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AP Photo/Gail Burton
The NFL offseason is transitioning from off-field news to on-field activity. With the draft and the biggest portion of free agency finished, OTA reports trickled in as rookies hit the field for the first time. While it’s a far cry from the real action we’ll see in September, positive takeaways are always welcomed.
Not all OTA and training camp stars will be rookie contributors, as both Dyami Brown and Deon Cain can attest to. However, the early returns can indicate a player is more advanced than evaluators may have thought.
We’ve scoured beat reporters’ takeaways to find the six rookies who have made waves at OTAs. Some may be surprising, as they were taken long after the first round. Others were top-20 picks and thought to be dominant talents. Let’s dive in.
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The Indianapolis Colts made the bold offseason acquisitions of veteran quarterback Matt Ryan and cornerback Stephon Gilmore. It was the right time for them to make aggressive changes after stalling out with Carson Wentz under center last year. For this team to become an AFC contender, though, it needs more reliable playmaking at receiver.
Injuries decimated a talented group that has included TY Hilton and Parris Campbell. Hilton hasn’t played a full season since 2018 and is a free agent, while Campbell hasn’t played more than seven games in any of his three campaigns.
So the Colts drafted form Cincinnati Bearcat star receiver Alec Pierce in the third round.
At, 6’3″, 211 pounds, Pierce is a big-bodied vertical threat like Michael Pittman Jr. (6’4″, 223 lbs). Ryan’s precision should mesh well with Pierce’s game, which isn’t predicated on separation. During rookie OTAs, Pierce has shown potential of picking up the second receiver role behind Pittman.
The possession receiver will need to finish catches in traffic, and Zak Keefer of The Athletic noted he had two toe-tap touchdowns during the team’s red-zone exercise. Joel A. Erickson of the Indianapolis Star noted he had not seen Pierce drop a pass through the weekend OTAs, speaking to his reliability. This has to be music to Ryan’s ears.
The Colts have a young, dynamic set of emerging talents with Pittman, running back Jonathan Taylor and Pierce. The bar for AFC contention has risen immensely over the last few offseasons as stars relocated to the conference. Pierce will have more pressure on him to produce early than most Day 2 rookies will.
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Anytime a rookie blocker earns praise, it’s notable because it can be easy for trench players to go through the motions during package installations. But that was not the case for No. 6 pick Ikem Ekwonu.
The Carolina Panthers desperately need him to be an impactful blindside protector as a rookie. Their offense was maimed by the constant wave of defenders reaching the quarterback within seconds of the snap last year. Neither Sam Darnold nor Cam Newton withstood a real chance.
Ekwonu looks the part of a franchise left tackle. According to Dean Jones of Fansided, Panthers offensive line coach James Campen gave Ekwonu everything he could handle. The former North Carolina State product went above and beyond in his response.
Jones noted Ekwonu’s “heart, energy, and focus” in rookie OTAs. With the Panthers slated to face elite edge talents such as Cleveland’s Myles Garrett and San Francisco’s Nick Bosa early in the season, Ekwonu will need to be as sharp as any rookie blocker taken in the last few years. His pedigree is promising, and his mindset seems to be as well.
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The run of four receivers selected in a five-pick span among the top 12 in the 2022 draft created a ripple effect. Fringe first-round prospects Jahan Dotson and Treylon Burks were taken in the top 18, and veteran receivers AJ Brown and Marquise Brown were traded for first-round picks.
Dotson was the most surprising first-rounder. A gifted route-runner with more quickness than speed, he has versatility to play outside or inside. But the 5’11”, 182-pound Penn State star didn’t exactly light up the scouting combine, as his relative athletic score was mediocre.
It may not matter as long as Washington uses Dotson in creative ways and plays to his strengths. He’s earning early praise for his OTA performance. Ethan Gifts of NBC Sports Washington reported Dotson is “impressing his new teammates and coaches” with his speed and hands.
Dotson’s quickness off the line of scrimmage and reliable hands should make him a trusted target for quarterback Carson Wentz right away. One issue Washington had last year was finding receivers besides Terry McLaurin who could create space in a hurry. Dotson is already showing off that valuable skill set.
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The beauty of a Tom Brady-led offense is the front office can churn playmaking talent and maintain production. That isn’t to say Brady doesn’t need or have excellent stars around him in Tampa Bay, but he will maximize whatever he has to work with at all times. And the running back position has benefited the most from Brady’s presence.
Incumbent starter Leonard Fournette is back and is coming off a solid season in which he posted 1,266 total yards and 10 touchdowns. His re-signing didn’t stop Bucs general manager Jason Licht from trying to find a long-term star, though. With the 91st pick, the Bucs took former Arizona State rusher Rachaad White.
White had a dominant but short collegiate career, averaging 5.5 yards per carry and scoring 15 touchdowns in 2021. He also averaged 10 yards per carry on 42 attempts in 2020. His receiving ability must have been especially intriguing for the Bucs, as he totaled 51 receptions for 607 yards in two years for the Sun Devils.
In OTAs, White has continued to create a buzz. According to Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times, White looked like the dual-threat back that Tampa desires in its high-octane offense. His comfort working as a receiver can carve him an immediate role as a rookie. White is a powerful back with 4.48-second 40-yard dash speed, so Fournette will need to be at the top of his game again to fend off the rookie from eating too much into his snap count in 2022.
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AP Photo/Gail Burton
One of the best draft-class marriages in the first round was the Baltimore Ravens and former Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton. The rookie filled virtually every role possible in his time with the Fighting Irish and possesses a rare 6’4″, 220-pound frame that allows him to match up with any offensive weapon in the league.
New Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald will be able to deploy Hamilton however he chooses, not only because of his skill set but also the fact that this defense is loaded with talent.
Hamilton’s speed and fluidity alongside his hulking stature means he should stand out in OTAs. He fulfilled expectations by earning universal praise for his ability to defend pass-catchers one-on-one. According to The Athletic’s Jeff Zrebiec, Hamilton showed aggressiveness, confidence and great timing while playing in zone coverage as well.
Unleashing a Derwin James-type presence in a defense that usually ends up as a top-five unit gives the Ravens a true X-factor. Baltimore’s offense will likely take a step back after it lost Marquise Brown and didn’t add a playmaker to replace him, so the defense needs to carry this team back to the playoffs.
Look for Hamilton to play a large role in determining whether they can get back to the postseason.
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One of this year’s most surprising third-round picks was Danny Gray. The former SMU receiver was productive in college, tallying 1,251 yards and 13 touchdowns while posting 15.3 yards per catch. But he also posted an 8.3 percent drop rate in 2020 and 12.5 percent drop rate in 2021, per On Tap Sports Net.
San Francisco opted for the 6’2″, 200-pound Gray over other accomplished speedy prospects such as Romeo Doubs, Khalil Shakir and Bo Melton. The 49ers lacked a true downfield threat despite having talented playmakers in Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk. Gray, who ran a 4.33-second 40-yard dash, certainly qualifies as a viable deep option for quarterback Trey Lance.
With Samuel’s long-term status in flux, as his contract situation has yet to be settled, Gray has shown the upside to grow into a bigger role. According to Cam Inman of the MercuryNews, Gray impressed with his route running and speed through OTAs. SMU’s offense was more of an Air Raid attack than a precision-based strategy, so Gray’s route-running was rarely on display in college.
If Gray is more advanced than what he was able to show off in college, he could assume a much larger role in this offense than expected.