtle complexity each preseason.
This is not just a series of practices; it's a camp—men are ripped from their families (willingly, of course) and thrown in a confined space to mesh with one another to achieve some sense of unity, while competing all the same.
Rookies set out to prove themselves to veterans who have been down the path and to coaching staffs who dictate if they can support their families by doing this for a living. Veterans are seasoned employees who have to watch, back against the wall, as new prospects are brought on to potentially replace them.
It is a combustible environment indeed.
This year has been no exception to the rule. Camps have a natural way of sorting things out, and the process has been underway long enough to differentiate between those who are on the right path and those who have taken a bad detour.
Most of the news this time of year is good. These guys are professionals, after all. It is those with bad news over their head whom fans should start to worry about.
Let's take a look at the studs and duds of training camp so far based on the latest reports and the overall outlook for each individual within his respective franchise.
Below are a few less recognizable names who are already on a defined path and have much work to do in the coming weeks, for better or worse.
Stud: Andre Williams, RB, New York Giants
At one point a Heisman contender a year ago at Boston College, Andre Williams has already been running with the first team at camp in goal-line situations, per Jordan Raanan and Conor Orr of NJ.com.
As if that is not a great sign to begin with, Williams is a strong candidate for even more totes next season if David Wilson's career continues to be a question mark—meaning he will only have to compete with Rashad Jennings and Peyton Hillis the rest of the summer.
Dud: Tyler Wilson, QB, Tennessee Titans
The quarterback situation in Tennessee continues to be a mess.
Not that Tyler Wilson was going to steal the gig from Jake Locker, but the fourth-round pick from the 2013 draft, with all of his physical tools, could have at least given it the old college try this summer to compete with Charlie Whitehurst and Zach Mettenberger.
Instead, he has looked "very bad," according to ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky.
Stud: C.J. Mosley, LB, Baltimore Ravens
Alabama product C.J. Mosley was an interesting case this preseason because whether or not he would take the lion's share of the starter snaps was very much up for debate in a linebacking corps that includes Terrell Suggs, Arthur Brown, Daryl Smith and Elvis Dumervil.
Well, scratch the interest. Per Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun, Mosley is already penciled in over Brown thanks to a strong preseason.
Dud: Mike Adams, OT, Pittsburgh Steelers
A second-round pick in 2012, Mike Adams lost the starting left tackle gig after four games last season, but the position was once again very much open with Kelvin Beachum not exactly a superstar.
Stud: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Minnesota Vikings
Teddy Bridgewater did not need a chip on his shoulder to excel in training camp, but the NFL blessed him with one anyway, as he careened almost out of the first round on draft day.
For a quarterback with Bridgewater's on-field IQ and elite decision-making, he could not have landed in a better position than Minnesota, where he gets to hand the ball off to Adrian Peterson and throw to a triple-headed monster in big-play threat Cordarrelle Patterson, sure-handed chain-mover Greg Jennings and red-zone monster Kyle Rudolph.
Oh, and there's joining a depth chart that includes Matt Cassel and some guy named Christian Ponder.
Early rumblings were that Bridgewater might sit to start the season, but things have escalated rather quickly. In early July, in an interview with Paul Allen for KFAN FM 100.3 (via Mike Wobschall of Vikings.com), offensive coordinator Norv Turner said what most could have guessed in that Bridgewater was "a lot further along than [he] expected."
Shortly after camp began, NFL.com's Albert Breer tweeted that the Louisville product had "closed the gap." A mere day or so after that, Chip Scoggins of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune provided further insight:
I've thought all along that Matt Cassel was a slam dunk to start the season and that the Vikings didn't need to rush Teddy Bridgewater. Now, I 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.
It may be predictable, but Bridgewater's traits that most in the media fell in love with during the process are slowly moving him up the depth chart.
Dud: Johnny Manziel, QB, Cleveland Browns
So far, Manziel has done little to change the minds of most, especially with Brian Hoyer taking most of the snaps with the first-team offense, per Mary Kay Cabot of the Northeast Ohio Media Group. According to ESPNCleveland.com's Tony Grossi, early performances for the former Texas A&M star have been nothing short of shaky:
Coach Mike Pettine told me before training camp started that coaches would evaluate Johnny Manziel through the first four days and decide whether he earned first-team reps. The numbers tabulated each day by ESPNCleveland's Jason Gibbs have not been pretty. Gibbs has charted all plays in 7 on 7 and team drills. Unofficially, Manziel has completed 42 of 85 passes (49.4 percent). He has been "sacked" two times officially. Two other obvious sacks were waved off and resulted in Manziel interceptions.
Of course, Johnny Football has been asked plenty about his struggles and has quite the intriguing answer, courtesy of Pro Football Talk's Michael David Smith:
Always, for me, I've been better in a game situation than I feel I have in practice. But I have to come out here and get better with the reps that I'm getting. That's the main thing, keep getting better, and then when it's time to go out and play football, it's time to play football.
Unfortunately for Manziel, he cannot be in game situations if he does not beat out a veteran who has played in 18 games over the course of five years.
Manziel may yet win the starting job. But early indications are not great, and expectations were through the roof and will continue to be. Anything short of a swift turnaround will be a disappointment.
Stud: Sammy Watkins, WR Buffalo Bills
The No. 4 overall pick, who blazed his way to stardom at Clemson and a 4.43 40-yard-dash time at the combine, has had little issue riding his extreme athleticism in camp and leaving most onlookers in awe.
"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," tweeted NFL.com's Jeff Darlington.
Do not expect such praise for Watkins to evaporate anytime soon. WGR 550's Joe Buscaglia named him the MVP of early practices too:
By now, everyone has seen the catch in the early portion of practice. Watkins continued to dazzle through the day, even burning top cornerback Stephon Gilmore quite easily on a few occasions. So far, so good for the rookie and fourth overall selection.
Sorry, but when Watkins is doing this to defensive backs, he will remain in the spotlight. The scary part, though, is that these are skills that will transfer to live action.
If EJ Manuel, or even Thad Lewis or Jeff Tuel, cannot get him the ball deep, defensive backs can still hit him at the line of scrimmage right after the snap. Watkins does the rest. Easy. What live action this preseason will show is if he can create the necessary separation.
Regardless, Watkins has followed in the footsteps of many drafted in the top five by living up to the hype in training camp. Odds seem great he will keep that train rolling right through his rookie season as a talent who overcomes poor working conditions around him.
Dud: Michael Vick, QB, New York Jets
The guy just doesn't have his heart in it anymore.
"I have a lot left," said Michael Vick after signing with the Jets in March, via ESPN.com's Rich Cimini. "It was evident with what I was able to do last year. I got injured, and Nick Foles came in and played great. That was the reason I was on the sideline. It wasn't because of my play or because I didn't have anything left in the tank."
So much for that. There had to be some semblance of hope that Vick could at least push for the starting gig in New York. Rex Ryan eventually noted in May that there was certainly a competition set to unfold this summer.
Then Vick imploded. Dom Cosentino of NJ.com listed Vick as a "dud" of organized team activities, but hey, he could have just been adjusting to the new scenery, right?
Flash forward a month and Vick got just four first-team reps, per Brian Costello of the New York Post. Jump ahead another week and Vick has already thrown in the towel and been cited by offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg as "all-in" as the backup, per Cimini.
While the plan from the onset may never have been to give Vick a real shot, this is not the fierce competitor we are accustomed to seeing. His roster spot is not exactly in danger with Matt Simms and Tajh Boyd behind him, but Vick is going to have to show something in the coming weeks.
Stud: Brandin Cooks, WR, New Orleans Saints
Perhaps no offensive rookie has been met at the pro level this year with more hype than Brandin Cooks.
After all, offensive guru Sean Payton thought enough of him to trade up and make him the pick at No. 20 overall.
Since then, Cooks has delivered—big time.
Here's a guy who's obviously extremely talented. But more so than that, very intelligent. You get this feeling that he wants to be great, he loves football, he wants to learn. Every time he comes up to me, it's eyes wide.
Feed me, feed me information. He absorbs it very quickly and goes out and applies it. I'd say that's pretty rare for a young guy. Typically their head is spinning for a little while. Doesn't seem like anything is too big for him.
Or ask an observer in the know, such as ESPN.com's Mike Triplett, who writes that Cooks has "been the star of their entire camp."
"Your daily Brandin Cooks highlight: hit with a short pass to left, the rookie turned it upfield and outran the pack for like a 50-yard score. ... As usual, Brandin Cooks showing a bit of everything. Turned up 2 bubble screens impressively quick, cleanly hauled in back shoulder throw."
Visual proof? Try this.
The point is, Cooks is who we thought he was (Danny Green flow). He is not doing it against a cupcake defense either, but a Rob Ryan-led unit that is quietly one of the best in the league. It's impressive, to say the least.
Dud: Jace Amaro, TE, New York Jets
Let's keep that New York Jets dud train right on rollin', folks.
This may seem like piling on, but that seems to be the way Rex Ryan has built his squad over the course of all these years. The latest issue out of camp is second-round pick Jace Amaro, who entered the draft as one of the most coveted tight ends available.
What follows is a sampling of the buzz around Amaro in the past month.
July 15—ESPN.com's Rich Cimini notes that the Texas Tech product "looked lost at minicamp."
July 27—NFL Network's Kimberly Jones weighed in on Amaro, saying, "His first week of camp has not been impressive."
July 30—Cimini, Pt. II:
After dropping a pass Wednesday, the New York Jets' rookie tight end was razzed by a defensive player, who barked, "Can't catch a cold!" A couple of plays later, Amaro ran the wrong route and got an earful from offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, who chided him for not studying his playbook. Even mild-mannered quarterback Geno Smith seemed frustrated with the second-round pick.
When practice was over, Amaro and general manager John Idzik had a long talk. Actually, Idzik did the talking, Amaro did the listening. It was a pep talk, not a scolding.
Eventually Amaro will turn things around. He's 6'5" and 265 pounds and caught darn near anything thrown his way at the collegiate level. He is far from the first successful college player to struggle when tasked with digesting pro concepts in tandem with the speed of the pro level and the fact he is no longer one of the lone elite athletes on the field.
For now, though, Amaro has earned the "dud" label.
Stud: James White, RB, New England Patriots
Fans can be forgiven if James White happened to slip their mind.
He rumbled for 1,444 yards and 13 touchdowns last year with Wisconsin, but that was behind an offensive line at a school that consistently churns out quality players in the offensive trenches.
He then fell to the fourth round and was the No. 130 overall pick by the New England Patriots, meaning he was doomed to get lost on the depth chart behind Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley and maybe even Brandon Bolden.
Yet here we are just a few weeks into camp, and White is the name coming out of New England. First, and most important of all, was a ringing endorsement from coach Bill Belichick, via ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss:
It's been good working with James White. He's a very interesting and versatile player. He does a good job in the passing game and in the running game -- both inside and outside. Blitz pickup -- we have a pretty extensive offense for him to learn, but he's working hard at it. We'll just let him go and see how it goes, but I think he has the ability to compete on all three downs, in both the running game and the passing game.
As if to reinforce what he said, Belichick used White in goal-line situations. Reiss subsequently followed with a blurb on White that says a whole heck of a lot: "Has opened eyes with how many quality reps he's getting and looks like he'll be a significant part of the team's attack—on all three downs."
Oh, one Tom Brady is in on the praise too, per SiriusXM NFL Radio: "Nothing seems too big for him. In the few practices we've had, he's made an impression on everybody."
It sounds as if White has already secured the backup spot behind both Vereen and Ridley. That's not bad, and he is just getting started.
Dud: Da'Rick Rogers, WR, Indianapolis Colts
All right, so things looked bad for Tennessee product and second-year player Da'Rick Rogers when the Indianapolis Colts brought on Hakeem Nicks this offseason.
Despite flashes, the front office thought it wise to bring in an experienced veteran to give Andrew Luck a boost. It's a win-win for everyone except Rogers.
Then the NFL hit LaVon Brazill with a year-long suspension. Boom, the door was back ajar.
And Rogers smacked his forehead on the frame—so much so that he is being outplayed by Griff Whalen. ESPN.com's Mike Wells has the scoop:
Receiver Da'Rick Rogers has gotten off to a slow start in training camp. I look at that as a disappointment because Rogers has all the talent to get the job done. He's just not showing it.
Rogers did catch a touchdown pass Monday. That's good. The bad part is I turned to a fellow media member and mentioned that was the first time I had seen Rogers do something impressive in practice. Griff Whalen has definitely outplayed Rogers so far in camp.
With his talent, expectations have been high in regard to Rogers even though he went undrafted. But Buffalo cut him in his first training camp. Will this year be a repeat, even with a roster spot cleared and a quarterback like Luck (heck, and veteran Matt Hasselbeck) under center?
The clock's ticking.
Stud: Markus Wheaton, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
One wideout who is taking the proverbial bull by the horns? Sophomore Markus Wheaton, who saw all of 13 targets as a rookie.
With Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery out of the way—meaning 113 receptions and 188 targets hit the road—the Oregon State product has stepped up in a major way this preseason.
"I feed off the pressure and embrace it," Wheaton said, per Dan Scifo of The Associated Press, via Yahoo Sports. "Pressure is always good, I feel. Pressure can push you to get a lot better or it can break you. I feel that the pressure is always good for me because it always pushes me to get better."
Indeed—check out this note from CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora, who provides insight into the line of thinking coming from those who matter in the Steel City: "Wheaton is having another strong start to camp and his role will increase greatly, several Steelers people said."
Wheaton was hurt last year and bogged down on an unheralded unit, but an opportunity has presented itself this year, even with the arrival of Lance Moore (he has not played in a full 16-game season since 2010 and struggled with a guy named Drew Brees last year) and Darrius Heyward-Bey (just stop it).
Health permitting, Wheaton has the look of a major breakout star next season on an offense that desperately needs someone across from last year's receiving yards leader, Antonio Brown (let's not act like Josh Gordon counts).
Wheaton can easily be that someone if he stays the course.
Dud: Derek Carr, QB, Oakland Raiders
It has been a rather tumultuous inaugural preseason for Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, the No. 36 overall pick of the 2014 draft.
Carr rather easily took the No. 2 job away from Matt McGloin in OTAs, but he has quite the large mountain to climb in order to steal the starting gig from veteran Matt Schaub, who the Raiders brought on via trade this offseason.
According to Scott Bair of CSNBayArea.com, the Fresno State product has been "hit-and-miss." As Bair's notes show, the best thing to come out of camp so far in regard to Carr is his athleticism. That's great, but his position is played primarily with an arm.
One of the biggest knocks on Carr coming out of college was his lack of experience directly under center, and it is something that has been quite apparent so far, as a tweet from Jerry McDonald of the Oakland Tribune illustrates: "Derek Carr fumbles snap. Still getting used to it after two years of shotgun. Then shotgun snap over his head."
Given the situation he has landed in, Carr may very much get a shot to start as a rookie if Schaub performs anywhere close to how he did a season ago. But he is clearly not ready at this stage of his development.
Stud: Blake Bortles, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars
There was a time not too long ago when Chad Henne was the surefire starter in Jacksonville, which would give No. 3 overall pick Blake Bortles time to learn the offense.
The timetable has been accelerated, to say the least.
Bortles is widely hailed as a bit of a project who comes with everything a team could want in a franchise quarterback, so even the Jaguars' coaching staff can be forgiven for being somewhat caught off guard by how quickly the UCF product is progressing.
ESPN.com's Michael DiRocco notes that offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch says his new signal-caller is "ahead of where I thought he was going to be."
For visual evidence, just check this out.
Yes, it is just practice, but that is the sort of throw some quarterbacks come with or don't, bottom line.
More recently, the Jaguars held a scrimmage, and Bortles completed nine of 13 passes for 79 yards and a touchdown—one pass was dropped, and another was batted down at the line of scrimmage, per DiRocco.
Bortles showed in a game environment that he can thread the needle and make all of the proper reads. Perhaps the dawn of a new era under the watchful eye of Gus Bradley will begin much sooner than most anticipated.