Top Rookie Storylines to Watch in 2017 NFL Training Camps

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    Rookies are walking sources of hope at NFL training camps

    They haven't done anything to tarnish their image of what they could become. They haven't dropped a pass, missed a tackle or been stuffed at the goal line. They haven't broken your heart yet.

    Some are being relied on to rise quickly in 2017. That applies to running back Samaje Perine, who's likely to lead the Washington Redskins backfield.

    Others will begin more intense training-camp position battles in the summer sun. That's true for Kenny Golladay, who will look to climb even further up the Detroit Lions' wide receiver depth chart. Deshaun Watson and DeShone Kizer, two of the draft's top quarterbacks, will surely start games as rookies, and training camp will help determine if that day comes immediately.

    Finally, it's also possible to disappoint long before the regular season. The Chargers' Mike Williams—through no fault of his own—has done that by having to sit out his team's offseason program.

    That's just the start of the rookie storylines to watch as training camp nears.

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      Kareem HuntDominic DiSaia/Associated Press

      Anyone who plays fantasy football is well-versed in the Kareem Hunt hype by now. All household pets who have filled out their draft rankings are deep into the Hunt buzz, too.

      The Kansas City Chiefs drafted the standout running back with their third-round pick (86th overall) to address a backfield that had faded somewhat as 2016 came to a close. The Chiefs have won through defense and a pounding ground attack during the Andy Reid era. Yet over his last nine games of 2016, Spencer Ware—who's currently atop Kansas City's running back depth chart—failed to reach even the 70-yard mark on the ground.

      Enter Hunt as the fresh legs tasked with injecting life into a backfield that needs it. He ran for 1,475 yards during his final year at Toledo, averaging 5.6 yards per carry and scoring 10 times. He has impressive agility for his size (5'11", 216 lbs), which leads to a blend of power and elusiveness.

      Reid took notice during OTAs.

      "The center of gravity, the way he moves, he can kind of shift that big body around the way he does, you think he's going to be OK," he told's Adam Teicher. "He catches the ball well, and he's a pretty smart kid. We're throwing a ton at him."

      That process of bringing Hunt along quickly will continue into training camp, with the next step taken when pads go on and Chiefs coaches get to see up close how well he powers through contact.

      At the least, Hunt has an opportunity to earn a significant role in a platoon. Ware will put up a fight, and he's not going anywhere after his 1,368 yards from scrimmage in 2016. But his fade down the stretch might put him on the defensive.

      The Chiefs averaged only 4.2 yards per carry in 2016, their lowest average by nearly a half-yard since 2011. They need a boost, and it might come from Hunt.

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        George KittleMarcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

        In the not-so distant past, only one name came to mind when you thought about a San Francisco 49ers tight end: Vernon Davis.

        But the position has been in flux since he left in 2015. Vance McDonald has provided production that can best be described as adequate, catching 54 calls for 717 yards and seven touchdowns over the past two seasons. Tight end was one of many positions a rebuilding 49ers team was looking to improve in the 2017 draft, and they may have struck mid-round gold.

        The 49ers selected George Kittle with their fifth-round pick and did it after openly exploring trade options for McDonald during the draft. Back in April, new general manager John Lynch was refreshingly blunt when speaking to Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News, saying that shopping McDonald was "the reality of new regimes coming in and new schemes."

        Translation: McDonald doesn't fit our scheme. It is why the 49ers grabbed a tight end who slides in better to new head coach Kyle Shanahan's offense.

        Kittle has surprising speed for his size (6'4", 247 lbs) and showed it by averaging 15.4 yards per reception throughout his time at Iowa. Lynch gushed about how Kittle caught his attention during offseason workouts.

        "He's really flashed," he told Joe Fann of "He's got some suddenness to him in his movements. He catches the ball extremely well. George gives us something we don't have as a playmaker down in the red zone. He is that guy who can win one-on-one. He can impose his will and out-athlete people. He's exceeded our expectations."

        If Kittle's emergence continues, the 49ers might elevate him right away and possibly move on from McDonald.

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          Kenny GolladayPaul Sancya/Associated Press

          There's a chance wide receiver Marvin Jones could already be sliding toward free-agent bust status for the Detroit Lions. That's why third-round pick Kenny Golladay could have a path to plenty of early targets.

          Jones signed a five-year contract worth $40 million in 2016. He then erupted for 408 receiving yards over his first three games as a Lion, but beyond that he averaged just 40.2 yards per game the rest of the season. Golladay is already likely headed toward No. 3 receiver duties, as's Michael Rothstein projected. And if Jones' inconsistent play continues, the rookie out of Northern Illinois might emerge.

          Golladay is a large, bounding target at 6'4" and 218 pounds. That alone makes him a quality red-zone threat, and he scored 18 touchdowns over two college seasons.

          He's also more than just a lumbering tree on the outside. The 23-year-old ran the 40-yard dash in 4.50 seconds at the scouting combine, which shows an ability to both separate and win deep jump balls. He's sure-handed too, recording just five drops on 165 catchable targets over two seasons at Northern Illinois, according to Pro Football Focus.

          The task ahead of him in training camp is to push Jones aside.

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            Samaje PerineNick Wass/Associated Press

            Much like the Chiefs with Hunt and Ware, there might not be a true winner in the Washington Redskins' backfield battle between Samaje Perine and Rob Kelley at first.

            Also much like the Chiefs, that will only matter in the short term, as Perine is the more talented multipurpose option.

            The 21-year-old packs a punch into his 5'11", 236-pound frame, a body that moves downhill fast to power through tackles. Perine finished his college career with the Oklahoma Sooners in 2016 and recorded 1,060 rushing yards at an average of 5.4 yards per carry. Perine did that while sharing time with Joe Mixon, and he also showed comfort as a pass-catcher out of the backfield, hauling in 40 passes over three seasons.

            Meanwhile, Kelley plodded at times as a rookie in 2016. Earlier in the offseason,'s John Keim called Kelley a complementary piece to Perine, and he'll probably be right.

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              Deshaun WatsonBob Levey/Associated Press

              The Houston Texans traded up to draft quarterback Deshaun Watson for one purpose: to solve their eternal quarterback agony.

              Remember, we're talking about a team that's had to start Brock Osweiler and Brian Hoyer in playoff games over the past two seasons. The Texans would like to stop wasting all the talent elsewhere on their roster—especially on defense—by trotting out a passer capable of making key throws in big moments.

              Watson fits that description after a sparkling college career at Clemson highlighted by two National Championship Game appearances. He shined under those bright lights while throwing for 825 yards and running for 116 more.

              There's little fear about Watson's crumbling under pressure against a higher level of competition. Like any rookie, he just might need time to feel at ease in a new offense. How much time he needs will be determined by Tom Savage and whether he face-plants immediately.

              Watson had to learn a complicated offense at Clemson. So mentally he can pick up an NFL playbook quickly, which is what the 21-year-old has done throughout offseason workouts.

              Texans head coach Bill O'Brien spoke to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle in late June and praised the Clemson coaching staff for the finished product they helped produce. Still, O'Brien also stressed patience, saying Watson isn't quite ready yet.

              "He's a very poised guy," O'Brien said. "I like the way he carries himself. I like the way he operates. He's a rookie, and he's not nearly where he needs to be to be a full-time starter in this league, but you can tell he's got a lot of qualities you like.

              "For being a rookie, he's wise beyond his years. He asks great questions in the morning meeting, and you can tell he's studied the night before. Every practice isn't perfect. He knows he needs to get a lot better. And he did get better every day during the spring."

              If Watson can keep developing, we might see him taking meaningful NFL snaps soon.

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                Mike WilliamsGregory Bull/Associated Press

                The Los Angeles Chargers drafted Mike Williams with their seventh overall pick for two obvious reasons: to give aging quarterback Philip Rivers another valuable weapon and to add vitally needed depth after being overwhelmed by wide receiver injuries.

                So of course Williams then blended into his new surroundings the only way that seems appropriate for a Chargers receiver. He injured his back on the first day of rookie minicamp and missed the rest of the offseason program.

                Every snap is critical in a rookie's development, even the ones taken in shorts without any pads. Williams took mental reps throughout OTAs and put in his studying time during film sessions. But there's no replacement for on-field work while getting the feel for a new offense.

                "At some point, you've got to understand the concept of what you're doing and why you're doing it," Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt told's Eric D. Williams when discussing the continued absence of the Chargers' first-round pick. "That's it. That's really the key for these young guys. Sometimes it takes them a little bit longer. Sometimes it's even a confidence thing."

                Williams isn't dealing with a short-term issue, either. Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times reported in early June that a mild disk herniation will keep him out until training camp "at the earliest."

                If Williams' time on the sideline extends deeper into August, it'll become increasingly difficult to see him making a major contribution until late in his rookie year. That's not what the Chargers signed up for.

                They needed him to be insurance alongside the oft-injured Keenan Allen, who's healthy now but has missed 23 games over the past two seasons due an ACL tear and kidney issue. Now the Chargers might be going forward without that safety net.

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                  DeShone KizerRon Schwane/Associated Press

                  There is a similarity between what Watson faces in Houston and what fellow rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer is up against in Cleveland. Both are the future, and the smart money is on both making starts in 2016. But those debuts might not come in Week 1.

                  Watson may be closer to being an immediate starter, and not just because of his first-round draft status. The Texans have a playoff-contending team starved for competence under center. The Browns, meanwhile, have some exciting pieces in place, but they're still rebuilding, and there's little need to push a young quarterback too soon and risk shattering his confidence.

                  Or that can be looked at from another angle: If the Browns aren't contending in 2017, they need to see what they have in their second-round rookie, and it benefits him to get game experience.

                  Kizer has the most potential of any quarterback on the Browns roster. He's a strong-armed pivot and is sneaky-athletic at 6'4" and 233 pounds. He ran for 997 yards over two years as the starter at Notre Dame while scoring 18 times on the ground. His deep cannon also led to an average of 8.4 yards per pass attempt.

                  There were accuracy concerns in college for Kizer, especially in 2016 when his completion percentage fell to 58.7. But those may have subsided somewhat, with Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer noting that Kizer's accuracy and touch have improved while working with Browns head coach Hue Jackson and quarterbacks coach David Lee.

                  Will he keep improving enough to be out there for Week 1? That question will be answered soon enough and likely by mid-August after the second preseason game.

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