Impressive NFL OTA Performances We Can't Ignore
There is an understandable temptation to overreact to the happenings of organized team activities (OTAs)—voluntary, non-contact exercises held months before the start of the regular season.
For those starved for the sport, anything resembling the real thing is worth digesting.
But as Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy recently warned, OTAs are more or less an imitation of the real thing.
"This is a CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) practice, this isn't real football or anything," McCarthy said after one of Green Bay's OTA practices last week, per the team website.
Real football or not, OTAs do provide an early proving ground during preparation for a new season. We can dismiss some standout performances, but we need to file others away and remember them for when the real football does begin.
In the following slides, we'll highlight the OTA performances—including youngsters standing out, potential breakout stars and veterans reestablishing their value—worth keeping in mind.
Marcus Mariota, QB, Tennesseee Titans
The second overall pick in the 2015 draft is already winning over beat writers and teammates alike at Titans camp.
"He has looked better than I thought he would out of the gate, with impressive arm strength and confidence running the offense," wrote veteran writer Jim Wyatt of the Tennessean. He continued that Mariota hasn't come close to "embarrassing himself," which sounds like a backhanded compliment but is actually impressive considering his difficult transition from the college to pro game.
Teammates have also taken notice.
One veteran inside the Tennessee locker room told NFL Network's Jeff Darlington that Mariota is the "real deal." He described the rookie quarterback as a "stud player with a great arm—but also a perfect attitude."
It's early to assume anything for Mariota, but his start at OTAs sure beats the alternative.
Rex Burkhead, RB/WR, Cincinnati Bengals
With Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard entrenched at the running back position, the Bengals have required creativity to get the versatile yet talented Rex Burkhead on the field.
The start of OTAs has shown a renewed commitment to the idea.
After employing Burkhead as a slot receiver during last season's playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts, Cincinnati is once again asking the former sixth-round pick to take snaps out wide.
"You have a talented player on your team, you see if you can find a way to get him involved," offensive coordinator Hue Jackson told Paul Dehner Jr. of the Cincinnati Enquirer. "He can do a little bit of everything. He can run the ball, too. He can catch, protect. He's one of the better players on our team, so we will see what we can do with him."
Burkhead carried only nine times and caught just seven passes last season. Jackson's comments appear to signal a serious uptick in numbers for the third-year pro, even if Hill and Bernard continue to dominate the snaps at running back.
Amari Cooper, WR, Oakland Raiders
That bellowing sound you hear coming from the West Coast is probably the growing hype train of Raiders rookie receiver Amari Cooper.
Early returns on the No. 4 overall pick suggest Oakland has hit a home run with Cooper.
"Real deal," one team source told ESPN's Adam Caplan. "Almost no mental errors. Runs great routes, consistent route runner."
ESPN.com's Michael Wagaman has seen much of the same: "His route running continues to be crisp, and Cooper seems to be picking up offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave's playbook without much problem."
The predraft profile on Cooper—which often mentioned his overall polished game—appears to be holding up during OTAs. He has a long way to go, but the Raiders should so far feel comfortable about their investment.
Kamar Aiken, WR, Baltimore Ravens
While the drafting of speedster Breshad Perriman should give the Ravens a natural replacement for the departed Torrey Smith, don't sleep on a returning receiver who is keen on making the most of his opportunity.
An undrafted free agent in 2011, Kamar Aiken is already on his fourth NFL team. But his 24 catches and three touchdowns in a limited role last season suggest he could be on the verge of a potential breakout year in 2015.
OTAs have provided him a chance to show off his abilities.
According to Turron Davenport of the Baltimore Times, Aiken has been running with the starters and making plays in the 11-on-11 drills.
Ryan Mink of the Ravens' official site summed up his impressive day:
Aiken caught everything his way, including a long bomb over the top, a tough tiptoeing sideline catch, a lunging fingertips grab over the middle and a jump ball in the end zone. Don’t count Aiken out for a starting job; he was running with the first team opposite Steve Smith Sr.
The depth chart behind Steve Smith Sr. is a messy one, with several players in the running for playing time. Perriman is going to have a legit chance to win a starting job, but Aiken might make it tough on the rookie—especially if he keeps standing out on the practice field.
Brandon Coleman, WR, New Orleans Saints
When the Saints traded Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills this offseason, a massive opportunity opened up within New Orleans' suddenly new-look receiving group.
It's possible Brandon Coleman—an interesting hybrid of Graham and Stills—could be the biggest beneficiary.
The 6'6" receiver from Rutgers is opening eyes at Saints camp, where nothing beyond Brandin Cooks and Marques Colston is settled at the position.
“I just go out there not thinking as much and just play the game I’ve been playing all my life," Coleman said, via Mike Triplett of ESPN.com. "My mentality is to just go out there and make plays."
Triplett smartly warns that Coleman and fellow receiver Seantavius Jones—another standout so far—are in danger of being overhyped. But in an offense led by Drew Brees and suddenly in need of playmakers, New Orleans can't overlook any standout.
Brees has done more with less in the past. Coleman's opportunity is real.
Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It's easy to forget that Doug Martin is only two years removed from nearly rushing for 1,500 yards. The Buccaneers—under new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter—are now giving a slimmer Martin a chance to put back-to-back down years behind him.
“I wanted to be a little faster and a little quicker in my game and for me to be able to do that was to decrease my body fat, go hard in the weight room and come out here on the field and show the coaches," Martin said, via Scott Reynolds of Pewter Report.
According to Reynolds, Martin "looks faster than ever," with a slimmer frame and renewed acceleration. He's been taking first-team reps with the Buccaneers offense at OTAs.
"I feel great," Martin said. "My body feels good, my mind is right where it needs to be and I’m ready for the season.”
The arrival of Koetter has presented Martin and his regressing career a second chance. His offseason work—and early OTA returns—suggest he's physically and mentally ready for the opportunity.
Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati Bengals
After returning from ACL surgery to produce the worst year of his NFL career, Geno Atkins is now ready to give the Bengals the old version of himself.
According to several coaches, the former All-Pro is tearing up OTAs.
“Scary,” defensive line coach Jay Hayes told Geoff Hobson of the Bengals' official site. “It’s scary how fast and explosive he is right now. I think he has the confidence that he has his legs under him. He feels like he did.”
Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther took it one step further.
“He looks as good as any guy we’ve got on our team. On the defensive side at least,” Guenther said. “He’s real explosive. He looks strong. He looks as good as he’s ever had. I’m proud of the way he’s come back. He gives us a huge boost. Huge. You’re talking about one of the elite players in the league.”
Atkins played in all 16 games last season but was a shell of himself, managing just three sacks. The Bengals finished with a league-low 20 sacks. Having Atkins back at an All-Pro level should help Cincinnati rebound in taking down the quarterback.
T.J. Yeldon, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars
It didn't take long for rookie running back T.J. Yeldon to establish himself as the likely starter for a Jaguars team that recently signed Toby Gerhart and featured former quarterback Denard Robinson.
After early rounds of OTAs, new offensive coordinator Greg Olson believes his young back is ready for the role.
“He was a playmaker and he played big in big games. He’s a very knowledgeable, intelligent player at the running back position," Olson told Ryan O'Halloran of the Florida Times-Union. "[Playing every down] would be asking a lot of any player. I wouldn’t put it past him. He’s another real self-starter and hard worker.”
O'Halloran predicts Yeldon will be the starting running back when the Jaguars open the season on Sept. 13.
“He looks really good in short-area change of direction,” linebacker Paul Posluszny told John Oehser of the Jaguars' official site. “He looks really, really good there. It’s, ‘How does a guy move in space? How athletic is he?’ That’s what stands out. With him, he definitely has it.”
Recent second-round backs such as Le'Veon Bell and Eddie Lacy have become instant stars. Maybe Yeldon is next.
Jacob Tamme, TE/Leonard Hankerson, WR, Atlanta Falcons
Two offseason additions to the Falcons offense have stood out early on at OTAs.
Coaches are going out of their way to praise both tight end Jacob Tamme and receiver Leonard Hankerson.
“He (Tamme) fits in with what we’re trying to do real well. He’s a smart guy, asks great questions and is catching the heck out of the ball," Falcons tight end coach Wade Harman said, via the team's official site. "He’s a very reliable, quarterback-friendly guy. When you throw the ball anywhere around him, QBs feel confident he’s going to come down with it.”
Tamme, a former Colt and Bronco, has 178 catches and 10 touchdowns over his seven-year career, but he's never been a go-to option within an offense. He could be in Atlanta, where new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan figures to continue leaning on the tight end position.
Head coach Dan Quinn singled out Hankerson as having "really jumped out" at OTAs, per ESPN.com's Vaughn McClure.
At 6'2", 211 pounds, Hankerson has size and talent, but he rarely stayed healthy in Washington. A clean slate and playing with Matt Ryan could produce the breakout season most have been waiting for.
Matt Jones, RB, Washington Redskins
The 6'2", 231-pound Jones hasn't gone Beast Mode at OTAs, but he's still turning heads.
According to Mike Jones of the Washington Post, Jones served as the team's third-down back during the practices, showing off versatility that even surprised head coach Jay Gruden. His ability to catch the football—as well as his development as a pass-protector—could mean a decent number of snaps for the rookie once the season opens.
But don't count out his chance to steal some carries from incumbent starter Alfred Morris. Gruden didn't rule out Jones earning more playing time during training camp and the preseason, per Rich Tandler of CSN Washington.
"We’ve been very impressed (with) him," Gruden said.