It’s that time of year. In enthusiastic anticipation of the season ahead, hordes of fans swarm the new Jacksonville Jaguars Miller Electric Center to watch training camp, and Twitter pages are filled with oohs and aahs at player drills.
Don’t get me wrong: I love training camp. You love training camp. We all love training camp. But all this hype around Gerrit Prince as the darling of training camp has me wondering: how accurate are these training camp prophecies?
On the one hand, it was only a couple short years ago that Ja’Marr Chase had Bengals fans concerned he would be a bust after a lackluster training camp plagued with drops. On the other, Isiah Pacheco was frequently mentioned as the star of Chiefs training camp last year, and he seemed to work out pretty well. So what generally happened to previous years’ training camp standouts?
Out of curiosity, I analyzed the top articles that popped up after googling “[year] NFL training camp standouts”, plugging in the last 5 years for a back-of-the-napkin analysis.
Let’s first take a look at 2022, whose list of standouts was comprised of Pacheco, Travis Etienne, Skyy Moore, Chigoziem Okonkwo, Trent McDuffie, Travis Jones, Nik Bonitto, Cole Turner, Joshuah Bledsoe, Velus Jones, and CJ Saunders.
Certain names stand out from last season: Pacheco, Etienne, and McDuffie certainly lived up to the hype. Moore, Okonkwo, and Jones had positive flashes but struggled to consistently produce despite a fair amount of playing time. Bonito was passable but below average with 14 tackles and 1.5 sacks in 357 defensive snaps.
The rest were utter disappointments: Turner had 2 receptions for 23 yards in 245 offensive snaps. Bledsoe played 29 total snaps, and after playing 23 snaps for an injured starter in week 8, he gave up 2 touchdowns on 3 targets. Jones put up 107 receiving yards and a touchdown as the WR 5/6, though was perhaps most notable for 3 costly fumbles, 2 of which came on punt returns, and 1 of which essentially cost the Bears a win. Saunders spent the year on the Panthers practice squad.
A reasonable question to ask would be whether these training camp flashes are not reflective of performance for the next season but are rather reflective of future potential. A list from 2018 shows quite a few studs in the modern NFL - Darius Leonard and Justin Reid - and some took a year or two to fully develop, namely ex-Jags fan favorite Arden Key. Phillip Lindsey was the opposite: he started off hot but ended up as another flash in the pan. But most fizzled out: Jordan Wilkins, Kalen Ballage, Leon Jacobs (oof), Anthony Miller, MJ Stewart, and Deon Cain.
After sifting through numerous articles since 2018 and weeding out the ones specific to training camp performance, I was able to count the number of studs and duds from the touted heroes of training camp by the notable coverage outlets: USAToday, PFF, NFL, and ESPN.
The verdict? 11 studs (starters or productive backups), 38 duds (lackluster benchwarmers or cut players), and 2 players I’m excluding from the count (Andrew Luck and Henry Ruggs).
Looking specifically at the Jags, many of the most hyped-up players in past off-seasons appear to have panned out: Josh Allen, Andre Cisco, James Robinson, Rayshawn Jenkins, and Jamal Agnew continued their strong offseason performance through the regular season. Others, not so much: Leon Jacobs, Dede Westbrook, Collin Johnson, Laviska Shenault, Terry Godwin, Shaq Griffin, and Quenton Meeks are some training camp darlings that come to mind.
So is training camp performance really a good predictor or regular season performance? Yes and no. While the likelihood is that there will be at least one unheralded player that outperforms or justifies their pre-camp status and carries that high level through to the regular season (my money is on Calvin Ridley), Gerrit Prince will probably not be taking the TE job any time soon. After all, for every one James Robinson, there are two Laviska Shenaults.
Still, that’s just the nature of training camp. So sit back, enjoy the much-anticipated glimpse of the season to come, and keep hyping up those unlikely training-camp stars. It’s all part of the fun.