Every NFL Team's Biggest Sleeper Heading into Training Camps

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistJuly 13, 2019

Every NFL Team's Biggest Sleeper Heading into Training Camps

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Most NFL teams have surprise contributors and developing players primed to break out for a standout year. Sometimes, we can anticipate that high productivity; in other cases, budding playmakers blindside their opponents.

    The Seattle Seahawks selected running back Rashaad Penny in the first round of last year's draft and featured a three-man rotation in the backfield. Yet, Chris Carson ran for 1,151 yards (fifth in the league) and nine touchdowns after playing four games and breaking his leg as a rookie seventh-round pick out of Oklahoma State.

    Who saw that coming?

    Typically, middle- to late-round draft selections, backups and early picks who experienced a rough start to their careers fall under the surprise category. 

    Oftentimes, critics apply the bust label prematurely, neglecting the possibility of a poor fit with a previous coaching staff or a gradual transition from the collegiate ranks to the pros. 

    We'll take a look at players whose talent has been slept on to this point who could catch the NFL landscape off guard in 2019.

    Because of the unpadded practices throughout the spring, wide receivers have flashed more than any other position, resulting in plenty of unheralded pass-catchers showing the ability to move the needle for the upcoming campaign.


Arizona Cardinals: TE Caleb Wilson

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    Head coach Kliff Kingsbury's offensive style fits with the direction of the NFL. At Texas Tech, the passing offense ranked in the top 10 in yards per game in all six years (2013-18) under his tutelage.

    Expect quarterback Kyler Murray to sling the ball all over the field. Running backs and tight ends should have more opportunities to produce in Kingsbury's offensive system. 

    Caleb Wilson isn't a refined playmaker at tight end. He committed to the position once he walked on at USC. The California native transferred to UCLA and showcased his pass-catching skills, logging 1,675 receiving yards and five touchdowns through three terms. 

    Wilson was 2019's Mr. Irrelevant after Arizona selected him with the last pick of the draft, but he has a fair shot to contribute right away in a wide-open offense that caters to the aerial attack.

    Incumbent Cardinals tight ends Ricky Seals-Jones, Charles Clay and Maxx Williams have experience at the pro level, but Wilson, who led all FBS tight ends in receiving yards last year with 965, could emerge as a surprise playmaker in 2019.

Atlanta Falcons: DT Deadrin Senat

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    The Atlanta Falcons have until Monday to lock defensive tackle Grady Jarrett into a long-term deal. The club chose to franchise-tag him—worth $15.2 million. Alongside the emerging 26-year-old, Deadrin Senat could have a major impact on the run defense with some occasional flashes on passing downs.

    At 6'1", 305 pounds, Senat resembles a stout gap-stuffer who can improve the Falcons' 25th-ranked run defense from last year. Beyond filling holes in the middle of the front line, the South Florida product logged six sacks during his senior year of college. 

    Jarrett and Jack Crawford registered six sacks apiece in 2018; head coach Dan Quinn, who's calling plays for the upcoming season, will likely use them to rattle quarterbacks. Senat seems primed for an early-down role to create more 3rd-and-long situations.

    Quinn mentioned Senat as a standout during mandatory minicamp, per D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which is a good start to his sophomore campaign.

Baltimore Ravens: LB Chris Board

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    The Baltimore Ravens will shuffle the deck at linebacker following C.J. Mosley's departure to the New York Jets in free agency. We can expect to see Kenny Young and Patrick Onwuasor take on major roles within a young group.

    Onwuasor has started 26 games for the club, and Young opened three contests with the first unit last season. While speaking with the media, head coach John Harbaugh mentioned Board as someone who's going to round out a three-man rotation at linebacker with a safety helping out in sub-packages:

    "I think Chris Board's playing like a starter; I also think Kenny Young's playing like a starter. I think those guys are playing really, really fast. Peanut's [Onwuasor] got more experience, and he's playing the same way. He is a starter. I would be probably anticipating us to play with kind of a three-man rotation in there, with Peanut taking all the reps and those other two guys playing in packages with Anthony Levine—actually, I should say a four-man rotation." 

    Last year, Board went undrafted out of North Dakota State, but he made the 53-man roster and played mostly on special teams (79.6 percent of the snaps). As Harbaugh points out, he seems ready for a sizable role at linebacker. 

    The Ravens will push Young, a 2018 fourth-rounder with starting experience, but Board has caught the coaching staff's attention and could make a name for himself when players put the pads on.

Buffalo Bills: TE Dawson Knox

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    Tight end Tyler Kroft broke his foot on the opening day of OTAs, and his absence may pave the way for Dawson Knox to take on a huge role at the position. The Bills selected him in the third round of this year's draft, but he seemed primed for a slot behind the veteran. The injury shakes up the pecking order.

    According to Vic Carucci of the Buffalo News, Knox turned heads during offseason workouts. "It wouldn't shock me to see a rookie win the No. 1 tight end spot, especially with the limited competition at the position," he wrote. "Knox had some impressive moments in offseason workouts, but he will need to take that to another level in camp and the preseason when the tempo is up several notches." 

    Back in May, the Bills signed Lee Smith, who spent the first four years of his career in Buffalo, but he's developed a solid reputation for his blocking more so than pass-catching. The 31-year-old has recorded 56 catches for 392 yards and seven touchdowns through eight seasons. 

    Last offseason, tight end Jason Croom made the 53-man roster as an undrafted free agent out of Tennessee, and he logged 22 receptions for 259 yards and a touchdown. He could challenge Knox for targets in the passing game, but the Bills may look for an opportunity to keep the rookie's momentum going through the summer into the regular season.

Carolina Panthers: EDGE Christian Miller

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    Christian Miller (left)
    Christian Miller (left)Jason E. Miczek/Associated Press

    Rookie first-rounder Brian Burns, Mario Addison and Bruce Irvin list ahead of Christian Miller on the depth chart because of draft pedigree or experience, but the coaching staff may fit the 6'3", 247-pounder into the rotation because of his physical tools.

    Miller should have opportunities to utilize his arm length (35 ⅛") and quickness around the edge as the Carolina Panthers experiment with more 3-4 looks. After the draft, he touted his physical skills and projected a high ceiling for himself, per Bryan Strickland of the team's official website.

    "I truly believe I have first-round ability between my measurables and my athleticism, as well as off the field being a team leader," Miller said. "I truly do believe that. I feel like I'm just getting started. I feel like I haven't even scratched the surface yet. I feel like my best football is ahead of me.” 

    Miller's production in his final collegiate season at Alabama indicates he had just started to hit his stride as a disruptor off the edge, registering eight sacks and 11 tackles for loss. The Panthers can keep a pass-rusher with fresh legs on the field at all times in the upcoming season with a four-man rotation. 

    Miller could outplay his fourth-round status as a rookie in Carolina.

Chicago Bears: WR Javon Wims

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    The Chicago Bears will go into training camp with a loaded wide receiver corps. Last year, none of the players in that group eclipsed 800 yards, but Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Anthony Miller all had bright moments in 2018 under head coach Matt Nagy.

    Javon Wims led all pass-catchers in the league in receiving yards (227) through the 2018 preseason, but he saw limited action during the regular season, hauling in four catches for 32 yards in four appearances. The 2018 seventh-rounder out of Georgia may push for a bigger role in the upcoming term; Nagy took note, per Adam Jahns of The Athletic.

    "This game is about opportunities, and he's got a great opportunity in front of him," Nagy said. "Javon is a guy who knows all of our positions. He's smart. He's got great hands, and you saw last year at the end of that Minnesota Vikings game, he made some big catches." 

    The Bears signed Cordarrelle Patterson and selected Riley Ridley in the fourth round of this year's draft, adding stiff competition for the back-end spots at wide receiver. 

    At 6'4", 215 pounds, Wims has the length and size to pose a matchup threat to any defensive back downfield. According to Jahns, he took reps with the starting offense during the spring—his developing connection with quarterback Mitchell Trubisky may help him secure a solid role in the fall.

Cincinnati Bengals: OG Christian Westerman

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    The Cincinnati Bengals scrapped their original plan to move Cordy Glenn to left guard once Jonah Williams underwent shoulder surgery. The rookie first-rounder could miss the entire 2019 campaign.

    Williams would've lined up at left tackle, resulting in Glenn's shift inside. The latter will revert to his natural position, which creates an opportunity at left guard. The Bengals have multiple options at that spot, but Paul Dehner Jr. of The Athletic mentioned a front-runner who's generated buzz within the organization. 

    "I'm also on board with Christian Westerman getting his shot at left guard, which appears to be option one for what will be a camp battle, I'm hearing," Dehner wrote.

    The Bengals selected Westerman in the fifth round of the 2016 draft, but he hasn't seen much action, starting two games in 2017 and playing in 14 games last year with no starts. Going into training camp, the Arizona State product will have a chance to use his arm length (33 ½") and strength (34 bench press reps) to keep pass-rushers away from the pocket.

    Clint Boling, who's started at left guard in recent seasons, has an undisclosed ailment and missed spring workouts. He could either provide depth or become expendable with interior linemen John Jerry and John Miller on the roster. Keep in mind, rookie fourth-rounder Michael Jordan has collegiate experience at left guard. 

    For now, Westerman leads the pack, and it seems like his position to lose going into training camp.

Cleveland Browns: S Jermaine Whitehead

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    In 2018, the Cleveland Browns pass defense ranked 25th in yards allowed, but the unit gave up just 21 touchdowns, good for third in the league. This group may see a boost from a recent under-the-radar acquisition.

    Last year, Browns safety Damarious Randall displayed his ball-tracking skills with four interceptions and nine pass breakups. The front office traded fellow safety Jabrill Peppers to the New York Giants in the Odell Beckham Jr. deal and signed nine-year veteran Morgan Burnett to potentially fill the void, but The Athletic's Zac Jackson suggests we keep an eye on Jermaine Whitehead, who's pushing for more defensive snaps.

    "He played mostly on special teams for the Browns last season, but it was clear in the spring that he's at least going to get a shot to crack the safety rotation this season. Burnett was signed and paid like a starter, and Randall will be the deep safety in most packages, but Whitehead played almost exclusively with the starters in the spring and the coaches have talked up his versatility and ability to show up around the ball." 

    Whitehead logged 24 total tackles, including two for loss, and two pass breakups in 14 games with the Packers and Browns last season. He could push Burnett for reps alongside Randall at safety. The latter lined up as a dime linebacker in Pittsburgh and asked for his release after just one season.

    Burnett, 30, has missed 15 games over the last four seasons. In 2018, he missed multiple contests with a lingering groin injury. If the Browns curtail his reps in an attempt to keep him fresh, Whitehead can show off his skill set and nose for the ball for a shot at a bigger role. Youth and potential may work in his favor.

Dallas Cowboys: DE Dorance Armstrong

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    Dallas Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Lawrence will need time to recover from offseason shoulder surgery to fix a torn labrum. Back in March, the front office acquired Robert Quinn via trade with the Miami Dolphins to man the opposite side.

    According to ESPN.com's Todd Archer, Lawrence will start training camp on the physically unable to perform list, which will allow the reserves to handle reps with the first unit this summer. The Cowboys expect the two-time Pro Bowler to return for Week 1, but injuries can throw a curveball in terms of recovery timetables.

    Dorance Armstrong flashed some flexibility off the edge during an OTA practice that reminded spectators of his impressive offseason last year. John Owning of the Dallas Morning News captured the moment last August, saying, "This is some insane bend from Dorance Armstrong. Feints with a high insane hand and drops his pad level to take a sharp path to the QB. Proper stride length allows him to keep his balance and carry his momentum around the corner."

    Armstrong recorded 15.5 sacks through three seasons at Kansas, but he only lined up for 273 defensive snaps last year. The coaching staff could add to his workload if he flashes at training camp.

Denver Broncos: DE DeMarcus Walker

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    DeMarcus Walker came into the league with moderate expectations as a second-round pick in 2017, but he didn't see much action under then-head coach Vance Joseph and defensive coordinator Joe Woods. At one point, the coaching staff experimented with him at outside linebacker, which barely yielded production.

    Despite his draft status, Walker hasn't started a single game in two seasons. Last year, he only appeared in three contests. Now, the 24-year-old feels good about the new system in place, per Andrew Mason of the Broncos' official website.

    "I feel great. I'm way stronger and heavier than I was. I'm just holding my own and getting better every day," Walker said. "This is a whole different system and a whole different type of technique that Coach [Vic] Fangio has brought to us. This type of technique that I'm playing is something that I played at Florida State." 

    During his senior year with the Seminoles, Walker wreaked havoc on offensive lines, registering 16 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss. 

    In the third round of this year's draft, the Broncos selected defensive lineman Dre'Mont Jones, who's going to push for snaps on the interior of the defensive line as well. But Walker will have a fresh start, and his familiarity with the scheme should help him turn the page on a disappointing two-year stretch in Denver.

Detroit Lions: WR Andy Jones

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    We can put Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones and Danny Amendola in the top three wide receiver spots for the Detroit Lions, but the coaching staff will have a tough decision on the remaining slots.

    Jermaine Kearse lists as the most notable name among the wideouts vying for the No. 4 spot, but he has to make up for lost time. The 29-year-old signed with the team June 6 after an underwhelming 2018 with the New York Jets, catching 37 passes for 371 yards and a touchdown.

    Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press wrote about Andy Jones' spring performances in great length:

    "The bubble receiver who's been the most consistent during open practices this spring has been Andy Jones. He made a nice leaping catch at the goal line in a seven-on-seven drill early in practice Thursday and seemed to be on the receiving end of a lot of Stafford targets. He's a good blocker and better special-teams player, he can play gunner in punt coverage. If I had to pick a fourth receiver right now, he'd be the guy."

    Jones started the last three games of the 2018 campaign and finished with 11 receptions for 80 yards and a touchdown. He carried that momentum into unpadded practices this offseason. Going into his third year, the 25-year-old could enhance his pro resume with more involvement in the passing game.

Green Bay Packers: WR Trevor Davis

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    Wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling's strong spring has come up in multiple reports from ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky and The MMQB's Albert Breer. But Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur highlighted another asset in the young receiver group, per the Wisconsin State Journal's Jason Wilde.

    "A guy that may have been forgotten a little bit is Trevor Davis," LaFleur said. "He made a lot of great plays down the field. He has speed … I've been really impressed with him. I feel like he's come a long way. The effort and the intensity level with which he practices has certainly improved."

    The Packers selected Davis in the fifth round of the 2016 draft, but thus far, he's contributed more on special teams than on offense. The 26-year-old has recorded a combined 1,239 punt and kick return yards in addition to eight receptions for 94 yards and a touchdown through three seasons. 

    Davis may find it difficult to move into one of the top three spots on the receiver depth chart, but he could catch the coaching staff's attention as a reliable, speedy downfield threat and occasional gadget-play ball-carrier in LaFleur's offense.

Houston Texans: WR Vyncint Smith

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    Toward the end of last season, the Houston Texans needed healthy bodies at wide receiver. Will Fuller V (torn ACL), Keke Coutee (hamstring) and Demaryius Thomas (torn Achilles) all missed time down the stretch due to injury. Vyncint Smith suited up for the team's AFC Wild Card Game, but he finished without a catch on two targets.

    But Smith caught the ball and quarterback Deshaun Watson's attention through OTAs this year, per the Houston Chronicle's Aaron Wilson.

    "Smith made several outstanding catches during spring practices and is building his timing with Watson," Wilson wrote.

    "He's a guy who has improved mentally, physically, just all-around," Watson said. "He's been doing a great job. He's handled every challenge. He's done a good job for us."

    Fuller, assuming he's ready to suit up for Week 1, and Coutee will list as the Nos. 2 and 3 options at wide receiver behind DeAndre Hopkins, but Smith could etch his name in the fourth spot with Thomas in New England.

    Last year, Smith signed with the team as an undrafted free agent out of Limestone College and earned a roster spot. He's capable of building on his spring buzz to once again solidify a firm position on the depth chart and a decent role this year.

Indianapolis Colts: TE Mo Alie-Cox

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    In Indianapolis, tight ends will have a hard time standing out with Eric Ebron and Jack Doyle on the roster.

    Ebron had a breakout 2018 campaign with 66 receptions for 750 yards and 13 touchdowns. Doyle has played five seasons with Andrew Luck and led the team in receptions (80) when the quarterback sat out all of 2017 because of a shoulder injury.

    With that said, Mo Alie-Cox took advantage of his opportunities during OTAs, which could encourage head coach Frank Reich to use three-tight end sets on occasion or mix and match pairs at the position. 

    When given first-team reps, Alie-Cox stood out above the rest, per Andrew Walker of the Colts' official website. "With Doyle, Ebron and Travis watching practice from the sidelines, Mo Alie-Cox was utilized as the No. 1 tight end on Tuesday, and he was certainly a standout on the offensive side of the ball," he reported. 

    Walker also noted Alie-Cox's basketball background at VCU. We saw the 6'5", 267-pound tight end use his ability to position himself for receptions last season in small glimpses. He registered seven catches for 133 yards and two touchdowns.

    Although Alie-Cox lists behind Ebron and Doyle on the depth chart, his pass-catching skills could propel him into a solid role. He's primed to add summer sizzle to the passing attack in a few weeks, which may extend into the regular season.

Jacksonville Jaguars: WR Chris Conley

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    The Jacksonville Jaguars have some questions on their wide receiver depth chart. Head coach Doug Marrone expects Marqise Lee to sit out at the start of training camp, per Phillip Heilman of the Florida Times-Union. Keelan Cole took a step back last season, registering fewer catches (38) and receiving yards (491) than his rookie campaign. Dede Westbrook seems like the favorite to push for the most receptions and yards on the team after leading in both categories in 2018. 

    Westbrook may have competition in the upcoming season though. ESPN.com's Michael DiRocco called Chris Conley the best wide receiver during OTAs, and it's clear he's built immediate chemistry with quarterback Nick Foles during the spring. Still, workouts in shorts and T-shirts mean little once padded practices come into play.

    Conley played four seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs and crossed paths with Foles in 2016 when the signal-caller appeared in three contests and started one for the Chiefs. Now, together in Jacksonville, they've been on the same page from the beginning with the wideout in good form.

    "Conley always seems to find the open areas in the defensive coverage. He’s had a strong week catching the football," John Reid of the Florida Times-Union tweeted in May.

    Conley has a chance to rise from an afterthought in Kansas City to a top-two wideout in Jacksonville if he maintains his strong showing with Foles under center.

Kansas City Chiefs: LB Damien Wilson

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    Steven Ryan/Getty Images

    The Chiefs will have at least one new starter at linebacker in base defense, transitioning from a 3-4 to a 4-3. Most defensive coordinators use their nickel alignments at a higher frequency, but the unit needs a chase-down linebacker who can cover the width of the field, clean up plays and add pocket pressure in blitz packages.

    The Chiefs have now added a former Cowboys LB in consecutive years: Anthony Hitchens signed a five-year deal last offseason, and Damien Wilson inked a two-year pact in March.

    Unlike Hitchens, Wilson doesn't have a lengthy track record of starts in Dallas, opening with the first unit in 22 out of 64 contests. With that said, he's shown reliable tackling ability in the open field as a reserve, logging 72 solo takedowns and nine for loss through four seasons. 

    Reggie Ragland and Hitchens often couldn't reach their spots on the field for a pass breakup or a stop. Wilson's quickness and ability to pressure the pocket gives new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo a versatile chess piece at linebacker. He may not play two-thirds of the defensive snaps, but the 26-year-old should show up as a factor on all three downs.

Los Angeles Chargers: DB Jaylen Watkins

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    The Los Angeles Chargers selected Nasir Adderley in the second round of this year's draft. Because of that, he's a good bet to start at free safety, but the Delaware product will have some competition at training camp.

    Rayshawn Jenkins and Jaylen Watkins both have a chance to earn the job. The former is going into his third year in the same system, and the latter seemed like a solid free-agent pickup after an impressive offseason in 2018, per Ricky Henne of the team's official website. 

    "Meanwhile, Watkins looks to pick up where he left off last summer when he was making a strong impression," Henne wrote. "The Chargers had high hopes for the athletic defensive back, who they inked to a one-year contract after he helped the Philadelphia Eagles capture a Super Bowl championship."

    "It was tough," Watkins said concerning his torn ACL, which he suffered in the second game of the 2018 preseason. "I feel like I was having a pretty good camp."

    If Watkins can replicate his performance, he may keep Adderley in a reserve role for at least a year. The Chargers re-signed Watkins to a one-year deal in the offseason, which indicates the team thinks the 27-year-old can have a positive impact on the upcoming season.

Los Angeles Rams: DL Greg Gaines

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    Greg Gaines (No. 91)
    Greg Gaines (No. 91)Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

    The Los Angeles Rams may line up a Day 3 rookie sleeper next to four-time All-Pro Aaron Donald. The front office didn't re-sign Ndamukong Suh, who inked a one-year pact with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but general manager Les Snead added some bulk to the defensive line in April.

    The Rams selected Greg Gaines in the fourth round of this year's draft; he's a 6'1", 312-pound defensive lineman who can eat up blocks and force his way into the backfield. He logged 9.5 sacks between his sophomore and senior seasons at Washington. 

    Per Clarence Dennis of the Rams' official website, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips pointed out another quality that should help Gaines flourish in the pros—his football IQ:

    "I think [Gaines] obviously works hard at what he does, I think he's a grinder, we said that, and I think he'll be stronger in pads, where you can see his power and stuff. No pads and no contact, it's hard to utilize that. I think once he gets the pads on, it'll help him. He's done a good job so far. He's a smart player and we always say smart players get better. So he's one of those guys."

    Gaines could carve out a starting role alongside Donald and Michael Brockers on the interior. He's not going to rack up the impact statistics—sacks and tackles—at a high volume, but the former Husky should provide a boost to the run defense and clear pass-rush lanes for Donald.

Miami Dolphins: RB Kalen Ballage

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    In 2018, running back Frank Gore led the Dolphins in carries (156) and yards (722), which came as a surprise with Kenyan Drake, a young and talented ball-carrier, taking a backseat.

    Gore signed with the Bills in the offseason, and Drake seems like he's in line for a bigger role. Then again, most backfields feature running back by committee.

    New head coach Brian Flores and offensive coordinator Chad O'Shea came over from the New England Patriots, a team that's utilized multiple running backs in recent campaigns. Last year, Patriots ball-carrier Sony Michel led the team in rush attempts (209), and tailback James White saw the most targets (123) from quarterback Tom Brady.

    Flores and O'Shea can implement a similar dynamic with Drake and Ballage, with the latter handling more pass-catching duties out of the backfield. The former has shown solid hands in three seasons with 94 receptions for 762 yards and six touchdowns, but a split workload can keep him fresh through a long season.

    During his junior season at Arizona State, Ballage registered 44 catches for 469 yards and a touchdown. At 6'2", 231 pounds, he possesses the size to take on goal-line duties as well. Look for him to see a spike in touches as the No. 2 option in the backfield.

Minnesota Vikings: S Jayron Kearse

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    Jayron Kearse has played in 47 out of 48 games through his first three years, but he's provided little impact for the defense. That may change this season. According to Mike Wobschall of the team's official website, the 6'4", 215-pounder could shift between positions with a bigger role.

    "I am certain Kearse will play significant snaps on defense in 2019," Wobschall wrote. "Kearse is a hybrid-type of player, or a wild card, for the defense and his combination of athleticism and size makes him a good card for head coach Mike Zimmer to have in his deck."

    In today's league, defenses can use a small linebacker or a big safety who can cover in space and help out against the run. At Kearse's size, he fits both positions. At Clemson, he found the football frequently, recording seven interceptions and 11 pass breakups through three seasons. Last year, the 25-year-old logged 27 solo tackles and a half-sack but only played 202 defensive snaps

    Going into his fourth season, Kearse may see the field in nickel situations or add some punch to the front seven at linebacker. If the coaching staff uses him in both roles at training camp, he would likely see a major uptick in reps this year.

New England Patriots: LB Ja'Whaun Bentley

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    The Patriots added to their linebacker corps this offseason, signing a familiar face in Jamie Collins, who suited up for the club from 2013-2016 before a midseason trade to the Browns. 

    Despite Collins' return, fellow Pats linebacker Kyle Van Noy talked about Ja'Whaun Bentley as someone to watch going forward (h/t NFL.com's Logan Reardon).

    "He's got a lot potential. He's really good. He's smart. He's crafty. He does all those little things you want as a middle linebacker. He sets the tone. He's not afraid to communicate and he does a really good job [within] his role. His role will get bigger the more and more he plays, and a lot of people will be happy he's a Patriot, that's for sure." 

    Bentley had a short window to showcase his talent; his 2018 season abruptly ended because of a torn bicep. Before landing on injured reserve, he appeared in three contests—starting two—and logged nine solo tackles, a pass breakup and an interception. The Purdue product could take snaps in sub-packages, chasing down ball-carriers and challenging receivers in the short passing game.

New Orleans Saints: WR Tre'Quan Smith

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Tre'Quan Smith could become a breakout playmaker in the upcoming season. Although he showed inconsistencies through his rookie campaign, catching one or no passes in eight out of 15 games, the UCF product also flashed against the Washington Redskins (three receptions for 111 yards and two touchdowns) and Philadelphia Eagles (10 catches for 157 yards and a score).

    With wideout Ted Ginn Jr. going into a contract year, Smith will have an opportunity to take over the No. 2 spot on the depth chart behind Michael Thomas. As a receiver who can stretch plays after the catch or go vertical, the 23-year-old possesses limitless potential with an accurate quarterback like Drew Brees under center.

    The New Orleans Saints invested a third-round pick in Smith last year. After playing 54 percent of the offensive snaps and showcasing his skill set in splashes, Smith may see more targets from Brees during the regular season if he stands out this summer.

New York Giants: CB Julian Love

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    The Giants double-dipped at the cornerback position during this year's draft, selecting Deandre Baker and Julian Love in the first and fourth rounds, respectively.

    Because of his draft pedigree, Baker will likely open the season on the perimeter opposite Janoris Jenkins. The path to a starting position isn't so clear for Love, but NJ.com's Matt Lombardo suggests he has a chance to crack the lineup:

    "Love has the chance to push Haley for the nickel job, but might be better suited to play safety because of his physicality and lack of high-end speed. Training camp and preseason will be critical for Love to carve out his role, if he loses the nickel competition, he could push Antoine Bethea for the starting safety spot opposite Jabrill Peppers, if the veteran falters."

    Typically, defensive coordinators find a way to put playmakers on the field. Love logged 39 pass breakups in three seasons at Notre Dame, making him the Fighting Irish's career leader in passes defended. If he continues to show a tendency to track the football, we could see him starting in the slot or at safety.

New York Jets: C Jonotthan Harrison

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    The Jets didn't re-sign interior offensive lineman Spencer Long, who started 10 games at center last year, and opted not to draft a rookie with experience at the position, either. As a result, Jonotthan Harrison could take on a full-time starting role in the pivot.

    Gang Green can visit the bargain bin after summer cuts to acquire a veteran, but Harrison has his mind set on opening Week 1 in the starting lineup, per Ethan Greenberg of the Jets' official website.

    "For now, my goal is to enter the season as the starter, take it one step at a time from there. I have my other personal goals, but that’s my large one right now. I’m going on Year 6. I’ve had my years starting and I’ve had my years where I didn’t start as much. My goal is to definitely enter this season as a starter and earn my credibility as a lineman." 

    Harrison hasn't started more than 10 games in a single season to this point, but at 27 years old, he'll have an opportunity to solidify himself as a first-unit asset. The front office's decision to refrain from adding stiff competition at the position shows faith in him to excel as the centerpiece of the offensive line.

Oakland Raiders: WR Hunter Renfrow

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    The Oakland Raiders reconstructed the top of their wide receiver depth chart, sending Amari Cooper to the Cowboys before last year's trade deadline, acquiring Antonio Brown from the Pittsburgh Steelers in March and signing Tyrell Williams, who was a coveted free agent in a mediocre pool of players.

    Brown and Williams will garner most of the attention from defensive backs. They'll also create opportunities for other receivers to win their one-on-one matchups.

    According to NBCS Bay Area's Scott Bair, Hunter Renfrow has shown early signs of his playmaking ability on the practice field:

    "There's always an adjustment period for rookies starting NFL work, but Raiders coaches were impressed by Renfrow's steady improvement during the offseason program. Progress was shown in OTAs and minicamp, a positive step for a slot receiver who's learning every receiver position. That's a Jon Gruden mandate for everyone in the corps, though doing well in the slot could be the fast way to significant snaps."

    Gruden's offensive system isn't easy on wideouts since they're tasked with learning every spot at the position, so Renfrow's quick start shows legitimate promise. 

    At Clemson, Renfrow primarily lined up in the slot. He's primed to make most of his catches on the inside, but opponents shouldn't overlook him on the perimeter. The rookie fifth-rounder's summer reps on the outside will allow him to become a viable pass-catcher regardless of his pre-snap position.

Philadelphia Eagles: LB T.J. Edwards

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    The Eagles have an unsettled linebacker group. The front office allowed Jordan Hicks to walk in free agency, and Kamu Grugier-Hill has only 10 career starts, all of which came last season. Zach Brown signed with Philadelphia nearly two months after the Redskins released him in March.

    Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer listed T.J. Edwards as one of his surprises through the spring, saying, "Of the Eagles' undrafted rookies, he may be the best bet to make the 53-man roster."

    Edwards could emerge as the Eagles' best coverage linebacker; he recorded 15 pass breakups and 10 interceptions in four seasons at Wisconsin. The former Badger has also been working on his physical form; he dropped 15 pounds to prepare for his professional career, per NFL.com's Lance Zierlein.

    If Edwards' weight loss adds to his quickness and ability to reach spots on the field in coverage, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz can plug him into a role on passing downs.

Pittsburgh Steelers: WR Ryan Switzer

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    Behind JuJu Smith-Schuster on the depth chart, Ryan Switzer may rise through the ranks to make a significant impact on the upcoming season. In a mailbag response, The Athletic's Mark Kaboly pinpointed the 5'8", 185-pound wideout as a roster keeper over Eli Rogers:

    "I think it will be one or the other, and my pick is Switzer ... It takes time together and Ben Roethlisberger and Switzer seem to be on the same page, especially during spring practices. Plus, he's a better returner than Rogers, and that all plays into the decision. In the end, Switzer, IMO, is the better receiver and will make this team. I can see him catching 45 passes this year, maybe more." 

    The Steelers signed Donte Moncrief in March and selected Diontae Johnson in the third round of this year's draft, but Kaboly thinks Switzer's chemistry will lead to a roster spot and a decent number of targets in 2019.

    Last season, Switzer recorded a combined 859 punt and kick return yards and caught 36 passes for 253 yards and a touchdown. If he takes another step in Year 2 with the Steelers, Roethlisberger would have a solid catch-and-run option out of the slot.

San Francisco 49ers: S Tarvarius Moore

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    Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

    Last season, the San Francisco 49ers used Tarvarius Moore as a cornerback, and he started the final two games of the season at the position. After Jimmie Ward broke his collarbone during OTAs, the coaching staff made an adjustment, shifting the 2018 third-rounder from a perimeter cover man to safety.

    Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh didn't commit to Moore lining up at safety for the rest of the year, though, per Matt Barrows of The Athletic.

    "We'll cross that bridge when we get to training camp. Right now, with all the injuries and all the different lineups with all the guys missing, we're trying to make sure that everybody's getting (repetitions). That's something that we loved about Moore is that we drafted him knowing that he's got great versatility where he could play corner and safety."

    Ward's return could push Moore back to cornerback, but the latter is currently slotted at his collegiate position, which may allow him to remain at that spot. Saleh also mentioned his skill set; the 49ers can potentially move him around the secondary, even though that's not ideal for a developing player.

    Meanwhile, Ward and Jaquiski Tartt haven't been able to stay healthy in recent seasons; neither has played at least 10 games since 2016. Moore should have a solid role in the upcoming season due to his ability to play multiple positions, a potential switch to safety and the injury history of the starters in front of him.

Seattle Seahawks: DB Ugochukwu Amadi

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    The Seahawks lost slot cornerback Justin Coleman in free agency, and the coaching staff must find a starting safety to pair with Bradley McDougald.

    GM John Schneider picked up a rookie who can potentially fill either role in the secondary in Ugochukwu Amadi. McDougald expressed his thoughts on the rookie defensive backs, specifically Amadi, to reporters during mandatory minicamp.

    "Nothing but athleticism," McDougald said. "Especially Ugo [Amadi], I really, really like him. He's small, but he's quick. He moves well and I've seen him play a nickel and free safety. He's just getting better every day. He's really taken advantages of these reps.” 

    Amadi didn't display blazing speed at the NFL Scouting Combine with a 4.51-second 40 time, but he looks quicker on tape when closing on the football to make plays. The Oregon product registered 25 pass breakups and nine interceptions through four collegiate terms. 

    The Seahawks may have stumbled upon a ball hawk in the fourth round of the draft, which classifies as a steal. Because he may have the ability to line up in multiple positions, the rookie will more than likely play a significant role in the upcoming season.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: LB Shaquil Barrett

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    After suffering a neck injury in a car accident in May, defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul could make a return in October at the earliest, per the Tampa Bay Times' Rick Stroud. Shortly after, the front office released defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who signed with the Panthers. The two defenders combined for 18.5 sacks last year. 

    Who's going to rush the quarterback in Tampa Bay?

    The Buccaneers could have an unheralded playmaker on the edge in Shaquil Barrett, who couldn't carve out a starting role in Denver. Nevertheless, he contributed to the pass rush as a reserve, recording 14 sacks over the last four seasons. 

    Barrett had no chance at earning a starting job with Bradley Chubb, the No. 5 overall pick of the 2018 draft, and three-time All-Pro Von Miller on the edges for the Broncos. In Tampa Bay, the 26-year-old will have a shot to start at outside linebacker under defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. 

    In a prominent role playing at least two-thirds of the defensive snaps, Barrett could come close to a double-digit sack total.

Tennessee Titans: WR Taywan Taylor

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    The Tennessee Titans signed Adam Humphries in free agency and selected A.J. Brown in the second round of this year's draft, but Taywan Taylor could emerge as the wideout to watch going forward.

    Titans wide receivers coach Rob Moore thinks Taylor deserves more looks in the passing attack, per Jim Wyatt of the Titans' official site.

    "I think Tay has done a solid job for us,” Moore said. "Honestly, I just think we need to give him more opportunities. Give him more opportunities to showcase what he can do and I think he'll take advantage of his opportunities."

    The Titans selected Taylor in the third round of the 2017 draft. He had a quiet rookie campaign, logging 16 catches for 231 yards and a touchdown. The 24-year-old followed that up with 37 receptions for 466 yards and a score last season. 

    Despite the buzz around the newcomers at wide receiver, the Titans coaching staff may put Taylor in position to show his best within a talented group. Moore talked about more opportunities for him, so we'll see if that translates into head-turning plays on the field.

Washington Redskins: WR Trey Quinn

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    Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press

    Two of the Redskins' top receivers have pivotal seasons on the horizon, with Josh Doctson going into a crucial contract year, and Paul Richardson taking another shot at proving he's a starting-caliber player.

    Head coach Jay Gruden took note of another wide receiver who's capable of making a significant leap in 2019, per NBCS Washington's JP Finlay. "Trey Quinn has taken over the inside slot role," Gruden said. "He’s confident, he’s quick, he’s got strong hands, he’s physical, [and] he’s tough."

    Quinn put together an impressive junior campaign at SMU, logging 114 catches for 1,236 yards and 13 touchdowns. Yet, he became Mr. Irrelevant of the 2018 draft, going to the Redskins with the last pick. The 6'0", 200-pound wideout registered just nine catches for 75 yards and a touchdown last year.

    With an inside track to a solid position in the offense, Quinn could surprise a lot of people with his production in the upcoming campaign.


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