NFL Rookies Making Waves at 2019 OTAs
The summer schedule across the NFL is moving right along from voluntary workouts to mandatory OTAs.
Yes, the practices are still padless and non-contact. But with a few exceptions, the rosters are all there. Full teams have assembled to begin the march to Miami and Super Bowl LIV.
The players who benefit most from these workouts are undoubtedly the rookies. After all, first-year contributors have a ton to learn as they make the jump to the pros: new schemes, new teammates and, for some, new positions.
For many rookies, these early practices are struggles and times of adjustment. But for a select few, whether the first overall pick or a player taken in the draft's final round, OTAs have offered an opportunity to shine and make waves.
Damien Harris, RB, New England Patriots
The New England Patriots aren't exactly known for being forthcoming with injury news. You have a better chance of scoring DIY plans for a nuclear reactor or learning the 11 secret herbs and spices in KFC than getting a straight answer why second-year tailback Sony Michel hasn't been spotted on the practice field since May 20.
However, Michel's absence opened the door for other running backs on the roster to receive more reps. Rookie Damien Harris has apparently charged through that door.
As Paul Perillo reported for the team's website, Harris got the lion's share of reps at tailback in minicamp—ahead of veterans Rex Burkhead and Branden Bolden. The 87th pick in the 2019 draft made the most of them, even showing off his chops as a receiver, which he wasn't exactly known for at Alabama.
Harris said that at this early juncture, it's just about getting better.
"You can work on anything at this point," he said. "That's our objective—to get better at all phases of game. I know that’s my objective, to be the best player I can be. Whether that's in the run game or the pass game, special teams, whatever I'm asked to do I want to come out here and do it at a high level."
So far, so good.
N'Keal Harry, WR, New England Patriots
Damien Harris isn't the only rookie who has turned heads in Patriots camp.
Following the retirement of tight end Rob Gronkowski and the loss of a number of wideouts in free agency, the defending Super Bowl champions have a glaring need for passing-game weapons. That the team spent its first-round pick on Arizona State wideout N'Keal Harry underscores that need.
So far, Harry hasn't disappointed.
During the team's recent mandatory minicamp, Harry spent significant time running with the starters. As Jeff Howe reported for the Athletic, he made the most of that opportunity, impressing the likes of veteran cornerback Stephon Gilmore.
"He's a big guy," Gilmore said. "I pressed him one time and tried to get my hands on him, and he threw them down. He's really strong. He's just got to keep working. He's got great coaches and great players around him. It's not easy for any of us. But if he keeps working, he'll be in the right place when it's time."
There's still a long way to go between now and the big Sunday night season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers. But if mandatory minicamp was any indication, Harry will be a significant contributor for the Pats from the start.
Daniel Jones, QB, New York Giants
The NFL career of New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones got off to something of a rocky start. Almost from the moment he was taken No. 6 overall, the pick was pilloried by the media. Jones was called a bust waiting to happen.
However, the narrative is changing after the young signal-caller's performance on the practice field has steadily improved. After watching him in minicamp, Bleacher Report's Mike Tanier believes Jones already gives the Giants the best chance to win in 2019.
"Through three days of full-squad sessions, the sixth overall pick in April's draft looked like a better quarterback than Manning," Tanier wrote. "He wasn't just more athletic (that's to be expected); he was also sharper, more accurate and more willing and able to challenge the defense with difficult downfield throws."
Per Matt Lombardo of NJ.com, tight end Evan Engram has been similarly impressed.
"You can see him getting confident," Engram said. "Anytime you're coming in as a rookie, you're going to be a little shaky or a little nervous. You kind of see him starting to brush that off, get into his groove and take advantage of everything he's given."
Training camp could get interesting quickly for the Giants.
D.K. Metcalf, WR, Seattle Seahawks
After the release of veteran Doug Baldwin in the offseason, wide receiver shot to the top of the needs list for a Seattle team focused on making it back to the postseason in 2019.
The Seahawks didn't just need a wideout; they needed a receiver who could contribute now.
DK Metcalf is undoubtedly fast, big and strong. But coming out of Ole Miss, he wasn't generally regarded as the most pro-ready of prospects.
After watching Metcalf at OTAs, veteran receiver Tyler Lockett told reporters, per Andy Patton of Seahawks Wire, that his new teammate may have been underestimated.
"I think he's way above what people from the outside probably expected him to be," Lockett said. "The biggest thing that I like is the fact that he's being himself. He's playing his game, and he's using these tools and the things that has God-given talent to be able to be successful and get himself open."
A strong showing in non-contact workouts is hardly a guarantee Metcalf will be ready to serve as the team's "X" receiver when the Seahawks face the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 1. But if he's ahead of developmental expectations, that's great news for quarterback Russell Wilson.
Scotty Miller, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
With Adam Humphries and DeSean Jackson no longer in town, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have quite a bit of production to replace at wide receiver in 2019.
Assuming a sixth-round rookie will help after just a few workouts is premature and then some, but Scotty Miller has already defied expectations by making the impression he has at OTAs.
As Scott Smith of the team's website reported, Miller has convinced Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston with his speed on the practice field. In fact, Winston went so far as to call Miller's showing in practice "fantastic."
Buccaneers.com's Carmen Vitali wrote just after the draft that Miller ran an impressive 4.3-second 40-yard dash at Bowling Green's pro day. It's that speed that stood out to general manager Jason Licht:
"He's very fast. To say he's [former Buccaneers slot receiver] Adam Humphries, it's tough to do that right now. He's got to fight to make the team. He's different. He's not as thick, he's not as big, he's more of a speed guy. In fact, he's very, very fast. I think he's one of the faster guys in the draft. It's going to be fun to have him out here and see what he can do."
This time of year, with contact on the practice field so limited, speed stands out that much more.
That's allowed Miller to build up a head of steam.
Jimmy Moreland, CB, Washington Redskins
Here's a double-dip surprise: a defensive player and Day 3 pick who stole the show at Redskins OTAs.
Jimmy Moreland was quite the ball hawk while at James Madison; the 5'10", 179-pounder intercepted 18 passes and returned six for touchdowns. Both were school records.
However, six-plus rounds of this year's draft came and went before the Redskins made Moreland the 227th pick.
Moreland's uniform may have changed, but his nose for the ball hasn't. As Roland Brierre reported for WJLA.com, the rookie intercepted four passes—including a 101-yard pick-six—in the two OTA sessions open to the media.
"I always play with a chip on my shoulder," Moreland said about using his seventh-round status as motivation in the NFL, per Brierre. "I got passed on by a lot of teams, and I am just here to keep my motivation and my energy up."
Every team in the league could use more depth in the defensive backfield, and the Redskins are no exception. At the very least, Moreland has established himself as a player to watch in training camp.
Kyler Murray, QB, Arizona Cardinals
No rookie in the NFL has more pressure on him than Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray. Last year's Heisman Trophy winner was the first overall pick in the 2019 draft. He's expected not only to start for the Redbirds right away but also to help lead them out of the NFC West cellar.
Murray is already earning the respect of one important group: his teammates.
According to Jason Owens of Yahoo Sports, running back David Johnson has been impressed by Murray's athleticism and accuracy.
"He looks like he's already ready to go," Johnson said. "He's already conducting, leading the offense. He's moving around, scrambling—it's making it tough for the defense to definitely catch him. His arm is very good, very accurate. He can throw the deep ball pretty well."
Per Mike Jurecki of the team's website, veteran wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald has also been singing Murray's praises: "He knows the system better than we do. He can get us into any play at any time and then he has the ultimate weapon in the exit button."
When you've caught the eye of arguably the best player in franchise history, you must be doing something right.
Riley Ridley, WR, Chicago Bears
By now, you're probably noticing a theme about this piece: It's heavy on skill-position talent.
It stands to reason that with contact all but prohibited in OTAs, those position groups have a sizable edge on the practice field. At this point in the summer, power and physicality give way to speed, agility and route running.
So far in Chicago, rookie wide receiver Riley Ridley has shown off all three.
Lauded for his route running before the draft, Ridley has been as advertised in that regard during OTAs. As Alyssa Barbieri reported for Bears Wire, he has also appeared to play faster than his timed 40 speed of 4.58 seconds.
Bears wide receivers coach Mike Furrey, per Barbieri, has also been impressed with how readily the youngster has taken up head coach Matt Nagy's offense after he played in a pro-style scheme at Georgia:
"That's an advantage for him, understanding what words speak to him in the huddle — because it's a lot of words — and being able to now go function with what his assignment is…his missed assignments are so far below a normal rookie, and I think a lot of that contributes to him being in a system, like that coming from college."
It sounds like Ridley might be a substantial part of the Chicago offense in 2019.
Darius Slayton, WR, New York Giants
It's not just the first-round picks—or even the Day 2 picks—who have impressed in OTAs. As a matter of fact, you could argue the players who benefit most from standing out in early workouts are the late-round selections. It's an opportunity for them to open the eyes of coaches and stake early claims to roster spots.
After a rough go at rookie minicamp, the 6'1", 190-pound Darius Slayton bounced back in New York's latest round of workouts. Per SNY, head coach Pat Shurmur sure seemed to think the fifth-round pick stood out:
"The guy that's made huge improvements in my eyes has been Slayton, he's done a really good job. I think we were all here during rookie minicamp when he kind of had the yips, drops and what not. He's really smoothed it out and he's been making plays. He's the first guy that comes to mind. This time of year, it's more about throwing and catching and less about blocking and tackling."
With Odell Beckham Jr. now catching passes in Cleveland, the Giants could certainly use help at receiver. And while the team brought in Golden Tate, size on the outside remains an area of need.
Slayton is taller than Tate, Sterling Shepard and Corey Coleman. He also boasts 4.39 speed.
If the rookie can keep this going into training camp, he could push Coleman for the role of third receiver for the G-Men.
Greedy Williams, CB, Cleveland Browns
After swinging a trade for superstar receiver Odell Beckham Jr., the Cleveland Browns didn't have a first-round pick in April's draft. But some believe the Browns landed a Round 1 talent on Day 2 in the form of LSU cornerback Greedy Williams.
Williams hasn't wasted any time making his presence felt. He's already received significant time with the starters on the practice field at OTAs and has performed well in the opinion of head coach Freddie Kitchens:
"Greedy is getting better every day in everything he does," Kitchens said, per Josh Edwards of 247 Sports. "As far as what he is looking at, a lot of people don't realize that the game even outside at the corner position is played with your feet and your eyes. He is getting better in both of those areas."
Williams, for his part, said he's settling in well:
"As you get going, you get comfortable and get your confidence back up on you and everything plays out well...I am kind of in my comfort stage now. I am doing what I do and having fun doing it. I am pretty confident. My confidence level is high now. Every day I find something to work on my game, and that is helping me out day by day."
After they drafted a Pro Bowl corner last year in Denzel Ward, the Browns potentially landed the best corner prospect in the class of 2019. If the first-team reps roll into camp and the regular season, a Ward-Williams combo could become the Hanford Dixon-Frank Minnifield of the 21st century.
Cue Browns fans nodding and smiling.