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2017 NFL rookies to watch for, breakout candidates for all 32 teams

By
Frank Cooney, The Sports Xchange
Florida State Seminoles running back Dalvin Cook (4) is stripped of the ball by Oregon Ducks defensive back Erick Durgan during the third quarter of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California on January 1, 2015. File photo by Jon SooHoo/UPI
Florida State Seminoles running back Dalvin Cook (4) is stripped of the ball by Oregon Ducks defensive back Erick Durgan during the third quarter of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California on January 1, 2015. File photo by Jon SooHoo/UPI | License Photo

As all NFL training camps went to work for real this past week, reporters from The Sports Xchange covering each team were asked to name the Rookie to Watch in summer workouts.

Interestingly, running backs were named for six teams.

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After a decade in which running backs were seriously devalued, perhaps attitudes are changing. Last year, Dallas Cowboys runner Zeke Elliott was the Pro Football Writers Offensive and Overall Rookie of the Year and in 2015 the Offensive ROY was Rams running back Todd Gurley.

That ended a drought that went back to 2007, when Minnesota's Adrian Peterson was OROY. Before that, the value of running backs in offenses was indicated by that position owning the NFL's OROY honors 28 of the previous 36 years, including 19 of 21 seasons between 1977 (Tony Dorsett, Dallas) and 1997 (Warrick Dunn, Tampa Bay).

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This year, according to TSX team insiders, rookie runners to watch in each camp include:

Dalvin Cook, Minnesota. Goodbye Peterson (New Orleans), hello Cook.

Tarik Cohen, Chicago. Nicknamed the Human Joy Stick, he should help as a runner, receiver and returner.

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Christian McCaffery, Carolina. Versatile star from Stanford whose family lineage includes a grandfather (on his mother's side) who was the fasted man in the world in the 1950s. Oh, yea, his dad, Ed, played for the Denver Broncos, too.

Donnel Pumphrey, Philadelphia. Another versatile back who is dangerous in space and can line up anywhere in the formation.

Kareem Hunt, Kansas City. Showed agility, elusiveness and catching ability at Toledo and already showed receiving skills in camp.

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Marlon Mack, Indianapolis. At the very least, Colts see this fourth rounder as potential long-term replacement for 34-year-old Frank Gore and Mack might help immediately as a kick returner.

Based on input from TSX insiders from each camp, here is a closer look at the Rookie to Watch with every team (listed by division within conference, starting with NFC East):

DALLAS COWBOYS

--CB Chidobe Awuzie. He will begin at outside cornerback with hopes of breaking into the starting lineup. He will also be given reps at nickel, but could eventually be competing with Jeff Heath for the starting spot at strong safety. The Cowboys want to find a way to get him on the field.

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NEW YORK GIANTS

--TE Evan Engram. The Giants hope first-round pick Engram helps soften the middle of the field and allows them to gain a competitive advantage with better matchups. Engram, who in the spring lined up for the Giants in-line, in the slot, split wide and in the backfield, is being counted on to be one of the solutions in breaking up the Cover-2 the Giants saw so often last year. Engram spent downtime before camp working with teammate and fellow rookie, quarterback Davis Webb.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

--RB Donnel Pumphrey. The 5-foot-9, 176-pound fourth-round pick could be a major player in the offense this season. He is a versatile player who is dangerous in space and can line up anywhere in the formation.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS

--DE Jonathan Allen. Allen wasn't expected to fall to No. 17, but questions about arthritis in his shoulders worried some teams. The Redskins hope they got a steal. Allen will get a chance in training camp to prove he's ready to start as a rookie. The Alabama product worked with the reserves in OTAs and minicamp.

CHICAGO BEARS

--RB Tarik Cohen. Expected to contribute in the passing game, Cohen immediately displayed excellent hands when he went to the turf and took in a short toss. He also hauled in a medium-range pass during seven-on-seven. This much already was known about "the Human Joystick," who made videos of himself catching passes coming out of a back-flip. At North Carolina A&T, Cohen had only one punt return, but the Bears put him in the mix immediately and he showed good ability to judge and field the ball.

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DETROIT LIONS

--LB Jarrad Davis. Davis took first-team reps at middle linebacker Sunday and is expected to start at the position for the Lions this fall. A first-round pick out of Florida, Davis has impressed coaches and teammates both with how quickly he's picked up the defense and his on- and off-field approach to the game. "I like playing with him," safety Glover Quin said. "You can see it. You can tell right away, he asks questions, the way he works, the way he studies. He's going to be a great addition for us."

GREEN BAY PACKERS

--CB Kevin King. He worked with the No. 2 defense during the Packers' first practice of the summer Thursday. Don't be surprised, though, if King is running with the first team sooner rather than later. Ladarius Gunter, who possesses just 4.7-second speed in the 40-yard dash, is currently lining up with the starters. But Gunter struggled down the stretch in 2016 and wasn't any better in early practices.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

--RB Dalvin Cook. For the first time since 2006, the Vikings open training camp without Adrian Peterson. Cook won't replace Peterson's presence or focal point in the offense, but the second-round draft pick begins camp surrounded by very high expectations. The expectations could grow the longer veteran running back Latavius Murray sits on the physically unable to perform list. Murray was signed in free agency, had offseason ankle surgery and has yet to even work out with the team.

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ATLANTA FALCONS

--LB Duke Riley. He nearly broke the internet with a video of him pulling an SUV down the street in New Orleans. Head coach Dan Quinn immediately called him and shut down that leg-workout program. His speed and quickness flashed on the first day of practice. With De'Vondre Campbell moving to strong-side linebacker, Riley has a shot to win the starting weak-side linebacker spot.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

--RB Christian McCaffrey. The Panthers haven't been shy about the desire to use McCaffrey in key roles right away. He wasn't available for much of minicamp because of NFL rules in place that related to him coming out of Stanford, which has an academic calendar extending into June.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

--LB Alex Anzalone. The departure of Dannell Ellerbe opens up the competition at weak-side linebacker. Anzalone, the second of the Saints' two third-round draft picks, must battle veteran Stephone Anthony and perhaps others, but the coaches liked what they saw of Anzalone during offseason work.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

--TE Antony Auclair. He will add some size and skill to an already deep position for the Bucs. The undrafted free agent from Laval in Canada is 6-foot-5, 256 pounds and has impressed the Bucs already with his blocking and pass-catching ability.

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ARIZONA CARDINALS

--WR Chad Williams. The third-round pick out of Grambling turned heads in the spring when he was promoted to the veteran's field for workouts during minicamp and didn't crawl into a shell upon making mistakes and getting screamed at by the coaches. His maturity and confidence was singled out at the start of camp by both quarterback Carson Palmer and head coach Bruce Arians, who added, "He's in a tough (position) room right now, but if he continues to make that progress, we can really count on him."

LOS ANGELES RAMS

--TE Gerald Everett. The Rams' second-round pick out of South Alabama has the ideal size and athletic ability to be a downfield asset in head coach Sean McVay's two-tight end system. And he certainly doesn't lack for confidence, saying he and second-year tight end Tyler Higbee have the potential to be every bit as good as the Vernon Davis/Jordan Reed tandem McVay worked with in Washington. Everett is already showing up in 11-on-11 work as a speedy, athletic target for quarterback Jared Goff and the more he gets settled into the offense, the bigger role he'll play.

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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

--TE George Kittle. He was a handful for 49ers linebackers and safeties to cover on the first day of training camp. He certainly looked more elusive than productive holdovers Vance McDonald and Garrett Celek. No doubt, the fifth-round pick is in the mix to be a starter this season.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

--CB Shaquill Griffin. No rookie on Seattle's roster may be better positioned to earn a starting job heading into camp than Griffin. With DeShawn Shead on PUP and likely to miss at least the first six weeks of the season, Griffin and Jeremy Lane are the most likely candidates to earn the starting job at right cornerback opposite Richard Sherman.

BUFFALO BILLS

--QB Nathan Peterman. The Bills cleared the deck for Peterman to make the team when they traded his chief competition for the third-string job, Cardale Jones. Now, Peterman can concentrate on learning how to play quarterback rather than battling Jones, and it will also give him more training camp reps. The general consensus is that veteran T.J. Yates will be the backup to starter Tyrod Taylor, but the Bills really liked Peterman in college, and it wouldn't be a stretch to say he could give Yates a good run.

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MIAMI DOLPHINS

--MLB Raekwon McMillan. The second-round pick from Ohio State seems to have the inside track on the starting job in the middle. And he didn't have a setback on Thursday, the opening day of training camp. McMillan was active (even though Miami wasn't in full pads) in the defense on both running downs and passing downs. The better test for McMillan will be when the team puts on the pads. Miami thinks that will turn out well considering McMillan has a reputation as an aggressive player.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

--DE Derek Rivers. New England's top pick must make the big jump from FCS Youngstown State. But given the severe lack of depth the Patriots have on the edge and the likely need for bodies in the pass rush, the third-round pick will be given every opportunity to carve out at least a rotational role on the defending champs' defense.

NEW YORK JETS

--SS Jamal Adams. The Jets - and their fans - might feel as if there is light at the end of the tunnel that is this mammoth rebuilding project if Adams can emerge as a legitimate playmaker and defensive leader as a rookie. Adams looked up to the task during OTAs, but the big test will come once the preseason games start. Working in Adams' favor is the frightfully low bar set by Jets strong safeties over the last decade. Anyone feeling fond about the memories engendered by the likes of Calvin Pryor and LaRon Landry?

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BALTIMORE RAVENS

--CB Marlon Humphrey. While Humphrey might begin camp behind Brandon Carr on the depth chart, he showed some big-play ability in offseason workouts and could eventually take over the starting job. Humphrey, the 16th overall pick, has adapted quickly because of experience at Alabama, which had the nation's top-ranked defense. Humphrey started all 29 games in two seasons for the Crimson Tide and had two interceptions with three forced fumbles in 2016. Humphrey already impressed the Ravens' coaches with his athleticism.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

--WR John Ross. He was cleared to practice on a limited basis after recovering from a shoulder injury suffered at the University of Washington. Ross says he expects to be 100 percent soon, and his progress will be something to watch throughout training camp. Ross, who set a Scouting Combine record when he ran a 4.22-second 40-yard dash, was brought in to help stretch opposing defenses and take some pressure away from A.J. Green.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

--DE Myles Garrett. Taken first overall, Garrett might have difficulty living up to the hype, but he certainly looked the part on the first day of training camp. He showed quick penetration. He spent time with the second unit, but it is only a matter of time before he is with the first team and going one-one-one with left tackle Joe Thomas.

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PITTSBURGH STEELERS

--OLB T.J. Watt. The No. 1 pick had an impressive spring when he easily picked up the playbook. Now it's time to earn playing time when the pads come on. Watt has a chance to earn a starting position at right outside linebacker or split time with veteran James Harrison. But he must perform well in training camp and preseason games to make that happen. As was the case this spring, Harrison did not practice, which gave Watt a chance to work with the first-team defense.

HOUSTON TEXANS

--QB Deshaun Watson. Watson proved to be a quick study. A starter as a high school and college freshman, Watson is behind Tom Savage and Brandon Weeden on the depth chart. That might not last long. Watson has a good arm, athleticism and leadership working in his favor. He could be ready as a rookie to contribute and take over as the starter if Savage falters.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

--RB Marlon Mack. The Colts are looking to find a possible long-term replacement for veteran RB Frank Gore. While Gore is coming off a 1,000-yard rushing season and has shown no signs of slowing down, he will be 34 when the regular season gets underway. Mack, taken in the fourth round of last spring's draft, will be given every opportunity to show what he can do during camp and in the preseason. He will also get a shot to return kicks as well.

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JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

--T Cam Robinson. The 34th player taken in this year's draft, Robinson was supposed to battle with newly acquired Branden Albert for the starting left tackle spot. But Albert announced his retirement Monday. So, welcome to the NFL, Cam. Your job is to protect quarterback Blake Bortles. Robinson, an All-America and 2016 Outland Trophy winner at Alabama as the nation's top interior lineman, will play inside at guard if he isn't ready for the key left-tackle position. He has too much talent to be on the bench.

TENNESSEE TITANS

--CB Adoree' Jackson. With fellow first-rounder Corey Davis holding out the first day of camp, eyes were on the other first-round pick of the Titans. Jackson figures to play a prominent role not only at cornerback, where he is in the middle of a battle to start opposite Logan Ryan, but also on special teams where he figures to have the inside track as Tennessee's punt returner. Jackson figures to jump-start an element of the Titans' attack that has been largely dormant for a number of years, since Marc Mariani's first stint in Tennessee.

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DENVER BRONCOS

--T Garett Bolles. He began training camp splitting first-team repetitions with Ty Sambrailo, but if the first day of camp was any indication, that might not last long. Sambrailo struggled, particularly in one-on-one work, while Bolles showed good quickness and improved technique.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

--RB Kareem Hunt. The Chiefs moved up in the third-round to snare Hunt, and early impressions suggest another middle-round nugget for former general manager John Dorsey and the current scouting staff. Hunt teamed up with backup quarterback Joel Stave for the highlight of the opening day of camp, a deep over-the-shoulder grab up the left sideline for a touchdown. Hunt routinely demonstrates the bounce, agility and elusiveness he showcased at Toledo. It's easy to picture Hunt as a change of pace from returning starter Spencer Ware and as a third-down back in passing situations. Still, Hunt's rapid development means he may press for more snaps quickly.

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

--K Younghoe Koo. The Chargers pounced on Koo right after the draft, eager to sign the All-Sun Belt pick out of Georgia Southern. Koo is here to push Josh Lambo, who hit on 26 of 32 attempts (81 percent) last season. He was erratic at key times and while he led the NFL with 67 touchbacks, he often melted down when the team needed a clutch kick. Koo missed just four of 35 attempts in college.

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OAKLAND RAIDERS

--S Obi Melifonwu. He was the highest-drafted rookie to take the field, with first-round pick Gareon Conley on the physically unable to perform list with an undisclosed injury. Melifonwu played as a second-team safety and the hope is he can play in sub-packages that call for him to guard tight ends as well as play in the box as a hybrid linebacker and defensive back.

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