Every NFL Team's Biggest Training Camp Hero of the Past Decade
With the draft and the bulk of free agency in the rear view, NFL transactions have largely halted amid the coronavirus pandemic. However, training camps are on the not-too-distant horizon, which give fans some on-field action to look forward to.
While camps don't provide the same excitement of regular-season or even preseason games, they can bear significant storylines. Those narratives often involve breakout players who take camp by storm.
Here, we'll look back at the biggest training camp stars of the past decade.
Some of these camp heroes came from obscurity and turned into significant contributors. Some established themselves as future stars. Some never parlayed their training-camp stardom into sustained success.
Each, however, was the talk of training camp for a time.
Arizona Cardinals: S Tyrann Mathieu
In 2013, it quickly became apparent that the Arizona Cardinals had something special in third-round rookie Tyrann Mathieu. The former LSU standout generated a mighty buzz during training camp en route to a starting role in the Cardinals secondary.
"He was all over the field," head coach Bruce Arians told the team's official website at the time. "That's the way he's been practicing every day."
Mathieu went on to appear in 13 games as a rookie and make 11 starts. He started for the bulk of five seasons in Arizona before leaving in free agency in 2018 and has twice been named a first-team All-Pro—most recently with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2019.
Atlanta Falcons: DE Jonathan Massaquoi
A fifth-round pick out of Troy in 2012, defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi appeared to be a draft-day steal for the Atlanta Falcons for some time. He was a significant part of Atlanta's training camp battle at defensive end in 2012 and emerged as a capable special teams player as a rookie. He was even more impressive in camp the following year.
"This year, those baby steps are gone," Massaquoi told the team's official website.
Massaquoi shined in his second pro season, amassing 46 tackles to go with 4.0 sacks while appearing in all 16 games. He appeared in 15 contests in 2014, though his production dipped to 22 tackles and 2.0 sacks.
Unfortunately, Massaquoi didn't transfer his training camp stardom into a lengthy NFL career. He was waived in early 2015 and hasn't appeared in a regular-season game since.
Baltimore Ravens: K Justin Tucker
During the 2011 postseason, Baltimore Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal that would have tied the AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots with :11 seconds to go, resulting in a loss. The following offseason, Baltimore brought in undrafted kicker Justin Tucker.
Thanks to a strong training camp and preseason, Tucker took the starting job, and Cundiff was sent to the cut pile.
"These decisions are never easy, and this one was difficult for all of us," head coach John Harbaugh said, per David Ginsburg of the San Diego Union-Tribune.
While the decision may have been difficult, you can bet the Ravens don't regret it. Tucker has become one of the most reliable kickers in the league and has earned four first-team All-Pro selections.
Buffalo Bills: QB Tyrod Taylor
Thanks to the steady growth of quarterback Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills probably don't look back on the Tyrod Taylor era much. However, Taylor was a rock star during 2015 training camp, as he outperformed 2013 first-round pick EJ Manuel and Matt Cassel.
"The Bills love Taylor’s speed and mobility and view his upside as much higher than veteran Matt Cassel’s," Don Banks of SI.com wrote.
Thanks to his strong camp and promising preseason, Taylor was named Buffalo's starting quarterback for 2015. The former Ravens backup remained the Bills starter for three seasons before Buffalo moved up in the 2018 draft to snag Allen.
Taylor was named to the Pro Bowl in 2015. Two years later, he helped Buffalo reach the postseason—the franchise's first playoff appearance since 1999.
Carolina Panthers: OG Andrew Norwell
Andrew Norwell signed with the Carolina Panthers as an undrafted free agent in 2014 out of Ohio State. While unheralded offensive linemen don't always stand out in camp, since many drills are half-speed or of the noncontact variety, Norwell shined. He performed well enough to push a former starter off the roster.
"The progress shown by Norwell left fellow guard Chris Scott, who started half of the Panthers' games last season, as the odd man out," Bryan Strickland of the team's official website wrote following 2014 camp.
Norwell moved into the starting lineup for the latter portion of his rookie season and remained the Panthers' starting guard until he left in 2018 free agency. He helped Carolina reach the Super Bowl in his second season and was named a first-team All-Pro in 2017.
Chicago Bears: WR Dane Sanzenbacher
Former Ohio State wideout Dane Sanzenbacher never quite emerged as a star with the Chicago Bears, but he was a training camp standout in 2011, earning a roster spot as an undrafted free agent.
"He's not the biggest guy around, but he's got great quickness, runs great routes and he has good hands. He's a confident player. He came here looking to earn a position on the team," head coach Lovie Smith told the Daily Herald (h/t Matt Markey of the The Blade).
The 5'11", 180-pound Sanzenbacher had a promising rookie campaign, catching 27 passes for 276 yards and three touchdowns. He made the roster again in 2012 but was eventually released and landed with the Cincinnati Bengals. Sanzenbacher later became a standout on HBO's Hard Knocks with Cincinnati.
Cincinnati Bengals: LB Vontaze Burfict
Before he earned a reputation as one of the NFL's dirtiest players—and a villain in Cincinnati's 2015 wild-card meltdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers—Vontaze Burfict was a promising undrafted rookie out of Arizona State in 2012.
Burfict shined in his initial training camp.
"It's still early, and there's plenty of time for things to go the other way, but Burfict has lost weight and he's shown good instincts on the field. He's also behaved himself off it," Albert Breer wrote for NFL.com in 2012.
Burfict earned a starting linebacker job as a rookie and became the centerpiece of Cincinnati's defense for the next seven seasons. He was named to the Pro Bowl in 2013 after racking up 171 tackles and 3.0 sacks.
Cleveland Browns: RB Peyton Hillis
Former Cleveland Browns running back Peyton Hillis is among the biggest one-year wonders of the past decade. After being traded to the Browns, he burst onto the national stage with 1,177 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns in 2010. He also won a fan vote that landed him on the cover of Madden NFL 12.
Hillis quickly fell off the map, though, never topping 600 yards in a season again.
This brief stint in the spotlight all started with a strong 2010 training camp. The 240-pound Arkansas product was a physical force during camp and the preseason and gave Browns fans a glimpse of the smashmouth style associated with the franchise's championship days.
"Whether he is running out of the backfield, picking up blitzers or lining up in the slot, Hillis is everywhere when the second team offense lines up," Daniel Wolf wrote for Bleacher Report in 2010.
Hillis earned the starting job in Cleveland in camp and, for one year, was the team's brightest star.
Dallas Cowboys: QB Dak Prescott
We all know how the Dak Prescott story unfolded in 2016. The rookie fourth-round pick became the Dallas Cowboys' starting quarterback after Tony Romo suffered a back injury in the preseason. However, it took a little luck and a strong training camp for Prescott to be in position to replace Romo.
Dallas tried to acquire veteran backup Josh McCown and had Kellen Moore on the roster. Cleveland wouldn't trade McCown, while Moore suffered a broken leg in camp. Still, Prescott had to prove he could be a fill-in starter—which he did.
"He picks things up quickly," Romo said in 2016, per Kate Hairopoulos of the Dallas Morning News. "And for rookies, that's not always the easiest thing."
Of course, Prescott never relinquished the starting job and remains Dallas' franchise signal-caller—at least, he will if the Cowboys can get him under contract.
Denver Broncos CB Chris Harris Jr.
Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. may no longer be a member of the Denver Broncos, but he carved out a fine career with the franchise before he departed in free agency in March. The four-time Pro Bowler had been a key piece of the defense since he arrived as an undrafted rookie in 2011.
That year, though, he was just trying to make the team—and attempting to stay on the good side of the coaching staff.
"A lot of times, [coaches] had to tell me to cut back, don't pick off a lot of [Tim] Tebow's balls. That's how hard I was out there working," Harris told Stack.
Harris went on to appear in all but five regular-season games for the Broncos over the next nine seasons.
Detroit Lions: RB Zach Zenner
If you're the sort of diehard NFL fan who carefully follows the preseason, you're probably familiar with former Detroit Lions running back Zach Zenner. The former South Dakota State standout has regularly starred in exhibition games, dating back to his rookie year in 2015.
In 2015, Zenner wowed enough in camp to get an opportunity with the Lions.
"He understands his assignments, but I think he's just getting a feel for the flow of the game," then-head coach Jim Caldwell said, per Paula Pasche of the Morning Sun. "Every week he seems to improve upon that."
Zenner turned his strong camp into a preseason opportunity, and he lit it up. He led all NFL players with 183 rushing yards and two touchdowns during the 2015 preseason. He saw just 17 regular-season carries as a rookie but appeared in 36 games for Detroit over four seasons.
Green Bay Packers: RB/WR Ty Montgomery
Though receiver-running back Ty Montgomery only lasted a little over three seasons with the Green Bay Packers, he was a bright spot during the 2015 and 2016 offseasons. As a rookie in 2015, the third-round pick out of Stanford impressed as a pass-catcher and returner.
"Ty's a playmaker," head coach Mike McCarthy said in August of that year, per Ryan Wood of Packers News. "Strong. Very powerful. Obviously gifted."
In 2016, Montgomery reported to camp with a bulked-up physique and eyes on a role at running back. He impressed enough there to earn significant playing time in Green Bay's backfield, where he finished with 457 rushing yards and an impressive 5.9 yards-per-carry average.
Less than two years later, though, Montgomery was traded to the Ravens following a fumbled kickoff against the Lost Angeles Rams.
Houston Texans: S Justin Reid
Mathieu played with safety Eric Reid at LSU—and Reid's younger brother, Justin, reminded the Honey Badger of his former college teammate during 2018 Houston Texans camp.
"He reminds me so much of his brother," Mathieu said of Justin, per Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle. "Very sharp young man, very respectful, but when he gets on the football field, he has a mean streak."
Justin Reid, a third-round pick out of Stanford in 2018, impressed enough in camp that he earned a starting job alongside Mathieu as a rookie. He started 12 games in 2018 and 15 last season while appearing in 31. During that span, Reid racked up 166 tackles, five interceptions and a touchdown.
Indianapolis Colts: WR Chester Rogers
Wide receiver Chester Rodgers may not be a star, but he was a consistent presence for the Indianapolis Colts offense over four seasons. Signed as an undrafted free agent out of Grambling State in 2016, Rogers rode a strong training camp to a steady offensive role.
He shined during the preseason as well, putting up 14 catches for 174 yards and a touchdown. That was enough for Rogers to earn a roster spot.
"I'm excited. It's a new experience," he said at the time, per the team's official website.
Rodgers, who is a free agent, caught 111 passes for 1,221 yards and five touchdowns during his time in Indianapolis.
Jacksonville Jaguars: WR Allen Hurns
Injuries opened the door for former Jacksonville Jaguars wideout Allen Hurns as an undrafted rookie in 2014. With Cecil Shorts III sidelined, Hurns got the chance to shine in camp and during the preseason. Hurns took advantage of the opportunity.
"Allen Hurns had a heck of a camp," quarterback Chad Henne said, per Fox Sports' Ken Hornack.
After earning a roster spot, he went on to catch 51 passes for 677 yards and six touchdowns as a rookie. He had 1,031 yards the following season and played two more years for Jacksonville before being released in 2018.
Hurns spent that campaign with the Cowboys before he joined the Miami Dolphins last offseason. He caught 32 passes for 416 yards and two touchdowns with Miami.
Kansas City Chiefs: WR Tyreek Hill
Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill is a four-time Pro Bowler and a Super Bowl champion. However, he began his NFL career hoping to latch onto an offensive role. A strong training camp in 2016—along with head-turning speed—allowed him to do exactly that.
"Tyreek Hill is so fast he said WR coach David Culley actually has to tell him to slow down on routes occasionally," Pete Sweeney of Arrowhead Addict tweeted during 2016 Chiefs camp.
Hill caught the attention of Andy Reid and his coaching staff in camp and went on to appear in all 16 games in 2016 as a receiver and returner. He's racked up 4,115 receiving yards, 500 rushing yards, 1,009 punt-return yards, 384 kick-return yards and 41 total touchdowns.
Las Vegas Raiders: WR Hunter Renfrow
Hunter Renfrow, a fifth-rounder out of Clemson last offseason, has been a budding fan favorite since the beginning of his first training camp. It quickly became clear he would take a significant role in the offense, though this didn't surprise fellow Clemson product Trayvon Mullen.
"Nah, I've seen it for three years," Mullen said, per Josh Schrock of NBC Sports Bay Area. "He's that guy that's just going to give his all, and to me, he's going to get open every play just because of how he plays and the fact that he was always slept on."
Opponents certainly won't sleep on Renfrow moving forward. After parlaying a stellar camp into a prominent role, he emerged as one of quarterback Derek Carr's favorite targets. He finished his rookie season with 49 receptions for 605 yards and four touchdowns.
Los Angeles Chargers: RB Austin Ekeler
The Los Angeles Chargers allowed running back Melvin Gordon III to walk in free agency in March, largely because of the presence of Austin Ekeler. Instead of extending Gordon—who held out for part of 2019 while seeking a new contract—L.A. gave Ekeler a four-year, $24.5 million deal.
How did an undrafted kid out of Western Colorado replace the 2015 15th overall pick as the Chargers' lead back? Well, it all began with a fantastic training camp in 2017. Ekeler made enough noise in his first camp that the Chargers had to take notice.
"Austin Ekeler was a pest," special teams coordinator and assistant head coach George Stewart said, per the team's official website. "Every day in my office, saying, 'Coach Stew.' A pest, but you put him on the field and he was very productive. You have to find those guys."
Ekeler appeared in all 16 games as a rookie and has appeared 46 games for L.A. over the past three seasons.
Los Angeles Rams: LB Cory Littleton
When former Washington Huskies linebacker Cory Littleton joined the Los Angeles Rams as an undrafted free agent in 2016, he didn't get to showcase his skills until training camp. Because Washington's academic year didn't end until June, Littleton missed the majority of the early offseason.
"Cory really didn't get to do much until he got to training camp, so I think that speaks volumes for him because he had a short period of time, and he showed us what he can do," then-head coach Jeff Fisher said at the beginning of the 2016 regular season, per Dan Greenspan of the Associated Press.
What Littleton could do was become a force at inside linebacker for the Rams. He shined in camp, earned a spot on the defense and went on to appear in 16 games as a rookie. He did not miss a regular-season game over the next four years.
This offseason, Littleton inked a three-year, $35.25 million deal with the Raiders.
Miami Dolphins: DT Davon Godchaux
When the Miami Dolphins used a fifth-round pick on former LSU defensive tackle Davon Godchaux, they might not have realized they were getting a future star. However, this fact quickly emerged during training camp in 2017, as the rookie pushed for playing time immediately.
"Godchaux's had a good camp," then-defensive coordinator Matt Burke said, per Antwan Staley of Dolphins Wire.
Godchaux did more than flash once he got to regular-season action. He appeared in 15 games as a rookie and racked up 37 tackles and a batted pass. Over the past three seasons, he has appeared in all but one game and has produced an impressive 148 tackles and 3.0 sacks.
The emergence of Godchaux from training camp on in 2017 helped allow Miami to part with Ndamukong Suh the following offseason.
Minnesota Vikings: DB/RS Marcus Sherels
It took a couple of training camps for cornerback and return specialist Marcus Sherels to earn a prominent opportunity with the Minnesota Vikings. The undrafted free agent out of Minnesota earned a spot on the practice squad in 2010, and he then earned the returner gig during 2011 training camp.
"He's hard-working. I know he's a bit undersized, but he doesn't play like it, and that's probably the best thing about him," special teams coach Mike Priefer said in 2011, per Sid Hartman of the Star Tribune. "He's a courageous young man. I love having him on our football team."
The Vikings clearly loved having Sherels on their football team as he stuck around for nine years before joining the New Orleans Saints last year. The Saints cut him before he appeared in a regular-season game, and he then made two separate returns to the Vikings with a five-game Dolphins stint sandwiched in between.
Sherels now owns several Vikings records, including the most punt-return yards in a game (119) and the most career punt-return touchdowns (five).
New England Patriots: CB Malcolm Butler
We still don't know what led to the benching of cornerback Malcolm Butler in Super Bowl LII—and perhaps his eventual release from the New England Patriots. We do know, however, how he went from being an undrafted free agent out of West Alabama to being one of the most recognizable corners in the game.
It all started with a strong training camp in 2014.
"Butler hasn't been perfect, but he has proven to be a playmaker," NESN's Doug Kyed wrote in 2014. "On Monday alone, the rookie cornerback picked off Tom Brady and stripped Rob Gronkowski. Butler has come a long way since only receiving a tryout with the Patriots after the draft. Now he has a very good chance of cracking the 53-man roster out of camp."
Butler did indeed crack the roster. He also appeared in 11 regular-season games as a rookie and became the hero of Super Bowl XLIX when he picked off Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson in the end zone to secure the victory.
New Orleans Saints: WR Michael Thomas
Former Ohio State wide receiver Michael Thomas wasn't the first receiver drafted in 2016. In fact, he wasn't even a first-round selection. He came off the board in the second round after Corey Coleman, Will Fuller V, Josh Doctson, Laquon Treadwell and Sterling Shepard had all been selected.
However, it became evident during 2016 New Orleans Saints camp that he should have been taken far earlier.
Thomas quickly impressed his new team with route-running ability, ball skills and some early noteworthy catches.
"Confidence comes from demonstrated ability," head coach Sean Payton told Fletcher Mackel of WDSU News 6 about Thomas. "... You're seeing growth spurts right in front of your eyes."
Thomas has since grown into a receiver in whom Payton and quarterback Drew Brees have extreme confidence. Through four seasons, he has amassed 470 receptions for 5,512 yards and 32 touchdowns.
New York Giants: WR Victor Cruz
It's been roughly four years since New York Giants fans have watched wideout Victor Cruz dance the Salsa in the end zone. However, few have forgotten the fan favorite and former undrafted free agent from the University of Massachusetts.
Cruz first shimmied into the spotlight during 2010 Giants camp. He caught the attention of coaches and fans alike in practice, then he fully exploded onto the scene in a preseason game against the New York Jets. He finished that contest with six catches for 146 yards and three touchdowns.
"He's made some outstanding plays," head coach Tom Coughlin said during camp, per Mike Garafolo of the Star Ledger. "He was going by people out here.
Though Cruz only appeared in three games as a rookie, he came back to rack up 1,536 yards in Year 2 while helping the Giants earn a victory in Super Bowl XLVI. He spent a total of seven seasons in New York before retiring.
New York Jets: WR Robby Anderson
Jets wideout Robby Anderson wasn't selected during the 2016 draft. However, the Temple product got an opportunity as an undrafted free agent and made the most of it. The converted defensive back forced his way into a job during his first training camp.
"He's just got soft hands. He brings everything in," quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick told CBS New York and the Associated Press. "He's got a good, little swagger to him that I hadn't really seen that you see in games come out a little bit. And he's raw. He just hasn't played a lot of receiver."
The Jets were quick to find a role for a player with such intriguing raw talent, and Anderson appeared in all 16 games as a rookie.
He has suited up in all but two contests for the Jets over the last four seasons and signed a two-year, $20 million deal with the Panthers this offseason.
Philadelphia Eagles: WR Paul Turner
Given their inability to field healthy receivers near the end of last season, the Philadelphia Eagles may wish they'd have held onto former Louisiana Tech wideout Paul Turner for the long term. A standout of the 2016 preseason and training camp, he briefly looked like he was going to be a future star.
"Paul is a good route-runner," then-offensive coordinator Frank Reich said, per Turron Davenport of Eagles Wire. "He has quick feet, good hands. That's a big part of playing consistently."
Turner spent time with the first- and second-team offenses in 2016 camp, and the undrafted rookie was a preseason star. He led the NFL with 17 receptions for 165 yards and recorded an 81-yard punt-return touchdown. However, he appeared in just four regular-season games as a rookie and was released by Philadelphia the following offseason.
Turner spent time with the Saints and Patriots in 2018 but did not appear in another regular-season game.
Pittsburgh Steelers: RB James Conner
Can running back James Conner be a long-term contributor for the Pittsburgh Steelers? After a disappointing 2019 campaign, that remains to be seen.
However, he looked to be a potential franchise back in 2018. With Le'Veon Bell holding out, he got a crack at the starting job in training camp, and he did not disappoint.
"He just looks he's in great shape," center Maurkice Pouncey said, per Bryan DeArdo of 247Sports. "He's blocking really well in the passing game."
Conner went on to be a force in both the running and passing games during his second season. He racked up 973 rushing yards, 497 receiving yards and 13 total touchdowns in 2018. His production dropped considerably last year (464 yards rushing, 251 yards receiving), but that may have been the product of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's absence.
With Big Ben back in the fold, Conner may again be the ascending star he first was in 2018 training camp.
San Francisco 49ers: TE George Kittle
Did the San Francisco 49ers know they had a future All-Pro in tight end George Kittle back in 2017? Perhaps not, but then-quarterback Brian Hoyer liked what he had in the fifth-round rookie out of Iowa.
"Kittle seems to be Hoyer's favorite target, probably because none of the Niners linebackers can cover the rookie tight end. During seven-on-seven drills, Kittle easily beat starting middle linebacker NaVorro Bowman with an out route," Grant Cohn of the Press Democrat wrote during 2017 camp. "Kittle even beat a safety [Jaquiski Tartt] during the same drill."
Kittle, of course, has since gone from being a training-camp hero to being arguably the best all-around tight end in the game. He has racked up 2,945 yards and 12 touchdowns in three seasons and has two Pro Bowl appearances on his resume.
He was named a first-team All-Pro this past season.
Seattle Seahawks: QB Russell Wilson
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is most likely going to the Hall of Fame.
The seven-time Pro Bowler has won a Super Bowl, has appeared in two and has never missed a game. In 2012, though, he was merely a third-round rookie looking to earn a backup spot behind offseason acquisition Matt Flynn.
Throughout camp and the preseason, however, it was obvious that Wilson was the best starting option for Seattle.
"He is so prepared, he does not seem like a first-year quarterback," head coach Pete Carroll said, per the team's official website.
While fans had to be excited with his emergence as a rookie, the former Wisconsin star has grown more impressive with each passing season and is a legitimately elite signal-caller. Flynn last took a snap for the Packers in 2014.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Edge Shaquil Barrett
When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed pass-rusher Shaquil Barrett to a one-year deal last offseason, it didn't raise a lot of eyebrows. He was not a high-impact pass-rusher for the Broncos, having amassed just seven sacks over the previous two seasons.
However, it quickly became apparent during camp that Barrett was going to be a different player for Tampa.
"I'm always ready to make an impact," he said, per Scott Smith of the team's official website.
Indeed he did.
Barrett turned a strong training camp into a starting role. He turned that into an NFL-leading 19.5 sacks. That, in turn, earned him the franchise tag and a pending salary of nearly $16 million.
Tennessee Titans: OG Quinton Spain
Former West Virginia offensive lineman Quinton Spain was a standout in Tennessee Titans camp in both 2015 and 2016. As an undrafted rookie in 2015, he played well enough to earn a backup spot, which he parlayed into six regular-season starts.
In 2016, Spain built off his rookie campaign and locked up a starting role alongside first-rounders Jack Conklin (2016), Taylor Lewan (2014) and Chance Warmack (2013).
"I've just got to play my game, and whatever happens, happens," he said during 2016 camp, per Terry McCormick of the Associated Press (h/t the Daily Herald).
Spain remained a starter in Tennessee for three seasons before joining the Bills. He signed a three-year, $15 million extension this offseason.
Washington Redskins: QB Kirk Cousins
Former Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins was a fourth-round pick in 2012, selected by the Washington Redskins to be the long-term backup to second overall pick Robert Griffin III. While Cousins had sporadic stints in the starting lineup due to injuries, he really emerged during 2015 training camp.
It became obvious during camp that Cousins was a better starting option than Griffin. The latter's injury history played a part, but the change was more about the former's emergence in training camp.
"Really, this is about Kirk doing an excellent job and winning the job," head coach Jay Gruden said, per ESPN's John Keim.
Cousins went on to start for three seasons in Washington before moving on to the Vikings in 2018.
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