When the Dallas Cowboys' first rookie minicamp practice broke in May, cornerback Byron Jones found himself oddly unaccompanied. The franchise's first-round pick stood with only a small smattering of reporters at his locker, many of whom were still pivoting their heads to an opposite wall, where a massive group of microphones and cameras encircled one man.
Inside it? Randy Gregory, one of the most anticipated defensive rookies in the NFL this season.
Of all the rookies I'm itching to see in camp and a live game, Gregory is easily near the top. Dubbed the purest pass rusher in this draft, it will be intriguing to see how Gregory responds to a spotlight that has bumped all other Dallas rookies – including potential 2015 starters Jones and offensive lineman La'el Collins – into second class.
Can Gregory get himself to (and maintain) a weight that will keep him from getting mowed down against the run this season? How quickly will he adapt and improve from the abuse he'll take at the hands of All-Pro offensive tackle Tyron Smith in training camp? Will he continue to pass the battery of drug tests that will be applied by the NFL since he tested positive for marijuana at the scouting combine in February?
The hype machine started immediately when Dallas scooped up Gregory in the second round. It was billed as a worthwhile gamble on a player who could have been a top-10 pick. With defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli having a history of getting results from guys like Gregory, we should see flashes (and maybe more) quickly.
Here's a look at the rest of the intriguing rookies to see when training camp opens …
The selection of Crowder didn't raise a lot of eyebrows amongst fans, but that's because there aren't many people outside of the Duke faithful who got to see him consistently. But the 2015 wide receiver class has a chance to be similar to last season's group, and produce some middle-round guys who look like steals. Crowder will have the chance to be one of those. He has some explosive playmaking ability and he is tough, which should translate well into the slot early on. He can also contribute right away in the return game, and that could translate into an expanding role in the mold of Pittsburgh's Markus Wheaton in 2014.
Obviously one of the rookies (like Eric Rowe) is going to have to surface as a key piece in the secondary, but I'm more intrigued by Agholor. The Eagles are going to have to find a surefire No. 1 at wideout, and Agholor will eventually be that guy. He's an extremely good fit for the Eagles' offense, a good route runner, dependable hands and solid (but not great) size. The bottom line: he is big enough and polished enough to come in and be productive immediately. He should have plenty of isolated matchups, too. The door is wide open, and this is a pick the Eagles need to pan out.
A month ago, safety Landon Collins was a lock for this spot. The Giants have a significant need at his position, and that will likely dictate instant starter status. But that was all before defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul's fireworks accident. It remains to be seen what impact Pierre-Paul's hand injury will have on his ability to operate at a high level, or how that could ripple to the defensive line. But at the very least, Paul's mistake will mean more early training camp opportunities on the edge for Odighizuwa. He's raw, but the coaches and front office have been high on his focus and work ethic. He may have been seen as a rotational/developmental guy immediately after the draft, but Pierre-Paul's status could push that timeline up much more quickly in the preseason.
Considering the amount of grief the selection of defensive end Frank Clark has caused, it's hard to pass him over. If Clark flops, that pick will be an all-time headache considering the way it went down. That said, Lockett is too perfect a fit to not be the guy you want to see in the preseason. He is explosive, and he can turn any play into something wild, and he should get his hands on the ball on offense and special teams. He has a bit of DeSean Jackson in him in terms of big-play ability. I'm not sure he has the raw talent that Jackson possesses, but Lockett's work ethic might be better. Seattle missed pass-catching playmakers on offense last season. Lockett could be a big help with that void.
I know. Everyone wants to see running back Todd Gurley. I'm in that camp, too. But how much run is he going to get in the preseason? The Rams likely will be conservative with him, knowing Gurley should be a centerpiece for a long time. That leaves me with an appetite for Mannion, who drew conflicting opinions from the personnel community. He seems to be a very love/hate kind of player, and that reminds me of things I heard about Tom Savage, the Houston Texans quarterback who was a big flop last year in his rookie season. Mannion ran a pro style in college and played his best when he had talent around him. I'm curious to see if he can flash some potential, or if it's clear almost immediately (like it was with Savage in 2014) that he's a long way from being a legitimate understudy.
David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals need someone tough and productive to step up at running back. Johnson is a big back who looks the part. But is he the right fit? Some scouts say he's more of a picker – an upright runner who looks for creases and opportunities rather than just using his size and blowing them open. A Matt Forte comparison is one you will hear. Whether that's good or bad doesn't matter, because Johnson is going to get a lot of opportunities. A lot of fantasy football owners will be eyeballing him all preseason, knowing that the Cardinals would love for him to be a heavy load guy. For what it's worth, I saw him at the Senior Bowl and liked the way he was deliberate and could navigate his way through garbage.
Eli Harold, LB, San Francisco 49ers
With the offseason talent purge, you could argue that pretty much every rookie in this class is intriguing, because San Francisco is going to need some guys to step up. Particularly on defense. With that in mind, I'm anxious to see two things. First, I want to see if Harold can continue to showcase his explosion as a pass rusher, which will get him opportunities right away. Second, I want to see how the 49ers get him on the field if the rest of the pass-rush specialists are healthy. Getting pressure can solve a lot of defensive woes. Let's see how creative San Francisco gets with him.
Ameer Abdullah, RB, Detroit Lions
Offensive guard Laken Tomlinson should be a plug-in-and-forget-him starter (which is a good thing). And defensive tackle Gabe Wright, if he can be motivated, has some legitimate talent to work with. But Abdullah could be a home-run hitter who really takes a healthy Lions offense and elevates it to a Green Bay Packers level. Reggie Bush had that ability, but faltered with health and consistency within the scheme. Abdullah, on the other hand, is the perfectly explosive (and young) element to pair with Joique Bell. I'm not sure I buy that Abdullah is only a third-down specialist, either. He might not be a full-load guy, but I think he could show in the preseason that he is a tough, violent runner who can handle first- and second-down looks.
T.J. Clemmings, OG, Minnesota Vikings
There are several guys who will be worth watching, including cornerback Trae Waynes. But Clemmings has been overshadowed nationally since the draft. The Vikings' selection of him in the fourth round is almost as big a coup as the Cowboys signing guard La'el Collins as a rookie free agent. A handful of teams liked Clemmings as a potential first-round talent before his medical chart (specifically a stress fracture in his foot) became a red flag that dragged him into the draft abyss. Now? Thus far, he seems to be doing just fine and has a shot to start at guard this season. If that happens, Minnesota may have taken a chance and pulled a first-rounder out of the middle of the draft. And considering the build around quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is priority No. 1, that's been a largely ignored storyline outside of Minnesota.
Jake Ryan, LB, Green Bay Packers
I'm curious to see quarterback Brett Hundley, who slid tremendously in the draft despite having some sick measurables. But I want to see Ryan even more, largely because he fills a significant need at inside linebacker for the Packers. I can't believe that they want to keep fiddling with Clay Matthews, who takes a lot of punishment when he slides inside. Personnel men who scouted guys like Michigan's Frank Clark and Devin Funchess had a lot of good things to say about Ryan. He developed a reputation as a tough, competitive, consistent player who may have been the most instinctual defender at Michigan during his time there. And he was an experienced and natural leader, too, starting for four seasons in Ann Arbor. That sounds like someone who will fit right in with what Green Bay is all about.
Jeremy Langford, RB, Chicago Bears
Everyone is talking about wideout Kevin White and defensive tackle Eddie Goldman – and they should. But Langford was a monumentally productive player at Michigan State who was overlooked as a guy who didn't play as fast has his 4.4-second 40-yard dash suggests. Well, he's a very good athlete whose damage is often done with his vision and burst to set up big plays in his first few steps. Langford has a chance to win the No. 2 running back job in camp, and everyone knows Matt Forte is having contract issues. The Bears will take a good long look at Langford in the preseason, to see if he has what it takes to absorb NFL punishment with a heavy load. Coach John Fox has never really used just one running back, either. That makes Langford's development in the preseason all the more important.
Grady Jarrett, DT, Atlanta Falcons
After the draft I would have picked running back Tevin Coleman as the guy I wanted to see most, but a handful of NFL personnel guys kept dropping Jarrett as the potential surprise. One of those individuals was genuinely upset that his franchise passed on Jarrett in the fourth round. What's to love? There was a mixture of appreciation for Jarrett's depth of talent, but also his fit within the scheme the Falcons will use under new head coach Dan Quinn. Some size and character concerns apparently scared some teams off, but guys who watched Clemson tape said Jarrett continually popped on the screen – even when they were trying to evaluate someone else.
Jameis Winston, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Yeah, it's obvious. But what can I say, I'm dying to see how Winston's charisma with teammates and willingness to take chances with his arm translate to the NFL level. He certainly has some offensive pieces to work with, although I've got a feeling he's going to take a beating behind that offensive line. His physical toughness will be tested right away. First-round quarterbacks have really been boom or bust the last few years, and Winston won't be any different. We'll see very quickly in the preseason where the needle is pointing. If not Winston, I would have chosen small-school offensive guard Ali Marpet, who is going to have a huge adjustment when it comes to the strength and speed of NFL interior linemen.
Garrett Grayson, QB, New Orleans Saints
Cornerback P.J. Williams is interesting from a pure skills viewpoint and I would have chosen him if the Saints hadn't taken a quarterback. But the reality is Drew Brees turned 36 in January and Grayson is the first legitimate stab at a potential replacement. It'll be interesting to see where he is on the continuum. And let's be real: If Brees stays healthy, the preseason is likely the only time we'll see Grayson take significant snaps in 2015. Jimmy Garoppolo was the guy who showed last preseason that he was an understudy with a load of raw talent. Grayson could be that guy this year.
Devin Funchess, WR, Carolina Panthers
Linebacker Shaq Thompson's surprising selection in the first round puts pressure on him right away, and that will be interesting to watch. But Funchess is the far more important piece now, because quarterback Cam Newton needs help and can't afford another season of stunted development. Funchess is a tweener at best, more of a tight end than wideout. But I'd like to see him prove me wrong, too. That's what makes him so interesting in the preseason. If he has the burst and explosiveness to get separation from cornerbacks (or the grit to simply outmuscle them), we should see it pretty quickly. I want to see if his hands have improved, too.
Devin Smith, WR, New York Jets
Obviously defensive end Leonard Williams will draw most of the spotlight. And anything left over will likely get directed toward quarterback project Bryce Petty. But I'm most interested in seeing what in the world the Jets will do with Smith, who has a lot of deep speed to stretch secondaries. There's a big question about how well-rounded Smith can become, and one personnel guy dubbed him "another Ted Ginn" – and meant it in a bad way. A middling, one-trick receiver is certainly not what the Jets hope for, and you have to wonder if they've got the quarterback to even utilize that speed. We'll see. Looks like a big boom-or-bust pick.
A.J. Derby, TE, New England Patriots
The Patriots had some interesting picks that could offer great value, like defensive tackle Malcom Brown at the end of Round 1 and guard Tre Jackson in Round 4. Jackson could be a surprise starter this season. But Derby is the most interesting player taken by the Patriots, because he is still rapidly developing at tight end. You'll hear a lot of Julian Edelman and Matt Slater talk, guys whose talent and flexibility inside the scheme made them valuable "off-the-radar" picks. Derby is a sixth-round pick who fits that mold after bouncing between Iowa and junior college as a quarterback, then moving to tight end at Arkansas last season. He has the athleticism that will translate into some interesting matchups, both blocking and receiving. He has a tremendous opportunity to learn from Rob Gronkowski, too.
Jay Ajayi, RB, Miami Dolphins
First-round wideout DeVante Parker should get every opportunity to come in and blow up right away, and it'll be interesting to see how tough sixth-rounder Tony Lippett develops with a full-time move to cornerback. But fifth-round pick Ajayi has a chance to be a big steal – so long as he holds up physically. He has the size to take punishment at the next level, but also the wiggle to make guys miss in space. Incumbent starter Lamar Miller hasn't always been the most physical runner, either – particularly inside an opponent's 10-yard line. Much like Chicago's Matt Forte, Miller is at the end of his contract, too. If Ajayi can show something in early opportunities, he could parlay that into the starting job sooner rather than later.
John Miller, G, Buffalo Bills
I like cornerback Ronald Darby. I just don't know when he's going to get on the field with the depth in Buffalo's secondary. Miller, on the other hand, is sorely needed and should cakewalk his way to a starting job in the regular season. Bills coach Rex Ryan said as much – that the team drafted Miller to be a Day 1 starter on the offensive line. That's the same place Miller started from Day 1 (and all four years) in college. He is smart and very experienced, and sometimes those guys can help steady an entire line. And while a guard isn't the sexiest pick to "watch," the reality is Buffalo's offensive line will be a key factor for whoever starts at QB.
Denzel Perryman, LB, San Diego Chargers
Melvin Gordon might lead all rookie running backs in touches this season, and small-school cornerback Craig Mager has a big adjustment at the next level. But I've heard a lot of love for Perryman all offseason. He's supposed to be Mr. Nasty on the inside, and he's going to a defense that could use it. Perryman has got a little bit of the Miami/Ray Lewis thing going for him, one front-office source said. If he's that kind of downhill pounder against the run, he should be exciting to watch – and start from Day 1. Whether or not he can stay on the field every down remains to be seen.
Clive Walford, TE, Oakland Raiders
I'm excited to see the Raiders' first three picks. Wideout Amari Cooper might be the best player from this draft, and I've heard a lot of love for defensive tackle Mario Edwards on the personnel front. But Walford has drawn a lot of attention as a guy who could surprise from this draft. He is big and athletic, and might have been the most complete tight end in the draft. The fact that he can block and catch should keep him on the field, and drawing plenty of targets from young quarterback Derek Carr. You hear it over and over on the NFL level: a talented tight end is a young quarterback's best friend. Walford should slide right into that role.
Steven Nelson, CB, Kansas City Chiefs
First-round cornerback Marcus Peters is going to get most of the fanfare, but I saw Nelson in Senior Bowl practices and liked him a lot. He might be underrated as a third-round pick. He's pretty good on an island and likes to get up in the grill of receivers and rough them up at the line of scrimmage. While I'm not sure he'll be in the starting mix right away, I think he could give Peters a run for his money as best long-term pick for the Chiefs (particularly considering some of the maturity red flags that have dogged Peters).
Shane Ray, LB, Denver Broncos
Already losing tight end Jeff Heuerman to a knee injury was a bummer, and in a way, it doubles down the pressure on Ray. The rest of the draft was made up of workmanlike building blocks, which leaves Ray as the guy who will be looked to bring the glitz and highlights. He's a big risk, already being in an advanced state in the NFL's substance-testing program. If his immense talent can't make the transition, this is going to be a class without splash. The gamble, though, was sound. Ray will bring some additional spark to an aging pass rush (not to mention some injury insurance). I'll be interested to see what his role is when the preseason starts. They might have to be creative to get him on the field this season.
Paul Dawson, LB, Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals have several interesting guys thanks to a draft that seemed to feature talented but harangued picks. Defensive back Josh Shaw is a nice fit for the defense, but because of depth, the preseason might be the few times we see him on the field with the secondary. Marcus Hardison has some nice measurables and is still feeling out the defensive end position after moving there in college. All of that said, Dawson looked like he could be a tackling machine in the NFL coming out of TCU, but bombed in the draft run-up. There were negative stories about interviews, some subpar workouts and a lot of scuttlebutt about him being immature. Apparently he has some overwhelming confidence and can grind on people. That has drawn comparisons to Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who also got shredded in draft sorting but turned into a good NFL player. I want to see how Dawson responds to the criticism in what should be a lot of preseason opportunities.
Duke Johnson, RB, Cleveland Browns
I like defensive tackle Danny Shelton a lot and have been scratching my head over his detractors since he entered the draft. Ditto for defensive end Nate Orchard. But my curiosity is off the charts for Johnson, especially after Browns running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery likened Johnson to Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas. I love that comparison, although Thomas was a tough player and we've yet to see how Johnson will respond to an NFL pounding. He will get no shortage of looks in the preseason, as the Browns desperately need a guy to take hold of that backfield. I haven't heard a single personnel guy say they didn't like the Johnson/Browns fit, and most agree that Johnson plays faster than he times. That makes me believe Cleveland may have finally gotten it right.
Maxx Williams, TE, Baltimore Ravens
This was a coin toss between wideout Breshad Perriman and Williams. Perriman has been tabbed by seemingly everyone as the perfect fit for a deep receiver with a ton of speed. But I think Williams will have more targets, maybe by a wide margin. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco will definitely lock in on a reliable tight end, and Williams was far and away the best one in the draft (which isn't saying that much, as it was a weak TE crop). That said, Williams is said to possess great hands and the kind of athleticism that defenses take for granted until it repeatedly burns them in the red zone. NFL personnel guys love comparisons, and I heard a couple liken him to Cowboys rock Jason Witten. If that's legit, we should know it quickly.
Sammie Coates, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
I'm not sure that linebacker Bud Dupree is going to be an every-down guy right out of the gate. He's fast and athletic, but will have some work to do in run support. Lean more toward Coates being the guy who will be a little more dramatic in the preseason, although it could go in either direction. He's very skilled and adept when it comes to the deep game, but he's got to show he can hang onto the ball in the NFL. Physically, it's all there. He would have gone higher in the draft if he had been more consistent with his hands. If he can shore that up, he could be making big plays right away.
Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Tennessee Titans
This might have been the toughest choice of any NFL team because the Titans have so many guys that could be valuable starters (and key building blocks) by the end of the season. The questions about Marcus Mariota's fit into the offense easily could have gotten the nod here. Running back David Cobb? All I keep hearing is how he's big, tough, underrated and has good vision and instincts. So yeah, a lot of Cobb love out here. But for my money, I want to see Green-Beckham. His total talent package is rare, but he hasn't played football in 19 months. That's a rough layoff for a skill position player. But Green-Beckham has the stuff of a potential dominant No. 1 receiver. I want to see how fast he comes on in the preseason.
T.J. Yeldon, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Dante Fowler Jr. should have been the intriguing guy to watch, but his knee injury shelved that for next year. Yeldon was easily the next man up. He has a chance to be an every-down back, and he is saying the right things about being the bottom guy trying to work to the top of the depth chart. He has a bruising build for the position, but he also has a pretty high-end ability when it comes to change of direction and agility in tight spots. Top-notch preparation and discipline as well. Apparently he has been going about his business like an NFL player for quite some time. The lingering question is how well he would have fared behind an offensive line that wasn't as proficient as that at Alabama. He won't be nearly as protected in Jacksonville, and we'll have to see how tough a runner he can be in the NFL. He certainly looks the part.
Jaelen Strong, WR, Houston Texans
Cornerback Kevin Johnson could go here, but he's a very safe and reliable pick who will do well for Houston. Strong on the other hand … I was excited about the pick, but he had a rough offseason. Hamstring and conditioning issues definitely upset the coaching staff, and left it focusing on other guys (believe it or not, I feel like I heard more positive things about fifth-round wideout Keith Mumphery). Will that last? No. But Strong definitely didn't get off to the fast start he'll need to crack the top-three wide receivers and do some early damage. He's a big outside receiver with ball skills that the Texans need right now, especially in the red zone. I'm very interested to see what his conditioning is like at the start of training camp, and whether he can stay on the field in the preseason.
Phillip Dorsett, WR, Indianapolis Colts
Any number of defensive draft picks would have fit in here, particularly if the Colts had actually used their first-rounder on a defensive guy. But that's what will make Dorsett so interesting in the preseason. How exactly do the Colts plan to use him in order to justify spending a first-round pick on a position that didn't seem to need it? Dorsett has a ton of speed and explosiveness and the skill to make sense on a lot of rosters. But he's going to have to show some serious pop right away to keep critics of the pick from grumbling in the preseason. Particularly if some of the defensive picks that came right after Dorsett (and there were still quite a few good ones) show well in other cities. It's hard for me to believe something interesting isn't in store.