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Project players in the NFL can be viewed negatively. They aren’t polished. They’re meant to be molded over time to maximize their capabilities. Thus, they’re arguably the most interesting players on a team.
Each roster features a handful of projects who could eventually make significant contributions. We’ll highlight the most intriguing one from every squad based on their ability to affect the lineup.
Before going any further, we must set parameters to define a project. None of the following players have been full-time starters. They can’t be first-round picks. They can’t even be rookies. They’re still-developing individuals who have flashed upside and possess the potential to become even better.
Each provides hope at a particular position, either as a possible star or critical piece to their squad’s roster.
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The Arizona Cardinals claimed tight end Dan Arnold off waivers from the New Orleans Saints on Dec. 5, and he became a threat in the passing game with six receptions for 102 yards and two touchdowns in three games.
At 6’6″ and 220 pounds, Arnold is an excellent athlete who is more receiver than tight end.
“I’ve never had a guy that big that can do what he can do,” quarterback Kyler Murray said in December, per Kevin Zimmerman of Arizona Sports 98.7 FM. “It’s pretty nice.”
Head coach Kliff Kingsbury is known for his Air Raid attack, which doesn’t usually feature tight ends. Arnold could change how the position is utilized in the system alongside wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Christian Kirk and DeAndre Hopkins.
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The Atlanta Falcons drafted an athletic standout from a small school in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL draft. Charleston’s John Cominsky flashed during limited opportunities and his role will expand this fall.
“Certainly, we’ll see Cominsky and his role increasing as it’s going,” head coach Dan Quinn told reporters in April.
At 6’5″ and 285 pounds, the second-year defender is an exceptional athlete with outstanding size. He finished sixth in SPARQ among edge prospects last year, per Three Sigma Athlete. No other end in the top 10 weighed more than 276 pounds.
“He’s a big dude,” teammate Grady Jarrett said. “He’s versatile. He can play all across the defensive line, whether it’s tackle or end. … We are excited for him to show what he can do.”
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Matt Skura took over as the Baltimore Ravens’ starting center in 2018 and maintained that responsibility through 11 weeks of the ’19 campaign until he suffered a season-ending knee surgery.
Patrick Mekari, whom the organization signed as an undrafted free agent in 2019, stepped in and played well enough to make the position an open competition.
“We feel like we’ve got good depth there, and I think we’re in a good spot in terms of the guards and the centers and the combination of guys that could play both spots,” general manager Eric DeCosta said last month, per Clifton Brown of the Ravens’ official site.
Bradley Bozeman will be in the mix as well, but Mekari, 22, is the youngest of the three, an excellent pass-blocker and presents the most upside since he’s still growing accustomed to center after playing guard and tackle for the University of California.
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Buffalo Bills tight end Dawson Knox is the perfect example of untapped potential.
He played quarterback and wide receiver in high school and then walked on to at Ole Miss. Despite being one of the program’s best athletes, he was held back by a glut of talented receivers in the passing game and injuries.
But his upside is obvious. He is a mismatch waiting to happen.
After being drafted in the third round in 2019, Knox caught 28 passes for 388 yards and two touchdowns. He has the size (6’4″, 254 lbs) and fluidity while working out of the slot to become a security blanket for third-year quarterback Josh Allen.
“I think a big piece of it is going to be his availability and his consistency,” head coach Sean McDermott told reporters Wednesday.
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The Carolina Panthers will be young on defense this fall and likely reliant on unproven talent at all three levels.
Of course, Derrick Brown and Yetur Gross-Matos will draw the most attention after being first- and second-round picks in this year’s draft class. But the coaching staff shouldn’t overlook the potential in 28-year-old defensive end Efe Obada.
In 2018, Obada became the first participant in the NFL’s International Player Pathway program to make a 53-man roster.
He struggled during his second season with the team after Carolina changed its base defense, but the 6’6″, 265-pound edge defender could be a significant rotational piece alongside Brian Burns, Stephen Weatherly and Gross-Matos.
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Roy Robertson-Harris originally joined the Chicago Bears as an undrafted free agent. After three seasons with increased usage, the 6’5″, 292-pound defensive lineman should be ready to step into a full-time starting role alongside Eddie Goldman and Akiem Hicks.
Robertson-Harris went from the reserve/non-football injury list as a rookie in 2016 to a seven-game starter during his fourth campaign. In doing so, he showed he can be a disruptive force against the run and the pass. According to Pro Football Reference, Robertson-Harris registered 30 combined pressures last season.
The Bears made sure to keep him under contract by placing a second-round tender on the restricted free agent. The extra investment shows how much value the organization places in him and how his role should continue to grow.
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One start may be all it takes to ignite change along the Cincinnati Bengals offensive front.
The Bengals claimed offensive tackle Fred Johnson off waivers from the Pittsburgh Steelers on Oct. 14. By Week 17, the undrafted rookie started at left tackle and performed well against the Cleveland Browns, albeit without Myles Garrett or Olivier Vernon.
Left tackle is now reserved for Jonah Williams, last year’s 11th overall pick, who should be fully recovered from his season-ending labrum tear. But right tackle may be an option with Bobby Hart as the projected starter.
The 6’7″, 326-pound Johnson should be allowed to compete with Hart. If the Bengals staff is comfortable with the five-year veteran, the second-year blocker can move inside to guard since uncertainty remains at those positions.
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During last year’s draft, the Cleveland Browns chose linebackers in the third and fifth rounds. The latter selection, Mack Wilson, was thrust into the lineup and started 14 games for an injured Christian Kirksey, who left in free agency.
Third-round pick Sione Takitaki spent more time on special teams.
“[The new coaching staff] want me to play ‘Will’, so I’m excited to do that,” Takitaki told reporters. “It’s a fast defense. You can fly around, and it’s definitely my style. I feel comfortable at the ‘Will’ or the ‘Mike.'”
Last year’s 80th overall pick is the most athletic linebacker on the roster, and he’ll have a legit opportunity to start next to B.J. Goodson, who signed with the Browns as a free agent.
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Less than a year ago, Tony Pollard looked like he would enter the 2019 campaign as the Dallas Cowboys’ lead back since Ezekiel Elliott remained in a contract dispute with the organization.
Elliott signed a six-year, $90 million contract extension just days before the season began, and Pollard never had the opportunity to be featured. But everyone remembers how he flashed in the preseason and limited chances during the regular season.
Pollard still managed 455 rushing yards on only 86 carries. The 2019 fourth-round pick averaged 4.5 yards after contact per attempt, leading all running backs with 50 or more carries, per Pro Football Focus’ Jarad Evans.
The second-year back didn’t contribute much as a receiver, but he’s a capable target. He can easily improve upon last year’s 15 receptions.
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More excitement surrounds Drew Lock than any other quarterback in the 2019 draft class not named Kyler Murray.
The buzz is warranted. Lock played well down the stretch for the Denver Broncos. The second-round pick went 4-1 as a starter, completing 64.1 percent of his passes with a 7-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
During the 2017 campaign at Missouri, Lock looked like a future top-10 pick when he set a then-SEC record 44 touchdown passes. But he returned to school for his senior season and didn’t benefit from Derek Dooley’s hire as play-caller. Instead, the quarterback regressed and fell in the draft.
Lock always displayed franchise potential, and he should build upon last year’s performance as he continues to grow into the Broncos’ full-time starting quarterback.
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Former cornerback Jamal Agnew, who doubles as the Detroit Lions’ kick and punt returner, will transition to wide receiver.
“Right now, we’re going to kind of lean that way,” offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell told reporters. “Kind of let it go where it goes. I think he has a chance to help us.”
Agnew is electric in open space. The 2017 fifth-round pick already has four return touchdowns. In fact, he became a first-team All-Pro as a rookie thanks to his return skills. But the Lions want to utilize him more.
“I think you saw a little bit of that right at the end of last year, right, where we kind of brought him over and gave him a few opportunities on the offensive side of the ball,” Bevell said. “We really like his skill set.”
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Chandon Sullivan didn’t find a home when he signed with the Philadelphia Eagles after going undrafted in 2018. He has a chance to not only establish himself as a legit performer with the Green Bay Packers but also turn into a starting cornerback.
Jaire Alexander is already one of the league’s best cover men. The spot on the opposite side of the field isn’t settled. Kevin King is inconsistent, while Josh Jackson struggled to get on the field last season.
Sullivan performed well in a limited role. He primarily played the alley or covered the slot, but the third-year defensive back should be used more extensively after last season’s surprise performance and Tramon Williams’ departure.
Sullivan finished as the fourth-highest-graded defender on the Packers roster, according to Pro Football Focus.
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The Houston Texans are deep at tight end, but the organization drafted Kahale Warring in the third round last year for a reason. Unfortunately, Warring didn’t play because of a preseason concussion and a balky hamstring.
“Look, I don’t think it was ideal for him to not play football last year,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said, per the Houston Chronicle‘s Aaron Wilson. “… We felt like, as time wore on, it was best for us to work with him in the classroom and do some things that we were able to do out on the field relative—observe a lot.”
The multisport high school standout transitioned into football at the collegiate level. At 6’5″ and 252 pounds, Warring ran a 4.67-second 40-yard dash and recorded a 36½-inch vertical jump. Also, he spent this offseason working out with quarterback Deshaun Watson, per the Chronicle‘s John McClain.
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Kemoko Turay looked like a breakout candidate last year before he broke his ankle in Week 5 against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Indianapolis Colts coaches still think they have something special in the 2018 second-round pick.
“All of these pass-rushers at this level can bend, but there is that extra 10 percent of bend, and Kemoko has that,” head coach Frank Reich said, per Andrew Walker of the Colts’ official site. “It is just a God-given ability that you can go fast, bend and not lose speed.”
In two seasons, Turay managed 5.5 sacks and 26 pressures. However, his ability to bend and play underneath much bigger offensive linemen makes him difficult to handle.
If the 24-year-old edge-rusher can stay healthy and take over the spot opposite Justin Houston, he could do some significant damage to opposing offenses.
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Technically, Gardner Minshew II wasn’t a full-time starter as a rookie since the Jacksonville Jaguars also featured Nick Foles. But Jacksonville traded Foles to the Bears this offseason.
Minshew will take over the offense in his second campaign.
“He has shown a skill set where he can sit in a pocket, step up, make things happen outside the pocket,” new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said, per Mike DiRocco of ESPN. “He’s accurate, he’s tough and obviously he’s a great leader, so he’s got the intangibles you want in a quarterback.
“Now he’s got to get to know the team, get to know the offense a little bit so we can all jell together.”
The sixth-round pick was the highest-graded rookie quarterback in 2019, per Pro Football Focus. If he shows continued signs of development, he will be the Jaguars’ long-term starter.
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The Kansas City Chiefs must prepare to play without top cornerback Bashaud Breeland.
The organization re-signed Breeland to a one-year deal, but in April, the 28-year-old was arrested on charges of “resisting arrest, the transport of alcohol in motor vehicle with a broken seal, open container of beer or wine in motor vehicle, possession of 28 grams or less of marijuana or 10 grams of hash, and driving without a license,” according to Joshua Needelman of the Post and Courier.
The cornerback could be suspended for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy.
Even if the veteran doesn’t miss much time, cornerback is a potential area of concern for the reigning Super Bowl champs.
Rashad Fenton, a 2019 sixth-round selection, will likely take on more responsibilities. He didn’t start a game last season, but he showed the ability to play outside the numbers and cover the slot. In fact, he allowed a lower completion percentage (47.1) and quarterback rating (57.7) than Breeland, per Pro Football Reference.
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Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden didn’t mince words after tight end Foster Moreau suffered a season-ending injury during a Week 14 contest against the Tennessee Titans.
“He came in here as a rookie and played good football for us and [is] going to be a big part of the Raiders’ future,” the coach told reporters.
As a rookie, Moreau was the backup to the league’s second-most productive tight end, Darren Waller. Moreau is still rehabilitating his knee, and Waller hasn’t gone anywhere, but Gruden’s enthusiasm for last year’s fourth-round pick portends increased usage.
Moreau is a standout athlete, finishing third in SPARQ among last year’s incoming tights, per Three Sigma Athlete’s Zach Whitman. Only Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson—both of whom were first-round picks—tested better.
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The Los Angeles Chargers have no choice but to hope Trey Pipkins III goes from a developmental third-round pick to a quality starting left tackle after they traded Russell Okung for guard Trai Turner.
“I think he’s doing a good job of comprehending as much as he can,” left guard Dan Feeney said in November, per the Los Angeles Times‘ Jeff Miller. “He’s going to be a good player. It happens to all of us. Sometimes, you gotta be blessed by fire.”
Pipkins started three games and played 13 in 2019. But the Chargers need the 6’6″, 304-pounder from the University of Sioux Falls to secure the left tackle spot. He has the ability to play the position, but he must improve his consistency and technique.
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Really good performances to end the 2019 campaign made people notice Los Angeles Rams cornerback Darious Williams.
“Darious Williams is a guy that played really good football for this group in the last couple games,” new defensive coordinator Brandon Staley told reporters. “I think this guy can cover, I think he’s got a really good skill set for corner. He can run, he can change directions, he can play the ball in the deep part of the field, he’s got a good body.”
Williams hardly played in 2018 as an undrafted free agent with the Rams and Baltimore Ravens. Los Angeles gave him an opportunity after he was waived, and his role grew in 2019 after he entered the defensive back rotation in Week 7. Williams can play outside or take advantage of Nickell Robey-Coleman’s departure and cover the slot.
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Preston Williams showed he can play in a big way last year, leading the Miami Dolphins in receptions at the halfway point of the season.
The undrafted 6’5″, 218-pounder caught 32 passes for 428 yards and three touchdowns in eight games before suffering a torn ACL in Week 9.
Though he continues to recover from the injury, Williams could be a very different receiver in his second season.
“Before the season, just being around those vets—Kenny Stills, Coach [Brian] Flores, Ryan Fitzpatrick—being around a good group of guys gave me a lot of confidence, just how they would point me to the side and talk to me and telling [me] I could be real good if I do these little things right,” Williams said, per Alain Poupart of the team’s official site. “I’ve just been taking that in and just trying to perfect my game.”
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Dalvin Cook will hold out if the Minnesota Vikings don’t offer a “reasonable” contract extension after his Pro Bowl performance last season. According to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, the running back felt disrespected by the Vikings’ offer.
Cook holds little leverage, though. First, offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak operates a running back-friendly system that allows pretty much any ball-carrier to rack up yards. Second, the Vikings drafted Alexander Mattison in last year’s third round.
Mattison ran for 462 yards and averaged 4.6 yards per carry.
Depending on how long Cook holds out, Mattison could be Minnesota’s top option. He performed at a similar level as Cook in multiple advanced statistics, including average yards after contact, broken tackles per carry and first down plus touchdown percentage, per Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus.
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Jarrett Stidham won the offseason when the New England Patriots couldn’t coax Tom Brady into re-signing and then didn’t address the quarterback position during free agency or the draft. No, Brian Hoyer doesn’t count.
“[Stidham] was our backup quarterback the entire season, and I know he’s working hard in the offseason,” head coach Bill Belichick told NFL Network’s Rich Eisen. “He’s made a lot of progress in terms of understanding our offense and understanding opponent defenses, like all players do from Year 1 to Year 2.”
Stidham played 10 games as a true freshman at Baylor and posted a 12-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He transferred to Auburn and played better as a sophomore than he did as a junior.
He showed enough potential to be a starting option in the right situation.
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The New Orleans Saints’ Taysom Hill will turn 30 before the start of the 2020 season. He’s already an established threat within the team’s offense. But his standing as the backup quarterback and heir to Drew Brees remains in question.
Though Hill has thrown only 13 passes in three seasons, the Saints signed him to a $16.3 million contract extension this offseason.
The Athletic’s Jay Glazer wrote Hill will be “the guy” once Brees retires.
“Sean Payton loves him but it’s not just him, the whole team loves him, not just Sean Payton,” Glazer added.
Brees missed five games last season with an injured thumb. Hill could get his opportunity to shine behind center sooner rather than later.
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Darius Slayton surpassed expectations last season, but he’s far from a finished product. The 2019 fifth-round pick snagged 48 receptions for 740 yards and eight touchdowns. He led the New York Giants in the latter two categories.
Coming out of Auburn, Slayton ran a limited route tree. But that’s not to say Slayton will never be a complete receiver. Instead, it should be viewed as a positive. He’ll continue to grow in the nuances of route running and improve off his stem.
Plus, he’ll always be a vertical presence because of his 4.39-second 40-yard dash speed.
As Slayton’s relationship with quarterback Daniel Jones grows, he could develop into one of the NFC’s top pass-catchers.
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A glimpse is all that’s needed for a coaching staff to think it has something special.
The New York Jets selected cornerback Bless Austin in the sixth round of the 2019 draft. Austin became a starter by Week 11 and played well in the role at first. According to Pro Football Focus, he earned the second-highest grade of any cornerback in Weeks 10-13.
Austin’s level of play declined during his final three appearances, but everyone saw his potential.
The Jets signed Pierre Desir in free agency, re-signed Brian Poole, drafted Bryce Hall and even considered signing Logan Ryan. Austin’s growth, however, will arguably play the most significant role in the secondary’s effectiveness.
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The Philadelphia Eagles’ Jordan Mailata may be the most intriguing project player in the NFL.
The 6’8″, 346-pound offensive lineman never played football prior to being selected in the seventh round of the 2018 draft. Yet he has all the tools to become a starting-caliber tackle.
Maialata has the potential to affect the Eagles lineup in two ways.
Philadelphia is set at right and left tackle with Lane Johnson and Andre Dillard. Johnson, however, hasn’t started 16 contests since the 2015 campaign, and Dillard is entering his first year as a full-time starter. If both hold up, Maialata could be an intriguing trade candidate.
Either way, the former professional rugby league player will affect the Eagles.
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The thought of Ben Roethlisberger returning to the lineup has to be an exciting proposition for Pittsburgh Steelers faithful. The veteran signal-caller can elevate the offense after its wide receivers endured a season of Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges.
Despite less-than-ideal conditions, Diontae Johnson led all rookies with 59 receptions. His potential is so much greater, though.
Johnson grabbed 91 percent of catchable targets, per Pro Football Focus’ Sam Monson. The 2019 third-round pick is also creative with the ball after the catch. Monson noted Johnson broke 18 tackles (second among rookies).
If the offense does improve, Johnson will have an opportunity to post significant numbers.
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Daniel Brunskill is already one of the NFL’s most versatile linemen with the ability to play all five positions.
But the 26-year-old blocker was a member of the failed Alliance of America Football’s San Diego Fleet a little over a year ago. Now, he’s projected to start at right guard for the San Francisco 49ers.
“I definitely take a few more reps at right guard and focusing in on what I can do to be better at that position, specifically, a little bit more,” Brunskill told reporters. “And, then, what I can to be better at all five positions, as a whole.”
The undrafted free agent started at right and left tackle as well as right guard last season. He’s the logical replacement plan at guard after the 49ers released their previous starter, Mike Person.
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Mike Iupati’s return to the Seattle Seahawks didn’t come with a guarantee. Instead, the 33-year-old will vie for the starting left guard job with Phil Haynes, whom the organization drafted in last year’s fourth round.
General manager John Schneider said Iupati will compete with Haynes during an interview on 950 AM KJR in Seattle (h/t ESPN’s Brady Henderson).
Plenty of competition exists up front beyond Iupati and Haynes. Third-round rookie Damien Lewis will be expected to take over at right guard. The front office signed Chance Warmack this offseason too, and B.J. Finney can play guard if needed.
The 6’4″, 322-pound Haynes is powerful and has better movement skills than Iupati. The Seahawks’ starters at guard could be very young.
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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers feature an exciting young secondary with Carlton Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting at cornerback along with Jordan Whitehead and this year’s second-round pick, Antoine Winfield Jr., at safety.
The unit’s third corner, Jamel Dean, is every bit as impressive as those mentioned.
According to Pro Football Focus, Dean’s 14 forced incompletions led all rookies last season. The site also graded last year’s 94th overall pick as the league’s best first-year corner. Dean started only five games and played just 13.
The Buccaneers plan to give Dean an opportunity for a bigger role this fall. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said there will be a competition between Dean and Murphy-Bunting for the starting outside spot opposite Davis, per Scott Smith of the team’s official site.
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The Tennessee Titans decided to trade five-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Jurrell Casey to the Denver Broncos this offseason.
It was a transaction the New England Patriots tend to make: Move a player a year too early instead of a year too late. Both general manager Jon Robinson and head coach Mike Vrabel are Bill Belichick disciples.
Now, the Titans will move forward with Isaiah Mack likely filling the void Casey left.
Mack, who signed with the team as an undrafted free agent, played 13 games and started one as a rookie. Like Casey, Mack is squat (6’1″, 299 lbs) and disruptive. The second-year defender won’t replace Casey, but he’ll have an opportunity to grow into the role.
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Any of the Washington Redskins’ young wide receivers—Terry McLaurin, Kelvin Harmon and Steven Sims Jr.—could be their most intriguing project player.
McLaurin already looks like the top option on the depth chart, though, while Sims has a chance to join last year’s third-round pick to form an outstanding duo, especially if Sims’ offseason work translates to the field.
“With Steven Sims, I feel like he’s probably made one of the biggest jumps to me personally because of how clean his feet are,” McLaurin said, per NBC Washington’s Ethan Cadeaux. “… You could really tell his feet are so clean, and the way he’s running his route, his stems looks the same.”
The undrafted Sims already flashed with 16 catches for 190 yards and four touchdowns during the final three games last year.