It seems like an age has passed since the end of minicamp, but the light at the end of the tunnel is finally in sight. July 18th sees the rookies from the Buffalo Bills and the Las Vegas Raiders as the first players to report for preseason training camp, with all players, both rookies and veterans, reporting by July 26th.All rookies will need to maximise the opportunities they are given this preseason, with rosters needing to be trimmed from 90 players at the beginning of camp down to the final 53 on the 30th of August.
As always, there will be a selection of rookies that had starting jobs from the moment their names were announced on draft day. However, there will be a few on the cusp of a starting role or trying to work their way onto the first team depth chart.
Let’s look at six rookies who, after their showings at OTA’s and minicamps in May and June, may have already started to force their way into contention.
Christian Watson, WR, Green Bay Packers (Round 2, Pick 2)
Wide receivers are frequently overlooked by the Green Bay Packers in the first two rounds. In fact, Watson was the first they have taken since Devante Adams, the man he could potentially have been drafted to replace. He hasn’t shown any signs of the pressure getting to him, however, as he quickly built a connection with the current MVP, Aaron Rogers, by catching a deep ball during their first practise together, before continuing his trial by fire by lining up opposite Pro Bowler Jaire Alexander. It’s a promising start that, should it continue during training camp and preseason, could result in a starting position.
Boye Mafe, EDGE, Seattle Seahawks (Round 2, Pick 8)
Mafe looks like he will be continuing the upward trajectory his career has taken so far. After starting at Minnesota with limited opportunities, he ended his collegiate tenure with an outstanding performance in the Senior Bowl in which he had three tackles for loss and a pair of sacks, one of which included forcing a fumble. Mafe has picked up where he left off and is already starting to catch the eyes of the Seahawks coaching staff, including Coach Carroll, who said, “He’s really talented. He’s the closest looking fit to Cliff Avril that we’ve seen. ” High praise indeed, being compared to the ex-Superbowl champion and Pro Bowler, and all this before he has put on the pads yet.
George Pickens, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers (Round 2, Pick 20)
With Pickens only being able to play 4 games in his final season at college due to an ACL injury and given that multiple teams were apparently turned off by stories questioning his maturity and lack of discipline prior to the draft, it wouldn’t have surprised anyone if Pickens entered OTAs with a chip on his shoulder. Instead, he put his head down and got to work, making sure he could line up wherever the Steelers wanted him, something he did constantly during his tenure with the Bulldogs. It didn’t take long for him to show the Steelers coaching staff what he could do, making a spectacular bobbled catch on a pass that would have likely been too high for most receivers.
Nakobe Dean, LB, Philadelphia Eagles (Round 3, Pick 19)
In what could end up being the steal of the draft, the Eagles were able to pick up the free-falling Dean after concerns regarding injuries and his perceived undersized body. Dean has immediately shown off both his versatility and football IQ by learning both the MIKE and WILL positions to ensure that he can contribute straight away. There has even been chatter amongst the local reporters that the rookie will end up wearing the green dot on his helmet, taking up the responsibility of communicating with the coaches and replaying the plays, which would also suggest he will be spending a lot of time on the field.
Daniel Bellinger, TE, New York Giants (Round 4, Pick 7)
It is very rare to see a midround pick spend extended time with the starters, but that is exactly what has happened to Bellinger, and by all accounts, he has grasped his opportunity with both hands (pun intended). After being used as more of an extra offensive lineman at San Diego State and with the Giants’ signing veterans Seals-Jones and Akins in the offseason, it appeared that Bellinger would have to battle just to get a depth spot. However, he immediately impressed tight end coach Andy Bischoff. “He’s one of those rare guys today that can really do it all. He can block, he can protect, and what we want him to do is get open against man coverage. He can do all those things.”
Isaiah Likely, TE, Baltimore Ravens (Round 4, Pick 34)
Standing out amongst a class of 11 rookies was always going to be a tall task, but that is exactly what the fourth-round tight end has done. Likely was the second tight end the Ravens drafted on day three and was taken only 11 picks after Charlie Kolar, but he seems to have separated himself from the pack by displaying his large catch radius and ability to get open. In the last minicamp session, Likely caught multiple touchdowns in red zone drills, but one, an incredible one-handed touchdown, caught the eye of Lamar Jackson, who remarked, “It was a tremendous catch, so the sky’s the limit.”