OTA MVPs: Players Who Shined the Most in Early Workouts

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystMay 21, 2018

OTA MVPs: Players Who Shined the Most in Early Workouts

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Spring revitalizes the NFL

    A new sense of hope buds after the previous season's performance. Every organization adds pieces to replenish its roster as coaches and front office personnel express excitement about all of the new possibilities. 

    Everything changes once the harsh reality of fall camp and the regular season creates obstacles to success. Right now, though, the picture is pristine and perfect. Everything will work out in a team's favor, or so it believes. 

    The first glimpse of the league's new talent mere days after the NFL draft is breathtaking. Rookies symbolize hope. But they're far from the only reason why teams grow enamored with offseason changes. 

    A team's potential starts to take root. Talented incoming prospects germinate throughout rookie minicamp, workouts and organized team activities. Veterans blossom once they're back on the field. And a few surprises usually pop up as well. 

    The following eight individuals made instant impressions in their new surroundings. 

QB Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    Lamar Jackson wasn't the first, second or even fourth quarterback drafted this year. Yet he may be the most discussed prospect because of his athleticism, big-play ability and the Baltimore Ravens' need for both in the offense. 

    Joe Flacco remains the team's starting quarterback, and Jackson is expected to participate in certain sub-packages.

    The 2016 Heisman Trophy winner, who completed just 57 percent of his collegiate career attempts, helped dispel concerns about his passing finesse during minicamp. His performance from the pocket during his initial professional practices showed a different side of his skill set.

    "The thing that I was really impressed with is I thought he was accurate," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said, per Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio. "You read the reports and stuff like that, but he's a naturally talented thrower. He's got natural arm talent. And that's something that I think people were questioning. So to see him out here throwing the ball naturally and very accurately I thought was a big plus."

    Jackson's speed and ability to create will dazzle onlookers. But it's how he handles himself within the Ravens' offensive structure that will determine his eventual takeover. 

RB Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    All eyes are on New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley. 

    Barkley earned the label of "generational talent" because he affects games as a runner, receiver and returner. He's also a premium athlete who scored in the NFL's 98th percentile for running backs, according to Three Sigma Athlete's Zach Whitman

    "I know a lot of people try and set expectations for me," Barkley said during rookie minicamp, per the Associated Press' Matt Sugam. "No offense to you guys, but I set my own expectations."

    Expectations can be a heavy burden, especially for Barkley, who is expected to be a game-changer from the moment he takes an official NFL snap.

    But he can be that game-changer—though the reasons why may surprise. 

    "The other thing that you see is his awareness," Giants head coach Pat Shurmur said, per NJ.com's Matt Lombardo. "His spatial awareness, his ability to kind of pick out who he has in pass protection. We purposely try to have some blitz drills to throw at the running backs, and I felt like he did a good job with that."

    Everyone knows what Barkley can do as a runner and receiver, but he already displays the nuances needed to make a good player great.  

WR T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis Colts

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Indianapolis Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton is already a four-time Pro Bowler and one of the league's most productive wideouts.

    But staff changes bring uncertainty and the need to adapt. For some, this can be a difficult transition.

    Others meet the challenge with a renewed vigor. 

    Hilton managed 148 receptions for 2,414 yards over the past two seasons despite his team's 12-20 record and uneven quarterback play. 

    Head coach Frank Reich and his staff bring a fresh perspective to a team on the decline, but that will only go so far. Eventually, the franchise stars must buy into the message, and Hilton will lead the way. 

    "He's giving us everything he's got," a staff source told the Indianapolis Star's Zak Keefer. "He's all in."

    As a self-admitted junk-food junkie, Hilton changed his diet to get in the best shape of his career and serve as a better example, according to Keefer

    The team's leading receiver is a crucial piece of the puzzle since quarterback is still a question mark because of Andrew Luck's recovery. The front office also made the offensive line a priority this offseason rather than searching for additional help at the skill positions. The rest of the wide receiver corps is comprised of young, mostly unproven options. 

    Hilton being all in means everything to the Colts right now.

WR Antonio Callaway, Cleveland Browns

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    The Cleveland Browns made an interesting decision during the NFL draft by selecting wide receiver Antonio Callaway with the 105th overall pick. The former Florida Gator has an extensive list of off-field concerns and didn't play during the 2017 campaign because of suspension. 

    The Browns took a chance on an obvious risk because Callaway's talent can't be denied, and it was on full display during rookie minicamp. 

    "He is very, very fasta fast man," new Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield said, per Andrew Gribble of the Browns' official site. "He makes good plays on the ball. When you have a guy like that and you get chemistry down, then it is dangerous. ... You get a talented receiver and then you know exactly what they are doing, you can do a lot with that."

    A bit of Callaway's speed can help complete the Browns wide receiver cast. Josh Gordon and Jarvis Landry will demand the lion's share of targets, while Callaway and 2016 first-round pick Corey Coleman can compete for opportunities. 

    "[General manager John Dorsey] told me he believed in me and I can do the right thing," Callaway said, per Patrick Maks of the team's site. "I'm not going to let him down." 

WR Tre'Quan Smith, New Orleans Saints

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    The New Orleans Saints struck gold with last year's third-round pick, Alvin Kamara. They may do so again after selecting wide receiver Tre'Quan Smith with the 91st overall pick in the 2018 draft. 

    Smith immediately adds speed and another vertical threat to an already prolific passing attack. 

    "First of all, he can run," Saints wide receivers coach Curtis Johnson said, per the Times Picayune's Amos Morale III. "He's fast. He has what we would call in this profession long speed. He can catch the ball very very well. He's pretty smart. He's getting lined up. He's only playing one position now, but he's doing a fine job for us." 

    The Saints aren't completely settled at wide receiver after Willie Snead signed with the Baltimore Ravens. The team also brought Brandon Coleman back on a one-year basis, and Cameron Meredith's addition via free agency comes after he missed all of last season with a torn ACL. 

    At this point, quarterback Drew Brees can rely on Michael Thomas and 12th-year veteran Ted Ginn Jr., but the rest of the receiver rotation has yet to be settled. Smith will add another explosive option so defenses can't condense the field. 

OL Brendan Mahon, Carolina Panthers

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    Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

    First impressions can mean everything, especially for an undrafted rookie. Setting the tone early, even at minicamp, can leave a lasting memory in decision-makers' minds. 

    The Carolina Panthers are well aware of what they can find among the unwanted. Andrew Norwell didn't hear his name called during the 2014 NFL draft. Yet the left guard went on to start 54 of 64 games over the last four seasons for the Panthers before signing with the Jacksonville Jaguars as a free agent.

    The franchise may have found a replacement in another undrafted blocker.

    Brendan Mahon was a four-year starter for the Penn State Nittany Lions, even as he dealt with injuries and offensive line instability. 

    "That's my guy," Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said, per the Charlotte Observer's Tom Sorensen. "He just has that look in his eye. He's physical. He's got a chance."

    The 6'4", 320-pound blocker excels at the point of attack because he plays with leverage and excellent hand placement. Despite playing all five positions at the collegiate level, guard is where Mahon will get an initial look and possibly push last year's second-round pick, Taylor Moton.

    At worst, the undrafted free agent is an ideal swing lineman. 

LB Shaquem Griffin, Seattle Seahawks

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    Certain players carry themselves differently than everyone else. The Seattle Seahawks' Shaquem Griffin is one of those special few.

    "Shaquem looked very aggressive," head coach Pete Carroll said after the rookie's first practice, per Aron Yohannes of the Seahawks' official site. "He was trying to run through [everything], we had to slow him down in some stuff early in the practice. In the walkthroughs, he was going too hard so we had to chill him out a little bit. But he's very excited about being here, and he's a very, very good-looking prospect."

    It's far easier to rein a player in than to try to get the most out of someone with lackadaisical effort.

    Griffin's performance during his first minicamp shouldn't come as a surprise. His combination of raw athleticism (4.38-second 40-yard dash), nonstop motor and advanced understanding of Seattle's system plays to his advantage. 

    "He's big and fast and had a good feel for what was going on," Carroll added. "Obviously, Shaq [Shaquill] had done a little bit of tutoring; he was ahead of us a little bit with his learning, which was good."

    Griffin is more than a good story; he's a great player.

CB Carlton Davis, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers chose a pair of cornerbacks in the second round to improve upon last year's 32nd-ranked pass defense. 

    M.J. Stewart came off the board first, but Carlton Davis drew rave reviews during minicamp. 

    "After we looked at the tape last night, Carlton probably had one of the best days on defense of anybody out there yesterday," head coach Dirk Koetter said, per AL.com's Mark Inabinett. "We already knew he was a good player in press coverage, but we wanted to see him play some off coverage as well, and he did a really good job. His form tacklingfor football on airwas good, and we were fired up about the way he played yesterday."

    Koetter touched on why Davis' initial performance was special. The 6'1", 206-pound defensive back with 32 ¾-inch arms wins by mauling wide receivers. His size, length and physicality tend to overwhelm opponents with a level of aggressiveness that defines his skill set. 

    The ability to excel in off coverage creates opportunities for defensive coordinator Mike Smith to vary his coverages. Davis is an ideal outside corner, for example, if the coaching staff decides to use Vernon Hargreaves more to cover the slot.


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