Top 15 NFL Rookies to Watch in Training Camp

Dan Hope@Dan_HopeContributor IIIJuly 24, 2013

Top 15 NFL Rookies to Watch in Training Camp

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    With the opening of training camps throughout the NFL this week, preparation for the 2013 season is well underway. This time period is especially important for this year's rookies, who are preparing for their inaugural seasons playing at the highest level of American football.

    There are numerous NFL rookies expected to play prominent roles on each team this season. Without any prior professional experience to draw from, it’s tough to predict which rookies will make the biggest impact.

    The following 15 rookies aren’t necessarily the rookies expected to make the biggest impacts this season, but they are the ones participating in training camp with the most to prove and/or the biggest shoes to fill.

    The success or failure of each of the following rookies will play a crucial role in their NFL team’s 2013 season. That will have writers and fans for each of these players’ teams paying close attention to how they progress over the course of their inaugural training camp.

EJ Manuel, QB, Buffalo Bills

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    Few NFL rookies will take on a bigger spotlight in training camp than EJ Manuel. Manuel was the only quarterback selected in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft (No. 16), and he will be competing for the Buffalo Bills’ starting quarterback job with veteran Kevin Kolb.

    Manuel will likely split first-team reps evenly in training camp until the battle is decided, but for a player in his position, every rep is important. He has the talent to be a very good starting quarterback in time, but he must show rapid progress in training camp to be a viable starting option this season.

    At 6'5'', 237 pounds, Manuel may have the best set of physical tools of any quarterback in this year’s rookie class. That said, he has to quickly adjust to the Bills’ offensive system, which will require him to throw the ball accurately downfield with more frequency and consistency than he did as a collegiate quarterback at Florida State.

    Kolb’s two-season stint with the Arizona Cardinals was a disappointment, so the door will be wide open for Manuel to win the job in training camp. To do so, he must show that he has a prepared understanding of the Bills offense and that he can consistently make smart decisions and accurate throws inside the pocket.

Geno Smith, QB, New York Jets

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    While the spotlight will be shining brightly on Manuel at Bills training camp in Pittsford, N.Y., it will be shining just as intensely in Cortland, N.Y., on the second quarterback selected in the 2013 NFL draft, Geno Smith.

    Like Manuel, Smith will be competing to start immediately as a rookie. His competition will come from incumbent starter Mark Sanchez, who was among the NFL’s worst quarterbacks last season with a 66.9 quarterback rating.

    Sanchez’s play regressed last year after failing to significantly progress over his first three seasons, and the Jets will be looking to move on from him being the starter as quickly as possible. That will put immediate pressure on Smith to perform well enough to seize the starting job.

    At 6'2'', 218 pounds, Smith is a physically gifted quarterback with the talent to be the franchise quarterback Sanchez hasn’t become. That said, he must show significant improvement in his game in training camp to give the Jets confidence in starting him.

    Smith must display an improved understanding of the West Coast Offense after reportedly struggling to grasp the system in minicamp. Jets quarterback coach David Lee said in June that Smith was “struggling with the basic things,” according to The Star-Ledger.

    He also has to improve with his footwork in the pocket and his accuracy under pressure, but if he comes to training camp prepared and shows off his playmaking ability early, he will have a definite opportunity to take the starting job away from Sanchez.

Tyler Wilson, QB, Oakland Raiders

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    Oakland Raiders head coach Dennis Allen named Matt Flynn the starting quarterback in May, but fourth-round pick Tyler Wilson is another rookie quarterback to keep an eye on in training camp.

    Flynn was expected to be a starting quarterback last year for the Seattle Seahawks, but surprise rookie third-round pick Russell Wilson stole the show. While Tyler Wilson isn’t likely to match Russell Wilson’s rookie success, he has the skill to make a legitimate run at the starting job if Flynn fails to take a firm hold of it.

    Flynn was impressive in two starts for the Green Bay Packers in 2010 and 2011, averaging 475.5 yards while putting together a ratio of nine touchdown passes to four interceptions. That said, he has a subpar arm by NFL standards and has never been in a full-time starting role.

    Like the other rookie quarterbacks, Wilson must progress very quickly in training camp to earn a starting job. He is a skilled pocket passer who puts good zip on his passes and can make any throw on the field, but he needs to become more consistently accurate downfield.

    Wilson was a more polished passer coming out of college, however, than either Manuel or Smith. If he learns the Raiders offense quickly and makes progression with his accuracy and decision-making, he could very well be the NFL’s most successful rookie quarterback this season if he works his way onto the field.

Le’Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    The Pittsburgh Steelers go into training camp with a three-way running back competition to start between rookie Le’Veon Bell and veterans Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman. In addition to those three, Baron Batch, LaRod Stephens-Howling and Curtis McNeal could be competing for snaps. 

    If Bell can consistently show the skills in training camp that prompted the Steelers to select him with the No. 48 overall pick, he has a great shot of winning the starting job.

    Bell is a big running back (6'1'', 230 lbs) who can pound the ball through contact and between the tackles, but he also has the speed (4.60 40-yard dash) and moves to be a difference-making runner outside the tackles. While Dwyer and Redman are both also big, physical backs (5'11'', 229 lbs and 6'0'', 230 lbs, respectively), Bell offers much more playmaking and receiving ability out of the backfield.

    Of all the Steelers backs, Bell might already be the best suited for the zone-blocking scheme that the Steelers will be incorporating this season under new offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. Although none of the Steelers backs are true speed backs, Bell has the most open-field running ability.

    The biggest area Bell must show progress in during training camp is in pass protection. The Steelers have notoriously struggled to protect quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in recent years, which increases the importance of a running back to be able to pick up blitzes adequately.

    Bell has the talent to be an immediate weapon out of the backfield, and if he picks up the Steelers offense quickly, he is likely to see the majority of playing time at running back right away.

Montee Ball, RB, Denver Broncos

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    The Denver Broncos released Willis McGahee earlier this offseason, which opened up the top spot on the team’s running back depth chart. The favorite to take that spot may be rookie second-round pick Montee Ball, who will compete with second-year back Ronnie Hillman and veteran Knowshon Moreno for repetitions in training camp.

    Hillman is expected to enter training camp as the first-team running back, according to Jeff Legwold of The Denver Post, but expect Ball to get an immediate share of the first-team repetitions. Broncos vice-president of football operations John Elway said prior to the 2013 draft that the team views Hillman as a “change-of-pace” back, and he is best suited to run in a committee rotation with Ball.

    At 5'10'', 214 pounds, Ball is a physical, between-the-tackles runner with great vision and good quickness, and he proved his ability to consistently take on a workload at Wisconsin. If he has a strong training camp, he has a great shot to enter the season as the Broncos’ first-string back.

    Ball does need to improve in pass protection, but he will likely be utilized mostly as a first- and second-down option. Hillman and Moreno offer more as receivers and pass-blockers in third-down or long passing situations.

    That said, Ball might be the most NFL-ready running back in the draft class. He will immediately be in the spotlight in training camp and has a chance to be a crucial weapon for a very talented offense.

Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers

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    Another rookie second-round pick in line to compete for a starting job at running back is Eddie Lacy with the Green Bay Packers. Lacy should enter camp as the favorite in a competition that includes DuJuan Harris, Alex Green, James Starks and fellow rookie Johnathan Franklin (fourth round).

    It is likely that running back repetitions will be widely divided among that group in training camp, but Lacy is the most talented of any of them. He is a big back (5'11'', 231 lbs) with the size and power to run through opponents and between the tackles, but he also has the speed (4.59 40-yard dash) and moves to make plays on the outside.

    Lacy fell from being a projected late first-round pick to a late second-round pick in part due to concerns over a toe injury, according to Jeff Legwold of The Denver Post. Therefore, Lacy must first prove he is fully healthy and ready to go in training camp.

    But if Lacy can stay on the field and healthy, he is an explosive runner both inside and outside the tackles who can be the feature back the Packers have lacked for years. Harris and Franklin will provide the most formidable competition for the starting running back job, but Lacy could certainly earn the feature-back role if he performs up to his ability in training camp.

Tavon Austin, WR, St. Louis Rams

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    The St. Louis Rams traded up to the No. 8 overall pick to make Tavon Austin a focal point of their offense. In training camp, we should get a glimpse into how exactly the Rams plan to utilize him there.

    Austin may be small at 5'9'', 174 pounds, but his dynamic combination of speed (4.34 40), quickness, hands and route-running ability make him a versatile playmaker. His ability to make defenders miss and run by them makes him a threat to turn any play into a big play.

    He should immediately take over as Danny Amendola’s replacement at slot receiver, but in order to get him more touches, he could see snaps as an outside receiver and as a runner out of the backfield. He can also be utilized as a kickoff and punt returner.

    The Rams will likely do their best not to show their hand in training camp as far as how they will specifically utilize Austin. Nonetheless, how and where he practices should shine a light on how the Rams plan get the most out of their first-round pick and his huge upside.

Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Minnesota Vikings

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    The Minnesota Vikings have three first-round picks all expected to play significant roles in their rookie seasons (Sharrif Floyd, Xavier Rhodes and Cordarrelle Patterson), but none may face a bigger spotlight in training camp than Patterson.

    Although much bigger (6’2”, 216 lbs) than Austin and likely to start as an outside receiver, Patterson is also a versatile X-factor who could be used on gadget running plays and as a kickoff/punt returner. He has the size, speed (4.42 40) and ball-tracking ability to be a downfield receiving playmaker, but he also has great open-field running ability to make defenders miss and extend plays.

    Patterson has the pressure of immediately filling big shoes as the replacement for Percy Harvin, a dynamic offensive weapon who was traded to the Seattle Seahawks this offseason. Harvin was a crucial piece of the Vikings offense last season before going down with an ankle injury, totaling 667 receiving yards and 96 rushing yards in just nine games. 

    The Vikings did add an upgrade at wide receiver in Greg Jennings, but they have a limited arsenal of weapons outside of Jennings and Adrian Peterson. The Vikings should be looking for creative ways in training camp to utilize Patterson’s playmaking ability.

    Patterson, however, has to make some immediate strides to be ready to be one of the Vikings’ key offensive playmakers. Specifically, he needs to become a more complete route-runner and catch the ball consistently.

Aaron Dobson, WR, New England Patriots

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    Four of the New England Patriots’ top five receivers from last season are no longer with the team. The other, tight end Rob Gronkowski, is uncertain to be ready for the start of the season as he recovers from back surgery.

    With so much turnover among Tom Brady’s receiving targets, the window of opportunity is open for any receiver or tight end in Patriots training camp to step up and become a focal piece of the offense this season. The player facing the highest expectations to seize that opportunity will be rookie wide receiver Aaron Dobson.

    Dobson may have a lot of pressure on his shoulders for a second-round pick, but he also has an opportunity to put up big numbers right away. If he can establish a repertoire with Brady in training camp, he has the size (6'3'', 210 lbs) and downfield playmaking ability to step up and be the outside receiving threat the Patriots truly need.

    Being thrust in a potential No. 1 receiver role is a lot to ask of a rookie receiver. That said, Brady is as good as any quarterback in the league at quickly getting in rhythm with his receivers and making them look better. Dobson must continue to show his route-running ability, athleticism, great hands and ability to make catches in traffic.

    If Dobson performs well in training camp, he will earn a starting role on a team with little proven talent at wide receiver. Many eyes will be on Foxborough when training camp begins, and their rookie wideout will be among the top players to watch.

Ezekiel Ansah, DE, Detroit Lions

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    The Detroit Lions completely overhauled their defensive end rotation this offseason. The key to the success of that overhaul will be their No. 5 overall pick in the 2013 draft, Ezekiel Ansah, which will make his first training camp a very important one.

    The Lions will be immediately counting on Ansah to be the primary replacement for Cliff Avril, who had 39.5 sacks in five years with the team. Ansah has star potential, but with only three years of football experience in his life, his game remains very raw.

    He has the combination of size (6'5'', 271 lbs), length and athleticism to develop into a star pass-rusher, but he lacks the technique. Training camp will be an important time for Ansah to gain experience against NFL offensive tackles and continue to hone his technical skills.

    Ansah was a top-five draft pick because of his near-limitless potential. He may not be an immediate-impact player in the NFL, but the Lions need him to be.

    Most importantly, Ansah needs to learn how to win in other ways than relying on his measurables, and he must overcome a steep learning curve in understanding the Lions’ defensive scheme. If he can do that, he has both the natural pass-rush potential and point-of-attack strength to be an asset on all three downs.

Barkevious Mingo, OLB/DE, Cleveland Browns

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    As the Cleveland Browns switch to a hybrid, 3-4 based defensive scheme, they made a massive investment in improving their pass rush this offseason. As a result, No. 6 overall pick Barkevious Mingo will be competing for playing time in the pass-rush rotation with free-agent addition Paul Kruger and returning third-year player Jabaal Sheard.

    Mingo is expected to make an immediate impact for the Browns this season, but he will have to compete for a starting job in training camp.

    A very explosive athlete with huge pass-rushing potential, Mingo must show in training camp that he can make the transition to the Browns’ defensive scheme. He will have to show his ability to drop back into coverage as an outside linebacker, and he needs to add strength to hold up on the line of scrimmage as a defensive end in even fronts.

    Considering his potential and how high he was drafted, Mingo should certainly see his fair share of first-team reps in training camp and have a legitimate shot at earning a starting job. That said, he is likely to enter camp working often with the second-team defense as the third player in the outside linebacker/defensive end rotation behind Kruger and Sheard.

Jarvis Jones, OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    The Pittsburgh Steelers have not had a rookie starter on defense since 2001, but as Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted, No. 17 overall pick Jarvis Jones has a chance to end that drought. The Steelers released longtime outside linebacker James Harrison this offseason and drafted Jones to be his replacement.

    Jones won’t be given the starting job outright, but he should have an immediate opportunity to win it in training camp. He is likely to split first-team reps in training camp at the right outside linebacker position with Jason Worilds, whose production has been subpar over the course of his first three seasons.

    The Steelers needed to add a spark to their pass rush, and they could get one immediately from Jones. He was an extremely productive player at Georgia who is experienced as a 3-4 outside linebacker, and he is very good at getting around blockers and into the backfield to make plays.

    Jones has subpar measurables for the position (6'2'', 245 lbs), but so did Harrison. He has a similar skill set to Harrison, and his 3-4 experience combined with his physicality and playmaking ability off the edge makes him a great fit for the Steelers defense.

    The Steelers may prefer to start Jones off in a rotational role as a rookie, but if he can become quickly acclimated in training camp, he has a very good shot of earning a spot in the starting lineup.

Dee Milliner, CB, New York Jets

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    No. 9 overall pick Dee Milliner has as much pressure to perform this season as any player in the 2013 rookie class. The New York Jets drafted him to replace superstar cornerback Darrelle Revis, who was traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this offseason.

    Antonio Cromartie is likely to ascend to the No. 1 cornerback role for this season, as he did last year when Revis went down with a torn ACL. Milliner, however, is expected to immediately take over the starting spot opposite Cromartie.

    First, though, Milliner must show that he is healthy in training camp. He sat out OTAs and minicamp following offseason shoulder surgery. Cornerback is a notoriously tough position for rookies to step in and start immediately, so it is important for Milliner to be able to get as many reps as possible.

    Assuming he is healthy, the next step will be acclimating to the Jets defense while becoming more technically sound both in coverage and in tackling. He has the potential to ultimately be a No. 1 cornerback and a fine replacement for Revis, but he must continue to improve upon the flaws in his game just to be a sound No. 2 starter in 2013.

    Milliner could be pushed by Kyle Wilson for a starting spot in training camp, but Wilson worked primarily as the Jets’ nickel slot cornerback in spring workouts, according to Zach Braziller of the New York Post. That puts the pressure on Milliner to perform immediately in training camp.

D.J. Hayden, CB, Oakland Raiders

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    D.J. Hayden of the Oakland Raiders is another first-round pick cornerback going into training camp with immediate starting expectations, but he also health concerns. The No. 12 overall pick is expected to compete for a starting cornerback job, but he must overcome a frightening string of health issues.

    Hayden suffered a near-fatal tear to his inferior vena cava in November, but he made a miraculous comeback to the first round of the draft. Unfortunately, Hayden had another setback during OTAs when he underwent abdominal surgery to remove scar tissue.

    The Raiders were “relatively optimistic” at the end of June that Hayden would be ready for training camp, according to National Football Post’s Len Pasquarelli, and there have been no reports to the contrary. He will have to make up for lost time upon his return, but he has the potential to win a starting job and develop into an impact player in the Raiders secondary.

    Hayden is an explosive athlete with very good ball skills and good instincts. He is expected to jockey for position in the top three spots of the cornerback depth chart with veteran free-agent additions Mike Jenkins and Tracy Porter.

    Neither Jenkins nor Porter is a No. 1 cornerback in skill, so if Hayden can acclimate quickly to the Raiders defense and show no ill effects of his health concerns, he could take on that role immediately as a rookie.

Johnthan Banks, CB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers acquired Darrelle Revis this offseason, but the No. 2 starting cornerback job is open following the team’s release of Eric Wright earlier this week. The favorite to take on that role heading into training camp is rookie second-round pick Johnthan Banks.

    Banks fell to the second round due to a lack of speed (4.59 40), but he is as well-rounded as any cornerback in the rookie class. He is a technically sound cornerback with great ball skills, and his size (6'2'', 185 lbs), physicality and instincts help him make up for his subpar speed.

    Banks is likely to split first-team repetitions in training camp with second-year cornerback Leonard Johnson, whose lack of speed knocked him all the way out of last year’s draft (4.62 40). Johnson had an impressive rookie campaign nonetheless, but he is better suited to play slot cornerback, while Banks’ size makes him a good fit to line up outside opposite Revis.

    Taking on an immediate starting role is difficult for any rookie cornerback, so Banks must become quickly acclimated to the Buccaneers’ coverage schemes to succeed in 2013. But if he shows consistent and positive progress in training camp, he has a great shot to supplant Johnson and be a Week 1 starter on the Tampa Bay defense.

    Dan Hope is an NFL draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report.