The path to the starting lineup is very often a difficult one for many rookies, no matter how highly touted they were as college prospects.
Between the competition to move past veterans on the roster, overcome weaknesses due to a lack of seasoning or the overwhelming complexities of the pro systems compared to the schemes they ran in college, many factors play a part in a rookie's success.
Here are five intriguing situations that could go either way as training camp approaches.
OLB Courtney Upshaw, Baltimore Ravens
When Upshaw was drafted out of Alabama after falling to the Ravens in the second round, he was expected to be a developmental project. He spent his college career at defensive end, playing with his hand in the dirt, but now is converting to outside linebacker and learning how to play in space: covering tight ends and setting the edge on the run.
He was deemed the heir apparent to the hybrid linebacker/pass rusher position that has been occupied by the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year in Terrell Suggs, and Peter Boulware before him in the attacking, hybrid-front defense that has been Baltimore’s calling card since the new millennium arrived.
Spending a few years learning from the best in the game was a perfect situation for a tweener such as Upshaw to be in. Suggs compliments his freakish athleticism well by showing natural instincts to make plays and the ability to cover and make tackles in the flats. He has developed into a well-rounded linebacker over the course of his career, which the Ravens were hoping Upshaw could emulate.
In April, Suggs injured his Achilles tendon, likely causing him to begin the season on the physically unable to perform list, with a decision being made in Week 6 as to whether he will see the field at all this year.
Although it would appear that the Ravens will use a rotation of Upshaw in passing situations with run-stuffer Jameel McClain playing on early downs, the Ravens were hoping to use McClain primarily to ease the burden from the loss of Jarrett Johnson and his ability against the run to free agency.
The Ravens will probably lean more heavily on versatile backup Dannell Ellerbee, but if Upshaw could show up at training camp and pick up the position quickly, do not be surprised to see Baltimore take the leash off the rookie.
NT Dontari Poe, Kansas City Chiefs
Every NFL Combine has a workout freak that catapults a player’s status to an elite level. Workout warriors do not always translate well to the field, as seen in the Vernon Gholston experiment
by the Jets. Poe, who tips the scales at 346 pounds, still runs a 4.98 40-yard dash. After seeing these numbers and reviewing game tape, analysts were expecting to see more footage of Poe getting up the field and after the quarterback.
One would think that a defensive tackle with that speed who completed an outlandish 44 repetitions on the bench press at the Combine would be a gap-shooting tackle in the mold of Warren Sapp. Once the game tape was re-reviewed, the consensus from many scouts the Poe was not an on-field talent. Perhaps the problem was what type of scheme that analysts were projecting for him.
Romeo Crennel has run a two-gap system for the defensive line going back to his days as the Patriots' defensive coordinator during their heyday. In this system, the defensive linemen clog up the blockers, preventing them from reaching the second level and allowing the linebackers to make plays. The linemen in this system do not receive the glory, as evidenced by the Pittsburgh Steelers’ excellent and unheralded defensive line.
It requires a gargantuan goliath to manage the middle of the line, while still possessing the agility and quick reactions to shed a block and cover two different gaps. It requires a very methodical technique, something that Poe never employed during his college days at Memphis since he could generally perform well based on his natural athletic ability and strength. His efforts to become a stronger technician have been praised by Crennel this offseason.
Haloti Ngata was unheralded coming out of college in the same manner, yet succeeded while receiving similar criticism as Poe has. Crennel may see in Poe a former player of his in Vince Wilfork. The Patriots' nose tackle exhibits the same strength and mammoth size contradicting his outstanding agility that Poe does, while receiving the same lack of recognition for his on-field contributions.
The Chiefs have shown, through the high draft picks of Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson that they are not afraid to use a glamour pick on a player whose contributions go largely overlooked, so the Poe pick might be from the same underrated mold. It’s still no guarantee that he will not turn into the next Mike Mamula.
OT Mike Adams, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers know that their star quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, can only take so many hits without becoming the walking triage that he became last season. In the first round of the Draft, the Steelers selected David DeCastro, the Stanford guard that many pegged as the best offensive lineman in the 2012 class. When, in the second round, Adams was still available, the Steelers didn’t hesitate to continue to fortify the first line of protection for Roethlisberger.
Adams is a 6’7” offensive tackle out of Ohio State, tipping the scales at 323 pounds. He employs surprisingly good footwork to excel in pass protection, easily mirroring the pass rusher and running him past the quarterback or using his frame as leverage to combat a bull rush.
At this size, Adams would be expected to be a mauler in the rushing game, but this is hardly the case. He managed just 19 repetitions in the bench press at the NFL Combine and showed trouble driving out opponents in the run game to open holes. With the transition to the NFL, many projected Adams to show even more struggles run blocking.
Despite all the negative assessments, Adams was deemed a first-round talent for a reason. If he can hit the weights hard and improve his run-blocking, the Steelers have show every indication that they would like to see him lining up with the first team on opening day.
Conversely, the Steelers are known for being a shrewd organization, and they have rightfully kept in touch with previous left tackle Max Starks as he recovers from his torn ACL. A proven veteran, Starks will probably receive a phone call and an invitation to a starting spot if Adams struggles. The fact that Starks has nearly recovered and the Steelers have still not approached him speaks highly for the rookie’s chances of winning a starting job.
WR Alshon Jeffrey, Chicago Bears
With a new offensive system, there will be many changes this season for the way the Bears take advantage of perhaps the league’s most underrated quarterback in Jay Cutler. New offensive coordinator Mike Tice is eliminating seven step drops in order to combat a porous offensive line and keep Jay Cutler from taking the pounding he endured under Mike Martz.
With a focus on timing routes, slants and catches over the middle, a big, strong receiver like Jeffrey will be able to win these matchups as long as Cutler can increase his anticipation. Jeffrey can also win battles in deep seam routes, using his superior timing and positioning to complement Cutler’s exceptionally strong arm.
The downside for Jeffrey is his questionable work ethic, which caused his weight to skyrocket up to 240 pounds last season at South Carolina and affected his production. He managed to slim down to 216 in time for the NFL Combine, showing that he is intelligent enough to realize his mistake and work to correct it.
Shifty, small receivers like Devin Hester and Johnny Knox are more suited to be role players in the new offense, since the short drops do not allow as much time to create separation. The void of a bona fide No. 2 receiver to line up across from Brandon Marshall, along with a lack of a playmaking tight end, might allow Jeffrey work his way into the starting lineup. He is the best suited to take advantage of the space underneath that Marshall will create.
CB Morris Claiborne, Dallas Cowboys
When the Cowboys drafted the talented cornerback out of LSU, they traded up into the Rams’ slot to grab what was considered to be the best cover corner prospect in a couple years. Claiborne enters a crowded cornerback position, with Brandon Carr, Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick already occupying roster spots.
Although there were rumblings this summer that the Cowboys were putting Jenkins on the trade block, the Cowboys have denied them up and down. With the attacking, blitz-heavy defense that coordinator Rob Ryan runs, similar to the one his brother Rex runs with the Jets, there can never be too much value placed on a corner that excels in press-man coverage.
With the complexity and large responsibility a corner has in Ryan’s scheme, a year spent as the nickel or dime corner could be beneficial for a player who was rumored to have scored in the single digits on his Wonderlic test. On the other hand, Claiborne plays man coverage exceptionally well and could easily overtake the somewhat disappointing Scandrick, and perhaps Jenkins, who struggled last year due to a lingering shoulder injury.
Free agent acquisition Carr is the prototype of the physical, bump and run corner that Ryan likes to have on his defense, and that is the same mold in which Claiborne was made. Ryan wants his corners to be strong and re-route the receivers off the line of scrimmage, so if Claiborne picks up the defense quickly then he could be given every chance to get in Ryan’s starting eleven.
Despite possessing the tools to quickly become to Rob Ryan what Darrelle Revis is to Rex, Claiborne was limited in OTAs and minicamp due to injury. Coincidentally, Jenkins has still been slow to fully recover from the painful shoulder injury which tolerated all season. He has visited Dr. James Andrews, surgeon of choice for nearly every professional athlete, which could be a sign that the opportunity for Claiborne to claim a starting spot might exist when training camp rolls around.