NFL News & Analysis

2021 NFL Training Camp: Late-round rookie risers

Tampa Bay, Florida, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Jaelon Darden (1) practices during rookie mini-camp at AdventHealth Training Center Mandatory Credit: Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

‘Tis the season for glowing reports of rookies as the first full week of preseason games approaches. It’s difficult to discern which positive early reviews actually carry weight behind them and which are fluff, leading to a situation where negative reviews of first- and second-year players are often more significant than their positive counterparts.

However, it is worth keeping an eye on Day 3 rookies and undrafted free agents who are consistently making plays and even earning opportunities to run with the starters. Actions, like those first-team reps, speak louder than words. Not all of these players have seen playing time with the starters, but all of them have impressed early on and could carve out roles once the 2021 regular season comes around.

Here are 10 rookies selected in the fourth round or later of the 2021 NFL Draft who have caught the eyes of local beat writers covering the team.

RB Michael Carter, New York Jets

Carter began Jets training camp with the first team in one of the most wide-open running back rooms in the NFL. Tevin Coleman has familiarity with New York offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur from his stints with both the Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers. He is Carter’s primary competition for the starting job at running back, but Carter has continued to work with the first team and stand out through the early stages of training camp. The Athletic’s Connor Hughes noted that Carter “is a step above the other three running backs.”

The fourth-round pick out of North Carolina ran for over 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons, and he is coming off a 2020 campaign in which he earned 88.0-plus PFF grades each as a rusher and a receiver. That receiving ability could be a differentiator throughout the remainder of training camp and the preseason.

CB Michael Carter II, New York Jets

The cornerback Carter is in a similar position to the running back Carter in that he has a real chance at a starting job given the lack of an entrenched starter.

The Athletic’s Connor Hughes wrote in a training camp report last week, “It’s likely not long before Carter takes all the first-team reps from Javelin Guidry. Guidry struggled in the individual drills, although he did have a nice pass breakup on a James Morgan throw in team work.”

The fifth-round pick out of Duke logged over 500 slot coverage snaps in his four years with the Blue Devils. Carter allowed a 71.8 passer rating into his coverage on 99 slot targets, intercepting three passes and forcing incompletions on another 16. He’ll be one of several young cornerbacks in New York attempting to change the perception of the talent in the team's secondary.

G Trey Smith, Kansas City Chiefs

The early expectation was that Laurent Duvernay-Tardif would regain his starting role at right guard after opting out of the 2020 NFL season. It’s difficult to rely on rookie offensive linemen, let alone a sixth-round guard like Smith. However, it has been Smith who has lined up with the starters to open training camp, and he’s been impressive in that role by all accounts.

Smith was the No. 5 player in the country coming out of high school. His ability to produce highlight-reel plays and pancake opposing rushers was never in doubt, but consistency concerns and medical red flags led to a very talented player being available in the sixth round.

Ideally, Creed Humphrey, Smith and Lucas Niang — all of whom are entering their first NFL season — make it clear that they’re ready to start from center to right tackle leading up to Week 1.

TE Noah Gray, Kansas City Chiefs

There is no path for Gray to earn the starting tight end job over Travis Kelce in Kansas City, barring injury. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a path to the field for him. There has been some buzz about the Chiefs utilizing more personnel groupings with multiple tight ends, likely relating to a lack of quality depth at wide receiver.

Chiefs reporter Matt McCullen wrote at the end of July that “Gray seemed to consistently make plays during the offseason workout program and it’s already translating to camp, as the rookie tight end hauled in an over-the-shoulder grab down the sideline during a 7-on-7 period.”

Gray has since had some drop troubles with the pads on, but he has a real chance to contribute to the passing game as a rookie. His hands were a strength coming out of Duke, with just three drops on 107 career catchable passes, and he has a good feel for finding holes in the defense over the middle of the field.

CB Shakur Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers

Steven Nelson‘s release, the decision to let Mike Hilton walk in free agency and the corresponding move of fifth-year cornerback Cameron Sutton outside has created an opportunity in the slot for several young defensive backs in Pittsburgh. Brown, an undrafted free agent out of Michigan State, is one of them.

The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly recently said of Brown, “Speaking of the slot, maybe Shakur Brown can be a player in the competition after all. The highly regarded undrafted rookie out of Michigan State continues to make plays.”

Brown was one of top undrafted free agents following the 2021 NFL Draft, per PFF’s Big Board. While he played primarily out wide, he did start two games in the slot for the Spartans in 2020. He earned an 84.2 coverage grade on the year and is a candidate to follow in the shoes of Hilton, going from undrafted free agent to impact nickel defender for the Steelers.

EDGE Jonathon Cooper, Denver Broncos

Cooper underwent multiple heart procedures following the results of an EKG taken shortly before the 2021 NFL Draft. It’s difficult to imagine that didn’t contribute to his slide to the seventh round, but the early returns in Denver indicate he could be a steal.

“Cooper is firmly in the mix for the Broncos’ fourth outside linebacker spot behind [Von] Miller, Bradley Chubb and Malik Reed,” Nick Kosmider of The Athletic wrote last week.

Cooper’s biggest strength coming out of Ohio State was his refined pass-rushing toolbox and hand usage. That helped lead to an impressive 90.5 pass-rushing grade last season. Cooper still has a ways to go before he’s receiving meaningful regular-season snaps, but he has a good opportunity to outperform his draft position.

CB Zech McPhearson, Philadelphia Eagles

McPhearson’s chances at earning a starting role in Philadelphia’s defense took a hit when the team signed free agent cornerback Steven Nelson, but McPhearson is not going down without a fight. His play has been one of the early storylines of training camp for the Eagles.

“Looking at my notes, and I keep seeing “27” — McPhearson’s number. He made plays throughout the day … I’m not sure they’ve seen enough to think that McPhearson could have started, but he’s been the best first- or second-year player on defense,” The Athletic’s Zach Berman wrote following the first day in pads.

McPhearson is coming off a 2020 season at Texas Tech where he earned an 85.7 coverage grade. He played primarily out wide but did notch over 100 snaps in the slot. That helps his case to potentially get on the field alongside Nelson and Darius Slay. Avonte Maddox is coming off just a 37.1 coverage grade last season.

S Mark Webb, Los Angeles Chargers

The Chargers' safety depth is one of the weaker points of their roster when projecting forward. Webb, a seventh-round selection out of Georgia, is looking to change that with a strong start to training camp.

“I think he has flashed that he belongs on the NFL field. If you just look at him, he looks like he belongs on the NFL field. We're trying to train him at three different positions. He's handled it mentally. We're putting a lot on him because we expect a lot from him. It's not easy, but he's shown the aptitude to handle it athletically and mentally. He's at the beginning, but he's shown some resilience here. We expect him to continue to improve,” Chargers head coach Brandon Staley said about Webb.

Webb lined up primarily in the slot for the Bulldogs over the past two seasons, recording 708 of his 825 defensive snaps from those alignments. However, it sounds as if Los Angeles is moving him around. That versatility should help him earn a spot on the 53-man roster.    

WR Jaelon Darden, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay’s receiving corps has a chance to be the best unit in the PFF era. It’s not a landing spot conducive to a fourth-round rookie wide receiver stepping in and contributing early in the passing game, with Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, Antonio Brown, Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson all returning in 2021. Yet, it’s been hard to ignore Darden early in camp.

The Athletic’s Greg Auman compared Darden aesthetically to DeSean Jackson before going on to say: “That’s not to say Darden is Jackson by any means, but he has stood out this week, catching a goal-line touchdown from backup Blaine Gabbert and being among the few deep on returns in special-teams work.”

Darden brings the combination of speed and quicks that leads one to believe he can make an impact as a receiver, even if his earliest path to meaningful contributions is as a returner. He’s a name to watch for the Buccaneers in the preseason as he looks to build on an absurd 2020 season with North Texas in which he averaged over four receiving yards per route run.

RB Jermar Jefferson, Detroit Lions

The response above from first-year head coach Dan Campbell when asked about his seventh-round rookie running back was largely positive, as have been most of the early reviews for Jefferson.

Jefferson’s athletic testing at his pro day was underwhelming, to say the least, but he showcased a good feel for pacing runs while at Oregon State and dropped just one of his 44 career catchable passes. The Lions haven’t hesitated to utilize him as a receiver in the flat early in training camp, per The Athletic’s Nick Baumgardner and Chris Burke.

He’s firmly behind both D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams on the depth chart, but he could carve out a small role behind those two with continued strong play on a team that will likely run the ball plenty next season.

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