Predicting 2017's Top Training Camp Revelations

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystJuly 11, 2017

Predicting 2017's Top Training Camp Revelations

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    The Oxford Dictionary defines revelation as "a surprising and previously unknown fact, especially one that is made known in a dramatic way."

    Every team in the NFL is hoping for one over the next month or so. 

    From Western New York to Southern California, the Buffalo Bills, Los Angeles Rams and every other team in the league are hoping that a young player will shine in training camp. That he'll take the bull by the horns and seize a spot in the starting lineup.

    Now, not every team will get its wish. For every player who exceeds expectations, there are many who do not. Some are slow to make the transition to the NFL or get hurt. Or they never live up to their draft slots.

    But there will be some. Young players who hit the ground running in training camp and never look back.

    And here's a look at the most likely candidates for 2017.

Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston Texans

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    There's little question that the Houston Texans have big plans for quarterback Deshaun Watson. The team spent its first-round pick in the 2018 NFL draft to move up and select the former Clemson Tigers signal-caller.

    The No. 12 overall pick is no doubt a big part of the Texans' future, but to date, the team has been clear—Tom Savage is the starter.

    As John McClain of the Houston Chronicle reported, though, head coach Bill O'Brien also made it known there won't be any training wheels where Watson is concerned.

    "He had to learn a pretty sophisticated offense at Clemson," O'Brien said. "He had to do a lot of things at the line of scrimmage. I think he was trained really well. That's a credit to the Clemson staff.

    "He'd already been in some big games when he got here. When he came here, he put his head down and came to work every day.

    "He's a very poised guy."

    There's wisdom in not throwing Watson to the wolves. But that doesn't change the fact that the gap between Watson and Savage is hardly a chasm. Savage has two career starts and the same number of touchdown passes in the NFL as Watson.

    The Texans don't have an unwavering faith in Savage's ability. They drafted Watson because they believe he has the ability to do in Houston what he did for the Tigers—win football games.

    Watson's going to have every opportunity to close that already-narrow gap with Savage in training camp, which starts July 26.

    And Watson—whose Tigers beat the previously undefeated Alabama Crimson Tide in January's College Football Playoff Championship Game—has a history of accomplishing things he sets his mind to.

Derek Rivers, EDGE, New England Patriots

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    There isn't a tougher nut to crack in the NFL than the starting lineup of the reigning Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. Simply put, the Pats are a loaded football team.

    The deck appears stacked all the more since New England—which didn't have a pick until Round 3 of the 2017 draft—spent a frenetic spring of wheeling and dealing and landed veterans such as wideout Brandin Cooks and edge-rusher Kony Ealy.

    And Derek Rivers, selected No. 83 overall in this year's draft, isn't just any third-round pick. In fact, when asking whether the former Youngstown State Penguins pass-rusher might be the biggest steal of the 2017 draft, Bleacher Report's Doug Farrar compared Rivers to former Patriot Chandler Jones.

    "Like Jones, Rivers has experience in two- and three-point stances, and he's lined up on either shoulder of the tackle," Farrar wrote. "It will take time before Rivers' arsenal of pass-rushing moves are as evolved as Jones' are, but it generally takes any collegiate pass-rusher a year to get the hang of NFL blocking schemes."

    Rivers is still a work in progress after playing collegiately at the FCS level, and he'd be well-served just to match the six sacks Jones put up as a rookie back in 2012.

    But Rivers' is also a wildly athletic player who offers the sort of schematic versatility that appeals to head coach Bill Belichick. If Rivers starts flashing the speed off the edge and disruptive ability he showcased in college in training camp, which opens July 27, the Patriots are going to figure out a way to get him on the field—loaded roster or no.

DeShone Kizer, QB, Cleveland Browns

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    The Cleveland Browns have been looking for a quarterback since approximately forever.

    That search has continued into 2017. First, they added veteran Brock Osweiler in a trade with the Texans. Then they selected former Notre Dame signal-caller DeShone Kizer in the second round of this year's draft at No. 52 overall.

    With Osweiler and the incumbent Cody Kessler on Cleveland's roster, the belief was the Browns would be in no rush to put the talented but raw Kizer under center.

    Apparently, Kizer has other ideas.

    As Mary Kay Cabot of reported, Browns quarterbacks coach David Lee said Kizer is a "long way from being ready" but raved about what the rookie brings to the table.

    "What I see in him is a big, strong, guy which is defined in this division by Ben [Roethlisberger] and by Joe Flacco, and this kid's in that mold," Lee said. "He's 6'4 ¾", he's got a 10-inch hand, he's smart, he can run, he [moves]. He's not [Buffalo Bills quarterback] Tyrod Taylor, but he can run and make plays. He's got a great future."

    Kizer might well be more than the future. He could be the present as well.

    Everyone knows what Osweiler is after his miserable season in Houston (15 touchdowns, 16 interceptions)—a short-term stopgap at best. And while Kessler played reasonably well in nine games as a rookie, he's a career backup.

    If Kizer can show command of head coach Hue Jackson's offense in camp (starts July 27) to go along with that big right arm, it's not a stretch to imagine the team will decide the best way for Kizer to learn is by doing.

    And given that they've been looking for a capable starting quarterback for two decades with very little success, if actually finding one doesn't qualify as a revelation I don't know what does.

Anthony Walker, ILB, Indianapolis Colts

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    Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

    Indianapolis Colts linebacker Anthony Walker got off to a late start to his NFL career because of a ridiculous NFL rule that keeps youngsters from joining their teams after the draft if they attend colleges (like Northwestern) on the quarters system (since school is still in session).

    Still, head coach Chuck Pagano told Josh Wilson of SB Nation's Stampede Blue that Walker has done a good job of getting up to speed.

    "Smart guy—obviously just getting back here and getting in the groove," Pagano said. "He did a good job of staying in his playbook and looking over his stuff and studying his iPad. He's picked it up really fast."

    Walker's smart and athletic—a hard-nosed linebacker from the Big Ten, a conference with a history of producing NFL linebackers.

    And there's a golden opportunity staring the fifth-round pick in the face.

    The Colts have taken numerous steps to rebuild their defense this offseason, but the starters at inside linebacker are yet to be determined.

    Yes, Sean Spence appears to have an early edge on the "Will" job, and Jon Bostic has impressed so far, per Wilson. And Edwin Jackson and Antonio Morrison have the advantage of experience in Pagano's system.

    But Bostic is on his fourth team in as many seasons for a reason. Morrison struggled as often as he shone in 2016 as a rookie. And while Jackson held his own in eight starts as a rookie, he was outside the top 50 linebackers in the NFL last year, per Pro Football Focus.

    The door is open. All Walker has to do is run through it, and Day 3 pick or no he'll be starting come Week 1.

Joe Williams, RB, San Francisco 49ers

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    Things can change a lot in 365 days.

    They certainly have for San Francisco 49ers running back Joe Williams. Less than one year after quitting the football team at the University of Utah, Williams could open his rookie season as a starting running back in the NFL.

    Williams, who gained over 1,400 yards on the ground and had 10 touchdowns in nine games for the Utes last year, left the team after his sister's death. General manager John Lynch told ESPN's Nick Wagoner that departure originally caused the Niners to pull Williams off their board altogether.

    "The talent was undeniable," Lynch said, "but when you hear 'quit the team,' it was like 'no, not interested."

    However, after watching tape of Williams, head coach Kyle Shanahan lobbied Lynch to reconsider.

    "His ability to run the ball is as good as anybody’s," Shanahan said. "I mean, as far as speed, cutting ability, running through tackles, his overall balance. When you see that overall ability, it doesn’t guarantee anything, but it means he has the ability to make all the cuts, the abilities to be a very good back in this league."

    Now, the 49ers have a talented veteran tailback in Carlos Hyde. But he's had all kinds of problems staying on the field in the pros, and his fit in Shanahan's offensive scheme is unsure.

    Shahanan had enough confidence in Williams to convince Lynch to not only draft him in the fourth round but trade up to do so. He's going to have a legitimate opportunity to win the starting job in camp.

    And he has the talent to make the most of that chance.

Jaylon Smith, OLB, Dallas Cowboys

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    Not all training camp revelations are rookies.

    Although given the way his first NFL season played out (or didn't), an argument can be made that Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith essentially is.

    After suffering a horrific knee injury in his last game at Notre Dame, the Cowboys knew Smith would all but certainly miss his entire rookie season. Some questioned whether the All-American would ever play again.

    But Smith has finally returned to the practice field. And Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told NFL Total Access he's looked like the player he was before the injury.

    "He's healthy; he's 100 percent," Jones said. "His mind—he doesn't worry about what happened two years ago. He doesn't care about that. What he's trying to do, I think his motto is clear-eyed vision. He's doing well at that. He's balling out for us so far. He's learning the playbook, and he looks healthy running around."

    Mind you, Smith may have been a second-round pick, but he's hardly a Round 2 talent. Before shredding his knee against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, Smith was viewed as arguably the best defensive player in the 2016 class—a rangy "Will" linebacker in the mold of Lavonte David...but better.

    If Smith is even close to 100 percent in training camp, he'll be the equivalent of an extra first-round pick for a team that won 13 games last year.

    And that revelation could be more like the Book of Revelation for the rest of the NFC East.

Laquon Treadwell, WR, Minnesota Vikings

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    Like Jaylon Smith, Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Laquon Treadwell isn't a rookie.

    Unlike Smith, Treadwell played during his first NFL season.

    Well, sort of—if you count one catch for 15 yards in an entire season as "playing."

    However, as ESPN's Ben Goessling reported, Minnesota offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur was impressed with Treadwell's performance in OTAs.

    "He's had a great, in my opinion, five-and-a-half weeks," Shurmur said. "He came back, and he was really on point with what he's supposed to be doing mentally. He's been out here competing and doing a nice job running routes and catching the ball. Understanding where he fits in the running game and who to block. To this point, we’ve been really pleased with his progress based on a year ago."

    A few weeks of OTAs do not a revelation make. But the Vikings are no doubt pleased to be seeing improvement from their first-round pick in 2016.

    There is a reason the Vikings selected the 6'2", 215-pounder at No. 23 overall. At Ole Miss, Treadwell was a sure-handed, big-bodied wideout some draftniks considered the best receiver in his class.

    If he has had his lightbulb moment, the Vikings receiving corps, which is short on proven options, could use the help—even if he is just the third receiver to start.

    Sure, the Vikings were hoping they'd see this from Treadwell last year, but better late than never.

Shaquill Griffin, CB, Seattle Seahawks

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    There are a number of certainties in Seattle's vaunted Legion of Boom secondary.

    Three, if you're counting—their names are Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor.

    However, the second cornerback spot opposite Sherman has been something of a revolving door in recent years. And with DeShawn Shead looking very iffy for Week 1 after an ACL tear in January, that door's still spinning.

    That leaves 2017 third-round pick Shaquill Griffin in a position to see substantial playing time early for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.

    Per Gregg Bell of the Tacoma News Tribune, Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard said Griffin is in the mix to start opposite Sherman after impressing in OTAs.

    "We're going to be really excited to see him strap it up and get out there and actually be able to compete for the football while it's in the air. That's going to be the next phase," Richard said. "But his technique has been improving day after day, and he has real strength. He has strength in his hands, you can tell he's a powerful guy, and obviously, his speed is there."

    It's worth noting Griffin still has plenty to prove. There's a difference between looking good in non-contact workouts at OTAs and being able to body up receivers in training camp or in preseason games. And rookie corners have been known to have their up and downs.

    But under Pete Carroll, the Seahawks have been a team willing to let a rookie start if he's the best man for the job.

    All Griffin has to do in camp is show he's better equipped to start across from Sherman than veteran Jeremy Lane, who has played sparingly since a gruesome injury in Super Bowl XLIX.

Cooper Kupp, WR, Los Angeles Rams

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    The Los Angeles Rams desperately need quarterback Jared Goff to make a big second-year leap in 2017.

    But the team hasn't put him in a position to succeed where his passing-game weapons are concerned. 2016 receiving leader Kenny Britt is in Cleveland. Robert Woods, signed to replace Britt, is better known as a blocker than a receiver.

    And to date, the only real ability Tavon Austin has shown in the NFL is a knack for disappointment.

    However, it appears the team may have hit on a young receiver with its selection of Eastern Washington's Cooper Kupp in Round 3 of this year's draft.

    As offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur told Myles Simmons of the team's official website, Kupp wasted no time making a good first impression on the Rams coaching staff.

    "I think the first thing you know about Cooper is he's a pro, and you can see that," LaFleur said. "He came in here not like most rookies do. He's an extremely polished route-runner, got great hands, is a precise route-runner. You can tell he works at his craft each and every day. He does a great job."

    Kupp's ability to produce isn't really in question. His 428 career receptions, 6,464 receiving yards and 73 scores are all tops not only in Eastern Washington history, but in FCS history.

    Kupp already showed the ability to get open against the likes of Marcus Peters while the two were in college. He's arguably already the best receiver the Rams have—and he hasn't played an NFL game yet.

    As we move through training camp, more and more people are going to realize what some already know. Cooper Kupp can play.

Justin Evans, S, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    There has been a lot of buzz regarding the moves the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made on offense in the offseason. But the Bucs made defensive moves that could be every bit as important to a postseason run in 2017.

    In April's draft, they selected safety Justin Evans, who impressed head coach Dirk Koetter at rookie minicamp, according to Joe Kania of the team's website.

    "He brings range," Koetter said of the second-round selection. "He moves like a corner. We're just in shorts and helmets but he shows up quick at the line of scrimmage on his run fits. He's going to have to be a little more vocal—we need our safeties to communicate more—but his athleticism and his range definitely, in a passing-like camp, are going to show up."

    Admittedly, Evans faces something of an uphill climb. The Buccaneers brought in J.J. Wilcox from the Dallas Cowboys in free agency and have a pair of veterans in Chris Conte and Keith Tandy who not only have starting experience but a measure of success doing so.

    And yet, by the time the dust settles, expect Evans to have locked down a starting job.

    Among this year's incoming safeties, Jamal Adams was the only box safety I liked more. As Koetter alluded to, Evans possesses the versatility NFL teams crave in today's game—at 6'0", 199 pounds, he has the strength to stuff the run coupled with the speed to hold his own in coverage.

    As well as Tandy played over the second half of last year, Evans is a better talent.

Pat Elflein, C, Minnesota Vikings

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    Last year, the Minnesota Vikings had one of the worst run-blocking offensive lines in the National Football League. The team ranked 30th in that regard, per Football Outsiders, and ranked dead last in the NFL, averaging 75.3 yards per game on the ground.

    The Vikings took big steps to upgrade that line in free agency, signing a pair of tackles in Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers. But the Vikes need help on the inside as well.

    And that's where 2017 third-round pick Pat Elflein comes in.

    As Mike Mayock of wrote after the draft, what Elflein lacks in athleticism he more than makes up for with toughness, technical proficiency and versatility.

    "One of the most technically advanced offensive lineman in this draft," he wrote. "He's not the best athlete in the world, but he's technically proficient. He's one of those guys that will play 10 years in the NFL. I love the fact that he can play center and both guards."

    He didn't just play those spots. He excelled at them. Elflein was an All-Big Ten performer three times at Ohio State. He was an All-American twice and won the Rimington Trophy in 2016 as the best center in college football (it was his first year playing the position).

    Mike Zimmer isn't the type of head coach who's going to just hand a rookie anything, no matter his draft slot or collegiate accolades.

    But it isn't going to take long for him to make room for the 6'3", 303-pounder in the starting lineup.

Rasul Douglas, CB, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    In today's NFL, being a big cornerback (like rookie Rasul Douglas of the Philadelphia Eagles) can be both a blessing and a curse.

    Every team wants a big-bodied corner on the boundary. But those guys often struggle with technique early in their careers.

    Eagles defensive backs coach Cory Undlin told Aaron Kasinitz of Penn Live that the biggest area of adjustment for Douglas will be learning how to best use his upper body and 32 ⅜-inch arms.

    "It's actually his upper body [that needs the most work], with his arms staying in nice and tight," Undlin said. "Arms control your feet. That part of your body, especially for him—he's got long arms, he's got long legs. If they go out here, his feet go out here. That will probably be his biggest change."

    There's no reason to think the 6'2", 209-pound Douglas won't be able to do that. The third-round pick's natural ability isn't in doubt. Douglas' agility and ball skills are already as good as any rookie corner in the NFL—as evidenced by the eight interceptions that tied for the FBS lead in 2016.

    Rather, the Eagles need Douglas to be a quick study. Their depth chart at the position presently features a second-year seventh-rounder (Jalen Mills) and a journeyman veteran (Patrick Robinson).

    Given that the secondary is far and away the weak spot of coordinator Jim Schwartz's defense and Schwartz has long been a fan of big-bodied defensive backs, the table's set for Douglas to climb the depth chart quickly.

    The rest is up to him.


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