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NFL rookies turning heads at training camp

Rookies
Credit: AP Photo

With the first set of NFL preseason games set to be underway, this will be a chance for fans and coaches to see the growth of the next wave of players – their rookies. The 2019 class is finally past to the stress of training camp and is ready for their first chance to make a name on their roster.

Although it’s common to see starters miss the first preseason game, rookies usually are the exception. In the Hall of Fame game, Atlanta Falcons’ Chris Lindstrom and Denver Broncos’ Dalton Risner played in two series to begin their careers. Both are projected to work with the first-team offense come week one, but coaches still want to see them develop in the preseason.

It wouldn’t be shocking for players such as Arizona’s Kyler Murray or Buffalo’s Ed Oliver see a drive or two when the team sets up for their first preseason snaps. But younger players looking to expand their role will have a crack to make an impact early with a solid outing. Anything can happen during a preseason game, including the growth of young talent moving up the depth chart.

Let’s check back into camp and take a look at several rookies already turning heads.

Oakland Raiders WR Hunter Renfrow

Hunter Renfrow became a household name in the College Football world after catching a game-winning touchdown pass from Deshaun Watson in the 2016 National Championship. That and the fact he looks like he should probably be picking up the grandkids from daycare. But believe it or not, the 23-year-old has been one of the top names for the Oakland Raiders heading into the start of the preseason.

“He’s a funny kid,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said according to The Athletic’s Vic Tafur. “He reminds me of Nick House, our receivers coach. I see Nick walking down the hallway, and I say, ‘Hey, Hunter.’ Then Nick turns around.

“He’s talented; he’s quick; fast-twitch, natural receiver.”

Renfrow was a security blanket in the slot for whoever lined up under center for the Tigers. In four seasons, the 5’10” wideout accumulated 186 total receptions for 2,133 yards and 15 total touchdowns. With Antonio Brown missing time due to a foot injury, Renfrow has been working with the first-team offense and impressing with his smooth route-running skills.

Oakland will face the Los Angeles Rams on Saturday night, and Brown will be sitting out. Perhaps Renfrow won’t be more than just the team’s fourth receiver to begin the season. However, his growth and reliable hands could earn him early reps.

Miami Dolphins WR Preston Williams

Josh Rosen has been the recent storyline coming out of Miami’s camp. After struggling to find a rhythm early under center, the former top 10 selection has looked more polished heading into the second week. That could be due to the progression of undrafted rookie Preston Williams making all the right plays.

On talent alone, Williams likely should have been drafted coming out of Colorado State. Due to multiple off-field incidents, his stock plummeted come April. But 31 teams’ loss could be one team’s gain and from talks out of South Beach; the Dolphins certainly have obtained a weapon for their offense.

“That guy can be special,” Dolphins cornerback Xaiven Howard said according to Palm Beach Post’s Joe Schad. “He’s still learning. He’s just a rookie. So much room for improvement with him but he’s going to be a number one receiver one day.”

We hear stories like this all the time. An undrafted player finds success in practice and then fizzles when the real lights are on. Williams’ growth has been well documented throughout OTA’s heading into this weekend’s matchup against the Falcons. If Rosen and Williams continue to connect, this could be the start of a bright future down in Miami.

Chicago Bears RB David Montgomery

Running backs have been the talk of the league in recent months. Some believe drafting a running back early is too high. Others wonder what the actual value of the position with so many players finding success is. Perhaps the position’s value has diminished thanks to players such as David Montgomery and their success.

Drafted in the third round out of Iowa State, the former Cyclone has already been taking first-team reps with the Bears offense. A bruiser type runner with the ability to make defender miss after initial contact, Montgomery can be a feature back in Matt Nagy’s offense this season.

“He’s a tough out,” Bears running backs coach Charles London said according to Patrick Finley of the Chicago Sun-Times. “He’s tough to bring down; he’s tough to tackle. It’s great to see his contact balance.”

Tarik Cohen and Mike Davis are solid backs, but they’re better used in situational type plays. According to Pro Football Focus, Montgomery recorded 211 total missed tackles in his final two seasons at Iowa State. He’ll have to show it live, but Chicago probably found a gem to place in their backfield for the next several seasons.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers LB Devin White

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers took a hit this offseason with the loss of linebacker Kwon Alexander. And while the team wished him nothing but the best on his way to San Francisco, they probably found his immediate replacement. It didn’t take long for rookie Devin White to make an impact on the Bucs’ defense. In fact, he’s been a standout early in camp.

“The sky’ the limit,” Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians said according to AP.com’s Fred Goodall. “Let’s let him fail before we pull him back. See what he can’t do. Right now, he can do everything. So until he says: ‘Whoa, I can’t learn all this stuff or I can’t do that.’ I don’t think that’s ever coming out of his mouth, though, knowing him.”

Drawing early comparisons to greats such as Patrick Willis and Ray Lewis, White has already stepped into a leadership role for Tampa’s defense. With Lavonte David now injured, the former LSU standout is set to become the focal point of the team’s front seven. So far, he’s seemed to adjust to the limelight quickly in practice.

Tampa is hoping for a greater turnaround under Arians, who has been known for his ability to correct under-achieving quarterbacks. The offense could succeed, but it will be the defense that either elevates this team or holds them back. White is going to a critical factor early.

Houston Texans OT Tytus Howard

Remember when everyone shook their head at the Houston Texans for drafting Tytus Howard with their first-round pick? It might just a few days into joint practice with the Green Bay Packers, but they might regret that thought. Maybe Brian Gaine was onto something that no one else knew before he was canned as the GM back in May.

The Alabama State product has been greeted with mixed results early into training camp. Monday seemed to be a turn around for the versatile offensive lineman as he has seen reps at both tackle positions and right guard. Better known as a tackle for the Hornets, Texans coach Bill O’Brien considers Howard to be just a lineman who can contribute.

“The biggest difference (between guard and tackle) is really just playing against bigger guys (inside),” Howard said according to The Athletic’s Aaron Reiss. “My biggest thing, playing inside vs. outside, is I’ve got to be a little lower, so I can take on the (interior) bull rush.”

The Texans offensive line allowed a league-high 62 sacks last season. That can’t happen again if the team expects Deshaun Watson to be a long-term plan under center. Howard will need to continue making plays like he did Monday, but if he can do that, expect him to earn a role on the offensive line somewhere.

Cleveland Browns LB Mack Wilson

The University of Alabama is a pipeline to the NFL. With 71 players from Tuscaloosa now on NFL 90-man rosters, the Crimson Tide coaches have been known for their development of linebackers under the Nick Saban era. Mack Wilson seemed like another product that would become a high draft selection heading into the 2018 season. For whatever reason, he slipped…right into John Dorsey and the Cleveland Browns’ lap.

Two weeks into camp and Wilson has continued to grow under the direction of Steve Wilks. Rapidly improving in coverage and creating turnovers, the fifth-round pick has already collected multiple interceptions against both the first and second-team defenses’.

“I love his athleticism,” defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said according to Cleveland.com’s Dan Labbe. “When you look at him out in space, he plays well, good change of direction. When you look at the matchups throughout this league, a lot of times you do not really have safeties that can cover these big tight ends so you need a linebacker that can run.”

Cleveland’s linebacker room is already one of the league’s best, but Wilson is making his case for playing time. With starters resting early, he should have a chance to earn more reps as the season rapidly approaches. There’s plenty of time left in camp, but Wilson is already looking like a steal. It won’t be shocking if he becomes a starter down the line.

Arizona Cardinals WR Keesean Johnson

One thing Cardinals GM Steve Kiem focused on this draft was getting weapons for future quarterback Kyler Murray. And while Andy Isabella and Hakeem Butler could become quality pieces, it’s Keesean Johnson that continues to make plays throughout training camp.

“Early on, KeeSean Johnson has looked fantastic,” Keim said according to 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. To be able to get him later, in Day 3, was a good get.”

The sixth-round pick has been one of the top rookie receivers throughout the start of the offseason. Making strides and moving up the charts, Johnson currently is listed as the No.3 receiver in Arizona’s offense. While his smaller frame could limit him to the slot, his route running skills have made him a household name.

Someone will need to step up with Larry Fitzgerald‘s historic career coming to an end. Johnson has impressed and could be the first to get a crack at making an immediate name for himself early in the preseason.

Los Angeles Rams S Taylor Rapp

Taylor Rapp was highly regarded as one of the top defensive backs in April’s draft. Somehow, he fell right into the Los Angeles Rams during the second round. While the team has John Johnson III and veteran Eric Weddle patrolling deep, Rapp has gained recognition from his teammates early in training camp.

“He’s going to be a real good player for a long time,” Johnson said according to Los Angeles Times’ Gary Klein. “He can move, he can run.

“He’s a flat-out baller.”

After a fantastic career at The University of Washington, Rapp is now learning under the direction of veteran defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. A versatile defender who plays against the run, the 6-foot safety impressed in joint practices against the Los Angeles Chargers last week.

Weddle and Johnson will likely sit against the Raiders, giving a chance for Rapp to work with the “first-team” defense. It won’t be shocking if he starts competing for reps down the season with an impressive outing. There was a reason many believed he could be an early playmaker following his time with the Huskies.

Cole Thompson is the Lead NFL writer for Pro Football Network. Follow him on Twitter at @MrColeThompson.

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