What's the Verdict on 2020 NFL Training Camps' Top Breakout Performers?August 22, 2020
What's the Verdict on 2020 NFL Training Camps' Top Breakout Performers?
Tracking NFL training camp winners and losers is harder than usual in 2020.
And yet, word has a way of getting out from all 32 camps. Without preseason games, breakout performers who stand out in practices and scrimmages gain recognition thanks to media reports or comments by coaching staffs and players. If performances don't catch the eye, the way up-and-coming players are aligned or used speaks volumes.
Breakout camp stars are generally younger players on the rise or even rookies who perform well when tasked with big responsibilities. The key, as is the case every summer, is deciding whether the camp rise will translate to the regular season.
These are some of the most noteworthy camp standouts so far, plus verdicts on whether they are mirages or will be meaningful contributors once games get underway.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB, Kansas City Chiefs
Kansas City Chiefs rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire has some major expectations on his shoulders after Damien Williams opted out of the season.
And it sounds like the last pick of this year's first round hasn't had problems responding.
NFL Network's Jeffri Chadiha illustrated the point, via NFL.com:
"They're very excited about what that they've seen from him so far. Coming in they knew he was a smart kid; he's shown that. He's picking up the playbook pretty fast. They know he's a guy that can make plays out of the backfield and as a receiver. What Patrick Mahomes said about him the other day is he loves this kid's vision. The kid has a feel for finding the right running lanes, finding the right spaces in the passing game, being available when Mahomes needs a checkdown. Right now everything's going well for this running back. He's going to have a big year if things keep going in this direction."
It's easy to imagine Edwards-Helaire will be the Chiefs' lead back well into the regular season. He ran for 1,414 yards and 16 scores on a per-carry average of 6.6 yards last season. Perhaps more relevant in a Mahomes-led offense: He also caught 55 passes.
Ashtyn Davis, S, New York Jets
Ashtyn Davis wasn't the biggest name in the 2020 draft, but he is becoming a big talking point at New York Jets training camp.
Davis, a third-round pick out of California, went viral for doing a backflip while catching a football.
More importantly, his athleticism and versatility have coaches praising him and using him widely, according to Jets Wire's Tyler Calvaruso: "Davis has drawn praise from defensive coordinator Gregg Williams for his sharpness and high football IQ in the early days of training camp. He has been lining up all over the field, making plays from sideline to sideline and opening eyes in the process."
While Davis isn't likely to knock Bradley McDougald or Marcus Maye out of starter-level snaps, his versatility is something the coaching staff will use to help manage the secondary after the trade of star Jamal Adams.
To take that notion a step further, maybe knowing what Davis can do played a part in the Jets' willingness to make a big deal in the first place.
Van Jefferson, WR, Los Angeles Rams
The Los Angeles Rams used a second-round pick on Florida product Van Jefferson in an attempt to surround Jared Goff with a more potent cast of weapons.
And Jefferson might provide that boost quicker than most expected.
Just ask Goff himself, who noted the following, according to NFL.com's Kevin Patra: "He's been really good. I say that cautiously because you never want these young guys to get too far ahead of themselves [laughs]. But he's been really impressive and done a good job. It reminds me a lot of when Cooper [Kupp] was a rookie, and he was just so far ahead of where a rookie kind of should be."
Granted, fans can expect a quarterback to talk about his targets in such a manner, so it's notable NFL Network's Steve Wyche called Jefferson "the darling of training camp." But Goff's Kupp comparison was head-turning. Kupp, after all, put up 869 yards and five scores as a rookie.
Given the buzz so far, it wouldn't be a shock if Jefferson registered a similar line.
Jalen Reagor, WR, Philadelphia Eagles
One doesn't have to go far to hear praise for Philadelphia Eagles rookie wideout Jalen Reagor, the 21st pick of this year's draft.
Reagor, after scoring 22 times and averaging 15.2 yards per catch over three seasons at TCU, could be a factor for Carson Wentz and the offense. That was made clear by Wentz after he worked with Reagor in camp, according to NFL.com's Kevin Patra.
"It's been a lot of fun just to work with him," Wentz said. "He's an explosive athlete. You can see that with his route-running ability and his down-the-field presence. You turn on his highlight tape and you can see what he does with the ball in his hands, and that's one thing that we haven't been able to see with just practices going on."
The only snag with the hype is the coming return of Alshon Jeffery, who will eat up plenty of snaps alongside DeSean Jackson, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and even Greg Ward, who was targeted seven or more times in three of his last four games last season. That isn't to say Reagor won't play a role, but he's on a deep depth chart alongside established veterans.
Robert Tonyan, TE, Green Bay Packers
Robert Tonyan isn't a big name outside of Green Bay, but chatter suggests he might be soon.
With the Packers still looking for a tight end after the so-so Jimmy Graham experiment, the converted wide receiver has made some headway with head coach Matt LaFleur, according to Zach Kruse of Packers Wire.
"We feel really good about Bobby," LaFleur said. "I will tell you, he worked really hard this offseason. You can tell—his body, he's in great shape. He's got a much better understanding of what we're trying to do on the offensive side of the football."
Teammates have echoed similar sentiments after seeing Tonyan in camp. But after joining the team in 2017, he has a long way to go to break out with meaningful regular-season production. He has to compete with veteran Marcedes Lewis and 2019 third-round pick Jace Sternberger, and targets will first go to wideout Davante Adams and others.
While Tonyan might break out over the long term, it's a stretch to think he will make an immediate impact.
Chase Edmonds, RB, Arizona Cardinals
One would think the backfield in Arizona behind Kyler Murray belongs to Kenyan Drake, especially after he broke out over eight games last year with 643 yards and eight scores on a 5.2 yards-per-carry average.
But the Chase Edmonds hype is hard to ignore.
Edmonds ran for 303 yards and four scores last season on a 5.1 average of his own, with 126 yards and three scores in Week 7 before the Cardinals traded for Drake. Fast-forward to now, and head coach Kliff Kingsbury talks about Edmonds as an RB1 and says he can help keep both backs fresh.
"When you have two that you think can both do it at a high level, you can keep those guys fresh and healthy," Kingsbury said, according to Kyle Odegard of the team's official website. "That's what we're shooting for, finding great roles for both guys and helping the offense be as productive as possible."
Talented as Edmonds might be, the 2018 fourth-round pick doesn't have one thing Drake does: non-on-field assets. The Cardinals invested a conditional sixth-round pick in trading for Drake and then gave him a one-year deal worth $8.5 million. While Edmonds might spell Drake, it seems clear this hype won't translate because only one workhorse will exist in the Arizona attack.
Mykal Walker, LB, Atlanta Falcons
Mykal Walker wasn't a big name in a draft class this year that featured many big-time prospects at linebacker.
Not that the Atlanta Falcons will complain.
Walker, a fourth-round pick out of Fresno State, keeps standing out in coverage, according to D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He's had multiple interceptions over the last week, and a unit that has struggled over the years and has to practice against Matt Ryan often knows all too well how important good coverage from linebackers is in today's NFL.
Walker's skill set earned him an Alec Ogletree comparison from Matt Miller because while his film doesn't always pop, he's always productive. His versatility is a plus Falcons coaches might be able to lean into early.
Walker still has some big names in front of him, such as Deion Jones, but the fluid unit has needed as much help as it can get in recent years, so he's bound to land a sub-package role at worst after impressing. Walker's frequency of turnover-creating plays will surely decrease once games start, but he's worked his way into getting a look.