Eleven NFL rookies I can’t wait to watch in training camp/preseason: Each position’s must-see newbie

On Saturday, July 30, NFL Network will present Training Camp: Back Together Saturday. Beginning at 9 a.m. ET, more than 50 analysts, reporters and team correspondents will provide 13 hours of live coverage from training camps across the NFL — plus, check out NFL Films-produced wired sound of players and coaches in action.

Training camp and preseason games provide coaches and scouts a solid glance at a rookie’s impact potential in the NFL. Although the exhibition season pales in comparison to regular-season action in terms of speed and intensity, the best players leave a grand first impression in August.

As a young scout working for the Seattle Seahawks, I watched Steve Hutchinson immediately showcase gold-jacket potential as a standout rookie performer. From Day 1, the 2001 first-round pick mauled defenders at the point of attack, teaming up with another eventual Hall of Famer, Walter Jones, to pave the way for Shaun Alexander on the ground.

With that in mind, I always look forward to seeing which rookies flash in their first training camp and preseason. So, given some time to review the depth charts of all 32 teams, I’ve identified the one player at each position that I’m most excited to track over the next month.

JUST TO BE CLEAR: This is not a list of my highest-rated rookies at each spot. These are guys that, for one reason or another, I cannot wait to watch in this ramp-up to the 2022 season.

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OFFENSE

Atlanta is not waging a full-blown quarterback competition, but from the outside looking in, Marcus Mariota does not appear to have the strongest hold on the Falcons’ starting job. Ridder is a dynamic athletic playmaker with the experience and winning pedigree (44 career wins at Cincinnati) to hit the ground running as a rookie signal-caller. If he gets off to a strong start in the preseason, Arthur Smith could hand the ball to the Cincy standout sooner than many anticipate.

Josh Allen has catapulted the Bills into title contention as a “one-man show,” but the top-shelf MVP candidate needed another playmaker in the backfield to add some diversity to the offensive attack. Insert Cook, an explosive runner/receiver with the capacity to do the dirty work between the tackles or win one-on-ones on the perimeter as a big-play threat in the passing game. With new offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey intent on creating and exploiting mismatches all over the field, Cook’s arrival could help the Bills’ offense become even more of a nightmare to defend in 2022.

The big-play specialist could make a huge impact on the Saints’ offense as a deep-ball threat to complement Michael Thomas and Jarvis Landry in the receiving corps. As safeties lean in the direction of the veteran pass catchers to help overmatched cornerbacks, the rookie speedster will sneak behind the defense on an assortment of vertical routes from the back side. With defensive coordinators also instructing their charges to keep a close eye on No. 41 (Alvin Kamara), the Ohio State product could emerge as a dark-horse contender for Offensive Rookie of the Year as a scoring machine with a highlight reel full of long touchdowns.

Given Lamar Jackson’s obvious affinity for tight ends, Likely has the potential to play a major role on an offense that could feature more two and three-TE sets. He was actually the second tight end Baltimore drafted in April, but fellow fourth-rounder Charlie Kolar is going to miss time due to sports hernia surgery. While first-team All-Pro TE Mark Andrews remains the No. 1 option in the passing game, Likely’s playmaking skills should enable offensive coordinator Greg Roman to create explosive opportunities in the passing game utilizing run-heavy sets. If Likely can hold his own as a blocker, the Ravens’ multiple-TE sets could become a problem for defensive coordinators around the league.

The rookie road grader appears poised to start at left guard, but the Cowboys have moved Smith around throughout the offseason, with the stated plan to eventually move him to the edge. As a utility player with the potential to play inside or outside, the 6-foot-6, 332-pounder provides Dallas with more flexibility to put its best five offensive linemen on the field. Considering Tyron Smith’s extensive injury history and the questionable performance from some others along the front (SEE: Connor McGovern), the rookie’s adaptability could key the offense’s production in 2022.

Doug Pederson, Trent Baalke and Co. made a concerted effort to upgrade the supporting cast around Trevor Lawrence, looking to help last year’s No. 1 overall pick get his groove back in Year 2. Fortner appears poised to man the pivot as a rock-solid blocker with size, strength and power to control the point of attack. As a potential rookie starter, the Kentucky product must quickly master the Jaguars’ protections to ensure the franchise quarterback is secure in the pocket. How quickly Fortner displays a mastery of the scheme and fundamentals could determine whether Lawrence shows significant improvement this season.

DEFENSE

Do not be surprised if No. 54 emerges as a breakout candidate during the preseason. The Cowboys’ second-round pick possesses the first-step quickness and closing burst to create havoc off the edges, and playing alongside reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Micah Parsons could give him plenty of opportunities to win one-on-one matchups. If the Ole Miss product can get up to speed with the playbook — while also spending extra time with defensive coordinator Dan Quinn to hone his craft as a pass rusher — the Cowboys could unleash another young, dynamic defender on opponents this fall. 

The ultra-talented Leal could enjoy a banner rookie season in a defense that will enable him to play fast and free at the line of scrimmage. The 6-foot-4, 290-pounder is a long, rangy interior defender with the strength and athleticism to drive guards and tackles crazy at the point of attack. As a fluid mover with solid instincts, Leal could flourish on a front that features Cam Heyward and reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J Watt. If Leal quickly grasps the concepts and techniques preached by defensive line coach Karl Dunbar, the third-round pick could become a problem for opponents attempting to attack the middle of the Steelers’ defense. 

Despite experiencing a draft slide apparently stemming from medical concerns that pushed the ultra-productive Georgia product into the third round, Dean is a potential star in Philadelphia. The rookie defender is a high-IQ playmaker with the instincts and communication skills to handle “green dot” duties (play-calling responsibilities). Of course, the Eagles will need to see a healthy Dean in action before putting him in that position. If he performs as expected, Dean could give Philly the second-level difference-maker this franchise has lacked for years. 

Bill Belichick has a knack for developing unheralded cornerbacks on the island, including J.C. Jackson, who left the Patriots this offseason to sign a monster free-agent deal with the Chargers. A big-time recruit out of Long Beach Poly High School, Jones actually began his college career at USC. But after a breakout sophomore season, he was ruled academically ineligible and then was arrested for breaking into a restaurant after hours. Eventually, he landed at Arizona State. The raw talent has never been in question, with Jones possessing the speed, quickness and instincts to excel in the Patriots’ man-heavy defense. If he masters the fundamentals and adheres to the disciplined principles of the scheme, Jones could become the next diamond in the rough in New England’s secondary.  

Perhaps the Bengals drafted Hill to complement Jesse Bates III in the defensive backfield or be the heir apparent to the veteran playmaker. The rookie safety is a versatile talent with the capacity to play in the slot or the deep middle, while also offering cornerback-like man-to-man cover skills. With Bates embroiled in a contract negotiation that has kept him away from camp, the Bengals could really need their first-year safety to hit the ground running as an impact player in the back end. 

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter.

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