Rookie stock watch: Training camp risers and fallers

August 14, 2020

How much impact a rookie will have in their first season is hard to figure out under normal circumstances. Productivity is usually more dependent upon their situation in their first season than their talent. With shortened training camps and no preseason games this year, the rookies are going to be even tougher to evaluate. There’s nothing more telling regarding a player’s development and gauging their prospective role than seeing it via game tape. However, breaking news coming out of camps is shuffling their positions on draft boards. Here are some notable rookies that have gained or lost traction since reporting to camp:

Moving on Up

Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB, Kansas City Chiefs
If you keep up with the latest NFL news, listing him here might be obvious, but I’d be remiss if I left him out. Since being drafted in a Patrick Mahomes-led high scoring Kansas City offense with an Andy Reid running back-friendly system, Edwards-Helaire was already a top rookie fantasy prospect. It appeared the LSU product would contribute from day one as the counterpart to incumbent Damien Williams, possibly taking over the position as the season progressed. CEH’s short-term production got a big boost when Williams opted-out this season, making him the clear-cut starter. Making things juicer, ESPN’s Adam Teicher reported in the Chiefs first practice in pads on Friday, CEH worked as the featured back.

Antonio Gibson, RB/WR, Washington Football Team
Gibson is a versatile electric player who drew an early comparison to Christian McCaffrey from Washington Head Coach Ron Rivera. Gibson essentially only played one season at Memphis, mostly at wide receiver, but also took snaps at running back, averaging 8.4 yards per carry and 13.1 yards per target (11.9 RAC).

Although Rivera views him as a running back first, many question Gibson’s ability to be a featured back with only 33 total carries under his belt. Washington has some holes to fill since they released Derrius Guice after his arrest on alleged domestic violence charges and wide receiver Kelvin Harmon tore his ACL over the summer. Gibson has been sitting in on meetings with both position groups and has been doing technical work as a wide receiver, as reported by Rhiannon Walker of The Athletic. Running backs Adrian Peterson, Bryce Love, Peyton Barber and JD McKissic are still on the roster. Of that group, Gibson is the only one with the potential to combine power, speed, and receiving ability.

Justin Jefferson, WR, Minnesota Vikings
Jefferson was already situated for a pivotal role after the Vikings dealt disgruntled star receiver Stefon Diggs to the Buffalo Bills. But the Vikings suffered some blows on the defensive side of the ball, placing more of the onus on the offense to step up. He may not have the lightning speed of Diggs, but is a versatile route runner who can play outside or in the slot. He caught a career 165 receptions for 2415 yards and 24 touchdowns at LSU, averaging 15.05 yards per reception. Jefferson is currently listed as the WR2 on the depth chart, only behind Adam Thielen. The caveat is just how much the team will lean on their prolific run game.

Brandon Aiyuk, WR, San Francisco 49ers
Aiyuk could see an elevated role early on while second-year receiver Deebo Samuel rehabs from breaking his foot two months ago. Aiyuk has drawn comparisons to Samuel from NFL’s Bucky Brooks, so if he can get up to speed, it should be somewhat seamless for him to fill the vacated spot. The first-round pick was very productive with the SunDevils. His senior year, he had 65 catches for 1,192 yards and eight touchdowns. Samuel’s expected recovery time is 12 to 16 weeks making him likely to return sometime in late September to mid-October. Meanwhile, Aiyuk will play alongside veterans Jalen Hurd and Kendrick Bourne on the perimeter.

Tee Higgins, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
Once again, opportunity is knocking. It was unlikely for Higgins to see the field much this season playing behind fellow wide receivers AJ Green, Tyler Boyd and John Ross III. Now he is getting his number called since Ross was placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list to tend to his sick son. If Higgins impresses, Ross may be unable to reclaim his spot in the top-three at the receiver position. Rumor has it Ross was already on his way out last season. At Clemson, Higgins had 135 career receptions for 2,448 yards and 27 receiving touchdowns over 1,279 snaps in 43 games (30 starts). His 27 career receiving touchdowns tied for the most in school history with DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins. Keep an eye out on news reports, though, as Boyd let it slip out Thursday that Higgins is dealing with a minor injury, according to Tyler Dragon of the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Tumbling down

Ke’ Shawn Vaughn, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
I didn’t see this one coming. I mean, Ronald Jones II is ‘not good,’ right? Vaughn was penciled in as the heir apparent to the backfield and dubbed QB Tom Brady’s new James White because Jones landed in Coach Bruce Arians’ dog house last season. But following a stint on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, it appears the Bucs have some concerns with the speedster’s development. Arians named Jones the primary back recently, just days after the team signed veteran LeSean McCoy to a one-year-deal. Jones did finish out last season strong. McCoy has seen better days, but he does add experience to a young backfield as Vaughn is 21, and Jones just turned 23 this month. McCoy also adds some depth to the position and could just be some semblance of a “COVID insurance policy.” Arians, as well as Brady, have been known to have short leashes with young developing players, so that could explain the addition of McCoy as well. If Vaughn excels in pass protection and blitz pick-up as he did in college, that’ll go a long way toward making it onto the field.

Cam Akers, RB, Los Angeles Rams
Akers is another running back that was the presumed starter for his team. Since the Rams cut Todd Gurley before the 2020 NFL draft, Akers looked to have the clearest path of all rookie running backs to a starting gig. But in late July, head coach Sean McVay announced the Rams would be going with the dreaded RBBC, and Akers will share touches with second-year Darrell Henderson and sixth-year Malcolm Brown. Cam is still the best bet to emerge from the trio as both Henderson and Brown failed to take control during Gurley’s absences. Cam shares two similar qualities with Gurley: his pass-catching skills and a nose for the end zone. As a college junior last season at Florida State, his 1,144 rushing yard total suffered behind a thin offensive line, but his 30 grabs for 225 yards ranked him 22nd among the nation’s running backs.

Anthony McFarland, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh selected McFarland in the fourth round to fill what looked like a need at the RB spot. After a breakout year in 2018, James Conner battled injuries and was ineffective at times as the Steelers starter last season. It’s understandable that the team has yet to offer him a contract extension and is exploring other options. Conner is looking strong after rehabbing over the summer. That puts the coaches in a pickle as they want to assess him and McFarland along with Benny Snell Jr. and free-agent signee Wendell Smallwood. Conner remains the starter, but McFarland should push for more snaps due to the otherwise lack of speed in the Pittsburgh backfield. The Maryland product runs hard, and his 4.44 yard-dash is reflective of what he shows on film.