If you’re paying attention to LA Rams training camp in 2021, then there’s no doubt that you are paying attention to Matthew Stafford. In fact, if you’re paying attention to NFL training camps at all, then surely the year’s biggest acquisition — by any team — is practicing over at UC-Irvine and deserves to be recognized for what he’s brought to the Rams already.
Not only is Stafford the most notable player to change organizations in 2021, but his presence at quarterback has shifted expectations for the Rams and certainly means updating the playbook if you’re Sean McVay.
Stafford has been the subject of many compliments by LA teammates and coaches already, including from two of the five best defensive players in the NFL, but that is to be expected. Luckily, Stafford’s play in training camp, including deep bombs to DeSean Jackson, another star for the Rams over the last two weeks, is backing up all the positive words with impressive action that the team expects to carry over into the regular season.
Not every player who stands out in training camp or the preseason can say the same. Not every one of them will turn in fantastic seasons or memorable careers. Some of them, like Stafford, already have. But there are 32 training camps and that means that there are hundreds of names to be watching in these August weeks that set the tone for another season of pro football.
Stafford is the name that I could not ignore for the LA Rams, but I’ve also been keeping tabs on all 32 training camps around the NFL. Here is at least one player who is starring at each one of those practices, plus more than a few honorable mentions.
Jets - Elijah Moore, WR
A number of players have stood out at Jets camp, including former Lions LB Jarrad Davis, rookie CB Brandin Echols, OL Alijah Vera-Tucker, and QB Zach Wilson, but Moore has been arguably the biggest rookie surprise around the NFL this summer. Reports have been GLOWING for weeks and they’ve only gotten more neon during training camp. While we don’t want to set him up for failure with too high of expectations, Moore seems to be a Week 1 contributor and a potential star in the future.
Patriots - Christian Barmore, DT
Another second round pick in the 2021 draft, Barmore slid out of day one because of concerns that he was being overrated in a “weak” defensive tackle class. Instead, he looks like a steal for Bill Belichick. Other names I’ve seen mentioned in New England for having a good camp: TE Jonnu Smith, RB Rhamondre Stevenson, WR N’Keal Harry, WR Nelson Agholor, WR Kendrick Bourne, LB Matt Judon, LB Josh Uche, CB Jalen Mills.
LB Raekwon McMillan was also on this list, but he suffered a torn ACL on Tuesday.
Bills - Jake Kumerow, WR
The story out of Buffalo this week is Josh Allen crossing the $200 million mark on his new contract, but even as good as he is, the Bills are surrounding the quarterback with talent. Beyond Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, Gabe Davis, and Emmanuel Sanders, the ascent of Kumerow in training camp this year suggests that offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has yet another weapon for the QB. Other names I’ve seen a few times: RB Matt Breida, G Ike Boettger, DE Gregory Rosseau, DE Boogie Basham
I asked Jake Kumerow if the #Bills bust his chops about being the object of Aaron Rodgers' affection.— Thad Brown (@thadbrown7) August 3, 2021
Answer is of course they do.
Kumerow has a fascinating story.
See why it works so well in Buffalo on @News_8 at 6p#Billsmafia pic.twitter.com/uhRMcP6bkI
Dolphins - Tua Tagovailoa, QB
I’m ever hesitant with Tua, but there aren’t going to be many opportunities in this article to mention a quarterback other than Stafford. Tua is reportedly much more comfortable with the playbook this year and it shows. Other names I’ve seen include WR Robert Foster, OT Robert Hunt, and LB Brennan Scarlett.
Ravens - Odafe Oweh, OLB
If Elijah Moore has been the rookie star on offense, then Oweh has been the leader in training camp hype on the defensive side of the ball. The 31st overall pick — and not even Baltimore’s top selection this year (that would be WR Rashod Bateman) — Oweh has balled out all summer and it seems like he’s going to be in the conversation for DROY, especially given that he plays for a Ravens defense that already has Calais Campbell (also getting praised for looking as good as ever this year), Brandon Williams, Derek Wolfe, Pernell McPhee, Patrick Queen, and Justin Houston in the front seven.
The Baltimore Ravens were a dream fit for Odafe Oweh, love to see him showing promise early pic.twitter.com/rRbGLxTHxg— RAMEY (@HoodieRamey) August 4, 2021
Don’t forget about DT Justin Madubuike though. The 2020 third round pick could have easily been the name here, if not for Oweh just being that good day in and day out. Shout outs also belong to WR James Proche II and kicker Jake Verity, another potential special teams star (or trade chip) for John Harbaugh.
Bengals - Joe Mixon, RB
I almost put CB Chidobe Awuzie here but will set my focus on a running back instead. With so much attention on Joe Burrow (who is reportedly not having a good camp and neither is the offensive line, though rookie G Jackson Carman has gotten positive marks) and Ja’Marr Chase, Mixon could end up starring for Cincinatti’s offense as the afterthought. He was injured for much of 2020 but looks healthy in camp.
Browns - Donovan Peoples-Jones, WR
I don’t know, man, the Browns might win the Super Bowl.
I’ll set all that aside for now and just say that Peoples-Jones has been called the star of Browns training camp by multiple people and even with Odell Beckham Jr returning to the field very soon, it will be impossible for Kevin Stefanski to keep DPJ out of the rotation given what we’ve seen from the 2020 sixth round pick so far. Peoples-Jones only saw 20 targets as a rookie but he caught 14 passes for 304 yards. I would expect him to see at least 60 targets next season.
Donovan Peoples-Jones hype on NFL Network pic.twitter.com/i4jl0Z9eoy— Jarad Evans (@PFF_Jarad) August 8, 2021
Others getting attention include WR Rashard Higgins, TE David Njoku, RB/WR Demetric Felton, DT Malik Jackson, S Ronnie Harrison, CB A.J. Green.
I would also add that ILB Anthony Walker, Jr could have potentially knocked Peoples-Jones out of the spot. He wasn’t really a known guy over the last four years with the Colts but he’s been an immediate defensive captain in Cleveland and prior to a recent injury, was all set to be the leader on that side of the ball. Even with former Rams safety John Johnson III now in the fold. Walker should be back soon though and he’s yet another reason why ... the Browns might ACTUALLY win the Super Bowl.
Steelers - Minkah Fitzpatrick, S
Even after making first team all-pro in the last two seasons, it seems like Fitzpatrick has yet to reach his ceiling. He could be the NFL’s best defensive player this season and at his position, it might not even be close between him and number two.
WR Rico Bussey, G Kendrick Green, and LB Alex Highsmith also get shout outs, but of course plenty of attention has also been on first round RB Najee Harris.
Jaguars - Josh Allen, DE
Another Josh Allen who will likely be paid handsomely in the future, JAX Allen underwhelmed in year two. But reports out of camp suggest he’s healthy and ready to be one of the best pass rushers in the NFL. The guy opposite of him, DE Dawuane Smoot, has also been praised in camp, as has CB Shaquill Griffin, RB Travis Etienne, WR Laviska Shenault, LT Cam Robinson, WR Jalen Camp, DE K’Lavon Chaisson, and S Andre Cisco.
Of course, never sleep on QB Gardner Minshew.
Texans - Tytus Howard, OL
Of course, 99-percent of the attention in Houston is being paid to QB Deshaun Watson and the comments about him from head coach David Culley. We don’t know where that situation is headed and neither does Culley, apparently. Instead, focus on 2019 first round pick Howard, even if he’s not going to be the Texans’ starting right tackle. Howard has been praised for his versatility and the team is also high on 2020 fourth round tackle Charlie Heck, as well as Roderick Johnson. Howard may end up starting at guard.
I’ve also seen positive reports on QB Tyrod Taylor, WR Nico Collins, and DT Maliek Collins.
Titans - A.J. Brown, WR
I like highlighting rookies and lesser known players more than stars, but I saw no better choice for the Titans than Brown, who is apparently dominating in camp, as expected. Brown could have had over 1,200 yards last season if not for missing two games. If he’s healthy for all 17 games in 2021, with Julio Jones eating up attention on the other side, Brown might top 1,400 yards in year three.
I also considered DT Teair Tart, a 2020 UDFA who has blown things up in camp. CB Breon Borders, WR Racey McMath, DE Denico Autry, CB Kristian Fulton, CB Caleb Farley, and former Rams CB Janoris Jenkins — who now goes by the first name ‘Jackrabbit’ - have also stood out.
The Titans ranked 31st in passing touchdowns allowed in 2020, so they must be happy to see all those corners on the list.
Colts - Kwity Paye, DE
I wouldn’t put him up there with Oweh, but Paye could start early in his career and Indy is optimistic about the defensive line again because DE Ben Banogu is lighting it up too.
I’ll add: WR Mike Strachan, RT Braden Smith, QB Sam Ehlinger, RB Jonathan Taylor, DE Tyquan Lewis, DE Kemoko Turay, LB Bobby Okereke, CB Rock-Ya Sin.
Double-checked with Colts on Kwity Paye, and I was told he finished practice.— Joel A. Erickson (@JoelAErickson) August 8, 2021
Chiefs - Tyreek Hill, WR
I hate to do the same thing in KC that I did with the Titans, but there’s no denying that right now Hill is the most exciting player in camp. Maybe any camp. A heathy season by Hill could result in extraordinary numbers in the Chiefs offense, maybe even challenging for 2,000 total yards.
I must also acknowledge LBs Nick Bolton and Willie Gay Jr, S Juan Thronhill, CB Rashad Fenton, S Devon Key, WR Demarcus Robinson, C Creed Humphrey
Raiders - Alex Leatherwood, OT
No team gets more shit for their first round draft picks, and I think that’s fair to some degree. Certainly names like Damon Arnette and Clelin Ferrell give Raiders fans pause about what to expect from Mike Mayock’s day one choices. But even with Leatherwood considered a bigger reach than either of those guys, he seems to be a day one starter at right tackle with a ceiling that goes well beyond what people were saying in April.
WR Henry Ruggs III, another Mayock first rounder, is also being called a breakout player right now. QB Marcus Mariota, DE Maxx Crosby, DE Malcolm Koonce, CB Nate Hobbs, and S Trevon Moehrig have also had positive training camps. With DE Yannick Ngakoue, Ferrell, Solomon Thomas, Carl Nassib, Quinton Jefferson, Johnathan Hankins, and now Gerald McCoy in the mix, Las Vegas may seem major improvements up front on defense.
New defensive coordinator Gus Bradley might also be up for “star of camp” with the Raiders. It’s hard for me to put them over the Chargers, but people might be sleeping on Sin City.
Chargers - Rashawn Slater, LT
I could talk about Justin Herbert, Brandon Staley, WR Josh Palmer, C Corey Linsley, CB Asante Samuel, Jr, or S Mark Webb, but the Chargers had no bigger need this offseason than adding a player like Slater to the offensive line. With Slater, Linsley, Bryan Bulaga, LA has an entirely new outlook in that unit and Slater has been even better than advertised after being the Chargers’ top pick in April.
Broncos - Patrick Surtain II, CB
While Justin Jefferson was an immediate superstar receiver out of the 2020 draft class, it looks more and more like Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb, and Ruggs could close the gap on him in 2021. Reports on Jeudy are off the charts this year and the only thing holding him back could be Teddy Bridgewater and/or Drew Lock.
Patrick Surtain II, interception during Denver Broncos Training Camp pic.twitter.com/GAmQ2uaXmS— DEE SPORTS GUY (@DSports75727469) August 8, 2021
However, I’m going to note Surtain as the “star” of camp because the ninth overall pick in April is already being called Denver’s best cornerback — a notable accomplishment under the defensive-minded Vic Fangio. It sounds like Surtain will be covering the opposition’s number one receiver right out of the gate, which is nuts to hear about any cornerback.
No disrespect to some other stars this August, including Jeudy, C Lloyd Cushenberry, TE Albert Okwuegbunam, RB Javonte Williams, or DE McTelvin Agim.
Agim is a name you’ll hear every day at Broncos camp also. The 2020 third rounder could be a much more familiar name by 2022.
Cowboys - Micah Parsons, ILB
If training camp is going to be anything like the regular season, then Dallas might have their best team since the nineties because I had a difficult time choosing only one player here.
WR Michael Gallup averaged almost 80 yards per game in 2019, but based on reports out of camp the contract-year weapon could enter free agency in 2022 after a career-best season.
DE Randy Gregory has often been called the breakout player at Cowboys camp, with many expecting the former second round pick to post double-digit sacks for the first time if he can stay on the field.
WR CeeDee Lamb had a good rookie campaign, but seems ready to take a major step forward in year two.
RB Tony Pollard, CB Trevon Diggs, and CB Maurice Canady would also warrant mention, but I’m going with Parsons because not only is he having a great camp that could see him end up as a Week 1 starter in a crowded field of linebackers, but he’s one of the best prospects at his position from this century. Expectations are high and training camp has seen Parsons play at a high level too.
Eagles - Josh Sweat, DE
The Eagles have had their share of good pass rushers over the years and Sweat seems poised to be the next. Day after day, good news about Sweat emerges from Philly camp, even as it seems bad news (like that Jalen Hurts might not be great) continues to roll in.
WR Travis Fulgham, LT Jordan Mailata, TE Tyree Jackson (a former college QB), RB Kerryon Johnson also deserve a shout out, while rookie fourth round CB Zech McPhearson has been one of the biggest surprises for the 2021 NFL Draft already. McPhearson could start early in his career.
My #Eagles Practice Observations from Day 9 of training camp:— Jeff McLane (@Jeff_McLane) August 8, 2021
*Offense struggles or defense shines, make your choice
*Josh Sweat’s stock rising
*Alex Singleton returns
And much more: https://t.co/O9SUL4aqRI via @phillyinquirer
WFT - DeAndre Carter, ST/WR
It’s hard to project a big role for Carter given that Washington already has Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel, and third round pick Dyami Brown (another player having a good camp), but Carter has played above and beyond in his bid to make the final roster. The former UDFA out of Sacramento State played with the Houston Texans in 2018, 2019, and 2020, but also played for the Eagles in 2018 and the Bears in 2020. He’s been around, mostly being utilized as a returner, but Ron Rivera might need to fit him into the offensive gameplan if he keeps this up.
Honorable mentions to go to Ryan Fitzpatrick, who entered camp with uncertain public expectations but seems to have a grip on the starting role and his best opportunity to remain a team’s starting quarterback since his second season with the Jets back in 2016.
Giants - Darnay Holmes, CB
I was so tempted to put WR David Sills here because he’s just making plays every single day in camp and nobody knew that would happen, but this list is already heavy on receivers and light on corners. Just like the league.
Holmes, a fourth round pick out of UCLA last year, has responded nicely to his first “real” offseason, much like a few others from the 2020 class. It seems like he’s lining up to have a starting role in what could be a surprisingly dominant Giants defense. Rookie second round OLB Azeez Ojulari also figures to be a part of that, as does sixth round CB Rodarius Williams (the older brother of Browns CB Greedy Williams).
RB Devontae Booker has also had positive reports coming out of camp in the absence of Saquon Barkley.
Packers - Josh Myers, C
In all of my days of covering draft season leading up to the 2021 NFL Draft, I heard names like “Creed Humphrey” and “Landon Dickerson” more than I want to recall. What I don’t remember is many fans clamoring for Josh Myers, who the LA Rams passed on when they selected Tutu Atwell with the 57th pick. The Green Bay Packers then selected Myers five picks later and it seems as though quarterback Aaron Rodgers has no problem endorsing a Packers draft pick when they work out this well, this early.
“For a guy to come in, as a draft pick, as a rookie, and be that comfortable – it’s pretty impressive,” Rodgers said. “He’s very comfortable with the system, comfortable in his own skin. And he’s a big fella. He’s probably the biggest center I’ve had in front of me. I like the way he’s stepped in and controlled the huddle and the calls the first four days.”
WR Juwann Winfree, OL Elgton Jenkins (who filled in for David Bakhtiari in camp and was said to be quite comfortable there), TE Robert Tonyan, and LB De’Vondre Campbell are among others getting recognized for their training camp performances. Yes, the Packers are back in contention for the Super Bowl, so ignore all that offseason noise.
The Packers are expecting second-round pick Josh Myers to be the starting center to open the 2021 season. https://t.co/Q1Nzlj2OVL— The Packers Wire (@ThePackersWire) August 4, 2021
Lions - Alim McNeil, DT
“Rams Midwest” was giddy over their selections of OT Penei Sewell and DT Levi Onwuzurike in the draft, but it’s been third round pick Alim McNeil that is stealing the show at training camp. In what was described as a “weak” DT class, it seems there are already a few stand outs and McNeil could be atop that list. You may also recall that McNeil drew physical comps to Aaron Donald prior to the draft.
WR Amon-Ra St Brown (another rookie), RB Jamaal Williams, OLB Romeo Okwara, CB A.J. Parker are some other names I remember hearing recently.
Vikings - Irv Smith, Jr., TE
It’s exciting to finally add a tight end to this list and Smith, who became a bit of an afterthought out of Alabama after playing in the shadows of Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith, Najee Harris, Josh Jacobs, and Damien Harris (seriously, get the hell out of here, Alabama), is supposedly looking quite exciting himself in camp.
Kirk Cousins hits Irv Smith Jr. across the middle. pic.twitter.com/apPcb5Yv8W— Vikes (@vikesinsider) August 7, 2021
The 2019 second round pick has caught 66 passes for 676 yards in two seasons, but they’re calling for a “breakout party” in Minnesota.
WR KJ Osborn, OL Ezra Cleveland, QB Jake Browning, and CB Cameron Dantzler also warrant mention.
Bears - Darnell Mooney, WR
Maybe they’ve just slipped under my radar, but I can’t say that a lot of players in Chicago’s training camp are standing out to me in my research so far. Mooney is one that is often brought up as a guy poised for a breakout, it’s just that I have pause when it comes to evaluating WR play in training camp because as you see, they tend to get noticed more than others.
OLB Trevis Gipson, a fifth round pick in 2020, is another guy turning heads. And expectations are high for nose tackle Bilal Nichols. As for Justin Fields, training camp has only emphasized that Andy Dalton is likely to be the Week 1 starter, but that could change at any moment given that it is Andy Dalton.
Saints - Andrew Dowell, LB
The football gods might be asking me to put WR Marquez Callaway here — he could easily be New Orleans’ number one receiver in Week 1 — but I’m compelled to look at other positions. Dowell went undrafted out of Michigan State and appeared in one game last season but he is in line for a much bigger role in 2021. He’s been called the “star” of camp and there are a few others competing for that title.
He’s also not afraid of a stupid ass wasp.
The only thing you really need to know about Andrew Dowell: He walked up for his media availability and got warned there was a wasp buzzing behind him. His immediate reaction was to spike it straight to the ground and go back to answering questions. #Saints pic.twitter.com/3neLwyPfB1— Jeff Nowak (@Jeff_Nowak) August 5, 2021
That includes Callaway, CB Ken Crawley, and DE Payton Turner, but unfortunately for Sean Payton, does not include Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill. The Saints still seem to have a QB competition that will come down to the lesser of two evils.
Falcons - Kyle Pitts, TE
Similar to Parsons, I could go with another name here, but why not a rookie who is exceeding expectations from jump street? Atlanta is surely excited by what they’ve seen from CB A.J. Terrell, DE Adetokunbo Ogundeji (fifth round rookie surprise), WR Austin Trammell (my favorite UDFA), CB Chris Williamson, WR Olamide Zaccheus, OL Jalen Mayfield, C Matt Hennessy, and C Drew Dalman, but why not just talk about the highest-rated tight end prospect...ever?
Panthers - Jaycee Horn, CB
I wasn’t going to go with another high draft pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, but then I noticed that the top Google question when you search for “Jaycee Horn” is “Who is Jaycee Horn daddy?” and I feel like we all owe him one.
Plus, Horn has been excelling in camp and will be a day one starter at cornerback for the Panthers.
Others who deserve mention: WR Terrace Marshall, Jr., G John Miller, TE Dan Arnold, G Dennis Daley, LB Jermaine Carter, and to some degree, former Rams DE Morgan Fox. I wonder if the Panthers will be a bad team, but a tough out nonetheless. They seem talented but it comes down to the play of Sam Darnold, which has been inconsistent in camp.
Buccaneers - Ross Cockrell, CB
What do you get the team that already has everything? A 30-year-old veteran afterthought who was with Tampa Bay last season but only had 237 snaps all year. The Bucs relied on their talented young secondary to help win the Super Bowl, but Cockrell has been outshining nearly everybody else on the roster in training camp and he won’t be kept off the field as much in 2021.
WR Mike Evans, LB Devin White, RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn, DE Joe Tryon, WR Antonio Brown get some love too.
Rams - Matthew Stafford, QB
I would add S Kareem Orr, TE Jacob Harris, WR DeSean Jackson, DT Greg Gaines, and CB Donte Deayon to the list for now, while also noting that more names should emerge in due time and with preseason games.
Seahawks - Marquise Blair, S
With Jamal Adams avoiding practice (but not holding out, as the NFL basically made that impossible now), Seattle has turned reps over to Blair, the former second round pick who may have also been the star of Seahawks camp in 2020 prior to being injured after only two games and going on IR. Even after Adams signs — he will, just like Jalen Ramsey did last season with the Rams — and starts next to Quandre Diggs, Blair figures to be a regular on a defense that will utilize more than two safeties at a time.
TE Colby Parkinson, TE Gerald Everett, RB Alex Collins, FB/LB Nick Bellore (yes, he’s playing both ways in camp), CB Ahkello Witherspoon, and DL Robert Nkemdiche have gotten some attention too.
49ers - Trey Lance, QB
I still think that Kyle Shanahan will start Jimmy Garoppolo in Week 1, and as long as he doesn’t get hurt again, should retain that job for the entire season. Treating Lance like the next Patrick Mahomes means treating Garoppolo like the next Alex Smith, and that means that San Francisco hopes to contend for a Super Bowl without having to make a change at quarterback. However, day after day, Lance seems to be a more exciting QB prospect through two weeks of camp than even the two guys selected ahead of him. It’s only been PRACTICES (I still wouldn’t take Lance over Trevor Lawrence or Zach Wilson yet), but there’s little question that Trey Lance is not just the star of 49ers camp, but the star of NFL training camps in general.
The quarterback that threw this ball can also run 21.5 MPH.— Andrew ⛷ (@AndrewTakesWs) August 3, 2021
I think Trey Lance is gonna be good. pic.twitter.com/MjKPEFKsJb
WR Jalen Hurd, WR Brandon Aiyuk, OL Aaron Banks, TE Ross Dwelley, RB Trey Sermon, LB Dee Ford, DT Kevin Givens, and CB Ambry Thomas have to be mentioned too. Yes, I think the 49ers are going to be much better than they were last season, but how often have we said that in the Kyle Shanahan era and been wrong?
Cardinals - Rondale Moore, WR
If it weren’t for the other rookie receiver named “Moore” then Rondale might be even more noticeable. And if it weren’t for the other new Cardinals wide receiver added this year to help Kyler Murray, then Rondale Moore might be an even bigger story in Arizona. But there’s little doubt that Moore has been one of the most exciting second round rookies this year and that Murray plans to throw to him a lot in year one.
But A.J. Green will steal some of that attention too because the long-time Bengals veteran seems to be playing like he’s taken years off of his life. Veteran CB Robert Alford also seems to have emerged from a group desperate to find secondary help as one who will be able to help right away. However, I’m not sure if there’s a much longer list of “stand outs” in Arizona other than Moore and Green.