NFL Rookies Already Turning Heads This Offseason
It's the beginning of summer. Memorial Day is just a few days away. That means long, warm days spent around swimming pools and barbecue grills.
In the National Football League, that means organized team activities. They, unfortunately, do not involve hamburgers. But they don't involve full-contact practices, either.
Life is full of trade-offs that way.
The league has already held rookie camps and voluntary workouts. But the workouts getting underway as we turn to summer are mandatory—the first time this year that full teams will be gathered together (more or less).
It's a chance for stars to shake off offseason rust. A chance for borderline players to make a first case for a roster spot.
And a chance for rookies to make a positive first impression.
Some first-year players have already gotten a head start in that regard. Edge-rushers have impressed with speed and athleticism. Tight ends and wide receivers have shown off route-running skills and soft hands. And quarterbacks have displayed the arm talent that got them drafted early.
Some rookies have wasted no time turning heads this offseason.
Kyler Murray, QB, Arizona Cardinals
Like we were going to start this with anyone else.
All Kyler Murray has done since he played his last down for the Oklahoma Sooners is turn heads. He turned heads by turning his back on a lucrative baseball contract to pursue a dream of playing in the NFL. Turned heads by getting selected No. 1 overall by the Arizona Cardinals.
And now, he turning the heads of his new teammates in Arizona.
Per Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic, veteran guard Justin Pugh has been impressed by what he's seen from Murray, even if it came with a bit of a caveat.
"He's got a lot of confidence and he handles the huddle well," Pugh said. "He's got some energy out there. He can throw that ball. Obviously, we're going to learn a lot more about each other as an offense this next month or so. It's a good first day, but you don't win a Super Bowl on, what is it, May 20th?"
Jerry Sullivan, a longtime NFL coach working with Arizona's receivers this offseason, offered a more, um, colorful assessment.
"He can throw it," Sullivan said. "I told him (recently), 'I don't give a s--t if you're 3-feet tall, you can throw the s--t of it.'"
Dwayne Haskins, QB, Washington Redskins
Dwayne Haskins didn't take the first snap under center in OTAs for the Washington Redskins. That earliest (and quite possibly) meaningless indicator of the pecking order at quarterback in Washington went to veteran Case Keenum.
But as JP Finlay wrote for NBC Sports Washington, it didn't take the 2019 No. 15 pick to make an impression on his new team.
According to Finlay, Haskins showed off impressive velocity on his throws and a quicker-than-expected release. After his first practice session, Haskins also showed a pro-level mastery of jockspeak.
"I want to be with the best, be around the best, and compete with the best. All season I'll be around working out with the best quarterbacks on my team," the rookie said. "I didn't have any expectations for today. I just wanted to execute. The biggest thing for me was going to play right in the huddle."
Now, one non-contact practice session isn't going to determine who starts against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 1. Neither will all of OTAs. And by the time training camp rolls around, veteran holdover Colt McCoy could factor into this competition as well.
But in the early going at least, Haskins is showing that if Keenum is going to be the team's opening day starter, he will have to earn it.
Parris Campbell, WR, Indianapolis Colts
The Indianapolis Colts made an effort to improve the passing-game weapons available to Andrew Luck this offseason, bringing in veteran wideout Devin Funchess in free agency and selecting Ohio State burner Parris Campbell on the second day of the 2019 draft.
As Andrew Walker reported for the team's website, the latter is already making an impression on his new team.
"Campbell certainly didn't look like a rookie in his first official full team practice," Walker wrote, "as he showed off his speed running routes all over the field, including a nice play out of the slot on a deep slant to the right sideline, hauling in a pass in front of safety George Odum."
Campbell is a work in progress as a route-runner, but he's as dangerous with the ball in his hands as any pass-catcher in this class.
In Campbell and T.Y. Hilton, Luck now has speed, speed and more speed at his disposal.
Devin Bush, ILB, Pittsburgh Steelers
From the moment that the Pittsburgh Steelers traded up 10 spots to select Michigan linebacker Devin Bush, it was presumed that the youngster would play a major role in a Steelers defense that has sorely missed speed and range on the inside since Ryan Shazier got hurt.
Sure enough, when Pittsburgh opened organized team activities this week, Bush took the majority of first-team snaps opposite veteran Vince Williams.
As Sarah Spencer wrote for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, even Mark Barron, the free-agent acquisition who will compete with Bush for that starting spot inside, allowed that he's been impressed by what he's seen from the rookie.
"I've only been around him briefly, but I like his style of play from what I've seen," Barron said. "He's really aggressive, really tenacious, a speedy guy. He gets to the ball, and that's kind of similar to the way I play. I get to the ball. I like that; anytime I see somebody that gets to the ball and plays with a certain attitude, I like it."
For his part, Bush said he's just trying to learn what he can.
"It's a super learning experience," Bush said. "The guys get to learn me, and I get to play alongside them and build some relationships. … As long as you put your head in the playbook a couple minutes a day, start memorizing stuff and come out here and rep it, you start getting better and better."
The Steelers haven't made a move up like this to draft a defensive player since Troy Polamalu in 2003. If Bush continues to perform as advertised, he'll start from the get-go.
Devin White, ILB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers spent a top-five draft pick on inside linebacker Devin White, and as the team's website reported, White has made quite the early impression on Tampa's longtime defensive leader.
"Something about those LSU guys, man," outside linebacker Lavonte David told reporters. "All of them bring that certain type of energy, that certain type of swagger, and we're glad to have him here. He's happy to be here. He's more than ready to step in and contribute right away. The first day he's flying around, talking, caught an interception on the second play of practice, so that's a big positive sign. He's happy to be here and first day he's talking. For a rookie to come in and talking like that, it's really amazing to see. So, the sky's the limit for him, most definitely."
If David likes what he's seen from White, then the young linebacker must be doing something right. And given the importance of that position to Todd Bowles' defensive scheme, that's great news for the Buccaneers.
T.J. Hockenson, TE, Detroit Lions
The Detroit Lions sent a few eyebrows skyward in the first round of this year's draft when they used a top-10 pick on Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson. Partly it was because the Lions ostensibly had bigger needs to address. And partly it was because the Lions' last two first-round tight ends (Brandon Pettigrew and Eric Ebron) were busts in the Motor City.
It's still way too early to pass final judgment on the wisdom of the pick, but per Kyle Meinke of MLive, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has been impressed by what he's seen from the 6'5", 251-pound Hockenson.
"I think he's doing a good job moving around out there," Stafford said. "Caught some balls, like you said. I think he'd be the first guy to tell you he feels like a rookie. Rookies, it's a lot of action going on out there. You know, they've got a new system to learn, new city to learn, new coaches, players all that. There's a lot going on."
Hockenson's most impressive quality heading into the draft was his versatility—he was as adept with the Hawkeyes at opening holes in the run game as he was catching the rock over the middle.
If he can earn Stafford's trust in practices, he could get a substantial role in his first season—and live up to that draft slot.
Montez Sweat, EDGE, Washington Redskins
The Washington Redskins had arguably the league's best 2019 first round.
In addition to having Haskins plop into their lap at No. 15, the Redskins also traded up into the latter stages of Round 1 to select Mississippi State's Montez Sweat, a wildly athletic edge-rusher who dropped jaws at the combine with a 4.41-second 40-yard dash at 260 pounds.
According to Kyle Stackpole of the team's website, Sweat has continued looking amazing right through the start of OTAs.
"He's a monster, man," head coach Jay Gruden said. "I have no doubt that he's going to play a lot. The skill set that he has is quite evident. You see his length and then you watch him run after practice and he's faster than anybody we have probably right now. He eats up ground when he runs. It's like three strides and he's all the way across the field. It's crazy."
Veteran edge-rusher Ryan Kerrigan was similarly impressed.
"Big, big dude," Kerrigan said. "And for him to have a 4.4 [40-yard dash time], it's kind of like 'Oh my god.'"
With Preston Smith now in Green Bay, there's a hole in Washington outside opposite Kerrigan. If Sweat can step into that role as a rookie (no easy feat—first-year pass-rushers face a steep learning curve in the pros), the Redskins could have the most underrated front seven in the NFC—if not the entire league.
A.J. Brown, WR, Tennessee Titans
With quarterback Marcus Mariota heading into the final year of his rookie contract, this is a make-or-break season for both quarterback and team. It's vital that the Titans put Mariota in the best position to succeed.
Part of doing so was Tennessee's selection of Ole Miss wideout A.J. Brown with the 51st overall pick in this year's draft.
Per Eric Bacharach of the Nashville Tennessean, Brown has been working on the side with veteran Corey Davis on improving his technique. Davis lauded the youngster's work ethic and willingness to do what it takes to succeed,
"They're huge," Davis said. "I mean, some of the time we don't get all the reps that we want at practice. So we've got to come out here and just put in the extra work, catch extra balls, extra releases, whatever it may be, to kind of take our game to the next level, and that's what we're going to do. He's a great player. The best thing is that he's able to come out here and work. His work ethic is crazy, and I'm excited to see what he's going to do for us."
As 104.5 The Zone radio in Nashville tweeted, cornerback Malcolm Butler is also a member of the A.J. Brown appreciation society.
"He's a hardworking guy," Butler said. "He's got that grit, and that's how he's made. He's got a lot to do and learn. ... Iron sharpens iron"
Brown is in a good spot, in that he won't be expected to carry the Tennessee passing game. Davis is the No. 1 receiver, the team brought in slot maven Adam Humphries in free agency and the Titans get tight end Delanie Walker back from injury.
That means plenty of single coverage—and Brown is doing the work to take advantage of that.