Each year around the league, unsuspecting superstars are born and uncommon names become household regularities. It's as consistent as death and taxes, and while the odds are long considering the vast number of players who attend training camp, the opportunity is there for the taking. The New York Giants, of course, know this all too well after discovering wide receiver Victor Cruz, who went from camp fodder to one of the most well-recognized athlete's in the world.
While replicating the success of Cruz is much more rare than finding a solid player amongst a 90-man roster, the possibility always remains that there's a needle in the haystack. And although we won't go as far as to say there's another Cruz headed to training camp, we will take a look at five potential sleepers who not only stand a chance at making the 53-man roster, but have what it takes to make a legitimate impact on the field in 2014.
5) Markus Kuhn, Defensive Tackle
When Linval Joseph left and signed with the Minnesota Vikings early on in free agency, the common belief was that 2013 second-round pick, Johnathan Hankins, would immediately step in and take over at defensive tackle for the New York Giants. And although he had an impressive Spring, it's no sure bet to pencil him in alongside Cullen Jenkins…at least not yet.
Despite Hankins flashing more often than not, he was met step-for-step this past Spring by a forgotten man: 2012 seventh-round pick Markus Kuhn.
"He had an outstanding offseason, really outstanding practices. He and Hankins, they’ll definitely get more reps in training camp than Mike P and Cullen if everything goes as planned," defensive line coach Robert Nunn said. "He showed up every day. When we go out there and go in team situations Markus was, there wasn’t a day that went by that we didn’t call his name out in a positive manner."
Kuhn, who tore his ACL in Week 10 of his rookie season and missed much of the 2013 season recovering, arrived for offseason workouts in tremendous shape and with a warrior's mentality. And his relentless work ethic, which has been soundly praised by Tom Coughlin since the defensive tackle arrived as a rookie, has helped draw the attention of the decision-makers.
While Kuhn starting over Hankins may be a bit of a reach, there's a legitimate chance he earns quite a bit of playing time as the No. 3 defensive tackle in what has potential to be a very strong rotation.
4) Dan Fox, Linebacker
The injury to linebacker Jon Beason — one that will likely sideline him until at least Week 1 of the regular season — opened the door to a number of other players. Among them is undrafted rookie free agent Dan Fox out of Notre Dame.
Of all five sleepers we have listed, Fox would appear to have the longest odds of not only making an impact in 2014, but even making the team. However, after signing with the Giants, he arrived to team facilities in great shape and immediately dove into the playbook, while also learning as much as he could from the veterans. In fact, he's clung to them in an effort to learn all three linebacker positions, which has shown on the field as coaches have mixed him in at each position.
"This is kind of a new position a little bit, I've been doing a lot of Sam and Will in camp but have played some Mike. I've done a little bit of everything and it's fun learning all the positions. I'm just trying to make the team," Fox said.
Although he faces stiff competition from other players like Terrell Manning, whom we also considered for this list, Fox has already opened eyes and appears poised for a very busy training camp/preseason that could ultimately earn him a spot on the 53-man roster — or at least the practice squad.
3) Mario Manningham, Wide Receiver
We know what you're thinking… How can Mario Manning, an NFL veteran and Super Bowl champion, possibly be considered a sleeper? It's a question we debated and pondered for several days before deciding to add his name to this list.
The reasoning behind it is multi-tiered and has less to do with his NFL experience, and much more to do with the reality that after returning to the Giants and missing the offseason workout program, he's become somewhat of a forgotten man. And because it's now an "out of sight, out of mind" sort of scenario, that very much makes him a potential sleeper.
General Manager Jerry Reese did not bring Manningham back to be a feel good story — he brought Manningham back to add a weapon to Big Blue's new-look offense and to contribute here in 2014. And with Manningham comes familiarity with both the Giants franchise and at least some level of continuity with quarterback Eli Manning. Not only that, but the 2014 version of Mario Manningham is drastically different from a maturity standpoint than the Mario Manningham we last saw in 2011.
During his time with the San Francisco 49ers, Manningham faced the first true adversity of his professional career after tearing his ACL in 2012. He then returned to the field entirely too soon, eventually suffering a setback in 2013 that has left him shelved ever since. And although he is now nearing a complete return to health, it was those experiences that have helped re-shape him both as a person and a player.
“It was frustrating, but it was a learning experience also,” Manningham said. “When I got back I couldn’t do what I wanted to, I knew I needed a little bit more time. It’s coming along and I just have to work on getting stronger and getting my strength back and trusting it more. I’m doing good; it’s getting stronger.
“If you’re an athlete, you have a chip on your shoulder already, so you’re like, ‘I’m coming back strong this year.' I do believe it. I had a couple people who tore their ACL a couple times who said, ‘Man, you’re not going to get it back that following year, you’re going to get it back the year after that.’ I’m just trying to do what I can do to make a strong impact and win games.”
What you have now is a very hungry, very determined and much more mature wide receiver who's looking to return his football career to a satisfactory level of success.
2) Brandon Mosley, Offensive Line
After being drafted in the fourth-round of the 2012 NFL Draft, expectations were relatively high for offensive lineman Brandon Mosley. Unfortunately, his rookie campaign was derailed in short order due to an ankle injury and he wouldn't return until 2013. Accordingly, the Giants' coaching staff approached last season as if it were a rookie year for Mosley despite almost immediately taking first-team snaps in place of Kevin Boothe who was replacing the injured David Baas at center.
Although he ended up playing only 60 snaps over five games, Mosley showed significant improvement. He was also one of the few offensive linemen who finished the season without allowing a single sack or hit. Now in his third season, and with Big Blue desperately needing someone to step up along the offensive line, Mosley appears to be seizing his opportunity.
"I see improvement on a daily basis, I really do," offensive line coach Pat Flaherty said. "He’s, as we sometimes forget, Brandon is really in his second year. His first year he was on IR. He was with us in training camp and then he had his foot operated on and he was put on injury reserve so he missed a year of football activity. Last year was really his first year and he was progressing very well and then when he had the opportunity to really take the bull by the horn again Detroit he went against a good football player and was rally battling pretty good and then he broke his hand and it started all over for him again."
Despite his limited number of snaps in 2013, Pro Football Focus gave him an above-average run blocking grade. Now just think about what he'll be able to do with health and a full offseason under his belt.
1) Charles James, Cornerback
Also a sleeper in 2013, James managed to earn himself a spot on the Giants' practice squad before eventually being signed to the 53-man roster and playing in 12 games — primarily as a special teams gunner.
Now with the team having signed Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Walter Thurmond III and Zack Bowman, James once against finds himself in a battle to earn a roster spot. And no longer eligible for the practice squad, it's active roster or bust for the second-year cornerback out of Charleston Southern.
But James is no stranger to long odds and certainly doesn't doubt his own ability. Throughout his life he's routinely faced down his doubters and proven them wrong. And knowing he'd have to prove himself once again in 2014, James spent the majority of his offseason working out with Steve Weatherford, preparing for the exact moment that sits ahead of him come training camp.
"I'm ready to go out and show what kind of player I am," James said. "As a rookie, you try to grasp. I want to come into my own, be a better person. This offseason is big. I'll hit training even harder, summer harder, training camp big, and ready to come into my own and show I can be a player in this league for many years."
Although there would appear to be no room on the cornerback depth chart pending the health of Trumaine McBride — especially given the big money the Giants spent on their free agent additions — James impressed during the offseason workout program, flashed in practice and drew praise from several of his teammates and coaches. It would be uncharacteristic of the never-say-die James for that not to carry over into training camp — so, if nothing else, expect James to force the Giants into a very difficult decision. But do not be surprised if he once again overcomes the odds and lands himself a spot on the 53-man roster.
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Tags: Brandon Mosley, Charles James, Dan Fox, Eli Manning, Football, Jerry Reese, Mario Manningham, Markus Kuhn, New York, New York Giants, NFL