Under-the-Radar Players Looking to Become Big Names in NFL Training Camps
It's almost happy-happy fun time!
Across the National Football League, many rookies have already reported for training camp. Veterans will begin to do the same on Saturday, starting with the Bills in Buffalo.
In many ways, it's fitting that things kick off in Western New York. The Bills are one of a number of teams with big questions to answer in training camp, thanks to the torn ACL suffered by linebacker Kiko Alonso.
Some of those holes will be filled by the cream of this year's rookie crop. However, for every big name who shines in training camp, there's one who comes seemingly from nowhere.
Sometimes it's a young player or rookie. Entering training camp two years ago, Alfred Morris of the Washington Redskins was a late-round running back from a small Florida school. After starring in camp and the preseason as a rookie, Morris earned the starting job.
Two seasons and nearly 2,900 yards on the ground later, the 25-year-old Morris is considered one of the best young backs in the league.
Other times, it's a veteran. Last year, James Ihedigbo went from career special-teamer to starter at strong safety for the Baltimore Ravens after surprisingly outplaying rookie first-round pick Matt Elam in camp.
Sixteen starts and 101 tackles later, the 30-year-old got a nice free-agent deal from the Detroit Lions.
It takes something of a perfect storm for a player to make a name for himself. With injuries to various starters and some players in new team environments, the following must take advantage of any opportunity to carve out a prominent role with a strong performance in camp.
For these players, dark clouds are gathering. In a good way.
Preston Brown, LB, Buffalo Bills
We might as well kick things off with the aforementioned Bills.
Alonso's injury, suffered while working out on his own in Oregon, was a hammer blow to the Buffalo defense. Alonso led the team with 159 tackles in 2013 and was expected to be a cornerstone of the new 4-3 scheme being implemented by coordinator Jim Schwartz.
Now, it will be a wide-open battle in training camp to see who will replace Alonso at weak-side linebacker.
Third-year pro Nigel Bradham and free-agent acquisition Keith Rivers are both contenders for the spot, but as Tim Graham of The Buffalo News reports, head coach Doug Marrone may be willing to roll the dice on going the first-year route a second straight season:
Rivers and Bradham, though, are not who the Bills think can help the most. Sources say they are looking at rookie Preston Brown.
The third-round draft pick from Louisville was outstanding at the team’s voluntary workouts and minicamp. Coaches raved behind the scenes about how well Brown practiced. The front office was thrilled with how he looked and Tuesday night became even more relieved they drafted him after word came about Alonso’s injury.
At 260 pounds, Brown would be quite possibly the biggest weak-side linebacker in the NFL, and after playing in the middle at Louisville, making the jump to the NFL while learning a new position could be tricky.
With that said, though, Brown fared well enough with his coverage responsibilities in OTAs and minicamp to earn first-team reps in nickel packages at middle linebacker, and the youngster seems to have the confidence of the coaching staff.
The last time the Bills had that sort of confidence in a rookie linebacker (with Alonso in 2013), things didn't work out too badly.
Willie Young, DE, Chicago Bears
When defensive end Willie Young first signed with the Chicago Bears back in March, the 28-year-old probably thought his under-the-radar days were over, especially after starting 15 games for the Detroit Lions last year.
Of course, then the Bears signed Jared Allen, and Young fell off the screen yet again.
However, just because Young might not be starting doesn't mean he can't play a prominent defensive role in the Windy City.
At least, that's the way Young is approaching things, per Kevin Fishbain of Chicago Football:
I’m the type of guy, it doesn’t matter what scheme you put me in, I’m going to make the best of my opportunities. Before I got to Detroit a couple years ago, I wasn’t used to getting off read and react so fast, but I was able to adapt and overcome and make a living for myself doing it. Same thing applies here. A new beginning, adapt and overcome and the rest of it will take care of itself.
Allen is 32 years old, and the Bears have stated their intent to try to keep the veteran fresh by dialing back his snap count.
Add in issues at defensive tackle that could portend kicking Lamarr Houston inside in passing situations and a pass-rushing unit that ranked dead last in the NFL last year, and the snaps could be there for Young in 2014.
Provided, that is, the fifth-year pro earns them.
Andrew Hawkins, WR, Cleveland Browns
NFL fans in the state of Ohio may know who Andrew Hawkins is, but outside the Buckeye State, Hawkins is most certainly under the radar.
That's not all that hard to understand. After all, Hawkins is all of 5'7".
However, since signing a free-agent contract with the Cleveland Browns after three seasons down Interstate 71 in Cincinnati, the diminutive wide receiver is making a big impression on his new team.
As Hawkins told Scott Petrak of The Chronicle-Telegram, it's been that way ever since he entered the NFL:
I’m kind of a perfectionist, so I get frustrated with myself when I don’t make a play or I don’t do something right because whenever they talked about my strong points, I wanted it to be a long list and my negatives would only be size. I don’t want anybody to say, "Well, he’s small and he doesn’t work hard." Or "he’s small and he doesn’t care." That’s something I took to heart. The skills, the ability, that’s one thing, you can have your opinion. But I don’t want anyone to ever say he didn’t work hard, because I really pride myself on maxing out my effort. I don’t want to count myself out. Everybody else can count me out. I won’t do it to myself.
That work ethic hasn't gone unnoticed by head coach Mike Pettine, who said:
He’s been one of our most consistent guys through spring. Comes out here, he’s one of the hardest workers. Doesn’t know any speed other than full-speed. He is a guy that is truly trying to get better every day that he takes the field. I think that’s a great example for our younger guys.
To be blunt, the Cleveland wideout corps is a hot mess right now. Josh Gordon will all but certainly be suspended for the entire 2014 season, and veterans Miles Austin and Nate Burleson have had zero success staying healthy in recent years.
The Browns desperately need Hawkins to maintain his positive momentum right through training camp and into the regular season.
So much so, in fact, that receivers coach Mike McDaniel told Petrak the team plans to use Hawkins outside despite his lack of size.
"Because of his vertical speed you can move him outside," McDaniel said. "I think he’s a mismatch inside or outside. We'll move him all over the place."
Latavius Murray, RB, Oakland Raiders
At first glance, Oakland Raiders running back Latavius Murray might appear an odd addition to this list. At best, the second-year pro is third on the depth chart right now, stuck behind a pair of running backs with 1,000-yard seasons on their professional resumes.
That is, until you consider that the running backs ahead of Murray on the depth chart are Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew.
McFadden hasn't made it through 16 games in a season once over his six-year career and averaged an anemic 3.3 yards per carry each of the past two years.
Jones-Drew has missed time in each of the past two seasons (including 10 games two years ago), has over 1,800 career carries and didn't do much better than McFadden last year, managing only 3.4 yards a pop.
Murray's rookie season essentially didn't happen. A disappointing showing in training camp was followed by a foot injury. Still, that hasn't stopped head coach Dennis Allen from expecting big things from Murray in year two, according to Scott Bair of Comcast Sports Net Bay Area.
Allen said: "We’re looking for big things from Latavius Murray right now, coming off the foot injury. He’s shown, to me, the biggest upside right now in what we’ve seen thus far, if he can stay healthy."
It isn't hard to imagine a strong camp and preseason earning Murray some regular-season carries, and from there the 23-year-old could easily be one injury away from being the lead back for the Silver and Black.
Chris Matthews, WR, Seattle Seahawks
It's been a long and winding road back to the National Football League for Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Chris Matthews.
An undrafted free agent who was released by the Cleveland Browns before the 2011 season, the 6'5" Kentucky product traveled north to Canada, where he latched on with Winnipeg of the CFL.
Matthews shined for the Blue Bombers as a rookie, racking up nearly 1,200 receiving yards and winning the CFL equivalent of the NFL's Rookie of the Year.
A turf-toe injury hampered Matthews in 2013, but several NFL teams saw enough of Matthews to offer him a second bite at the NFL apple.
Matthews settled on the Super Bowl champs, and while a hamstring pull limited him early in OTAs, head coach Pete Carroll told Mike Beamish of The Vancouver Sun that Matthews has fared well to this point:
Chris Matthews has done a really good job. He’s totally different than the rest of our guys. Unfortunately, he’s been banged up a bit, and hasn’t done all of the work. But Chris has shown really good stuff and style. He’s a big guy. And we’ve always appreciated big receivers. He has that. And I also like the variety he gives us. It’ll be a great competition. We would love to spread the variety of styles, if we can, and he’ll be in the mix.
Granted, the 24-year-old may be something of a long shot in a crowded Seattle receiving corps, but Matthews does bring a size element to the Seahawks that could come in very handy in the red zone.
Rolando McClain, LB, Dallas Cowboys
OK, you can stop laughing now.
Seriously, knock it off.
Yes, the former top-10 pick of the Oakland Raiders flamed out of the NFL in rather spectacular fashion. Yes, McClain joined the Baltimore Ravens, retired, came out of retirement for a few days, re-retired and now has un-retired once more.
Still, if the 25-year-old has any chance at resurrecting his NFL career, Dallas would appear to be the place to do it.
The Cowboys were the NFL's worst defense a season ago. The team lost defensive end DeMarcus Ware and tackle Jason Hatcher to free agency. Linebacker Sean Lee has been lost for the season after tearing his ACL.
In short, the Cowboys are about as desperate for defensive help as you can get, or they probably wouldn't have traded for McClain to begin with.
For his part, McClain's agent told Todd Archer of ESPN that McClain is ready to turn things around this time:
I see, and Rolando sees, the Dallas situation as a great opportunity given Sean's injury, and you're talking about a great franchise and a great organization. I've described to any of the clients we've had through the years there -- Emmitt Smith, Dexter Coakley, DeMarcus Ware, Marcus Spears, Keith Brooking, DeMarco Murray -- that playing for the Cowboys in football is kind of like playing for the Yankees in baseball. Just an iconic franchise. With kind of what he's done going back to his time with the Raiders, I think that all of this has led him to a point where he feels like the game is too important to him to give up. He's just 24 years old. He's very talented. He's very bright. Tough. Competitive. There's a reason he was a top-10 pick at a position that is almost impossible to be a top-10 pick. Hopefully this situation will go smoothly.
For what it's worth, McClain was Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) 11th-ranked inside linebacker in his last full season two years ago, ranking eighth against the run.
If McClain can play at anywhere near that level for the Cowboys, he's going to find the field with regularity for a Dallas defense that badly needs to catch a break.
Khiry Robinson, RB, New Orleans Saints
New Orleans Saints running back Khiry Robinson doesn't have teammate Mark Ingram's first-round pedigree. He also doesn't have Ingram's Heisman Trophy.
What the second-year pro does have, at least in the opinion of Dan Schneier of Fox Sports Southwest, is a leg up to be the early-down back for the Saints in 2014:
With another offseason to learn the Saints' scheme and pass protections, I think Robinson will claim this role at some point in camp. Because Robinson wasn't targeted on a single play last regular season, many assume he has little to offer in the passing game. However, as a senior at West Texas A&M, he racked up 430 receiving yards and four touchdowns on 38 receptions. Ingram has just 24 receptions in three seasons in the NFL. Robinson's versatility as a pass catcher will persuade (Sean) Payton to choose him in a variety of formations and personnel groupings.
Chris Wesseling of NFL.com agrees, pegging Robinson as a potential breakout candidate in 2014:
Robinson also led the league in forced missed tackles during the preseason and averaged more postseason yards after contact per attempt than Marshawn Lynch and LeGarrette Blount, the latter of whom became the first player in NFL history with at least 150 rushing yards and four touchdowns in a playoff game. Why devote first-round draft picks to college stars such as Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson when Robinson had already turned out a finer all-around performance in his fourth preseason game than either Alabama star has produced since entering the league?
Sure, the Saints aren't about to become a smashmouth football team, and passing-down work will remain the purview of Pierre Thomas.
But, given what Ingram has (or more appropriately hasn't) done to this point in the NFL, the lead-back job in the Big Easy is there for the taking for Robinson.
Keenan Robinson, LB, Washington Redskins
We'll close things up with another Robinson, although the two aren't related.
For the past seven seasons, linebacker London Fletcher was a rock in the middle of the Washington defense. He never missed a game—110-plus tackles were a mortal lock.
Now, however, Fletcher has called it a career, leaving a huge hole in the middle of the Redskins defense.
Among the candidates to fill that role and the player with the most to prove in training camp is likely third-year pro Keenan Robinson, who missed the entire 2013 season with a torn pectoral muscle.
New Washington head coach Jay Gruden admitted to JP Finlay of Comcast Sports Net Washington that he wasn't overly familiar with Robinson before OTAs got underway, but he likes what he's seen of the 25-year-old so far:
I didn't know much about Keenan because he didn't have a lot of tape last year in the games so it was new to me. I just heard a lot about him and he's done a great job. He’s continued to know his assignments obviously, and then athletically, sideline-to-sideline you're not going to see a prettier athlete running from sideline-to-sideline. Great athlete, great speed.
If the Redskins are going to get back into the NFC East race in 2014, the team needs someone to help Perry Riley fill the void created by Fletcher's retirement.
Robinson is the team's best bet to be that player.
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