Predicting This Year's Biggest Training Camp Surprises
With some NFL training camps officially open, we're finally at a point in the preseason where projection turns into reality. If the offseason is Christmas morning for fanbases, who are given gifts of free agents and draft picks, the preseason is later on Christmas Day, when those toys are finally given a test drive.
At the dawn of the season, we'll take our shot at the last prognostications before teams know what they have on the field. Looking over the rosters of all 32 teams, eight players stand above the rest as sleeper candidates to be impact players for their franchises.
Some are trying to work into starting roles, while others are ready for superstardom. We'll go over who these young players are, overviewing their talents, why they have been overlooked and how they can help their teams out in 2016.
Geno Smith, QB, New York Jets
While all of this Ryan Fitzpatrick contract drama has been good for the media during a relatively dead time in football's 24-hour news cycle, Geno Smith's potential as a starting quarterback has quite frankly been overlooked completely.
Last year, Smith entered the summer as the New York Jets' starter, three years into his second-round contract.
Unfortunately for him, an IK Enemkpali punch led to a broken jaw which kept Smith off the field the first few weeks of the season. While he was gone, Fitzpatrick started at quarterback for the Jets, and with New York rolling to a 10-6 season, the team elected not to rock the boat.
With that being said, Smith was improving greatly over the last few games he played in, completing 65 percent of his throws in the last five games he's been on the field. That's NFL starting potential, and it's not being discussed, as the narrative right now is that the ball is in Fitzpatrick's court, since the Jets need to add a starting-caliber passer.
That's simply not true, and when camp starts going, people are going to realize why Smith started 29 games in New York during his first two years with the team. With two extra offseasons of development since we last saw him play back-to-back games, it's not a stretch to assume progression, either.
Jacoby Brissett, QB, New England Patriots
With Tom Brady's four-game Deflategate suspension now set in stone, the New England Patriots will have to field a new starting quarterback for the first quarter of the season. At this point, many assume that passer is going to be Jimmy Garoppolo, a third-year second-round pick from Eastern Illinois.
While he has been Brady's top backup passer over the past couple seasons, in two years of reserve snaps and preseason looks, he has not put out film that would suggest he can be more than a baseline quarterback. For whatever reason, rookie third-round pick Jacoby Brissett has been overlooked as a passer who could supplant Garoppolo.
At 6'4" and 235 pounds with a stronger arm than Garoppolo, Brissett has a much higher upside than the former FCS quarterback. It will come down to consistency and development in the preseason, but do not be surprised if the rookie ends August as their No. 2 quarterback, overtaking Garoppolo's experience of 31 regular-season passes.
Trevor Davis, WR, Green Bay Packers
It seems like every year there is some mid- to late-round receiver who appears on the scene out of nowhere. The biggest example from this last season was Stefon Diggs, a fifth-round wideout who caught for 720 yards with the Minnesota Vikings.
As of right now, the best candidate to be the "next Diggs" is Trevor Davis of the Vikings' in-division rival Green Bay Packers. Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, who is best used as a slot target, are the team's clear top two receivers, but the team's outside wideout job opposite Nelson in three- and four-receiver sets is still up in the air.
With Ty Montgomery, like Cobb, being viewed as a slot receiver, the candidates to win the job are Davante Adams, Jarred Abbrederis, Jeff Janis and Davis. Adams, Abbrederis and Janis, all third-year players, have had time to win the starting job, and to this point, they have fumbled their opportunities.
Davis, who posted a 4.42-second 40-yard dash at the combine in Indianapolis, is comparable to receivers like Santonio Holmes and Steve Smith athletically, according to Mock Draftable. If he's half of what those players were early in their careers, Davis is going to earn what's basically a starting job catching balls from the most talented quarterback in the NFL, Aaron Rodgers.
Ready your fantasy teams for a potential Davis splash.
Alejandro Villanueva, OT, Pittsburgh Steelers
One of the more interesting stories in the NFL is that of Alejandro Villanueva.
A former wide receiver at West Point, he has transitioned to tight end, defensive end and eventually the offensive line in his short NFL career.
The soon-to-be 28-year-old really only has one season of professional experience under his belt, but he started 10 games last season with the Pittsburgh Steelers as a bookend. This year, with Kelvin Beachum signing with the Jacksonville Jaguars this offseason, Villanueva is going to be handed the starting blindside role in Pittsburgh.
Unsurprisingly, Villanueva is one of the more athletic tackles in the league. Seeing a dancing bear at 6'9" and 320 pounds getting all the first-team reps at the most important line position for a potential title team should turn some heads.
If there's a next Michael Oher, in terms of a narrative pushing an offensive lineman into popularity, Villanueva has as good a shot as any bookend across the league.
Eli Harold, Edge, San Francisco 49ers
Eli Harold only started one game in 2015, a rookie season in which he tallied just 14 tackles, but he's going to need to step up big in his sophomore year with the San Francisco 49ers.
While Ahmad Brooks, who has started 75 games in the last five years, has one pass-rushing role locked up with the team, Aaron Lynch, who has posted 12.5 sacks in his first two years in the league, is suspended for the first four games of 2016 due to failing to meet the standards of the NFL's substance abuse policy, per ESPN.
With Lynch missing a quarter of the season, Harold will presumably snatch the majority of Lynch's assumed reps. An incredibly fluid pass-rusher despite his 247-pound frame, expect him to live and die off his speed-rushing ability.
Edge defenders rotate heavily in the NFL, so even after Lynch's return, Harold should still see the field. If he proves himself in the four-game stretch, it's within reason to envision Harold winning Brooks' starting role in 2017, as Brooks will be a 33-year-old on the last year of his contract when salary casualties will be decided next offseason.
Athletic ability, youth and opportunity are all boxes Harold checks. He's has textbook breakout potential.
Kony Ealy, Edge, Carolina Panthers
If not for Von Miller's 2.5-sack total in the Super Bowl, leading to his MVP status in the game, more people would be talking about Kony Ealy's three-sack total in the limelight. To the victor goes the spoils, though, and since Ealy's Carolina Panthers couldn't come away with a win, his effort was forgotten.
Expect him to remind the football world of his talent this preseason.
The Panthers' defensive scheme is predicated on interior pressure and setting the edge, and paired with defensive tackles Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei, you couldn't ask for a better situation for Ealy to break out in.
With the likes of Jared Allen gone, freeing up reps for Ealy, he should build momentum to be a full-time starter this offseason. Despite only starting nine games in his first two years in the league, the defensive end has nine sacks in his NFL career.
With an easy path to playing time, production in previously limited playing time and a recent splash game, Ealy should be high on any list predicting the NFL's next young stars.
Charles Tapper, Edge, Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys are a complete mess at the defensive end position.
Greg Hardy was let go in free agency after his one-year stint as a reclamation project. Second-year second-round pick Randy Gregory is facing suspension, as is third-year second-round pick Demarcus Lawrence.
According to ESPN's Jean-Jacques Taylor and Todd Archer, Lawrence's four-game suspension was due to amphetamines. Archer and ESPN's Adam Schefter reported this week that Gregory, who was already suspended for four games, missed a drug test and could be missing the first 10 games of the season.
Knowing that they need to account for the possibility of up to 14 starts over the course of the regular season, it would be foolish for the Cowboys not to give a healthy amount of first-team reps to those players' potential replacements.
High on that list in Dallas is defensive end Charles Tapper, a fourth-round rookie from Oklahoma.
For Tapper's size (6'3, 271 pounds), his 4.59-second 40-yard dash is nearly unheard of. Giving first-team 4-3 defensive end reps to rookies transitioning from being 3-4 college defensive ends in the Big 12 Conference is baptism by fire, but Tapper has the cliched traits that you can't coach.
If he's able to hang going head-to-head against the NFL's best offensive line in practice, the mid-round pick could easily find himself starting in Week 1.
Ra'Shede Hageman, DL, Atlanta Falcons
Almost across the board, the top interior defensive linemen in the league all have one thing in common: very good combine numbers when adjusting for a prospect's density. This shouldn't be a surprise, considering how important first-step bursts into contact are.
At 6'6" and 310 pounds, Atlanta's Ra'Shede Hageman scored in the 93rd percentile in the board jump and in the 98th percentile in the vertical jump for defensive tackles, per Mock Draftable. On the site, his second-most similar comparison since the 1999 draft is Ndamukong Suh, arguably the most impressive 3-technique defensive tackle since 2010.
In 2015, the Falcons finished dead last in the NFL with just 19 sacks defensively. The team's best bet to improve their pass rush, especially after moving second-year first-round pick Vic Beasley to off-ball linebacker, would be to get Hageman as many reps in practice as possible, attempting to fast track the development of the former Minnesota Golden Gopher.
The question has never been if Hageman will flip the switch and be a force in the NFL, but when the light bulb will go on. If the 2014 second-rounder can make the most of his opportunities this summer, Hageman could easily be one of the biggest breakout candidates in the league.