Eight in the Box: Rookie eye-catchers

June, 7, 2013
By Jamison Hensley | ESPN.com

A first-year player who has turned heads in OTAs/minicamps:

Baltimore Ravens defensive lineman Brandon Williams: When a player comes from Division II, the natural assumption is he'll need a season to develop. That's not the case with Williams. The third-round pick out of Missouri Southern State looks like he will make an immediate impact based on what he has shown during offseason workouts. Of course, the true test for any lineman will come when teams put on the pads for training camp. After watching Williams practice, assistant general manager Eric DeCosta said Williams is better than the Ravens thought. Williams will compete for the starting nose tackle job against underachieving Terrence Cody, or he will try to earn a backup spot if Haloti Ngata switches to nose tackle.

Cincinnati Bengals running back Giovani Bernard: The second-round pick from North Carolina was the first running back taken in the draft, and he already has made an impression in Cincinnati. Coach Marvin Lewis said Bernard is ahead of Ray Rice in terms of stature when he entered the NFL, and Bernard compares favorably to Maurice Jones-Drew and Doug Martin. Bernard stands out because of his speed and strong work ethic. The Bengals are looking for Bernard to generate big plays, so they're giving him the ball in space. This offseason, Cincinnati has been working on screen passes to Bernard. He isn't expected to bump BenJarvus Green-Ellis for the starting job, but Bernard also won't be relegated to being a third-down back.

Cleveland Browns linebacker Barkevious Mingo: No one should read too much into the fact that Mingo is working with the second team behind Jabaal Sheard and Paul Kruger. The first-round pick from LSU is still regarded as a special talent by the decision-makers in Cleveland. One reason the Browns might be bringing Mingo along slowly is his transition from college defensive end to NFL outside linebacker. This is unlike past seasons for the Browns, who have pushed first-round picks into the starting lineup because they lacked depth. Mingo's long arms and fluidity have shown up in practices. He has broken up passes when dropping back, and some believe his basketball prowess will speed up his development. There's a chance his role could be limited to situational pass-rusher. Aldon Smith began his career the same way, and he's now considered one of the best young defenders in the game.

Pittsburgh Steelers safety Shamarko Thomas: The Steelers wanted Thomas so much that they traded a 2014 third-round pick to the Browns to get the Syracuse star in the fourth round this year. He isn't the biggest guy (he's listed at 5-foot-9) but he certainly doesn't play that way. His physical playing style has drawn comparisons to Bob Sanders. In offseason practices, Thomas has shown athleticism and closing speed. His role this year should be backing up Ryan Clark at free safety and playing special teams. Thomas should get a chance to crack the starting lineup next season. Clark turns 34 during the season and is entering the final year of his contract.