Updating the Latest Buzz on Top Rookies at NFL Training Camps
NFL training camps are at full steam, and preseason action has begun. Teams have had plenty of time to see the early returns on their top draft picks; as usual, the reviews are a mixed bag at this point.
The learning curve for NFL rookies differs by position, and each player's surroundings can play a large role in his acclimation to the pro game.
Is Sammy Watkins as explosive as advertised? Will Blake Bortles develop quickly and take the starting QB job away from Chad Henne sooner than expected? Will Johnny Manziel or Teddy Bridgewater be Week 1 starters under center? Which top rookies are struggling to make an immediate impact?
Let's take a look at some of the most compelling storylines among the league's top draft picks so far in training camp.
Who makes the list?
This list is comprised of high 2014 draft picks who have swung the pendulum of expectations one way or another in training camp so far. Players who have flashed their playmaking ability, started out with a bit of disappointment or showed surprising progression—whether good or bad—have found their way onto this list.
Jaguars QB Blake Bortles
When the Jaguars chose Blake Bortles with the third overall pick in the 2014 draft, the plan was to have him sit behind returning starter Chad Henne, giving the rookie time to develop.
That may still be the plan in the short term, but Bortles is already flashing the natural talent that led the Jags to spend a top-five pick on him, leading some to believe that the former UCF Knight will be ready to take over the starting gig sooner rather than later.
According to Jim Corbett of USA Today, Jags offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch admits that Bortles' quick progression could force the coaching staff to make some tough decisions:
Chad has certainly showed he has command of this offense right now, and he's playing at a high level with great confidence. But the thing with Blake is the better he plays, the more challenging it becomes for us as coaches.
We just want to just make sure he stays in his own world, and it doesn't get bigger than it has to.
Henne is still likely to be the Week 1 starter for Jacksonville, but the timetable for handing the reins over to Bortles could end up being shorter than originally planned. The rookie has the size and physical tools to develop into a franchise quarterback. I wouldn't be surprised to see the Jags decide to start the Blake Bortles era as soon as the halfway point of the 2014 season.
Bills WR Sammy Watkins
The Bills made the first big trade of the 2014 draft, moving up five spots to grab Sammy Watkins with the fourth overall pick. Although some Bills fans may have swallowed hard at giving up next year's first-round pick, early returns show that such a price may have been well worth Watkins' electrifying skill set.
Watkins has been showing off his elite athleticism and superb hands with regularity during offseason workouts and into training camp, including this one-handed gem. Bills general manager Doug Whaley knows that a talent like Watkins is exactly what second-year quarterback EJ Manuel needs, via Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports:
Sammy is as advertised, and actually even better than advertised because of everything he does off field. His preparation, his want to be the best, his professionalism. He is wise beyond his years. ...
... What we thought about him, and what he would do for EJ, has become evident on the field at practice. He gives confidence to EJ and gives confidence to our offensive coordinator and in the big picture also affects how we think defensive coordinators are going to try to attack us.
Manuel's development is obviously key to the Bills' success, and having a playmaker of Watkins' caliber could definitely be a huge catalyst toward helping the young quarterback reach his full potential.
When the 2015 NFL draft rolls around, Bills fans are likely to be a bit miffed that they're without a first-round selection. But at the rate Watkins is progressing, he could make those fans forget all about that absent pick come next May.
Buccaneers WR Mike Evans
Tampa Bay's red-zone offense struggled mightily in 2013, prompting the new regime to restock the roster with personnel who could make an immediate impact on their success inside their opponents' 20-yard line.
The biggest addition to that end was Texas A&M's Mike Evans, whom the Bucs chose with the seventh overall pick in the draft.
At 6'5" and 231 pounds, Evans drew plenty of predraft comparisons to Bucs wide receiver Vincent Jackson, and the two will now team up with second-round pick Austin Seferian-Jenkins to give the team three massive targets who excel at using their size to their advantage in the red zone.
According to Scott Smith of Buccaneers.com, Jackson and Evans have already developed valuable chemistry with new quarterback Josh McCown, and it's showing in red-zone drills:
McCown's timing with Jackson and Evans was perfect on the first two plays of the aforementioned red zone passing drill on Wednesday. He started with a fade to the right corner to Evan, which the receiver plucked out of the air above a defender's head without even jumping. On the very next snap he threw to Jackson in the left corner and the receiver made a spinning, toe-tapping catch for another score.
Having three targets who are 6'5" and carry 230 pounds or more should give the Bucs offense the opportunity to create consistent matchup problems in the red zone. If Evans continues to learn from the veteran Jackson and develop the rougher edges of his skill set, he could be a star early in his career.
Lions TE Eric Ebron
The Lions decided to use the 10th overall pick in this year's draft to add yet another weapon to their already explosive passing attack, selecting North Carolina's Eric Ebron.
Though Ebron's athletic ability is obvious, the consensus top tight end in this year's draft class has struggled to digest all of his new responsibilities in the Lions offense, leading to multiple dropped passes so far in training camp.
The former Tar Heel knows expectations are high, but he's confident he'll show improvement in the near future. According to Kyle Meinke of MLive.com, Ebron is having to learn as many as four positions in the Lions' system, and the rookie pass-catcher says it can be a bit overwhelming at times:
It's just a mental blockage. It's me overthinking my assignments, my alignments, and making sure I'm right. And while all those roles are playing in my head, here comes a 90 mph fastball from Matt Stafford.
The tight end position is evolving quickly at the NFL level, making the learning curve for rookies potentially more challenging. Ebron has the size and natural ability to be a dynamic force from multiple alignments, but it could take well into his first season and beyond before he's able to fully grasp those responsibilities.
Until then, it might be best to temper expectations for the Lions' top pick.
Saints WR Brandin Cooks
As if their offense needed another explosive weapon in the passing game, the Saints traded up seven spots in the 2014 draft to grab Oregon State speedster Brandin Cooks.
So far in training camp, Cooks has flashed the same playmaking ability that helped him take home the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's top receiver in 2013.
Here's a guy who's obviously extremely talented. But more so than that, very intelligent. You get this feeling that he wants to be great, he loves football, he wants to learn. Every time he comes up to me, it's eyes wide.
Feed me, feed me information. He absorbs it very quickly and goes out and applies it. I'd say that's pretty rare for a young guy. Typically their head is spinning for a little while. Doesn't seem like anything is too big for him.
Cooks is in a perfect spot to maximize his particular skill set as a slot receiver by replacing Lance Moore, who left New Orleans via free agency this offseason.
Opposing defenses will obviously have to focus much of their attention on the likes of Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston when facing the Saints, but Cooks adds a wrinkle that should create plenty of mismatches. Don't be shocked if the former Beaver is one of the top candidates for Offensive Rookie of the Year by season's end.
Browns QB Johnny Manziel
You'd be hard-pressed to find a 22nd overall pick who arrived in the NFL with as much fanfare and scrutiny as Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel.
The former Heisman Trophy winner has made as many headlines off the field as he has on it, likely prompting some teams to avoid the media circus by passing on him in this year's draft.
But as many questions as people want to ask about his personal exploits, there are plenty of storylines involving Manziel's ability to perform between the lines. Will Manziel's style of play translate to the next level? Will he be the Browns' starter when the regular season kicks off?
So far, it looks like the former Texas A&M star will be playing second fiddle to veteran Brian Hoyer. According to Tom Withers of The Associated Press, Manziel is still trying to digest his first NFL playbook:
Manziel is finding it difficult to operate the same way he did in college, where he shattered records and captivated a generation of fans with his uncanny ability to ad lib and turn a routine play into something spectacular. It's a whole different game in the pros with bigger, faster, stronger players.
There's still plenty of time for things to change, but Manziel has plenty of progress to make if he wants to challenge Hoyer and potentially be the starter under center when Week 1 rolls around.
Vikings QB Teddy Bridgewater
Widely considered the top quarterback in this year's draft class for most of the predraft process, Teddy Bridgewater nearly fell entirely out of the first round before the Vikings traded up to the 32nd overall pick to grab the Louisville product.
But those who stayed on the Bridgewater bandwagon weren't surprised to hear that he continues to impress the Minnesota coaching staff, with Jay Glazer of Fox Sports reporting that the quarterback has been "more impressive than they expected."
I think he probably should've gone in the first 10 picks. He probably should've gone at least in the first half of the first round, and then we're sitting there with an opportunity to get him when we did, it was a bonus to me.
Matt Cassel is the projected starter for Week 1, but as Glazer reported, the two are basically splitting reps already. Don't be surprised if Bridgewater continues to progress and ends up wrestling away the starting gig before the regular season begins.