NFL Rookies Making Waves at 2021 OTAs

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistJune 9, 2021

NFL Rookies Making Waves at 2021 OTAs

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Even in shorts and T-shirts, NFL rookies can make a name for themselves in voluntary OTAs.

    During the spring, a strong early impression can go a long way for a first-year player who needs to climb over fellow rookies or perhaps a veteran to gain a foothold in a steady role for the upcoming season. 

    Teams will ramp up the intensity for training camp, but first, the newcomers had the opportunity to show off their arm, route-running, coverage skills and all their physical attributes over the past few weeks on the practice field.

    Let's take a look at rookies who stood out the most through OTAs. These players aren't slated to start Week 1, but they've impressed coaches and teammates, which may help them move up the depth chart.

Nico Collins, WR, Houston Texans

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    The Houston Texans may have found a big-bodied, physical wideout to succeed or challenge Chris Conley for the starting spot opposite Brandin Cooks.

    Following the departure of William Fuller V in free agency, the Texans receiving corps should have more targets to go around. Even if Nico Collins doesn't usurp Conley on the depth chart, he could see a decent number of looks in the passing game. 

    After a practice in May, Cooks gave a glowing assessment of Collins' physical and mental capabilities (h/t Mark Lane of Texans Wire):

    "How I feel about Nico, I mean this guy doesn't look like no rookie to me," Cooks said. "You talk about a guy who's out there that's coachable and able to pick up things pretty fast. You love to see that from a young guy. The guy's explosive, natural hands."

    During Collins' time as a starter at Michigan between 2018 and 2019, the offense had its struggles partially because of Shea Patterson's inconsistent ball placement. However, the 6'4", 215-pound wideout hauled in 75 passes for 1,361 yards and 13 touchdowns in that two-year span.

    When quarterback Tyrod Taylor looks to stretch defenses over the top or squeeze passes into tight windows, he could target Collins downfield. The rookie third-rounder has the physical tools to produce big plays.

Jaelon Darden, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will field arguably the league's deepest wide receiver group, which includes Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson. Any newcomer who hopes to break into the rotation would probably need to earn his keep on special teams.

    With his experience as a punt and kick returner, Jaelon Darden has a chance to make the final 53-man roster and see some opportunities on offense and special teams in 2021. Keep in mind, the Buccaneers moved up eight spots to select him in the fourth round. 

    According to Jon Ledyard of the Pewter Report, Darden has put his playmaking ability and versatility on full display during OTAs:

    "Later in practice, Darden ran a nasty in-breaking route, spinning around cornerback Nate Brooks in coverage and making an uncontested grab in the middle of the field. Darden's ability to break his routes off without slowing down has made it incredibly difficult for this group of cornerbacks to shadow him. Nobody has come close to slowing Darden down through multiple practices this offseason, as the receiver has easily achieved separation on the outside and in the slot."

    At 5'8", 174 pounds, Darden would likely see most of his targets out of the slot, though he's a solid playmaker who logged 74 receptions for 1,190 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2020. For now, the North Texas product projects as a return man who could replace Jaydon Mickens.

Isaiah Dunn, CB, New York Jets

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh wanted to focus on the development of his young cornerback group rather than sign a veteran cover man right away. The coaching staff's emphasis on in-house talent may have benefited undrafted rookie Isaiah Dunn, who took reps with the starters at practice.

    Dunn has generated some buzz with his coverage. DJ Bien-Aime II of the New York Daily News couldn't help but notice the Oregon State product.

    "Keep an eye on Dunn, one of the undrafted free agents Gang Green added to the roster, as the offseason continues to progress as the former Oregon State star made some nice pass breakups throughout the OTAs that have been available to the media," Bien Aime II wrote.

    New York Post reporter Brian Costello also singled out Dunn as "one to watch" among the cornerbacks.

    Dunn signed the most lucrative deal ever for an undrafted cornerback, which says a lot about what the Jets see in his potential. Following a string of standout performances, he's a viable candidate to start on the boundary.

    Blessuan Austin (16 career starts) and Bryce Hall (seven starts) don't have enough experience to lock down a first-string spot without a battle.

Justin Fields, QB, Chicago Bears

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    David Banks/Associated Press

    Thus far, the Chicago Bears have publicly committed to a consistent message regarding their quarterback situation: Andy Dalton is the starter.

    On the other hand, the Bears have expressed their satisfaction with Justin Fields and his progress through OTAs. Head coach Matt Nagy told reporters the Ohio State product is "everything that we thought he was going to be when he got here." 

    Running back David Montgomery went into further detail that suggests Fields has the makeup of a starting quarterback on the pro level. 

    "Justin is definitely a freakish athlete, to say the least,” Montgomery told reporters. "He already kind of carries that leader mantra that you rarely see in rookies that I know I didn't have. He's great and he's progressing well. It's good to see him, being as young as he is, being able to take the reins."

    At some point, the Bears will turn the offense over to Fields. Chicago moved up nine spots to draft him in the first round. Dalton cannot sleepwalk through training camp and expect to start Week 1. Although the odds favor the veteran, he has little margin for error as Fields garners early praise from his head coach and an emerging leader within the offense.

Daelin Hayes, OLB, Baltimore Ravens

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    Gail Burton/Associated Press

    The Baltimore Ravens lost edge-rushers Matt Judon and Yannick Ngakoue in free agency but addressed the position during the draft.

    Rookie first-rounder Odafe Oweh will head into the 2021 campaign with high expectations because of his draft pedigree, but he doesn't have to fill the Ravens' pass-rushing void alone.

    Outside linebackers coach Drew Wilkins believes Daelin Hayes will contribute in his first season (h/t Jonas Shaffer of the Baltimore Sun). The Ravens position coach said the two rookies "want to kick the door down right now."

    According to The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec, Hayes used technique and speed to record a couple of sacks during a practice last week.

    "Rookie outside linebacker Daelin Hayes showed his pass-rushing repertoire, beating blocking tight end Eric Tomlinson with a nifty inside spin move," Zrebiec wrote. "A few plays later, Hayes got the better of undrafted rookie Foster Sarell with an outside speed rush." 

    Coming out of Notre Dame as a redshirt senior with 20.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks, Hayes enters the league with extensive experience at his position and an opportunity to earn some snaps in a wide-open edge-rushing rotation. He's a fifth-rounder with a path to significant playing time.

Deommodore Lenoir, CB, San Francisco 49ers

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    The San Francisco 49ers may rely on youth for depth at cornerback. They've had contact with Richard Sherman, per Chris Biderman of the Sacramento Bee, but he remains a free agent. According to SNY's Ralph Vacchiano, the 33-year-old cover man may wait until after training camp to sign with a contender.

    For now, cornerbacks Jason Verrett, Emmanuel Moseley and K'Waun Williams fill the top three spots on the depth chart.

    As a middle-round pick, rookie third-rounder Ambry Thomas should make the roster as a reserve option on the boundary. Deommodore Lenoir could line up on the outside or slide inside as backup nickelback.

    When asked about the team's rookies, Verrett had high praise for the fifth-round Oregon product.

    "D-Mo, that's a guy that I think has come along real well just from the first time of seeing the film of him at rookie minicamp," Verrett told reporters. "A guy that's really good at press. I definitely watched him all throughout this time he's been here. The second that he gets more comfortable out there, he could definitely be a good player for us."

    Lenoir had a solid collegiate career, recording six interceptions and 21 pass breakups in four terms. The 49ers may have a versatile cover man who can spell Verrett or Williams in case of injury.

Darius Stills, DT, Las Vegas Raiders

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    Jerry Larson/Associated Press

    With a move that raised questions because of the timing, the Las Vegas Raiders released defensive tackle David Irving. Last season, he suited up for two games with the club and looked forward to a new chapter in the upcoming campaign.

    Perhaps new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley saw a couple of new faces as a better fit for his system. According to Vincent Bonsignore of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, defensive tackles Darius Philon and Darius Stills made good impressions during OTAs.

    Defensive end Clelin Ferrell told reporters Stills caught his attention at practice:

    "I don't really evaluate guys until we put the pads on, but a guy who I like a lot is Darius Stills, an undrafted rookie from West Virginia. Real, real good dude, but he got a lot of twitch. Played 3-technique. He got a lot of twitch. I like seeing that. You can just tell in the movements when we on drills and stuff like that. He got a little something to him, so I like his game a little bit.”

    Stills went undrafted out of West Virginia. Based on his recent production, he's a potential steal for the Raiders. The 6'1", 278-pounder made an impact on all three downs, recording 19.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks between the 2019 and 2020 terms. 

    On the interior of the Raiders defensive line, Quinton Jefferson, Johnathan Hankins, Solomon Thomas, Kendal Vickers and Philon all have one-year deals. With an impressive offseason, Stills can work his way into a sizable long-term role at the position.

Nahshon Wright, CB, Dallas Cowboys

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    Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

    Following the departure of cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, the Dallas Cowboys have a question mark at cornerback opposite Trevon Diggs. According to Michael Gehlken of the Dallas Morning News, Anthony Brown is the "favorite" to fill that spot. Nevertheless, he's played well in the slot. 

    If Brown and Jourdan Lewis battle for the nickelback position, new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn may pick a starter from a trio of rookies.

    The Cowboys targeted the cornerback position during the draft, selecting Kelvin Joseph (second round), Nahshon Wright (third round) and Israel Mukuamu (sixth round) to bolster the unit.

    In response to a mailbag question about the Cowboys' rookie defensive backs, David Helman and Jonny Auping of the team's official website touted Wright as the standout performer among the group.

    "I promise I'm not blowing smoke," Helman wrote. "We've had a chance to watch two practices, and Nahshon Wright has shown up in both of them. His instincts are impressive, and he's consistently contesting passes thrown his way." 

    Auping expressed his concern about Wright's slender build but said his frame hasn't been an issue thus far.

    "But Nahshon Wright certainly looks every bit of 6'4". It's hard to watch anyone else when he's on the field," Auping wrote. "Every play I'm begging him to hit the weight room because he just looks so skinny lined up against NFL players. But all that length can be a huge asset and he seems to be holding his own out there."

    While Wright has made his presence felt on the practice field, Joseph battled an illness and missed the last two OTA sessions.

    Although Quinn said Joseph had a good start to the offseason program, he's a raw talent who's only played 20 games since the 2018 term. The Kentucky product needs the reps. 

    Wright could be the first rookie in line to play if Brown doesn't start Week 1.

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