Top 15 Unexpected NFL Rookies That Might be Starting This Year

Every year, the NFL Draft rolls around, bringing with it multiple storylines that fill the otherwise dull days of the NFL offseason schedule. Scouting is a yearlong process that takes many hours and evaluates a huge number of prospects from all sorts of programs. While this is all well underway by the time the NFL Regular season kicks off, it isn’t until a new Super Bowl champ is crowned that media experts start weighing in on who the big names in the draft are. All this coverage allows even the most lethargic fan to become acquainted with whatever they need to know leading up to draft day. While most fans are focused on the draft's first round, the most intriguing part of the whole process is watching out for those diamond in the ruff players in the later rounds.

It is well known that first round selections are drafted with the idea that they be starters at one point in their careers, sooner rather than later in today’s NFL. While the first round is where a team finds their day one starters, the later rounds is where they build depth. Later round selections tend to be rawer than other prospects. They typically contribute on special teams or in the film room for the majority of their careers. But that’s not to say that a fifth round pick can’t become a super star in the league.

With every preseason, there are new names that pop up out of nowhere. Players no one’s ever heard of or paid attention to until that one big run or 300 yard game. It’s one of the most exciting things about pro football. Seeing an unlikely underdog burst onto center stage isn’t exactly a rare occurrence, yet it still remains one of the sport’s greatest charms. With so many men jostling for a roster spot, the tenacity and determination showed by these players is truly inspiring.

These are some later round selections that have a good shot at cracking the starting line-up before the season kickoff.

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15 Gerald Christian – Arizona Cardinals – 7th Round

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This year’s Mr. Irrelevant will definitely have his hands full this offseason trying to make the Cardinals 53-man roster. However, Arizona has one of the most inexperienced tight end groups in the league and while they do have a second round pick in Troy Niklas, the departure of John Carlson has left the door open for any TE on the roster. That includes Christian, who can be viewed as a dark horse candidate for the starting job as we get closer to training camp. Yes, he’s a rookie and he most certainly has areas of his game to improve but so does his competition. Athletic and not afraid to get physical in the run game, Christian has the tools necessary to be a successful tight end in the league. It all rides on whether or not he can hone them by the time the pre-season winds down.

14 Jalston Fowler – Tennessee Titans - 4th Round

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Fullback is a position that is slowly being replaced by big athletic hybrids and two tight end sets in the NFL. But there is definitely still a need at the position. Be it a hard nose run blocker or an elusive runner-receiver, fullbacks are key pieces in many offensive schemes around the league. The Titans think they’ve got someone who can do both in Jalston Fowler. Fowler showed his value in the passing game with 19 career receptions and seven touchdowns as a member of the Crimson Tide. What’s more he can run block. He might not have been a big name guy coming out of college, but Fowler’s versatility is what’s going to win over his coaches and get him the starting job in Tennessee.

13 D’Joun Smith – Indianapolis Colts – 3rd Round

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The Colts have one of the best cornerbacks in the league in Vontae Davis. Add in Greg Toler and Darius Butler and it’s a solid if not strong group. With that said, it might be hard to imagine rookie D’Joun Smith cracking the line-up anytime soon. While most rookies are expected to help out their squads later on, Smith has a strong chance of muscling his way atop the depth chart right now. Colts Head Coach Chuck Pagano sees Smith as both an outside and inside man. A strong showing before training camp could open up a position battle between him and Darius Butler for the nickel corner spot. If this were to happen, his ability to move on outside as well as his experience at safety would definitely give him the upper hand.

12 Mykkele Thompson – New York Giants – 5th Round

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Safety is definitely a position of need for the New York Giants. The team traded up several spots to get Alabama star Landon Collins in the second round of this year’s draft, hoping to strengthen what is still looking to be the team’s biggest question mark. The team later added another safety into the mix. Mykkele Thompson was an under the radar prospect who was expected to go undrafted. The pick not only shocked experts but Thompson himself. While it would be easy to write him off as a special teams guy, Thompson will get a legitimate shot at the starting job due to the safety group being so inexperienced. His competition; Cooper Taylor and Nat Berhe. Two fellow former fifth round picks who’ve both had their NFL careers plagued with injury so far. Playing defense in the NFL will certainly be an adjustment for Thompson, but need at the position as well as the Giants’ infamous bad luck with injuries might thrust the former high school quarterback into the mix sooner rather than later.

11 Duke Johnson – Cleveland Browns – 3rd Round

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Last year, the Browns got good production out of two rookie backs. Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell put together 1,280 yards and 12 touchdowns in a shared backfield that drove fantasy football players crazy. With two promising young guys in West and Crowell, why would Cleveland spend a third round selection on Miami’s Duke Johnson? Well, while the numbers they put up were nice, they did come as the result of a dual effort. Johnson is a guy that can handle the majority of the carries himself, while West and Crowell are more of a tandem. He’s already impressed both head coach Mike Pettine and Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas with his vision and versatility during OTA’s. If things continue to go this way, Johnson could cement himself as Cleveland’s starter at running back very soon.

10 Gabe Wright – Detroit Lions – 4th Round

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Once considered one of the team’s biggest strengths, defensive tackle is now somewhat of a question mark for the Detroit Lions. On one hand, they added veteran run stopper Haloti Ngata in a trade with the Baltimore Ravens earlier this offseason. On the other hand, they lost both Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh to free agency creating a need opposite Ngata on the D-line. Rookie Gabe Wright from Auburn has as much of a shot at filling in that spot than anyone else on the roster. His competition isn’t all that experienced and Wright has already shown coaches enough to have 25-30 snaps entrusted to him per game. He fits the Lions’ scheme and excels as a pass rusher due to his above average mobility. Entering the draft, Wright ranked 32nd out of 92 eligible DTs when it came to rushing the passer. While he does seem to have some trouble disengaging blockers, he’ll have loads of time to improve on it in the current rotation.

9 David Cobb – Tennessee Titans – 5th Round

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Another member of the Titans backfield poised to work his way into a starting role. With his only legitimate competition being Bishop Sankey, David Cobb could very well steal the job if the former second round pick continues to struggle this year, as he did during his rookie campaign. Cobb is a strong, physical north-south type of back who could be used as a starter, with Sankey being a rotational piece. Dexter McCluster and Shonn Greene are both seen as situational contributors at this point in their careers (McCluster as a receiver and Greene as a goal line back) and shouldn’t really expect a high percentage of snaps this coming season. That leaves things wide open for Cobb should Sankey struggle during camp and the preseason.

8 Eli Harold – San Francisco 49ers – 3rd Round

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Projected as a first round selection, San Francisco obviously got lucky when Virginia pass rusher Eli Harold fell into their lap this past draft. Initially a defensive end in college, Harold will now switch over to outside linebacker in the 49ers 3-4 defensive scheme. While he is currently playing behind big names like Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks, a lingering legal issue might push him into a starting role. Brooks is currently under investigation for sexual assault claims made against him and former 49er Ray McDonlad. If things play out similarly to how they did for McDonald, Brooks’ suspension and subsequent release from the 49ers organization might soon follow. The good news for 49er fans is that they’ve got a young, albeit raw first round talent that fits their scheme and can contribute starting week 1.

7 David Johnson – Arizona Cardinals – 3rd Round

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Andre Ellington was supposed to have a breakout sophomore campaign with the Cardinals last season. But nagging injuries slowed him down and greatly affected his burst, making the homerun threat more of a ground and pound type player. Ellington is supposedly healthy but his starting role will be in jeopardy as the Cardinals have added another running back through the draft. David Johnson has been impressive at OTAs so far and is already anticipated to be a big part of the offense this coming season. His ability to both catch and run the ball has drawn comparisons to Chicago’s Matt Forte, a bruising back who can run over defenders in the running game and beat them man-to-man on passing downs. Being compared to one of the league’s top five runners isn’t a bad way to start your professional career. And if Johnson’s showing during OTAs is any indication as to how he’ll perform on game day, it’s safe to say that the rookie will have a big impact on the Cardinals’ offense.

6 Owa Odighizuwa – New York Giants – 3rd Round

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During their last two Super Bowl runs, the New York Giants counted on a consistent pass rush to keep opposing offenses on the sideline. But the pass rush has been weak for the Giants in recent years and the team is hoping that a young crop of D-linemen can turn that around this year. One of the most intriguing candidates to do so is rookie Owa Odighizuwa. Besides Jason Pierre-Paul, New York doesn’t really have a solid exterior pass rusher. Their best options are Odighizuwa, Robert Ayers and Damontre Moore. Ayers was effective last season until an injury derailed his 2014 campaign. Moore is another athletic third round pick but he hasn’t been all too effective getting to the passer thus far. While Odighizuwa has pass rushing problems of his own, he has, at least, developed into a strong run defender. Something the Giants definitely need as well, which gives him a chance to start this September.

5 Jay Ajayi – Miami Dolphins – 5th Round

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Initially thought to be a day two pick, injury concerns lingering over his ACL caused Boise State running back Jay Ajayi to drop all the way to the fifth round. Now healthy, Ajayi looks to make an impact on the Dolphins roster. The six foot bruiser offers to be a weapon as both a runner and receiver. Last season, an injury to Knowshon Moreno forced Lamar Miller into the starting role. Miller played well but was initially considered to be a change of pace back. If Ajayi – who rushed for over 3,200 yards in his last two seasons at Boise State – can stay healthy, his explosiveness as both a runner and receiver would be too much for the Dolphins to let sit on the sideline.

4 Bryce Petty – New York Jets – 4th Round

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In his two years as a starter, Geno Smith has turned the ball over more than forty times. The Jets are under new management and that doesn’t fair too well for a young QB prone to turning over the ball and who was already on thin ice with the previous regime. While Smith has been named the starter, that can't be considered concrete considering his past. Drafting a rookie signal caller should’ve been the first sign that Smith isn’t exactly inspiring confidence in his new coaches. Bryce Petty was one of a very weak quarterback crop in this year’s draft. The Baylor passer isn’t expected to be the franchise savior but very well could be. After Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, there were varying opinions on who was the next best available QB in the draft. Petty was in the conversation but his inexperience in a pro-style offense is his biggest flaw. RG3 came from the same college system and while his performance of late has been subpar, he did win a Rookie of the Year award when he first came into the league.

3 Clive Walford – Oakland Raiders – 3rd Round

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The time is now for the Oakland Raiders with a new coach, young QB and a bunch of new faces and things can only get better from now on. They’ve got to because it’s hard to imagine them getting any worse. The big news over draft weekend was that the Raiders added Alabama star receiver Amari Cooper to their receiving corps. But perhaps their most intriguing pick was tight end Clive Walford. Walford is a favorite to start for the Raiders this season due to his versatility which allows him to play both tight end and slot receiver, allowing Cooper and Michael Crabtree to stay on the outside. His big frame can create a load of mismatches against opposing defensive backs. He’s also got the power to move around linebackers with ease. Things are looking promising for the Raiders’ offense this year with a couple of new rookies ready to take charge. The team is quietly building up to be one of the most explosive offenses in the league.

2 Tre’ Jackson – New England Patriots – 4th Round

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With all the deflate-gate noise surrounding the Patriots organization, people seem to be forgetting how good they are at finding value on draft day. Not since Logan Mankins has New England had a solid starter at guard, but they seem to have found one in late rounder Tre’ Jackson. Jackson is another guy who slipped in the draft. Initially thought to be an early day two prospect, he slid down to the fourth round where the Pats were eager to scoop him up. Jackson is a huge mauler and has pretty much solidified his status as a starter during OTAs. It’s the Patriots and it’s Bill Belichick, so anything can happen. But as of now things are looking real good for the young rookie.

1 TJ Clemmings – Minnesota Vikings – 4th Round

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The Vikings needed help on the o-line and got lucky when TJ Clemmings fell down a lot of teams’ draft boards. Thought to be one of the best tackles in the draft, word of a lingering leg issues scared teams off. Clemmings dropped all the way to the fourth round and Minnesota got themselves a new guard. Clemmings has impressed coaches enough so far to be worked in with the first-team offense. Though recent news out of Minnesota suggests he might’ve injured his leg yet again, the injury is probably a minor one and serves as a slight speedbump early on in Clemmings’ rookie campaign. With Adrian Peterson back in the mix, the Vikings will be counting on Clemmings to anchor their offensive line.

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