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Stars of the Week: OTA standouts for each NFL team

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The Sports Xchange

After a few weeks of so-called voluntary organized team activities (OTAs), NFL coaches are beginning to envision who will do what in their 2015 season plans, so it’s never too early for a player to make a good impression.

The most obvious standouts in these non-contact workouts will always be quarterbacks, receivers, defensive backs and some linebackers, whose play is most evident in seven-on-seven or even 11-on-11 drills.

So it is not surprising that nominees for Star of the Week are heavy with so-called skill positions, as selected by correspondents from The Sports Xchange who cover each team.

But based on input from coaches and players, along with their own observations, TSX reporters selected an interesting list of prospects who are looking good at this stage of production in the NFL preseason.

Here is a closer look at Stars of the Week from OTAs that wrapped up Friday (teams listed alphabetically):

ARIZONA CARDINALS

–Star of the week: Earl Watford, offensive lineman, fourth-round pick in 2013 out of James Madison.

Head coach Bruce Arians raved about the progress of Watford this week. Watford was a bit of a project when he entered the NFL. He has made vast improvements this year working at tackle and guard and doing so on both the left and right sides for each position. That leaves only center, but he is not ready for that — yet.

“He’s a heckuva athlete and looks like, hopefully, the light’s come on,” Arians said, then laughed and added, “I tried him at center and, ah, he can’t handle that one.”

ATLANTA FALCONS

–Star of the week: Jacob Tamme, tight end, was originally drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in the second round in 2008 out of Kentucky, where he set receiving records at his position. He moved to the Denver Broncos from 2013 to 2014 and signed with the Falcons as a free agent this March.

Tamme, at 6 feet 3, 230 pounds, turned in a strong performance at this week’s OTA workouts and was outstanding in seven-on-seven passing drills.

“The tight ends have continued to impress,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “Jacob Tamme and Tony Moeaki. They have been some of the players who have jumped out to me. That was nice to see.”

BALTIMORE RAVENS

–Star of the week: Kamar Aiken, wide receiver, originally signed in 2011 by the Buffalo Bills as an undrafted rookie out of Central Florida. Aiken made stops with the Chicago Bears and New England Patriots before joining the Ravens last year, when he caught 24 passes for 267 yards and three touchdowns.

Competing for a starting job for the first time in his career, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Aiken made a big impression this week. He wowed teammates with several acrobatic catches, including one on a deep jump ball in the end zone the day media watched practice.

BUFFALO BILLS

–Star of the week: Ronald Darby, cornerback, the Bills’ first pick in this year’s draft in the second round, No. 50 overall out of Florida State.

Darby caught head coach Rex Ryan’s eye early in the OTAs. Darby is a superb athlete with world-class speed, and while it’s a little tough to judge him right now, Ryan likes Darby’s ability to break on the ball.

“He had a tremendous day,” Ryan said after Wednesday’s practice. “He seems to just get better and better. He’s confident, he had the penalty in the red zone, that’s tough, it was a one-on-one battle type of thing, but he’s really coming along.

“He’s getting his hands on passes and things like that, so it’s not surprising since he’s got a great teacher in Donnie Henderson and then when you got (coaches) Tim McDonald and Dennis Thurman back there he’s got a chance to get better. He’s obviously got a lot of physical gifts, and we’re pretty happy to have him.”

CAROLINA PANTHERS

–Star of the week: Devin Funchess, wide receiver, second-round pick this year out of Michigan. After missing last week’s action while attending the NFLPA’s Rookie Premiere, Funchess stepped in this week and was taking snaps with the first team.

Funchess was already a standout during rookie minicamp and showed that was not a fluke with several excellent catches during 11-on-11 drills this week. During one two-minute drill, he slipped past 13-year veteran cornerback Charles Tillman to grab a touchdown from quarterback Cam Newton in the corner of the end zone.

CHICAGO BEARS

–Star of the week: Eddie Royal, wide receiver, eight-year veteran out of Virginia Tech who entered the league as a second-round pick by the Denver Broncos, then played with the San Diego Chargers and signed with Chicago this year.

Royal stood out in the second week of OTAs as he seemed to pick up his role in coordinator Adam Gase’s offense quickly while re-establishing ties with quarterback Jay Cutler.

On Wednesday, Royal made a nifty move to get open for a touchdown in non-contact, red-zone passing scrimmaging. Later, he ran a route to beat cover-2 on the sideline for a 25-yard catch. Royal lined up most of the time at the slot position while the other three receivers — Alshon Jeffery, rookie Kevin White and Marquess Wilson — rotate at the outside spots.

Royal’s best season yardage-wise (980) and in terms of catches (91) came as a rookie in 2008 with Cutler at quarterback in Denver. Royal had a career revival last year with Philip Rivers in San Diego with 62 receptions for 778 yards. With the Bears’ slot receiver a bit of a revolving door and with go-to guy Brandon Marshall gone and tight end Martellus Bennett missing voluntary workouts, Cutler can use a comfort blanket like Royal in the middle of the field.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

–Star of the week: Rex Burkhead, running back, the Bengals’ sixth-round pick out of Nebraska in 2013. At 5 feet 10, 215 pounds, Burkhead has been impressive in his effort to be a versatile role-playing running back and slot receiver.

Playing behind the prolific duo of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard in the backfield, Burkhead is pushing for playing time as a receiver. He lines up in the slot and is dangerous coming out of the backfield.

In one sequence this week, quarterback AJ McCarron scrambled out of the pocket and Burkhead adjusted his route to get behind safety Shawn Williams to make a great catch.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

–Star of the week: K’Waun Williams, cornerback, signed as an undrafted rookie by the Browns in 2014. Last spring, Williams made a quick impression and kept it up through the regular season.

He has continued the trend during OTAs, intercepting a Johnny Manziel pass in the first workout and breaking up several passes this week. Williams is being used outside as a cornerback in some formations, but will play nickel back most of the time.

“He’s a scrappy dude, and he makes plays,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “He plays very, very physical. He’s confident in himself, and he just knows the game. He takes coaching very well. He’s one of the best nickel backs I’ve ever seen.”

Coach Mike Pettine said the 5-foot-9 Williams is bigger yet leaner than he was a year ago.

DALLAS COWBOYS

–Star of the week: Terrance Williams, a 6-foot-2, 208-pound wide receiver drafted by the Cowboys in the third round in 2013 out of Baylor.

Williams had 37 catches for 621 yards and eight touchdowns last year as the Cowboys’ No. 2 wide receiver behind All-Pro Dez Bryant.

The eight touchdowns were big for Williams, who had a knack for making big plays at times for quarterback Tony Romo, but was always the other receiver whenever Bryant was in the game. With Bryant not taking part in OTAs during a contract dispute, Williams is the lead dog in practice, getting most of the attention from Romo. He is taking advantage of this opportunity to grow and earn the trust of the quarterback and the coaches.

“When you script practices, you’re always scripting around your players,” receivers coach Derek Dooley explained. “If Dez was here, we’d certainly put in a lot of plays that are kind of designed to feature him a little bit. With him not being here, somebody’s got to take those plays. It allows us to be a little more creative with Terrance.”

DENVER BRONCOS

–Star of the week: Todd Davis, linebacker, entered the NFL as an undrafted rookie out of Sacramento State in 2014. He signed with the New Orleans Saints, who released him last November and the Broncos claimed him off waivers.

Davis intercepted a Brock Osweiler pass during Monday’s practice, and has frequently been around the ball during OTAs. With Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall both sidelined as they recover from 2014 injuries, Davis and Steven Johnson have worked as the first-team inside linebackers.

Davis appears to have the lead on 2014 draft picks Lamin Barrow and Corey Nelson for playing time.

DETROIT LIONS

–Star of the week: Ameer Abdullah, running back, selected in second round (54th overall) out of Nebraska this year.

Abdullah missed OTAs last week as he participated in the NFLPA Rookie Premiere, but he was impressive in the open practice Thursday, showing an ability to run routes precisely and catch everything thrown in his direction.

Abdullah also runs hard in practice and fielded kickoffs well, though he didn’t have a chance to flash his return ability. With Joique Bell still recovering from offseason surgeries, Abdullah will continue to have opportunities to impress this offseason.

GREEN BAY PACKERS

–Star of the week: B.J. Raji, nose tackle, has been one of the highlights for Packers fans who turned out in big numbers for public practices the first two weeks of organized team activities.

He is that hard-to-miss guy in the No. 90 jersey on the field. Raji had the green light to resume football activities this spring, some eight months after his 2014 season ended when he sustained a torn biceps late in the preseason.

“I think B.J.’s in a great place,” head coach Mike McCarthy observed this week. “I thought last year was his best training camp in his time here. He’s in great shape. He’s always been very bright, very in tune schematically, fundamentally very strong, but B.J. looks great.”

As he completed his recovery earlier in the offseason, Raji took up yoga to help with his flexibility. A top-10 draft pick by Green Bay in 2009 who excelled early in his career as a versatile and playmaking defensive lineman, Raji is poised to put last year’s lost season behind him.

He re-signed with the Packers as a free agent on a modest one-year, $3.5 million contract, giving the team a formidable veteran duo in the interior of the line with Letroy Guion also back.

“It’s up to me to help this team,” Raji asserted.

HOUSTON TEXANS

–Star of the week: C.J. Fiedorowicz, tight end, drafted by the Texans in the third round last year out of Iowa.

Fiedorowicz was a disappointment as a rookie, rarely made an impact in the passing game and was called for ill-timed penalties. But he has been a different player during OTAs and might take a step forward this year.

The Texans plan to use their tight ends more with either quarterback Ryan Mallett or Brian Hoyer. While Garrett Graham is the veteran starter, Fiedorowicz has impressed during OTAs and his increased confidence is already apparent.

“Last year was — every rookie will say it’s a grind,” Fiedorowicz said. “It’s not an excuse, but I kind of started feeling it last year. I came back ready to work. Hoyer is doing a great job quarterbacking and he’s really seeing the tight ends. We’ve been making big strides as a group; that’s given us confidence. You want to go out there and keep working hard when we’re seeing the ball.”

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

–Star of the week: Clayton Geathers, safety, drafted in the fourth round this year out of Central Florida.

Geathers continues to be impressive and is practicing with the first-team defense. Nominally cast as a strong safety, the 6-foot-2, 208-pound rookie has been most surprising in coverage, which was expected to be his weakness.

Although he won’t truly be tested until training camp starts Aug. 1, the Colts like what they see.

“He’s an athletic guy,” head coach Chuck Pagano said. “He’s going to be one of those guys that in today’s football you can play inside as a dime backer and get faster, get more speed on the field and match up with the tight ends that we’ve got to cover now, the backs out of the backfield and things like that. He’s doing really well.”

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

–Star of the week: Telvin Smith, linebacker, continues to be one of the big surprises of the 2014 draft class.

The fifth-round pick out of Florida State was thought to be a special teams contributor his rookie season but proved everyone wrong when he played in all 16 games, including 10 starts in the final 12 weeks at the weak-side linebacker spot.

Smith came on strong the latter part of the season, finishing with double-digit tackle totals in four of his last six games.

Smith has carried that success over to the OTAs, where he continues to use his quickness to roam the field as well as defend on certain passing downs. He played at about 218 pounds last year, obviously light for a linebacker in the NFL, but plans to put on 10-12 pounds by the time the 2015 season opens.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

–Star of the week: Phillip Gaines, cornerback, drafted in the third round out of Rice in 2014.

Gaines turned in a second strong week in the Chiefs’ OTA session and has shown enough that 2015 first-round draft choice Marcus Peters might have a tough time grabbing the starting spot at left cornerback.

“I think he’s done a great job,” defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “I think he has come back and been really good in this camp so far.”

Gaines saw 376 snaps on defense as a rookie, most of those in the second half of the season when he stepped in at left, right and slot cornerback roles. He struggled early in the season but gained confidence.

“He’s gotten a little stronger,” secondary coach Emmitt Thomas said. “He’s competing a little bit better; he’s definitely in better condition than he was last year. He’s getting his hands on a lot of footballs. We just hope they turn into interceptions and not just PBUs (pass breakups).”

MIAMI DOLPHINS

–Star of the week: Tony Lippett, cornerback, fifth-round draft choice this year out of Michigan State.

Lippett was hard to miss this week. He had three interceptions in the end zone during a red-zone drill, showing the hands he used as a 6-foot-3 wide receiver in the Big Ten.

Making the transition to NFL cornerback is a tough one, but if he keeps showing up on plays the way he did this week, it will be difficult to deny him a spot on a Dolphins roster that already is fairly deep in defensive backs.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

–Star of the week: Adrian Peterson, running back.

This selection was pretty easy. Last week, Peterson skipped OTAs and went on a Twitter rant about non-guaranteed money in his contract. The assumption was he wouldn’t show up for OTAs or the mandatory minicamp in two weeks.

Well, assumptions often are wrong in the NFL. Peterson surprised everybody by showing up for the second week of OTAs. He looked in tip-top shape, as always, and he took a huge step toward putting all of the off-the-field garbage behind him by sounding apologetic and believable during a 19-minute press conference on Tuesday.

His teammates and coaches had nothing but good things to say about Peterson and his return to the team for the first time since the opening game of last season.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

–Star of the week: Scott Chandler, tight end, who may be the Patriots’ biggest offseason offensive addition. The 6-foot-7, 260-pound former Buffalo Bills player struggled to catch the football a bit in his first week of OTAs.

But this week he showed more consistent hands and made a pretty impressive catch in traffic down the right sideline on a pass from quarterback Tom Brady in a two-minute drill.

Chandler spent a lot of time working on the side with Brady and Rob Gronkowski under the watchful eye of tight ends coach Brian Daboll. That includes a lot of combination routes between the two big-bodied pass-catchers who might just be a terrifying tandem for defenses to deal with down the road. Chandler is already showing improvement in the Patriots’ offense and building a rapport with Brady.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

–Star of the week: Brandon Coleman, wide receiver, an undrafted free agent in 2014. The 6-foot-6, 225-pound Coleman spent his first pro season on the Saints’ practice squad after struggling with the offense in training camp.

With a roster spot or two perhaps open this summer, he looked good early in OTA sessions and had some big plays in the practice that was open to media on Thursday, with several nice grabs — including a deep ball from quarterback Drew Brees.

Coleman also burned veteran cornerback Kyle Wilson to catch one pass from rookie quarterback Garrett Grayson. Coleman also got free on a crossing route against starting cornerback Keenan Lewis for another connection with Brees.

NEW YORK GIANTS

–Star of the week: Rueben Randle, wide receiver, a second-round pick out of LSU in 2012.

With Victor Cruz a major question mark and Odell Beckham Jr.’s hamstring acting up yet again, Randle is seeing an increase in opportunities during OTAs and has been up for the task.

Randle has not been the most consistent of the Giants’ receivers, but in OTAs he has been acutely focused. He has worked from the slot and as the outside receiver, and has looked quick.

Perhaps more important, he has run crisp routes and appears to be on the same page with quarterback Eli Manning on the timing patterns, where he came up with multiple touchdown receptions this week against corners Prince Amukamara and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

NEW YORK JETS

–Star of the week: Ryan Fitzpatrick, quarterback. The biggest position question mark for the Jets is quarterback, so the better Fitzpatrick plays, the more noticeable it is.

All caveats apply about reading too much into 7-on-7 drills, but Fitzpatrick looked at home Wednesday, when he threw a 50-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Eric Decker and scrambled for a long gain. The latter play was particularly impressive given Fitzpatrick’s 2014 was cut short by a broken leg.

Geno Smith, meanwhile, continues his quiet spring. He can’t lose the quarterback job before training camp, but Fitzpatrick can close the gap on Smith and appears to be doing so.

OAKLAND RAIDERS

–Star of the week: Charles Woodson, safety, who will turn 39 years old during the 2015 season.

Woodson did something last week he had not managed since he was 36. He was named to the NFL’s Top 100 list at No. 64 by the NFL Network, based on a vote of his peers.

That is enough to make him a star even if he only takes part in selective drills at OTAs.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

–Star of the week: Mark Sanchez, quarterback. With Sam Bradford a limited participant in most of the team drills in OTAs while he recovers from his second ACL in as many seasons, Sanchez has had a lot of opportunity to show how he runs this offense.

Sanchez is expected to be a backup, but based on Bradford’s history of injuries, that backup role could change pretty fast.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

–Star of the week: Ryan Shazier, linebacker, the 15th overall draft pick last year.

He is showing in OTAs why the Steelers chose him. The inside linebacker, who can run 40 yards in 4.36 seconds, worked out in the spring with James Harrison in Arizona along with some other Steelers linebackers and it is showing in practices.

Shazier should start along with Lawrence Timmons on the inside in the Steelers’ 3-4 defense. He said he played at 225 as a rookie but now comes in around 232 and has not lost any of his speed or quickness.

Shazier called his rookie season “kind of a disappointment,” but a knee injury early on caused him to miss four games and then a high ankle sprain put him on the shelf for four more. He started the season next to Timmons, which is where he should be when his second season begins.

ST. LOUIS RAMS

–Star of the week: Tre Mason, running back, a third-round pick in 2014 from Auburn.

Mason acknowledged being “shocked” when he found out the team had selected running back Todd Gurley with the 10th overall pick of the draft on April 30. He figured, “I must not have performed well enough; people were doubting me,” and then developed the mindset of “getting physically right and mentally right” in preparation for OTAs. That approach was evident in OTAs as Mason was again displaying the explosiveness exhibited last year when he rushed for 765 yards after not becoming the starter until the eighth game of the season. Included in his four touchdowns was one for 89 yards

In addition to his strong running in OTAs, Mason did well as a receiver out of the backfield as the offense becomes accustomed to the changes implemented by new coordinator Frank Cignetti. Mason won’t give up the job without a fight and added, “I’ve proven people wrong for a long time.”

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

–Star of the week: Melvin Gordon, running back, drafted No. 15 overall this year out of Wisconsin. OK, there is not tackling or even significant body contact in OTAs, but Gordon still looked awesome in workouts.

He hits the hole with a burst, shows some wiggle, shifts gears and takes off in a manner that is hard to ignore.

“There’s a reason why we drafted him where we did,” head coach Mike McCoy said.

Quarterback Philip Rivers isn’t one to compare a player to another. But asked about Gordon, he compared him with Kansas City Chiefs star Jamaal Charles.

“They do look alike, some of the cuts they make and the way they run,” Rivers said.

The Chargers’ rushing attack last season was at the bottom in every significant category and Rivers had the sore ribs and back to prove it at season’s end.

That explains the Chargers’ draft-day trade to move up the board and select Gordon.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

–Star of the week: Kendall Hunter, running back.

With the departure of franchise record-holding rusher Frank Gore (free agent to Indianapolis), all eyes have been on the heir apparent, Carlos Hyde, and a lot of attention has been given to versatile Reggie Bush.

But 49ers coaches are impressed by the performance of Hunter, who sat out all last season after sustaining a torn ACL in training camp.

“Kendall, he’s coming along great,” 49ers head coach Jim Tomsula said. “I think we all have strong feelings for Kendall. He is, you see him out there moving. He’s moving around great. But we definitely have a rep count on him. There’s a rep count on all of those guys. You’ve got to keep him corralled. But he’s moving around really quick.”

Hunter has 1,202 rushing yards (4.6 average) and seven touchdowns in 43 career regular-season games. Last year, Hyde took over as the No. 2 back behind Gore and averaged 4.0 yards per carry with four touchdowns.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

–Star of the week: Jimmy Graham, tight end, acquired from New Orleans Saints in a stunning offseason transaction.

Graham missed the first week of OTAs to attend a funeral but this week showed why the Seahawks traded a first-round pick and center Max Unger to get the big tight end.

Graham was especially impressive during Tuesday’s workout that was open to the media. The practice featured a heavy emphasis on red-zone plays, an area where Graham specializes. He came through with five touchdown catches, with four in short succession, punctuating each with a hard spike that drew the playful ire of some of the team’s big-name defensive players such as Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor (who were on the sidelines with the plays coming mostly against backup players).

The sequence showed not only Graham’s talent but that he appears to be fitting in in the locker room, as well. Chancellor, though, made sure to let Graham know about it when he got back on the field and shut down Graham on a couple of end-zone plays.

TAMPA BAY BUCANNEERS

–Star of the week: Danny Lansanah, linebacker, a fourth-year veteran out of Connecticut.

Lansanah won the starting strong-side linebacker job early last season and finished with three interceptions, returning two of them for touchdowns. This year, Lansanah is competing at middle linebacker with Brice Carter and made some outstanding plays this week, including an interception in Thursday’s drill that was open to the media.

TENNESSEE TITANS

–Star of the week: Zach Brown, linebacker, a four-year player drafted in the second round out of Tennessee in 2012.

Granted, it is difficult to tell how much impact a defensive player is making in OTAs unless he grabs an interception or is seen in position to make a sack. Regardless, Brown is one player the Titans seem pleased is back.

Brown received positive reviews in his offseason work after being limited to one game last year with a torn pectoral muscle. Brown is penciled in as an inside linebacker, along with Avery Williamson, who emerged last year as a rookie.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS

–Star of the week: Bashaud Breeland, cornerback, a second-round draft pick out of Clemson last year.

Although the Redskins signed cornerback Chris Culliver to a lucrative free-agent contract in March, Breeland has been the standout in OTAs this year, same as last.

On Wednesday, Breeland made a nifty interception of Robert Griffin III as the quarterback rolled out and tried to squeeze the ball into a spot in the end zone. On the next play, Breeland raced across the field to make a play on running back Alfred Morris. Young corners who can play well against the run and the pass are going to see plenty of time even on a team with proven veterans Culliver and DeAngelo Hall.

–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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