Off-season practices are not where offensive linemen establish themselves. OTAs (organized team activities) and minicamps are made to order for "skill-position" players that can stand out running around in shorts.
That is evident in this look at early surprises in a last week's OTAs for NFC teams heading toward this week's OTAs. Because of previous violations of OTA rules, Atlanta and Seattle were docked three sessions, so they weren't on the field last week. They will have their first OTAs this week.
Asked to identify surprises of the week, our writers on the scene named seven wide receivers, four defensive backs (two cornerbacks and one safety), one tight end and one running back that caught the eye of the coaches. That's 13 of the 14 players
There were also five rookies among the 14 NFC surprises.
TE Troy Niklas: Head coach Bruce Arians has been raving about the fourth-year pro out of Notre Dame, saying often this off-season and again this week that Niklas couldn't possibly play any better than he is at the moment. Of course, nobody's doing any hitting now and lots of players look good in shorts and a helmet. Arians, though, sounds convinced that this will finally be Niklas' breakout season. He has the tools and the size (6-foot-6, 270), but health has always been his issue. Niklas has yet to get through a full NFL season and Arians, knocking three times on the podium he was standing behind, thinks this will be the season where it all comes together for the tight end.
WR Russell Shepard: A special teams ace who carved out a receiving role with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2016, Shepard signed a free-agent deal with the Panthers in March. Special teams is where he'll continue to make his money, but he's already getting looks with the No. 1 offense and making the most of them. Shepard won't get many touches in an offense loaded with weapons, but he could provide some sneaky production.
WR Kendall Wright: Although a veteran, Wright couldn't have been expected to make a large impact until he got the offense down after leaving Tennessee as a free agent. However, Wright made enough separation for three nice catches in practice, including one when he took an accidental hit and went to the turf in a non-contact scrimmage. The 5-foot-10, 194-pound Wright worked well out of the slot and was open over the middle once for a mid-range catch. He averaged 11.6 yards a catch at Tennessee and plays a position that's been largely missing from the Bears offense except for when Cameron Meredith lined up there at times last year. The position is wide open for competition in camp this season.
WR Ryan Switzer: With Cole Beasley and Lucky Whitehead held out of practice with hamstring injuries, fourth-round pick Switzer got to work with the first team as the slot receiver and quickly impressed. Switzer seemingly caught everything thrown his way, dazzling with a one-handed twirling reception from quarterback Dak Prescott. Switzer looked like a natural fill-in for Beasley, which is actually why the Cowboys drafted the North Carolina product in addition to serving as the team's primary punt returner. "Yeah, he did a nice job," head coach Jason Garrett said. "He actually got more work today because Lucky was out for part of practice today as well. He was in there with the ones and he made some plays. Obviously, he's a young player still learning everything. This is the first time for him. Every time he does something it's the first time. So that's an interesting situation to be in. But he's got good poise about him, he's got confidence and he's got good football sense and savvy and you see that right away."
DB Alex Carter: Head coach Jim Caldwell insisted no players would be switching positions this year. But in the first OTA open to the media, Carter, who has been a cornerback, was repping exclusively at safety. Such a move would make sense. The former third-round pick has been beset by injury since joining the club in 2015, and then Detroit added corners like DJ Hayden, Jamal Agnew and Teez Tabor to a group that also returned all three starters. Carter's only realistic shot to make the team is at safety, and it seems he's put on the requisite weight to make a go of it.
S Josh Jones: The Packers' new No. 27 looks nothing like their old No. 27. Playing about 30 pounds lighter than deposed Eddie Lacy and moving about the field much faster than the hefty running back, Jones already looks to be as good as advertised in a Packers uniform. The rookie broke up a few passes in practice Tuesday, the first open session of the team's organized team activities.
Though the Packers list Jones as a safety on their spring roster, the DNA he brings with him from a productive college career at North Carolina State will enable him to play multiple positions. That includes inside linebacker, where Jones has taken some reps since he arrived in Green Bay for rookie camp in early May after the Packers selected him with the second of their two second-round draft picks at No. 61 overall. And, as Tuesday's outing proved, Jones hasn't been overwhelmed in his NFL indoctrination so far.
WR Mike Thomas: He looks bigger and more confident in his second year, and made a nice play on a long pass up the sideline while connecting with second-year QB Jared Goff. Thomas had three catches for 37 yards last year as a rookie draft pick out of Southern Mississippi, but he has the size and speed to be a factor in his second season on a team in desperate need of playmakers.
OLB Edmond Robinson: The Vikings are giving the third-year pro the first crack at being the guy who replaces longtime Vikings weakside linebacker Chad Greenway. Robinson, a seventh-round draft pick out of Newberry College in 2015, has been the strongside backup behind Anthony Barr. He started two games as a rookie and held his own. He's a 6-foot-3, long-bodied athlete with versatile skills and a strong work ethic. He looked fluid, decisive and quick during Wednesday's OTA practice, which was open to the media. Greenway, who retired after last season, had become a role player the last two seasons. He played only in the base defense, which the Vikings use about 40 percent of the time. Robinson will be challenged by older veteran Emmanuel Lamur, who didn't practice Wednesday because of an undisclosed injury.
WR Corey Fuller: He was signed off the Detroit Lions' practice squad last December after he was impressive in a couple of games against the Saints. He showed why New Orleans plucked him from the Lions in the Thursday practice session with a handful of catches -- including two on back-to-back plays in team drills against starting cornerbacks Delvin Breaux and P.J. Williams. On the latter reception, he made a nice adjustment on the ball to make the grab.
CB Michael Hunter: Although the Giants have quantity at the cornerback position, the coaching staff hopes to soon find out if they have any quality. The position took a bit of a hit thanks to the free-agent departure of Coty Sensabaugh to Pittsburgh. But Hunter, who last year was on and off the Giants' 53-man roster, is hoping to put the coaches' minds at ease. Hunter appears off to a good start. In the three OTAs in the books so far, Hunter has looked as comfortable as he's ever been chasing down the ball and, more important, in coverage. During Thursday's OTA open to the media, Hunter not only glued himself to the receiver's hip, he also broke up three deep passes, earning loud accolades and high-fives from his defensive coaches and teammates.
RB Donnel Pumphrey: The fourth-rounder is just 5-foot-8 and weighs only 176 pounds, but has exceptionally quick feet. The Eagles had him on the field a lot in their first OTA workout, including a few plays when he was paired in the backfield with 5-foot-6 Darren Sproles.
WR Trent Taylor: The fifth-round pick from Louisiana Tech has demonstrated an ability to run away from defenders on the type of short patterns often called for slot receivers. The competition for wideout spots is wide open, and Taylor already has made his presence known.
WR Chris Godwin: The Bucs' second-round pick from Penn State stood out in the team's OTA full-squad workout. He ran good routes, consistently got open and caught the ball well. "Chris Godwin had a really good day," head coach Dirk Koetter said. "Of the rookies, he really stood out." Godwin's role is not clearly defined. He will spell DeSean Jackson at times, but also could force his way onto the field in some three-wide receiver sets.