The surprise guy you should know from every NFL team's minicamp (2024)

  • The surprise guy you should know from every NFL team's minicamp (1)

    NFL Nation, ESPNJun 24, 2024, 06:00 AM ET

With spring minicamps and activities concluded for every NFL team, coaching staffs got a close-up look at which players have given them reasons to be excited for training camps and the regular season.

Rookies begin reporting for training camp as early as July 16, and full-team activities will start July 23.

So, which players might have surprised their coaches and teammates the most? Our NFL Nation reporters picked one player (or in the Dallas Cowboys' case, two players) who unexpectedly rose to the occasion and could make a serious impact in the fall when rotational battles heat up.

Jump to a team:
ARI | ATL | BAL | BUF | CAR | CHI | CIN
CLE | DAL | DEN | DET | GB | HOU | IND
JAX | KC | LAC | LAR | LV | MIA | MIN
NE | NO | NYG | NYJ | PHI | PIT | SF
SEA | TB | TEN | WSH

The surprise guy you should know from every NFL team's minicamp (2)

AFC EAST

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Buffalo Bills

CB Kaiir Elam

Elam looked like he took a step forward and stood out throughout the offseason, including with multiple interceptions. The 2022 first-round pick has been a backup for the majority of his first two years with injuries playing a part. He now has a new position coach in Jahmile Addae and got plenty of time on the field during the offseason with cornerback Rasul Douglas not at the team's voluntary sessions and corner Christian Benford excused from mandatory minicamp for a family issue. Elam has a big camp ahead to continue to show what he can do with Douglas and Benford the favorites to start. -- Alaina Getzenberg

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Miami Dolphins

TE Jody Fortson Jr.

The Dolphins signed Jonnu Smith to provide a receiving threat at tight end, but Fortson has stood out during spring practices. He has a wide catch radius and has flashed the ability to pick up yardage after the catch. The former Kansas City Chiefs tight end has a challenging road to a meaningful workload, considering Smith and Durham Smythe's presence on this roster and the plethora of pass-catchers in the Dolphins' offense, but the early returns on Fortson say he will be able to contribute when called upon -- however frequently that might be. -- Marcel Louis-Jacques

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New England Patriots

DL/EDGE Keion White

The 2023 second-round pick was mentioned by coach Jerod Mayo when asked if there was a player that has surprised him so far. "Keion has kind of taken that step forward as far as being a leader -- not as much vocally, but you see him actually leading the groups and working well," Mayo said. White played 45.8% of the defensive snaps as a rookie and looks primed to increase that number in 2024. -- Mike Reiss

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New York Jets

RB Braelon Allen

Allen, a 2024 fourth-round pick, wasn't known for his receiving in college -- only 49 catches in three seasons at Wisconsin -- but he demonstrated plenty of ability in OTAs and minicamp. He showed excellent ball skills and terrific body control. He's 235 pounds, yet he was able to split out and play like a smaller back. "If you go back and watch his tape at Wisconsin, he caught the ball well," Jets running backs coach Tony Dews said. Allen has a chance to be Breece Hall's primary backup. -- Rich Cimini

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AFC NORTH

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Baltimore Ravens

WR Malik Cunningham

A four-year starting quarterback at Louisville who went undrafted last year, Cunningham switched to wide receiver during spring workouts and has impressed the Ravens with his speed. He has put himself in position to compete for the No. 5 wide receiver spot and the returner job. "[He's] kind of a natural at the position," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "I've seen that he understands the game from the perspective of the quarterback, so [his] routes and coverage and timing and things like that have been excellent." -- Jamison Hensley

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Cincinnati Bengals

CB Dax Hill

Hill entered the offseason in a precarious spot. The 2022 first-round pick was the starting free safety last season in an experiment that didn't pan out. Hill was moved to outside cornerback, where he appears to be taking charge in a position battle with DJ Turner, a second-round pick from 2023 who started 12 games. Hill has taken the move in stride and was disruptive in 7-on-7 drills during the team's mandatory minicamp. He's shaping up to remain a useful player for the Bengals as they enter training camp. -- Ben Baby

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Cleveland Browns

WR Cedric Tillman

The Browns went through the majority of their offseason workout program without their top receivers. Amari Cooper was away from the facility because of an apparent contract dispute, and Jerry Jeudy was sidelined by an injury. Their absences left opportunities for many young pass-catchers, and coaches praised the growth and commitment of Tillman, a 2023 third-round pick. Cleveland saw attentiveness in the weight room and meetings that carried over onto the field as he built a rapport with quarterback Deshaun Watson. With Cooper, Jeudy and Elijah Moore all in the receiver mix, Tillman faces stiff competition to gain targets, but he's off to a strong start. -- Daniel Oyefusi

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Pittsburgh Steelers

TE Pat Freiermuth

Arthur Smith's offense is a tight end's dream, and it's already waking up Freiermuth from a nightmare of a 2023 season. Hampered by a nagging hamstring injury and playing in a disjointed offense, Freiermuth had a career-low 32 catches for 308 yards, less than half of his output from 2022. But the 2021 second-round pick is poised for a resurgence with a new quarterback and offensive coordinator, and he showed early signs of good chemistry with quarterback Russell Wilson through offseason workouts. The Steelers don't have a solid WR2 option, but that might not matter as much if Freiermuth continues on the kind of upward trajectory he established this offseason. -- Brooke Pryor

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AFC SOUTH

The surprise guy you should know from every NFL team's minicamp (13)

Houston Texans

WR John Metchie III

Metchie is flashing signs of what made him a second-round pick in the 2022 draft. Last year was the former Alabama standout's first season since tearing an ACL in December 2021 and being diagnosed with cancer in 2022. The long layoff showed as he finished with 16 catches for 158 yards. But his explosiveness appears back. He has also been in the rotation with the first-team offense. So even though the receiver room has Nico Collins, Tank Dell and Stefon Diggs, Metchie is positioning himself for a rotational role if he has a strong training camp. -- DJ Bien-Aime

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Indianapolis Colts

RB Trey Sermon

With no clear replacement for Zack Moss after his departure in free agency, it remains to be seen who will ascend to the No. 2 RB spot behind Jonathan Taylor. For now, the likeliest option appears to be Sermon, whose hard-running style has earned him first crack at the job. Sermon is on his third team in four seasons, but this is the closest he has come to establishing some consistency in his career. He averaged 4.6 yards per attempt last season, but fellow backups Evan Hull and Tyler Goodson will certainly be factors in this competition. -- Stephen Holder

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Jacksonville Jaguars

WR Parker Washington

When receiver and top target Christian Kirk was injured last season, Washington was thrust into a role he wasn't ready for as a rookie. He caught 16 passes for 132 yards and two TDs after Kirk's injury, but Washington dealt with a knee injury and struggled with his knowledge of the offense. He's now healthy, and offensive coordinator Press Taylor said he saw a huge difference in Washington this spring, most notably in his confidence. "[He's] not worried every time he breaks the huddle about what I'm doing, where is my stance, how does this route change?" Taylor said. "He's heard it a hundred times. So we give a playcall, we give a route, we move him around. He knows the expectations of that particular player in that particular concept and so now you just see the skill set start to come out." -- Michael DiRocco

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Tennessee Titans

CB Gabe Jeudy-Lally

Jeudy-Lally, an undrafted free agent, took full advantage of available reps due to veterans Chidobe Awuzie and L'Jarius Sneed having limited participation during OTAs and minicamp. Jeudy-Lally said his length and comfort in press coverage gave him confidence to play in defensive coordinator Dennard Wilson's aggressive scheme. "If I get up there and give myself the opportunity to win by getting my hands on guys and being in good position, it allows me to use my length to my ability, and everything falls into play from there." His confidence showed immediately when he got a good jam on Treylon Burks in OTAs. Jeudy-Lally also held his own when lining up against DeAndre Hopkins on a few reps. -- Turron Davenport

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AFC WEST

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Denver Broncos

LB Cody Barton

The Broncos signed Barton in free agency, thinking he would be a prime contributor on special teams and could carve out a niche on defense if things went well. But as the Broncos' adjourned their offseason program, Barton had put himself squarely into the battle for the starting middle linebacker job to replace the departed Josey Jewell. Barton will compete with Jonas Griffith, who missed last season after tearing an ACL in training camp. "We always knew that he was an 'A' special teams player,'' coach Sean Payton said. "The vision became easy relative to, 'Hey, he comes in and competes for [middle linebacker], and we know he's someone that also can play a core-four [special] teams role for us.''' Barton got plenty of work with the defensive starters in OTAs and minicamp, so he will arrive to training camp in compete for the job. -- Jeff Legwold

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Kansas City Chiefs

WR Nikko Remigio

Remigio -- in part because of Xavier Worthy's injured hamstring -- received a good run with the first unit during OTAs and minicamp, and he made the most of his opportunities. The challenge for him during training camp will be to make enough plays to crack a playing group that includes Worthy, Marquise Brown, Rashee Rice, Justin Watson, Skyy Moore and Kadarius Toney. One edge Remigio might have in making the roster is his ability as a kickoff returner. He joined the Chiefs last year as an undrafted rookie. -- Adam Teicher

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Las Vegas Raiders

WR Tre Tucker

Tucker, a 5-foot-9, 185-pound speedster drafted in the third round last year, looked like a different player after catching 19 passes for 331 yards and two TDs as a rookie. "Don't look at the size, don't mention that," Raiders coach Antonio Pierce said of Tucker, in competition to be Las Vegas' No. 3 WR, behind Davante Adams and Jakobi Meyers. "Watch him play. He's the biggest guy out there. He had a hell of an offseason. ... Everything that we talked about working on, he took that to another level. And you could see the look in his eye of a confident player, of a guy that's just going to constantly get better. He's pushing." -- Paul Gutierrez

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Los Angeles Chargers

CB Tarheeb Still

The Chargers' pass defense was this team's Achilles heel last season, but their retooled secondary fared well throughout the offseason program, perhaps the most surprising player in that secondary has been Still. A fifth-round pick in April's draft from Maryland, Still snagged an interception and had multiple pass deflections throughout minicamp. Safety Derwin James Jr. pointed to Still as a player who impressed him, and defensive coordinator Jesse Minter said he has appreciated how much Still has improved since the beginning of the offseason program. "He made a bunch of really nice plays out there," Minter said. -- Kris Rhim

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NFC EAST

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Dallas Cowboys

WRs Jalen Tolbert, Jalen Brooks

With CeeDee Lamb skipping the voluntary portions of the offseason program, it opened up more opportunities for young receivers Jalen Tolbert and Jalen Brooks. Both showed flashes of ability. Brooks was able to work through traffic well, especially on tight throws on slants. Tolbert worked all three receiver spots and was able to make plays at all different levels. With Michael Gallup gone and the Cowboys not adding a veteran wide out as of yet, Tolbert or Brooks could be in line for the No. 3 role behind Lamb and Brandin Cooks. -- Todd Archer

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New York Giants

TE Lawrence Cager

Tight end Darren Waller's retirement opened opportunities for others. It looked this spring like Cager and fourth-round pick Theo Johnson will be asked to fill that pass-catching role. Both received some first-team reps and made plays in what primarily serves as a passing camp. Coach Brian Daboll even mentioned that Cager was "probably one of the most improved players throughout the offseason," which could open the door for him to make a significant contribution this season. -- Jordan Raanan

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Philadelphia Eagles

CB Isaiah Rodgers Sr.

Rodgers was suspended for the entire 2023 season for violating the league's gambling policy but has not shown much rust this offseason. He got work at outside corner with the first team, splitting time with second-year CB Kelee Ringo, who has also impressed. Rodgers opened some eyes during an OTA practice in late May when he broke on a short pass from Jalen Hurts and swooped in for the interception. "For a guy that has not played football for a year, coming back, he looks like he has been playing nonstop," receiver A.J. Brown said. "He's flying around, and he's going to do special stuff for us this year." It will be a fascinating competition for the starting spot opposite Darius Slay Jr. this summer, with Rodgers, Ringo and rookie first-round pick Quinyon Mitchell all vying for the spot. -- Tim McManus

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Washington Commanders

LB Jordan Magee

It's uncertain how much playing time Magee will receive this season. But the fifth-round pick clearly made a strong first impression -- enough to where a position of weakness the past several years can now be considered a strength. The Commanders signed starters Bobby Wagner and Frankie Luvu in free agency. They already had Jamin Davis, but because of the newcomers they're trying him as an edge rusher. Magee is part of the reason for the optimism. They like how he played in coverage this spring; they also believe he showed he can be an effective blitzer. He's someone they're excited about for the future. "He doesn't carry himself like a rookie," defensive coordinator Joe Whitt Jr. said. "You would not know that with the way he handles himself, the way he absorbs information. He doesn't [make] a lot of mistakes." -- John Keim

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NFC NORTH

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Chicago Bears

WR Velus Jones Jr.

No one benefits from the changes to the kickoff more than the Bears' 2022 third-round pick. Jones, who struggled to carve out a role during his first two seasons, will have to be the team's best returner to secure his spot on a crowded wide receiver depth chart, but he has a solid head start given his impact on special teams. Jones banked plenty of reps on kickoff return this spring, which coaches believe will allow him to consistently show off his best asset. "A guy like that with the type of skill set, with the speed and power that he has, and he's coming full speed ahead at you. It's like a damn freight train running at you," special teams coordinator Richard Hightower said. -- Courtney Cronin

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Detroit Lions

DL Levi Onwuzurike

Onwuzurike is looking to have a bounce-back year after returning from a back injury, which required spinal fusion surgery, suffered in 2022. Lions coach Dan Campbell said he has been impressed with Onwuzurike's recovery, describing him as "having a really good spring." His strength and explosiveness have returned during reps this offseason, and he hopes to be an asset to Detroit's defense. The former second-round pick in 2021 has had his development derailed by injuries, recording just two sacks -- and zero starts -- in his first three seasons in Detroit. "Redemption. I got to show people what I can do," Onwuzurike said during mandatory minicamp. "I got to show myself what I can do." -- Eric Woodyard

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Green Bay Packers

CB Eric Stokes

After playing just 12 games over the past two seasons, it would be easy to write off the 2021 first-round pick as an injury bust who will never work his way back into the lineup. But after battling knee, foot and hamstring issues, he made it through the entire offseason program and is poised to win a starting job back. "I just say this is my story and I'm embracing it," Stokes said. "I'm embracing the full story. I ain't going to feel sorry for myself. At the end of the day, I'm blessed. I'm one of the people in this locker room. ... I'm definitely blessed just to have a story." -- Rob Demovsky

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Minnesota Vikings

OL Blake Brandel

You wouldn't expect a former backup offensive lineman to be the talk of Vikings practices, and it's not as if Brandel was on the tip of the tongue of every coach and player this spring. But it was exceptionally notable to watch how events played out at the left guard spot. After four years as a backup guard and tackle, and increasingly unsolicited raves from coaches, Brandel opened the spring as the first-team left guard. He remained there even after the Vikings re-signed 2023 starter Dalton Risner. Coach Kevin O'Connell indicated that Risner will compete with both Brandel and right guard Ed Ingram, a strong sign the Vikings will give Brandel every opportunity to elevate into a starting role. -- Kevin Seifert

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NFC SOUTH

The surprise guy you should know from every NFL team's minicamp (33)

Atlanta Falcons

WR Ray-Ray McCloud III

When the Falcons signed McCloud in March, it didn't make a big splash, especially compared to more high-profile acquisitions such as quarterback Kirk Cousins and wide receiver Darnell Mooney. Most figured McCloud, a veteran going into his seventh year, would make his mark primarily as a return man. But he also got reps with Atlanta's first team this spring and performed well, catching passes from Cousins for big plays. New offensive coordinator Zac Robinson figures to use many wide receivers. McCloud will be in that mix behind Drake London and Mooney, along with players such as Rondale Moore and sixth-round draft pick Casey Washington. -- Marc Raimondi

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Carolina Panthers

TE Ian Thomas

Much was made about the upgrade at tight end when the Panthers selected Texas' Ja'Tavion Sanders in the fourth round, but it has been 2018 fourth-rounder Thomas who has stolen the spotlight at a position that is featured in Dave Canales' passing game. Thomas had only five catches last season and was kept around because of his skills as a blocker. But in this tight-end-friendly scheme he has become a big target at a position for which the Panthers ranked last in the NFL the past four seasons with a total of 181 catches for 1,734 yards and 10 touchdowns. Even Thomas admitted he's looking more like Travis Kelce these days. -- David Newton

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New Orleans Saints

TE Dallin Holker

It was apparent the Saints liked Holker when they guaranteed him $235,000 to sign as an undrafted rookie free agent this spring. Holker has a real opportunity to make the team now that Juwan Johnson is sidelined indefinitely by a foot injury. Foster Moreau is the only veteran tight end on the roster with experience, which means Holker, who has had an impressive showing so far, could find playing time quickly. "I do think there are things he can do to help us in the passing game and some things that excite me in that area," Saints coach Dennis Allen said. -- Katherine Terrell

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

CB Tyrek Funderburk

Funderburk, an undrafted free agent out of Appalachian State, picked off Kyle Trask on the first day of mandatory minicamp and dropped a second interception on Day 2 off John Wolford. "He's a guy that's flashed out of pads," coach Todd Bowles said. -- Jenna Laine

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NFC WEST

The surprise guy you should know from every NFL team's minicamp (38)

Arizona Cardinals

OLB BJ Ojulari

Ojulari, a second-year pass-rusher, added 10 pounds and shortened his stride in an effort to impress during his first full offseason in the NFL, and it's showing. He has displayed an improved set of pass-rush moves that could help him break into the rotation in a deep outside linebackers room. He missed time last offseason because of hamstring and knee injuries that kept him sidelined until training camp. Healthy this year, Ojulari has showed why he was a second-round pick. -- Josh Weinfuss

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Los Angeles Rams

WR Cooper Kupp

It might seem odd to consider Kupp as a surprise offseason standout, but the 2021 receiving triple-crown winner has played through significant injuries the past two seasons. Kupp finished last season with 59 catches for 737 yards and five touchdowns, his fewest receiving yards since 2018 when he played in just eight games. But Kupp is heathy this spring, and it's showing up on the practice field. Rams head coach Sean McVay said during OTAs that he doesn't think "anyone really understands the amount of things [Kupp was] working through last season" with his injury and that the receiver has been able to build his body "from the ground up." -- Sarah Barshop

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San Francisco 49ers

CB Isaac Yiadom

The 49ers signed Yiadom in March to bolster the competition for the No. 3 cornerback job behind starters Charvarius Ward and Deommodore Lenoir. After signing Yiadom, general manager John Lynch noted that the corner reminded him of himself a bit in that it took some time to get his feet under him but once he did, things began to click. "Kind of just a mindset," Lynch said. "Stop doubting yourself, and let's go. And he was able to find that last season and have that belief in it, and it really flourished." That has apparently carried over to his first offseason in San Francisco. Yiadom impressed enough in the spring that he seems to have the early inside track on being the first corner on the field when the Niners need more than their top two. -- Nick Wagoner

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Seattle Seahawks

OL McClendon Curtis

The Seahawks signed Curtis off the Raiders' practice squad for tackle depth in September after Charles Cross and Abraham Lucas suffered injuries in the season opener. After not playing a single offensive snap as an undrafted rookie in 2023, Curtis is now competing for a starting job at right guard. With Anthony Bradford missing much of the offseason program because of an ankle injury, Curtis worked with the first-team offensive line at that spot -- ahead of rookie third-round pick Christian Haynes. The competition will begin in earnest when pads come on in training camp, but Curtis has made a strong enough impression so far to think he'll be a legitimate contender. -- Brady Henderson

The surprise guy you should know from every NFL team's minicamp (2024)
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