NFL Rookies Who Are Blowing Up Training Camps

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistAugust 7, 2021

NFL Rookies Who Are Blowing Up Training Camps

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    Josie Lepe/Associated Press

    Rookies had an introduction to the NFL with walkthroughs and workouts in shorts and T-shirts. Now, they can show their true potential in full-padded practices at training camp.

    As the intensity ramps up, so does the in-house competition among teammates. We'll soon have an idea who's ready to take the field for the preseason and regular season. 

    While some rookies physically look the part of a pro, they have to dive into the playbook and put it all together to execute in simulated game scenarios on the practice field.

    Over the past week, some notable rookies have earned praise for their impressive performances. Let's take a look at seven first-year players who have turned heads at training camp and where they may fit in the team's 2021 season plans.

QB Justin Fields, Chicago Bears

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    Andy Dalton will start under center for the Chicago Bears in Week 1. He's had some solid practices, but the veteran quarterback may not hold off Justin Fields for the entire 2021 season.

    Fields has generated buzz from May through August, and ESPN's Louis Riddick isn't going to take the rookie's early flashes lightly.

    "Not going to say how crazy good some of [the] things I have been told about Justin Fields the professional have been thus far. Don't want to hear the 'it's only training camp' brigade puff up their chest and scream at the top of their lungs. BUT…it has been THAT good. Just sayin'," Riddick tweeted

    In the first week of training camp, Fields has showcased his speed on the run and the awareness to protect himself with some timely slides. He also hit his targets in stride and fit the ball through tight windows. 

    Fields' dynamic skill set will force defensive backs to respect the threat of big plays over the top, and linebackers must account for his ability to pick up first downs on foot.

    Assuming the Bears eventually make the transition from Dalton to Fields, head coach Matt Nagy could open the playbook, using run-pass option designs to keep defenders in the front seven off-balance.

TE Kylen Granson, Indianapolis Colts

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    Quarterback Carson Wentz's decision to undergo surgery on his foot puts a temporary damper on the Indianapolis Colts' passing attack, but he'll have an intriguing target upon his return.

    According to The Athletic's Zak Keefer, Kylen Granson showed off his pass-catching skills during the first week of training camp practices. 

    "Granson, the rookie fourth-round pick out of SMU, showed the early flashes you want to see from a first-year player. It didn't look too big for him. He made a nice catch with the first-team offense, which tells me the Colts believe he can step in and contribute right away. He moves really well, is smooth coming out of his breaks and with the football, and Reich loves that in his "Y" tight end."

    Per The MMQB's Albert Breer, Granson has "justified Frank Reich's pre-draft love."

    Reich, the Colts' lead skipper and play-caller, saw Granson as a playmaking weapon for his offense (h/t Keefer).

    "Dynamic with the football in his hand," Reich said, "and that can be a great element for our offense."

    Granson played two seasons apiece at Rice and SMU, hauling in 129 passes for 1,879 yards and 16 touchdowns through four collegiate terms. He'll compete with Jack Doyle and Mo Alie-Cox for snaps at tight end, but Reich may design some plays for the rookie in order to take advantage of mismatches against linebackers and safeties in the middle of the field.

QB Trey Lance, San Francisco 49ers

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    On the first day of training camp, San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan tabbed Jimmy Garoppolo as the starting quarterback, indicating the team doesn't have a competition at the position. 

    But Shanahan either made a premature decision or devised a clever strategy to light a fire under rookie first-rounder Trey Lance, who's turned heads since the 49ers returned to the practice field.

    According to The Athletic's Matt Barrows, Lance has made significant improvements between organized team activities and training camp.

    "Easily the biggest story of training camp so far is Trey Lance and the leap the rookie quarterback made from the end of OTAs to the beginning of training camp … He's attacked the defense deep. He's gunned the ball over the middle on crossing routes, the meat-and-potatoes throw of the 49ers offense. And Saturday, he took off on his first runs of training camp, looking entirely natural and effective on scrambles and in running the read-option."

    Lance's ability to tuck and run with the ball on designed carries offers another dimension to the 49ers offense. Garoppolo can move in the pocket, but he's not a threat to escape athletic defensive linemen and linebackers on his feet.

    Lance's arm strength and push to stretch the defense over the top can also provide an offensive spark. In 2020, Garoppolo averaged 7.2 yards gained per pass attempt, which would tie Teddy Bridgewater and Gardner Minshew II for 19th if he listed among qualifying quarterbacks.

    Barrows wrapped up his observations of the first few practices with the idea that the Lance has closed the gap on Garoppolo in the pecking order.

    "The notion that Lance could overtake Garoppolo early in the season, which seemed so farfetched on draft day and after OTAs, appears far more realistic today," Barrows wrote.

    If Lance continues to impress, Shanahan may have to change his quarterback plans sooner rather than later.

WR Elijah Moore, New York Jets

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    Based on early training camp reports, the New York Jets have a mature rookie in Elijah Moore.

    On Monday, head coach Robert Saleh called Moore an "old soul" and heaped praise on the second-rounder out of Ole Miss. 

    "He's already ahead of the game with regards to how he studies, takes care of his body, the way he approaches practice, the way he approaches each rep, and he's impressive in the sense that we feel very confident that he's going to find ways to get better," Saleh said.

    SNY's Ralph Vacchiano said Moore is "one of the best players at camp this summer." 

    NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah visited the Jets and also came away impressed with Moore. He called the rookie second-rounder "special" and compared him to Seattle Seahawks wideout Tyler Lockett, who's recorded 1,000-plus receiving yards in consecutive campaigns.

    At the collegiate level, Moore ran detailed routes and used double moves to gain separation from defenders, which helped him record 86 receptions for 1,193 yards and eight touchdowns in a breakout 2020 term. He's a shifty sure-handed receiver who should make an early impact primarily out of the slot.

    Even though the Jets restructured slot wideout Jamison Crowder's deal, Moore has the early momentum to carve out a role in the aerial attack. According to The Athletic's Connor Hughes, the rookie took reps with the starters for the first time on Tuesday.

LB Micah Parsons, Dallas Cowboys

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    Anyone with a social media account has likely seen clips of Micah Parsons making a play at practice. He's taken snaps at linebacker and on the edge, showing his versatility as an impact defender.

    While on his tour of training camps across the league, NBC Sports' Peter King highlighted Parsons in his weekly column.

    "He's been making a play or two every practice, roaming sideline to sideline, and he's starting to force his way into an every-down role in those nightly camp meetings when personnel is discussed," King wrote.

    One spectator at camp told King that Parsons is "wrecking practice." Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy isn't going to ease the rookie into a role. In all likelihood, the Penn State standout will see plenty of snaps in Week 1.

    "He needs to play opening day," McCarthy said. "You have to trust what your eyes are telling you. I see a fluid and explosive player. This game's not too big for him. He looks like he's done this at this level before."

    If new Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn plans to revamp a unit that ranked 28th in scoring and 23rd in yards allowed last year, Parsons should have a huge role in the transformation. Look for him to play middle linebacker and help out the pass rush on the edge.

    Parsons flashed in Thursday's preseason Hall of Fame Game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, logging three tackles and a fumble recovery.

CB Pat Surtain II, Denver Broncos

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    Pat Surtain II has earned respect among his teammates on both sides of the ball.

    Wideout Tim Patrick believes Surtain has absorbed the playbook and put his knowledge into practice.

    "He's bigger than what you think," Patrick said in a media presser. "I don't know if you guys have gotten right next to him, but he's like a solid 6'2". He's filled out, and he's smart. You really don't expect rookie DBs to know the whole defense already. He's fitting right in with an already talented defense. It's remarkable to see."

    On Monday, Surtain picked off quarterback Drew Lock and ran for the end zone. Fellow cornerback Ronald Darby commented on the Alabama product's natural technique in coverage.

    "He has a lot of natural abilities like getting his head back for the ball, playing the ball, just focusing on the ball," Darby told reporters. "He gets up there, compete, press, play off the ball. [He's] patient, willing to learn, doesn't complain. He works hard." 

    Perhaps Surtain learned quite a few things from his father, who has three Pro Bowls and an All-Pro season on his 11-year NFL resume. According to Broncos cornerback Bryce Callahan, the rookie is ahead of the curve while lining up in different positions.

    "Probably one of the quickest I've seen a rookie acclimate to a defense and pick up multiple spots," Callahan said.

    The Broncos have a cornerback group stacked with talent. Surtain may have to carve out a role in nickel and dime packages behind Kyle Fuller, Darby and Callahan, but he seems prepared to play when called upon.

Edge Joe Tryon, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a solid pass-rushing duo in Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett, who signed a lucrative extension this offseason. But Joe Tryon has flashed enough to carve out a role on the edge behind them.

    When asked if Tryon met expectations, head coach Bruce Arians gave a glowing assessment of the Washington product's performances. 

    "Oh, more than [met them]," Arians said to reporters. "He hasn't been in pads in, what, two years? He's whipping a lot of guys' asses. That says a lot about him. He's carving out a real, real nice role for himself."

    Tryon didn't just have a few good practices. Barrett saw the rookie put his best on display from minicamp to training camp, per The Athletic's Greg Auman.

    "Joe's been the real deal," Barrett said. "He's been everything you could ask for so far. He's got the talent, he's got the effort, he's got the speed. He's got everything, and he's putting it together out here. You can most definitely see it with his pass rush, his coverage, his run defense."

    Tryon opted out of the 2020 campaign, but he didn't waste time knocking off the rust and showing his ability to become a complete defender. He'll likely take the field on obvious passing downs to generate another wave of pocket pressure, but the coaching staff can also increase his snaps while giving Pierre-Paul, who will turn 33 in January, a breather on the sideline.