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In May, NFL practices don’t involve hitting or pads. What’s so important about players running around in shorts during organized team activities?
Well, the game is moving further toward an emphasis on technical skill sets with more spread offenses. It’s important to catch and defend in space, diagnose the action in an instant, refine footwork and sharpen hand technique at various positions.
Coaches can assess those traits in a vacuum and project how those tendencies translate to in-game scenarios. At this juncture, standouts in the classroom can also garner positive buzz as teams install schemes for the upcoming season.
While most clubs are going through a second or third week of OTAs, we’ll highlight the early stars or standouts. The selections below have shown glimpses of exemplary skill, development or, in the case for rookies, a strong start to their first offseason.
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As the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, quarterback Kyler Murray will draw the most attention during the Arizona Cardinals’ OTAs. He displayed his arm talent last year at Oklahoma, throwing for 4,361 yards and 42 touchdowns en route to Heisman Trophy honors.
Two of his new teammates spoke with Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic about his intangibles in the pocket.
“He’s got a lot of confidence and he handles the huddle well,” guard Justin Pugh said. “He’s got some energy out there. He can throw that ball.”
“Calm, cool, collected and electric,” left tackle D.J. Humphries said. “He’s very relaxed, very calm. He’s a happy-go-lucky guy. He’s doesn’t get too wild and out of himself. That’s a good trait to have as a quarterback, obviously.”
Murray will have eyes fixated on him from day one. He’s expected to provide hope for a franchise that’s gone 18-29-1 over the last three seasons.
General manager Steve Keim reset the quarterback position this offseason, essentially choosing Murray over 2018 No. 10 overall pick Josh Rosen, who the Cardinals traded to the Miami Dolphins. Murray must take the field with composure to handle the spotlight in Arizona.
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After a quiet NFL debut without a catch against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 1, Calvin Ridley progressed rapidly throughout the rest of his rookie season. He led all first-year wideouts in yards (821) and touchdowns (10).
Julio Jones is the Atlanta Falcons’ lead wide receiver, but Ridley could become the 1A. Going into his sophomore season, he’s putting in the effort to build on an impressive debut campaign.
“There are times he’s going so hard, so fast, and he wants to do it so right, that you have to say, ‘Whoa Calvin, let’s just do these things today,'” Falcons wide receivers coach Raheem Morris told Butt. “‘Let’s focus on this today.’ His whole thing is how to increase his knowledge.”
In 2018, Jones led the league in receiving yards (1,677) while the Falcons finished fifth in passing yardage. This year, Ridley appears poised to take another step in his development, which should make the Falcons’ passing attack even more potent.
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The Baltimore Ravens have plenty of playmakers in their secondary.
This offseason, they added three-time All-Pro Earl Thomas to a defensive backfield group that includes cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey, Brandon Carr and Jimmy Smith, who combined for 35 pass breakups and six interceptions last year. Tony Jefferson, a decent veteran presence, will line up alongside Thomas at safety.
The New York Giants selected Bennett Jackson in the sixth round of the 2014 draft. He’s yet to take a regular-season snap, but he could change the trajectory of his career with the Ravens. The 27-year-old came out strong in coverage during practice, per Jeff Zrebiec of The Athletic.
“With Thomas and Jefferson not practicing, there were plenty of repetitions to go around for the other safeties, a group that includes DeShon Elliott, Chuck Clark, Anthony Levine Sr. and Jackson. Jackson made the most of his, intercepting Trace McSorley on one play and also breaking up a pass intended for tight end Mark Andrews in the end zone.”
Although he’s a long shot to land on the Ravens’ 53-man roster with so much talent in the secondary, he could resurface elsewhere following September cuts.
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The Buffalo Bills should field a top-10 ground attack this season. Running back LeSean McCoy could put together a bounce-back campaign, and this offseason, Buffalo signed Frank Gore, who averaged 4.6 yards per carry in Miami last year, and T.J. Yeldon, a dual threat who registered 3,174 yards from scrimmage over the last four seasons in Jacksonville.
The Bills also selected tailback Devin Singletary in the third round of this year’s draft. McCoy (30 years old) and Gore (36 years old) will likely see limited workloads during the offseason, and the rookie ball-carrier took advantage of his reps through the first week of OTAs, per Chris Brown of the team’s official website.
“Singletary put his elusiveness on display in the run game. He bobbed and weaved through traffic at the line and often reached the secondary on his runs. On one particular run, Singletary’s decision-making on where to run was so sound that offensive coordinator Brian Daboll shouted from the sideline, ‘Yeah, baby!! Great run!!’”
In college, Singletary showed patience setting up his blocks and the vision to hit running lanes between the tackles and on the outside. He racked up 4,287 yards and 66 touchdowns on the ground at Florida Atlantic.
Even with the three veterans ahead of him on the depth chart, Singletary seems like the wild-card asset to watch in the backfield.
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The Carolina Panthers had pass-coverage issues last season, ranking 18th in yards allowed (3,847) and surrendering 32 touchdowns (27th). Yet cornerback Donte Jackson had an impressive rookie campaign, leading the team in interceptions (four) along with nine pass breakups and a sack.
Jackson can build on a solid first year, and he’s feeling the energy at OTAs. The speedy cover man extended himself for a highlight pick in coverage, per the Charlotte Observer’s Jourdan Rodrigue.
“Cornerback Donte Jackson stretched out for an acrobatic one-handed interception in the first hour of drills,” she wrote. “Jackson, one of the Panthers’ most exciting rookies last season, is entering his second year in the NFL with confidence—though [head coach Ron] Rivera was quick to keep him grounded after the workout.”
Jackson isn’t short on emotion, especially when he makes a play on the ball, but Rivera wants to temper the cornerback’s mindset.
“His swagger is getting a little bit more,” Rivera said. “So we’ve got to try to keep that curbed until he gets past his fourth game. Then he’ll be a second-year player. He’s still a rookie.”
The Panthers will have question marks at safety next to Eric Reid and in the slot, but James Bradberry and Jackson should pose a tough challenge for receivers on the perimeter.
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The Chicago Bears’ No. 1 scoring defense earned well-deserved recognition last year, but don’t overlook the strides quarterback Mitchell Trubisky took between his rookie and sophomore seasons.
In 2018, he finished with 3,223 yards, 24 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a 66.6 percent completion rate. The North Carolina product certainly had a hand in the team’s rise from last to first in the NFC North.
Going into his third campaign and his second under head coach Matt Nagy, Trusbisky may show more improvements because of his familiarity with the offense. Nagy noted the signal-caller’s growth during team sessions, per Larry Mayer of the Bears’ official website.
“Last year, I kept talking about 101. Now, without a doubt, I can say with pure conviction we’re in 202 right now. And we don’t need to have a live game to see mentally where he’s at with calling the plays. I mean, he’s doing things in the last two days that last year at this time he wasn’t even close to. So that’s exciting.”
Trubisky has a bevy of pass-catchers to target, including wideouts Allen Robinson II, Taylor Gabriel, Anthony Miller and rookie fourth-rounder Riley Ridley. Last year, tight end Trey Burton showcased his receiving skills with 54 receptions for 569 yards and six touchdowns, while running back Tarik Cohen led the team in catches (71).
During the draft, Chicago added rookie tailback David Montgomery (third round), who flashed good hands out of the backfield in college. He finished with 71 receptions for 582 yards over three seasons at Iowa State.
With the right offensive assets, rising confidence and sharper execution of the play calls, Trubisky could put together a Pro Bowl-worthy 2019 campaign.
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Last year, the Cincinnati Bengals surrendered 455 points, the third-most in franchise history. New head coach Zac Taylor and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo must avoid a repeat this season.
The Bengals’ cornerback unit was somewhat of a disappointment last year, as William Jackson III, Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard failed to record an interception. However, those three combined for 28 pass breakups.
When asked about standouts after an OTA practice, Taylor named journeyman cornerback B.W. Webb, who hopes to land a roster spot with his sixth NFL team.
“Defensively, I saw a lot of guys stand out,” Taylor said. “I saw B.W. Webb make some plays. I really thought the communication on defense, they were sharp, especially that first group they had out there.”
Last year, Anarumo served as the Giants’ defensive backs coach, working closely with Webb. He highlighted the cornerback’s past experience and veteran savvy in a conversation with Louis Anarumo of the team’s official website.
“It was very important to get him here, because I can trust him,” Anarumo said. “He can help coach the other guys about the little nuances of the defense. He knows what I want and how I want it done, and that is a huge help for me.”
Webb appeared in all 16 games (13 starts) for the Giants last season and had six pass breakups and an interception. The veteran cover man won’t supplant Jackson, Kirkpatrick or Dennard, but he would provide depth in the secondary if he makes it through September cuts.
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Head coach Freddie Kitchens saw a much-improved pass-catcher with extra vigor in recent sessions, per Andrew Gribble of the team’s official website.
“He is in good shape relative to what he was in last year during training camp. He has added some explosiveness. He has been catching the ball really well. He is doing a good job. Just like everybody else, he has to continue. It is what can you do for me tomorrow, not today; today is over.”
The Browns added Odell Beckham Jr. to their wide receiver group this offseason. He’ll face constant double coverage, which should leave Jarvis Landry and Callaway in plenty of one-on-one situations.
If the latter comes into the season with more reliable hands, quarterback Baker Mayfield may look his way while opponents attempt to neutralize Beckham downfield.
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The Dallas Cowboys selected defensive tackle Trysten Hill in the second round of this year’s draft. He didn’t see eye-to-eye with UCF’s coaching staff after former head coach Scott Frost left for Nebraska, but the 6’3″, 308-pound interior defender can wreak havoc in the backfield.
On multiple occasions, Hill flashed chase-down skills during practices. He’s showing the Dallas Cowboys more of what they saw on his film, per Bryan Broaddus of the team’s official website.
“One of the traits that Rod Marinelli was excited for with Trysten Hill was his ability to come off the ball and be disruptive. There were plenty [of] examples of him at UCF where he was able to quickly come off the ball and get into the backfield to snuff out the play. Hill did a nice job of reading the guard going away from him and then staying in his back pocket to trail the play.”
Antwaun Woods and Maliek Collins served as the primary starters on the interior of the defensive line last year, but the latter is going into a contract season. Hill could play in pass and run scenarios to spell the starters. He logged six sacks and 20 tackles for loss across his three seasons with the Knights.
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The Denver Broncos moved back 10 spots in this year’s draft to select tight end Noah Fant, who could have a major role as a pass-catcher in the coming years. He ran a 4.5-second 40-yard time at the NFL Scouting Combine and hauled in 78 receptions for 1,083 yards and 19 touchdowns at Iowa.
During practice, Fant posed a consistent threat in a receiving role, per Nicki Jhabvala of The Athletic. “The kid is built to give defenders hell, and in the early going Monday, he did just that, reeling in catch after contested catch,” she wrote.
Head coach Vic Fangio wasn’t surprised about Fant’s athleticism and wants to see him become a complete tight end in the league. “Yeah, he can run. We all knew that,” he said to Jhabvala. “That was easy, but now he has to learn how to be a tight end in the NFL.”
A strong showing during an unpadded practice is one thing, but draft analysts saw the same upside on college tape. Fant looks like a matchup nightmare for defenders.
Quarterback Joe Flacco may have a new favorite target in Denver. The rookie tight end will likely open the season in a starting role.
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Last offseason, the Detroit Lions released tight end Eric Ebron, who went on to rack up 750 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns with the Indianapolis Colts. They restocked the position this offseason, signing veteran Jesse James and selecting T.J. Hockenson with the No. 8 overall pick.
Hockenson probably caught the coaching staff’s attention during spring practices. Kyle Meinke of MLive.com took note of the tight end’s pass-catching ability on multiple plays.
“The 6’5″, 251-pound tight end moves well for a guy of his size and length, all of which is impossible to miss when he actually tries to catch a pass. He does an excellent job stretching for the ball away from his body, and extended twice for touchdown catches on Tuesday, one of which was in a ton of cross-traffic.”
The Lions have a budding talent in wide receiver Kenny Golladay, and Marvin Jones is a steady No. 2 at the position. They also signed Danny Amendola, a reliable slot option if he can stay healthy.
As he did at Iowa, Hockenson will likely become a mismatch playmaker downfield, adding another dimension to Detroit’s passing attack.
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Safety Darnell Savage checks several boxes in terms of an NFL-ready talent.
On tape, you can see his smooth movement to cover the field, speed to close passing windows, field awareness and ball-tracking skills to force turnovers. The Maryland product finished his collegiate career with eight interceptions.
After a few practices, Green Bay Packers defensive back Tramon Williams checked off another aspect to Savage’s game: a high football IQ (h/t Michael Cohen of The Athletic).
“You know what’s funny with Darnell? Even before he stepped on the field, I recognized how smart the kid was. And with most rookies, you don’t see that right away. Like, you wonder, ‘OK, can he pick up this? Can he do this? Can he do that?’ But man, this kid pretty much knows what we done put in already. He’s asking for more. You don’t get that from no rookies.”
Savage seems more than ready to handle a prominent role in the Packers secondary. Assuming he continues to impress, the former Terrapin should line up next to Adrian Amos at safety come Week 1.
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This offseason, the Houston Texans parted ways with 2015 first-round cornerback Kevin Johnson and allowed versatile defensive back Kareem Jackson to walk in free agency. They then signed cornerbacks Bradley Roby and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, who has experience lining up at safety, in the slot and on the perimeter with the Browns.
The veteran additions will allow the coaching staff to experiment with various combinations at cornerback, but rookie second-rounder Lonnie Johnson Jr. could emerge in the summer. He’s put his stamp on spring practices, per the Houston Chronicle’s Aaron Wilson.
“Shadowing wide receivers in a red-zone drill, imposing Texans rookie cornerback Lonnie Johnson Jr. used his size and length to full advantage,” Wilson wrote.
Safety Justin Reid talked to Wilson about what Johnson could bring to the defense.
“He’s a big kid, almost bigger than me. You see it when he plays. You see it on the practice film. He knows how to use it as well, which is one of the good things about having good corners, is they know how to actually body receivers, especially if they’re going against a big guy. He’s someone that we can see as a potential matchup for those type of situations.”
At 6’2″ and 213 pounds, Johnson could become a key playmaker for a secondary in transition. However, Houston’s coaching staff will want to see him make more plays on the ball, as he logged only nine pass breakups and an interception at Kentucky.
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After spending four seasons with the Panthers, wideout Devin Funchess signed a one-year, $10 million deal with the Colts this offseason. Standing 6’4″ and 225 pounds, he could become a reliable target in the red zone and on intermediate routes.
Quarterback Andrew Luck suffered a calf strain during a workout and missed the first OTA session, but head coach Frank Reich made the connection between the signal-caller’s ball placement and Funchess’ route-running ability, per Andrew Walker of the Colts’ official website.
“He just threw it up to him and he came down with it. That’s one of the things that you are hoping to get. On another play, he runs a deep in-cut. I don’t know who the corner was that was on him, he had inside technique and had pretty good coverage on him. … The in-cuts—Andrew [Luck] loves throwing in-cuts, and we really think Devin is a good in-cut runner.”
The Colts selected wide receiver Parris Campbell in the second round of this year’s draft, but he didn’t run a wide array of route patterns at Ohio State. Funchess’ experience and urgency on a one-year contract could lead to a big season before he tests the market again in 2020.
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The Jacksonville Jaguars have solid depth at wideout, but none of the receivers stand out as a dynamic lead threat. Marqise Lee remains out while he recovers from an ACL tear with additional ligament damage.
Although he’s new to the squad, wide receiver Chris Conley has flashed in the passing game early in practices. According to the Florida Times-Union‘s Phillip Heilman, the 26-year-old beat Pro Bowl cornerback A.J. Bouye in coverage for a long touchdown.
John Reid of the Florida Times-Union highlighted Conley’s first week of performances, pinpointing his ability to poke holes in the defense and come down with receptions.
“Chris Conley always seems to find the open areas in the defensive coverage,” he tweeted. “He’s had a strong week catching the football.”
Quarterback Nick Foles and Conley spent a year together with the Kansas City Chiefs, but neither had a major role on that squad. Foles started one game and threw 55 passes on the season, while Conley reeled in 44 catches for 530 yards.
However, it appears as though the two have built early chemistry in Jacksonville.
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In December, running back Damien Williams took over the lead ball-carrier role in the Chiefs’ backfield, logging 34 carries for 203 yards and three touchdowns between Weeks 15 and 17. The five-year veteran also tallied 154 yards from scrimmage in a divisional-round playoff win against the Colts.
General manager Brett Veach signed running back Carlos Hyde to a one-year deal this offseason, but we shouldn’t overlook Williams. He’s a versatile tailback with more career yards as a receiver (893) than a ball-carrier (733).
The 5’11”, 224-pounder flashed his reliable hands at OTAs, per Nate Taylor of The Athletic:
“Once again, Damien Williams is elite when it comes to making impressive catches as an additional receiver. Williams’ best play Thursday was beating outside linebacker Damien Wilson on a wheel route during the team’s seven-on-seven scrimmage. Mahomes executed a pump fake before completing the long pass to Williams, which would have resulted in a touchdown.”
Head coach Andy Reid may rely on a running back by committee featuring Williams, Hyde and rookie sixth-rounder Darwin Thompson. However, the team’s leading ball-carrier at the end of last season could emerge as the top playmaker in the backfield.
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Los Angeles Chargers tight end Hunter Henry missed the entire 2018 regular season with a torn ACL. In his place, Virgil Green logged a modest 19 receptions for 210 yards and a touchdown in 16 starts last year.
The Chargers need depth at the position. While they could bring Antonio Gates back, he’s turning 39 in June.
According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Henry is healthy one year after tearing his ACL, but it’s difficult for most players to immediately bounce back from a significant knee injury. He played 14 snaps in the team’s divisional-round matchup against the New England Patriots in January.
Offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt praised third-year tight end Sean Culkin for a strong start to the offseason, per ESPN.com’s Eric Williams: “Chargers OC Ken Whisenhunt said TE Sean Culkin has looked better and has had a good spring. He hopes that continues into training camp.”
Culkin has one career catch for 24 yards, but if he continues to perform well through the summer, the undrafted tight end out of Missouri could make a splash on the active roster this season.
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Tight end production is the weak spot in the Los Angles Rams offense. Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett have shown flashes over the past few seasons, but they haven’t emerged as consistent contributors.
As quarterback Jared Goff becomes more comfortable in head coach Sean McVay’s offense and goes through a natural maturation process, the Rams could add another wrinkle in their passing attack.
Myles Simmons of the Rams’ official website saw Everett showcase his pass-catching ability on multiple occasions during OTAs.
“…tight end Gerald Everett displayed his considerable receiving skills by elevating in the back of the end zone to catch a Goff pass over a pair of defenders. The coverage from the first-team secondary was tight at the beginning of the play, so the signal-caller had to roll to his right to create something off-schedule.”
Simmons captured another moment in which Goff targeted Everett with safety Eric Weddle in coverage: “On the first play of this Tuesday practice period, Goff hit Everett again over the middle of the field, sneaking the ball just past Weddle.”
In 2018, Everett recorded 33 catches for 320 yards and three touchdowns. His offseason connection with Goff could help him set new career highs next season.
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After going undrafted out of Iowa State in 2017, Jomal Wiltz spent two years on the Patriots’ practice squad but didn’t play a regular-season snap.
The 5’10”, 190-pound cornerback will have a chance at an active role with the Dolphins under a new coaching staff.
Wiltz didn’t waste time showcasing his playmaking ability. South Florida Sun-Sentinel reporter Omar Kelly immediately spotted him because of a play he made inside the 20-yard line: “First play of red-zone drills is a Jomal Wiltz interception of Ryan Fitzpatrick.”
Kelly called Wiltz’s performance the best he’s witnessed in a while after he broke up a potential touchdown pass to wideout DeVante Parker. Safety T.J. McDonald also took note of Wiltz’s ball-tracking skills during the first week of OTAs, per the Miami Herald’s Adam Beasley.
“He’s got a smaller frame, but he’s got a lot of bite. You see him. We’ve got some guys like that in the locker room. We haven’t put the pads on yet, but you can tell by how he’s out here, how he flies around, explosive. He can move around.”
Wiltz would likely serve as secondary depth for Miami. His nose for the ball could help him crack the 53-man roster for the first time in his career.
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Wide receiver Laquon Treadwell hasn’t panned out as expected, to put it mildly. The 2016 first-rounder has registered only 56 catches for 517 yards and a touchdown in three seasons.
The Minnesota Vikings don’t have an established threat behind Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs at the position, so there’s room for an offseason riser to claim the spot.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins gushed about wideout Jordan Taylor after a recent practice (h/t Vikings.com). He’s impressed with the receiver’s technical skill and route-running since he joined the team.
“He’s a diamond in the rough. … If a route calls for him to get to 14 yards, he gets to 14, he doesn’t get to 13. If it’s a double move, he runs a double move with the right technique. He gets to the right spot and catches the football when it’s a tough catch…He is going to be a big asset and probably one of those players who is quietly acquired, but ends up being anything but quiet come the season.”
Taylor spent two seasons with the Broncos, logging 29 catches for 351 yards and two touchdowns between the 2016 and 2017 campaigns. He underwent surgery on both hips and sat out the entire 2018 season.
The Vikings took a flier on him, but Cousins views the 27-year-old as a potential contributor in 2019. According to Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Vikings will also take a look at Taylor as a punt returner.
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Bettors may want to place an early wager on wideout N’Keal Harry for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Quarterback Tom Brady isn’t present at OTAs, but he could have a new favorite target through the summer.
According to Jeff Howe of The Athletic, Harry made an emphatic early statement at practice.
“N’Keal Harry made a strong first impression today at OTAs, catching five passes between the three QBs in team drills, including a perfectly executed back-shoulder TD from Jarrett Stidham against J.C. Jackson. Physically, Harry stands out. Good explosion over the middle, too.”
Harry hauled in four touchdown grabs in one set of 11-on-11 drills, per Henry McKenna of USA Today.
The rookie wideout’s strong start to spring sessions should put a smile on Brady’s face. With star tight end Rob Gronkowski having retired, the 6’2″, 228-pound wide receiver out of Arizona State could fill the void as a go-to target in the passing game.
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Center Max Unger decided to retire after a 2018 Pro Bowl season, leaving the pivot wide-open for competition. To fill the void, the New Orleans Saints signed Nick Easton and selected Erik McCoy in the second round of the draft.
Thus far, Cameron Tom has taken first-team reps at center with Easton at guard and McCoy in the second unit, per Larry Holder of The Athletic. Nonetheless, the rookie garnered a positive review from offensive line coach Dan Roushar, per the Times-Picayune‘s Luke Johnson.
“What you see is a guy with a great work ethic—his motor is outstanding—and he’s very hungry to learn. He’s been great in the classroom. Makes mistakes, pays attention to them, really works hard to correct them the next day, so you see improvement.”
McCoy’s attention to detail coupled with the ability to apply it to practice should behoove him. An offensive line needs a cerebral player in the middle—someone who understands coverage and schemes to initiate protection adjustments.
Although he’s in a reserve role to start the offseason program, McCoy could show enough to claim the starting spot once players put on pads.
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Amid a transition on defense under play-caller James Bettcher, the Giants acquired inside linebacker Alec Ogletree from the Rams last offseason to solidify the middle of the unit.
In his first season with the club, Ogletree recorded a career-high five interceptions—two of which he returned for touchdowns—and ranked second on the team in pass breakups (eight) and tackles for loss (six).
Ogletree continued to display his coverage skills during spring practices, per Dan Salomone of the team’s official website: “…he has already deflected one pass that led to a Janoris Jenkins pick and then intercepted one of his own on Tuesday. The veteran inside linebacker also had what would have been a sack during team drills.”
The Giants shouldn’t have issues defending short throws over the middle or chasing down pass-catching running backs with a high-level performer at inside linebacker.
The 27-year-old Ogletree is still in his prime. After reaching new heights as a coverage defender last year, he could push for his first Pro Bowl invite this coming season.
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Thus far, head coach and interim general manager Adam Gase’s offense seems suitable for quarterback Sam Darnold. Gang Green has held only a few open practices to the media, but Connor Hughes of The Athletic likes he saw on the field, specifically under center.
“Gase’s offense looked more creative than those in years’ past. Darnold crisper. Practice opened with a trick play. Darnold threw that touchdown to [Robby] Anderson, and nearly another of the same distance to running back Ty Montgomery. He fired a laser to [Jamison] Crowder on a slant. He ducked a sack to deliver a ball to [Quincy] Enunwa past the outstretched arms of a defender.”
Based on Hughes’ account of practice, Darnold looks comfortable in the pocket. The new offensive system also allows for improvisation, which fits his style. Dating back to USC, he moved well after the snap and often turned a broken play into a completion or a first down on the ground.
Gase and the coaching staff must curtail some of the freelancing to cut down on poor decisions in crucial moments. Darnold threw 15 interceptions last year, and he has to limit erratic throws downfield.
For now, it’s encouraging to see the 21-year-old show an increased sharpness with a new play-caller.
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Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t all about Antonio Brown at wide receiver in Oakland.
In March, Raiders also signed Tyrell Williams, who was considered one of the top wideouts on the free-agent market. The 6’4″, 205-pounder came down with 155 catches for 2,530 yards and 17 touchdowns through four seasons with the Chargers.
“That was a good route you ran the other day on my guy,” O’Neil told Williams, per NBC Sports Bay Area’s Scott Bair. “You sold the ‘jet,’ he took his eyes off you and he started hauling ass across field.”
“It’s kind of nice having something like that, but he can run these routes and set people up,” Raiders quarterback Derek Carr said during a media conference in reference to Williams. “He’s a technician also. He’s just not a big, raw body.”
Brown isn’t the only complete wide receiver on the roster. When he draws double-teams downfield, Williams could eat up yards underneath or challenge defenders vertically.
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Last year, fourth-round rookie Avonte Maddox lined up all over the secondary—at free safety, out wide on the perimeter and in the slot. He finished with 28 solo tackles, four pass breakups and two interceptions.
Maddox saw early reps as a nickelback during the first week of OTAs and had a hand in multiple plays, per NJ.com’s Mike Kaye.
“Maddox lined up at nickel cornerback for most of the practice. The Eagles used him to blitz and cover out of the slot. He had at least three pass breakups from the reps I witnessed. He also produced an interception on a Cody Kessler throw to the sideline.”
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz didn’t pigeonhole Maddox into one position, per Evan Macy of PhillyVoice: “We’ll figure out what’s best for him, what’s best for us, over the course of his career, but that flexibility is very helpful from a defensive standpoint.”
If Maddox continues to make plays in the nickel spot, Schwartz may keep him in that role going forward. Still, the coaching staff might move him around the secondary in case of injuries at other positions on the back end.
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The Pittsburgh Steelers moved up to No. 10 overall to select Devin Bush, a quick-striking linebacker out of Michigan who’s arguably the best incoming player at the position in space. The former Wolverine came off the board five spots after LSU’s Devin White, a more physical second-level defender.
Because of linebacker Ryan Shazier’s unclear future—he’s still rehabbing from a spinal injury—the Steelers needed a fluid athlete in the middle of their defensive unit. General manager Kevin Colbert had to target a player comfortable backpedaling and roaming the field in coverage.
“On Bush, I’ve noticed him breaking up more passes in coverage, including one in the end zone intended for Donte Moncrief during ‘Seven Shots.’ I don’t focus on Bush exclusively, and am waiting for the pads to be donned before passing even initial judgment, but his coverage skills so far have been encouraging.”
All signs point to Bush opening the season in a starting inside linebacker position. He called plays during rookie minicamp and showed signs of his ability to move well in space during OTAs.
The Steelers may have a well-rounded three-down linebacker set for an impressive start to his pro career.
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Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon regressed between his rookie and sophomore seasons, and he also sprained his PCL, which cost him the last two games of the 2018 campaign. The 2017 third-rounder recorded four pass breakups without an interception.
Witherspoon will look to shake off a year to forget, and he’s off to a good start at OTAs. The 6’2″, 195-pound cornerback flashed his coverage skills during team drills, per Matt Barrows of The Athletic.
“Witherspoon may have had the best practice of all the defenders,” Barrows wrote. “He broke up two passes, one intended for Dante Pettis, another short one intended for Marquise Goodwin. He will be the man to beat at right cornerback.”
Witherspoon has already reminded the coaching staff why general manager John Lynch selected him with the 66th overall pick two years ago. As Barrows suggests, he’s still the guy to beat for the No. 2 cornerback spot.
Jason Verrett, though talented when healthy, will have a tough challenge for the role opposite Richard Sherman on the perimeter.
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The Seattle Seahawks have an opening at the No. 2 wide receiver spot following Doug Baldwin’s retirement. While rookie second-rounder DK Metcalf could claim the spot, an unknown might emerge from the group.
Michael-Shawn Dugar of The Athletic highlighted wideout Amara Darboh because of a standout performance at practice. The 2017 third-rounder was waived last offseason and spent a few days on the Patriots’ roster, but he failed a physical because of a knee injury and landed on the Seahawks’ injured reserve list.
With another chance, Darboh seems ready to make the most of a renewed opportunity.
“Seeing him Tuesday reminded me of the talent he flashed as a rookie during 2017 training camp and why he was one of the players I expected to be a contributor down the line,” Dugar wrote.
“Darboh looks great,” head coach Pete Carroll said, per Dugar. “He’s back in the fold now, so he goes right back into the competition of it.”
Darboh is in a potential make-or-break offseason. He could make the 53-man roster and become a consistent contributor or fall out of favor with the Seahawks and return to the waiver wire.
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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected running back Ronald Jones in the second round of the 2018 draft. He struggled as a rookie, logging 23 carries for 44 yards and a touchdown, and nursed a hamstring injury through the second half of the year.
If his early performance at OTAs is any indication, Jones could handle more of the rushing workload for the upcoming campaign.
“[General manager Jason] Licht said the player who has impressed Bucs coaches the most this spring has been running back Ronald Jones,” Greg Auman of The Athletic tweeted. “Optimism about the position between him and Barber this offseason.
Quarterback Jameis Winston also saw a different player in Jones during OTAs (h/t Auman): “I would say RoJo has been showing out. His confidence, his comfort, RoJo’s a smart guy. He’s getting comfortable in this offense. No one is breathing down his neck. He’s more relaxed and executing at a high level.”
Jones doesn’t have stiff competition for the featured tailback position. Although the Buccaneers re-signed Peyton Barber to a one-year deal, he had a mediocre 2018 campaign, registering 234 carries for 871 yards and five scores on the ground.
Under a new coaching staff, it’s worth watching the battle at running back between Barber and Jones, although both will likely have roles in the backfield.
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The Tennessee Titans made a concerted effort to upgrade the passing attack this offseason. They signed wideout Adam Humphries in free agency and selected A.J. Brown with the 51st overall pick in the draft.
The Titans may get a boost from an upstart talent who took a small step in his development last season, too.
“He’s looked good in the three OTAs I’ve watched,” Jim Wyatt of TitansOnline.com wrote in reference to third-year wideout Taywan Taylor. “He now has more familiarity with the offense, which should allow him to play faster, and be more successful.”
Wyatt cautioned that Taylor must stay healthy to make a bigger impact going to his third season. He dealt with a foot ailment last year and registered 37 catches for 466 yards and a touchdown.
Now healthy, the 5’11”, 203-pound receiver looks primed for a better showing in 2019.
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The Washington Redskins have a deep group at cornerback. Josh Norman stands out as the star, but Fabian Moreau, Quinton Dunbar and 12th-year veteran Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie round out a solid group.
They also could have a seventh-round gem in rookie Jimmy Moreland.
Although a bit undersized at 5’10” and 179 pounds, the James Madison product was a big-time playmaker, logging 18 interceptions in college. At practice, Kyle Stackpole of the Redskins’ official website and head coach Jay Gruden caught a glimpse of his ball-tracking skills.
“It did not surprise Gruden when Moreland corralled the first interception of Monday’s session. Off a pass from rookie Dwayne Haskins, the ball tipped off the hands of third-round wide receiver Terry McLaurin and into the arms of the 5’10”, 180-pound Moreland, who burst down the left sideline.”
“He’s got great ball skills and he’s got a great confidence about him,” Gruden said. “I love the energy that he brings. He’s a great competitor, and I think when the pads do come on for real, I think he’ll be right there in the mix with everybody.”
If Moreland continues to flash during the summer, the coaching staff will have tough choices at cornerback assuming everyone stays healthy. Despite his late-round draft status, Moreland’s tendency to flip the field should lead to a roster spot in September.