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No-name rookies out of nowhere

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Adam Caplan

Adam Caplan is our newest NFL reporter/insider at FOXSports.com. He has spent the past 10 seasons covering the league, specializing in player personnel, injuries and contracts.

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Each year in training camp, there are some players who come out of nowhere to impress their coaches. Some of them are drafted players, but there are usually some undrafted free agents who wind up shocking the NFL world.

FOXSports.com has put together a list of some of those players who have wound up being training camp surprises. Some of them you might have heard of, but others you probably have not. While it could be a bit premature to expect these players to win jobs, they’re clearly off to a rousing start.

Notable Newbies

Looking for a new jersey to sport? Peter Schrager's got your breakout players for 2010 -- one for every team.

Anthony Dixon, RB, San Francisco 49ers (Sixth Round)

The big back was given a second- to third-round grade coming into his senior year from National Scouting Service. National is one of the two main services (BLESTO being the other) NFL teams use when evaluating draftable players. However, the big back fell down draft boards after posting slow 40-yard dash times during February’s NFL Combine.

After the draft, Dixon suffered a hamstring injury during the team’s OTA practices. Things haven’t gotten much better for him in training camp as he’s been very inconsistent in practice. So, it was looking like a fait accompli that he wouldn’t be much of a factor this season. However, that was before last week, when second-year RB Glen Coffee decided to suddenly retire.

Dixon was given the chance at extended playing time during the first preseason game against the Colts, and he made the most of it with 100 yards on the ground. The team signed veteran Brian Westbrook for insurance, but Dixon’s performance had to give the coaches confidence they could stay on schedule with the power running game if Frank Gore can’t play for whatever reason. Dixon, at first glance, reminds me of a poor man’s Michael Turner. He’s a physical, downhill runner.

John Conner, FB, New York Jets (Fifth Round)

If you’ve watched HBO’s "Hard Knocks," you’re probably more than aware of Conner. The Jets re-signed veteran FB Tony Richardson earlier this year, but drafted Conner with the belief he’ll eventually replace him. Conner’s been one of the standouts on the offensive side of the ball, and that includes the veterans. He’s simply been leading the way in the running game, and his physicality has been noticeable ever since the first day of camp.

With most teams only keeping one fullback, it could be hard for the coaches to justify keeping both players, but Conner’s almost a lock to make the team based on his outstanding play. Richardson will earn just $855,000 on his one-year deal, but can they keep him around if Conner is ready to take over?

Stephen Williams, WR, Arizona Cardinals (Undrafted)

Here’s a team where the opportunity is great for a lower-round pick or undrafted free agent to push for a roster spot. The top three spots on the depth chart are set, but after that, it’s anyone’s guess who’ll take up the fourth and fifth spots. Williams is a tall receiver (6-foot-4) and has slightly better than average speed, but isn’t known for being a physical player in scouting circles. During training camp, though, Williams has caught most everything thrown his way and he’s been a little more physical than most expected.

Victor Cruz, WR, New York Giants (Undrafted)

Admittedly, I’d never heard of the rookie when I recently attended Giants camp, but I might not be the only one. One NFL player agent said when recruiting guys at the University of Massachusetts last fall, Cruz’s name wasn’t on any scouting lists and wasn’t recommended by any scouting sources.

Yet, ever since the beginning of camp, he’s impressed practice observers with his hands, route running and better than average speed. He capped that off with an unbelievable performance (six receptions, 145 yards, three touchdowns) during the first preseason game against the Jets. He’s done so well that he could already be pushing for the fourth or fifth receiver job.

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Austin Howard, OT, Philadelphia Eagles (Undrafted)

Howard could be the biggest surprise of 2010 so far for this team. He didn’t get invited to any All-Star games and wasn’t invited to the NFL Combine, so how has Howard seemingly won the backup left tackle job this early?

Early in training camp, third-year OT King Dunlap was moved from left tackle to the right side, leaving the rookie as the top backup to starting LT Jason Peters. When you consider he only played left tackle in college for two seasons (he played tight end before that), his ascension up the depth chart is even more amazing.

But his signing with Philadelphia wasn’t a given. The Chargers, Steelers, Bengals, Cowboys, Vikings and Rams all tried to sign him after the draft. Philadelphia’s offensive line coach Juan Castillo first saw Howard while watching his son, Gregory, play cornerback at the University of Iowa last season. Howard was on the other side in that game with the University of Northern Iowa. Castillo kept in touch with the offensive lineman over the next several months after Philadelphia’s season ended leading up to the draft. Right after the draft, Philadelphia stepped up and gave Howard a three-year deal with a $15,000 signing bonus. Most undrafted free agents get less than $3,000 for a signing bonus, if they get anything at all.

So, Philadelphia’s aggressiveness paid off. Now they might have one of the biggest draft steals in recent years.

Greg Hardy, DE, Carolina Panthers (Sixth Round)

If you follow college football closely, you’ve probably heard of Hardy. It was a big surprise on draft day that he fell all the way to the sixth round, but sources said his work ethic and injury history could be questioned.

Still, National Scouting Service gave him a first-round grade coming into his senior season at Mississippi - and you can see why. At times, he could be dominant, perhaps the best player on the field, but he had trouble putting many great games together. With Carolina he’s off to a fast start and he’s seen as a lock to make the team. In fact, some team observers believe he could be in the top three at the position by the end of the preseason. Hardy did well in his first game against the Ravens last week, and he’s expected to get significant playing time this week against the Jets.

Barry Church, S, Dallas Cowboys (Undrafted)

Interestingly, here’s another University of Toledo undrafted free agent (Stephen Williams being the other) who’s making some noise. Church has really good size (6-foot-1, 222). In fact, some personnel evaluators believed he could play strongside linebacker in a 4-3 scheme if he put on at least 10 pounds.

Church, as expected, has been lining up at strong safety in Dallas’ 3-4 scheme, and he’s been fighting for the backup job to starter Gerald Sensabaugh. There’s no question he can hit, but his coverage skills need to be improved. He’ll get a good chance to show what he can do over the final three preseason games. His competition comes in the form of fifth-year pro Pat Watkins.

Tagged: Cowboys, Giants, Jets, Eagles, 49ers, Panthers, Cardinals, King Dunlap, John Conner, Anthony Dixon, Greg Hardy, Stephen Williams, Barry Church, Austin Howard

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