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As NFL teams start training camp, the hype is starting to build around the top rookies.
For the most part, clubs expect early-round picks to make an immediate impact. It doesn’t always pan out that way, but we often hear about Day 1 or Day 2 picks making waves during offseason practices.
In some cases, rookies generate buzz because of their opportunity to win a starting job or potential fit within a system.
Let’s go through the latest reports about notable rookies. We’ll come to a verdict on whether to buy or sell those projections and scenarios.
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At 6’0″ and 201 pounds with reliable hands, Ja’Marr Chase has the physical profile of a top-flight NFL receiver. At practice, he’s been showcasing his technical proficiency as well.
Bengals wide receivers coach Troy Walters recalled a moment in which Chase identified the defender’s coverage and altered his route, per ESPN’s Ben Baby.
“He understood why and explained that,” Walters said. “Just little things like that give you confidence that he’s going to be able to not only master his position, which is the X (outside receiver), but he’s going to be able to learn to play other places as well.”
Chase racked up 84 catches for 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns at LSU in 2019 before opting out of the 2020 season amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, he might have developed into a more nuanced playmaker who can beat defenders with high-level football IQ.
Chase has the strength, speed and playmaking ability to compete with the best athletes in the game. He could reach an even higher level with the ability to set himself up for wide-open catches downfield.
The 2019 Fred Biletnikoff Award winner appears to have worked on coverage and play recognition, which will allow him to attack defenses from the opposite side of the field or in the slot as an elite offensive weapon.
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ESPN’s Louis Riddick bought into the recent buzz around Jones (h/t Boston.com’s Hayden Bird):
“I think all the things that make Mac who he is have been things that he’s already put on display in the short time that he’s been up there. … Does he give this football team the best chance to score points, protect the football, not be the reason that they lose games, but contribute to the reason why they win games. If he does that, he’ll be the starter Week 1.”
The Patriots re-signed Newton after he threw only eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 15 games last season. Head coach Bill Belichick tabbed him as the starting quarterback but also left the door open for Jones and Jarrett Stidham to compete for the job.
New England upgraded its pass-catching group in free agency, signing Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, which may boost Newton’s production. The veteran signal-caller will also have a full offseason in offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ system, unlike last year.
Newton didn’t sign with the Patriots until late June 2020. He went through an atypical offseason because of COVID-19 restrictions while learning a new offense.
Jones would likely have to blow Belichick away at practice and in preseason action to win the job. He could make some starts in 2021, but the odds for Week 1 starter should heavily favor Newton, an 11th-year veteran with some experience in McDaniels’ offense.
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The Dallas Cowboys will play the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Hall of Fame game on August 5, so both teams had the opportunity to start training camp on July 21.
Parsons will likely play an every-down role in the front seven. He can fill the middle linebacker spot and bolster a pass rush that tied for 20th in sacks and ranked 25th in quarterback pressures last season.
Parsons should give the Cowboys another capable pass-rusher alongside defensive ends DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory. He figures to take most of his snaps at linebacker, but defensive coordinator Dan Quinn can move him around to optimize his skill set, too.
Quinn’s defensive scheme allows some flexibility between the off-ball linebacker and defensive end positions. Vic Beasley had strong outings as a hybrid linebacker-edge-rusher during his 2016 All-Pro season in which he led the league with 15.5 sacks.
The Cowboys will want Parsons to sustain his production over time, which didn’t happen for Beasley, but they should use the rookie defender like a chess piece. He’s already shown the ability to handle the workload.
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Bill Kostroun/Associated Press
On paper, the New York Jets put together a strong draft class. The top four picks could play major roles in the upcoming season.
No. 2 overall pick Zach Wilson can make spectacular throws on all three levels of the field and squeeze spirals into tight windows. No. 14 overall pick Alijah Vera-Tucker can play three positions along the offensive line. Second-round wideout Elijah Moore may supplant Jamison Crowder in the slot early in the year, while fourth-round running back Michael Carter could see a significant number of carries within a backfield committee.
Before Gang Green reported for training camp, DJ Bien-Aime of the New York Daily News fielded questions on Twitter. When asked who’s the “most sure thing” in the 2021 class, he replied, “Elijah Moore by a landslide.”
At 5’9″ and 178 pounds, Moore runs precise routes and has the ability to stretch the field and separate with his speed. He should develop into a solid playmaker once he takes over for Crowder. However, Vera-Tucker seems like a safer bet to become a solid starter.
The Jets can test Vera-Tucker at tackle if he struggles at guard. He has the athletic profile to excel in offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur’s offensive system if it’s similar to San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan’s outside-zone scheme, which requires linemen to frequently pull and reach second-level blocks.
Because of Vera-Tucker’s position flexibility and schematic fit, he looks like the most likely rookie to pan out in the Jets’ class.
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David Zalubowski/Associated Press
The Denver Broncos lost running back Philip Lindsay to the Houston Texans in free agency, but that doesn’t mean Melvin Gordon III will handle a majority of their touches out of the backfield.
In his training camp preview, George Stoia of the Gazette highlighted the brewing battle between Gordon and rookie second-rounder Javonte Williams.
“Williams is a physical, jack-of-all-trades back who many believe is the Broncos’ running back of the future,” Stoia wrote. “He’s expected to push Gordon for the starting job during camp.”
During the draft, Denver moved up five spots for Williams. General manager George Paton called him a “three-down back” and talked about the ball-carrier’s instinctive nature and ability to absorb contact.
Gordon has solid competition for the lead position. Because of Williams’ hard-nosed running style and his compact frame (5’10”, 220 lbs), he could carve out an early-down role, which would allow him to start over Gordon.
Through six seasons, Gordon has caught 256 passes for 2,031 yards and 12 touchdowns. He’s a reliable pass-catcher who can exploit mismatches on third downs. The Broncos will probably utilize him in that capacity, but he might see a decline in rushing attempts compared to his 215 carries last year.
Keep in mind, Gordon has fumbled eight times over the last two seasons.
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After attending the Pittsburgh Steelers’ training camp, The MMQB’s Albert Breer highlighted rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth’s involvement in the passing attack.
“TE Pat Freiermuth was a monster Saturday. Catches everything. The rookie’s trending towards a real role,” Breer tweeted.
Kyle Pitts, who went No. 4 overall to the Atlanta Falcons, garnered most of the attention among tight ends heading into the draft. The Steelers selected Freiermuth at No. 55, making him the second tight end off the board.
Across his three seasons at Penn State, Freiermuth caught 92 passes for 1,185 yards and 16 touchdowns. He can contribute to the Steelers’ aerial attack as a traditional tight end, but he will likely struggle to carve out a substantial role in their offense this year.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has a bevy of pass-catching options at his disposal, including Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington and Eric Ebron.
The Steelers can challenge defenses with a strong three-wide receiver set featuring Johnson, Claypool and Smith-Schuster. If offensive coordinator Matt Canada rolls out packages with two tight ends, Ebron, who caught 56 passes for 558 yards and five touchdowns with the team last year, would likely catch Roethlisberger’s eye as a preferred target over Freiermuth.
Smith-Schuster, Washington and Ebron are each heading into the final year of their respective contracts. Freiermuth may have to wait at least a year to make a lot of noise as a pass-catcher.
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The San Francisco 49ers lost running backs Tevin Coleman and Jerick McKinnon in free agency, while Jeff Wilson Jr. will start the season on the physically unable to perform list as he continues to recover from surgery on his meniscus.
Even though the Niners signed Wayne Gallman II this offseason, rookie third-rounder Trey Sermon appears poised to soak up backfield touches. The Athletic’s David Lombardi believes the latter could start over Raheem Mostert in 2021.
“Think of Sermon’s job as the one that Tevin Coleman held when healthy in 2019. Shanahan aims to soften opposing base defensive packages early in games with a specific runner—that was Coleman in 2019, and it projects to be Sermon in 2021—before unleashing Raheem Mostert and others against looser units later on. Therefore, it won’t be surprising if Sermon racks up the majority of starts while Mostert leads the team in rushing yardage.”
In 2019, Coleman and Mostert logged 137 carries apiece. Shanahan mixes and matches his running backs based on matchups and situations. At 6’0″ and 215 pounds, Sermon can take on an early-down role.
The Athletic’s Matt Barrows thinks Sermon will have a big role in a run-heavy offense.
“The 49ers aspire to have more than 500 rushing attempts this season and, if he’s healthy, Sermon ought to get a big chunk of them,” Barrows wrote.
With that number of carries in the game plan for the season, the 49ers may prefer to lighten Mostert’s workload after he missed eight outings in an injury-riddled 2020 campaign. Shanahan can use Sermon to wear down defenses and spread the remaining carries among the other tailbacks in the committee.
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Micah Parsons’ name often comes up in the Defensive Rookie of the Year discussion, but another first-round linebacker in the NFC East has garnered some attention.
Washington Football Team linebacker Jamin Davis has the second-best odds to win the award (+750), per DraftKings. Bryan Manning of Washington Wire explained why the Kentucky product could have an exceptional rookie campaign:
“There is a lot of hype surrounding Davis as a potential NFL defensive rookie of the year. It’s understandable playing behind Washington’s terrific defensive line. Davis gives the Football Team a speedy, hard-hitting linebacker who should rack up tackles in 2021. Davis is also strong in coverage. If he could make his name in coverage against tight ends, it would go a long way in taking Washington’s defense to the next level.”
In his final collegiate season, Davis recorded 102 tackles, four tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, three interceptions and two pass breakups. He has a well-rounded skill set and landed with a team that has a ferocious defensive line featuring 2020 Defensive Rookie of the Year Chase Young, Daron Payne, Jonathan Allen (who just signed a lucrative extension) and Montez Sweat.
Davis will benefit from playing behind a stacked front line, but the DROY award will likely go to the player with the most sacks or interceptions because of the impact of those plays.
Davis plays an unglamorous position that’s responsible for overlooked tasks such as chasing down running backs, rerouting tight ends and sniffing out screens. He could have a solid year, but pass-rushers and defensive backs who force turnovers will earn more recognition.
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