What to Make of Disappointing NFL Rookie Training Camps
An unorthodox offseason and summer mean it's a little harder than usual to get a good read on rookies at training camps around the NFL.
Without preseason games, onlookers have to rely more on camp reporters, coach comments, and a surge or absence of noise around a rookie's name.
In most cases, when a rookie excels, the flattering headlines follow. Consider No. 1 pick Joe Burrow for the Cincinnati Bengals right now.
A lack of buzz enables us to read between the lines when it comes to notable rookies. Even worse is negative commentary, especially during a summer in which rookies don't have the benefit of live reps to prove themselves during exhibition play.
These are some of the rookies having disappointing training camps and what it means.
Javon Kinlaw, DT, San Francisco 49ers
It appeared the rich got incredibly richer during the draft when the San Francisco 49ers used the 14th pick on South Carolina defensive lineman Javon Kinlaw.
But the rich might have to wait longer than expected to reap the benefits.
Kinlaw, coming off a six-sack season, hasn't made the major splash one might expect from a top-15 pick.
The Athletic's Matt Barrows wrote that Kinlaw hasn't been a disappointment, but he observed that the defensive tackle looked tired in a recent practice: "Later in the practice, Kinlaw appeared to be pooped. It was as if he was moving in mud. He seems to have been affected by the hot, heavy weather more than any other 49er, which is ironic because he grew up in Washington, D.C., (hot, humid) and South Carolina (hotter, even more humid)."
A slow start to camp isn't the end of the world for Kinlaw by any means, but it's alarming that there are perceived conditioning issues near the end of August and no preseason games to get a sense of how he responds to full-speed action against a real opponent.
One would think playing on the same line as Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead would help Kinlaw stand out for the right reasons. But it's best to temper expectations as far as his immediate regular-season impact is concerned.
Anfernee Jennings, LB, New England Patriots
The combination of the New England Patriots suffering more opt-outs than any other team and the use of the No. 87 pick on Anfernee Jennings made it seem likely the Alabama product would see a notable role as a rookie.
But the buzz just hasn't been there for a guy who recorded 14.5 sacks and 18 passes defensed in his Crimson Tide career.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick recently noted rookies like Jennings have a tough hill to climb given the odd nature of the summer, according to Mark Daniels of the Providence Journal: "They're in deep water, turbulent water and it's going to get rougher. ... They're just doing the best they can, but they're swimming. They're in deep water and their eyes get open every day."
KJ Hamler, WR, Denver Broncos
KJ Hamler was one of two wideout picks in the top 50 by the Denver Broncos in a move clearly aimed at getting the most out of young passer Drew Lock as soon as possible.
But Hamler, the 46th pick, was having a hard time overtaking DaeSean Hamilton in three-wideout sets. And if anyone is going to eventually surpass Hamilton in three-man looks with Courtland Sutton, it would obviously be 15th pick Jerry Jeudy.
Hamler is referred to above in the past tense because after coming along slowly against some ho-hum veterans, he suffered a hamstring injury that could keep him out until mid-September, according to Mike Klis of 9News.
Before the setbacks, Hamler was a sneaky pick to have a massive rookie season considering his big-play artistry resulted in nearly 17 yards per catch in two seasons at Penn State. Now, he may be unable to help Lock and Co. with a significant snap count until late in the season.
Jeff Okudah, CB, Detroit Lions
There is an immense amount of pressure on Jeff Okudah given that the Detroit Lions used the third overall pick on him and hope he can help fix a defense that allowed 33 passing scores last season.
Besides the typical pressure placed on a high defensive back pick, Okudah also has the unenviable task of trying to replace Darius Slay in a division with the potent passing offenses of Green Bay and Minnesota.
Okudah has had flashes in camp, but at times he has been diced up by Lions wideouts, per ESPN's Michael Rothstein. Given the difficulty of the pro transition for his position, it isn't much of a surprise.
While the Detroit faithful would ideally like to hear about the top-five pick shining near the end of August, it's important to keep in mind Okudah is working against Matthew Stafford and elite route technicians Marvin Jones Jr. and Kenny Golladay.
Okudah's ascension is bound to come in due time, though it's clear the learning curve and lack of a preseason have impeded his progress.
Justin Jefferson, WR, Minnesota Vikings
Of the noteworthy first-round wideouts this year, Justin Jefferson of the Minnesota Vikings may have the hardest time making an immediate impact.
Jefferson missed nearly the first two weeks of camp on the reserve/COVID-19 list and has since looked like the third option at wideout for quarterback Kirk Cousins behind Adam Thielen and Olabisi Johnson.
The Athletic's Chad Graff noted the following: "Meanwhile, while Jefferson is capable of spectacular plays, he hasn't shined against the second-team defense quite as much as you'd expect. His future is still plenty bright."
It's problematic that in the rush to replace Stefon Diggs, Jefferson hasn't separated from Johnson. And given Minnesota's love for two-tight-end sets, he could see fewer snaps than anticipated as a rookie, especially early in the season.
Granted, this doesn't mean Jefferson will remain the third option for long. But he could have a slow start.
Jordan Love, QB, Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers made one of the draft's most polarizing picks when they traded up to select Jordan Love at No. 26.
Aaron Rodgers is obviously the big factor there, though the pick will continue to look divisive if the Utah State product doesn't quickly cement himself as the second passer on the depth chart.
So far, that doesn't appear to be happening in Green Bay. Tim Boyle has drawn a bead on the backup job behind Rodgers, and The Athletic's Matt Schneidman noted the following on Monday: "In watching Love for seven practices, I haven't seen one play from the rookie that widened my eyes."
Schneidman also classified an overthrown ball from Love directed at a wide-open downfield target as a "dead duck," which paints a pretty clear picture. This is by no means time to start talking about the "bust" label, but a first-rounder whiffing on open throws is worrisome—and rest assured we'd be hearing more about a quarterback controversy in a drama-driven media cycle during camp if Love looked anywhere close to ready.
Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Miami Dolphins
The Miami Dolphins always figured to bring first-round signal-caller Tua Tagovailoa along slowly based on his collegiate injury history, including his recent hip issue.
But "slow" has varying levels of concern that come along with it.
Tagovailoa never figured to unseat Ryan Fitzpatrick as the starter right away. Battling Josh Rosen for third string is a different conversation entirely.
The Miami Herald's Armando Salguero wrote the following: "The Dolphins have a quarterback competition going on, but the truth is it's a competition for the No. 2 job between Tagovailoa and Josh Rosen."
None of this means Tagovailoa won't ascend to first string at some point in 2020. And it'll be interesting if the mood surrounding his outlook changes if he's permitted to put some work in with first-team weapons. But for now, the inability to leave Rosen in the dust is slightly concerning for the clear-cut third-place guy in the battle of rookie top-10 passers, slotting behind Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert.