Top 15 NFL Rookies to Watch in Camp

Michael SchotteyNFL National Lead WriterJuly 21, 2014

Top 15 NFL Rookies to Watch in Camp

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    David Maxwell/Getty Images

    The average NFL rookie has no idea what they're getting into when training camp rolls around.

    We often analogize the trials and failures of sports figures to our own experiences. And that means we believe we can "commiserate" with professional athletes because of something that happened in t-ball, or that we can criticize athletes because of our time under the lights of Friday night. 

    So, too, rookies might believe that training camp is a step up from the offseason team activities they just went through, or maybe just a ratcheted-up version of the camps that they experienced on their respective college campuses. 

    Nothing could be further from the truth. 

    The problem with analogies like this is that they always fall far short of reality. While college football may be rigorous—especially at power-conference programs or other such "football factories"—those are still "student-athletes" (at least by definition). In the NFL, this is the totality of their lives between now and when the season ends, and these rookies are no longer the big men on campus they once were. 

    In reality, the next few weeks are going to be more analogous to drowning in water when it comes to the mental toll the NFL often takes on rookies and being tied to a rock and beaten by waves in terms of the physical toll it will take on their bodies. 

    With that in mind, what can we expect from some of the most intriguing rookies heading into training camp?

    The following 15 players aren't necessarily the best, the most exciting or my predictions for Rookie of the Year. Rather, these are 15 young men who have a chance to make headlines by earning a spot in their respective starting lineups or carving out a niche in their scheme. 

    These are guys who, with a good training camp, can help set their teams on a path of success for the 2014 season.

Jadeveon Clowney (OLB Houston Texans)

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    Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

    Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. 

    Jadeveon Clowney was the first pick in the draft and has a ton of promise—especially considering that he gets to play alongside fellow wunderkind J.J. Watt, and that the two of them could harass even the savviest and most poised quarterback. 

    In the grand scheme of training camp buzz, though, it's hard to get too excited for what is sure to be simply constant updates of his recovery from sports hernia surgery. Even when Clowney is 100 percent (which is sure to be some time after the proclamation from himself and the team that he is there), we're not going to learn a lot about Clowney until the games mean something and the QB isn't wearing a non-contact jersey. 

    In short, as excited as we are for Clowney's arrival, that buzz may not be truly fulfilled for some time.

Seantrel Henderson (OT Buffalo Bills)

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    Gary Wiepert/Associated Press

    Take just about everything I said about Clowney in the previous slide and turn it on its head for this seventh-rounder. 

    Seantrel Henderson was a heralded high school recruit (heck, in 2008 and 2009, he was the heralded high school recruit), but his career at Miami was as maddening as it was underwhelming. Through inconsistent play, injuries and suspensions, Henderson never lived up to the hype that was showered upon him on the recruiting circuit. 

    What if he had?

    That's the question that the Bills had to have been asking themselves as they drafted him with so little to lose in the seventh round. In Henderson's case, one isn't hoping for the player he was in Miami, but rather that they can light a fire under him and get him to be the player he should've been. 

    Currently, Henderson is intermittently running with the first team thanks to an injury to incumbent starting left tackle Cordy Glenn. Though Glenn should get the job back when he returns, Henderson could make the case for more playing time if he shines. 

Jordan Matthews (WR Philadelphia Eagles)

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    With DeSean Jackson off in Washington, someone has to step up for the Eagles offense. 

    Sheil Kapadia of PhillyMag.com believes that Jordan Matthews will run as the team's No. 1 slot receiver this season, and while that might put Matthews off the "starting lineup" of someone's mocked-up depth chart, it will certainly be a position that sees a ton of burn in Chip Kelly's high-octane, spread-out offense. 

    In fact, as the slot receiver, Matthews has a good chance to lead the team in targets and catches, which is pretty amazing for a second-round player. That said, Matthews has the body, athleticism and talent to be the most dependable receiver on a team simply begging for it while also having the most upside. 

Eric Ebron (TE Detroit Lions)

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    Leon Halip/Getty Images

    If all rookies have an uphill climb into the NFL, today's tight ends might have a near-vertical ascent. 

    It wasn't always this way. Tight ends could be brought in and counted on for some situational catches and maybe some on-the-move blocking, but the position wasn't really considered an impact position. Rather, it was a complementary role similar to fullbacks. 

    Now, an elite receiving tight end is more of a prerequisite to NFL success than a luxury, and the Lions hope to finally have one in Eric Ebron, who was as much of a receiver at North Carolina as he was a tight end. 

    Now Ebron will have to learn to run a myriad of routes off the line. At times he'll have to split out in the slot or even out wide and master a playbook that is likely twice as large as what he used in college. It also means dealing with NFL linebackers and safeties instead of being able to win based solely on size and athleticism.

    Though it's weird to even think of the Lions being successful after decades of terrible team building, it's important to remember that the offense is only a short time removed from throwing for 5,000 yards and a playoff appearance. 

    If Ebron is able to pay dividends on the Lions selection, he could bring them back to something resembling relevance. 

Dominique Easley (DT New England Patriots)

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    If Dominique Easley is half as good as some of the hype he received from draftniks, the Patriots defense could be spectacular in 2014. 

    While we typically think of the Patriots as an offensive and even pass-happy team, they have moved toward balance in the past couple of years in terms of developing a devastating running game and investing in the defense. Along with Easley, the Patriots brought in a significant amount of defensive talent this offseason, including cornerback Darrelle Revis. 

    To add to the "buzz" surrounding Easley's tremendous upside is the fact that he's currently an injury risk who hasn't been fully cleared to play, yet. If that sort of thing drags on, the chirping will start early (fair or not) and the pressure will mount. 

    Right now, Easley needs to focus not just on getting healthy but also on returning to the form that made him such an enticing pick, even though he has plenty of medical question marks. 

Sammy Watkins (WR Buffalo Bills)

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    Bill Wippert/Associated Press

    If one word describes the Bills offense this season, it's promise. 

    The Bills added a project at quarterback with EJ Manuel last season and have a ton of speed and talent at the receiver position with Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin. Throw in some improved line play and rookie Sammy Watkins and the chances of the Bills being watchable on offense in 2014 just grew exponentially. 

    It's all contingent on two things: Manuel taking a step forward as an NFL passer and Watkins being able to shoulder the load as the team's No. 1 receiver. Thankfully, for the Bills, one of those events happening goes a long way toward ensuring the other. 

Teddy Bridgewater (QB Minnesota Vikings)

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    Anyone who watched the quarterback play of the Minnesota Vikings last season has to hope Teddy Bridgewater wins the job here. Even if one buys in to all the predraft noise around Bridgewater's stock or has a deep-seated love for Matt Cassel, Bridgewater was clearly selected to be the quarterback of the future in Minnesota and might be as pro-ready of any of the quarterbacks in the last two classes. 

    The inability of the Vikings to continue to grow in the post-Favre era has largely centered around failings at the quarterback position. Problem is, that's also wasted some of the best year's of Adrian Peterson's career, and one would have to think that the superstar back is trying to find some light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. 

    The Seattle Seahawks have done well in proving that the best QB on the roster should start regardless of contract, draft position or any other mitigating factors. If Bridgewater isn't the best quarterback on the Vikings roster, that could be a problem. 

Ryan Shazier (LB Pittsburgh Steelers)

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    A few years ago, the meme began: the Steelers are old. 

    Never mind the fact that the talking point was never really true, people still repeated it over and over. In reality, the Steelers have always done a good job of restocking the team with young players and rarely relying on an overabundance of overpaid veterans. 

    The real problem, however, is that the Steelers did a fantastic job finding diamonds in the rough in the previous decade and had a bunch of team-defining, Hall of Fame-caliber players (or at least hall of really really good). 

    Now, the Steelers have a lot of good players, but the cupboard is barer than it has been, and the results are apparent on the field. 

    Ryan Shazier is supposed to represent a stemming of that tide. 

    He, along with fellow linebackers Jarvis Jones and Lawrence Timmons, is supposed to help put teeth back into the Steelers defense and reinforce the Steel Curtain. No one is saying Shazier needs to be an immediate impact player, but the Steelers defense as a whole needs to take a big step forward if the team's record is going to improve and team management is going to stay off the hot seat. 

    In short, if Shazier is another "OK" player instead of the caliber of player the Steelers need, it might be time to get off the ol' pot and rebuild this team from the ground up. 

Jake Matthews (OT Atlanta Falcons)

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    No one saw it coming. 

    That phrase could describe both the Falcons tumble down to the NFL sewers last season after a very promising 2012. It could also describe how ubiquitous pass-rushers must have seemed both to Falcons offensive linemen and Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, who was sacked 44 times last season. 

    The Falcons are hoping a better pass-blocking line along with some better luck in the health department will translate both to better offensive numbers and more wins in the upcoming season, yet if rookie tackle Jake Matthews isn't able to beat out perennial underachiever Sam Baker, then things may not be as rosy as fans hope.

Kelvin Benjamin (WR Carolina Panthers)

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    CHRIS KEANE/Associated Press

    After Steve Smith left for Baltimore, the Carolina Panthers failed to find a replacement in free agency. So Kelvin Benjamin will find himself under a bit more pressure to produce than the normal first-year receive—especially if the Panthers have designs on getting back to the playoffs this season in an increasingly tough NFC South. 

    The problem with all of this is that Benjamin already entered the NFL with question marks since he lacks the polish one usually wants to see from a first-round receiver prospect. He's off the charts as a physical specimen but needs to be a better craftsman with the tools he has. 

    Training camp is going to be huge for Benjamin, as he'll get to ply his trade against a talented and well-schemed defense while gaining plenty of chemistry with quarterback Cam Newton.

    At worst this season, Benjamin should be able to stretch the field and be a bit of a red-zone terror for opponents. But a quality training camp could help him on his way to being the Panthers' top receiver.

Brandin Cooks (WR New Orleans Saints)

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Speaking of NFC South receivers with a ton of promise...

    The best way to describe the Saints' receiver corps throughout the Drew Brees era is, quantity over quality. No, it's not that they didn't have quality targets, but rather that they would rather have a bevy of above-average receivers rather than one alpha male. 

    Brandin Cooks could change that in a hurry. 

    Everything about Cooks screams that he'll be a fantastic fit as slot receiver in Sean Payton's offense. He's ridiculously quick, runs crisp routes and is fantastic after the catch. Because of all that, he could become a fast-favorite of Brees and find himself toward the top of the leaderboard for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. 

    That sort of relationship needs to start now. 

Ja'Wuan James (OT Miami Dolphins)

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    We know, instinctively, that it's tough to fill the shoes of a legend. 

    Ja'Wuan James, however, has the opposite of that job, and it may even be a tougher one. He has to be the young face of a reclamation project on a Miami offensive line that was a legitimate dumpster fire last season—both on and off the field. 

    James was considered a "late-riser" on draft day, and the Dolphins selected him in first round when many draft analysts hadn't even considered him that high for most of the winter or spring. Yet, most of James' deficiencies lie in his run blocking, as he's known as an incredibly sticky and motivated pass-protector, which was the biggest issue in Miami this season. 

    Miami fans have to hope that James acquits himself well on the field and continues to give the Dolphins reasons to read more appropriate material than another Ted Wells Report. 

Bishop Sankey (RB Tennessee Titans)

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Recently, Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean predicted that the Titans would use more of a committee approach at running back this season, and while that's a disappointment for fantasy owners who have already swooped up Bishop Sankey in dynasty leagues, it should be a boon for his career. 

    Sankey is what I've often referred to as a "tools runner" (as opposed to a "natural runner"), as he has all of the tools one might look for as a running back, but his game film often leaves you wanting just a little bit more.

    Overusing Sankey would mean better numbers for the rookie back, but it also gives you more looks at those aforementioned tools, which could be better for the team. 

    The intrigue here, however, is just how the pecking order in the Titans backfield will end up, as it's more than feasible that Sankey outshines other backs pegged for more specialized roles in the offense. If that happens, Sankey could end up smashing that running back-by-committee approach in a hurry. 

Khalil Mack (LB Oakland Raiders)

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Raiders fans are looking for more good headlines this season, and Khalil Mack should provide his fair share.

    He's polished, physical, has a nose for the ball and is incredibly athletic. Dennis Allen has had a player like that before (though, I would contend better...although a headcase) in Von Miller. Mack may not be a carbon copy, but he will play a similar role as an outside linebacker who will likely put his hand in the dirt, at least as a rotational player, on passing downs. 

    The Raiders defense hasn't really scared anyone in a long time, but if Mack shines in training camp and the preseason, we might be able to find some moisture around the collars of some of those AFC West passers. 

Johnny Manziel (QB Cleveland Browns)

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    The name of this slideshow is "Rookies to Watch," and who doesn't love watching Johnny Football?

    On the field, we love the YOLO-style of play that makes something out of nothing and could allow the Browns to have a successful season even without putting in place the needed talent around Johnny Manziel. We love the high-arcing passes after seeming minutes of scampering around the field. We love the lightning-quick decisions to sprint for a first down or to pop a pass over the charging defenders. 

    Still, is that anything compared to what we watch off the field?

    Manziel has no desire to slow down or alter his social calendar in any way. Sure, we're going to pay a ton of attention to whether or not Manziel is named the starter, but we're going to have Instagram pictures and TMZ-style headlines shoved down our throats even more. 

    Watch?

    I can't look away. 

     

    Michael Schottey is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff on his archive page and follow him on Twitter.