Former Cats build through minicamps

The latest batch of former University of Kentucky players drafted into the NFL got their first taste of professional football during rookie minicamps this month.

Cornerback Andru Phillips emerged as a potential early difference-maker in the New York Giants’ secondary. Running back Ray Davis could become the complementary rusher in a 1-2 punch for the Buffalo Bills. Devin Leary is carving out his role as a reserve behind Lamar Jackson with the Baltimore Ravens. And linebacker Trevin Wallace appears poised to spend his rookie season as an understudy for the Carolina Panthers.

Based on camp reports in New York, Phillips wasted little time showing off his instincts and talent at playing nickel cornerback — a position he’s come to covet.

“I can play both, but preferably the nickel position,” the 5-foot-11, 190-pounder told reporters during rookie minicamp. “When I went to Kentucky, I always wanted to play nickel the whole time. I didn’t really get an opportunity until my junior year.

“Once I got the opportunity, I embodied it. I felt like it’s who I was. That’s what I did best, so I went all in on it. It carried over here, so I’m out here playing nickel now.”

Phillips didn’t start climbing draft boards until after his junior season when he declared early for the NFL draft. Following weeks of pre-draft workouts and interviews, the Giants took Phillips in the third round with the 70th overall pick.

“It’s the IQ, and it’s the football savvy that Andru Phillips has that, I think, is going to separate himself and show that he can be an immediate difference-maker and play above his weight class, and, at times, probably won’t look like a rookie,” said Marshall Green, host of the Giants Now podcast.

“(There’s) so much going on at that spot, I like being in control a lot of times. You get to communicate more. You’re involved in the run game as well as the pass game. A lot of times, once train downs and distances, you know that ball is coming to you. I’m just trying to make as many plays as possible.”

Wallace, another former Wildcat who left after their junior campaign, was drafted by the Panthers only two picks after Phillips but is likely headed to a more watching-and-learning role in Charlotte. The 6-1, 224-pounder is projected to play mainly on special teams and provide depth for Carolina’s linebacking corps. According to first-year Panthers coach Dave Canales, though, playing time is often dictated by work ethic.

“I could see definitely that there are some big eyes out there in the drills, as guys have hopped in and are starting to learn the work that’s required of them, and I gave all the rookies a heads up on the type of guys that are here, the character of this team,” Canales said. “Our best players happen to be our hardest workers and really proud to say that and to introduce all of them into our football family.”

The Bills drafted Davis in the fourth round with the 128th overall pick, and they expect him to be an immediate contributor behind starting running back James Cook.

“I’m a three-down back who can protect, who can run, but also who’s a very valuable asset in the pass game,” Davis said of expectations for himself. “My goal is to always have that defensive coordinator not know how to prepare for me — whether that’s trying to put a linebacker on me or put a free safety on me, just understanding that when he’s in the game, he’s a three-down threat.”

Buffalo’s front office also liked that Davis, who will turn 25 during his rookie season, can add maturity, toughness and experience to the roster.

“This team is in transition,” said Bills general manager Brandon Beane. “We’ve talked about that the whole offseason. So, we do want to have an edge in as many areas as we can, but we also want leaders — smart, tough, dependable guys that are pros — and I think we’ve had a good blend of that this draft at the various positions. You don’t want all choirboys, but you also kind of want to make sure you got a good blend.”

In Baltimore, Leary won’t threaten Jackson, the former Louisville quarterback and two-time NFL Most Valuable Player, but the hope is that he’ll eventually develop into a bench piece for the Ravens.

“Devin is a quarterback that we see as a viable backup over time,” Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said. “[Quarterbacks coach] Tee Martin — we gave him a project to basically come back to us and tell us who he thought his favorite backup-type of quarterbacks in this year’s draft class — and he came back with Devin as one of his very top guys, so that was exciting for us to take a quarterback. It’s been a few years since we’ve done that.

“I think Devin will develop. He’ll probably be the third quarterback this year in some way or fashion and grow into the job as we go.”