What rookies will emerge this year? Each offseason sees teams press the restart button and begin to rebuild or retool for the future. Strong franchises add talent, while bottom dwellers rebuild from the ground up. Of course, the best way to begin this process is through the draft.
Each draft is compelling because it often represents a positional transformation. For example, prior to the past four to five years, teams highly coveted running backs. However, during the past few years, teams have opted to draft backs later in the draft. From 2008 to 2012, round two running backs and onward appear to have more value (Approximate Value according to Pro Football Reference) than running backs drafted anywhere in the first round. Statistics show that teams also covet the tackle position in the first and second round, and those players have gone on to usually have much greater success than other positions drafted in the same area. However, defensive ends present some of the greatest risk because teams struggle to figure out if they are big enough to play defensive line at the pro level or if they are better suited to play linebacker.
In any case, while statistics may show certain positions are less risky than others, there is one constant: All rookies are risky to bet on. Teams really have no idea how certain players will pan out. They also have no idea what positions will make the largest impact that given season. A few years ago, the tight end duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez changed the way teams wanted to use tight ends. After the Seahawks succeeded with a secondary of large, strong players, teams are now scrambling to replicate them.
The players on this list may be part of a new NFL trend. Maybe their position is the one to reinvent how teams play the game this year. Maybe a player listed here is the one to lead that transformation. Or maybe the will become part of position that fades into obscurity like running backs and fullbacks years ago. That is why people become so enthralled with the NFL draft. You are often watching evolution at its finest without even knowing it.
20 Marcus Smith, LB, Philadelphia Eagles
As much as Smith may have been a first-round reach for the Eagles, it may even be a reach for me to include him on this list. Nevertheless, hopes are still high for Smith. Smith’s successful last year in college and his strong pro day launched him into the first round. Some experts had him going as late as the third. Smith has had a good camp, but as of early August, he is still working with the third team. His versatility in coverage can help the Eagles in their pass defense, which they ranked 32nd in last year.
19 Cassius Marsh, DE, Seattle Seahawks
Marsh’s main issue is that the Seahawks boast a deep defensive line. On the other hand, Marsh will have little pressure to perform immediately and he can learn behind stars like Michael Bennett. At UCLA, Marsh played in 29 games where he made 14 sacks and 22.5 tackles for losses. At the moment, the Seahawks are using Marsh as a five-technique defensive end, which he played in college, as well as a three-technique on nickel downs. Seahawks’ coach Pete Caroll has a knack for finding hidden gems in the draft (e.g., Russell Wilson and Cam Chancellor, to name a few). Soon enough, we might add Marsh to that list.
18 Devon Kennard, LB, New York Giants
The Giants’ fifth-round pick has impressed so far in camp. Some reports peg Kennard as the next guy in if veteran Jon Beason isn’t ready for the season opener and Jameel McClain struggles to stay healthy. However, his initial scouting report didn't give the linebacker much of a chance to break into the starting lineup. They described his athleticism as “average” and his skill-set as “limited.” However, Kennard is slowly proving doubters wrong and may soon be pressed into action for the Giants.
17 James White, RB, New England Patriots
The Patriots have a slew of running backs that will vie for playing time this season, but rookie fourth-round selection James White is making the most notable impact. Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston believes White could cut into incumbent starter Steven Ridley’s playing time, especially if the latter continues to fumble like last season. Ridley is the Patriots’ all-around back, Shane Vereen is their third-down specialist, and Brandon Bolden is their serviceable back up, for now because White is pushing all three early in camp.
16 John Brown, WR, Arizona Cardinals
How well has Brown played in camp so far? Cardinals’ general manager Steve Keim chimed in on the receiver by saying, “I can tell you so far we haven’t been able to cover him.” Brown has drawn comparisons to Colts’ speedy receiver T.Y. Hilton. The third-round selection has further impressed because he’s matching up against all-pro cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie. His biggest challenge will be pushing through a crowded receiving core, which includes Michael Floyd, Larry Fitzgerald and Ted Ginn Jr. However, Brown has a chance to crack that lineup by potentially leapfrogging Ginn Jr.
15 Martavis Bryant, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
After the Steelers lost Emmanuel Sanders to the Denver Broncos this offseason, they were in search for his replacement. They signed Lance Moore to a free agent contract and they expect second-year receiver Markus Wheaton to help fill in at the X receiver spot. However, don’t count out Bryant. Bryant has the height that Wheaton lacks and could be a major red-zone threat if he can consistently improve throughout camp.
14 Gabe Jackson, OG, Oakland Raiders
If newly signed quarterback Matt Schaub wants to save his NFL career, he’ll need a stout offensive line so he can build up his confidence. If Jackson can beat out fellow offensive lineman Khalif Barnes, the former could help anchor the left side of the line. Jackson’s limitations are well documented. He isn’t as fluid as some of the other lineman selected before him, but he benched 225 pounds on 30 reps. Early reports indicate Jackson is on the rise and could push Khalif as the season nears.
13 Timmy Jernigan, DT, Baltimore Ravens
The Baltimore Sun recently reported that Jernigan has “been off to a fast start” and is vying for more playing time. Originally he was expected to push incumbent nose tackle Brandon Williams, a 2013 draft pick, for snaps, and that prediction seems to be coming to fruition. While Williams is a bigger body, Jernigan offers much more athleticism and he’s been showing it off. The Sun also reports that Jernigan has been “disrupting plays,” which is exactly what scouting reports suggested he could do.
12 Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Minnesota Vikings
When the Vikings resigned quarterback Matt Cassel to a 2 year, $10 million deal, they did so anticipating that he’d probably be their starter to begin the season. They also wanted to ensure they had a relatively stable quarterback situation in the near future. Regardless of their plans, Bridgewater’s recent surge in training camp has to be making the Vikings’ happy as their quarterback depth chart is even more stable. Reports indicate Bridgewater will get time with the Vikings’ first team during their four preseason exhibitions.
11 Bishop Sankey, RB, Tennessee Titans
It’s tough to gauge how well a rookie running back will perform after his team makes it clear they want to use a running back-by-committee approach. However, what that really means is the following: we have an idea who our third-down back will be, but first and second down is open for competition. And hey, maybe we’ll find a three-down back in the process. Sankey could end up being that guy. With little competition in front of him, (Dexter McCluster is a third-down specialist and the injury-prone Shonn Greene is still recovering from knee surgery), Sankey has an opportunity to make a big impact early.
10 Andre Williams, RB, New York Giants
The Giants’ 2014 fourth-round selection has impressed so far in camp, and with the unfortunate premature retirement of third-year back David Wilson, Williams now has the chance to impress even more. If Wilson had been able to play, reports had the Giants rotating Williams as part of a running back by committee. However, with Wilson gone, the Giants may lean on Williams more. Though they have a clear starter in Rashad Jennings, the hope is that Williams can offer a change of pace to keep Jennings fresh.
9 Brandin Cooks, WR, New Orleans Saints
With the departure of Darren Sproles and Lance Moore this offseason, it seemed as if the Saints would need to work extra hard to retool their once potent offense. That retooling process may have gone quicker than anticipated. New Orleans’ draft pick Brandin Cooks may be their answer. So far he’s impressed in camp and has drawn praise from quarterback Drew Brees and media members. Cooks’ smarts and game-breaking speed should help him adjust to the NFL and help him become a lethal partner in crime with both Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston.
8 Seantrel Henderson, OT, Buffalo Bills
Due to character concerns, Henderson fell to the seventh round this past offseason, but he’s already making teams regret their decision. During the Bills’ preseason opener against the Giants, Henderson showed off his power and agility by nicely managing Jason Pierre-Paul. That’s a serious task for a seventh-round pick. Ian Rapport reported that Henderson has the opportunity to be the Bills’ week one starter at left tackle with Gordy Glenn moving inside.
7 Jake Matthews, OT, Atlanta Falcons
“From the second week since he’s been with us, he’s taken all of the reps with the ones,” said offensive line coach Mike Tice of sixth overall draft pick Matthews. If that isn’t an endorsement on Matthews’ abilities, nothing is. In one drill, he pushed defensive end Kroy Biermann several yards down field before letting go. The son of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, Jake Matthews is a stout wall that will anchor the Falcons’ line for years and they hope his rise to dominance begins early on.
6 Justin Gilbert, CB, Clevland Browns
Remember when the Browns selected two players in the first round this year? Did you forget already? It’s not surprising, since quarterback Johnny Manziel has suffocated the spotlight he so proudly bathes in. It’s not his fault of course. It comes with his territory, which Gilbert has wisely stayed away from. The Oklahoma State product has impressed so far and many project him to eventually become the number two cornerback next to all-pro Joe Haden. He plays aggressive, which is exactly the type of attitude the Browns need to compete in the always tough AFC North.
5 Jarvis Landry, WR, Miami Dolphins
Ryan Tannehill is reaching for anyone willing to stick their own hands out to save him. Landry may have just the hands Tannehill needs to help the quarterback keep his job in Miami. Reports indicate that Landry was outstanding early in camp and has made a number of impressive catches. Similar to Hines Ward, Landry is a tough receiver who can battle for the football. If he can emerge as an underneath threat, that may open up space for Mike Wallace downfield and help the Dolphins immensely.
4 Jadeveon Clowney, DE, Houston Texans
While critics were down on Clowney’s overall attitude and work ethic, he still makes you take notice on pure talent alone. Sure, we all know how far pure talent gets you. If you are guessing, not far at all. However, to overlook Clowney on this list would be a crime. While his 2013 college season at South Carolina was marred by injuries, he still finished his three-year college career with 24 sacks and 130 tackles. In his first two years, he had eight and 13 sacks respectively. Since J,J. Watt will demand a double team every down, he'll have every opportunity to make a huge difference.
3 Khalil Mack, LB, Oakland Raiders
Mack is making a name for himself early in camp and has already earned comparisons to Packers' linebacker Clay Mathews. The rookie linebacker out of Buffalo has already been dubbed a "can't miss player" and "one of those guys you will talk about for a long time." At Buffalo, he earned the 2013 MAC Defensive Player of the Year, finishing with a NCAA-record 16 forced fumbles. He also posted 10.5 sacks and three interceptions as a senior. His college statistics look outstanding, and his size, speed and strength should help him adjust quickly to the NFL. But, how good can he actually be? Mack is already in the conversation to be named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year...after one preseason game.
2 Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo Bills
The consensus top receiver in this year’s draft, many expect Watkins to transform the Bills’ offense. Usually quarterbacks make their positional players look better, but in this case the reverse might be true. While only in his second year, E.J. Manuel must prove to critics that he can be a franchise quarterback, and Watkins may help him do just that. Watkins has impressed early in camp. Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports says the first-round receiver is “wise beyond his years." The Bills brass is hoping he can't translate that to the field come week 1.
1 Carlos Hyde, RB, San Francisco 49ers
Clowney and Watkins may seem like locks to be number one on this list, but both come with either major obstacles or questions. First, can Clowney prove that he will put in the work ethic to be a top defensive lineman? And second, how much of an impact can Watkins make with E.J. Manuel at quarterback? The 49ers’ Jim Harbough has been quietly preparing for the day long-time running back Frank Gore hangs up his cleats. That preparation began this past offseason when the 49ers drafted Carlos Hyde in the second round. In his final two seasons at Ohio State, he posted 37 touchdowns, and during his final year, he rushed for 1,521 yards.
With each passing practice and preseason game, Hyde looks more and more like the 49ers running back of the future. While he's bigger than incumbent Frank Gore, Hyde still has the speed to get around the edge and take the ball out of multiple formations. The 49ers are thin at the position, leaving only Gore and Hyde as capable serviceman. Unless Hyde suddenly loses a step or is injured, I would be surprised if he didn’t surpass Gore as the number one back sooner rather than later.