Breakout players in training camps, NFL power rankings and more

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Every year, a handful of players turn heads in training camp. Talking to those in the know, there’s a few to watch this summer as well.

Summer breeds optimism in the National Football League. For teams and players alike.

This week, I reached out to a number of personnel men around the league to get thoughts on which players are making waves. Here are a list of names I was told to keep an eye on:

Ronald Jones, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

According to league conversations, Jones is about to become a factor in Tampa Bay. Following a horrid rookie season which included only 23 carries and 44 rushing yards in nine games, Jones has added muscle without losing spread. The second-year back out of USC has emerged as an important piece in head coach Bruce Arians’ new offense and should provide quarterback Jameis Winston with support out of the backfield.

Juan Thornhill, FS, Kansas City Chiefs

Internally, the Chiefs are sky-high on Thornhill. Kansas City — along with many other NFL teams — believed Thornhill was a first-round talent who fell into the late second, where general manager Brett Veach scooped him up. While Thornhill is currently listed on the second team, the strong belief is he’ll be pushing for significant snaps come Week 1. He’s been a star in camp, recording interceptions on an almost daily basis.

Quincy Williams, LB, Jacksonville Jaguars

Williams unfortunately tore his meniscus on Thursday and could miss 4-6 weeks, but he’s a notable. The former college safety has been converted to linebacker, and Jacksonville loves his game. The Jaguars believe he’s the best candidate to take over for Telvin Smith during his absence. Certainly high praise for a third-round rookie learning a new scheme and position. Head coach Doug Marrone has been openly raving around Williams, and the praise for his game extends into Jacksonville’s building and beyond.

Dontrell Hilliard, RB, Cleveland Browns

Few teams have more buzz than the Browns. While names like Baker Mayfield and Odell Beckham Jr. are going to garner the headlines, watch out for Hilliard.  A second-year back out of Tulane, word out of Cleveland has Hilliard intriguing many important people. Although the Browns are stacked in the backfield with Nick Chubb, Duke Johnson and Kareem Hunt, Hilliard could prove valuable. With Johnson wanting a trade and Hunt suspended eight games, there’s opportunity.

Also, as a bonus, look for wide receiver Derrick Willies in the preseason affairs. The former Texas Tech star has been a surprise in camp and could push for a roster spot behind Beckham, Jarvis Landry and Antonio Callaway.

Power rankings

Top 10 potential impact rookies drafted outside first round

1. Miles Sanders, RB, Philadelphia Eagles
2. Greedy Williams, CB, Cleveland Browns
3. Juan Thornhill, S, Kansas City Chiefs
4. D.K. Metcalf, WR, Seattle Seahawks
5. A.J. Brown, WR, Tennessee Titans
6. Justin Layne, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers
7. Deebo Samuel, WR, San Francisco 49ers
8. Quincy Williams, LB, Jacksonville Jaguars
9. Hakeem Butler, WR, Arizona Cardinals
10. Dawson Knox, TE, Buffalo Bills

Quotable

“I try to be clear and direct. That’s part of leadership. There’s so much gray area in football, with 11 guys on the field that you’re trying to (coach). I think everyone likes direct. They might not like it in a specific moment, but … I’m always gonna push ’em to do more. That’s just me. I try to be truthful and honest and transparent, and if they don’t like it, then so be it. And that’s OK. I think they respect that and they know where I stand.”

– Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores on his style of communicating with players

The style is new-age and smart. The decisions thus far, though, have been questionable.

In the short span since training camp began, Flores fired offensive line coach Pat Flaherty, who he hired only months ago. The move can be viewed in one of two prisms. Either Flores made a mistake and was wise enough to correct it quickly, or he’s already deviating from his plan.

Additionally, the comments regarding Ryan Fitzpatrick and Josh Rosen are undoubtedly accurate but puzzling. Rosen might be the future of the franchise. Fitzpatrick is a great teammate and quality backup, but little else. Why diminish Rosen in the media when, frankly, the correct decision is to start the 22-year-old and find out who he is? Bizarre.

If Rosen doesn’t start come Week 1, either Flores is lost or Rosen is truly horrid.

Podcast

Mailbag

Each Friday, Verderame puts out a new mailbag covering all things NFL and then a little more. Make sure to submit your questions to him via Twitter or email!

Random stat

There have been 11 instances of a quarterback throwing for 5,000 yards in a season. New Orleans Saints star Drew Brees is responsible for five of them. Nobody else has more than one.

Info learned this week

1. Luck’s calf increasingly becoming a concern

Andrew Luck has been dealing with calf discomfort for months. It’s not going away.

The Indianapolis Colts’ star quarterback is yet to practice in training camp. While the team continues to downplay the injury, there is growing reason to wonder why no progress is being made. The last time Indianapolis spent the summer talking confidently about a Luck injury, he missed the entire year with a shoulder injury. In short, it’s tough to take the Colts at face value.

Perhaps the larger question is whether Luck’s calf is the only issue. The 30-year-old has also mentioned ankle pain in the same leg. Is this a simple calf strain or something more expansive? If it’s the latter, would Luck be looking at missing regular-season time? Impossible to say, but also impossible to ignore.

Without Luck, the Colts would be a middling team. With him, they’re a true Super Bowl contender and the AFC South favorite alongside the Houston Texans.

2. Chargers should trade Gordon before season

Melvin Gordon is terrific. He’s also most valuable to the Los Angeles Chargers as a trade chip.

Gordon’s trade demand should make this all the easier for general manager Tom Telesco. Had Gordon not gone public, the front office may have been concerned about backlash from teammates who want to see homegrown talent get paid. However, with Gordon asking out after refusing Los Angeles’ $10 million per year offer, those issues go by the wayside.

This could be a Super Bowl season for the Chargers, and they don’t need Gordon to realize those dreams. Instead of losing him after this year for a third-round compensation pick, Telesco should test the waters for a second-round choice. If he gets an offer in that range, make the move. If not, play the waiting game and see if a better offer or Gordon himself shows up first.

Gordon is a good player, but he’s not a great one. At his position, paying a premium for good talent is bad business considering the lifespan of the average running back. Additionally, Gordon has already shown the propensity to get injured, playing more than 14 game only once in four seasons.

If Gordon is jettisoned, split backfield duties between Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson. Internally, the Chargers are high on both, giving them ample depth even without Gordon at running back.

3. Ravens’ offense won’t revolutionize, but will certainly run

The Baltimore Ravens are going to run wild in 2019. Whether they can pass remains unknown.

Baltimore invested a 2018 first-round pick in Lamar Jackson. While he Heisman Trophy-winner is only entering his second season, there are serious doubts about his passing ability. Need proof? Look no further than the Ravens’ offseason. In it, they lost receivers Michael Crabtree and John Brown. They re-signed blocking tight end Nick Boyle — who has never notched a touchdown reception — for three years and $18 million. They brought in Mark Ingram during free agency.

The clear plan is a run-heavy approach with a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency passing game.

The last time we saw Jackson in action, he and the offense were being throttled by the Los Angeles Chargers in a 23-17 Wild Card round defeat. The score is misleading. Baltimore was trailing 23-3 with nine minutes left. At that juncture, Jackson was 3-of-10 for 25 yards and an interception. It’s also notable the Chargers were the first repeat opponent for Jackson. Will this be a trend when teams are seeing him a second time around?

If Baltimore can’t muster up any passing attack, it’ll have a tough time competing with the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North.

4. Jets get enormous boost from Kalil addition

A young quarterback’s best friend isn’t a running back or tight end. It’s his center.

In related news, Sam Darnold should be thrilled with veteran center Ryan Kalil coming out of retirement to sign a one-year deal with the New York Jets. Kalil, 34, spent 12 seasons with the Carolina Panthers before retiring this offseason. Now he’s back, and anchoring a line that has more questions than answers.

With Kalil in the pivot, the Jets have a steadying force who can make the correct calls on protections and help take the pre-snap burden off Darnold. Combined with left guard Kelechi Osemele, New York has a pair of studs on the inside, paving the way for Bell while keeping pressure to the outside.

It’s rare a team lands an impact player in August. The Jets did exactly that.

5. Patriots’ left tackle spot could be tricky

The New England Patriots are waiting on Isaiah Wynn to be fully recovered from last year’s Achilles tear. Even when the moment comes, there’s uncertainty looming on Tom Brady’s blindside.

Wynn was drafted in the first round a year ago to be Brady’s bodyguard. Then he went down in the preseason, forcing Trent Brown to step in. Brown played well and was rewarded handsomely by the Oakland Raiders in free agency with a record-setting $68 million deal. With Wynn still on the mend, guard Joe Thuney has been taking most of the left tackle reps.

Once the former Georgia star returns, Thuney kicks back inside. Still, what happens if Wynn struggles or isn’t quite back from one of the worst injuries an athlete can sustain? There are rumors about the Patriots trying to acquire seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams from the Washington Redskins, but it’s far from certain.

The best thing for New England? Time. Should Wynn falter for any reason, the Patriots can always slide Thuney out and trade for a tackle prior to the Oct. 31 deadline. As usual with New England, it’s always about the long game.

History lesson

In 1993, Emmitt Smith wanted a new deal. The Dallas Cowboys wouldn’t give him one. The dispute lasted through the first two regular-season games, both Dallas losses. Finally, owner Jerry Jones gave in, and Smith returned.

Come Week 18 (not a typo), the Cowboys visited the New York Giants with the NFC East crown on the line. Winner gets home-field advantage throughout the postseason. Loser is the No. 4 seed. Dallas won in overtime, 16-13.

The point? The Cowboys allowed Smith to sit out and it almost cost them the NFC’s top seed and a huge dip in odds to repeat as Super Bowl champs.

Perhaps Jones will think of those days when deciding what he’ll do with Ezekiel Elliott. It’s unlikely Elliott would hold out into the season, but it can’t be ruled out.

Parting shot

Trading rounds. Trading stories. Trading time.

At the Super Bowl and then Scouting Combine in Indianapolis this winter, former Sports Illustrated features writer and future Las Vegas Review-Journal scribe Don Banks drank a few glasses of white wine deep into the chilled night. For some reason, he spent time with me. Now he’s gone, passing away in his sleep on Sunday at 56 years old. What a monumental loss for his loved ones.

I only knew Don for a short while, but the impact he left was indelible. He was a good man who either didn’t realize his stature in our business or didn’t care. He was a kind soul who enjoyed a good laugh. He was great company when you were on the road and missing your family. He listened, and he informed. In short, he was a man worth knowing.

Why Don cared about me, I have no idea. When we met for the first time in person, I was a newbie on the NFL beat. I was trying to fit in and begin making my name. Still am. Don always treated me like an equal, and made sure to introduce me to those I hadn’t met yet. He took an interest few ever have, because there are so precious few like him. He was the epitome of class.

While he’s gone far too soon, Don’s legacy will endure through the legions of people he impacted through the years. He’ll live in them, and his kindness will inspire others to act with love in their hearts.

Don’s passing should remind us that when our time comes, nobody will care what you do for a living. They won’t care about your bank account or your house. They won’t care about your car or your clothes. They won’t care about your lawn or your tool shed. They will only care about how you made them feel.

Not one person has remembered Don through a lede or prose. They remember him.

Rest easy, Don. You’ve earned it.