Rising Stars Emerging in NFL Training Camps at Every Position
As NFL training camps continue while the preseason is in full swing, players like Arizona Cardinals wide receiver John Brown are working to assert through early impressions that they are ready to emerge as standouts for their respective franchises in 2014.
While there’s little reason to focus on established veteran starters before the actual games begin, everyone else currently on an NFL roster is fighting for playing time and/or their jobs. For those players, each practice and each preseason game is an important opportunity to display qualities worth having on the field.
Training camp sensations don’t always achieve the same success in regular-season play, so it’s too early to know who will truly become stars this season. But each of these players have turned the heads of coaches and/or media members thus far.
QB: Teddy Bridgewater, Minnesota Vikings
It’s tougher to be a breakout star at quarterback than any other NFL position. Even so, it shouldn’t be a big surprise that Teddy Bridgewater, expected to be the most pro-ready signal-caller in the 2014 rookie class, is already making a strong push for the Minnesota Vikings starting job.
Reviews thus far of Bridgewater’s training camp performances have been consistently positive.
Just three days into camp, Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer reported that Bridgewater had “definitely been more impressive than [the Vikings] expected.” Earlier this week, Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner said he thinks Bridgewater is “playing at an awfully high level,” per Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
It hasn’t all been rosy for Bridgewater. According to Tomasson, Bridgewater had a rough three-practice stretch last week in which he threw four interceptions. Even so, “Turner is not concerned about Bridgewater,” Tomasson wrote.
Bridgewater still has to earn Minnesota’s starting job away from veteran Matt Cassel if he is going to play right away in the regular season, but it seems as though the No. 32 overall pick from Louisville will have every opportunity.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer told reporters Wednesday that Bridgewater will receive some work with the first-team offense in the team’s preseason opener Friday against the Oakland Raiders, according to Matt Vensel of the Star Tribune.
Ultimately, the Vikings will determine who their Week 1 starter should be based upon who, between Cassel and Bridgewater, performs better in the team's four preseason games.
Every indication so far, however, has been that Bridgewater has a real shot to not only play early but be an immediate upgrade. He has better physical tools than Cassel, and as long as he can continue to display accuracy and mental acuity against live hitting in game action, he should be able to make a positive difference for the Minnesota offense.
RB: Andre Williams, New York Giants
So far this summer, everything seems to be falling into place for Andre Williams to take on a significant, perhaps important, role in the New York Giants backfield.
Williams fell to the fourth round of the NFL draft, but it’s already well-established that he can be a productive runner and durable with a heavy load of carries. As a senior at Boston College last year, Williams led the nation with 355 rushing attempts and 2,177 rushing yards.
He also had 18 touchdowns in his Doak Walker Award-winning campaign. That ability to find the end zone might be his most immediate asset to the Giants. Williams has been working with the first-team goal-line offense from the beginning of training camp, according to Mike Mazzeo of ESPN.com.
In the preseason-opening Hall of Fame Game against the Buffalo Bills, Williams stood out. He showed both toughness between the tackles and burst to the outside as he ran seven times for 48 yards, including a three-yard touchdown from the goal-line offense.
Just because Williams looked good in one preseason game doesn’t mean he’s destined for a great year. His work in that contest came against the Bills’ second-team defense, which left slower players on the field and allowed Williams’ athleticism—which is better than he’s often gotten credit for—to stand out in an exaggerated fashion.
Combining his impressive start with his proven collegiate body of work, however, leaves reason for confidence that Williams could have a productive year from the Giants backfield. His struggles as a pass-catcher have been well-noted, but he can run the ball both inside and outside.
WR: John Brown, Arizona Cardinals
You might not have known anything about John Brown when the Arizona Cardinals drafted him in the third round out of Pittsburg State, but he’s been making a name for himself ever since he started practicing with his new team.
One of the most buzzed-about names throughout the organized team activities and minicamps of the spring, Brown reportedly continued to stand out at the start of training camp.
Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said early in camp that the team’s defense had “not been able to cover” Brown, according to Kent Somers of AZCentral.com. NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport has tweeted that the buzz around Brown is “very real” and that a team evaluator thinks Brown is “gonna be special.”
Bleacher Report’s Shaun Church wrote that if Brown performs as well as he did to start training camp, he “will overtake Ted Ginn for the starting slot receiver by Week 1.”
Brown has had some minor setbacks this month. He missed four consecutive practices with a hamstring injury, per Bob McManaman of AZCentral. Upon returning, he has been unable to finish a couple of practices due to fatigue, according to Josh Weinfuss of ESPN.com.
Despite those issues, it would seem as though Brown has made enough of an early impression to still be in line for Arizona’s slot receiver job. He is expected to play Saturday against the Houston Texans, according to Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com.
It’s evident that Brown is no typical third-round rookie from a Division II school. His explosive speed and route-running skill give him the potential to be a dynamic playmaker on the Arizona offense from the beginning.
TE: Zach Ertz, Philadelphia Eagles
As a rookie, Zach Ertz was inconsistent but had flashes of brilliance and improved down the stretch of the season. In his second year, the athletic, 6’5”, 250-pound tight end has a chance to be a breakout star in the Philadelphia Eagles offense.
Earlier this month, Eagles offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said Ertz has “made the biggest improvement” among the team’s tight ends, according to Jeff McLane of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Specifically, Ertz is improving as a blocker, the area in which he struggled most as a rookie.
“You have to be an efficient blocker, especially if your thing is to catch passes,” Shurmur said earlier this week, according to Sheil Kapadia of Philadelphia magazine. “I think Ertz is developing more and more and more. I see his confidence starting to really build.”
As a receiver, Ertz has displayed the ability to stretch the field and make tough grabs. He finished last season with four touchdowns, but Kapadia expects him to play a bigger role near the end zone in 2014.
“Ertz is going to be the most utilized pass-catching weapon the Eagles have in the red zone, and it would not surprise me one bit if he led the team in receiving touchdowns,” Kapadia wrote.
After seeing less than half of the team’s snaps in 2013, Ertz is still competing with Brent Celek and James Casey for playing time at tight end, but the Eagles are utilizing more two-tight end sets this season. If Ertz continues to stand out in training camp and the preseason, there’s no reason he shouldn’t become a focal piece of the Philadelphia offense as a sophomore.
OT: Terron Armstead, New Orleans Saints
Terron Armstead’s rookie season was devoted to development until Week 16, when the New Orleans Saints decided to replace left tackle Charles Brown with Armstead in the starting lineup. His play was up and down—he gave up four sacks in four combined regular-season and playoff contests, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required)—but he’s displayed all the tools to emerge as a standout on New Orleans’ blind side in 2014.
A 6’5”, 304-pound lineman who ran a jaw-dropping 4.71-second 40-yard dash at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine, Armstead is an exceptional athlete for his size. He has the quickness to mirror pass-rushers off the edge, but he especially excels as a run-blocker, as he can cover significant ground to pick up defenders and packs a strong punch.
“The supremely athletic big man has looked outstanding at times” in training camp, according to ESPN.com’s Mike Triplett. Saints quarterback Drew Brees can also be counted among those impressed by Armstead.
“You love everything you see. Not only just his talent, but you see it in his eyes,” Brees said, per Triplett. “What I see with him is intensity and confidence, and that is what you love to see in a left tackle, ready for any type of challenge.”
One of his regular opponents in camp, Saints edge defender Junior Galette, has also been impressed, according to Brett Martel of The Advertiser.
“He’s a beast. I’m giving him everything I’ve got,” Galette said. “Going into my fifth year in the league, he has the best feet by far [of any offensive tackle].”
Armstead will have to prove this preseason that he has made the necessary technical development to succeed as a pass-protecting left tackle, but the 2013 third-round draft pick is a promising prospect.
G/C: Zack Martin, Dallas Cowboys
If you’re not a Dallas fan, you probably haven’t heard as much about Cowboys first-round pick Zack Martin as many of the other players on this slideshow. As Rainer Sabin of The Dallas Morning News recently explained, that’s not necessarily a negative for the interior offensive lineman.
“Zack Martin has gone about his business without commanding much attention,” Sabin wrote. “For a right guard entering his first season in the pro ranks, that’s probably a good thing.”
If Martin was struggling and getting repeatedly beat by his opponents in practice, he’d be well-known for all the wrong reasons. Instead, however, he’s solidifying himself as “a Minute One starter.”
It’s not exactly the truth that Martin isn’t standing out. In fact, he’s received high praise. According to Dan Turner of UKCowboysFans.com, numerous people within the Cowboys organization “think Zack Martin is the most accomplished rookie they've ever seen.”
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett has said, per ESPN.com’s Tim MacMahon, that Martin possesses many of the same traits that enabled center Travis Frederick to be one of the NFL’s most solid rookie performers in 2013.
A versatile offensive lineman who played tackle throughout his career at Notre Dame, Martin has also taken snaps as a backup center in camp, according to Brandon George of The Dallas Morning News.
However, the Cowboys will certainly hope that they don’t need to use Martin as the snapper, as he and Frederick can help the Cowboys continue to turn the interior offensive line, an area that was once a weakness, into one of Dallas’ biggest strengths.
DE: Margus Hunt, Cincinnati Bengals
Margus Hunt had a very forgettable rookie season in which he barely saw the field and struggled when he did appear. But that wasn’t much of a surprise. The 6’8”, 290-pound explosive athlete has ideal physical traits for a pass-rusher up front, but he came into the league needing significant technical development.
In training camp this year, Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis has expressed that he believes Hunt has made the necessary improvements in his game to be a factor on the team’s defensive line this year.
“I think he’s made a huge, huge, huge leap,” Lewis said in a July 30 press conference, via Bengals.com. “Margus now understands what to do, and he understands the tempo and the things that we were trying to get him to understand at this point last May, last June and in training camp.”
If the coach is being honest about his player, there’s no reason Hunt shouldn’t become a playmaker in 2014. Possessing an absurd 40-yard dash time for his size—4.60 seconds—Hunt fires off the snap with burst and can beat blockers both inside and outside, but he needs to use his hands more effectively and bend more naturally.
He started putting his improvement to work in Cincinnati’s preseason opener Thursday against the Kansas City Chiefs, in which he worked with the second-team defense. He knocked over Chiefs right tackle Jeff Linkenbach on one play to close with speed and sack Chiefs quarterback Tyler Bray. Altogether, Hunt did a good job bringing pressure off the edge and held his ground well versus the run.
Hunt will need more than one strong showing against backups in the preseason to prove that he’s come a long way, but if he continues to perform well this summer, he should become a key piece of the Bengals' defensive end rotation this fall.
As Cincinnati moves forward without Michael Johnson, a star at the position who left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in free agency this offseason, they could benefit greatly from the emergence of Hunt as a dynamic source of heat off the edge.
DT: Marvin Austin, Denver Broncos
The first three seasons of Marvin Austin’s NFL career have been massively disappointing. A second-round pick of the New York Giants in 2011, he lasted just two seasons with the G-Men. He appeared in two games for the Miami Dolphins and one for the Dallas Cowboys last year but failed to stick for long on either roster.
Austin battled off-field issues during his collegiate career at North Carolina and has been set back by injuries ever since, but it appears the defensive tackle is finally healthy and ready to make an impact for the Denver Broncos, the defending AFC champions.
His performance has received rave reviews throughout training camp. He has looked “OUTSTANDING at times,” according to Bleacher Report’s Cecil Lammey. Vic Lombardi of Denver’s CBS4 said earlier this week that Broncos fans “are going to LOVE Marvin Austin” and that he has taken some work with the first-team defense.
Austin has always had the potential to be a star player, he just hasn’t realized it in the NFL yet. A terrific athlete at 6’2” and 312 pounds, Austin could play either defensive tackle spot in a four-man front, as he can be either a space-eating nose tackle or a gap-penetrator with his quickness.
His potential was clear to see in Denver’s Super Bowl rematch preseason opener versus the Seattle Seahawks on Thursday.
As Fox Sports’ Mike Garafolo tweeted, Austin “certainly came to play.” Working with the second-team defense, Austin used both his burst and power to overwhelm Seattle’s interior offensive line and collapse plays in the backfield, including a sack on Seahawks backup quarterback Tarvaris Jackson.
Austin seems to be well on his way to earning a roster spot, and he could be a major asset in a defensive tackle rotation with starters Terrance Knighton and Sylvester Williams, as he could enable the Broncos to spell either first-string DT without losing significant quickness or power.
OLB: Bjoern Werner, Indianapolis Colts
The transition to 3-4 outside linebacker is often tough to make for players who were 4-3 defensive ends in college. Bjoern Werner, the 2013 first-round pick of the Indianapolis Colts, was no exception in his rookie season, failing to make much of a significant impact.
Early indications this summer are that Werner is growing with experience and could be ready in 2014 to start displaying the same skills that made him a standout edge defender during his collegiate career at Florida State.
Around the beginning of training camp, Colts coach Chuck Pagano said Werner “made a huge jump” this offseason, according to Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star.
“From a terminology standpoint, scheme standpoint, he's not thinking now. He's able to play extremely fast,” Pagano said. “We know he's got ability. The things that you're seeing, we're seeing the same thing. But again, it's all a byproduct of the time he put in in the offseason.”
According to Reggie Hayes of the News-Sentinel, “Werner's impact has been apparent in times he's reached the vicinity of the quarterback ... and in the fact Werner has been knocking down passes and disrupting things” during training camp.
Werner’s ability to impact the game continued to be apparent in Indianapolis’ preseason opener versus the New York Jets on Thursday. He seemed to have much more confidence and awareness in his role than he did as a rookie.
As a pass-rusher, Werner showed his burst and seemed more natural coming off the edge. On run defense, Werner played with good discipline and positioning. As ESPN.com’s Mike Wells wrote, “Bjoern Werner’s stat line says he finished with only two tackles. His presence was felt for more than just those two tackles.”
Werner is expected to at least start the Colts’ first four games, for which star outside linebacker Robert Mathis is suspended. If Werner plays in the season’s first quadrant, it would be no surprise if he ends up displacing Erik Walden from the starting lineup.
ILB: C.J. Mosley, Baltimore Ravens
Instead of entrusting a starting inside linebacker job to 2013 second-round pick Arthur Brown, the Baltimore Ravens decided to bring in C.J. Mosley from Alabama with the No. 17 overall pick in this year’s draft to compete with Brown.
As it has turned out, Mosley seems to be running away with the competition, as he’s simply been too impressive this summer to keep out of the lineup.
According to ESPN.com’s Jamison Hensley, Mosley has been “continually around the ball” in camp.
“If Mosley makes the same types of plays in the regular season, the Ravens' top pick has a shot at being the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year,” Hensley wrote earlier this week.
Mosley’s impressive performance in camp was rewarded Thursday night, as the rookie started ahead of Brown in Baltimore’s preseason opener versus the San Francisco 49ers.
The results were impressive. He led the Ravens with five total tackles and recorded a sack on 49ers quarterback Blaine Gabbert when he beat running back Jewel Hampton on a blitz up the middle. As Ryan Mink of BaltimoreRavens.com said, “the first-round pick lived up to his billing in his first game action” and “made plays all over the field.”
Anyone who watched Mosley play at Alabama shouldn’t be surprised by his immediately impressive play in the NFL. A well-rounded player who is natural in space and can impact the game on any down, he could be a star of the Ravens defense for many years to come.
CB: Zack Bowman, New York Giants
The New York Giants appear to have already assembled a terrific top trio of cornerbacks in Prince Amukamara, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Walter Thurmond, but if any one of them slips up or battles injury, Zack Bowman could be making a serious push for playing time.
Bowman’s no newcomer to the NFL—he’s entering his seventh season—but the best of the 29-year-old’s professional football career could still be yet to come. He provided solid depth in the Chicago Bears secondary for the past six years but never had much of a chance to truly break out.
It’s unclear if he’ll get that opportunity for the Giants, with whom he signed a one-year contract this offseason, but he’s making a strong case.
After being labeled as the “biggest surprise of the offseason” by Jordan Raanan of NJ.com after an impressive run of spring practices, Bowman has carried momentum into the summer session.
The physical, 6’1”, 196-pound cornerback is reportedly looking better than he ever has before in New York’s press coverage scheme, and he showed it in the preseason-opening Hall of Fame Game against the Buffalo Bills. He provided tight coverage all night and helped the Giants close out the game’s first half by deflecting a pass away from Bills wide receiver T.J. Graham in the end zone and allowing safety Cooper Taylor to intercept the live ball.
Bowman reportedly continued to stand out on Thursday, when he recorded two interceptions in practice, according to Ebenezer Samuel of the New York Daily News.
S: Sean Richardson, Green Bay Packers
It made complete sense for the Green Bay Packers to choose Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix with the No. 21 overall pick in this year’s draft. The Packers suffered from incompetent play, most of which came from starter M.D. Jennings, at the free safety spot in 2013.
However, it’s looking increasingly unlikely that Clinton-Dix will be a Week 1 starter for the Packers.
Two players who were on the team last year have reportedly shown significant improvements in camp this year while competing for a starting safety spot. That’s no surprise coming from Micah Hyde, who had an impressive rookie campaign as a nickel/dime back and is now working at safety. It’s more unexpected from Sean Richardson, who is reportedly standing out this summer.
“(He's) had a hell of a training camp,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said of Richardson earlier this week, per Brandon Kinnard of WAOW.com. “I'm impressed with him both defensively and on special teams, Sean's done a lot of good things.”
It still might be a stretch to think that Richardson could win the free safety job over Hyde and Clinton-Dix. He wasn’t considered good enough to start over Jennings at any point last season, even though Jennings was regularly exposed in coverage, and a number of analysts, including Bleacher Report’s Matt Stein, believed that Richardson would be an upgrade.
That said, it’s not just McCarthy who has raved about the Packers safety since the start of camp. Early in camp, Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel called Richardson “the three star player of practice so far. He's everywhere.” On the same day, ESPN Wisconsin’s Jason Wilde suggested that the safety battle could be “getting even more interesting” thanks to Richardson’s emergence.
At the very least, it would seem as though Richardson has earned a real shot to compete for the free safety job through Green Bay’s four preseason games. He’s currently listed as the second-string strong safety on the Packers depth chart, and he could start there early this preseason as starting SS Morgan Burnett battles an oblique strain, but he’ll be evaluated just as Hyde and Clinton-Dix are.
K: Chandler Catanzaro, Arizona Cardinals
Chandler Catanzaro went unselected in this year’s NFL draft, but the rookie kicker is giving incumbent Jay Feely a run for his job in Arizona Cardinals training camp.
Feely has a long track record of NFL success, having converted 82.7 percent of his field-goal attempts in 13 league seasons, but it’s not shocking that Catanzaro has a real shot to unseat him. A reliable and clutch placekicker at Clemson, he made all but one field goal in each of his final two collegiate seasons.
So far, it sounds as though Catanzaro and Feely are neck and neck. Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said the two kickers will alternate full games in the preseason, according to ESPN.com’s Josh Weinfuss, but Catanzaro is getting the first shot to stand out, as he will kick in the team’s preseason opener versus the Houston Texans.
At this point in Feely’s career, one of the biggest concerns for him is how much strength he has in his leg. This was a concern for Catanzaro coming in as well, because although Catanzaro kicked well from long distance at Clemson, he never handled kickoff duties full-time.
So far, that concern has been quashed in training camp, according to Fox Sports 910’s Mike Jurecki, who tweeted earlier this week that Catanzaro has been regularly kicking the ball over the end zone for touchbacks.
It’s tough to earn one of the 32 spots for placekickers in the NFL, but Catanzaro will be an intriguing player to watch if he wins the battle in Arizona.
P: Pat O’Donnell, Chicago Bears
The only punter selected in this year’s NFL draft, Chicago Bears sixth-round pick Pat O’Donnell is reportedly well on his way to becoming a fan favorite.
A 6’4”, 220-pound player who runs a 4.64-second 40-yard dash, O’Donnell is a more noticeable physical specimen than the average punter. More importantly, the Miami product has a booming leg with which he can flip the field in one boot.
According to ESPN.com’s Jeff Dickerson, O’Donnell has received chants of “Mega-Punt,” an homage to his powerful punting, during special teams drills in training camp practices.
Like Chandler Catanzaro, O’Donnell is a rookie specialist who isn’t simply being handed an NFL job. He is competing with Tress Way, who went undrafted in 2013 and did not play last season, to punt for the Bears.
Ultimately, the competition should be decided by who has the most consistent and effective punts in the preseason. However, as Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune tweeted, it “would be very surprising if draft pick O'Donnell doesn't stick.”
All measurables courtesy of NFL.com unless otherwise noted.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.
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