Every NFL Team's Most Intriguing Project Player
Training camp project players come in all shapes and sizes.
There are reclamation projects, where one team tries to turn another team's practice-squad fodder or first-round bust into treasure. There are rehab projects: Maybe this is the year that the one-time hot prospect finally gets healthy, or matures or overcomes his demons.
There are position-change projects, with running backs moving to slot receiver, guards to center or...hey, why not...quarterbacks to tight end. And of course, there are wild and crazy projects involving former basketball players and European rugby sensations.
This rundown of each team's most intriguing project has a little of everything, from established starters changing positions to fourth stringers pursuing a dream, former quarterbacks playing new roles and former first-round picks changing their diets and sleep schedules.
Some of these will yield results. Others are just feel-good camp stories we will forget by mid-September. But don't assume that you can tell which is which. Training camp projects have a way of surprising even the experts.
Arizona Cardinals: Robert Nkemdiche, Defensive Line
You may remember Robert Nkemdiche as the Ole Miss prospect who fell out of a fourth-floor hotel window and was soon charged with drug possession because pot was found in the room.
The Cardinals knew Nkemdiche had a little growing up to do when they made him the 29th overall pick in 2016, but he suffered an ankle injury early in camp last year and his work habits and knowledge of the defense never lived up to Bruce Arians' standards when he returned. Nkemdiche played sparingly in just five games last season. He recorded zero tackles, let alone any sacks.
Nkemdiche is healthier and wiser this year. He has earned positive notice from teammates and observers. He started the Hall of Fame game and looked like the athletic, relentless defender who was always in the opponent's backfield in college.
Nkemdiche told ESPN.com's John Weinfuss that his performance last year did not live up to his own standards either.
"I want to be the best me, man, regardless of anything," he said. "I don't care about shoes or fill. I know what the best me can look like. That's what my vision's looking like. Every day when I step on the field, when I'm off the field, I want to work toward that."
About those shoes: The Cardinals need Nkemdiche to help fill the void left by Calais Campbell. It's a tall order, but Nkemdiche has the tools to be that kind of disruptive force as a 3-4 end. After all, he only lasted until the 29th pick because of those, um, defenestration issues.
A big talent making a big stride to fill big shoes: That's exactly how a camp project is supposed to work.
Atlanta Falcons: Alex Gray, Tight End
You know how these rugby-to-NFL transitions usually go, folks.
The rugby star signs with some NFL team after the draft. We all write a round of stories about him, because international rugby players are interesting to American readers and British accents sound amazing in embedded videos.
Then the newcomer slips to the bottom of the depth chart and is forgotten by the start of the season. Unless he is Jarryd Hayne, who in 2015 was not forgotten by the 49ers until midseason.
Alex Gray signed with the Falcons as part of the NFL International program. He was an Olympic-caliber team captain in Rugby 7s in the U.K., meaning he can run, hustle, tackle and take a hit. He also has never blocked in his life.
Still, Dan Quinn sounded impressed with Gray at the start of camp, though it was during the "all rookies look great" portion of pre-padded practices. And Gray certainly did his part to get ready for the transition before training camp.
"I thought the NFL was just a bunch of amazing athletes doing amazing physical things," Gray told Europe's Sky Sports. "But it's a powered-up chess game. Rugby players can compete physically, but the mental aspect of it is something rugby players have never experienced.
"For the first three weeks I was there, I was in a hotel room and I didn't turn on my TV once. I was doing seven to seven every day, have half an hour for dinner, then until half-11 all I would be doing is studying my playbook."
The NFL International rules guarantee him a bonus slot on the Falcons practice squad. There, he can spend a year staying up until half-11 to learn what it takes to be an NFL tight end.
Baltimore Ravens: Tim White, Wide Receiver
Last year, Tim White nearly made the U.S. Olympic team as a triple jumper. This year, he is trying to make the Ravens 53-man roster as a wide receiver.
White, who described himself to Isaac Gibson of AZCentral.com as a "part-time" track athlete while also playing wide receiver at Arizona State, did not make the cut at last year's Olympic qualifiers. This year, the "cut" might rise up to meet him. The Ravens have suffered so many injuries that the best way to make the team may be to simply stay healthy.
But White has done more than avoid injury so far. He put on a show for fans during an open practice at M&T Bank Stadium earlier in camp, back-flipped after a touchdown in one-on-one drill and applied some ankle-breaking moves to veteran cornerback Brandon Boykin in the open field.
"He has done a good job in camp," John Harbaugh said after that practice, per Ryan Mink of the team's official site. "Today, I thought he had a really good day. He really lit it up a little bit, didn't he? To see a guy jump out like that in this kind of environment was pretty eye-opening."
The sudden cuts and near-Olympic-level hops may help separate White from the crowd of undersized receiver/returner types, assuming he stays healthy. Knock on wood.
Buffalo Bills: Logan Thomas, Tight End
Logan Thomas always looked like a tight end pretending to be a quarterback.
Thomas had it all—size, strength, attitude and intangibles—except the ability to accurate throw a football, which is a pretty important skill for a quarterback. After whistle stops on four different practice squads in three years, Thomas officially moved to tight end last year for the Bills.
Tight end is the last outpost for great athletes with nowhere else to play. This projects list is full of rugby and basketball stars trying to become tight ends. But it's a little different for a quarterback, who is supposed to hold out hope at his prestigious position of choice until the last team in the CFL turns him down.
But Thomas has embraced his role. He spent part of the summer at Tyrod Taylor's personalized minicamp with the rest of the skill position players. With Charles Clay limited early in training camp, Thomas has taken some reps with the first-team offense and even caught some long passes from Taylor. Nick O'Leary is Clay's official backup, but the run-oriented Bills are likely to have roles for three tight ends.
Thomas has the tools to transition to his new position even more smoothly than Terrell Pryor converted to wide receiver. Thomas may never become a star the way Pryor has in his new role. But he has a better chance to attack defenses by catching footballs than he ever had throwing them.
Carolina Panthers: Russell Shepard, Wide Receiver
Russell Shepard has spent his career as an all-purpose backup receiver and special teams ace, which means he always has one foot in the huddle and the other on the unemployment line.
As an undrafted Eagles rookie in 2013, he was briefly considered a training camp contender for a starting job. But by the end of August, he was waived. The Buccaneers made Shepard a core special teamer, and he caught seven passes in three full seasons. Shepard earned more offensive opportunities last year and caught 23 passes while battling a hip injury, but the Buccaneers upgraded their receiving corps in the offseason, and Shepard was not in their plans.
Shepard signed with the Panthers both for the opportunity to play for a receiving corps that always needs a little extra depth and for the chance to share the huddle with Cam Newton.
"Cam (Newton) is a big reason why I'm here," Shepard told reporters at the start of camp. "Watching him, his leadership style, his style of play, his confidence, his 'swag' as he says, I'm a big fan of Cam Newton."
While most of the focus in Panthers camp has been on Newton's injury, Kelvin Benjamin's weight and Christian McCaffrey's general wonderfulness, Shepard quickly attracted camp attention with his leaping receptions and precision route running. He may give Newton something the Panthers offense has lacked for several years: a steady possession receiver who does all the little things and dirty jobs well.
Chicago Bears: Lamarr Houston, Edge Rusher
The Bears signed Lamarr Houston to a five-year, $35-million contract in 2014 after the versatile defender enjoyed a series of high-impact seasons for the Raiders.
Since then, Houston has lost the better parts of two full seasons to injuries, sandwiched one decent year in between, and produced just nine sacks.
Houston is the kind of veteran most teams jettison for cap reasons after 3-13 seasons. But Houston is still around. And with Pernell McPhee (another expensive multi-purpose defense weapon) sidelined indefinitely with a variety of injuries, Houston is expected to play a major role for the Bears front seven.
Houston is built more like a defensive tackle than a traditional edge rusher and gives coordinator Vic Fangio plenty of options when he designs pass-rush packages. Houston lined up inside at times in Oakland, but when he has been healthy in Chicago, he has been most effective off the edge, where his size, quickness and relentlessness can catch offensive tackles by surprise.
Think of Houston as a reclamation project who never really had to be reclaimed. Instead of experimenting with some other team's disappointing big-name pass-rusher (see the Seahawks and Titans on this list), the Bears are giving one more chance to their own. If Houston can finally stay healthy, he's a safe bet to provide some return on the team's investment.
Cincinnati Bengals: Cedric Ogbuehi
The Bengals are counting on a right tackle who gave up a bunch of sacks last year and has a troubling injury history to be their starting left tackle this year.
That sounds like such a bad offensive line idea that even the Seahawks wouldn't consider it. But the Bengals are confident in Cedric Ogbuehi.
"I have full confidence that he’s going to be a fabulous player for us,” offensive coordinator Ken Zampese said at the start of camp, per Geoff Hobson of the team's official site.
The Bengals selected Ogbuehi 21st overall in 2015, despite the fact that he tore an ACL in the Liberty Bowl and would lose his rookie season to rehabilitation. At the time, the Bengals were perennial contenders seeking draft-and-develop bargains. Ogbuehi struggled in a handful of starts at right tackle last season in between a toe injury that erased his training camp and a rotator cuff injury that ended his season.
So this is Ogbuehi's first healthy training camp. It's also the first one when he is expected to play left tackle, his most natural position. Fellow 2015 draftee Jake Fisher is penciled in at right tackle as the Bengals try to bounce back as contenders while getting younger and cheaper on the offensive line.
Ogbuehi is the most important project on this list and may be the most important player on the Bengals roster, if he becomes an anchor at left tackle, the Bengals bounce back offensively and their long-range draft strategy is vindicated. If he fails, well...no one said this idea looked great on paper.
Cleveland Browns: Duke Johnson, Slot Receiver
Johnson is less of a project than many of the projects on this list. The former Miami all-purpose weapon and third-round pick has been a useful role player in his first two seasons with the Browns. But the plan this season is to use Johnson more as a slot receiver.
Johnson caught 53 passes in 2016 and 61 as a rookie in 2015, but he sometimes fell out of Browns game plans. Part of the problem was that the whole offense collapsed in many losses. When the starting quarterback only completes 12 passes in a 23-10 loss, it's hard to get the all-purpose back involved. With Johnson in the slot, he will have a more defined role and the Browns will find it easier to get their best playmakers on the field at the same time.
Early results have been encouraging, and the Browns lack an experienced receiver with a true slot profile. The 5'9" Johnson fits the nifty-shifty bill, and there is no reason to think he will completely abandon his backfield role.
The more creative the Browns are with Johnson, the better he will be. And the better Johnson is, the better the Browns offense will be.
Dallas Cowboys: Rico Gathers, Tight End
A converted college forward playing tight end. As projects go, that is soooo early-2000s.
But Jason Witten won't be around forever. And Rico Gathers has a an athletic profile that would make Antonio Gates or Jimmy Graham jealous. The tall, 275-pound specimen spent last season on the Cowboys practice squad learning how to convert his basketball skills to the football field.
"I felt like when I first came into playing football I was running like a basketball player, running real up tall," Gathers told ESPN radio in Dallas at the start of camp.
"You can't take away the fact that I'm 6'6", 6'7" and I'm used to playing up high, but the main focus was me getting my shoulders down, getting my pad level down, and being able to come out of my stance real explosive."
Gathers also said that he was developing "a type of nasty" in his blocking that wasn't in his game last year. That was evident early in training camp, when Gathers shoved linebacker Kyle Wilbur into a crowd of players at the end of a drill and earned a trip to the locker room from coach Jason Garrett. A little nastiness, combined with the receiving ability Gathers displayed with his Hall of Fame Game touchdown, is the perfect recipe for an eventual Witten replacement.
Gathers, who averaged 8.6 points and 8.0 rebounds per game for Baylor in four seasons as a regular, still has a long way to go. But the Cowboys love his potential. And if he can perfect his technique and harness that nasty, he could make turning forwards into tight ends trendy again.
Denver Broncos: Kasim Edebali, Edge Rusher
When Shane Ray and Shaquil Griffin both got injured after Demarcus Ware retired, it sent Broncos fans scrambling to the team's depth chart to determine who would rush quarterbacks opposite Von Miller until either Ray or Griffin returned, Ware got bored of hosting goofy television shows or someone like Dwight Freeney arrived to provide some relief.
The name they found was Kasim Edebali.
Don't rush to Freeney's Instagram to beg for his services just yet, Broncos fans.
The German-born Edebali went undrafted after a productive career at Boston College in 2014, but he signed with the Saints and stuck as a high-motor reserve. Edebali notched five sacks in 2015 but played mostly on special teams last season. The Broncos signed him this offseason as a possible wave defender. Two injuries and a retirement later, they are grooming him for a more substantial role.
It's hard for an edge rusher to thrive on a team like the Saints, where defensive coaches and philosophies are constantly changing. The Broncos are also transitioning on defense (from Wade Philips to Vance Joseph and Joe Woods) but the franchise has a track record for developing quality role players on defense.
Edebali isn't expected to lead the NFL in sacks; that's Miller's role. He just needs to keep opposing pass-protectors honest until the cavalry comes. Or until he proves that he IS the cavalry.
Detroit Lions: Anthony Zettel, Defensive Line
Here's Anthony Zettel tackling a tree. That's not a metaphor for sacking Joe Flacco. It's an actual tree.
Here's Anthony Zettel throwing a 94-mph fastball as the Lions goofed around before Haloti Ngata's celebrity charity baseball game in the spring.
Tree tackling and heater throwing are of little to no use for a defensive lineman. But the former Penn State standout also made an impact for the Lions in a limited role last year. Eagles fans may remember Zettel as the defender who poked the ball loose from Ryan Mathews to turn a sure Eagles victory into a Lions comeback.
Zettel, an undersized defensive tackle who can also play on the edge, is vying for a bigger role this year. "They have a lot more confidence in me," Zettel said in June, per Tim Twentyman of the Lions official site. "I worked my butt off in the offseason with a bunch of guys and I came back in shape and I'm ready to go. '’m excited."
Effort and untapped athletic potential should vault Zettel into a larger role in the defensive-line rotation as the team searches for impact pass rushers this summer.
Zettel also possesses the most important attribute for a Lions prospect: He has a "Z" in his name. From Ziggy Ansah to Zach Zenner, the Lions are the NFL's Scrabble nightmare. If Zettel takes a step forward, he'll become the NFL's last name in pass rushing.
Green Bay Packers: Michael Clark, Wide Receiver
No one loves a long-range project more than Packers general manager Ted Thompson. So Michael Clark must have been catnip for him.
Clark gave up football for basketball early in his high school career. He played an uneventful season as a forward for St. Francis (PA), then transferred to Marshall to play football.
Clark caught 37 passes last season and led the Thundering Herd in receiving yards, but Marshall was pretty terrible, so the 6'6" Clark was at the bottom of the scouting radar. Thompson's scouting radar is nothing but bottom, so he scooped up Clark as an undrafted rookie.
There are so many young receivers vying for so few roster spots in Green Bay that it's hard to project Clark as anything more than a practice squader. Still, some Packers veterans may find themselves on the bubble (hello, Jeff Janis), and Clark's potential as a red-zone weapon and matchup headache is hard to ignore. Especially for Ted Thompson.
Houston Texans: Kevin Johnson, Cornerback
Kevin Johnson missed most of last season with a foot injury. He entered camp this year with a clear set of objectives.
"I'm feeling good," he told the Houston Chronicle’s John McClain in late July. "I'm excited to get back and get better every day, getting my swagger back and getting my groove back."
Swagger and groove? Don't overdo it, Kevin.
Whether Johnson's swagger and groove were both at 100 percent or not, he was one of the early stars of Texans camp. The 2015 first-round pick frequently took on speedy Will Fuller (before Fuller suffered an injury) in one-on-one drills with positive results.
When Johnson broke his foot last October, A.J. Bouye took over at left cornerback and had a breakout season. Bouye is now in Jacksonville, so Johnson returns as the starter opposite Jonathan Joseph. Johnson has always been smooth in coverage and surprisingly physical in run support. But with just one interception in two seasons for a team that plans to win with defense, he needs to step up as a playmaker.
Playmaking requires a little bit of swagger and groove. It turns out Johnson is working on all the right things.
Indianapolis Colts: Darius Butler, Safety
Darius Butler has not really been transitioning to free safety for his entire career. It only feels that way.
Butler spent some time at free safety in camp last year, cross-training for any potential emergencies. That emergency arrived when Mike Adams got injured midseason. Butler moved to safety for a while and played well.
Now that Clayton Geathers is out for the start of the year, Butler is finally making the full-time move from cornerback to free safety. The diminutive defender has even bulked up for the role. He added ten pounds with the help of a diet, as Jacob Feldman outlined for Sports Illustrated. (There's even a recipe for Jamaican rice and peas, Butler style!)
Many veteran defensive backs cross-train for multiple roles these days. With teams like the Patriots lining up tight ends, slot receivers and running backs all over the place, defenders must go where the matchups dictate. If the Butler transition sticks, the Colts can insert younger, faster players in the secondary (including rookies Malik Hooker and Quincy Wilson) and use the 31-year old Butler as a rangy, quarterback-reading specialist.
And if injuries continue to plague the Colts secondary, having a veteran ready to play any position certainly won't hurt.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Tyler Gaffney, Running Back
Let's face it: The whole Jaguars organization is one giant project, right down to the Tom Coughlin-Doug Marrone leadership structure. The team hasn't cracked .500 in a decade, so the Jaguars don't have the luxury to tinker with rugby players at tight end.
But for a team in dire need of a culture change, kicking the tires on a perennial Patriots practice squader is a prudent move.
Taylor Gaffney led the Patriots in rushing in the 2016 preseason after spending parts of three seasons bouncing between the practice squad and the injured reserve. The former two-way Stanford football-baseball star was a Patriots fan favorite because Bill Belichick often singled Gaffney out for praise.
Gaffney, now 26 years old, possesses two Super Bowl rings and zero career regular-season appearances. The Jaguars signed him in early August after running back I'Tavius Mathers was injured. Leonard Fournette will be the Jaguars' featured rusher, with T.J. Yeldon and Chris Ivory vying for roles. The road to a roster spot is as difficult in Jacksonville as it ever was in New England.
But maybe Gaffney can provide a little Patriots secret sauce. Or perhaps a little good luck. Or maybe he's finally healthy enough to show the rest of the league what Belichick saw in him.
Kansas City Chiefs: Tanoh Kpassianon, Defensive Line
Tanoh Kpassagnon entered the 2017 draft as the stereotypical super athletic small-school pass rusher. He's a 6'7" marvel with 10 5/8" hands who looked like a CGI special effect when he stepped onto the stage for his Senior Bowl weigh-in.
Kpassagnon then solidified his status as a long-range project during Senior Bowl practices, when he spent more time getting tangled up with blockers than dominating them.
Villanova used Kpassagnon as a base 3-4 defensive end in a fairly rudimentary defense. He dominated FCS-level blockers, but there was little finesse to his game. While the Chiefs defense is technically a 3-4, Kpassagnon is projected to have a more dynamic role. First, however, he will have to earn snaps as part of a rotation that includes Allen Bailey, Chris Jones (who started camp on the PUP list), Rakeem Nunez-Roches and others.
Early reports out of Chiefs camp were encouraging, with Kpassagnon getting the better of tackle Erik Fisher in one-on-one drills. Age and cap issues are eroding the Chiefs front seven. The sooner Kpassagnon graduates from small-school project to mismatch nightmare, the better.
Los Angeles Chargers: Cardale Jones, Quarterback
The Chargers have never groomed an heir apparent for Philip Rivers. But that may change now that they have traded for Cardale Jones, former Ohio State star and charter member of the Rivers Fan Club.
"He's the only guy I've ever met—a celebrity, athlete, however you want to put it—I got star-struck around," Jones said of Rivers after his first practice with the Chargers. Jones met Rivers during predraft training in 2016 and was impressed by his knowledge and attention to detail.
Jones could use a little mentorship. He left Ohio State as a big name with big talent and little experience. The Bills knew they were getting a project when they drafted Jones in the fourth round, but let's face it: Rex Ryan isn't a quarterback guru, and the Bills offense wasn't built for quarterback development last year.
New Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn was Jones' offensive coordinator and interim head coach last season, so he knows what he is getting. He also knows he won't have to count on Jones anytime soon. Jones demonstrated his prodigious talent in his first Chargers practices, but his primary job will be to watch Rivers and learn.
But Rivers won't play forever. The older, wiser and no longer star-struck Jones could someday prove to be a worthy successor.
Los Angeles Rams: Nelson Spruce, Wide Receiver
You may remember Nelson Spruce from last year's edition of HBO's Hard Knocks or from the Rams' preseason debut against the Cowboys.
Bruce caught six passes for 51 yards and a touchdown in the Rams' comeback win last year. As performances in preseason openers go, it was heroic. Fans chanted SPRUUUUUUCE as he left the field.
Spruce's rookie season was then lost to ankle and calf injuries. Now healthy once again, he's back in preseason superstar form, catching a touchdown from Sean Mannion in a Rams-Chargers scrimmage last weekend. SPRUUUUUUUUCE!
The Rams receiving corps is crowded with young players who are trying to impress the new coaching staff: rookies Cooper Kupp and Josh Reynolds, newcomer Robert Woods, second-year slot specialist Pharoh Brown and others. Early reports on Spruce in training camp were positive, but he faces an uphill battle for a roster spot.
Spruce, though, has the size and hands to succeed, and fans have not forgotten him. If Spruce generates a few more preseason highlights, you are sure to hear his name.
Miami Dolphins: Devante Parker, Wide Receiver
DeVante Parker has battled lingering back, hamstring and foot injuries throughout his two NFL seasons. So the Dolphins took a page from The Martian this offseason and decided to science the heck out of their former first-round pick.
As reported by ESPN.com's Dan Graziano, the Dolphins applied sports science to Parker's aches and pains and discovered that his hydration, strength training and habits weren't up to snuff. An extra bottle of water or hour of sleep can be all it takes to help the body repair its chronic minor injuries.
Now better educated about how to stay rested and hydrated, Parker is healthy and tearing up Dolphins camp.
Parker has always flashed exceptional playmaking ability when healthy: He has the size, speed and catch radius to be the next Julio Jones. If Parker achieves his potential, he will join Jarvis Landry and Kenny Stills to form one of the league's most dangerous (if least talked about) receiving corps.
Not all projects are "teach football to the European guy" or "move from some other position to tight end" projects. Parker is a science project, one bound to produce positive results.
Minnesota Vikings: Moritz Boehringer, Wide Receiver
Moritz Boehringer admits that he did not know what he was in for when he arrived in the NFL last year.
"Last year was too much, just overwhelming," he told Shane Frederick of the Mankato Free Press at the start of camp. "It was really good to spend a year on the practice squad."
No team drafts a player from the Schwabisch Hall Unicorns of the German Football League and expects him to play a role right away, even if that player is 6'4", runs a 4.43 forty and looks like the Randy Moss of the bratwurst circuit. Boehringer was much more raw than even the smallest-program rookie. He "had to learn to play football in general," in his words.
Boehringer drew some early praise from coach Mike Zimmer when he arrived early for the rookies and practice squadders portion of camp. Since then, however, reports have been less than glowing. "MoBo" has been taking reps with the street free agents and dropping passes. He apparently still has a ways to go as an NFL receiver.
That's the trouble with drafting "projects": one summer's European infatuation is often the next summer's forgotten fad. Boehringer is undeniably talented, and he doesn't turn 24 until October. Even if he does not make the roster, he deserves another year on the practice squad. Those Moss-like measurables are worth waiting a little longer for.
New England Patriots: Kony Ealy, Defensive End (???)
Deep within the Foxborough skunkworks, Bill Belichick did something with Kony Ealy. No one is saying what.
"[You're] asking way too many questions with that one," Ealy told reporters pressing him for details. "You have to ask Coach Belichick."
Sure. Ask Belichick. That'll clear things up.
"We've asked him to do some new things, and we'll evaluate those as we go through camp and see how it goes," Belichick said.
Oh, Belichick was slightly more forthcoming, adding that Ealy is being trained to drop into coverage, play inside or outside and contribute to the kicking game. In other words, he's learning the unpredictable pass-rusher package that has been passed down and modified since Mike Vrabel's day.
Ealy, a former second-round pick for the Panthers, had a breakout game in the Super Bowl two years ago and appeared destined for stardom. But Ealy fell victim to the general malaise that engulfed the Panthers last year, recording just five sacks in a rotation role.
As you probably know, Belichick has been dusting off other team's disappointing pass-rushers and turning them into high-impact defensive chess pieces since, well, Vrabel. Ealy is just the kind of player the Patriots insert into some custom package that keeps catching opponents unprepared all the way through the Super Bowl.
For now, though, Ealy is playing with the second and third teams and learning his new roles. And he is not answering any questions.
New Orleans Saints: Obum Gwacham, Edge-Rusher
As a Nigerian-born college wide receiver converted into an edge-rusher coming off an ACL tear, Gwacham isn't just a project. He's all the projects wrapped into one.
The Seahawks drafted Gwacham in the sixth round in 2015 after Oregon State turned the lanky receiver into a speedy edge defender in his senior season. Gwacham wasn't quite ready to be the latest receiver-turned-defender to make the Seahawks look like geniuses, but he landed in New Orleans, where he recorded 2.5 sacks in limited playing time as a rookie.
Last season was lost to a severely sprained ankle in Week 3. But Gwacham has been making plays with the second string this summer, and the still-raw defender has taken to the teachings of new line coach Ryan Nielsen.
"Everything is a lot more natural now," Gwacham told Joel Erickson of the Advocate before the start of camp. "Having Coach Nielsen right now is perfect. The guy is all about technique, and I've definitely noticed a huge difference in my game already."
The Saints defense could use a dose of technique and detail-oriented coaching. And depth on the front seven. And, frankly, some luck after years of defensive misery. Maybe giving a long-range project like Gwacham one more chance will finally turn their fortunes around.
New York Giants: Aldrick Rosas, Kicker
Aldrick Rosas, a former undrafted rookie from Southern Oregon of the NAIA, was the only kicker on the Giants roster through OTAs and the start of training camp. So he got to prove his mettle in front of a huge press pool and hundreds of Giants fans with Super Bowl expectations on steamy July afternoons.
No pressure, buddy.
Rosas went 3-of-4 in his live camp debut. Or maybe it was 4-of-4. Rosas hooked a 44-yarder close to the right upright. The officials signaled no good. Paul Schwartz of the New York Post thought it was good, though Giants reporters don't get to watch camp field goals from behind the goal posts. Rosas also thought it was good.
"I never second-guess officials, we know that," Ben McAdoo told reporters. "I thought that one snuck in there, but we'll take a look at it."
Perhaps McAdoo did not like what he saw when he took that second look. Veteran kicker Mike Nugent arrived a few days later to provide Rosas some competition. Granted, Nugent was run out of Cincinnati for missing extra points last year; a kicker too disappointing for the Bengals is a pretty low crossbar to clear. Still, McAdoo wants to see if the inexperienced Rosas can handle himself like a veteran.
"Put 80,000 people in the stands and watch him kick," McAdoo said. "That's the best way to put pressure on him."
That pressure is coming soon. Rosas' career will be riding on how he handles it because the Giants' season could end up riding on Rosas.
New York Jets: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Tight End
Austin Seferian-Jenkins caught 21 touchdown passes in three seasons at the University of Washington and entered the 2014 draft as the type of prospect coaches and drool over: a hulking 270-pound mismatch nightmare with seam-stretching speed.
Then came three disappointing seasons, a pair of DUI arrests, a release by the Buccaneers and a spot on the bench of a 2016 Jets team that didn't have much use for a tight end.
"I wasn't doing the right things," Seferian-Jenkins told reporters earlier in training camp. "I wasn't preparing like a pro should prepare. And I am now, so I feel confident."
Seferian-Jenkins is now 33 pounds lighter and focused on turning his career and life around. He must serve a two-game suspension for those DUI arrests at the start of the season, but he will return to a Jets offense that actually plans to use tight ends in the passing game this year.
Seferian-Jenkins doesn't turn 25 until late September. The athletic potential is still there. Heaven knows the Jets need talent anywhere they can find it. Maybe Seferian-Jenkins cannot turn the Jets around. But it's great to see him turn his life around.
Oakland Raiders: Breon Borders, Cornerback
When an undrafted rookie cornerback like Breon Borders catches his starting quarterback's eye, we should all start paying attention.
"Every time I turn the film on it's like he makes a play," Derek Carr said of Borders last week. "I think that that's how those guys catch your eye. When you're an undrafted guy, it's hard because obviously you're not going to have the first- or second-team reps all the time, obviously. All that you can see is, 'Man, who's 31?' kind of a thing. And then throughout the offseason and here at camp, he's really proven himself."
Borders, listed at an even six feet tall and 180 pounds, has proved himself enough to take some first-team reps as a slot corner. He played almost exclusively on the outside at Duke.
Borders isn't the rookie defensive back who is supposed to be turning heads for the Raiders. First-round pick Gareon Conley has moved past his legal issues but has been dealing with shin splints. Second-round pick Obi Melifonwu, a super-athletic project in his own right, has missed practices with an undisclosed injury.
Meanwhile, veteran Sean Smith, the victim of several deep scorchings by opposing receivers last year, has been demoted to the Raiders' second team.
It all clears the way for the unknown Borders to earn a regular role. Things may change when Conley and Melifonwu return or if Smith gets his mojo back. But for now, Borders is the one with all the buzz.
Philadelphia Eagles: Marcus Johnson, Wide Receiver
The Eagles have more training camp projects underway than you can shake a soft pretzel at.
Former defensive tackle Taylor Hart is transitioning to left tackle. Canadian rugby star Adam Zaruba just signed a multiyear deal at tight end. Former running back Byron Marshall is seeing most of his reps as a slot receiver. Massive former LSU tackle/tight end Dillon Gordon has taken reps everywhere from sixth lineman to fullback.
But the story of camp has been Marcus Johnson, a second-year receiver who has caught more deep passes this spring and summer from Carson Wentz than Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith or any of the other new additions to the Eagles receiving corps.
Johnson caught just 61 passes in three seasons at Texas, but he caught the attention of scouts last year with a 4.38 forty at his pro day. Johnson entered camp last season with a quad injury that held him back both physically and mentally. There were open receiver spots on the Eagles depth chart last year, but Johnson was relegated to the practice squad.
This year, Johnson is both healthy and better focused. But the Eagles loaded up at receiver in free agency and the draft, making the road to a roster spot much harder. Still, Johnson has made the most of every opportunity, traveling with the other receivers to Wentz's Fargo summer minicamp/retreat and burning cornerbacks whenever he gets first-team reps.
"He's made an impact," Eagles head coach Doug Pederson told reporters earlier in camp. "He's shown up. He's making some plays. He's one of the guys that will continue to kind of give some reps from time to time with that first group and see where he's at."
Maybe Johnson is not as much of a project as many of the other Eagles projects. But he's a safe bet to be on an NFL roster in September, even if the Eagles cannot make room for him.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Terrell Watson, Running Back
Le'Veon Bell was nowhere to be found at the start of training camp. Rookie James Conner suffered a minor shoulder injury and was held out for several days.
Terrell Watson, meanwhile, was the first player on the field every day.
Watson is a 235-pound bruiser who rushed for nearly 6,000 yards at tiny Asuza Pacific, drawing comparisons to that school's most famous alum: Christian Okoye. Watson went undrafted in 2015 but has toured several NFL practice squads over the last two seasons, bouncing through Cincinnati, Cleveland, Denver and Philadelphia before landing in Pittsburgh. He saw his first live action in Week 17 of last season, rushing nine times for 28 yards and a touchdown for the Eagles.
I profiled Watson before the 2015 draft. His backstory is remarkable. Watson was left in a basket on his grandparents' doorstep by his troubled mother. He studied sociology in college and trained to someday join a SWAT team. Meanwhile, Azusa Pacific climbed from the NAIA to Division II, increasing Watson's NFL profile.
The story may end with a role on the Steelers roster. Bell will return, Conner will get healthy and other backs like Knile Davis and Fitzgerald Toussaint are in the mix. But Watson has been beating the odds since birth. And no one is going to outwork him.
San Franciso 49ers: Arik Armstead, Leo Defender
It's hard to tell if the 49ers really had a defensive system over the last two seasons. But whatever it was, Arik Armstead did not fit it.
Armstead, the 17th overall pick in the 2015 draft, rotated at 3-4 defensive end through 16 games as a rookie. He then played eight games in the zany flashlight-tag version of the 3-4 defense the 49ers deployed last season before needing shoulder surgery.
Armstead is back, healthier than ever (he told reporters the shoulder has bothered him for years), slimmed down and ready to play a new position: the "Leo" edge-rush role in coordinator Robert Saleh's 4-3 scheme.
Arnstead did more than shed weight to prepare for the position switch. He spent time in Hawaii with several masters of the Leo position, including Seahawks defender Cliff Avril.
"I talked to Cliff a bunch. We were working out, I think he was out there for two weeks, so we worked out for like two weeks in a row," Armstead said earlier in training camp. "As far as the position, just what the defense requires of you, certain techniques and stuff. But yeah, he was a big help for me."
Armstead is bigger than the standard Leo defender, but he flashed the movement skills and quickness to be effective in the role, both at Oregon and during the rare moments in San Francisco when everything was clicking. Even slimmed down to 275 pounds, Armstead has the size and agility to create real matchup problems on the edge.
The 49ers don't have much this year, but at least they have a plan. And in Armstead's case, they also have a misused asset who is finally ready for a breakout year.
Seattle Seahawks: Dion Jordan and Marcus Smith, Edge-Rushers
The Seahawks are spending a lot of money to keep the Legion of Boom intact, so maintaining the high quality of the rest of the defense requires a little bargain shopping and dumpster diving.
Jordan was the third overall pick in the 2013 draft for the Dolphins. His career was swallowed by substance abuse suspensions. Marcus Smith was the Eagles' first-round pick in 2014. His career stagnated due to inconsistent early-career effort, system changes and the fact that he was never a first-round talent in the first place.
Jordan underwent clean-up knee surgery in June and began camp on the PUP list. Look for the Seahawks to bring him along slowly when he returns; Jordan hasn't really played meaningful football since his rookie season. Smith began to figure out what was expected of him last year and showed flashes of potential as a hustle player, if not a future NFL sack leader.
If any team can get something out of this pair of reclamation projects, it's the Seahawks. Square-peg defenders often thrive in their system, as do players with square-peg personalities who might not fit on other franchises.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Ali Marpet, Center
Ali Marpet was an exceptional small-program left tackle who became a fine NFL guard. Now the Buccaneers are hoping to make a playoff-caliber center out of him.
The team's goal is for Marpet to anchor the middle of a reconfigured offensive line, with Kevin Pamphile and J.R. Sweezy as the guards and Donovan Smith and Demar Dotson at tackles.
That personnel may not conjure images of the 1992 Cowboys (or even the current Cowboys), but Sweezy is a potential road-grader at guard, and the team remains confident in Smith despite a 2016 season full of sacks and penalties. Moving Marpet inside allows the Bucs to get their five most talented offensive linemen on the field.
Marpet has been working at center since the start of OTAs. He got an early-camp baptism under fire—or make that water—when the Buccaneers practiced in a Florida downpour.
"I'm sure he got a lot out of it," head coach Dirk Koetter told reporters of Marpet's first wet-football snaps. "One of those first ones, it came out of his hand wrong. He's got to concentrate on it."
The Buccaneers' line experiment will be scrutinized by both HBO Hard Knocks viewers and fans with playoff expectations. There's a lot that could go wrong, but Marpet looks like the least of the team's offensive line worries.
Tennessee Titans: Erik Walden, Edge-Rusher
Erik Walden has butted heads with Titans tight end Delanie Walker before. Literally.
Walden once head-butted Walker during a Titans-Colts game in 2013. This summer, they squared off regularly as teammates in Titans camp.
"To be truthful, I'm glad we have him on our team," Walker told The Sports Xchange earlier in camp. "I hated blocking that guy; he's pretty tough."
Walden is coming off the best season of his nine-year career: an 11-sack effort for the Colts. But despite his 2016 productivity, he came to symbolize deposed general manager Ryan Grigson's expensive free-agent mistakes in Indianapolis. Walden may have been tough to block, but for most of his four seasons with the Colts he failed to live up to his $16 million contract.
Walden is now competing for snaps with starters Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan, as well as Kevin Dodd, a former second-round pick coming off a rookie season lost to injuries. It's telling that the Titans can now afford to splurge on veteran edge-rushers; the roster overhaul that began with the selection of Marcus Mariota three seasons ago is nearly complete. And Walden fits better as a utility edge-rusher than as an every-down starter.
According to Jim Wyatt of the Titans website, Walden displayed some slick pass-rushing moves at the start of camp. As long as he doesn't break out the head-butts, everything should work out fine.
Washington Redskins: Josh Doctson, Wide Receiver
Josh Doctson injured his foot during OTAs in May of last year and was expected to miss a few weeks. Instead, he missed almost his entire season.
The Achilles injury lingered through training camp and flared up after a few brief early-season appearances. Doctson was always a week or two away from returning; when that week or two elapsed, it turned out he needed another week or two.
So Doctson's return to Redskins practice at the start of training camp was the second-best news the team and the blazing 2016 first-round pick could possibly produce. The best news? Doctson was spectacular in early drills, making one-handed catches and even burning Josh Norman for big plays.
Doctson was the ultimate crush object for the draft geeks on Twitter: a TCU burner with incredible separation speed who looked at times like a bigger, less flighty Desean Jackson. Doctson could easily assume Jackson's role in the rebuilt Washington receiving corps as the designated lid-lifter and deep-catch provider.
But let's take things one step at a time. Doctson suffered a hamstring injury last week and is currently day-to-day. As long as day-to-day doesn't once again become month-to-month, Doctson is poised to live up to his potential.