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OTA Stars of Week: NFL players making an impression

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The Sports Xchange

Some NFL players already made an impression during Organized Team Activities last week. A few needed merely to show up while others were required to show off.

Based on input from reporters covering each team for The Sports Xchange, a list of Stars of the Week was compiled to give credit where credit is due, even if these OTAs involve only non-contact drills.

All teams take part in OTA’s this week, including the St. Louis Rams, who sat it out last week.

For some, their mere presence was enough to grab star status, such as quarterbacks Tony Romo of Dallas and Aaron Rodgers of Green Bay. Their ability or availability was impacted in recent years by injuries.

Some rookies earned a callout as a TSX Star of the Week by showing that their talent equals their significant college reputation, such as wide receiver Amari Cooper with the Oakland Raiders and running back Melvin Gordon of the San Diego Chargers, both first-round draftees.

Sure it’s early and these drills don’t include pads, blocking and tackling, but coaching staffs are paying attention and so will we.

Here is a look at who earned recognition as a SOW on each team (teams listed by conference, NFC and AFC):

NFC TEAMS

ARIZONA CARDINALS

-Star of the Week: Wide receiver Jaxon Shipley, rookie free agent, Texas: After suggesting that he doubted that any of his rookie draftees would be a starter this year, coach Bruce Arians heaped some praise on Shipley, whom the team signed after he was undrafted.

Shipley finished his college career ranked third in school history with 218 receptions and sixth with 2,510 receiving yards. The slot receiver looked confident and fast during offseason workouts.

“He’s as quick as a cat,” Arians said. “He’s got really good hands. He’s bright. If he can find a niche on special teams as maybe a gunner, punt returner, something in that neighborhood, he’s going to have a chance.”

ATLANTA FALCONS

–Star of the Week: Free safety Charles Godfrey, eight-year veteran from Iowa. Originally drafted in the third round (67th overall) by the Carolina Panthers, who released him on October 21 last year. The Falcons signed him a week later, but he did not play in a game the rest of the year.

Playing with the first-team defense at free safety, Godrey’s veteran experience is obvious in OTAs.

“The range in the middle of the field is what we see,” said head coach Dan Quinn. “He can … have an impact to go get the ball. Those are things that kind of jumped out to us through his career up till now and through the first few practices.”

CAROLINA PANTHERS

–Star of the Week: Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. Not only does his name fit the category, but the third-year pro is impressive so far in his return from a fractured foot.

Lotulelei, who missed January’s divisional round game in Seattle because of the injury, is poised to have a breakout season. He slipped a bit in 2014 after a fantastic rookie year. Lotulelei and 2013 second-round draftee Kawann Short give the Panthers a set of young defensive tackles that is one of the best in the league.

CHICAGO BEARS

–Star of the Week: Cornerback Sherrick McManis. A sixth-year veteran, McManis was drafted by the Houston Texans in 2010 (fifth round, No. 144 overall). A native of Peoria, Ill., McManis was acquired by the Bears before the 2012 season in a trade that sent fullback Tyler Clutts to the Texans.

During a workout open to the media last week, McManis grabbed an interception and defended another pass in non-contact drills.

A special teamer by trade, McManis showed good speed in man-to-man coverage, and an ability to go up and take the ball away from receivers. McManis surprised the Bears two years ago with this ability, but was derailed briefly by a quad injury. Last year he missed a chance to get more playing time after Charles Tillman suffered a season-ending injury. McManis himself was limited by that nagging quad problem and a knee injury.

DALLAS COWBOYS

–Star of the Week: Quarterback Tony Romo is seeing the most action at this point than he has in three years.

In 2013, Romo had surgery to remove a cyst from his back, which kept him out of the offseason program, OTAs and minicamp. He spent last offseason rehabbing from the herniated disk surgery he underwent the previous December and missed workouts before the season.

“It’s been great,” Romo said after Wednesday’s OTA action. “I think just to be able to kind of have an offseason. You’re always rehabbing, but at the same time, I’m kind of able to build during this offseason. It’s exciting really.”

“Tony’s obviously further along (this year),” head coach Jason Garrett said. “He didn’t have an offseason surgery, so he was able to do a lot more things in our offseason program up to this point. He’s handled everything we’ve asked him to do to this point really well.”

DETROIT LIONS

–Star of the Week: Running back Theo Riddick looked great during the open OTA on Wednesday, and he should continue to be one of the bright spots for the remaining practices.

Riddick was a sixth-round pick (No. 199 overall) out of Notre Dame in 2013. He will likely be the third running back on the depth chart, but in last week’s OTA action he took most of the reps as Joique Bell recovers from offseason surgeries and rookie Ameer Abdullah learns the playbook.

On Wednesday, Riddick displayed good hands and route running as well as the ability to get upfield after the catch. He also looked good running inside, although these workouts were non-contact and without pads.

GREEN BAY PACKERS

–Star of the Week: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Green Bay’s most indispensable player isn’t playing it safe this spring, even when he could probably get away with taking time off without catching flak. Going into his 11th season as the reigning NFL MVP, Rodgers has been a model teammate by fully participating in OTAs.

The 31-year-old Rodgers jumped into last week’s initial OTAs and felt no residual pain from the strained calf that limited his invaluable mobility the final four games of last season.

“I have no restrictions with my body and I’m feeling good,” Rodgers said. “I’m at a decent weight where I want to be. It’s just a matter of maintaining that and trying to be as ready as possible when the end of July hits for training camp.”

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

–Star of the Week: Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. A year ago, Bridgewater was a quiet rookie backing up Matt Cassel on a team that belonged undeniably to Adrian Peterson.

This year, Cassel is in Buffalo, Bridgewater is the unquestioned starter and Peterson isn’t around yet.

Bridgewater worked hard with teammates since the offseason conditioning program began a month ago. It is no surprise that he looked and was treated more like a leader this week.

“I’m a young guy still on the team, but guys are pushing me forward to say something in the huddle, or break the team down, or break the offense down,” Bridgewater said. “That just gives you that confidence in yourself, confidence in your leadership and I’ve been extremely comfortable doing that so far.”

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

–Star of the Week: Tight end Benjamin Watson, who is making sure he is noticed in the aftermath of the trade that sent All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham to Seattle in March.

It was assumed that third-year pro Josh Hill would be the new go-to receiver at tight end. But the 34-year-old Watson, a 12-year veteran, showed last week during open OTA workouts that he can be a factor. He caught two big passes — including one that would have gone for a 70-yard touchdown — and drew praise from quarterback Brees.

“He’s a stud,” Brees said of Watson.

OK, make that award Stud of the Week.

NEW YORK GIANTS

–Star of the Week: Wide receiver Corey Washington was disappointed in how his rookie season ended and vowed to make an impact this year.

He is off to a good start following some exceptional play during OTAs last week. With Victor Cruz sidelined, Washington was given numerous opportunities to work with the starting unit, and he came up with one of the nicest plays of the practice Thursday on a touchdown reception in the back of the end zone.

Covered by cornerback Prince Amukamara, Washington used his 6-foot-4, 214-pound body to shield the ball from Amukamara’s reach, and then extended his arms upwards to pluck it out of the air for the touchdown.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

–Star of the Week: Wide receiver Jordan Matthews picked up where he left off last year as a rookie. He was second on the team with 67 receptions and led the team in third-down receptions and red-zone catches and touchdowns.

Matthews played strictly in the slot last season, but is taking snaps working both inside and outside in OTAs and looks good at either spot.

ST. LOUIS RAMS

Off

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

–Star of the Week: Wide receiver Jerome Simpson, whose offseason signing was criticized due to a series of off-field issues involving marijuana, is playing up to his significant physical abilities in OTAs.

During one open workout last week he made a highlight-reel catch of a pass from quarterback Colin Kaepernick that went for 60 yards and a touchdown.

Simpson did not play in 2014 after the Minnesota Vikings released him following a July arrest for driving with an open container and possession of marijuana. Simpson entered the NFL in 2008 as a second-round draft pick (No. 46 overall) by the Cincinnati Bengals, but on a team that had Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco he did not start a game until 2010.

His best season was 2011 when he caught 50 passes and made one play rated among the best in NFL history — a frontward flip over Arizona Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington that ended with Simpson sticking a stand-up landing in the end zone for a touchdown.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

–Star of the Week: Strong safety Kam Chancellor and cornerback Richard Sherman, two of the biggest stars on the team, get the nod as stars simply by taking part in OTAs.

Both were injured late last season — Chancellor with an MCL injury two days prior to the Super Bowl and Sherman with an elbow injury suffered in the NFC Championship Game against Green Bay.

They both avoided surgery and rehabbed well enough to take full part in the workouts last week. By contrast, free safety Earl Thomas remains sidelined after a shoulder surgery that will hold him out of all of the offseason workouts. He is expected to make it back for the beginning of training camp.

TAMPA BAY BUCANNEERS

–Star of the Week: Offensive tackle Kevin Pamphile, who opened OTAs as the starting left tackle and looked as good as an offensive lineman can in non-contact drills.

He will face a real challenge in training camp from second-round pick Donovan Smith. Pamphile benefitted greatly from limited playing time as a rookie last year and has an opportunity to at least fight for a starting job this year.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS

–Star of the Week: Running back Michael Hill showed during OTAs how he attracts the attention of so many teams, evidenced previously by signing eight NFL contracts with five teams since entering the league in 2013 when the San Diego Chargers signed him as a free-agent rookie out of Missouri Western State.

The 5-foot-10, 210-pound Hill showed impressive bursts of speed during OTAs last week, but faces long odds of even making the team. The roster already includes Pro Bowl back Alfred Morris, third-round draft choice Matt Jones, 2013 backup Silas Redd, and 2013 fifth-rounder Chris Thompson. That said, nobody had sixth-rounder Morris beating out veterans Tim Hightower, Roy Helu Jr. and Evan Royster to start in 2012.

Since the Chargers first signed him, Hill’s chronology of uniforms include those issued by the Green Bay Packers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Packers (again), Indianapolis Colts, Redskins, Colts (again), and, the Redskins again.

Hill played in two games with Green Bay and six for Tampa Bay in 2013 while carrying nine times for 23 yards and gaining as many yards on two catches.

AFC TEAMS

BALTIMORE RAVENS

–Star of the Week: Rookie outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith, a fourth-round draft pick (No. 122 overall) this year out of Kentucky.

During an open OTA last week, Smith intercepted a pass thrown by backup quarterback Matt Schaub and returned it for a touchdown. He flashed a lot of athleticism during pass-rushing drills and generally appeared fluid and strong in drills.

Smith is expected to be a situational pass rusher working behind outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil.

BUFFALO BILLS

–Star of the Week: Offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, Buffalo’s second round pick (No. 44 overall) out of Alabama in 2014, will get the chance to make amends after a disappointing rookie year that began with hopes that he could start. Kouandjio was beaten out by seventh-round rookie Seantrel Henderson and played in only one game.

During OTAs, Kouandjio is once again getting snaps with the first unit and his natural athleticism is once again obvious. The battle between Kouandjio and Henderson for the starting right-tackle spot should be a lively one as each tries to impress new head coach Rex Ryan.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

–Star of the Week: Quarterback Andy Dalton who looked as good in last week’s OTAs as he has in four years since the Bengals signed him as a free agent.

It’s no coincidence that he had help from outstanding help by receivers who finally got out of the training room and onto the field. That includes tight end Tyler Eifert, who was in action for the first time since early last season and wide receivers Marvin Jones (hamstring, foot last year) and James Wright (knee last year).

CLEVELAND BROWNS

–Star of the Week: Wide receiver Rodney Smith entered the league in 2013 when Minnesota signed him as a free-agent rookie out of Florida State. The Browns claimed him last October when he was waived by the Vikings.

At 6-foot-5 with speed that was measured in 4.43 seconds over 40 yards, his raw talent is impressive, especially on one play last week when he sped behind the defense to catch a deep pass from quarterback Johnny Manziel.

“He showed flashes when he was out there on the scout team (last year),” head coach Mike Pettine said of Smith, who didn’t get into a game last year. “He wasn’t a guy that got a lot of reps with the starting unit. Here’s a guy that is big, that’s got a big catch radius, that can run. We were very curious to get him out here and get him through the offseason and give him a chance to compete. It’s been so far so good with Rodney.”

DENVER BRONCOS

–Star of the Week: Cornerback Bradley Roby, the Broncos’ first-round draft pick (No. 31 overall) last year out of Ohio State.

During an OTA opened to the media Friday, Roby intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown. He worked extensively with the first team while veteran corner Aqib Talib missed practice because of an excused absence.

Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said the Broncos would work on a package with Roby at safety at some point in the next several OTA practices.

HOUSTON TEXANS

–Star of the Week: Offensive lineman Ben Jones, a fourth-round pick (99th overall) out of Georgia in 2011, has long been a locker-room favorite for his comedic personality.

But there was no funny business about the way he handled the serious job of playing left guard and center during last week’s OTAs. He is aware the team is looking for another starting interior lineman to start, especially after losing veteran center Chris Myers in free agency.

“I know if they want me to play center I will be prepared,” Jones said.

Then he was asked if would be willing to eat a cockroach for HBO’s “Hard Knocks” cameras.

“Whatever I can do to make the team better, I’m there for it,” he said.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

–Star of the Week: Wide receiver Duron Carter, a former CFL standout and son of Pro Football Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter, is doing everything possible in order to earn a spot on the Colts’ regular-season roster.

During last week’s OTAs, Carter was impressive catching the football, which was expected. But he is also getting a tryout as a punt and kickoff returner. With a deep corps of receivers, Carter’s ability to also contribute on special teams will be crucial to him being with the squad in September.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

–Star of the Week: Tight end Julius Thomas was sidelined with a calf contusion late in last Wednesday’s workout, but not before showing why the Jaguars signed him to a free-agent contract in March good for five years and $46 million.

Thomas originally entered the league in 2011 when the Denver Broncos drafted him in the fourth round out of Portland State, where the 6-foot-five, 250-pound athlete played both basketball and football.

In OTAs, he continually beat Jaguars defenders, often gliding across the middle and snatching the ball out of the air for big gains. He and quarterback Blake Bortles hooked up several times on go-routes as well, resulting in either big yardage or a touchdown. With two of the team’s leading wide receivers watching from the sidelines with injuries, Thomas had more than his share of chances and he didn’t disappoint.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

–Star of the Week: Inside linebacker Derrick Johnson had a very good week of practice, which is good news for the team’s most tenured player after a ruptured Achilles tendon in the first game last year put him out for the season.

During OTAs last week, Johnson ran around in practice with no visible impairment, flashing his speed on several plays as if he still has his football fastball.

“I’m a veteran, I’ve been to OTAs a lot, but at the same time after being out a year, I need this time,” Johnson said. “This is big for me. This is going to help me get back to form and when the 2015 season comes around I’ll be going.”

MIAMI DOLPHINS

–Star of the Week: Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, the pricey free-agent acquisition formerly of the Detroit Lions. He already did something for the Dolphins that he rarely did for his old team — take part in so-called voluntary workouts.

Picking him as Star of the Week was a close call because quarterback Ryan Tannehill and rookie wide receiver DeVante Parker were also standouts.

But Suh was as impressive as he is big. The 6-foot-4, 300 and who-the-heck knows pound Suh was so geared up that Tannehill made him jump offside a few times in the Tuesday workout. That was only after Suh created pressure so consistently that Tannehill changed the snap count.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

–Star of the Week: Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, the Patriots’ second-round draft pick out of Eastern Illinois in 2014, is the focus of a lot of attention because team leader Tom Brady may be suspended up to four games at the beginning of the season.

While Brady’s status may change as the result of an appeal, Garoppolo still must show he is ready to take over at least as an interim starting quarterback.

In the Patriots’ first OTA session open to the media, Garoppolo looked quite sharp in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 action. He went through his progressions well in the non-contact action and then made strong, accurate throws. Garoppolo also held a press conference after the session, successfully side-stepping talk of his potential starting role.

NEW YORK JETS

–Star of the Week: Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick earns this honor just by stepping on the field after being sidelined by a broken leg last Dec. 14.

His presence and consistency were even more exaggerated by comparison to the play of incumbent starting quarterback Geno Smith, who struggled with his timing and accuracy in OTAs the same as he did in games last year.

This year the Jets are learning the offensive system of coordinator Chan Gailey, which gives Fitzpatrick an edge because he played for Gailey in Buffalo.

OAKLAND RAIDERS

–Star of the Week: Wide receiver Amari Cooper more than showed that the Raiders made a great pick in the first round (fourth overall).

He dropped a couple of passes, but demonstrated his advanced understanding of running routes along with explosive speed and overall athleticism.

What the Raiders still want to see from Cooper is a great pass-catch combination that includes second-year quarterback Derek Carr, who was held out of workouts because of an injured finger on his right (throwing) hand.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

–Star of the Week: Wide receiver Martavis Bryant picked up where he left off in the second half of his rookie season, catching everything in sight as he attempts to break into the starting lineup this season.

Bryant caught a deep pass Thursday from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, plucking the ball over 5-foot-9 cornerback Antwon Blake. The Steelers hope to see plenty more of that from the 6-foot-4 Bryant, a fourth-round pick last season.

He did not dress for the first six games as a rookie, then caught six touchdown passes in his first four games. He finished with eight and averaged 21.1 yards on 26 receptions.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

–Star of the Week: Running back Melvin Gordon, the Chargers’ first-round pick (No. 15 overall) this year, showed that some numbers don’t lie — such as his 2,587 yards rushing at Wisconsin last year, second only in FBS history to Barry Sanders’ single-season record of 2,628 (Oklahoma State, 1988). Gordon’s runs were a show all by themselves during OTAs.

“There’s a reason why we drafted him where we did,” head coach Mike McCoy said, who traded up to grab Gordon.

Quarterback Philip Rivers isn’t one to compare a player to another. But when asked about Gordon, he couldn’t resist mentioning Jamaal Charles, the versatile and prolific star of the Kansas City Chiefs, an AFC West rival of the Chargers.

“Jamaal’s probably a little faster, but Melvin’s bigger,” Rivers said. “They do look alike, some of the cuts they make and the way they run.”

Gordon’s potential is big for the Chargers, whose rushing attack last year was at the bottom of the NFL in every significant category and Rivers had the sore ribs and back to prove it at season’s end.

TENNESSEE TITANS

Star of the Week: Quarterback Marcus Mariota, whose multiple talents — especially passing and running — were not a surprise because his athletic abilities are well known and accepted.

More important, the former Heisman Trophy winner and second player taken in this year’s draft impressed teammates and coaches by showing a take-charge attitude that was questioned by many who thought the native of Hawaii may be too laid back.

He also showed excellent command in the huddle calling plays — two things he didn’t do at Oregon, which runs an up-tempo, no-huddle attack in which plays are signaled in from the sideline.

“It’s important to call plays in the huddle in a way that brings confidence to your teammates,” Mariota said. “Sure, I have things to learn the same as all rookies. That’s why we have camps and OTAs, so we all can get on the same page.”

–Frank Cooney, founder and publisher of The Sports Xchange and NFLDraftScout.com, is in his sixth decade covering football and is a selector for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. TSX correspondents contributed to this story.


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