Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin provided our annual reminder not to read too deeply into offseason practices because it’s just “football in shorts.” The most important function is to install the offenses and defenses that the players will take into training camp.
For the incoming draft class, though, it’s our first chance to see how they are integrating at the next level. Which rookies are leaving the biggest impression on coaches, teammates and beat writers? Here’s a sample of nine first-year players standing out from the pack.
Under general manager Rick Smith and coach Gary Kubiak, the Texans habitually have dispensed the notion of competition when it comes to first-round picks. They are drafted to be thrown into the fire as immediate contributors. Kubiak’s praise for Hopkins already has run the gamut from “extremely special” to “obviously very gifted” and “very competitive.”
Asked how quickly Hopkins might be ready for a major offensive role, Kubiak replied, “I’m expecting it right off the get-go.” Between Hopkins and a healthy Ben Tate, the Texans finally might possess enough playmakers to get past the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens in the AFC playoffs.
The No. 33 overall pick in the draft was the team’s organized team activities/minicamp MVP “in a landslide,” according to The Florida Times-Union. This comes after Cyprien was “a man among boys” at rookie camp. We expect him to emerge as the Jaguars’ premier defensive player as a rookie.
The Chargers have done a commendable job of sweeping Te’o's fake-girlfriend scandal under the rug. All of the talk out of offseason practices was about Te’o's on-field impact. The former Notre Dame star appears to be one of those rare NFL-ready rookies with instincts who just “gets it.” Te’o might not be a three-down linebacker, but he’s going to start from Day 1.
As Ed Reed waffles on his availability for Week 1, the No. 57 overall pick continues to impress the Texans coaching staff with confidence, instincts and ball skills. “He’s very smart in picking things up with what we’re doing,” Kubiak said last week.
“I think he’s going to be a big contributor early.”
Coach Marvin Lewis’ first on-field reaction was that Eifert is “as advertised” as a receiver as well as a blocker. The Bengals plan to move him around the offense to create mismatches against linebackers and cornerbacks.
“From Day 1 nothing has seemed too big for him,” quarterback Andy Dalton said. “That’s why we picked him with the first pick, and he’s really well-deserving.”
The last pick in the first round is impressing teammates as a quick study who always is around the ball. “He’s tough, he’s fast, he gets football,” secondary coach Teryl Austin said, “and I think he is going to be a fine player for us soon.”
Elam already is playing in both base and nickel packages. “That’s pretty impressive,” veteran cornerback Corey Graham explained. “You don’t see that much, especially in the first couple of months of being on the team.”
A pre-draft favorite of NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock, Moore has had normally reticent head coach Dennis Allen gushing in offseason pracices.
“I like Sio,” Allen said last week. “He’s a big, powerful man. And he’s got a little bit of pass-rush ability to him. So, I like some of the flexibility that he gives us. His work ethic and his understanding of the game of football is what’s going to allow him to be a good player for us.”
Moore should be penciled in as the starting outside linebacker opposite Kevin Burnett.
As expected, the man formerly known as Honey Badger was “buzzing around plays” as an immediate starter in nickel packages during OTAs. “He gets things the first time the coaches tell it to him,” head coach Bruce Arians said. “He’s got natural instincts to play football. I’m really happy for him. He’s playing really well.”
Quarterback Carson Palmer has compared Mathieu’s closing speed to that of long-time nemesis Troy Polamalu.
McDonald “may have been the biggest standout” this offseason among the 49ers’ rookies, according to the Sacramento Bee. The No. 55 overall pick was a favorite target of all the quarterbacks and showed a knack for making difficult catches. He’s expected to fill Delanie Walker’s role as the No. 2 tight end, complementing Vernon Davis.
Follow Chris Wesseling on Twitter @ChrisWesseling.
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