The Biggest NFL Training Camp Disappointments So Far
NFL teams expect their players to bring their A-games when they report to their respective training camps in July. For some players, such as Indianapolis Colts free-agent addition Hakeem Nicks, that has not been the case.
Offseason analyses of players typically come in a glass half full, as every team and each fanbase expects their players to be as good as they can possibly be. Training camp, however, brings a different reality, as many players quickly fall behind expectations and cause concern for their franchises.
Except in the cases of season-ending injuries, it’s too early to write off any NFL player from performing well in 2014. With four preseason games ahead for every team, there’s still plenty of time for rookies and veterans alike to develop and improve.
That said, the following eight players need to elevate their levels of play as soon as possible. While all of these players came into training camp expected to play significant roles, each of them is at risk of being shuffled out of the lineup thanks to early struggles this summer.
Hakeem Nicks, WR, Indianapolis Colts
When the Indianapolis Colts signed Hakeem Nicks in March, Bleacher Report’s Gary Davenport gave the move an A-plus grade and wrote that he, along with Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton, would give the Colts "one of the best wide receiver trios in the NFL."
Davenport’s logic was well-founded: In five seasons with the New York Giants, Nicks established himself as one of the NFL’s toughest outside receivers, catching 311 passes for 4,622 yards and 27 touchdowns. Taking a chance on him with a one-year, $3.975 million deal seemingly was a bargain.
Reports from Colts training camp this week, however, indicate Indianapolis might have some concerns about the return they will get on that investment.
"I don’t know if I can say that I’ve seen enough," Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton said Sunday of Nicks’ training camp thus far, according to Tom James of the Terre Haute Tribune-Star. "I think he is still working to get himself in game shape."
More reason to question Nicks’ standing with the Colts at the moment came Monday, when the veteran wideout was given a day off, a precautionary move but unusual considering the entire team had a day off Sunday, as noted by Mike Chappell of The Indianapolis Star.
It’s possible that Nicks simply isn’t healthy enough to be the player he proved capable of being earlier in his career. He has battled foot, knee, ankle and groin injuries within the past two years, and he has not been as productive on the field as a result.
Regardless of why Nicks is performing below par, he could continue to slide down the depth chart if he doesn’t start meeting expectations.
Early on in training camp, Nicks has been out of the starting lineup but in as an outside receiver in three-receiver sets, according to Josh Wilson of Stampede Blue. While he should still see plenty of playing time in that role assuming he maintains it, the Colts don’t use as many three-receiver sets as a lot of other teams thanks to the dual presence of Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen at tight end.
It’s not implausible, however, that Nicks could fall behind rookie Donte Moncrief, who has reportedly stood out in camp, according to Wilson, if the veteran continues to struggle and/or miss time.
Jonathan Cooper, G, Arizona Cardinals
Jonathan Cooper was one of the standout prospects of the 2013 NFL draft. A powerful guard with rare litheness for a man of his size, Cooper’s exceptional physical skills and proven track record of excellence during his collegiate career at North Carolina made him a laudable choice as the No. 7 overall pick.
Cooper seemed to be as much of a sure thing as any prospect in last year’s class. His rookie season ended before it began, however, when he broke his leg in a preseason game.
Getting injured in his first year wasn’t his fault, but it does raise the pressure on Cooper to establish himself as a quality starter on the Cardinals offensive line and start living up to expectations quickly. That hasn’t yet been the case in training camp, according to Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians.
"I’m a little disappointed with where Coop is at right now," Arians said this weekend, per Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com.
Arians added that he believes Cooper’s struggles are a result of being rusty from missing last season, but Arians’ publicly expressed disappointment raises questions as to how the coach might perceive Cooper’s effort level at this point in training camp.
Even more surprisingly, the 2013 first-round pick might be in jeopardy of losing the starting left guard job to Earl Watford, a fourth-round pick last year. Cooper is listed as the starter on Arizona’s depth chart, but according to Bob McManaman of AZCentral.com, the two second-year guards have been splitting snaps with the first-team offense in practice.
If there’s anyone Watford really should be pushing for a job, it’s right guard Paul Fanaika, who was rated as the NFL’s sixth-worst guard last season by Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Cooper, on the other hand, is an incredibly gifted specimen whose talent should enable him to vanquish even the thought of another unproven player beating him out for his starting job. It’s an alarming sign that the Cardinals have determined that he needs more of a push for his position in the lineup than Fanaika.
Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Buffalo Bills
When the Buffalo Bills selected Cyrus Kouandjio in the second round (No. 44 overall pick) in this year’s draft, it was expected that he would make an immediate push for the team’s starting right tackle job. So far, however, he hasn’t been able to provide quality competition.
Early on in training camp, WGR 550’s Joe Buscaglia suggested that "Kouandjio has not been the player the team was expecting when they selected him in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft."
The incumbent starting right tackle, Erik Pears, was a liability on Buffalo’s offensive line last season. Despite that and the idea that Pears has "left the door wide open" for Kouandjio to steal reps, according to Buscaglia, Kouandjio has been entrenched as the second-team right tackle thus far in training camp.
Kouandjio continued to struggle in Sunday night’s preseason-opening Hall of Fame Game against the New York Giants.
The Alabama product checked into the game in the second quarter as a second-team offensive lineman. On his first series, he was beaten badly on back-to-back pass-rushing plays by Giants defensive end Damontre Moore, the first of which ended with Moore taking down Bills quarterback Jeff Tuel for a hard sack.
As Mocking The Draft’s Dan Kadar noted, it was "pretty telling" that Kouandjio was still in the game all the way through the fourth quarter. Clearly, the Bills felt it was important for Kouandjio to get as many repetitions as possible, even late in the game when virtually no one of significance was still on the field.
Kouandjio’s play steadied after his rough start, but he still finished the Hall of Fame Game with a minus-4.0 overall grade, the worst of any player from either team, per Pro Football Focus.
There’s plenty of time this preseason for the rookie to improve, but it’s clear that he still has a long way to go, especially as a pass protector on the edge, before he’s ready to challenge Pears for his starting job.
Adrien Robinson, TE, New York Giants
The other team in the Hall of Fame Game also has a young player who is failing to take advantage of his measurables and make good on expectations that he would challenge for a starting job this year.
To call the New York Giants’ tight end roster uninspiring would be an understatement. They do not have a single player at the position who should be in consideration for a starting job this season. The one tight end the Giants have who was considered to be a potential breakout candidate this year is Adrien Robinson, the No. 127 overall pick of the 2012 NFL draft.
Instead, Robinson is listed as the fifth-string tight end on the team’s depth chart.
A 6’4”, 264-pound pass-catcher who reportedly ran a 4.56-second 40-yard dash at Cincinnati’s pro day in 2012, according to NFLDraftScout.com, Robinson was once dubbed "a JPP of tight ends" by Giants general manager Jerry Reese, in reference to star New York defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul.
His physical attributes might be awe-striking, but his play has never been. He caught just 29 passes in a four-year collegiate career. So far in New York, he’s played in just three games and has no receptions.
As a Rotoworld.com blurb stated bluntly, Robinson is "so poor at football that he couldn't beat out Larry Donnell or Daniel Fells in camp." He’s also behind Xavier Grimble and Kellen Davis, at least on the depth chart.
He saw playing time with New York’s second- and third-team offenses in the Hall of Fame Game but caught no passes and did nothing of significance to create any conviction that he can make up the ground he has lost in the battle.
At this point, it seems more likely that Robinson is a candidate for release than to make a significant impact for the Giants offense in 2014.
Jace Amaro, TE, New York Jets
Adrien Robinson’s not the only tight end in the Meadowlands who is failing to live up to the expectations of emerging as a starter this season. Jace Amaro, the New York Jets’ second-round pick (No. 49 overall selection) out of Texas Tech, has struggled badly thus far in training camp, according to multiple reports.
Amaro emerged as an early-round prospect in the 2014 draft class thanks to an outstanding junior season in which he led all tight ends in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 106 catches for 1,352 yards.
So far, his collegiate success hasn’t translated to NFL readiness.
According to ESPN New York’s Rich Cimini, "most of Amaro's growing pains are rooted in the X's and O's."
At Texas Tech, he played in a relatively basic passing attack that used a numbering system, deployed almost exclusively as a flexed-out tight end. With the Jets, it's a sophisticated offense in which he's often required to be an in-line tight end. The systems, he said, are as different as Chinese and English.
The adjustment from a collegiate offense to a professional system can be a challenge for any rookie, so it’s understandable for Amaro to make some occasional mistakes with routes and blocking assignments. That said, he’s also "having trouble hanging on to the ball in camp," according to Seth Walder of the New York Daily News.
Amaro’s not a particularly explosive athlete, and he doesn’t have much experience as a blocker, but one trait he certainly should be displaying is sure-handedness.
The rookie has the most upside of any tight end on the Jets roster, but he’s going to have to catch passes consistently and attain a solid grasp on the team’s offense to make a significant contribution in 2014.
Amaro’s currently listed in the second tight end spot on New York’s depth chart behind Jeff Cumberland, but he could also be surpassed by Zach Sudfeld, who has taken some first-team reps in practices, according to Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News, if he doesn’t show significant development this preseason.
Morgan Moses, OT, Washington Redskins
Like the aforementioned Cyrus Kouandjio, Morgan Moses was expected to challenge for his team’s starting right tackle job from the get-go as a rookie. Instead, it’s been reportedly evident this summer that Moses is not close to being ready to take on that role on an NFL offensive line.
Selected with the No. 66 overall pick in this year’s draft, Moses was a four-year starter at Virginia who has experience playing both left and right tackle. Possessing great size and good functional strength, Moses would seemingly be an upgrade over the Washington Redskins’ incumbent starting right tackle, Tyler Polumbus, if he can quickly make good on his potential.
He has not been able to mount a legitimate challenge this summer. Multiple Redskins beat writers, including Jason Reid of The Washington Post, have suggested that Moses has looked to be in over his head thus far in training camp. Reid wrote at the start of camp:
Moses, instead of getting to his spot and finishing his blocks, was too indecisive on running plays. He often seemed equally uncertain in pass protection.
No rookie is expected to be a finished product on the first day of camp. And Moses could benefit from one-on-one tutoring sessions with offensive line coach Chris Foerster. Many of Moses’s problems, though, have been apparent throughout the team’s offseason program.
Moses has been outperformed by Tom Compton in camp, according to Mike Jones of The Washington Post.
Jones also mentioned that it would be a big surprise if the Redskins gave up on Moses after one summer. He still has time this preseason to improve and potentially make a late push at the right tackle job. It seems most likely, however, that Moses will be a back-of-the-roster player who is fourth on the team’s offensive tackle pecking order for 2014.
Sean Smith, CB, Kansas City Chiefs
One of the most high-profile free-agent signings of the 2013 offseason, Sean Smith had a solid first season as a starting cornerback for the Kansas City Chiefs but is apparently in jeopardy of losing his job with the first-team defensive lineup for 2014.
Early on in training camp, Smith has been working with the second-team defense as Marcus Cooper and Ron Parker have been posited as the team’s starting outside CBs, according to Randy Covitz of The Kansas City Star.
Although Smith’s demotion to the second unit initially occurred in June after he was cited with driving under the influence, Chiefs coach Andy Reid has insisted that the depth chart change is "a football thing," according to Covitz.
That means that Smith, despite being an established veteran who has been a starter for all five years of his NFL career to date, has been leapfrogged on the depth chart by two young, talented but unproven cornerbacks.
Viewed from the opposite perspective, the lineup change is an indicator that Cooper and Parker have played well enough to hold down first-team positions this summer. Cooper flashed brilliance as a rookie but needs to become far more consistent than he was in his roller-coaster first season. Parker was impressive in limited action in 2013, but he has bounced between four NFL teams since 2011 and has not seen much playing time in his career.
One would think that Smith, given his experience, should be able to retake a starting job if he outperforms Cooper and/or Parker in Kansas City’s preseason games. Even if he doesn’t, he should still see significant playing time as long as he beats out Chris Owens for the team’s No. 3 cornerback spot.
With that being said, Kansas City should not be satisfied getting anything less than a full-time starter from Smith, who, as Covitz noted, is the Chiefs’ sixth-highest paid player.
Tiquan Underwood, WR, Carolina Panthers
Tiquan Underwood is one of a number of new wide receivers in the fold for the Carolina Panthers, who have a completely rebuilt roster at that position from last season. After catching 24 passes for 440 yards and four touchdowns with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2013, Underwood signed a two-year contract with Carolina this offseason.
As Carolina lost all four wideouts who caught passes in a Panthers uniform last season, Underwood seemed like a good bet to at least be the team’s third or fourth receiver this year. Although there’s nothing spectacular about his game, he has some downfield playmaking ability and had decent production over the past two years in Tampa Bay.
Despite the Panthers’ lack of receiving talent, Underwood has reportedly been unable to emerge as a capable playmaking option this summer.
According to The Charlotte Observer, Underwood has failed to catch passes consistently in training camp. As a result, he is listed as a candidate for release in the Observer’s most recent 53-man roster projection.
It’s not a surprise that Underwood is behind Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and rookie Kelvin Benjamin on Carolina’s receiving depth chart. It is unexpected that Brenton Bersin, who went undrafted out of Wofford in 2012 and has yet to play in an NFL regular-season game, has been taking first-team repetitions ahead of Underwood in practice, according to David Newton of ESPN.com.
The Panthers have one of the NFL’s most receiver-starved rosters. If Underwood fails to make the cut, his career in the league will be in jeopardy.
All measurables courtesy of NFL.com unless otherwise noted.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.
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