The past two weeks may not seem like any indication to the contrary, but I do realize there are more rookies in NFL camps than Kenbrell Thompkins. Here is a list of 10 offensive rookies I’m monitoring in training camp. The criteria isn’t based on immediate impact or talent. These are the guys that intrigue me the most for a variety of reasons.
RB Stepfan Taylor, Cardinals: The former Stanford Cardinals runner is a great fit for the Bruce Arians offense. Much quicker than fast, Taylor’s low center of gravity and shifty style for a power runner makes him the best style of runner for this offense than any player currently on the Arizona depth chart – including Rashard Mendenhall and Ryan Williams. These two veterans are more talented, but I think Taylor has the potential to grow into a more versatile option and he runs with his eyes a little better than the former Steeler. Williams can’t stay healthy to save his life right now – and I think he is playing for his career life this year. Some love Andre Ellington, but I don’t see a future C.J. Spiller. That said, he’s had some good moments in camp thus far and he’s further down my list until I see some moments in preseason. My pre-draft take on Taylor.
TE Zach Sudfeld, Patriots: In the 2013 Rookie Scouting Portfolio I said, “He reminds me a bit of Jermichael Finley [in style], but a better blocker. If he can add more weight and stay this agile, he could become a quality starter.” He’s a versatile player who I think has skill sets that are a blend of what the Patriots asked Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez to do. The 6-7, 255-pound Sudfeld had enough injuries to fatten a medical file at a doctor’s office, but he stayed healthy his senior year in Chris Ault’s Pistol offense. In fact, he functioned as the lead blocker much the way Chris Brown described it at Grantland. Not that Tom Brady will run the Pistol, but if Tim Tebow does in a handful of red zone situations, don’t be surprised if Sudfeld is leading the way. However, what intrigues me about Sudfeld is how fluid he is for his size. He’s not fast for a tight end, but his quickness and skill around the ball is a good skill set for a team in desperate need of solid tight end play to begin the season. Here is my RSP game report and play-by-play notes on Zach Sudfeld last December in the New Mexico Bowl versus Arizona.
WR Da’Rick Rogers, Bills: Rogers was on thin ice in May after making a reception in practice and showboating. Since that time, Rogers has been quieter with his words, but still making good plays in practice that should earn him a spot with the team. A tough, physical player capable of winning the ball in tight coverage, Rogers has the talent to replace Steve Johnson as the primary option in the Bills offense by 2015 because he also displays quickness and agility to generate big plays in the open field. With Robert Woods looking like a 10-year veteran in training camp, Rogers could have some big moments when he finally sees a starting lineup and teams can’t double-cover him.
RB Spencer Ware, Seahawks: I’m still just as intrigued with Ware, who is competing for a spot as a fullback/running back tweener, as I was before the NFL Draft. Reports from camp are good enough that some observers have had to check their roster lists to make sure the back they saw breaking quality runs wasn’t Christine Michael. Ware has looked good as a receiver and pass protector and because of his smarts between the tackles, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if by 2015 he earns more time as a running back than people expected when the team announced he’d be a fullback. Again, I thought Ware was the toughest runner at the college level I saw last year and a severely underrated runner. He’s a perfect fit for the Seahawks’ system.
TE Chris Gragg, Bills: An athletic move-tight end with sticky hands as both a receiver and blocker, Gragg is making good in practices. I think he needs to improve his technique as a blocker – especially his footwork. I’m keen to see how the Bills under Doug Marrone will use tight ends like Scott Chandler or Gragg in its offense. With Johnson getting moved around at receiver, Woods looking like a starter, Rogers displaying promise, and even Marqise Goodwin holding his own to earn a roster spot, is there room for a productive tight end in this offense? I think so. Gragg won’t earn it this year, but it’s why I still want to monitor his development.
TE Dion Sims, Dolphins: Gragg is piquing my interest because of Doug Marrone’s praise of the tight end before the pads came on. However, Gragg has always been a fine athlete so shining in shorts wasn’t a surprise. While Gragg is earning first-team reps with the Bills due to injuries ahead of him on the depth chart, Sims has earned his second-team looks and first-team reps in two-tight end sets with his competition healthy. Sims isn’t Antonio Gates, but he has the size and fluid athleticism to become a starting tight end in the NFL. I wouldn’t be surprised if he produces along the same lines as Brandon Pettigrew in Detroit by 2015. Dustin Keller isn’t a big guy and in the past he’s struggled to maintain is playing weight, so keep an eye on Sims this year because Keller’s season-long availability can be an issue.
WR Russell Shepard, Eagles: I’ve shared this story a number of times this spring and summer, but for about 15 minutes during a Senior Bowl practice, Shephard looked like a top wide receiver prospect. He was smooth, technically sound, quick, and excellent at snatching the ball. Then, I think fatigue set it and he got sloppy. Not a big player at the position, but he seems to handle physical play reasonably well. With Jeremy Maclin out for the year, Riley Cooper having a dark side of America moment, and the rest of the wide receiver depth chart up for grabs, Shepard continues to play well enough to be in the mix for playing time. If DeSean Jackson gets hurt, this passing game could be a disaster, but Shepard and Damaris Johnson could earn some of the sloppy seconds.
RB Chris Thompson, Redskins: Mike Shanahan believes Thompson had first-round ability. Based on what I saw, Thompson was a dynamic runner with great conceptual understanding of setting up blocks and bursting through holes. He showed enough promise catching the football that I wondered if he wouldn’t be a bad candidate as a future slot receiver. Thompson’s recovery from ACL surgery has put some stress on his quadriceps and he’s not practicing right now. If he can return soon and display his skills, I think he could provide a similar element to the Redskins running game that we might just see from the 49ers Lamichael James.
WR Marquess Wilson, Bears: I’m a fan of his skills. If he can remain consistent and mature, he could be a steal for Marc Trestman and the Bears. With Earl Bennett suffering another concussion and Wilson making some nice catches in Bears’ camp, he could solidify a roster spot. One of the youngest players entering the NFL this year, I wouldn’t be shocked if the former Washington State star and Alshon Jeffery are the future starters – and a productive duo – by 2015. The reason I say this is that Trestman has already said that Wilson needs to get stronger before he becomes a serious NFL contributor. While this statement could be taken as Wilson is on his way out the door, I think it’s more of long-term assessment for a player they’re treating like a third or fourth-round pick they’ll be keeping for at least a year or two.
WR Cordarrelle Patterson, Vikings: He may not show it this year, but long-term I think Patterson is the third-best rookie prospect for dynasty leagues in 2013. I also believe the pre-draft concerns about his intelligence are about as valid as what we learned in hindsight about rumors that Warren Sapp failed 7 drug tests at the University of Miami and smoked crack. Patterson is the most gifted athlete with the ball in his hands of this draft class. I’ve seen tape of some of the Vikings practices and I think there’s no reason to doubt his ability to become a star. The only receiver in the same conversation as Patterson with the ball in his hands is Dez Bryant. I don’t know if Patterson can become as good of a receiver as the road Bryant is traveling, but only the most serious NFL nerds may see a major difference.
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