With the start of NFL training camps just a couple weeks away, the post-NBA Finals and Stanley Cup hangovers will soon be cured. Since baseball and the occasional tennis match have been the only sports of the past month, sports fans often look ahead to September football to endure the summer slog. Though training camp is an afterthought for the league’s established veterans, the practices in the July and August heat serve as a proving ground for rookies. Here are some first-year players a football fan should keep track of throughout training camp:
DeShaun Watson, QB, Houston (1st Round, 12th overall)
When a quarterback is selected with the 12th overall pick, they typically find themselves on a losing team and are granted a large learning curve as a result. Watson’s situation is an exception. Houston played the Patriots tough in the divisional round of the playoffs despite having to deal with having Brock Osweiler play quarterback, and are expected to be a contender in the AFC this coming year. Watson isn’t currently listed as the Texans’ starting signal-caller, but with Tom Savage’s injury history as well as an inability to be more than mediocre, the national champion at Clemson could find himself the starter early in the year if he plays well in camp.
Gareon Conley, CB, Oakland (1st Round, 24th overall)
Hit with an accusation of rape shortly before draft day, Conley’s stock slipped out of the top 10, but the corner-needy Raiders were quick to pounce. Since the situation is still developing, it is unknown what will occur with the former Ohio State cover man. With the investigation still open, it is likely that it will be resolved sometime during training camp. However, possibly because of the investigation, Conley hasn’t signed his rookie deal with the Silver and Black yet. The evidence is pointing towards Conley’s name being cleared, which would pay off well for the Raiders, as Conley would be a starter from Week One.
Jabrill Peppers, LB/S, Cleveland (1st Round, 25th overall)
One of college football’s biggest storylines was the play of the former Michigan Swiss army knife known as Jabrill Peppers. A threat in all three phases of the game, the biggest question about Peppers in the Draft process was where he would be best utilized in the pro game, causing him to drop to the back end of the first round. With Cleveland’s roster depleted, having a player with positional versatility such as Peppers works in their favor. Training camp will give Peppers an opportunity to experiment with a number of roles, and give the Cleveland brass a clear view of where his best usage will be. Expect Peppers to be a situational kick and punt returner as well as a hybrid linebacker-safety in the mold of Deone Bucannon, but his role on defense could be different as he is considerably smaller than the Cardinals star.
Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota (2nd Round, 41st overall)
Viewed as a top-10 pick early in the draft process, Cook’s underwhelming workouts and character concerns led to a fall to the second round. However, Cook’s play at Florida State was electrifying, and finds himself in a position to contribute for a contender at the NFL level. With Sam Bradford’s limited arm, the Vikings will look to employ a ground-and-pound offense again. Veteran Latavius Murray was brought in from Oakland and will likely start the season as the starter, but has a history of adequacy. Cook will be getting a lot of looks early in the year, and could take over the first and second down role if he excels in camp.
Cooper Kupp, WR, Los Angeles Rams (3rd Round, 69th overall)
A trendy sleeper pick in NFL circles after a sterling Senior Bowl performance, Kupp’s once-hot stock dropped after failing to perform well at the Combine. One of the most decorated pass-catchers in college football history, Kupp finds himself in a great position to make an immediate impact. While Jared Goff has been routinely terrible in his short NFL career, he has to throw it to someone, especially since the Rams project to be losing in most games. Tavon Austin, who has struggled with injuries and is too small to play outside of the slot, and Robert Woods, who has been mediocre his entire career, are the only two receivers listed above Kupp on the depth chart. A great possession receiver with No. 1 wideout attributes, Kupp could earn the lion’s share of targets in LA.
Jake Butt, TE, Denver (5th Round, 145th overall)
Tearing his ACL in the final game of his college career, Butt’s injury and subsequent drop in the Draft shut up some of the critics of Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette, who had skipped their bowl games due to injury concerns. While Butt was still drafted, he is an unknown quantity for Denver. Butt is currently on the Physically Unable to Perform list, but has been able to participate in light drills, an encouraging sign. Keep track of his progression, because with just Virgil Green ahead of him on the depth chart, a healthy Butt could become an every-down starter for an offense that will focus on short and intermediate throws from Trevor Siemian.