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We expect first-round NFL draft picks to flash once players put on pads, as they’re the cream of the crop in their classes. On the other hand, Day 2, Day 3 and undrafted rookies can use training camp as a springboard to significant roles.
The Miami Dolphins selected linebacker Jerome Baker in the third round of last year’s draft. He showed early signs of his playmaking ability and earned a promotion to the first unit. The Ohio State product started 11 games and lined up for 62.3 percent of the team’s defensive snaps in 2018.
Typically, third-rounders don’t come into camp with a clear pathway to starting positions, but as Baker proved, performances can change the pecking order.
Let’s take a look at eight rookies, excluding first- and second-rounders, who have looked impressive at training camp.
All of the selections started the offseason with some ambiguity about their perspective workloads. Following a solid start to the summer, they’ve elevated their roster standing or put themselves in the mix for a decent number of snaps in 2019.
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The Chicago Bears may have found their featured running back in the third round of this year’s draft. General manager Ryan Pace selected Iowa State’s David Montgomery after he dealt Jordan Howard to the Philadelphia Eagles and signed four-year veteran Mike Davis to join Tarik Cohen in the backfield.
Montgomery blew up his teammates during padded practices, per the Chicago Sun-Times‘ Patrick Finley.
“The best moment of practice Friday came when rookie running back David Montgomery lowered his shoulder into two defenders in a row before finally being gang-tackled.,” Finley wrote.
Finley noted Montgomery’s thunderous hits brought excitement at practice. When the games count, he can provide the full package. The 5’10”, 222-pounder is a tough ball-carrier between the tackles, as shown on the Bears’ official Twitter handle, with the ability to catch out of the backfield. He caught 71 passes for 582 yards as a collegian.
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Running back Ezekiel Elliott’s contract holdout elevates Tony Pollard’s buzz, but the rookie fourth-rounder has flashed while taking starting reps at training camp, per The Athletic’s Jon Machota:
“Elliott’s absence has given running backs like Tony Pollard more opportunities to work with the first team. Pollard has taken advantage, using those reps to show off his elite athleticism as a runner and receiver. There was no better example than a one-on-one drill last Thursday when Jason Garrett gave Pollard a chance to square off against Jaylon Smith in front of the entire team. Pollard immediately split out wide. Smith crowded the line of scrimmage to jam Pollard off the snap. It took the rookie back less than a second to blow by Smith and create five yards of separation down the right sideline.”
Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones thinks Pollard could play 30 snaps per game (h/t Mike Leslie of WFAA). Based on the rookie’s production in college, that doesn’t sound like a comment aimed to encourage Elliott’s return.
At Memphis, Pollard registered more receiving than rushing yards (1,292 to 941) through four terms. Even with Elliott on the field, the first-year tailback may carve out a pass-catching role on long third downs and in obvious throwing situations.
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The New England Patriots selected wide receiver N’Keal Harry in the first round of the 2019 draft, but Jakobi Meyers, who signed as a rookie free agent out of North Carolina State, stole the spotlight at training camp.
According to NFL Network’s Michael Giardi, Meyers surpassed Harry on the camp hype meter: “Meyers has consistently made plays in competitive situations. Has out-performed N’Keal although again, we’re just a week in.”
Greg A. Bedard of the Boston Sports Journal views Meyers as Tom Brady’s “favorite target among the receivers” during practices. The undrafted rookie took snaps with the first-team offense Monday, earning praise from his quarterback, per NESN’s Zack Cox. “He’s done a great job, and he’s taken advantage of his opportunities,” Brady said.
In one-on-one situations at a recent practice, Meyers beat a couple of cornerbacks who made the roster last year, per Cox: “He won both of his reps in 1-on-1s, fighting through the ferocious jam of an uber-physical J.C. Jackson on one and beating starter Jason McCourty on the other. Meyers victimized McCourty again during 11-on-11s, leaping and extending to haul in a high throw from Brian Hoyer.”
While many expect Harry to take on a major role in the offense because of his first-round draft status, Meyers could emerge as the rookie wide receiver to watch in the upcoming campaign.
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The Arizona Cardinals selected two wide receivers before KeeSean Johnson in this year’s draft (Andy Isabella in the second round and Hakeem Butler in the fourth), but the sixth-rounder is the early standout of the trio, per The Athletic’s Scott Bordow.
“The top three receivers on the depth chart seem clear: Larry Fitzgerald, Christian Kirk and rookie KeeSean Johnson, who has been the talk of training camp,” Bordow wrote.
General manager Steve Keim added some context to Johnson’s impressive offseason.
“Early on, KeeSean Johnson has looked fantastic,” Keim said on NFL Network (h/t the Arizona Republic‘s Katherine Fitzgerald). “He’s a guy that I think could break out as a rookie. He’s a really natural route runner. To me, one of the most natural route runners in the draft.”
Behind Fitzgerald and Kirk, Johnson will have an opportunity to provide an immediate impact. He showed improvement in his receiving numbers every year at Fresno State, finishing with 275 receptions for 3,463 yards and 24 touchdowns through four terms. Thus far, the former Bulldog has carried that momentum over to the pro level.
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Linebackers Christian Kirksey and Joe Schobert will likely open the year with the first unit, but rookie third-rounder Sione Takitaki made quite a bit of noise during training camp, per Anthony Poisal of the Cleveland Browns’ official website.
“Takitaki has garnered attention for his aggressive playing style,” Poisal wrote. “The former BYU linebacker has been one of the hardest-hitting players thus far … Takitaki has proven he’s not afraid to lower the shoulder against anyone.”
Takitaki doesn’t just bring a physical presence. The coaching staff has also put him in position to use his football intelligence at middle linebacker, per Cleveland.com’s Jake Burns. “They have me calling the plays, closing the front,” he said. “It’s something I am definitely comfortable with.”
According to the Akron Beacon Journal‘s Nate Ulrich, Takitaki and running back Duke Johnson exchanged words in a near-altercation during practice. Typically, coaches would rather not see teammates fight each other, but the Browns need someone to light a fire under their defense.
Cleveland’s run defense ranked 28th last year. Assuming Takitaki takes on a rotational role, he’s a potential early-down linebacker capable of challenging ball-carriers inside and outside the tackles. If the rookie continues to stand out as a cerebral heavy hitter, the coaching staff may find it difficult to leave him on the sideline.
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E.J. Speed’s summer performances have elevated his standing in the Indianapolis Colts’ pecking order at linebacker. The coaching staff has rewarded him with quality reps, per Andrew Walker of the team’s official website.
“Speed in recent days has already been seen mixing in with the first-team defense at SAM linebacker—this despite the fact the team already has six returning linebackers from last year’s team, as well as another draft pick at linebacker in Bobby Okereke, on their roster,” Walker wrote.
Speed came out of Tarleton State, a Division II program, but the Colts had a close eye on him. He’s already showing signs of a player capable of outplaying his fifth-round draft position.
“Coming from a small school, our scouting department did a great job of looking at their measurables, and those things were certainly high with him,” defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said. “He’s jumping off the tape right now in terms of just hitting, speed and those things.”
Speed could build upon a string of strong training camp performances to claim a base linebacker position alongside Okereke or Anthony Walker and Darius Leonard. The rookie’s quickness, pursuit of the football and field awareness would round out a solid group on the second level of the defense.
At 6’3″, 227 pounds, Speed seems undersized compared to traditional linebackers of the past, but he plays well in space—a valuable trait to counter an increasing number of running backs who catch out of the backfield.
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Last offseason, the Washington Redskins felt good about their young cornerbacks, which led to a decision to release veteran Orlando Scandrick a couple of weeks into the preseason. Greg Stroman, a 2018 seventh-rounder, made the roster and played 386 defensive snaps. The front office may have found another Day 3 gem.
Chloe Trestman of the team’s official website highlighted one of cornerback Jimmy Moreland’s best performances at practice, which included a leaping interception. According to Trestman, the rookie has continuously stood out on the field and calls himself the “pick machine.” He’s James Madison’s all-time leader in the category with 18.
Cornerback Josh Norman has already said Moreland is “looking special”, per Megan Plain of WTKR News 3. Head coach Jay Gruden discussed the seventh-rounder’s ability to line up on the inside and outside, which increases his chance at making the 53-man roster.
The Athletic’s Ben Standig listed Moreland on his most recent 53-man depth chart projections, indicating he’s not a flash-in-the-pan performer and could be a keeper to bolster the secondary.
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The New Orleans Saints have multiple names that fall into the rookie standout category. Sixth-rounder Saquan Hampton could play himself into a reserve role; the safety picked off quarterback Drew Brees during Sunday’s practice, per ESPN’s Mike Triplett. Undrafted wideout Emmanuel Butler has garnered some camp buzz as well.
Coming out of Florida as a fourth-rounder, C.J. Gardner-Johnson didn’t have a clear role within the Saints defense, but he’s made enough plays to earn the jack-of-all-trades label, per The Athletic’s Jeff Duncan.
“Gardner-Johnson is learning multiple positions, including free safety and nickelback, and is going to see the field early as a chess piece in the secondary,” Duncan wrote.
We could also see Gardner-Johnson handle duties on the perimeter. Head coach Sean Payton acknowledged the rookie’s practice time at cornerback: “He’s versatile. I think he can play over the slot in the nickel role and also as a safety. He’s taken some one-on-one reps even at corner.”
The coaching staff may plug Gardner-Johnson into the secondary wherever possible. He registered 92 solo tackles, 15.5 for loss, nine interceptions and four sacks at Florida. The Saints have a potential playmaker in the secondary who can produce impact plays at various spots.