NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Ohio State

Which NFL Rookies Are Turning Heads in OTAs?

While the countdown to training camp continues, attention is now turned toward organized team activities—wherein teams focus on the development of young players. Every fan has high hopes for recently-drafted rookies, but few understand the difficulties young players face first stepping onto an NFL practice field.

Here, we focus on five players who have caught the eyes of both teammates and their coaching staff—and explore the impact that each can have in the 2014 season.

Ryan Shazier, inside linebacker, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers have always been known for their defense. DC Dick LeBeau’s unit has long hinged on toughness and smart, gritty play (with some timely exotic blitzes sprinkled in, but that’s beside the point!).

Times have certainly changed in Pittsburgh—LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison are now a part of the past and Troy Polamalu is still hanging on at the age of 33. Meanwhile, the Steelers are looking to go with a different philosophy with their new, younger defense. That’s why they selected Shazier with the 15th overall pick.

Shazier certainly doesn’t have the size of former Steelers linebackers—standing at 6’1″ and 240 pounds, he looks more like a safety than a linebacker. Shazier was the Buckeyes’ captain last season at linebacker—he led with his dominant play on the field and maturity in the locker room. His speed at the position is unmatched and it pairs with exceptional burst and change of direction ability. Shazier also is a strong tackler, showing clean technique when he wraps up the ball carrier. He uses his elite athleticism to get through the line quickly and blow up plays in the backfield, while also being able to drop back in coverage.

Shazier is certainly small for his position and while he played outside linebacker in Ohio State’s 4-3 defense, he will now be making the transition to inside linebacker in the 3-4. His transition didn’t take long though—after a breakthrough rookie minicamp, where he played head and shoulders above everyone on the field, Shazier entered OTA’s as a starter in the Steelers’ defense. He is already leaving an impression on teammates with his play and professional attitude. As he continues to learn the game and develop with the help of Lawrence Timmons and Jason Worilds, his knowledge and talent will continue to blossom.

Corey Linsley, center, Green Bay Packers

Green Bay has faced a lot of skepticism about its offensive line—years of finishing top-five in sacks allowed will certainly do that to your reputation. Fortunately for Aaron Rodgers, he will have a strong group for the first time in his career. Bryan Bulaga and David Bakhtiari should stay strong at the tackle spots, while Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang have the guard spots locked down. The big question for the entire Packers’ offense will be at center—a competition between a rookie and someone who has never played the position.

The Packers’ coaching staff had high hopes for J.C. Tretter last season—the fourth round pick out of Cornell played tackle in college, but would make the transition to center with the Packers. Unfortunately, he was lost for the season just a few days into rookie minicamp when he broke his leg. While confidence remains high, Ted Thompson made sure to add competition for the starting job.

Linsley is one of the first true centers Thompson has drafted as the Packers’ general manager. Thompson previously relied on converting tackles and moving them inside, but changed course this year. Linsley has already impressed head coach Mike McCarthy, who praised Linsley for his size and athleticism. While it would normally be tough for a fifth-round pick to become a starter, Linsley has a great shot at the job thanks to his experience at the position and major questions surrounding Tretter.

A strong impression in rookie camp should help give Linsley momentum as OTA’s begin. If Linsley wins the starting job, it couldn’t be a better situation for a rookie center to land in. He will have arguably the best quarterback in the game behind him and an All-Pro in Sitton on his left side.

Teddy Bridgewater, quarterback, Minnesota Vikings

While most rookies made a quick trip to their new home, Bridgewater immediately picked up his things and moved to Minnesota. Just hours after the Vikings moved up to select him with the 32nd overall pick, Bridgewater was ready to go to work.

Minnesota’s rookie minicamp took place from May 16-18 as the media and fans all paid close attention to Bridgewater. While fellow rookies surrounded him, Bridgewater displayed impressive confidence and a quick release. He was getting the ball out quickly and showing why offensive coordinator Norv Turner loves the rookie quarterback. While Bridgewater hasn’t met Adrian Peterson yethe has spent plenty of time with Cordarrelle Patterson and Greg Jennings. Building an early relationship with his top wide receivers will build that bond that helps everyone to remain in sync.

Bridgewater has stood out through the early days of rookie camp and organized team activities. Because of his strong start, Bridgewater is earning more opportunities with the first-team offense. He still has plenty of room to improve—his mechanics still can be adjusted and he will need to put on weight. If Bridgewater continues to show improvement, he could create a serious competition for the starting job and potentially take the field as the Vikings’ starting quarterback in Week 1.

John Brown, wide receiver, Arizona Cardinals

When the Cardinals drafted Brown in the third-round, many saw it as a big reach for a player who was more of a speedster than football player. Brown didn’t receive much national attention in college—while he was a star wide receiver, he was playing at Division II Pittsburg State.

Brown shattered the record books at Pittsburg State, setting school marks in receptions (185), receiving yards (3,380) and touchdowns (32). He dominated his opponents with his 4.3 speed as he sprinted past his slower competition to get open downfield and create big plays. This was really the only area along with special teams where people thought Brown would contribute this season.

Now Brown is surpassing expectations as a prospect. It’s difficult for rookies to shine in rookie minicamp because they usually are catching passes from undrafted quarterbacks. Brown was knocked for his hands and raw route-running skills coming into the draft, but in camp those are two traits that have stood out the most. Seeing him improve in these areas so quickly is a great sign for his future role.

Kelvin Benjamin, wide receiver, Carolina Panthers

The Panthers front office let Cam Newton down in the offseason—big time. Newton led the Panthers to the playoffs and an NFC South crown. And as a reward, Carolina took away his top wide receivers and half of his offensive line is gone.

This made their 2014 draft class even more important if they are to remain a playoff team. The New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers made tremendous improvements, increasing the pressure on the Panthers. With needs throughout the offensive line and Newton potentially looking at Tiquan Underwood as his go-to wide receiver, Carolina immediately drafted a WR with its first-round pick.

While Jameis Winston drew all of the attention during Florida State’s championship run, he wouldn’t have made it that far without his go-to wide receiver. The ball could be dropped right in front of Benjamin or a few feet in the air. Winston could count on Benjamin to make all the big catches, especially on jump balls. Now the Panthers hope Benjamin will have that same presence for Newton. While Steve Smith was tough, he doesn’t offer the same physicality and high-point ability that Benjamin brings.

While concentration and drops have been issues for him on easier plays, they haven’t happened thus far for Benjamin so far in camp. He has been catching everything thrown in his direction. These are the type of plays that quickly earn the trust of your quarterback and the coaching staff. Benjamin came to a situation where the depth chart was thin and as long as he keeps catching the football, he will be Newton’s favorite target for a long time.