The Top Rookie Storylines to Watch in 2019 NFL Training Camps
Certain NFL draft picks are more important than others.
Before the event, organizations evaluate talent, identify problem areas with their rosters and jockey to land the ideal prospects. Afterward, the recently acquired individuals must almost immediately prove their worth. The setup isn't fair, but jobs are always on the line, especially among desperate franchises in need of turnarounds.
As a result, all eyes are on the rookies as training camps loom.
Once an organization drafts an individual, particularly early, expectations are heaped upon the incoming talent. In certain situations, he's treated like a savior. In others, he's an immediate projected starter on a good team.
Yet, a disconnect often exists.
Patience is at a premium. Some of those individuals won't be ready. Their maturation will take time. Even so, highly touted prospects draw the most interest once the pads are on for the first time.
The following eight storylines to watch in training camps are potential franchise-changers if the teams did their jobs during the evaluation process and the draftees pan out sooner rather than later.
What's the latest on Zeke's holdout? How will it impact the 2019 Cowboys? Are they ready to repeat as NFC East champs, or are the Eagles, Giants or Redskins ready to pounce? All that and more on the latest Stick to Football show.
Will 2019 Draftees Dominate Arizona Cardinals Offense?
The Arizona Cardinals entered the offseason with the NFL's worst roster. The team owned the No. 1 overall pick and started with 10 selections this year before trading previous franchise quarterback Josh Rosen to the Miami Dolphins for a 2019 second-round choice and a 2020 fifth-rounder.
The infusion of youth and talent from the incoming class is crucial to the organization's long-term vision under new head coach Kliff Kingsbury. How Kingsbury constructs his Air Raid offense is reliant on the maturation of numerous rookies.
Of course, everything starts with this year's top selection, quarterback Kyler Murray. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner is an ideal fit in the spread scheme because of his success with the same passing principles at the high school and collegiate levels.
Murray already took the reins before entering his first training camp, which starts next week.
"I know him running Lincoln Riley's offense is very similar to what Coach Kliff runs," wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald told The MMQB's Robert Klemko, "but on the first day he's calling audibles and getting us in plays that are favorable to the offense. So I was really impressed by his ability to take a leadership position first day at the offense."
Murray's development will decide the Cardinals' fate, but he needs help. And seven of the team's 11 draft picks came on offense.
Andy Isabella, Hakeem Butler and KeeSean Johnson add significant depth at wide receiver behind Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk. Since Kingsbury's scheme relies on multi-receiver sets with four or five available targets, the rookies will be on the field this fall. Hybrid tight end Caleb Wilson—this year's Mr. Irrelevant—can fill a spot as a flex option near the line of scrimmage.
Murray's maturation will drive the Cardinals, but other rookies will define how successful the entire offense can be.
Will Raiders Rookies Bring a Different Mentality?
Usually, struggling organizations sign successful veterans to change their culture. The Oakland Raiders took the opposite approach. At least, general manager Mike Mayock expects the team's top selections to take on leadership roles after last year's 4-12 campaign.
"We define 'foundation' as talent and character," Mayock told reporters after the first day of April's draft. "... I basically told them they have one obligation as being part of a first-round pick by our team, and that's leadership."
The Raiders sacrificed potential short-term success and endured ridicule by trading Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper to build a treasure trove of draft assets. Now, many of those assets have names.
Defensive end Clelin Ferrell, running back Josh Jacobs and safety Johnathan Abram form the foundation for head coach Jon Gruden. Of the three, Ferrell faces the most scrutiny since he essentially replaced Mack. Gruden already described the fourth overall pick as a "real big role model," per NBC Sports' Scott Bair.
Abram, meanwhile, became a vocal leader from the onset of his professional career.
"When you're back there, as I stand at the back of the defense, I hear him communicate," defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said of the rookie safety, per the Las Vegas Review-Journal's Michael Gehlken. "He doesn't sound like a rookie player. He sounds like a veteran player."
On offense, Jacobs will be the bell cow since the Raiders lack quality depth at the position. He's a three-down back capable of carrying the unit.
But all three rookies must contend with strong personalities like Vontaze Burfict and Richie Incognito.
The Raiders want their investments to lead them into a new era before the move to Las Vegas in 2020. That mission starts during training camp by earning the respect of their teammates.
Will Daniel Jones Challenge Eli Manning to Become Giants' Starting QB?
Nothing less than the future of the New York Giants is on the line when the team convenes for training camp.
At first, the front office and coaching staff downplayed a possible competition between 15-year veteran Eli Manning and this year's sixth overall pick, Daniel Jones. The organization views Manning as its starting signal-caller. Yet, the narrative began to change when Jones looked better than expected during organized team activities and minicamp.
Head coach Pat Shurmur softened the team's stance on a possible open competition.
"The players who give our team the best chance to win play. Period," Shurmur told reporters. "We've seen Eli do that for a very long time, so we'll see what happens as we go down the road."
While Manning remains the incumbent and told NFL Network's Rhett Lewis (h/t Charean Williams of Pro Football Talk) that he doesn't view the rookie's inclusion as a competition, Jones can plant a seed of doubt during training camp by outperforming the veteran.
The 22-year-old Duke product doesn't need to be a Day 1 starter. Obviously, the team isn't in a rush to put him on the field. The franchise's long-term goals are important, though. Manning is 38 years old and entering the final year of his contract. Jones will play this season.
"We just need Daniel to stay on pace, learn as much as he possibly can in a great environment and just take it day by day," wide receiver Golden Tate told NFL Network's Scott Hanson on Total Access. "We don't need him to come in tomorrow and win a game. We just need him to stay on pace. I think that's good news in my mind."
The rookie has a different skill set than Manning as a more mobile option. His maneuverability could be key if the Giants' new-look offensive line doesn't jell. Furthermore, New York isn't considered a contender. The groundwork Jones lays during camp will likely help him once the team is out of the race later in the season and he becomes the starter.
If Jones performs well in camp, he may challenge Manning after all. Granted, he must sign a contract first.
Will Washington Redskins' Dwayne Haskins Emerge as QB1?
Dwayne Haskins started one season at the collegiate level before entering the NFL draft as an early entrant and being selected 15th overall by the Washington Redskins. Yet, the 22-year-old could open the 2019 campaign a starting quarterback.
Senior vice president of player personnel Doug Williams discussed the Haskins' progress with NFL Network's Steve Wyche:
"No. 1, to have Dwayne in camp and be on the sideline during OTAs and minicamp, and see the young guy do what he's done, and how he's taking command of the opportunity that he's had. You talk about a guy that's come from a situation where (he never) went up under center. To see a guy walk up out of the huddle and see the poise that he has, the patience that he's exhibited, there's room to have a lot of hope."
Hope can be fleeting, especially if Haskins doesn't build upon his strong start. Case Keenum is a viable alternative if Washington's staff isn't comfortable with the rookie.
Clearly, Haskins is a superior talent with an exceptional arm and natural throwing ability. However, his learning curve is steep because of his lack of reps. Washington's defensive staff will throw what it can at him during training camp, but Haskins may need time to adjust. How he handles pre- and post-snap reads will determine whether he's ready to lead the offense.
Washington plans to make a collaborative decision before the start of the season, according to Williams:
"I know that there's words out there that he might end up starting, and that could happen, but at the end of the day, it's going to be on [coach] Jay [Gruden], myself, probably [president] Bruce [Allen] and the owner, after what he does during the preseason and see where we are as a team to make that decision. I don't want to say that he's going to start Game 1 today, but it's been a pleasant and enjoyable scene to see what Dwayne Haskins has done over the last few weeks."
Haskins will be Washington's starting quarterback. His training camp performance will provide indicators for when that'll be.
Will Draftees Solidify the Houston Texans Offensive Line?
The Houston Texans sent a message on draft weekend.
"We have to have guys that are going to be bodyguards for Deshaun Watson, man, and you're going to be that guy," head coach Bill O'Brien told 23rd overall pick Tytus Howard after Houston selected the blocker, per the team's official Twitter account. "Tough, smart, dependable—that's what you are and that's what you gotta bring in here."
The Texans didn't stop with Howard. They chose Northern Illinois left tackle Max Scharping in the second round. Watson's two newest bodyguards have more pressure on them, literally, than any other draft picks because they must prevent the Texans' franchise quarterback from being sacked so often.
Fans are probably sick of hearing the fact that Houston surrendered a league-high 62 sacks last season. But the number can't be overlooked. The Texans' protection issues were arguably the league's most glaring deficiency.
Their renewed commitment to the offensive line with the additions of Howard and Scharping is commendable. But the two rookies don't automatically address the problem areas.
Howard is a quarterback-turned-offensive tackle who spent most of his collegiate career at right tackle for an FCS program in Alabama State. He's a tremendous athlete with the natural tools to excel at the position. At the same time, he's not polished and needs time to develop, though the Texans are happy with his early progress.
"Very good. Really a bright guy," O'Brien told reporters during rookie minicamp. "Smart, good athlete. Really did a nice job today coming out. We taught him a lot."
Scharping is consistent and a reliable pass-blocker, but he must show the athletic requirements necessary to play left tackle at the professional level. If Matt Kalil ends up as a starter, the rookies didn't do enough during training camp to build confidence, and the Texans failed in their endeavor.
Will Greg Little Protect Cam Newton's Blind Side?
Cam Newton's health after he required offseason shoulder surgery is of the utmost importance to the Carolina Panthers. As such, an offensive line that keeps Newton upright and prevents defenders from getting as many hits on the quarterback is at the top of the priority list.
Ryan Kalil and Matt Kalil are no longer with the organization, but the roster has multiple versatile pieces to replace those departures. Left tackle is the biggest question mark, though. The position appears to be earmarked for second-round rookie Greg Little.
"We think he has all the skills to be our starting left tackle for a long time," general manager Marty Hurney said during minicamp, per the Charlotte Observer's Brendan Marks.
Head coach Ron Rivera called Little "one of the more athletic left tackles in this league," per the Observer's Marcel Louis-Jacques.
Athleticism only goes so far. Consistent technique separates poor-to-average professional offensive linemen from great ones. Little may have the physical tools to excel on the blind side, but his ability to work angles and keep his quarterback clean on a regular basis is far more important.
"The thing that Greg is learning very quickly is he can't just rely on his athleticism anymore," Rivera said, per Max Henson of the team's official site. "He could get away with some things [in college]. Here, you're not gonna be able to."
Taylor Moton can play left tackle if needed, but he's a natural right tackle. Little is a natural blindside protector. A rookie tasked with holding down a premium position and keeping Newton clean is significant and could be the difference between competing for the NFC South title or another losing campaign.
How Will Seahawks Utilize Their Rookie Wide Receivers?
DK Metcalf unexpectedly fell to the end of the second round. The Seattle Seahawks saw an opportunity and traded up to acquire the physical marvel with the 64th overall pick.
Despite the wide receiver's draft-weekend plummet, the Seahawks have already thrust him and fellow rookies Gary Jennings and John Ursua into competition for significant roles. Seattle needed help out wide before Baldwin's decision, but his departure solidified the team's need to develop young receivers.
Metcalf wowed onlookers at the NFL Scouting Combine with a 4.33-second 40-yard dash at a chiseled 6'3" and 228 pounds. His size makes him an immediate threat even if he's not a complete route-runner at this point.
Head coach Pete Carroll discussed Metcalf's performance with reporters after his debut in rookie minicamp:
"His feet were really, really lightning quick and it showed it out here today already. So that means that the potential is there to make him an excellent releaser. He's already going to be really strong and using his hands, getting off the ball, but to have that combination, when we get a chance to tie it all together, it should be a really good package."
Metcalf is only part of the equation, though. His role is well-defined as an X receiver, whereas Jennings and Ursua will need to establish themselves. Like Metcalf, Jennings is a vertical threat, but he can work outside or from the slot. Ursua is a sudden route-runner as a pure slot receiver with outstanding short-area quickness.
"That was the No. 1 thing—we wanted to get fast, make sure we can complement the stuff, like running down the field, take advantage of Russell's ability to throw the ball down the field, which is awesome," Carroll told reporters after the draft.
Tyler Lockett is Seattle's No. 1 receiver. Beyond that point, roles are up for grabs among multiple rookies (including undrafted free agent Jazz Ferguson).
Will David Montgomery Take Over as Bears' Top Running Back?
The Chicago Bears put together a successful 12-4 campaign in Matt Nagy's first season as head coach. However, the offense didn't fully reflect Nagy's vision. As a result, the Bears traded their leading rusher, Jordan Howard, to the Philadelphia Eagles for a conditional 2020 sixth-round draft pick.
In April, Chicago traded up in the third round to select running back David Montgomery—the team's top selection after acquiring Khalil Mack from the Oakland Raiders prior to the 2018 campaign. Montgomery joins Tarik Cohen and Mike Davis, which provides Nagy with a more versatile stable.
"It gives you options," Nagy said, per the Chicago Tribune's Rich Campbell. "They're all weapons. They can play on every down."
Cohen and Davis will get their touches, but Montgomery has the potential to change the Bears offense.
"He's the whole package," Nagy told reporters. "He has the hands. He's a three-down back. He's everything we were looking for."
A complete back next to quarterback Mitchell Trubisky would provide the offense with a presence it lacks. The Bears offense isn't explosive. Defensive coordinators aren't staying up at night because of the weapons previously found on Chicago's roster. Montgomery can bring a different dynamic.
The 5'10", 222-pound rookie lacks breakaway speed, but he forced 185 missed tackles over the last two seasons, according to Pro Football Focus. Montgomery's uncanny balance makes it nearly impossible to tackle him cleanly.
As Montgomery acclimates himself during training camp, the rotation may start to favor him since he's the best natural runner of the three. The team can still use Cohen in the passing game, while Davis will get a few touches along the way. A real three-down threat alongside Trubisky will make the third-year quarterback's life much easier.