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Top 12 Training Camp Breakout Players of the Last Decade

Zach Thomas was an afterthought in the 1996 draft. If not for Miami Dolphins special teams coach Mike Westhoff, the undersized linebacker from Texas Tech might not have been selected at all. 

Miami grabbed him in the fifth round (154th overall). By the time the team got to training camp, Westhoff looked brilliant, and Thomas was supplanting an outstanding veteran, Jack Del Rio, as a starter.

Early next month, Thomas will enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was the quintessential breakout guy who went from maybe to magnificent, beginning with his performance that summer.

Many players have followed that path, whether immediately after making an impression or further down the road. Here are a dozen from the last decade, listed alphabetically and including the team he broke through with.

Top 12 Breakout Players

Orlando Brown Jr., OT, Baltimore Ravens

NFL teams had serious doubts about the Oklahoma star nicknamed Baby Zeus, who made 40 starts and was a 2017 All-American. His weight, then estimated at 350 pounds, was a concern, as was his stamina. He tested poorly at the NFL Combine, including the slowest 40 time of any player.

Orlando Brown, whose father, also named Orlando, played nine pro seasons, lasted until the third round of the 2018 draft. Then he showed more movement and endurance than the Baltimore Ravens expected and was solid throughout his first training camp and preseason.

He wound up starting 10 games that year, but the real breakthrough came in 2019 when he made the first of four straight Pro Bowls, two with Baltimore and two with the Kansas City Chiefs. Brown, who has played both tackle spots, now is the anchor for the Cincinnati Bengals’ offensive line.

Carolina Panthers Jeremy Chinn

Jeremy Chinn, S, Carolina Panthers

Although Matt Rhule’s coaching resume in Carolina was underwhelming, his discovery – and the rapid development of – safety Jeremy Chinn was right on target.

A second-round 2020 draft pick, Chinn was a summer sensation, and he carried that production directly into the regular season. The hard-hitting safety, who also can line up at linebacker, finished second to Chase Young for Defensive Rookie of the Year; no safety has won that award since 1990. Chinn was in on 117 tackles and scooped up two fumbles that he returned for scores.

He remains a key cog for Carolina under his new coaching staff.

Maxx Crosby, DE, Las Vegas Raiders

Maybe we should have known Maxx Crosby would be excellent, given the spelling of his name. Headline writers could have made a living with Xterminator or Xtreme as Crosby threw quarterbacks and ball carriers to the ground.

The truth is, Crosby was a fourth-round draft selection in 2019 out of Eastern Michigan. The expectations weren’t all that high, and the Raiders, in their final season representing Oakland, simply were hopeful he would be a contributing piece in their defensive puzzle. Instead, he was the centerpiece almost from the opening day of camp.

Crosby quickly broke into the lineup to the point that he became the Raiders’ most dangerous man in the trenches. He led the team in sacks (10), tackles for loss (16), QB hits (14) and intimidation to finish second to Nick Bosa in Defensive Rookie of the Year balloting.

Crosby hasn’t stopped Xcelling.

Antonio Gibson, RB, Washington Commanders

A solid receiver and kick returner who occasionally carried the ball at Memphis, Antonio Gibson went in the third round of the 2020 draft. New Washington Commanders coach Ron Rivera, who had the fortune of working with do-everything running back Christian McCaffrey in Carolina, believed Gibson could be a more significant weapon in the backfield than out wide.

Rivera was right. Gibson smoothly transitioned during the summer that year, then rushed for 795 yards, added 247 receiving and scored 11 touchdowns in 14 games.

That was merely the start. 

Despite mediocre quarterback play, Gibson truly blossomed in his second season with 1,037 yards rushing and seven touchdowns, plus three more scores on 42 receptions. Look for even more catches this year for Gibson under new offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy.

Damon “Snacks” Harrison, DT, New York Jets

It is not true that Snacks Harrison ate up offensive linemen for lunch. Well, we don’t think it is.

What he did in 2012 and, especially the next year, was rise from an undrafted free agent out of William Penn to become the only player from that school to make it in the NFL. 

Harrison did enough in his rookie training camp to stick with the New York Jets, who were coached by Rex Ryan, a man with an affinity for talented, hard-working trench guys. Harrison started five games but more significantly, earned Ryan’s trust and was moved to No. 1 on the depth chart the next summer.

He started every game the next three seasons, clogging the middle with aplomb and totaling 193 tackles over those campaigns. His performance paid off with a free-agent contract with the other New York team, and Harrison made All-Pro for the New York Giants in 2016. 

New Orleans Saints Deonte Harty

Deonte Harty, WR/KR, New Orleans Saints

Until the 2022 season, Deonte Harty was known as Deonte Harris. It was using his former name that he broke through for the New Orleans Saints; he changed it to honor his stepfather.

Harty was an undrafted free agent in 2019 out of Assumption, and don’t assume they can’t play football at the Worcester, Mass., school. Harris, the All-American receiver and kick returner, was voted to the Division 2 All-Decade Team for 2010-19.  

And the jump to the NFL wasn’t as challenging as it could have or perhaps should have been. He made his mark during training camp and preseason for coach Sean Payton, taking over primary kickoff and punt return duties. Harty’s breakout was so spectacular that he made the All-Pro team and the Pro Bowl, piling up a league-best 338-yard running back punts, adding 644 on kickoffs.

Although his 2022 season was cut to four games because of a toe injury, the Buffalo Bills were intrigued enough to sign him as a free agent. 

Aaron Jones, RB, Green Bay Packers

The main attraction to Aaron Jones is his dependability. And his versatility.

Those things don’t necessarily stand out when a fifth-round draftee out of Texas-El Paso hopes to break through with a storied franchise like the Green Bay Packers. But they served him well enough in 2017 that he stuck in Green Bay as a backup. In his few opportunities – Jones got only 81 carries in the 12 games he suited up – he posted a 5.5-yard average gain.

When he repeated that in his second campaign, 2018, and scored eight touchdowns, Jones certainly had been noticed.

Then Matt LaFleur replaced Mike McCarthy as coach, and in their first summer together, it became apparent that Jones’ talents fit perfectly with LaFleur’s offensive schemes. Plus, QB Aaron Rodgers had become quite comfortable with Jones in the backfield.

And, like ice on the Lambeau Field tundra, Jones became a sure thing. In 2019, as the Packers went 13-3, Jones led the league with 16 rushing touchdowns, ran for 1,084 yards, and hauled in 49 passes, adding three scores.

Isiah Pacheco, RB, Kansas City Chiefs

Even though he chose Isiah Pacheco in the seventh and final round of the draft, Chiefs general manager Brett Veach noted that the kid could rush for 1,000 yards in Andy Reid's offense.

As the running back from Rutgers displayed his power, cutting skills and nonstop motor, it became evident that even with Kansas City using a handful of guys behind Patrick Mahomes, Veach could have been correct.

Pacheco seemed destined to return kicks for Kansas City as a rookie. Reid, then-offensive coordinator Bieniemy, and several Chiefs players saw much more last summer. Soon enough, Pacheco was the go-to RB, playing a crucial role in the Chiefs’ roll to the title.  He rushed for 830 yards and five touchdowns, added another 197 yards on the ground in the postseason, and solidified his place on offense.

Green Bay Packers P J.K. Scott

JK Scott, P, Green Bay Packers

There are tougher jobs in the NFL than punting. Except, perhaps, when that duty must be performed mostly at Lambeau Field and often in, shall we say, not ideal conditions.

JK Scott simply shrugged at such a challenge, spent his rookie summer booming the ball into the Wisconsin sky, and never really stopped in 2018.

A fifth-round draftee that year from Alabama, where you won’t find many similarities in the weather to Titletown USA, Scott replaced Justin Vogel after Green Bay went 7-9 the previous campaign. He didn’t do anything spectacular as a rookie, but are punters supposed to do extraordinary things? 

Scott nailed 29 punts inside the 20 the next season, building on his strong preseason showings. From there, he’s been in demand, first for Jacksonville and last season for the Chargers, who are paying him $4 million over two years.

None of this should be surprising. JK’s father, Kim, was an All-American pole vaulter, his brother, Charlie, punted at Air Force and then for the Crimson Tide, and his sister, Christi, was a Colorado champion in track.

Adam Thielen, WR, Minnesota Vikings

Adam Thielen never seemed to be a candidate to catch passes in the NFL, let alone become one of the best No. 2 wideouts in the league. Sure, he never was the top gun with Stefon Diggs and then Justin Jefferson on board. But Thielen carved out quite a nine-year stay in Minnesota before joining Carolina for this season.

Undrafted out of Minnesota State, he stuck with his home-state team by making the practice squad. His versatility, resourcefulness and willingness to try any job attracted then-Vikings coach Leslie Frazier. When Mike Zimmer replaced Frazier the next season, he quickly noticed all those traits in Thielen.

Still, Thielen was more of a special-teamer and spot receiver until it became obvious he ran the best pass patterns on the team. Indeed, some have pointed to Thielen as the best route-running wideout in the league. Thielen made second-team All-Pro and the Pro Bowl in his first full season as a starter. 

Darren Waller, TE, Las Vegas Raiders

The tale of Darren Waller is much different from most. The tight end from Georgia Tech went to the Ravens in the sixth round of the 2015 draft and became an afterthought for his first two NFL campaigns. He didn’t play in 2017, was suspended for violating the league’s substance abuse policy and was released by Baltimore in 2018.

Fortunately for Waller, the Las Vegas Raiders signed him. Fortunately for the Raiders, Waller broke through the next preseason. He previously had 18 total receptions and two scores, but his rapport with QB Derek Carr was quickly evident during camp, and Waller became a main weapon during the franchise’s last year in Oakland. He made 90 receptions for 1,145 yards with three touchdowns, winding up third in Comeback Player of the Year voting.

Waller was even better the next season and made the Pro Bowl. This past offseason, he was traded to the Giants.

Tariq Woolen, CB, Seattle Seahawks

With so much attention paid to Sauce Gardner, the Jets cornerback who went fourth in the draft and earned top defensive rookie honors last season, Tariq Woolen could have fallen through the cracks. Instead, he filled cracks in Seattle’s secondary with nearly as superb a season as Gardner enjoyed.

Woolen, a fifth-rounder out of Texas-San Antonio, began drawing comparisons to former Seattle Seahawks great Richard Sherman almost as soon as the team took the field for training camp workouts. Few coaches in the NFL have a better feel for defensive backs than Pete Carroll, who never hesitated in making Woolen a starter.

The payoff: Woolen finished third in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting, tied for the league lead with six interceptions, had a pick-6, added three fumble recoveries and made the Pro Bowl.

We can’t wait to see what he has in store for 2023.

Barry Wilner was a sportswriter for the Associated Press for 46 years. He has covered virtually every major sporting event, including 14 Olympics, 9 World Cups, 34 Super Bowls, the World Series, and the Stanley Cup Final, and has written 75 books. Follow him on Twitter @Wilner88.