Early Studs and Duds from NFL Training Camps

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor IAugust 5, 2015

Early Studs and Duds from NFL Training Camps

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Let’s make this clear. We are not drawing any final conclusions from the early stages of training camp.

    But it is interesting to take a spin around the NFL and see who is attracting attention, both good and bad, among the 32 teams.

    So here is a look at 11 players who have either earned a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down from the critics so far. This group of performers stood out for various reasons, as they are either suddenly in the running for a starting job or have caught the eye of many observers.

    We are also aware that things can change in a heartbeat when it comes to players and how coaches feel about them. So take these early thoughts with a grain of salt. And keep in mind that a week from now, some of these duds could be on the rise, and a few of these studs could suddenly be slumping.

Stud: Geno Smith, QB, New York Jets

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    As Rich Cimini of ESPN. com wrote, New York Jets quarterback Geno Smith has committed just one turnover in five practices so far this training camp.

    But who was it who said, “Practice. We’re talking about…practice”?

    All kidding aside, when your team coughs up the football a combined 53 times in two seasons and you’re responsible for 41 of those miscues, you’ll take any kind of progress.

    “I’m just growing as a person,” said Smith to Cimini after Tuesday’s practice. “I think, as you get older, you get a better understanding. I’m definitely more mature. I think if I wasn’t, that would be a problem.”

    “I’m seeing things better,” added the third-year pro. “I’m not feeling rushed. I’m just more comfortable in the pocket.”

    The Jets' new head coach Todd Bowles and new offensive coordinator Chan Gailey are certainly hoping that comfort level carries into this fall and winter.

Dud: Justin Gilbert, CB, Cleveland Browns

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    Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

    In 2014, the Cleveland Browns selected Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert with the eighth overall pick in the draft.

    Just 119 selections later, the club took another defensive back in Lindenwood’s Pierre Desir.

    Guess who is earning more attention these days?

    Pat McManamon of ESPN.com wrote that Desir has taken first-team reps ahead of Gilbert each of the last two days. When the media asked the latter if he would be a starter in 2015, Gilbert answered, “We'll see what happens.”

    In 14 games (two starts) this past season, Gilbert totaled 29 tackles, knocked down eight passes and returned his lone interception of the year for a touchdown.

    To date, he rates as a disappointment. Of course, it’s still early in Gilbert’s career. But for a team looking to get out of the AFC North basement for the first time since 2010, it’s less than encouraging news.

Stud: Amari Cooper, WR, Oakland Raiders

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    Eric Risberg/Associated Press

    Good news for the Oakland Raiders? It’s been a long time coming.

    The franchise, which hasn’t enjoyed a winning season since 2002, appears to have found a real gem, and it will look to improve on last year’s dismal showing on offense.

    NFL Media insider Ian Rapoport of NFL.com wrote that wide receiver Amari Cooper, the fourth overall pick in April’s draft, is looking like a No. 1 wideout these days. In 2014, Oakland gained the fewest total yards in the league and finished 26th in the NFL in passing yards per contest.

    As Rapoport also pointed out, free-agent pickup Michael Crabtree has impressed as well. This adds up to nothing but good news for second-year Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, who's coming off a solid rookie campaign.

    And here is a statistic that may grab your attention: The last Raider to total 1,000 or more yards receiving was Randy Moss in 2005.

Dud: Darren McFadden, RB, Dallas Cowboys

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    Gus Ruelas/Associated Press

    Yes, we are early in the process, and it’s still training camp. But many were hoping to hear something a little different when it came to running back Darren McFadden.

    The fourth overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft by the Oakland Raiders is enormously talented but has had issues staying on the field. This past season, he finally played in all 16 games for the first time in seven seasons. He still ran for just 534 yards on 155 carries (two touchdowns), and the Silver and Black ranked dead last in the NFL in rushing.

    McFadden is currently nursing an injured hamstring, which is perhaps the last thing this team needs to hear as it looks to replace the 2014 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, running back DeMarco Murray.

    “I am disappointed, but I understand,” said Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to Charean Williams of the Star-Telegram this past Sunday. “I would rather him be working through that problem now than three or four weeks from now. With that group, we’ve got to keep the Giants in mind.”

    "That group" includes the likes of Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar, as well as McFadden, and hopefully sooner rather than later.

Stud: Richie Incognito, LG, Buffalo Bills

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    Bill Wippert/Associated Press

    Perhaps some time away from the game gave controversial guard Richie Incognito a chance to appreciate what he had.

    Now he has something else. And that’s a job with the Buffalo Bills.

    “One thing’s for sure, Richie’s a starter,” said head coach Rex Ryan to the Associated Press (via the Sun Sentinel) earlier this week. “He looks about as good as any of them. He really does.”

    That’s great news for an offensive front that had its issues in 2014. Buffalo finished just 25th in the NFL in rushing yards per game (92.6) and allowed 39 sacks. Incognito, who last played for the Miami Dolphins in 2013, will be Buffalo’s starting left guard.

    “It was a long road back,” said Incognito. “It was dark times. And it was something at times I didn’t think was going to happen. But I’ve been blessed with an opportunity.”

    “A lot of people laid their neck out on the line for me,” added the veteran blocker. “And I just wanted to prove them right.”

    Now, Incognito will have the opportunity to prove many of his critics wrong.

Dud: Jay Ajayi, RB, Miami Dolphins

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    This past season, Miami Dolphins running back Lamar Miller finished 10th in the NFL with 1,099 rushing yards, and the team ranked 12th in the league, averaging 117 yards per game on the ground. It was a big step forward for a club that in 2013 was ranked 26th in the NFL in rushing.

    Still, Joe Philbin and Co. hoped to add a little more depth to the backfield in the draft. Keep in mind that quarterback Ryan Tannehill finished second on the team with 311 rushing yards.

    The Dolphins were hoping rookie Jay Ajayi, a fifth-round pick from Boise State in this year's draft, could help their cause. But as Adam Beasley of the Miami Herald pointed out, it’s been a less than scintillating start for the rookie. Mike Tannenbaum, Miami's vice president of football operations, said Ajayi needs to pass-protect better to make the roster, as the Miami Herald reported (via Rotoworld).

    Yes, it is extremely early for all rookies around the league. So don’t rule out everything coming together for Ajayi, who could provide some help for a Miami offense that could be fun to watch in 2015.

Stud: Timmy Jernigan, DT, Baltimore Ravens

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    This past season, rookie defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan stepped in for a suspended Haloti Ngata down the stretch and made quite an impression for the Baltimore Ravens. 

    Now, the 2014 second-round pick from Florida State is making his presence felt in his second training camp with the club.

    In 2014, Jernigan played in 12 games and totaled 23 tackles and four sacks. He wound up in the starting lineup for the final three regular-season contests and now takes over for Ngata, who was dealt to the Detroit Lions this offseason.

    Jon Meoli of the Baltimore Sun wrote that the former Seminole is looking to improve his overall game and wants to become a factor on run defense, and he's already making strides in that area this summer. This past season, with Ngata in the lineup for the majority of the year, only three teams in the NFL allowed fewer rushing yards per game.

    Replacing a five-time Pro Bowler is never an easy task, but as usual, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome may have the solution.

Duds: EJ Manuel and Matt Cassel, QB, Buffalo Bills

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    Bill Wippert/Associated Press

    Have we not been down this path before?

    This past season, then-head coach Doug Marrone pulled starting quarterback EJ Manuel after just four games and inserted veteran Kyle Orton into the starting lineup for the remainder of the season. The Buffalo Bills won seven of their final 12 games and finished with a winning record for the first time since 2004.

    A first-round selection in 2013, Manuel has played in only 15 games and made just 14 starts in two seasons with the team. New head coach Rex Ryan and general manager Doug Whaley traded for veteran Matt Cassel this offseason and added Tyrod Taylor and Matt Simms via free agency.

    The bottom line here is that it has been hard to get a grasp on just who is the front-runner for the job these days. It seems to change on a weekly basis, and Taylor remains very much in the picture. Mike Rodak of ESPN.com (h/t Marc Sessler of NFL.com) provided the sad news on the duel to date.

    Unfortunately, the performances of Manuel and Cassel have featured more flops than reasons to flip.

Stud: Marcus Mariota, QB, Tennessee Titans

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    So far, so good for Tennessee Titans rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota.

    John Glennon of the Tennessean reported Monday that the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner and University of Oregon star hasn’t thrown any ducks in practice to date. In other words, Mariota had not thrown an interception in four consecutive practices.

    That's good news for the Titans, who played four different quarterbacks this past season (three starters in Jake Locker, Charlie Whitehurst and Zach Mettenberger) and saw them combine for 20 touchdown passes and 19 turnovers.

    Of course, Mariota also hopes to help the offense in a variety of ways. This past season, Tennessee ranked 29th in the NFL in total yards gained per game (26th in rushing), and only Oakland (253) and Jacksonville (249) scored fewer points (254).

    The rookie quarterback has his work cut out for him, and the Titans are hoping the young signal-caller can be a one-man show.

Dud: Terrance West, RB, Cleveland Browns

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    We hate to pick on the same team twice, but it’s hard to ignore what you are reading.

    This past season, the Cleveland Browns ground attack slumped after a good start. Part of the reason was the loss of former Pro Bowl center Alex Mack in October.

    However, Tony Grossi of ESPNCleveland.com wrote that all is not well with a running back corps thought to be one of this year's better groups. Rookie Duke Johnson is currently out with an injury, but it is second-year pro Terrance West who has caught some unwanted attention.

    “West looks chunky in his second season and I keep hearing he is on thin ice because of maturity issues,” Grossi wrote.

    That’s the last piece of news this team needs. This past season, the third-round pick from Towson led the Browns with 673 yards rushing and ran for four scores. Cleveland still has Isaiah Crowell (607 rushing yards, eight touchdowns in 2014), and it recently added, per ClevelandBrowns.com, running backs Timothy Flanders and Jalen Parmele.

    However, for a team that has struggled on offense for years, now is not the best time for West to go south.


    All free-agent information and player signings/transactions are courtesy of Spotrac. Depth-chart information comes via Ourlads. Unless otherwise noted, all player and team statistics come from Pro-Football-Reference.com and ESPN.com.