The 2018 NFL Draft class entered the league less than a year ago, but teams and outside observers, alike, are already evaluating individuals who recently completed rookie campaigns. A handful of guys with only one year on their resumes look like future stars who could feature for Pro Bowl squads throughout the 2020s. Two of them play in the New York market, and a different young man is the signal-caller for a club that hasn’t had a franchise quarterback in two decades. He isn’t afraid of speaking his mind or calling critics out, and he could be the right person to drag his team from the basement of the overall NFL standings to the playoffs next January.
Is it too early to say that rookies from 2018 have no future in the NFL? Perhaps, but history tells us that general managers and coaches don’t always have patience for younger talents. The New York Giants gave up on quarterback Davis Webb without ever giving him a chance to start a regular season contest, and he failed to catch on with another team before ending up on the practice squad of the New York Jets. Are any of the ten rookies who supposedly have no future in the league destined for the same fortunes? Maybe, five years from now, they and fans will be able to laugh about such forecasts if they are parts of winning teams.
20 No future: Royce Freeman
The plan ahead of the 2018 regular season was that third-round pick Royce Freeman was going to be the lead running back for the Denver Broncos, but all of that changed once Phillip Lindsay (more on him later) emerged as the top-tier contributor in that backfield. We’ve seen Denver running backs come and go in the past, and it appears Freeman may be the next on that list. At least Freeman’s contract remains relatively cheap for the next several years, meaning either Denver or a different team has good reason to keep him around and see if he can become worth the value placed on him during the 2018 NFL Draft.
19 Will become star: Sam Darnold
Critics can say whatever they want about the New York Jets and the team’s history of losing. Sam Darnold may have experienced some hiccups his rookie season, but he showed during the fall that he has the goods to be a star and a franchise quarterback for the next decade, at least. Darnold can make all of the throws. There’s no question about that. As long as the Jets do right by him and give him a serviceable offensive line and additional weapons, the sky is the limit for him and also for the franchise that shares MetLife Stadium with a team that has won two Super Bowl titles since February 2008.
18 No future: Billy Price
The Cincinnati Bengals don’t have the best track record with drafting offensive linemen in recent memory, and center Billy Price may be the next in the line of young players who don’t make it in the league with the franchise. In fairness to Price, a foot injury that he suffered in Week 2 of the season halted any momentum he may have had early into his Cincinnati tenure, but that doesn’t erase that he didn’t look the part when he was on the field. A new coaching staff will hope to get the best out of the first-round pick tasked with protecting Andy Dalton during his second season in the NFL.
17 Will become star: Calvin Ridley
Wide receiver Calvin Ridley feel into a perfect spot with the Atlanta Falcons, a franchise that starts Matt Ryan at quarterback and Julio Jones as its No. 1 WR. That doesn’t take anything away from all that Ridley accomplished his debut season. The rookie notched six touchdown catches across three September games, and he finished the campaign with 10 scores, 821 receiving yards and 64 catches. Ridley doesn’t need to be the main target in the Atlanta offense, which makes life easy for him. He can nevertheless become a star and, eventually, earn All-Pro honors as long as his quarterback looks for him early and often in 2019.
16 No future: Ronald Jones
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers used the 38th pick of the 2018 NFL Draft on running back Ronald Jones. By Week 17 of the campaign, Jones was largely relegated to special teams duties with the team that drafted him, and he received zero carries in the final four games of December. The Bucs are bringing a new coaching staff to town, and those men may see something in Jones the previous regime clearly didn’t witness while running the franchise. If that doesn’t occur, though, Jones may have no future with the Bucs or in the NFL, in general, unless a different club takes a flier on him past 2019.
15 Will become star: Bradley Chubb
Some within the football community were surprised when the Cleveland Browns took cornerback Denzel Ward with the fourth overall pick, which allowed Bradley Chubb to fall to the Denver Broncos and the fifth pick. The defensive end didn’t disappoint his employer. Chubb tallied 12 sacks as a rookie, and he would be a top Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate if not for the performances from a pair of other first-year pros. The 22-year-old who set a franchise rookie sack record in December could terrorize opposing quarterbacks for the next decade. Cleveland may view him as the one that got away four or five years from now.
14 No future: Mike Gesicki
Patience is a virtue, even in pro football, but one cannot help but wonder how long a coaching staff that didn’t draft Mike Gesicki will wait for the tight end to develop before starting others ahead of him. The product out of Penn State struggled to adapt to life in the NFL as a rookie in training camp, and he didn’t find his feet once the regular season began. Along with accumulating zero touchdowns during his first year in the league, Gesicki caught only 22 passes. Perhaps Gesicki and others in the Miami offense need a new quarterback slinging footballs their way in order to find success.
13 Will become star: Leighton Vander Esch
The Dallas Cowboys appear to have found a real gem in Leighton Vander Esch, the linebacker taken with the 19th selection of the 2018 NFL Draft who led his team in tackles with 140. Vander Esch performed so well as a rookie, he essentially replaced Sean Lee in the lineup to the point that the Cowboys will probably move on from Lee in free agency. The 22-year-old is already a mainstay in what should be the best defense in the NFC East in 2019. He was an absolute steal and somebody who may be a top-ten pick if a redraft were to occur in January.
12 No future: Hayden Hurst
Much like with the previously mentioned Mike Gesicki, Hayden Hurst is a tight end who underwhelmed during his rookie season with the Baltimore Ravens. Hurst lost out on passes to fellow rookie Mark Andrews, a third-round pick who rose to the top spot on the depth chart during the fall, and his future with the club is murky, at best, with Lamar Jackson poised to start at quarterback for the Ravens heading into training camp. Jackson will have time to build chemistry with Hurst. It appears, however, that he and the Ravens want to feature a different tight end as its top target at the position.
11 Will become star: Quenton Nelson
It took way too long, but the Indianapolis Colts finally built an excellent offensive line to protect quarterback Andrew Luck. Quenton Nelson, selected with the sixth pick of the 2018 NFL Draft, is probably the best of the unit, the type of pass-blocker who is able to make o-line highlights cool and have those moments go viral on platforms such as Twitter. Nelson won’t be viewed as the biggest star of his class because we largely only focus on linemen when they play poorly. He, nevertheless, remains vital to Indy’s long-term success, as Luck’s health depends on the play of those who feature in front of him.
10 No future: Courtland Sutton
There are several reasons for fans of the Denver Broncos to be concerned about wide receiver Courtland Sutton. While Sutton ended the campaign with 42 catches and four touchdowns, he didn’t emerge as a No. 1 wideout after the club traded Demaryius Thomas or after Emmanuel Sanders went down to injury. The worry is that he cannot produce when teams focus their energy on shutting him down, and he performed more like a second or third option in the passing attack than somebody who could, one day, lead a playoff team in receptions. How much he develops in year two may determine his future with the Broncos heading into the 2020s.
9 Will become star: Phillip Lindsay
Nobody can say anything negative about the Denver Broncos signing Phillip Lindsay after the running back wasn’t selected during the 2018 NFL Draft. Lindsay, who had his season ended prematurely because of a wrist injury, averaged 5.4 yards per carry, and he tallied over 1,037 rushing yards and nine touchdowns over 192 attempts. The 24-year-old became the first undrafted offensive rookie to be named to a Pro Bowl, and he could make Royce Freeman surplus to requirements in Denver if those running the Broncos decide that the team could get something for him in a trade with a team desperate for a young running back.
8 No future: Rashaad Penny
No team ran the football better during the 2018 regular season than the Seattle Seahawks, but first-round running back Rashaad Penny wasn’t a big reason for the team’s success on the ground. Penny fell down the depth chart before training camp concluded, and he failed to live up to expectations and the value of the draft selection used on him through the team’s one-and-done playoff appearance. Penny won’t be Seattle’s first-choice back heading into summer training camp sessions. There’s little reason, other than blind hope and faith, to believe he’ll get to such a level with the Seahawks anytime soon.
7 Will become star: Derwin James
All things considered, Los Angeles Chargers safety Derwin James, the Defensive Rookie of the Year for some voters and fans, may be the best value selection from the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. The 17th overall pick showed his talent, versatility, and durability across 16 games, and he finished his debut season with over 100 tackles, three interceptions, and 3.5 sacks. James, named an Associated Press First-Team All-Pro, is seen as a big reason the Chargers qualified to play meaningful January games in 2019, and he may already be his team’s best defensive player. The 22-year-old has a handful of clubs that didn’t draft him experiencing buyer’s remorse.
6 No future: Mason Rudolph
One could almost feel sorry for Mason Rudolph, the quarterback selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Ben Roethlisberger, the team’s starter, made it clear that he wasn’t all that interested in grooming his replacement last season, and all indications are that he will return to the Steelers for at least one more year. This leaves Rudolph in limbo and without much a chance to show anybody what he can or can’t do. Out of sight, out of mind is often the case for young QBs who are spectators and who are forced to sit behind veterans not ready to relinquish their spots on depth charts.
5 Will become star: Darius Leonard
If somebody isn’t voting for Derwin James to win Defensive Rookie of the Year, they will probably vote for Darius Leonard. Leonard did more than just lead the Indianapolis Colts in tackles with 163, which is an absurd amount for any first-year pro. He made multiple big plays and became part of the AFC’s most underrated defense ahead of the team’s playoff journey. The second-round pick is the best selection from the draft, considering where he was taken, as he offered the Colts a historic debut year. Opposing offensive coordinators will have nightmares scheming against him for years. That’ll put a smile on the faces of Indy fans.
4 No future: Kyle Lauletta
The tradition that is the New York Giants moving on from young quarterbacks before they receive real opportunities to start in place of Eli Manning may continue in 2019. Kyle Lauletta performed horribly when put into the lineup during a blowout win over the Washington Redskins, and he wasn’t all that great in the preseason when the games didn’t matter. Add that in with his purported off-field issues in New Jersey, and both head coach Pat Shurmur and general manager Dave Gettleman may be ready to draft somebody to replace Lauletta this offseason. Hey, there’s always a spot on the New York Jets practice squad available.
3 Will become star: Baker Mayfield
Those loud rejoicing noises you’re hearing from the Northeast Ohio area are coming from Cleveland Browns fans who believe quarterback Baker Mayfield can be the savior the team has needed since it returned to the NFL in 1999. Mayfield, the first overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft, had one of the best rookie seasons produced by any pro QB, and he is already the face of the Browns. Cleveland fans don’t need Mayfield to win any Rookie of the Year honors to believe their team got the best selection of the last draft class. They’re thrilled their favorite team doesn’t have to worry about the QB position this offseason.
2 No future: Josh Rosen
Alarms are sounding because of those rumors that the Arizona Cardinals could look to trade Josh Rosen and then draft a new quarterback, specifically Kyler Murray. What does the team’s new coaching staff see, or not see, that they would already dump Rosen when he is on an inexpensive contract and after he played a single season as part of a bad offense? Rosen dropped all the way to tenth in the 2018 NFL Draft, a sign that multiple teams in need of a signal-caller didn’t believe he had the goods to become a star. Talent and winning solve everything in the NFL, but Rosen’s future is cloudy ahead of the upcoming draft.
1 Will become star: Saquon Barkley
Is New York Giants rookie Saquon Barkley already the best running back in the NFL? To fully answer that question, one should remember how awful the New York offensive line was throughout September and during parts of October. Barkley can already do it all at the position. He can take the ball to the house on just about any carry, he can catch passes out of the backfield and he can also protect quarterback Eli Manning when tasked with blocking assignments. Barkley is a star after his first season in the NFL. It’s just a matter of how good he will get if the Giants manage to build a good offensive line to open holes for him.