Updating the Latest Buzz on Top Rookies at NFL Training Camps
As NFL training camps have kicked off throughout the league, much of the early buzz has centered around each team’s newly initiated rookies, as coaches, media and fans alike try to get a handle on how this year’s crop of first-year players might be able to contribute to their new franchises.
The spotlight has been on some of the top players selected in the 2015 NFL draft—including Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston and Tennessee Titans signal-caller Marcus Mariota—and highly touted players who are seeing their first on-field action with their new teams, like St. Louis Rams running back Todd Gurley.
With preseason debuts for each of these players are less than two weeks away, progress toward the regular season is already being made. Every day of training camp can be an important step toward determining what roles each player will take on in 2015, and that is especially true for the members of the rookie class.
In the following slides, we'll take a look at some of the most noteworthy members of this year's rookie class and round up what you need to know about how each of those players has performed in their first few practice sessions of the summer.
Jameis Winston Officially Named Starting Quarterback
During their OTAs and minicamp in the spring, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers presented the facade of a quarterback competition as the team split reps with the first-team offense between No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston and incumbent Mike Glennon.
That charade came to an end Friday—one day before the Buccaneers’ first training camp practice—when head coach Lovie Smith made the least surprising announcement of the summer by officially naming Winston the team’s starting quarterback.
"Jameis is ready to take the reins and go with it,” Smith said, according to Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times. “The mental part, the physical part and just being a quarterback in the NFL and being able to take all the criticism that goes with that, he's ready for it.”
There was no reason for the Buccaneers to delay the gratification of naming Winston their starting quarterback any longer. That became a foregone conclusion the moment they drafted him. Glennon was never going to have a real shot at beating him out for the job.
Now, Winston will have every opportunity to prove on the field that the Buccaneers made the right decision in drafting him and declaring him to be the leader of their offense.
So far, he is reportedly off to a good start. Joe Kania of Buccaneers.com named Winston the team’s No. 1 standout from their opening practice Saturday.
“Winston had a good first day of practice, despite heavy rain, and had success working with his tight ends in the middle of the field,” Kania wrote.
During Sunday's practice—the Buccaneers’ first that was open to the public—Winston continued to impress, according to Bleacher Report’s Luke Easterling.
“Winston was obviously the main attraction, and the new franchise quarterback didn't disappoint, making plenty of sharp throws into tight coverage and looking extremely comfortable in just his second NFL practice,” Easterling wrote.
Titans Offense, Marcus Mariota Adapting to One Another
When the Tennessee Titans drafted Marcus Mariota with the No. 2 overall pick, one widely expressed concern about the pairing was whether Mariota’s skill set as a dual-threat quarterback would be able to mesh successfully with the offensive system of Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt, who has traditionally preferred to keep quarterbacks in the pocket.
Whisenhunt and the Titans are determined to make it work.
The potential challenges Mariota faces in adjusting to a pro-style offense have been well-documented, but the reality is that both parties will be adjusting to one another. Evidence of that has already taken place in Tennessee’s training camp.
Mariota is off to a solid start passing the ball. According to ESPN.com’s Paul Kuharsky, he has completed 38 of 58 passing attempts through three days.
Whisenhunt said he has been impressed with how Mariota has dealt with passing in the pocket while under pressure, per Kuharsky:
One of the questions that a lot of people (on the outside) had about him was his ability to stay in the pocket and throw, and there were a couple of great examples today where there was pressure at his feet and he made some good throws. [It’s] great to see him stay in there, it’s great that he has that confidence. But really what stands out is that he sees things down the field and he’s able to throw it accurately.
Mariota has not been limited to passing the ball, despite Whisenhunt’s history.
According to Kuharsky’s report on the Titans’ second practice, which took place Saturday, the team has begun integrating designed quarterback runs into its offense. It sounds as though the Titans still have significant work in front of them to be effective in that regard, but nonetheless, the team is exploring ways to take advantage of Mariota’s athleticism.
“The Heisman Trophy winner also had two designed runs, where he took a shotgun snap, paused a beat and took off, moving left,” Kuharsky wrote. “There was no read-option element to either run and they didn't seem to catch the defense off guard. But they were evidence of an expanded offensive envelope for the rookie.”
Amari Cooper Solid on Offense, Could Also Play on Special Teams
There might not be any rookie facing greater expectations for the upcoming season than Oakland Raiders wide receiver Amari Cooper. The No. 4 overall pick in this year’s draft, Cooper is considered to be an Offensive Rookie of the Year favorite and is expected to make an immediate and substantial impact on the Raiders offense this season.
Arguably the safest pick in the 2015 draft class, the Alabama product has the physical tools and route-running ability to potentially emerge as a spectacular player. He is expected to at least be a steady contributor this season, which is how he has looked so far in camp, according to Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle.
“Cooper not flashy, just makes catches,” Tafur tweeted during the Raiders’ Sunday practice.
To this point, however, it has been the Raiders’ other high-profile offseason addition at wide receiver—veteran Michael Crabtree—who has stolen the spotlight at Oakland’s training camp, at least from Tafur’s point of view.
“Cooper has been fine; Crabtree star of first three days,” Tafur noted in another tweet.
Crabtree’s emergence should not have any negative impact on Cooper, as both are fully expected to be in the team’s starting lineup at wide receiver. In fact, it could be a boon to Cooper; the more coverage Crabtree draws to his side of the field, the more opportunities the shifty and savvy Cooper will have to take advantage of potentially favorable matchups.
In addition to his work with the first-team offense, Cooper has continued to get looks as a punt returner, according to ESPN’s John Clayton (via the team’s official Twitter account).
“Very fascinating to see Amari Cooper back returning punts,” Clayton wrote. “Pro Bowl-potential wide receiver, see where they use him.”
It would come as a surprise if Cooper ends up being tasked with punt return duties during the regular season, given that he never returned a punt in college and is expected to be a mainstay in the team’s offensive lineup.
But it makes sense for the Raiders to explore all possible ways to maximize Cooper’s value, given the significant investment the team made in him as well as his speed and quickness.
Brandon Scherff a Better Run-Blocker Than Pass-Blocker
Playing right tackle with the first-team offense in Washington Redskins training camp means drawing a tough assignment. Recently re-signed Ryan Kerrigan typically plays the left outside linebacker position in the Washington defense, so No. 5 overall pick Brandon Scherff has been tasked with going up against Kerrigan—one of the best edge defenders in the NFL—in his inaugural training camp.
Scherff, who is also dealing with the challenge of adjusting to a new position after playing left tackle during his collegiate career at Iowa, has reportedly been overmatched by Kerrigan in pass-blocking situations early on, according to ESPN.com’s John Keim.
“Ryan Kerrigan consistently beats rookie Brandon Scherff in one-on-one pass-rush drills, often with quick rips to the outside,” Keim wrote.
Considering that Kerrigan ranks among the top pass-rushers in the league, coming off a 13.5-sack season, Scherff’s early struggles against him should not come as a surprise. In the long run, doing battle with Kerrigan in practice will only make him better prepared to go up against the league's top pass-rushers in live-game situations.
Where Scherff has been able to hold his own out of the gate is as a run-blocker, according to Keim.
“Scherff has done a nice job against [Kerrigan] in the run game during full-team work,” Keim wrote. “Did a nice job getting his feet around on an outside zone, preventing Kerrigan from setting the edge. The book on Scherff: He's strong.”
The Redskins should see immediate dividends from drafting Scherff when running the ball this year. Pass protection could come with some hiccups—offensive tackle is a position at which rookies, even those who are highly drafted, struggle against the pass rush more often than not—but once the Outland Trophy winner gets acclimated to his new position, he has the skills to excel in that regard as well.
Scherff himself has acknowledged that his first training camp is going to be a learning process, according to Brendan Capria of Redskins.com.
“I’m just trying to take each day, improve on something I didn’t do yesterday and just try to learn from the older guys,” Scherff said.
Leonard Williams Taking Advantage of Opportunity to Play
When the New York Jets selected defensive lineman Leonard Williams with the No. 6 overall pick in this year’s draft, questions immediately arose about whether Williams would be able to get significant playing time at his natural position, defensive end, in the Jets’ 3-4 front with Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson already entrenched as starters.
However, that concern is increasingly looking to be a moot point.
Richardson has been suspended for the first four games of the season due to a substance-abuse policy violation. He could also potentially face more discipline after being “charged with resisting arrest and several traffic violations," according to Ben Shpigel of the New York Times. That has opened the door for Williams, who many analysts considered to be the most talented prospect in the 2015 draft class, to be fast-tracked into a starting job.
Per Dom Cosentino of NJ Advance Media, Richardson worked with the second-team defense on the first day of practice, even before news of his arrest broke later that day. Williams and veteran Leger Douzable took Richardson’s place in the lineup.
If the powerful, explosive Williams plays up to his potential, Douzable—who has just seven starts in seven NFL seasons to date—won’t be taking away many of his snaps. Jets coach Todd Bowles has said that veterans Stephen Bowen and Kevin Vickerson will also get reps, according to ESPN.com’s Ohm Youngmisuk, but neither of them should present a significant threat to Williams’ opening for playing time either.
According to Youngmisuk, Williams didn’t get off to a great start on the opening day of camp.
“Like any rookie in his first training camp practice, Williams had some moments he would rather have back,” Youngmisuk wrote. “He was pushed backward onto the ground on one running play by right guard Dakota Dozier during practice which was not in full pads.”
Nonetheless, Williams should play a big part in softening the impact of Richardson not being on the field. While Douzable, Bowen and Vickerson are all average players at best who rarely make impact plays, Williams has the potential to truly be something special once his technique becomes more polished.
Vic Beasley Battling Competitively with Jake Matthews
Outside of the quarterback position, left tackle and edge-rusher are typically the two positions that are valued most highly on NFL rosters. Already possessing an excellent quarterback in Matt Ryan, the Atlanta Falcons have attempted to find stars at the other premier positions, selecting offensive lineman Jake Matthews with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2014 draft, then drafting edge defender Vic Beasley with the No. 8 overall pick in this year’s draft.
Now, as Beasley looks to make an immediate impact as a rookie while Matthews seeks to bounce back from a disappointing rookie season of his own, the first-year edge-rusher and second-year left tackle have been competing hard against one another in practice early on in camp, according to ESPN.com’s Vaughn McClure.
“The rookie Beasley, expected to inject life into the pass rush, showed his speed and quickness,” McClure wrote. “But the left tackle Matthews, who had his left plant foot surgically repaired following a Lisfranc ligament tear, went toe to toe with Beasley without issue. He held up well when Beasley tried to dip inside.”
Falcons coach Dan Quinn, excited about the early progress of both players, believes the matchup between them will make each of them better.
“That’s one we’ll be watching for a long time,” Quinn said of the battle between Beasley and Matthews, according to D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Jeanna Thomas of The Falcoholic wrote Sunday that Beasley and Matthews “were really evenly matched,” but added that the rookie from Clemson’s potential stood out nonetheless.
“Vic Beasley is going to be something special,” Thomas wrote. “His first step is incredible.”
After recording just 22 sacks as a team last season—the same number that Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston had as an individual—the Falcons need a premier pass-rushing threat to rise up in their new defense this season. Thus far, it sounds as though Beasley's battles with Matthews are preparing him well to be just that.
Ereck Flowers Having an Encouraging Start as Giants Left Tackle
With Will Beatty on the physically unable to perform list and expected to be sidelined until at least October after tearing a pectoral muscle this offseason, No. 9 overall pick Ereck Flowers has been thrust into an immediate starting role at left tackle for the New York Giants.
Considered to be a raw talent coming out of Miami after his junior year, Flowers is expected to have growing pains in 2015, as virtually all rookies who start at left tackle do. However, early reports have indicated that Flowers is off to a good start in training camp as he prepares to take on a huge role.
James Kratch of NJ Advance Media, who specifically focused in on Flowers during the Giants’ second practice of training camp Saturday, wrote of the first-rounder:
Flowers certainly looks the part of a left tackle—he's listed at 6-foot-6 and 329 pounds—and he appeared to get most of his blocks during team portion. He looked good in his pass sets and was effective in the run game, although run blocking without pads only reveals so much.
One thing that kind of stood out was that Flowers looks a little high in his stance at times before the ball was snapped. But he did not seem to be lacking leverage when he blocked, and he is 6-foot-6 after all.
Giants head coach Tom Coughlin gave a more pragmatic response when asked Saturday about Flowers’ performance through the team’s first two practices.
"I haven't seen anything particularly good or bad just yet,” Coughlin said, per Kratch. “It's very early.”
Art Stapleton of NorthJersey.com tweeted Sunday that Flowers has been at his best so far as a run-blocker, but also noted that he's improved as a pass-blocker over the course of the Giants’ first three practice sessions.
“Swallows up defenders in the run game,” Stapleton wrote. “Beaten on edge with speed first day. Stood up pretty well to pass rush today.”
As Coughlin noted, there is still a long way to go until the regular season; Flowers’ best and worst are both almost certainly yet to come. However, the perception that he is already improving and holding his own is a great sign for the Giants, as his ability to provide adequate play on the edge of the line will be critical for New York to succeed early in the season.
Update: After his quality start, Flowers' progress came to a halt Monday, as he was forced to sit out practice with a hip flexor injury, according to NFL Media's Kimberly Jones. The team considers Flowers' status to be "day to day," per Jones.
Todd Gurley Working His Way Back Up to Speed
The best news to emerge from the St. Louis Rams’ first week at training camp occurred before the team’s first practice even began.
That news came on conditioning test day, when No. 10 overall pick Todd Gurley—just eight-and-a-half months removed from tearing the ACL in his left knee—passed the test “impressively,” as it was described by Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, thus clearing him for activity as the Rams begin their preparations for the season.
That’s not to say that the Georgia product is ready to be the Rams’ next star running back quite yet. He has been limited to individual drills during the team's opening practices, according to ESPN.com’s Nick Wagoner. Rams coach Jeff Fisher told Wagoner that Gurley is “not 100 percent” and “not ready to play in a game right now.”
That said, it is a great sign for Gurley and the Rams that the ball-carrier is back to work on the field, and it could mean that Gurley is on track to be on the field with the Rams offense in Week 1 of the regular season.
With six weeks still to go until the team’s season opener against the Seattle Seahawks, the Rams are being smartly cautious with Gurley. At this point, it would come as a surprise if Gurley were to see any extensive time in preseason games or in contact drills before the regular season begins.
When Gurley does return to full participation, however, he could instantly start making a big impact on the Rams offense. A rare talent for the running back position, Gurley is a big (6’1”, 222 pounds), versatile back with a cyborg-like combination of size, power and speed.
Trae Waynes Starting out as a Slot Cornerback
Despite being the first cornerback selected in the 2015 NFL draft, No. 11 overall pick Trae Waynes is not expected to be a full-time starter in his rookie year; veteran Terence Newman was brought in via free agency this offseason to man a spot in the lineup at outside cornerback opposite the top player on the team’s depth chart at the position, Xavier Rhodes.
However, Waynes could still end up seeing significant playing time this season as a slot cornerback in nickel packages. That’s a possibility that the Vikings have at least toyed with through their first week of training camp practices.
According to Andrew Krammer of 1500ESPN.com, Waynes has worked primarily with the second-team defense so far in training camp, but he's also been taking some repetitions that would otherwise go to Captain Munnerlyn at slot cornerback with the first-team unit.
As ESPN.com’s Ben Goessling noted, it shouldn’t necessarily be presumed that Waynes will be thrust into playing the nickel cornerback role right away. Nonetheless, it makes sense for Vikings coach Mike Zimmer and his staff to experiment and get a feel for how well Waynes might be able to contribute in that capacity.
“(It's) kind of what we like to do with a lot of young guys—give them a lot of stuff to do, and if we have to, pare it down as opposed to saying, 'Well, he can’t do that,' and never knowing if they can,” Zimmer said about Waynes working in the slot, per Goessling. “It would be good for his overall development of his game, just by understating things that happen inside as well."
A long-limbed cornerback who is faster in a straight line than he is laterally agile, Waynes is seemingly a much better fit to play outside—which will ultimately be his home position long-term—than he is inside. In the nickel cornerback role, Waynes might not be an upgrade over Munnerlyn, especially early on as he works on refining his technique.
Given that, Waynes’ playing time could end up being limited in his rookie year unless injuries strike in front of him. Early in training camp, though, it’s a good thing that the Vikings are working him at multiple positions to evaluate their rookie’s readiness to contribute.
Melvin Gordon Still Working to Get Up to Speed
Melvin Gordon made the running back position look easy at Wisconsin, especially in 2014, when he led the nation with 2,587 rushing yards and 29 rushing touchdowns. However, playing against tougher competition in his first few practices at San Diego Chargers training camp has presented some challenges to the No. 15 overall pick, as he gets acclimated to a higher degree of difficulty.
Gordon was a “fan favorite” on the Chargers’ first day of training camp Thursday, according to ESPN.com’s Eric D. Williams, but his start was imperfect. Per Williams, Gordon is working to improve in pass protection and also dropped a pass on the first day of camp, failing to assuage concerns that draft analysts had about his ability to contribute in the passing game.
Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune repeated those concerns, suggesting that while Gordon is ready to make an immediate impact as a runner, he needs to get better in other areas of his game before he will become a mainstay on the field in passing situations.
“Melvin Gordon is gonna have tons of yards, be exciting. But through three days it's clear he's not playing three downs without much improvement blocking,” Acee tweeted Saturday.
The running back himself acknowledged that he had to shake off some rust at the start of training camp and that he knows the game will eventually get easier after it gets harder.
"The game is definitely starting to slow down a little bit," Gordon said, via Williams. "But I keep hearing when the pads get on it turns up a notch, when you get into the preseason game it turns up a notch and then when you get to the regular season it gets even faster.”
Gordon lost an opportunity to keep improving in the Chargers’ most recent practice Sunday, as he was held out of action for an undisclosed reason, according to Williams. That said, Gordon is “expected to be back practicing soon,” according to Michael Gehlken of the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Assuming Gordon suffers no further setbacks, there is little reason to worry about his ability to contribute as a runner. He is more than proven in that capacity, and has a combination of size (6'1", 215 lbs), burst and agility that should enable him to excel. Becoming a more complete player, however, appears to be something he is going to have to work hard at throughout training camp and the preseason.
Bud Dupree Making a Big Impression Early for Steelers
As they are preparing to play the Minnesota Vikings in the preseason-opening Hall of Fame Game on Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers have already had a full week of practices. That has given No. 22 overall pick Bud Dupree plenty of opportunities to make a positive impression, and the rookie outside linebacker has reportedly taken advantage.
According to Neal Coolong of DKonPittsburghSports.com, Dupree is already making an impact in the team’s practice sessions:
His play on the field is one thing, but he’s adding well to the volume of practices each time he lowers his shoulder. There’s a distinct sound when Dupree smashes into one of the tight ends he’s constantly covering so far. He’s not looking to take their heads off, but he is letting them know he’s there.
Having already drawn a comparison to Dwight Freeney for his early training camp work from Yahoo Sports’ Charles Robinson, Dupree appears to be making onlookers take notice with his explosiveness.
Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler is among those who have been impressed, as he said last week that Dupree is a “smart guy” and that the rookie has been “picking things up quickly,” according to ESPN.com’s Jeremy Fowler.
All of this does not necessarily mean that Dupree will be in for a big role in his rookie season.
He was considered to be raw coming out of Kentucky, despite his natural physical tools as an explosive, strong edge defender at 6’4” and 269 pounds. The Steelers have a track record of making rookie defenders earn their way into the starting lineup, so Dupree will need to be outstanding throughout the preseason if he is going to move ahead of James Harrison, Arthur Moats or Jarvis Jones on the depth chart of the team's 3-4 defense.
So far, Dupree has worked primarily with the second-team unit, according to Fowler.
Nevertheless, the Steelers should at least look for ways to get Dupree on the field in situational capacities, given his playmaking potential and the team’s investment in him. The more he performs well in training camp, the tougher he will be to keep off the field.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.