Training camp is in full swing across the NFL and we are officially in the midst of the preseason with the first full week of exhibitions already in the books. This is a time when position battles will ramp up and take on a new form as we'll continue to see some of those players take part in live game reps. Some players will fall by the wayside, while others will make enough waves to possibly warrant sizable roles on their respective clubs.
As we continue to monitor how these developments over the course of the summer could impact the regular season, let's go around the league and highlight a handful of players who are already standing out and quite possibly laying the foundation for a breakout season.
Anthony Richardson named QB1 for Colts
It didn't take long for the Indianapolis Colts to usher in the Anthony Richardson era. While some speculated that the No. 4 overall pick may need some seasoning before being thrust into NFL action and, in turn, would mean that Gardner Minshew could start the year, head coach Shane Steichen named Richardson the club's starter following the first preseason exhibition.
"Honestly, I was shocked," Richardson said Tuesday. "I've been grinding, putting in the work to get the title, but it's not really all about the title. I'm just trying to make sure I'm ready for the team. Despite being labeled as QB1, I've still got other guys in the room helping me to get to that standard. I'm forever thankful for them. I appreciate them and I'm glad I did get the nod and have the trust of everybody in the building."
This comes after Richardson has opened eyes throughout training camp with a number of electric plays through the air and had been getting reps with the first-team offense. In the preseason opener against Buffalo, Richardson completed 7 of 12 passes for 67 yards and an interception while adding 7 yards on the ground.
'Sky's the limit' for Jaxon Smith-Njigba
Jaxon Smith-Njigba was the first wide receiver off the board at the 2023 NFL Draft and he's been making the Seahawks look smart for that selection throughout the initial stages of the preseason and training camp. The Ohio State product's route-running and burst has been on display throughout camp and flashed in Seattle's preseason win over the Vikings, catching three of his four targets for 25 yards.
"He's going to be a great player," Drew Lock said, via SI.com. "I'm extremely impressed with just, this is going to sound weird, but just the way he's able to move. The way he runs his routes, they're crisp, defined. He knows how to get open. When you give him the ball, he's going to catch it. He is sure-handed."
Even on his lone miss of the night, Smith-Njigba showed the ability to separate with the ball simply coming in behind him.
Deuce Vaughn is the preseason darling in Dallas
One of the more fascinating storylines that has blossomed during training camp is the bursting onto the scene of rookie running back Deuce Vaughn. The back is listed at 5-foot-6, 176-pounds but has been a massive presence for Dallas and could maybe be carving out a role within the Cowboys backfield, especially in the wake of an Ezekiel Elliott return vanishing after the former Cowboys signed with New England.
In his preseason debut, Vaughn had eight carries and turned them into 50 yards and a touchdown. He also caught all three of his targets in the passing game. He also was able to juke out a number of Jaguars defenders in his first taste of the NFL.
Deuce Vaughn made defenders look absolutely SILLY in his preseason debut 😳— NFL Rookie Watch (@NFLRookieWatxh) August 13, 2023
Vaughn ended the night with 50 rushing yards and a TD on 8 carries.
And also caught all three of his targets for a net of 6 yards in the passing game.
Vaughn’s “shiftiness” was reportedly viewed as an… pic.twitter.com/RB8pOxvms4
Jahmyr Gibbs' pass-catching prowess on display
The Lions selection Jahmyr Gibbs with the No. 12 overall pick did come as a surprise to some on draft night, but the former Alabama running back looks like he's going to be a major weapon in Detroit's offense. While he'll naturally get carries out of the backfield, Gibbs is slated to also be a key pass catcher in this offense as well. On top of his six carries for 19 yards in the preseason opener against New York, the rookie also caught his lone target for 18 yards. Earlier in camp, Gibbs also showed his blazing speed that should allow him to separate quite easily if he's lined up against an opposing linebacker.
Dalton Kincaid could be No. 3 option in Buffalo's offense
Buffalo's first-round tight end is turning heads with his play during the early days of training camp, particularly with his pass-catching and route-running ability. He's reportedly been working with Josh Allen and the first-team offense, and the quarterback recently praised the rookie for his ability to come in and immediately contribute, which is evident by his one-handed grab he made earlier in camp.
While Kincaid did not record a reception in the preseason opener, he did stand out in the blocking game, which is a bit surprising given that he's been billed as more of a pass catcher.
Run blocking rep from Dalton Kincaid (to the right, next to Dion Dawkins)— Anthony Cover 1 (@Pro__Ant) August 15, 2023
Good initial hand placement & contact, just needs better balance/leverage through the rep. Either way, he does enough. Especially for a speedy RB#Bills #BillsMafia #GoBills
Arguably the most noteworthy nugget that came out of the preseason opener was that Buffalo used 12 personnel on 35.6% of their offensive snaps, according to Next. Gen Stats. That's a drastic increase to their league-low 3.6% in 2022, which signals that both Dawson Knox and Kincaid will be on the field at the same time. With that scheme change combined with Kincaid's skill set, the first-rounder is likely looking at more of a slot role rather than the traditional tight end position.
George Pickens setting stage for legit breakout
Pickens appears to be one of the true highlight-makers of training camp this summer. On top of his ability to separate, he's been putting together some ridiculous catches that make a breakout sophomore season a real possibility. As SteelersNow.com previously noted, Pickens is not only displaying a fuller route tree but is winning on those routes.
"He's the best athlete I've ever played with," quarterback Kenny Pickett recently told SiriusXM NFL Radio. "And now that his route tree is coming along and you're seeing him catch different routes out there, I think it's night and day from last year from how much he can do now and we're moving him around. He's a really, really smart player. He's doing route conversions that he wasn't seeing last year and now he's doing it. You started to see it towards the end of last year. He's a quick learner. It's awesome to see and awesome to be on his team."
The first-team offense got some run in the Steelers preseason opener against the Buccaneers and Pickens was able to make a standout play, catching his lone target of the day from Pickett and taking it it 33 yards to the house for a touchdown. If this Pittsburgh offense takes a leap in Year 2 of Pickett, Pickens could be a major benefactor.
Jalin Hyatt looking like a steal for Giants
New York's third-round receiver has been impressing with his performance at training camp. While he was expected to be a legit speed weapon within Brian Daboll's offense, his route-running is much farther along than what was initially thought. That sets up the possibility for Hyatt to be even more than simply a downfield threat. That said, Hyatt did say that the team GPS tracked him running 24 mph during practice. For reference, Tyreek Hill has the in-game record at 23.24 mph.
"That was definitely one of the strengths of his coming out of college, something we targeted," offensive coordinator Mike Kafka said previously in camp about Hyatt's speed, via the New York Post. "He's doing a nice job. He's doing a nice job in the classroom, studying, prepping, making sure he's prepared for practice. … Obviously, he's made a couple of plays, he's just gotta take it day by day."
Hyatt got some early action in New York's preseason opener against the Lions and caught his lone target on a short throw from Tyrod Taylor that went for -4 yards.
Bijan Robinson is the real deal
This ROUTE by Bijan Robinson 😳— NFL Rookie Watch (@NFLRookieWatxh) July 31, 2023
Robinson’s footwork has reportedly given “trouble” to almost every defender he’s faced so far.
Robinson has reportedly been used “all over” the field at training camp including playing RB, WR, and KR/PR.
Robinson has also reportedly been “one… pic.twitter.com/STS2TU0s4S
The Falcons used the No. 8 overall pick to bring in Robinson and it looks like his injection into the offense is going to produce immediate results. Everyone who has seen the back take part in training camp has been wowed by his performance as both a pure runner and a pass catcher, continuing his comparisons to Giants star Saquon Barkley.
Head coach Arthur Smith said early in camp that he's "pretty damn pleased" with Robinson thus far and even acknowledged the team's plans to use him all over the offense.
"The way we use him, I think, is different than most, just philosophically with guys all over," he said.
We weren't able to see Robinson in preseason action last week as Atlanta held him out, but Smith did note that the rookie could get some run in their exhibition against Cincinnati on Friday.