NFL Names to Watch Heading Out of OTAs
OTAs mean different things for different players around the NFL.
For grizzled veterans, they're as much a nuisance as anything. These vets know the drill, and their roles are set—if they could fast-forward to the first week of September, I'd wager most would.
Other than needing to work themselves into game shape, they're about as ready as they're going to get.
Organized team activities mean much more to younger players, however. For rookies, it's their first taste of life in the NFL. This isn't just a few days of rookies gathered together—everyone shows up.
Or at least most everyone.
OTAs can be a big deal for other young players, too. Maybe they were banged up as rookies and that impacted their production. Or maybe things just didn't go as they'd hoped in 2016.
In any event, OTAs offer the first step toward redemption—toward getting their careers on track. There's no shortage of young players who fit into each group. From Buffalo to La La Land, fans should keep an eye on these guys as we move toward training camp.
Josh Doctson, WR, Washington Redskins
After becoming the first NFL team to lose a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in free agency (Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson), the Washington Redskins badly need their young wide receivers to improve in 2017.
Things appear to be trending up.
After a rookie season in which an Achilles injury limited him to just two games, Josh Doctson enters his sophomore campaign fully healthy. According to Stephen Czarda of the team's website, Doctson is practicing without limitations in OTAs—a development that pleased head coach Jay Gruden greatly.
"It's good to have Josh get lined up and work the route concepts and Kirk [Cousins] to get to know what type of receiver he is," Gruden said. "He is different from what he is used to throwing to; he is a different type of target with different speed, height and all that stuff. He needs to get used to the timing. Terrelle Pryor obviously too. Those are two different unique individuals you have to get used to."
Veteran cornerback Josh Norman told ESPN 980 (via Keely Diven of CSN Mid-Atlantic) that he's been impressed by Doctson on the practice field.
"He's like a Transformer in a way, a Decepticon," Norman said. "He's good, he moves well in and out of cuts. He'll give you a little fake like he's going up vertical, and he breaks it back off and comes out of his route. And you can see that he's improving as well every day, maintaining his health and his ability to stay on the field. We're going to need him a lot this year."
I'm pretty sure that was a compliment and Norman isn't implying Doctson wants to destroy the Earth.
That would be, you know, bad.
And Doctson showed some stuff as a rookie. The 22nd pick in the 2016 draft had two catches for 66 yards. The second was a 57-yarder against the Dallas Cowboys.
If Doctson's healthy, the trio of him, Pryor and slot man Jamison Crowder (plus Pro Bowl tight end Jordan Reed) could go a long way toward helping fans forget about the departures of Garcon and Jackson.
Haason Reddick, ILB, Arizona Cardinals
Sometimes young players get thrown to the proverbial wolves by design. Other times it's because of circumstance.
Arizona Cardinals first-round pick Haason Reddick appears to be answering the call.
With starting inside linebacker Deone Bucannon on the shelf after undergoing ankle surgery, Reddick has been receiving first-team reps at OTAs. And as Vince Marotta of ArizonaSports.com wrote, reviews of Reddick's acclimation to the new position have been more than positive.
In fact, defensive coordinator James Bettcher has raved about Reddick's progress.
"This is one of those kind of guys," Bettcher told Doug and Wolf. "He's a Markus Golden. He's a Deone Bucannon. You keep stacking those guys within your building overall in terms of your team, specifically on defense—and I've said it all along—matchups win games. Matchups, how you match up defensively wins games.
"The second part of it is your effort and energy that you play the game with, that wins games, much more than scheme. Haason is one of those guys. He's very instinctive—much more instinctive, maybe, than any other player I've been around in my going on 15 years of coaching. As a guy who played a different position and is now learning a new position, [he] plays instinctively at a new position he's really never played before."
Reddick, for his part, told Doug and Wolf that he's trying to soak up as much knowledge as possible from a couple of old war horses at the position.
"It's been going good," Reddick said. "Every day out there just learning more and more, taking in more insight between Karlos Dansby and then having Footey [inside linebackers coach Larry Foote] as my position coach. Just every day learning something new, learning more and more.
"Taking all of their experience and trying to cram it into the knowledge that I have, which is very little in this league, trying to take something from both of them and apply it into my game."
Every indication is that Bucannon will open training camp on the PUP list, and head coach Bruce Arians has told reporters his Week 1 availability is far from a sure bet.
Given that, the faster Reddick takes to the new spot, the better off the Cardinals will be.
Corey Coleman, WR, Cleveland Browns
Not every player on this list should be watched for a good reason.
In 2016, the Cleveland Browns made Baylor speedster Corey Coleman, who ran a 4.37-second 40-yard dash at his pro day, the No. 15 overall pick—the first at his position.
At the time, Cleveland executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown touted Coleman as a dynamic playmaker who could anchor the Browns wideout corps for years to come.
"He's a dynamic player to add to our offense," Brown told Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com. "He has the speed and tenacity to turn small plays into long plays.
"We knew we wanted to add speed to our offense to make sure people respected our passing game."
That respect hasn't arrived yet—in large part because Coleman hasn't either.
After an injury-marred rookie year in which Coleman managed just 33 catches, there's increased pressure on him to start living up to his draft spot.
Instead, Coleman is forming a reputation as a player who can't stay on the field.
As Patrick Maks of the team's website reported, Coleman is out indefinitely as a precaution after he took a spill on the practice field. This comes after Coleman lost most of his first preseason to injury and missed six games as a rookie with a balky foot.
Head coach Hue Jackson indicated Coleman will likely miss the rest of OTAs, though he's hopeful Coleman will be a full-go for training camp.
"I just think that now is a time that if a guy is kind of banged up a little bit to make sure that we take care of him so that we can get him back for our training camp," Jackson said. "We will see how it all unfolds at the end."
Jackson also said he's still confident the 5'11", 185-pound Coleman can serve as the Browns' No. 1 receiver.
"He's done a good job," Jackson said. "He has improved. I stand behind my statement that I made earlier that he has got to be the guy to do it for us.
"That is what we drafted him for, and I am sure he will do that."
That would be much easier to believe if Coleman made it through training camp and the preseason without any further setbacks.
Vernon Hargreaves, CB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
There's been no shortage of discussion about the importance of the offensive pieces the Tampa Bay Buccaneers added this offseason, whether it was veteran wide receiver DeSean Jackson or rookies Chris Godwin and O.J. Howard.
But if the Buccaneers are going to take the proverbial next step in 2017, it's just as important their young defense matures.
In 2016, veteran cornerback Brent Grimes was the highest-rated player at his position, per Pro Football Focus. Perhaps in part because of Grimes' success, Vernon Hargreaves was thrown at more than any corner in the NFL—113 times in total.
It's hardly a shock to see a rookie cornerback targeted a lot. Or to see that corner struggle a bit as a result. And make no mistake, Hargreaves struggled.
Almost 71 percent of the passes thrown in his direction were completed in 2016. He surrendered 1,069 yards—over 200 more than the second-worst corner. And his passer rating against topped 100.
Defensive coordinator Mike Smith told Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times that Hargreaves has to play better in Year 2 of his career. But Smith also maintained he's confident that will happen.
"I think that he needs to have a better understanding and awareness of situations," Smith said. "I think at the corner position you've got to realize where you are on the field, what the down and distance is. I think he understands that.
"We expect Vernon to come out and be very aggressive. I think a corner has to be aggressive. He plays with lots of confidence. He plays with lots of passion. He's going to be a good football player for us."
According to Joe Kania of the team's website, Hargreaves held up his end of the bargain in OTAs, making interceptions on two of the first three days of practice.
Of the 11th overall pick in last year's draft, head coach Dirk Koetter said, "We challenged Vernon to take the ball away more this year, and he's done that these first couple of days here."
If Hargreaves takes a second-year step and Grimes maintains his level of play from 2016, the Buccaneers pass defense should finish even higher than the 11th spot it landed in last year.
Paul Perkins, RB, New York Giants
The New York Giants did many things well in 2016.
Running the football was not one of them.
The Giants ranked 29th in the NFL in rushing a year ago, averaging just 88.3 yards per game. And given those struggles, many eyebrows raised when New York didn't aggressively address its offensive backfield in either free agency or the 2017 NFL draft.
However, as ESPN.com's Jordan Raanan reported, Giants running backs coach Craig Johnson believes the solution to the running game problem was in the building the whole time—in the form of second-year tailback Paul Perkins.
"In our system, you have to have three phases," Johnson said. "You have to be able to run the ball. He was an effective runner last year. You have to be able to catch the ball. He did a good job in that. And you have to be able to block people, because they are going to try you out. He probably improved the most in that situation. Guys were going to test him out to see if they were going to get to the quarterback. He held up very good in protection, and he's continuing to do that.
"If you can do that, that allows you to be a guy that it's possible to stay on the field all three downs."
Now, Perkins was hardly a world-beater last year. He averaged just 4.1 yards per carry on 112 totes and checked in 37th among all qualifying tailbacks, according to Pro Football Focus.
But that 4.1 yards per carry was more than half a yard better than Rashad Jennings' average. PFF graded the G-Men 24th in the NFL in run-blocking in 2016.
In other words, the holes were hardly gaping.
Johnson said Perkins has demonstrated this summer that he's ready to up his game in 2017.
"I really like what Paul Perkins has been doing so far," Johnson said. "He ended last season playing like a guy that is ready to take over the job. There is nothing so far in the offseason to show he's not going to be able to handle that role."
The Giants will have a healthy Shane Vereen as a potential third-down back this year. And the team drafted a power back in Clemson's Wayne Gallman in the fourth round.
But Perkins appears slated to lead a team with Super Bowl aspirations in backfield touches by a sizable margin.
And with that increase in workload will come a similar increase in pressure.
Jamal Adams, S, New York Jets
Here's a news flash for you.
The New York Jets aren't great.
They jettisoned a number of veteran players this offseason, and they'll have the worst 53-man roster in the NFL. Many pundits, such as ESPN.com's Rich Cimini, have said aloud what anyone with eyes can see.
The Jets didn't select either of two potential franchise quarterbacks in the 2017 draft, and they will be tanking this season.
Bright spots are going to be few and far between for Gang Green, but fans should at least be able to take a measure of solace in the play of safety Jamal Adams.
There may not have been a safer pick in the top 10 of the draft than the LSU safety. Much like it did with Leonard Williams two years ago, New York got a player in Adams who was ready to start from the moment he got off the bus.
This isn't to say Adams has been perfect in practice. Head coach (for now) Todd Bowles told Ethan Greenberg of the team's website that Adams has made the same mistakes in OTAs that just about every rookie makes.
"We knew he was talented, but he's learning the defense like everybody else," Bowles said. "He makes his mistakes, and as he gets better with reps in the fourth practice, we look for him to get better and try to help us."
But Bowles also told Gary Myers of the New York Daily News that Adams has already started to assert himself as a leader on the defensive side of the ball.
"We knew he was an alpha dog coming in because we knew that's how he played at LSU, those are all of his intangibles coming in," Bowles said. "That's just part of it. The culture that we're trying to create. I think he's perfect for our building with the things he brings to the table, so it's going to help us a great deal."
On draft day, Adams said he doesn't have a problem stepping into a leadership role.
"I definitely feel like I'm going to do my best being vocal and leading by example and just doing the right things," Adams said. "That is all I can do."
Long story short, it wouldn't be even a little surprising to see Adams lead the Jets in tackles as a rookie and make the Pro Bowl. He's that good. He's better in coverage than some of New York's corners (looking at you, Buster Skrine) and a better tackler than some of its linebackers (Don't try to hide behind that pole, Demario Davis. We can still see you.).
It's going to be a long year for the Jets.
But watching Adams should provide fans with at least a few smiles.
Hunter Henry, TE, Los Angeles Chargers
Los Angeles Chargers tight end Hunter Henry already turned more than a few heads as a rookie in 2016.
His 36 catches and 478 receiving yards last season weren't eye-popping numbers, but Henry found the end zone eight times. No tight end in the NFL had more scoring grabs.
As Eric D. Williams of ESPN.com reported, Henry told Mighty 1090 AM that he knows much more what to expect entering his second season.
"It's a grind of a year, and you just have to be ready for it," Henry told The Mighty 1090 AM radio. "It [is] nice to be able to know [what's coming], because as a rookie, there are a lot of unknowns, and you just have to be able to handle each week."
With 2017 first-round pick Mike Williams joining a pass-catching corps that includes wideouts Keenan Allen and Tyrell Williams and future Hall of Fame tight end Antonio Gates, Henry said he's looking forward to opposing defenses having to account for so many different targets.
"It's going to be nice for all of us," Henry said. "Because when there's that many weapons on the field, it's hard for a defense to key on one guy."
On paper, Henry's right. It's a formidable group.
But games aren't played on paper—and the reality of the situation for the Bolts isn't quite so rosy.
Williams has missed most of OTAs with a herniated disc in his lower back. His status for the beginning of training camp is in doubt, per NFL.com's Kevin Patra, which has slowed his acclimation to the NFL.
Allen is returning from a lost 2016 season in which he played just part of Week 1 before tearing his ACL. But he's missed a staggering 23 of a possible 32 games over the last two years and has never played 16 games in his four years in the NFL.
Gates is one of the best to ever play the tight end position, but at 36 years old, he isn't close to the force he once was.
Henry could be much more than just a cog in the Los Angeles passing attack as a sophomore. He could be the cog—especially in the red zone.
Hopefully, he ate his Wheaties.
Shaq Lawson, DE, Buffalo Bills
Shaq Lawson's rookie season did not go according to plan.
After a shoulder injury cost him the offseason and first six games of the year, he had to adjust to a new role as a 3-4 outside linebacker. Lawson recorded just 13 tackles and two sacks.
Not the impact the Buffalo Bills were looking for when they made Lawson the 19th overall pick in the 2016 draft.
Lawson entered his second offseason healthy, however, and with the arrival of new head coach Sean McDermott, the Bills are switching to a four-man defensive front.
That means Lawson will go back to playing with his hand in the dirt. Per Matthew Fairburn of New York Upstate, that suits him just fine.
"The 3-4 was very difficult for me last year," Lawson said. "I'm back with something I'm comfortable, back to a 4-3. It's a lot easier.
"Last year, I was going, dropping back in coverage. This year, I'm pretty much hand in the dirt, set-the-edge guy and play fast. You don't have to think a lot when you play D-end. Just play fast. It fits me well. It's pretty much the same thing I did at Clemson. The exact same thing I did at Clemson. Set the edge, play fast and being very comfortable in what I do."
Last year, the 22-year-old experienced a perfect storm in which everything that could go wrong did. Pass-rushers face a steep learning curve in the NFL—even more so when they make a position switch.
By the time Lawson got back, he was woefully behind in his development. And when you add that lag to fears he might re-aggravate his injury, you're left with a mostly ineffective part-time player who had just 12 combined sacks, hits and hurries in 236 snaps.
Not only is Lawson getting badly needed reps in OTAs (and soon will in training camp), but he's getting them at a position he's much more comfortable playing. He can stop overthinking and just get after it the same way he did in college.
Also, playing alongside the likes of Jerry Hughes, Marcell Dareus and Lorenzo Alexander is a huge plus. Hughes is more proven than Lawson and will command more attention from opposing blockers.
That should mean plenty of single-teams for Lawson, which only serves to further increase the chances of a huge leap forward in 2017.
Tom Savage, QB, Houston Texans
It's not often a team that won a playoff game the year before is so desperate to dump its starting quarterback that it offers a second-round pick just to get rid of him—then trades a first-rounder to the same team so it can trade up to grab a rookie signal-caller.
That's what the Houston Texans did, and from the moment Deshaun Watson's name was called, some pundits (including this one) surmised it was only a matter of time before Watson supplanted Tom Savage as the team's starter under center.
Apparently, someone forgot to tell Savage.
As ESPN.com's Sarah Barshop reported, Savage has taken the overwhelming majority of first-team reps (and made good use of them) in OTAs. He told Barshop he's trying to take advantage of those reps by building a rapport with DeAndre Hopkins and the other Houston receivers.
"Just repetition and stuff we're doing after practice and extra meetings," Savage said. "We get a limited time, and we all have to meet extra a little bit after if we want to get better. ...
"When you're a third-string quarterback, you're not really going up to DeAndre Hopkins and telling him how you want a bow route or something. Now, communication comes in, and you have to be on the same page with all of them. That's what we're working on now."
To say Savage is on a short leash would be something of a misnomer. There is no leash. The margin for error is razor-thin for a Texans team that believes it's capable of a deep playoff run.
According to Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle, this hasn't escaped Savage's attention.
"In order to be a leader, you have to go out there and you have to make plays," Savage said. "I've started two NFL games in this league, so first of all you have to go out there and make plays. I think that's what kind of promotes the leadership, is going out there and performing and executing what you need to do before you can take that vocal jump."
Bill O'Brien has made it clear Savage is (for now) the team's starting quarterback. And while there are only two options, Savage is much more familiar with O'Brien's complicated offense than Watson.
If Savage continues to impress and/or Watson struggles to pick up the nuances of the scheme in training camp, then Savage might get more leeway after all.
Jarrad Davis, ILB, Detroit Lions
Detroit Lions inside linebacker Jarrad Davis is beginning his NFL career in the deep end of the pool.
The Lions made it clear from the instant they made Davis the No. 21 pick in the 2017 draft that he won't just start from day one but also that he'll play every down as the "Mike" linebacker and be the de facto leader of the defense.
Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin told Carlos Monarrez of the Detroit Free Press that Davis is acclimating well given all that's been thrown at him.
"I think he's going through the normal things young guys go through, a lot of volume of defense," Austin said. "A little bit more detail in the passing game than he's used to seeing, but I think he's adjusting well.
"He's got good leadership ability. He's got good qualities—you know, the things we saw on a tape—so we like where we are right now. Obviously, finishing up here and then [training] camp's going to be big for him."
Davis told Dave Birkett of the Free Press that he isn't going to shy away from the challenge.
"To be honest with you, it's not a really tough situation," Davis said. "It's not the same, but there's some similarities as walking on campus as a freshman for the first time. You have to come in and you have to earn the respect of the older guys."
Davis has been running with the first team throughout OTAs, and while ESPN.com's Michael Rothstein noted the rookie made a few mistakes, he thought enough of Davis' performance to name him one of two standouts.
It's still early. And a few non-contact practices are hardly a large enough sample size to get an accurate read on how equipped Davis is to take on such a hefty responsibility so early in his career for a team that made the playoffs in 2016.
But Davis doesn't appear to be in over his head.