As NFL teams head into the third full week of preseason games, those who trained at some remote college or other special spot have broken camp. Players, coaches and those who watched carefully are buzzing about those special camp surprises.
Reporters covering each team for The Sports Xchange watched carefully and are giving us the buzz on that player -- the surprise of camp -- just as the TSX insider at Seattle did in 2012.
Seattle's camp surprise going into the third preseason game that year was quarterback Russell Wilson, a rookie third-round draft pick out of Wisconsin. He was given his first start in that third preseason game and completed 13 of 19 passes for 185 yards and two touchdowns in a 44-14 win over the Kansas City Chiefs.
That clinched the starting job over Matt Flynn, whom the Seahawks signed to a free-agent contract, ostensibly worth $20.09 million. Flynn's value was inflated by a January 2012 performance as a stand-in for Aaron Rodgers at for the Green Bay Packers. Flynn threw for 480 yards and six touchdowns and cashed that in for that big Seattle deal. He did at least get the $9 million guaranteed but never started a regular-season game for the Seahawks.
Wilson went from surprise of camp to Seattle's sensational starting quarterback, which he has been ever since.
Heading into this week's games, every NFL team is hoping one of its camp surprises will become such an impact player, or maybe at least make the roster or steal a starting job.
It's the good stuff from training camp -- the player who looks like he made an almost magical transformation for himself, and maybe for the team.
Here is a close look at camp surprises this year for the NFC, nominated by TSX reporters covering each team and presented with some insight and analysis (teams listed alphabetically):
--Tight end Troy Niklas: Head coach Bruce Arians was so impressed with the third-year pro out of Notre Dame that after watching him catch three passes for 44 yards and make some nice blocks in the running game last week against the Raiders, he elevated Niklas to first team on the depth chart. Niklas entered camp as the No. 3 tight end, trying to fend off Ifeanyi Momah for a roster spot. The key for Niklas has been staying healthy, as his first two years in the NFL were rocked by various injuries.
"He kept overtraining and getting hurt," Arians said. "He finally relaxed and just did what (strength and conditioning coaches) Buddy (Morris) told him to do, and Roger (Kingdom) told him to do. He's reaping the benefits." Said Niklas, "Coming in this year, I felt like I actually had a fighting chance."
--Wide receiver Aldrick Robinson: Robinson has used his speed to impress the Falcons, who are looking for receivers to play alongside All-Pro Julio Jones. Robinson showed his big-play potential with receptions of 47 and 68 yards in Atlanta's 23-17 exhibition win over Washington last week. He had three catches for 118 yards. Robinson's ability to get open deep may allow him to stick with the team and earn some quality playing time. He has to work harder to get open underneath so that he is not just a one-dimensional threat.
--Wide receiver Devin Funchess: It's not like the 2015 second-round pick came out of nowhere, but his explosiveness did. Funchess seemed to haul in at least one deep reception every day during camp, a performance that has left some wondering if Kelvin Benjamin is the Panthers' No. 1 wide receiver. Funchess and Benjamin are different players, but the former showed a vertical dimension to his game that few were aware he had.
--Wide receiver Daniel Braverman: The seventh-round pick brought an extra level of competition to the slot receiver spot, where Marc Mariani was already pressuring regular slot receiver Eddie Royal.
Braverman has shown an ability to catch passes on the run when quarterbacks are rolling or scrambling after adjusting his route. He also has been able to get downfield into seams and has naturally made the plays underneath zone coverage that a slot receiver must make.
Braverman also is showing value fielding punts, although he is not exactly a breakaway threat. Then again, Mariani, who has that role, isn't a breakaway threat, either. The two slot receivers ahead of Royal are making his roster position tenuous.
--Rookie quarterback Dak Prescott: He is easily the biggest surprise of camp. The Cowboys felt good about Prescott when they drafted him in the fourth round, but no one expected him to be this sharp and to catch on this quickly. Prescott should be the backup quarterback to open the season.
--Defensive tackle Khyri Thornton: The Lions started camp with a logjam at defensive tackle, and the group became more crowded over the last three weeks with the emergence of Thornton.
Claimed off waivers from the New England Patriots last year, Thornton, a third-round pick of the Green Bay Packers in 2014, worked mostly as a second-team defensive tackle this summer ahead of rookie A'Shawn Robinson and free-agent addition Stefan Charles.
Thornton missed his entire rookie season with a hamstring injury and was with three teams last year, so this is his first chance to gain some footing in a defensive system and he's making the most of it. He dropped about 30 pounds since the end of OTAs and is disruptive both rushing the passer and against the run. If he plays at this level the next two weeks, he will probably make the roster, at the very least.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
--Wide receiver Geronimo Allison: The Packers' influx of receivers wasn't a turnoff when Allison decided to accept Green Bay's offer to sign as a rookie free agent after the draft in early May. Allison was swayed because of the team's track record under general manager Ted Thompson for having at least one undrafted newcomer make the 53-man roster at the start of the season. Three weeks into training camp, the 6-foot-3, 202-pound Allison appears headed to adding his name to the long list of overachieving long shots. He's been a given for making a few outstanding plays just about every practice and has earned the respect of quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the process.
"He offers something a little bit different with his size and his ability to catch the ball and use his body to shield defenders and make contested catches," Rodgers said.
And, the former playmaker at Illinois has made a lot of those tough catches while snagging lasers thrown by Rodgers, whether over the middle or on deep balls along the sideline.
"It's Aaron Rodgers," Allison said with a chuckle, when asked this week just how different Rodgers' throws are from any other quarterback he's caught passes. "It's very different. You've got to be very concentrated and detailed and locked in when it's coming."
Allison's strong camp thus far has him in position to force Thompson's hand for keeping him with a receiver group led by standouts Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. Young incumbents Davante Adams, Jared Abbrederis and Ty Montgomery would seem to be safe.
If the Packers keep six wideouts, the decision could come down to Allison, fifth-round rookie Trevor Davis or third-year holdover Jeff Janis, who suffered a broken finger last week that required surgery and has him out four to six weeks.
LOS ANGELES RAMS
--Wide receiver Nelson Spruce: He arrived with the Rams as an undrafted free agent rookie out of Colorado and nearby Westlake High School, and he immediately showed how some players can fall through NFL draft cracks, even when they finished their college career as the all-time leading receiver in Pac-12 history.
Spruce went undrafted due to a lack of receiver measurables. He isn't blazing fast, nor does he have ideal size. And he isn't a physical, imposing target.
On the other hand, as he showed over and over again at Colorado and continues to show in Rams camp, he makes up for those lack of measurables with intangibles. Such as impeccable footwork, which allows him to consistently beat quicker and stronger defensive backs off the line of scrimmage and gain immediate separation. Or his flawless route running, which puts him exactly where he needs to be relative to his quarterback's reads. And finally, outstanding focus with pass-catching hands.
In a camp that featured a number of receivers dropping balls, well, Spruce isn't one of them. His camp play carried over to the playing field against the Cowboys when he hauled in six catches for 51 yards and a touchdown.
Spruce will be sidelined a week or two with a sprained knee, but he may have already opened enough eyes to win a roster spot.
--Wide receiver Adam Thielen: We shouldn't be surprised by the local, small-college guy who has been surprising us every step of the way since making the practice squad as an undrafted rookie in 2013.
In 2014, he made the 53-man roster and became a special teams standout and sneaky fast receiver who was used in limited situations in 2014-15.
Now, he appears poised for a potential move up the ladder at a time when some were wondering if he'd be a victim of the numbers game at receiver. When the Vikings released their initial depth chart, Thielen was ahead of the well-respected Jarius Wright as the third wideout. Head coach Mike Zimmer said not to read anything into it, that Thielen was getting more reps because he knows all of the positions and is one of the first to jump into drills when others aren't able to go for whatever reason. Wright also has an ideal work ethic and will still get his opportunities.
But Thielen has elbowed his way into the offense as well. His leaping 22-yard catch in traffic over the middle from Teddy Bridgewater against the Bengals was a perfect illustration of why coaches have encouraged Bridgewater to trust his receivers more and "let it loose" this season.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
--Nose tackle Tyeler Davison: A fifth-round draft pick in 2015 out of Fresno State who played in all 16 games with five starts last season, Davison has had a solid offseason and could be lined up to win a starting job for the season opener. While incumbent starter John Jenkins has battled an injury for more than a week, the 6-foot-2, 309-pound Davison has fully taken advantage of the situation to get some valuable work with the ones.
If nothing else -- assuming Jenkins comes back soon and takes back his starting job -- Davison has likely done enough to earn quality snaps in the rotation that defensive line coach Bill Johnson will use in the regular season. Davison played 525 snaps as a rookie and had 1.5 sacks, flashing the quickness needed to play in new defensive coordinator Dennis Allen's scheme that calls for the linemen to do more penetrating instead of reading.
NEW YORK GIANTS
--Wide receiver Tavarres King: With receivers Victor Cruz and Geremy Davis sidelined by injuries, King has taken full advantage of his opportunities to impress. King, on the Giants' practice squad last year, had in fact been so impressive that he has earned some first-team reps as part of a trio that has included Odell Beckham Jr. and rookie Sterling Shepard.
--Safety Jaylen Watkins: Watkins, a fourth-round pick by the Eagles in 2014, was mainly a corner under the previous regime and appeared to be a roster longshot when camp started. But he has done a nice job at safety and played well in 42 snaps last week against Tampa Bay. He could end up being the Eagles' No. 3 or No. 4 safety, behind Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
--Right tackle Trent Brown: Brown was just happy to make the team last season after he was drafted in the seventh round (No. 244 overall) out of Florida.
He eventually got a chance to play on a troubled offensive line, even starting two games. But that was with Anthony Davis out of the picture, allegedly retired. Davis is back, which left most people thinking Brown would be relegated to backup status again. But the big guy (6-foot-8, 355 pounds) has been so impressive, he has the 49ers' coaching staff thinking of moving Davis to another position.
--Defensive back Tyvis Powell: Powell had an interception and made an impression on special teams in Saturday's preseason opener against the Kansas City Chiefs. Powell made a crushing block on a Tyler Lockett punt return, nearly kept a punt from bounding into the end zone and made a tackle on special teams. He also played both safety and cornerback in the game and has put himself firmly into the conversation for a 53-man roster spot.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
--Wide receiver Russell Shepard: Known mostly as an outstanding special teams player, Shepard has grabbed hold of the No. 4 receiver spot. It's important, because the No. 3 receiver, Adam Humphries, is primarily a slot receiver. He had a touchdown in the preseason opener at Philadelphia and has performed well in training camp.
--Running back Robert Kelley: The undrafted rookie from Tulane made an impression during OTAs and minicamp, but it's difficult to evaluate running backs under those conditions.
Kelley has begun seeing more time with the second teamers at practices. Against Atlanta, Kelley primarily played against a third-team defense. But he did have 40 rushing yards on seven carries and a touchdown. His longest run was 18 yards.
The Redskins still want to see more of seventh-round draft pick Keith Marshall, an intriguing blend of size and speed (5-foot-11, 222 pounds). But Kelley has appeared the more decisive back so far playing behind Matt Jones and Chris Thompson.
--Frank Cooney, founder and publisher of The Sports Xchange and NFLDraftScout.com, is in his sixth decade covering football and 26th year on the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee.