I just spent 21 consecutive days on the road, visiting 12 NFL training camps and watching one joint practice (between the Atlanta Falcons and Cincinnati Bengals). Needless to say, I soaked up a ton of information. One of the great things about making all those stops is getting to chat up people on various team staffs and finding out which players are rising and falling.
At this halfway point of the preseason schedule, I thought I'd put together a list of ascendant players who stood out through my travels and on tape. These guys, all of whom recently entered the league, look primed to take a big step forward and significantly impact their respective teams. They won't necessarily become All-Pros, but they will have a chance to make a difference.
1) Brandon Weeden, QB, Cleveland Browns
After suffering through a bumpy rookie season in which he threw more interceptions (17) than touchdown passes (14), Weeden is working with two very good new coaches in head man Rob Chudzinski and offensive coordinator Norv Turner -- and the difference is like night and day. Retooling a quarterback is Turner's cup of tea, and it looks like he's done a great job with Weeden's footwork. The Browns are saddled with average receivers, but Weeden has worked well with his tight ends and running backs, showing great arm strength and ball-handling skills.
2) Julius Thomas, TE, Denver Broncos
A former basketball player at Portland State, Thomas didn't do much in his first two seasons with the Broncos, catching one pass while playing in just nine games (including one start). But he's really taken off in the 2013 preseason; against the Seattle Seahawks last Saturday, he was targeted by quarterback Peyton Manning four times -- and came away with four catches for 70 yards. Thomas is a big, athletic player who has shown he can block and be an asset in the receiving game. His size (6-foot-5, 250 pounds) makes him a tough matchup for opposing linebackers and an appealing target for Manning. I think Thomas will beat out veterans Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen and slot in as Manning's fourth receiving option. Thomas reminds me of a slightly heavier Shannon Sharpe, someone who could finish the season with around 50 catches and a handful of touchdowns.
3) Chris Givens, WR, St. Louis Rams
Givens flashed promise in his debut season of 2012, finishing with 42 catches for 698 yards and three touchdowns while also setting a rookie record by recording a reception of 50 yards or more in five consecutive games. Still, he was mostly limited to running deep routes. This year, he's added underneath patterns to his route tree, and looks to be much better at route-running in general. He also looked excellent while working with quarterback Sam Bradford. Givens is a smart player. If the Rams' offensive line can keep Bradford upright, Givens will have a big year. He's a real "wow" kind of guy when it comes to running after the catch.
4) Michael Brockers, DT, St. Louis Rams
Brockers had a rough rookie season in 2012, missing the first three games with a high ankle sprain suffered in the preseason finale. He's gotten a lot stronger, as the shoulder problems that prevented him from lifting last year have been corrected. He's also matured a lot as a person. Brockers has very long arms and is tough to move in run blocking. He's playing lower and looks ready to make a marked improvement over last season.
5) Dontari Poe, DT, Kansas City Chiefs
Poe started all 16 games as a rookie in 2012, but he failed to register a single sack; he seemed to be more of a run stuffer than anything. This year, he's lost weight -- he stopped eating barbecue, which is a tough thing to do when you live in Memphis and work in Kansas City -- and looks much better. He's still 330 pounds, but it's a svelte-looking 330 pounds. I was with the Chiefs for two days this offseason, and I saw Poe show very good athletic ability, particularly on one play in which he snagged a batted ball like Bill Russell going up for a rebound. I think he finally found out how good he can be.
6) Michael Floyd, WR, Arizona Cardinals
A first-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Floyd started just three games and finished with 45 catches as a rookie. In a conversation with me, Floyd admitted that he was too heavy last year, and that he didn't realize just how good the competition would be in the NFL. He's lost 10 pounds and was grinding at practice -- he even stayed after to work out. I watched him make several outstanding catches. He has a much better quarterback in Carson Palmer than he ever had in 2012. I wouldn't be surprised to see Floyd finish with 70 catches.
7) Chris Polk, RB, Philadelphia Eagles
At one point, Polk was projected as a potential second-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. But thanks in part to injury concerns, he wound up signing with the Eagles as an undrafted free agent and barely made a dent in his rookie campaign, playing in seven games but failing to record a single stat of note. In camp this year, however, he has looked excellent, showing plenty of receiving and running ability. Against the Carolina Panthers last week, Polk notched five carries for 24 yards. If he can secure a spot behind LeSean McCoy on the Eagles' depth chart, he has a chance to be the kind of second running back that everybody needs.
8) Kyle Long, OG, Chicago Bears
The Bears took some heat for making the relatively inexperienced Long the 20th overall pick in April's draft, but he has looked like a solid investment thus far. Long had the fastest 40-yard dash (4.94 seconds) among all guards at the NFL Scouting Combine, and that speed shows when he pulls; just check the tape of the Bears' preseason matchup with the San Diego Chargers. Long is a tough son of a gun who plays with the attacking mentality of a defensive lineman. He also looks like a veteran out there, playing better right now than the two guards drafted before him (Jonathan Cooper, who went seventh overall to the Arizona Cardinals, and Chance Warmack, 10th to the Tennessee Titans). I can't wait to see him match up against big brother Chris, a defensive lineman for the St. Louis Rams, in Week 12.
9) Jordan Cameron, TE, Cleveland Browns
10) Rueben Randle, WR, New York Giants
Randle had limited production as a rookie, making just one start and catching 19 passes for 298 yards and three scores. He had a tendency to trap the ball rather than use his hands to catch it, but that has changed. A great athlete with natural ball skills, Randle seems to be doing everything better in 2013.
11) Olivier Vernon, DE, Miami Dolphins
Vernon did not start as a rookie last year, but he played in all 16 games, finishing with 3.5 sacks. The quick and tough playmaker has been elevated to a starting spot, and he's been very hard to block in camp. I think he'll be pretty good; he possesses the skills and competitiveness to surprise some folks.