NFL Rookies Who Should Blow Up Training CampsAugust 8, 2020
NFL Rookies Who Should Blow Up Training Camps
Every year, some NFL rookies get off to a hot start at training camp. That's often the case for high first-round picks who soaked up most of the predraft attention.
But a handful of rookies, regardless of round, have a shot at blowing up during this season's abnormal training camp.
Last year, Chicago Bears third-round pick and running back David Montgomery did just that before going on to lead the team in rushing.
Below, let's look at rookies who could do something similar this year, targeting mostly non-first-round picks whose production, traits, fit and situation could lead to massive camps that provide important momentum going into the regular season.
Cam Akers, RB, Los Angeles Rams
Cam Akers could be the guy to fill the Todd Gurley-sized hole at running back for the Los Angeles Rams.
Akers was far from a hyped draft selection compared to some of the biggest names at his position in the 2020 class, and he fell to the second round. But he accumulated 2,875 yards and 27 touchdowns on a 4.9 yards-per-carry average and 486 yards and seven scores through the air over his three collegiate seasons, which suggests he could surpass most of his draftmates quickly.
The Rams have always looked like a committee team heading into 2020, but running backs coach Thomas Brown spoke highly of Akers, according to Stu Jackson of the team's official website:
“Really excited about (him), know a little bit about from a history standpoint, just from trying to recruit the guy when I was (coaching) in college. But a guy that can potentially grow into an every-down back, that can I do it all I think. Can play between the tackles, can play in space. Obviously the pass protection aspect of it is going to be the biggest part for any running back, especially young backs, coming into this league with the different number of looks and pressures you’ll have a chance to go against week in and week out.”
Akers has the versatility and talent to become the RB1 on a depth chart where Malcolm Brown (undrafted) ended up getting more carries than Darrell Henderson Jr. (2019 third-round pick) last season. He's an ideal fit in head coach Sean McVay's offense, which explains why the Rams snagged him at No. 52 overall.
Patrick Queen, LB, Baltimore Ravens
The Baltimore Ravens—who were already a top Super Bowl contender—lucked into LSU linebacker Patrick Queen at No. 28 overall.
Other teams will soon regret passing on him.
Arguably the best linebacker in the class, Queen amassed 125 total tackles, 17.5 for loss, four sacks and an interception over the past two seasons. He was the heart of the LSU defense, and he flashed in coverage, too.
"I think Patrick Queen will play probably at 'Mike' for the most part—right down the middle," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said, according to Raven Country's Todd Karpovich. "Let him use his speed and his instincts to run around and make plays for all three phases, be a three-down guy both in our base package and sub-package."
Although most media coverage tends to focus on offensive players, Queen is one of the few rookie defenders who can put up massive highlights in camp while solidifying his role in the middle of an already great defense. It wouldn't be a shock to see clips of him keeping up with Lamar Jackson after navigating the field behind his elite defensive line.
Michael Pittman Jr., WR, Indianapolis Colts
Over the past few seasons, the Indianapolis Colts have sorely lacked an effective complement to No. 1 wideout T.Y. Hilton.
Second-round rookie Michael Pittman Jr. might be that guy.
The 6'4", 223-pound USC product hauled in a career-high 101 receptions for 1,275 yards and 11 touchdowns last year. He'll now slot in as a starter in a potent-looking offense with Philip Rivers under center.
Colts general manager Chris Ballard has already compared Pittman to Vincent Jackson, one of Rivers' favorite target from his days with the Chargers.
"Every time I watch him, I like him better," Ballard said in the lead-up to the draft (h/t Josh Alper of Pro Football Talk). "He's big, he's a build-up-speed guy, he can finish on the deep ball, he wins 50-50 battles. I just think the guy's gonna be a good football player in this league."
Pittman's traits and obvious fit in the offense point at a massive month before the season starts.
Henry Ruggs III, WR, Las Vegas Raiders
The Las Vegas Raiders made Henry Ruggs III the first wideout off the board when they selected him at No. 12 overall.
And unlike CeeDee Lamb of the Dallas Cowboys, who has to compete for touches with Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and others, Ruggs should be walking into a major role right away.
Creative usage for Ruggs gives him even more breakout potential. Offensive coordinator Greg Olson plans to move him all around the offense to create mismatches, according to Raiders Wire's Marcus Mosher.
"We'll start with Ruggs III in the slot and do some things with Ruggs III," Olson said. "But those guys (Ruggs and Bryan Edwards) are very multiple in what they can do and that's the goal is to be able to move all of them around to different spots; the one, two or three position at the wide receiver."
Ruggs led all prospects in this year's class with a 4.27-second 40-yard dash, and having him operate out of the slot should lead to less at-the-line coverage. He'll also be operating as a go-to target right away in an offense that annually attempts well over 500 passes.
Expect plenty of camp highlights as a result.
Zack Baun, Edge, New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints are in go-for-broke mode as quarterback Drew Brees nears retirement, so it's telling that they traded up for edge-rusher Zack Baun in the third round.
While Baun was commonly projected as a first- or second-round pick, he fell to No. 74 overall after he tested positive for a diluted sample at the combine.
Baun's first-round production was apparent at Wisconsin, though. He had 30.5 tackles for loss and 15 sacks over three seasons, including 12.5 sacks as a senior
"We love the flexibility of the player," Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said, according to NOLA.com's Luke Johnson. "That was one of the things that was the most intriguing to us about him. There's a vision for this guy being able to move around and do some different things for us."
That's the thing with Baun: The Saints wanted him for more than just his ability to get after the passer.
The way he projects as a linebacker in a 4-3 defense with his athleticism and traits means he'll be asked to do plenty in the way of coverage right out of the gates. That should result in plenty of camp highlights in those areas, plus whenever he's getting after Brees himself.
Zack Moss, RB, Buffalo Bills
Zack Moss was far from the biggest name at running back in the draft, yet it's clear the Buffalo Bills have a big plan for him.
Bills general manager Brandon Beane has outlined a role similar to the one Frank Gore played last year, according to Maddy Glab of the team's official website.
Gore finished with 166 carries last year—then-rookie Devin Singletary had 151—along with 13 receptions on 16 targets. That suggests Singletary and Moss could have a near-even workload split.
At Utah, Moss ran for at least 1,000 yards in each of his final three seasons. He finished with a career-high 1,416 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns while averaging 6.0 yards per carry last year.
Moss also caught at least 28 passes as both a sophomore and a senior, so he isn't an easily predictable power runner. That versatility could end up netting him a bigger role than expected, and it'll start in camp.
Antonio Gandy-Golden, WR, Washington
Washington didn't give rookie wideout Terry McLaurin much help last year while he broke out with 919 yards and seven scores over 14 games. That's what makes the addition of fourth-round rookie Antonio Gandy-Golden so exciting.
Gandy-Golden might have a tough transition from Liberty, but he's a 6'4", 223-pound target with a massive catch radius. Washington wide receivers coach Jim Hostler also says he's keeping up with guys in the 4.3-4.4 range, per The Athletic's Rhiannon Walker.
Even adjusting for coach-speak, the rookie seems likely to make plenty of waves in camp.
Gandy-Golden only has to get past late arrival Dontrelle Inman, who signed with Washington on Aug. 4, to start on the edge opposite McLaurin. If he's playing fast and defenses look elsewhere, he could quickly become a favorite of second-year quarterback Dwayne Haskins.
Stats courtesy of Sports Reference unless otherwise noted.
Stats courtesy of Sports Reference unless otherwise noted.