Previewing the Most Exciting Rookies to Watch in 2014 Training Camps
Training camps will begin throughout the NFL later this month. While every player on his respective team will be making an effort to prove he is integral to his franchise in 2014, this part of the calendar will be especially important for rookies trying to make their first mark at the next level.
Camp can be a tough time for rookies, who have to adjust to playing in a professional environment against greater competition, all the while dealing with infamous hazing from veterans. That said, it’s also an opportunity for first-year players to stand out and simultaneously draw the attention of teammates, coaches, media and fans.
Which draft picks will make the most noise in practice and leave their teams salivating over the prospects of what they could do when the actual games begin?
There’s many rookies on every team with the potential to be stars of the summer, but the following 10 are among the players who have skills that should stand out, even in practice situations, while all of them have an opportunity to establish themselves as impact players for their teams from day one.
Jadeveon Clowney, OLB, Houston Texans
The first-overall pick from this year’s draft, Jadeveon Clowney will receive as much attention during training camp as any NFL rookie. It’s likely he’ll sustain that attention and make others take notice by showing off his physical attributes and standing out in practices.
Clowney had a knack for making jaws drop with highlight-reel plays throughout his three-year career as a defensive end at South Carolina. Now an outside linebacker in the Houston Texans’ 3-4 defensive scheme, Clowney should continue to turn heads from the get-go.
The transition to 3-4 OLB is often arduous for players who were collegiate defensive ends, but Clowney is an extraordinary talent. He’ll continue to have the sheer physical advantages over his opponents that he regularly had during his NCAA years.
Furthermore, his role will remain similar. While he will have to learn how to play in space instead of having his hand in the dirt at the snap, his primary role will continue to be rushing the passer from the edge.
His recovery from sports hernia surgery in June could slow Clowney at the start of training camp, but Texans coach Bill O’Brien has said he does not expect his top rookie to miss any time, according to Brian Smith of the Houston Chronicle.
Clowney won’t be able to sack any quarterbacks in training camp—Ryan Fitzpatrick and the other Houston signal-callers will be designated as non-contact players in practices—but he’s going to be a troublemaker for any offensive linemen who has to match up against him.
Khalil Mack, OLB, Oakland Raiders
Khalil Mack finds himself in an opposite position of Jadeveon Clowney, in that he is transitioning to a 4-3 defense from the 3-4 scheme he played in at the University of Buffalo. Despite his own transition, Mack might end up in a role that is more versatile and allows him to make an even bigger instant splash than Clowney.
The fifth-overall pick in this year’s draft, Mack projects primarily as a strong-side linebacker, where he lined up with the Oakland Raiders’ first-team defense throughout spring workouts, according to Jerry McDonald of the San Jose Mercury News. That said, Mack is also expected to see playing time at defensive end in pass-rushing subpackages.
A player who is already well-developed and multi-faceted, Mack should immediately be an asset to the Raiders defense in every situation. A superlative athlete, Mack is very good at getting in position in space and adept in dropping back to cover, yet he is also an explosive edge rusher who can hold up at the point of attack against offensive linemen.
How much has Mack already impressed the Raiders? Enough so that “there's a sense among coaches, the scouts and front office that Mack is even better than the Raiders initially believed,” according to McDonald.
He should continue to be a standout in training camp, both in full-contact and non-contact practices. His burst, fluidity and proclivity for making plays on the ball allows him to stand out in any situation, and he is a consistently strong finisher on tackles.
Aaron Donald, DT, St. Louis Rams
Much like 2013 Defensive Rookie of the Year Sheldon Richardson of the New York Jets, this year’s thirteenth-overall pick is a defensive lineman who could immediately wreak havoc on opposing offensive lines, and he’ll start by testing out the St. Louis Rams’ new-look blocking front in training camp.
No rookie comes into the NFL with more momentum than Aaron Donald. During his senior season at the University of Pittsburgh, Donald had 28.5 tackles for loss and took just about every college football award he was up for, including the Outland Trophy, Bronko Nagurski Trophy and Chuck Bednarik Award. He then went on to have standout performances at the 2014 Senior Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine.
You probably wouldn’t pick the 6’1”, 285-pound defensive tackle out of a crowd as an All-American, but he stands out as soon as the pads come on. He has truly rare athleticism for a defensive tackle, including a 4.68-second 40-yard dash time, while he is also highly skilled with his hands and strong despite his limited size.
Particularly fun to watch at St. Louis’ training camp will be Donald’s battles with new Rams left guard Greg Robinson, who could also be among the rookie standouts of the preseason.
Donald is likely to have the early advantage on Robinson in pass-rushing situations, as Donald is a terrific, NFL-ready interior pass-rusher, while Robinson must improve in pass protection as he transitions inside from left tackle. Donald’s point-of-attack strength, on the other hand, will be tested by Robinson, the second-overall pick who proved at Auburn that he can be downright overpowering as a run-blocker.
Regardless of who wins those training camp battles, both rookies will become stronger as a result of their talented competition. Robinson and Donald both have superstar potential, but while Robinson’s ceiling is somewhat higher, Donald is more ready to shine immediately this summer.
Brandin Cooks, WR, New Orleans Saints
Due to an NFL rule that prohibits players from joining their teams for spring workouts until after their college semesters end, Oregon State product Brandin Cooks missed all but the final week of the New Orleans Saints' organized team activities (OTAs). Nonetheless, the Saints will expect Cooks to learn on a fast track and stand out during training camp practices.
When Oregon State’s school year came to a close and Cooks finally was able to practice, he made up for lost time quickly, according to Jennifer Hale of Fox Sports New Orleans:
In a few short days, Cooks showcased both his speed and versatility, working with the punt-return team, running wide receiver routes and trying his hand at trick plays like the reverse/end-around.
Timed at 4.33 seconds in the 40-yard dash at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine, Cooks combines his elite speed with exceptional quickness, making him a tough player to stop in the open field. A skilled pass-catcher who can also be used as a runner, the No. 20-overall pick should quickly put the Saints defense to the test in training camp.
Ideally suited to play inside as a slot receiver but having the versatility to play all over different formations, Cooks is a perfect fit for the Saints offense. The Saints have a highly diversified offense that utilizes inside receivers heavily, and Cooks will instantly give them a new dimension in terms of explosiveness and big-play ability.
Cooks’ learning curve should be one of the smoothest and shortest among this year’s rookies. If he can stand out this summer, he could play a big role in New Orleans’ gameplans as early as Week 1.
Johnny Manziel, QB, Cleveland Browns
One can always count on there being excitement when Johnny Football is involved, whether it be on or off the field. But while some have spent the offseason fixating on the Cleveland Browns rookie’s high-profile social life, the focus will soon shift to how well he can play quarterback once training camp begins.
Exciting might be an understatement in describing Johnny Manziel’s play at Texas A&M. Known for his uncanny ability to evade rushers and extend plays, the dynamic dual-threat’s two-year playing career in College Station was filled with accolades, including a Heisman Trophy.
In order to continue excelling in the NFL, however, the No. 22-overall pick must make adjustments to his game. Manziel won’t have nearly as much time or opportunity to scramble and make things happen at the next level, so he has to become a more efficient decision-maker and more accurate passer within the pocket.
Manziel’s competition with Brian Hoyer to be Cleveland’s starting quarterback will be one of the NFL’s biggest training camp storylines. Hoyer is a more experienced, polished passer who played well in three starts last season before going down with a torn ACL.
Manziel has far higher upside, more big-play ability and presents a more challenging threat to defenses, but the Browns have made it clear that despite selecting him in the first round, they’ll only give Manziel the starting job if he truly earns it away from Hoyer. After minicamp, Cleveland coach Mike Pettine said Hoyer was “securely ahead” of Manziel on the team’s depth chart, according to Mary Kay Cabot of Northeast Ohio Media Group.
Regardless of who wins the job, Manziel will be fun to watch in training camp. The Browns will give Manziel plenty of opportunities for repetitions in practices, and although they won’t want to show everything they have up their sleeve before regular-season games begin, they should still open up the playbook this summer to see for themselves what special skills Manziel might be able to bring to the offense.
Bradley Roby, CB, Denver Broncos
After a roller-coaster redshirt junior season at Ohio State, Denver Broncos first-round pick Bradley Roby certainly has to prove himself in training camp this year. But just as he made an early impression in OTAs and minicamp, Roby could stand out and make a serious push for playing time in training camp.
The No. 31-overall pick wasn’t close to being one of college football’s best cornerbacks in 2013, but he could easily end up being the best player at his position in this year’s rookie class. Roby is a gifted athlete who has top-tier speed, fluid hips, quick feet, great ball skills and no hesitance toward physical play.
His immense upside caught notice during spring workouts. According to ESPN.com’s Jeff Legwold, “the Broncos see a physical, athletic cornerback who can disrupt receivers at the line of scrimmage and yet still has the speed to run with them downfield.”
There aren’t many players from the 2013 draft who have more raw ability than Roby, but his inconsistency is a concern. Legwold noted that while Roby was often impressive in spring practices, he also got “caught trailing the play at times, especially down the field,” an issue that also plagued him last year and led to him giving up big plays against often-inferior competition.
An advantage for Roby is that his preparation for the season will come with practicing against arguably the best offense in the league. His matchups will come against a bevy of talented wide receivers, including Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Emmanuel Sanders, while going up against a quarterback, Peyton Manning, who may be the best signal-caller ever at exposing coverage mistakes.
Expect Roby to continue to have some mishaps and imperfections throughout training camp, but those will only make him better if he continues to work hard at his craft. And if he can at least offset his down moments with impressive displays of athleticism and playmaking ability, he has a good shot at fighting his way immediately into the top three of the Denver cornerback depth chart.
Kyle Van Noy, OLB, Detroit Lions
Much like the aforementioned Khalil Mack, the fun in watching Kyle Van Noy this summer will stem from both his tools and his versatility, which give him a chance to emerge right away in multiple capacities on the Detroit Lions defense.
Possessing a skill set that’s arguably the most diverse of any defender in this year’s rookie class, Van Noy can be a valuable player who keeps opposing offenses guessing. Effective at both pass-rushing off the edge and dropping back into coverage, Van Noy is a fluid athlete with an explosive burst who covers ground well in space.
Van Noy worked with Detroit’s second-team defense this spring, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, at strong-side linebacker behind incumbent starter Ashlee Palmer. But it would come as a surprise if Van Noy, who has far more playmaking ability than Palmer has ever shown, doesn’t beat out Palmer for the job with an impressive summer.
The real question to be answered in training camp is how the Lions will take advantage of Van Noy’s multifaceted game in his rookie season.
On a Lions defense that has no shortage of talent throughout its defensive front seven, the second-round pick from BYU won’t need to move around too much. But he could play other linebacker positions if injuries occur and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him take some snaps with his hand in the dirt as a pass-rushing defensive end.
New defensive coordinator Teryl Austin is expected to run a hybrid, diversified scheme in Detroit. Van Noy’s ability to contribute in many different ways should make him a key player for the unit’s transition, especially if his well-rounded skill set stands out in training camp.
Carlos Hyde, RB, San Francisco 49ers
Carlos Hyde has already been impressive in spring practices. According to ESPN.com’s Bill Williamson, he “has shined out of the backfield as a runner and as receiver” in OTAs and minicamp. But one should believe the best is yet to come once the pads come out in training camp.
Hyde has enough athleticism and receiving skill to look good in a non-contact situation, but Hyde’s true potential for greatness comes with his ability to drive his 6’0", 230-pound body through contact between the tackles.
Even in training camp, it can be tough for a running back to stand out as drills rarely end with tackling, but Hyde should make his team take notice if he runs the way he did last year at Ohio State. While the No. 57-overall pick won’t be mistaken for a sprinter, he has a good burst out of the backfield and is tough to stop once he gets going.
Hyde should certainly be motivated to take every opportunity he can to stand out. In a crowded San Francisco 49ers backfield, Hyde must prove he’s better than Kendall Hunter, Marcus Lattimore and LaMichael James if he wants to see significant playing time this season spelling veteran lead back Frank Gore.
Williamson, for one, thinks that despite his competition, Hyde is “likely to get a chance at playing time right away.” Hunter and James have the advantage of experience, while a healthy Lattimore could still have huge upside, but Hyde has all the talent to emerge right away as the next-in-line to Gore, whose carries could start to decrease in 2014, as he is now 31 years old.
Terrence Brooks, S, Baltimore Ravens
Despite a surprising fall to the middle of the third round of the draft, Terrence Brooks could immediately play a key role for the Baltimore Ravens if he performs well in training camp this summer.
An athletic safety who is effective in deep coverage and skilled at playing the ball, Brooks could be exactly what the Ravens need alongside Matt Elam, a second-year safety known best for his ability to land pulverizing hits.
Often overlooked on a defense loaded with talent at Florida State, Brooks is somewhat undersized (5’11”, 198 lbs) but is a well-rounded safety who adds solid run-support techniques to his coverage abilities. With a strong showing throughout camp and the preseason, the No. 79-overall pick should be able to beat out veteran Darian Stewart for Baltimore’s starting job at free safety.
The Ravens could also test Brooks’ versatility in training camp, as he could project to either safety spot and also has experience playing cornerback.
Jerick McKinnon, RB, Minnesota Vikings
You might not yet know the name Jerick McKinnon, but he’s already caught the eye of at least one of his teammates, who also happens to be arguably the best player at his position in the NFL.
“He’s pretty impressive and there’s not too many guys who impress me like that, especially rookies coming in,” Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson said of McKinnon, according to Master Tesfatsion of the Star Tribune. “He’s been able to do some real good things in the offense, picking it up well and just his running style.”
The No. 96-overall pick played multiple positions at Georgia Southern, so one would expect it to be a challenge to transition from being a more diverse player in the FCS to a full-time running back in the NFL. That said, McKinnon has a rare set of physical tools that should allow him to achieve immediate success and continue to turn heads in training camp.
A 5’9”, 209-pound athlete who runs a 4.41-second 40-yard dash and has a 40.5-inch vertical leap, McKinnon has explosive speed, the agility to make defenders miss in space and the strength to run through contact.
It’s no surprise that a player with McKinnon’s physical gifts and big-play potential would be standing out in offseason practices. But as long as he continues to learn the system quickly, he should be a difference-maker in game action as well.
McKinnon won’t present any challenge for a starting job; there aren’t many running backs in the NFL with better physical tools than McKinnon, but Peterson is one of them. That said, his experience playing quarterback and demonstrated ability to catch passes out of the backfield should enable the Vikings to find creative ways to utilize McKinnon, whether that means splitting two running backs in the backfield, lining McKinnon up as a slot receiver or even using him situationally as a “Wildcat” quarterback.
All measurables courtesy of NFL.com, unless otherwise noted.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.