Every year, I travel to training camps around the NFL, and every year, it seems the players are getting a little bit better.
The rookies are just so well-prepared coming out of college, and the veterans have such sophisticated offseason regimens available to them, that the bar seems to be pushed ever higher across the board. Of course, even with the overall tide rising, there are those who still stand out.
With Weeks 1 and 2 of the preseason schedule behind us, I figured I'd highlight the players who caught my eye -- or ear, via my conversations with folks around the league -- in training camp as ascendant talents. These guys aren't necessarily that well-known, and they don't have lengthy resumes, but all look poised to help their respective teams in a big way this season.
Here, in alphabetical order, are 11 players on the rise as training camps wrap up:
Bell has shocked me with how well he's played since entering the NFL as an undrafted rookie in 2011, and I've continued to be impressed with the way he's transitioned from right tackle to left tackle this preseason in the wake of longtime veteran Jordan Gross' retirement. Offensive line coach John Matsko has done a great job improving Bell's technique and making the game easier for the strong, wide-shouldered 25-year-old. Bell must do a good job protecting Cam Newton's blind side if the Panthers are to have a chance, and, luckily for them, it looks like he's going to.
Clay can line up everywhere, and -- as I wrote last week -- I expect him to be used very creatively by new Dolphins offensive coordinator Bill Lazor. The fourth-year pro, who missed a couple weeks of the preseason with a knee issue but returned to action Monday, has very good hands and is improving as a blocker. Miami can rely on him to bail out quarterback Ryan Tannehill with quick catches when needed. If the recent emphasis by officials on enforcing pass-coverage rules lasts into the regular season, it should help big, speedy tight ends like Clay -- as Bill Parcells pointed out when I discussed that change with him.
Ellington, a sixth-round pick in 2013, has very good acceleration and fine hands -- two traits that he showed off as a rookie, when he averaged 5.5 yards per carry and hauled in 39 passes for 371 yards. He's not huge, but he has big-play ability and should gain something like 850 yards this season, as long as he can stay healthy. He should help Arizona win some games.
Ertz really improved in the latter half of his rookie campaign. He has size, speed and versatility, plus a good release off the line of scrimmage. The 2013 second-round pick is a good player -- which is something the Eagles' passing game definitely could use as the team moves forward without DeSean Jackson.
The former first-round pick is primed to take over for veteran Larry Fitzgerald as the Cardinals' go-to receiver. Floyd struggled as a rookie in 2012, but he seems to have really matured. When I included him on this list last year, I pegged him for 70 catches, and he obliged with 65 catches for 1,041 yards and five scores. While he missed the Cards' first two preseason games with a groin injury, I ultimately expect Floyd to be the Cardinals' leading receiver in 2014 and have a chance to make the Pro Bowl. This should allow quarterback Carson Palmer to put together an outstanding season.
Kelce was already starting to look pretty good when I saw him in Chiefs' camp last year, but a knee issue -- which required microfracture surgery -- limited him to one game in 2013. This year, Kelce appears to have picked up where he left off, only now he's stronger and better, improving as a blocker. I watched him in three Chiefs practices this preseason, and in each one, he made tough catches, just as he did in the practices I watched last year. Kansas City's proclivity for the run might limit Kelce's statistical ceiling, but if he can avoid the trainer's room, he has a chance to notch 50 catches and five touchdowns.
Minter won't be the best-looking athlete out there, but as an active defender who can drop into space, he can get the job done. I expect him to start and play well for the Cardinals, who will need him to do both, with Karlos Dansby in Cleveland and Daryl Washington suspended. Of course, losing defensive end Darnell Dockett for the year will make things harder for Minter, who also must overcome the pectoral injury he's been dealing with this preseason.
Reed will continue to build on the promise he showed as a rookie last year before concussion issues got in the way. Built like a basketball player, he moves like one, too; he's really a matchup nightmare for opponents. We can expect new Redskins coach Jay Gruden, who liked to throw to the tight end when he was offensive coordinator of the Bengals, to use Reed well. And with newcomer DeSean Jackson joining Pierre Garcon out wide, it will only be more difficult for defenders to stop this unique weapon.
Cornerback Brandon Browner will miss the first four games of the season with a suspension, and Ryan has a good shot to fill in opposite Darrelle Revis during that time. That responsibility will, of course, force Ryan to be tested -- and I expect the second-year pro to stand up to the test. He has very good ball skills, will tackle in run support and understands the game. He's knowledgeable and excels at breaking up passes. If New England's defense is going to be better in 2014, Ryan -- who could slide into the third cornerback spot when Browner returns -- is key.
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Shazier is the real deal. He possesses the attitude and ability to make a serious impact, and he has an above-average chance to be the Defensive Rookie of the Year. After missing a bit of time with a knee injury, the first-round pick made a huge splash in his preseason debut Saturday, racking up nine tackles and an interception. Shazier can line up everywhere -- including the line of scrimmage, with his hand in the dirt to rush the passer -- and will make plays in both the running and the passing game. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will have Shazier doing things few others can do.
The Raiders struggled in 2013, but they did rush for 2,000 yards -- 12th-most in the NFL. If they want to improve in 2014, they'll have to keep running, and Wisniewski will be a crucial part of that. The fourth-year pro is smart, hard-working and stronger than he used to be. Offensive line coach Tony Sparano -- who does a good job with the unit overall -- has helped Wisniewski significantly, and I think the center is poised for big things.