NFL Rookies Who Are Shining at Training Camps
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AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
Training camp is a huge milestone for rookies looking to find immediate success in the NFL. Unlike the work that comes in the spring with mini camps and OTAs, the pads start coming on at training camp, and they are immersed in the competition of the league.
For some, it’s a reality check that they have a ways to go before contributing. For others, it’s the opportunity to stand out, get noticed and prove they are ready to be on the field right now.
With most teams starting to put pads on and ramping things up, we are starting to get a feel for which rookies are in that second category.
Here’s a look at some rookies who are making a positive first impression thus far.
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AP Photo/Morry Gash
It’s no secret the Green Bay Packers are going to need a young receiver to contribute this season. It just might come as a surprise when it’s fourth-round pick Romeo Doubs.
The former Nevada star consistently received praise for his work in the spring. Now, he’s making waves in training camp.
Most of his spring work was with backup quarterback Jordan Love, so the important thing in camp is developing chemistry with Aaron Rodgers. If what the quarterback had to say about Doubs is any indication, that mission has been accomplished.
“Every single day, there’s been at least one ‘wow’ play from him. That’s kind of rare for a young guy like that,” the reigning MVP said, per Ryan Wood of the Green Bay Press-Gazette. “Now we’ve had some guys over the years do that, but they’re all in the top 10 in Packers receiving history.”
That’s huge praise from a passer who has worked with some great receivers, including Davante Adams.
The clip that has circulated of Doubs running by Eric Stokes, who ran a 4.25-second 40 at his pro day in 2021, is certainly among the big plays Rodgers is talking about. Doubs’ ability to run by a defensive back with elite speed, track the ball and catch it over his shoulder is the kind of thing that will continue to get him noticed.
When considering what the pecking order among Green Bay receivers may look like, underestimate Doubs at your own risk.
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The New York Jets are going to lean heavily on their trio of first-round picks to make an impact in 2022. At least in the case of Sauce Gardner, the early signs point to him living up to the hype as a rookie.
The No. 4 pick has reportedly been lighting it up in training camp, locking down receivers and making several plays on the ball. Andy Vasquez of NJ.com noted Gardner’s performance in a drill going against the No. 1 offense in which he forced a crucial incompletion and registered a pressure as a blitzer.
More importantly, Gardner has impressed his teammates. He’s a common topic among those speaking to the media.
Veteran teammate D.J. Reed has complimented Gardner’s drive and work ethic to be the best. Garrett Wilson—one of the Jets’ other first-round picks—told the media “you gotta really have a plan” when going against the corner.
As a top-five pick, the expectations are going to be high for Gardner. He famously did not allow a touchdown in three seasons as a corner in college, per PFF.
If his play in the preseason is any indication, he should be an elite cover corner from the outset of his career.
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AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
The Chargers struck gold when they drafted Rashawn Slater with the 13th selection of the 2021 NFL draft. The left tackle ended up earning All-Pro second team honors in his rookie season and figures to be Justin Herbert’s personal protector for the foreseeable future.
They just might have hit another home run with their first-round pick this year.
They continued to invest in Herbert’s protection by snagging Boston College interior lineman Zion Johnson with the 17th pick.
As soon as Johnson put on pads, he started drawing high praise. Seeing Johnson work reminded Daniel Popper of The Athletic of the first time he saw Slater go against the veterans in training camp last season:
“Not to rev up the hype engine, but Johnson’s performance reminded me a lot of Slater’s first reps in pass protection one-on-ones last summer. You could tell right away that Slater belonged as an NFL left tackle. And I came away with the same feeling about Johnson”
Johnson’s teammates have been complimentary as well. Center Cory Linsley has come away impressed from his first look at Johnson in person.
“He’s got a ton of raw talent,” Linsley said, per Jeff Miller of the Los Angeles Times. “You can see he’s already put a lot together. I’m excited to play next to him.”
Early signs point to Johnson thriving in his first season as the team’s starting right guard.
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AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
The Tennessee Titans were top-10 in interceptions and top-five in passes defended last season, yet they still felt the need to invest in cornerback Roger McCreary with pick No. 35 in the draft.
Based on McCreary’s early performance in training camp, it’s becoming clear why they liked him so much back in April.
The 5’11”, 190-pound defensive back might not have the prototypical size of an outside corner, but he’s shown he can make up for it in other ways.
Jim Wyatt of the Titans’ website noted McCreary was particularly notable when the pads came on in Tennessee. He had at least six pass breakups during one of the sessions and got the better end of duels against first-round pick Treylon Burks on multiple occasions.
Fellow cornerback Kristian Fulton has attested to McCreary’s coverage skills thus far.
“He’s sticky,” Fulton said, per Wyatt. “He’s always in position. I feel like he’s a guy who is going to come in and help us tremendously. He’s getting his hands on the ball.”
Defensive coordinator Shane Bowen is also among those impressed by the Auburn product, telling reporters he doesn’t consider him to be a rookie given the poise with which he plays the position.
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AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
Jameis Winston has worked with plenty of great receivers in his career, including Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Michael Thomas, among others. So when he speaks highly of a rookie receiver and compares him to one of his former All-Pro targets, it’s worth noting.
“He’s just smooth,” Winston said of rookie Chris Olave, per Rod Walker of NOLA.com. “He’s already a pro. I had Chris Godwin, and you could see it in his eyes already that he was a pro. I see that in Chris (Olave).”
Walker himself went on to make some observations about the former Ohio State receiver. He called Olave and second-year defensive lineman Payton Turner the “way-too-early MVP’s” of Saints training camp.
The analyst noted that Olave’s deep speed has shown up in camp. That’s evident in some of the clips that have surfaced thus far, including a 60-yard connection between Winston and the rookie.
Olave ran a 4.39 40-yard dash during the predraft process, and it appears that speed is going to help him make an immediate impact in the Saints’ receiving core alongside Thomas and free-agent addition Jarvis Landry.
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Every year, there’s seemingly a rookie running back that comes out of nowhere to be a key contributor to a team.
In 2020, we saw James Robinson rush for over 1,000 yards as an undrafted free agent. Sixth-round pick Elijah Mitchell was last year’s surprise impact rookie with 963 yards on the ground in San Francisco.
While it’s hard to predict, Isiah Pacheco isn’t a bad guess for the unheralded running back who will stand out in 2022.
The seventh-round pick out of Rutgers has shined in camp thus far. Jesse Newell of the Kansas City Star even noted the back has rotated in with the first-team offense in some drills.
Offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy was not reserved in his praise for the young back.
“He just has the right temperament,” Bieniemy said, per Newell. “He’s just a tough guy that doesn’t take anything for granted. He has that attitude and determined mindset that wants to be great, just like everybody in that group.”
Pacheco ran a 4.37 40-yard dash at 5’10”, 216 pounds at the NFL combine and has been handling kick-return duties in camp as well. His role as a returner should enhance his odds of making the roster.
But the Chiefs’ running back situation is such that it isn’t hard to imagine Pacheco being a contributor.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire has not locked up the job through two seasons and hasn’t stayed healthy with just 23 total games played. Ronald Jones is only on a one-year contract, and Jerrick McKinnon was a non-factor as a back for the Chiefs last season.
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AP Photo/David J. Phillip
Derek Stingley Jr. coming off the board at No. 3 was one of the first truly surprising selections on draft night. Stingley was a star as a freshman at LSU, but injuries hampered his ability to build on that debut, as he appeared in just 10 games over his final two seasons in Baton Rouge.
The Texans took him anyway. So far, it looks like that gamble could pay off in a big way.
The team brought the corner along slowly through minicamp and OTAs, but he’s starting to do more in training camp. The team has liked what it has seen.
Ian Rapaport of NFL Network reported Stingley, “is keeping up with receivers, nabbing interceptions and looking like the lockdown corner Houston had hoped for.” For a rookie coming off a Lisfranc injury, that’s a great sign.
James Palmer of NFL Network also noted the team plans on having Stingley shadow the No. 1 receiver for opposing teams this season.
That’s a huge responsibility, and it shows the kind of trust the corner is already developing with Lovie Smith and the rest of Houston’s staff.
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