Eight rookies to watch during OTAs

Organized team activities, commonly known as OTAs, begin in earnest this week in the NFL. Each team is allowed 10 OTA sessions.

The Cardinals, Browns, Colts, Eagles and 49ers began their OTAs last week and 26 teams begin theirs this week. The Rams start their OTAs on May 31.

Rookies have had their orientation at rookie camp, and now they’re being tested against proven veterans.

These eight rookies, in order of their draft position, are worth monitoring.

Keanu Neal

Mock drafts were torn up all over the country when the Falcons chose Florida safety Keanu Neal with the No. 17 pick in the first round. Pro Football Focus had him ranked 176th on their board.

The 6’0″, 211-pound Neal is physical and also can drop back into coverage. Over the last two seasons, he’s made 4.5 tackles for loss to go with two sacks, four interceptions, five passes defended and two forced fumbles.

Neal was drafted ahead of more publicized safeties like Vonn Bell and Miles Killebrew. After starting 6-1 and slumping to an 8-8 finish and recording a league-low 19 sacks last year, the Falcons needed a strong draft. Neal is a bold pick who will either make them look like geniuses or blow up in their face.

Ryan Kelly

The Colts drafted Ryan Kelly 18th overall and plugged him in as the starting center. Kelly made 35 starts at Alabama, helping the Crimson Tide win the national title in 2015. So he’s used to high-profile gigs and should be a natural fit snapping the ball to Andrew Luck.

Kelly didn’t allow a sack at Alabama in 2014 and 2015, according to Colts.com, and if draft order is any indication the Colts picked a winner.

Maurkice Pouncey is the only other center since 2000 to be drafted as high as Kelly. The Steelers took him at No. 18 in 2010 and he’s made the Pro Bowl every year that he’s been healthy. Pouncey, Nick Mangold, Eric Wood, Alex Mack and Travis Frederick are the only centers drafted in the first round between 2006 and 2013. They’ve all made at least one Pro Bowl.

Only nine centers have been drafted in the first round since 2000, the fewest of any position other than kicker or punter. But the position has a high success rate.

Laquon Treadwell

Laquon Treadwell caught 82 passes for Mississippi in 2015 and led the SEC in receiving yards (1,153) and receiving touchdowns (11). He was projected to be the first receiver chosen in the weeks leading up to the draft, but ended up as the fourth receiver off the board.

Treadwell will have every opportunity to make an instant impact in Minnesota. Stefon Diggs led the Vikings with 52 receptions in his rookie season, but 25 came in his first four games. His productivity waned as the season went on because the Vikings didn’t have any other receivers who could scare a defense. Mike Wallace caught just 39 passes and is now a Raven.

It wouldn’t be surprising if Treadwell passed Jarius Wright (34 catches) on the depth chart. Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has high praise for Treadwell. After working with him for two days, he told the team’s website that “he’s going to be big for this team.”

Robert Nkemdiche

Robert Nkemdiche was a man among boys in a sense at rookie minicamp.

“He was killing people in walk-through,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians told the Arizona Republic. Arians had to tell Nkemdiche to tone it down because contact wasn’t allowed at that stage of the offseason program.

The Cardinals began OTAs last week and continue Tuesday. It will be interesting to see how the rookie defensive linemen stacks up against NFL veterans. The 6’3″, 294-pounder was a polarizing prospect for a couple of reasons. There was the infamous incident in which he fell from a hotel window, was arrested for marijuana possession and suspended for the Sugar Bowl. On the field, Nkemdiche posted just six sacks and 16 tackles for loss in three years despite his pro-ready physical tools.

Nkemdiche slipped to 30th in the first round despite his top-10 talent. But he’s already showing signs of maturation. He’s aware of the complexity of an NFL playbook compared to college. “Attention to detail” was among the words he used when talking about that. He talked about buying a panther before the draft, but with all he has to learn now all he could think of was “charity” when asked how he would spend his money.

If Nkemdiche learns quickly enough he has the potential to help the Cardinals own the Panthers in the event of an NFC championship game rematch.

Reggie Ragland

The Bills drafted Shaq Lawson in the first round, Reggie Ragland in the second round and Adolphus Washington in the third round and Bills general manager Doug Whaley told NFL Media that all three would “start right off the bus.”

Make that two.

Lawson will miss at least half the season after shoulder surgery. So for the Bills’ 2016 draft to have any impact on defense, Ragland will have to shoulder more of the load.

The Bills considered taking the All-American and SEC Defensive Player of the Year in the first round, then traded up eight spots in the second round to take him at No. 41. Rex Ryan is trying to get his fingerprints on the Bills’ defense in his second season as head coach, and with Ragland he added a thumper at inside linebacker.

If Ragland has to take any detours between the bus and a starting spot, it will be difficult for the Bills to improve their 19th-ranked defense.

Sean Davis

The Steelers drafted a cornerback in the first round for the first time in 19 years when they took Artie Burns of Miami. Then in the second round they drafted safety Sean Davis 58th overall out of Maryland.

The Steelers need all kinds of help to upgrade their 30th-ranked pass defense, but they’re more desperate for an immediate starter at safety than cornerback.

Wily veteran William Gay returns and if Burns can’t start right away Ross Cockrell can keep the seat warm. He started seven games last season.

At safety, Will Allen started 13 games last year, but he turns 34 next month and remains unsigned. Shamarko Thomas was drafted in the fourth round in 2013, but he’s played just 22 defensive snaps over the past two seasons. Robert Golden, undrafted in 2012, was the fill-in starter for Allen last year. His four pass breakups and one interception were nice, but the Steelers need a disruptive force to pair with Mike Mitchell.

Davis was second in the NCAA with five forced fumbles in 2015 and third in the Big Ten with 70 tackles. He led the conference with 80 tackles in 2014. He’s the first safety the Steelers have drafted before the third round since Troy Polamalu in 2003, so he’s worth keeping an eye on.

Wendell Smallwood

Wendell Smallwood has a chance to be a late-round sleeper because there could be a lot of carries available in the Eagles’ backfield.

Smallwood was drafted in the fifth round after leading the Big 12 with 1,519 rushing yards. He also caught 68 passes in three years at West Virginia. That dual-threat ability makes him a fit in the West Coast offense that new head coach Doug Pederson is expected to install.

The 5’10”, 208-pounder is taking advantage of his opportunity with Darren Sproles sitting out OTAs. Ryan Mathews is the incumbent starter at running back, but he’s missed 13 games in the last two seasons. Smallwood has shown signs that he can handle a big chunk of the work on offense.

Smallwood might have fallen to the fifth round because of character concerns stemming from a witness tampering charge that was dropped. If Smallwood stays out of trouble, he’ll be a steal for the Eagles.

Jeremy Cash

Jeremy Cash was projected to be drafted as high as the second round, but because of health concerns and other factors he went undrafted and was signed by the Panthers as a free agent.

A safety at Duke, Cash was the 2015 ACC Defensive Player of the Year and an All-American. He forced nine fumbles in college, more than any ACC player since 2005. He also registered 38 tackles for loss, eight sacks and five interceptions.

Cash broke his wrist and sat out the Pinstripe Bowl and also suffered a hamstring injury that prevented him from running the 40-yard dash until April 14, when he posted times ranging from 4.56 to 4.59. He also showed some tweener traits that left scouts wondering if he’s a safety or linebacker.

So pick by pick went by in the draft without Cash being selected, but he began hearing from teams as early as the sixth round. He told the Charlotte Observer that as many as 20 teams expressed interest in signing him as an undrafted free agent. Cash chose the Panthers. They converted him to linebacker and gave him a $20,000 signing bonus, which is believed to be among the biggest signing bonuses given to an undrafted free agent this year.

It seems like Cash was highly coveted but no team wanted to risk using a draft pick on him because of the sudden health concerns. If he can get past those injuries there could be 31 teams wishing they had drafted him or at least sweetened their free-agent offer.