Five rookies that could make an impact from Day 1 in the NFL
Making an impact at a new job is as much about opportunities as it is talent, hard work and dedication. Based on talent, skill set and yes, opportunity, here are five rookies that could make an impact from Day 1 in the NFL.
Tavon Austin, WR, Rams
One year after the Jaguars leapfrogged them for the opportunity to snag Justin Blackmon, the Rams foiled the Jets’ plan to select West Virginia sparkplug Tavon Austin in the first round of the 2013 draft by trading up to No. 8 (one spot ahead of New York). Jeff Fisher doesn’t strike me as someone who would go to great lengths to acquire a player if he didn’t plan to use him right away. Much like Percy Harvin and Randall Cobb, the Rams figure to use Austin as a moveable chess piece in Brian Schottenheimer’s offense. Whether it’s in the slot, the backfield or as a returner, Austin will be heavily utilized this season. And thanks to the different skill sets that guys like Austin, Jared Cook and Chris Givens bring to the table, opponents may have a difficult time matching personal with the Rams’ playmakers this season.
DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Texans
Last year it was telling how badly the Texans needed another offensive playmaker, not only in their Divisional Round loss to the Patriots, but four weeks prior when they were beaten badly at home by the Vikings in Week 16. Andre Johnson caught seven passes for 97 yards but failed to rip the top off the defense with one big play, and Minnesota did a great job limiting tight end Owen Daniels to just three catches for 27 yards. While DeVier Posey was targeted six times, he caught just one pass for a miniscule six yards and Matt Schaub was held to under 180 yards passing for only the second time all season. (He was also held to 95 yards against the Bears in Week 10 due to sloppy conditions.) Enter DeAndre Hopkins, Houston’s first-round pick in 2013. Hopkins has drawn comparisons to Roddy White and Rod Smith for his route running ability and ball skills. He doesn’t have elite speed but that won’t limit him from creating separation thanks in large part to his excellent technique. A projected starter from Day 1, he should flourish playing opposite Johnson in Gary Kubiak’s offense. (One could also surmise that he’ll post better production than fellow rookie receivers Robert Woods, Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson based on projected quarterback play alone.)
Le’Veon Bell, RB, Steelers
Bell has already drawn praise from offensive coordinator Todd Haley for his ability to be a three down back and “workhorse” runner, and he figures to play a large roll in the Steelers’ revamped running game because of his pass-catching ability. (He caught 67 passes for 434 yards with one touchdown at Michigan State.) He’s also durable and versatile in that he’s not only a north-south runner, but he has the ability to attack the edge as well. Largely mistaken as a “bruiser” entering the 2013 draft, there’s fluidity to Bell’s game. With no elite competition in Pittsburgh’s backfield, he has an opportunity to post instant production as a rookie.
Barkevious Mingo, DE, Browns
Last year, Les Miles and his coaching staff at LSU asked Mingo to play contain more than he did the season before when he racked up eight sacks and 15 tackles for loss. The new role crippled his production, as his sack number dropped to 4.5 and his tackles for loss fell to 8.5. At 237 pounds, it’s unlikely that Mingo will hold up against the run but the Browns figure to use him like the Seahawks utilized 2012 first-rounder Bruce Irvin last year: As a pass-rushing maven. Mingo is an athletic marvel and if Cleveland turns him loose as a rookie, don’t rule out a six or seven-sack season. (Irvin finished with eight sacks last year after pundits ripped Seattle for taking him in the first round.) Unless he adds weight, Mingo will struggle when opponents run straight at him. But as a DPR, he should turn heads as a rookie.
Matt Elam, S, Ravens
Elam projects as the starting safety opposite Michael Huff in Baltimore’s defense, much like Eric Reid figures to start as a rookie for the 49ers. But Elam has better ball skills and more playmaking ability than Reid, who looks stiff in coverage and isn’t always quick to break on passes. Elam’s short but he hits like a MAC truck and has the versatility to be an interchangeable safety in Dean Pees’ scheme. Don’t rule out a 100-tackle season for the former Florida Gator, who also has the ball skills to snag a few interceptions as well.
+ Many of the offensive linemen taken in the first round also figure to make an immediate impact for their respective teams, but I left out players like Eric Fisher and Luke Joeckel because it’s hard to quantify production for O-linemen.
+ I left off defensive linemen because it’s rare that they make huge impacts as rookies, although Bruce Irvin was the exception to the rule. One of the reasons for their limited production is because they quickly find out that the pass-rushing moves they used in college don’t work against NFL offensive linemen.
+ Some might wonder why I left Jarvis Jones off this list and the reason is simple: Dick LeBeau’s scheme is complicated to learn. It usually takes first timers to the defense a half or even full season to pick up. Players have talked about being lost in their first year but by season two they feel more comfortable. Thus, look for Jones to potentially make an impact in 2014 for the Steelers.
Te’o holds his own.
Manti Te’o handled the media horde at the combine with maturity and grace. He answered every question, was concise and direct with most of his answers, and took the moment seriously. He no doubt was coached on what to say and he’ll continued to be grilled leading up to April’s draft, but he past his first test with flying colors. Now, is he a top 10 pick? I don’t know if he ever was. Teams will be attracted to his lateral movements, his ability to quickly attack down hill, and his good change of direction skills. He can also cover, is comfortable in space, and is fairly component when it comes to play recognition. But linebackers that aren’t elite pass rushers don’t hold the same value in the NFL as they did 10 years ago. Some of the best inside or strong-side linebackers (which is where Te’o projects to play at the next level) weren’t first-round picks. Patrick Willis was, but Bobby Wagner was a second-rounder, as was Daryl Washington. NaVorro Bowman was a third-round pick and Dannell Ellerbe of the Super Bowl-winning Ravens wasn’t even drafted. Is Te’o a first-rounder? No question. Is he a top-10 pick like many have wondered? I highly doubt it. The more likely projection for him is picks 15 through 25.
What was Montgomery thinking?
LSU DE Sam Montgomery wins the award at this year’s combine for what not to tell the media. In his combine interview, the pass rusher admitted to betting in college and taking games (not just plays, but entire games) off when the Tigers faced lesser opponents. “Some weeks when we didn’t have to play the harder teams, there were some times when effort was not needed. But when he had the big boys come in, the ‘Bamas or the South Carolinas, I grabbed close to those guys and went all out.” Montgomery also admitted to betting with teammate Barkevious Mingo, including one for $5,000 on which LSU defender would be drafted higher. Based on his talent, Montgomery is a late first, early-second round prospect. He’s strong at the point of attack, can be a power or finesse player, and is very good in pursuit. He also played with a lot of energy, although I only watched him against the likes of Alabama, South Carolina, Washington and Auburn. I guess I should have flipped on the film of him playing against the Little Sister’s of the Poor because apparently I would have seen a different player.
Deep year for defensive linemen.
This is an impressive crop of defensive linemen, both at end and tackle. Despite a poor effort on the bench press, Texas A&M DE/OLB Damontre Moore really stands out on film. He’s difficult to block one-on-one, displays good lateral quickness and does a pretty good job bending the arc when pass rushing. He doesn’t always use his hands well and doesn’t have a full compliment of pass-rushing moves, but he should attract teams that use hybrid fronts in the NFL. The same can be said for Oregon’s Dion Jordan, who ran a blazing 4.53 and a 4.63 forty at the combine. The former Duck will have surgery to repair a torn labrum but that should deter teams from taking him in the first round. He played drop end at Oregon, flashing a combination of speed, athleticism and length. He plays well in space, is violent on contact and is also scheme versatile. He’s not as polished as top-10 prospect Bjoern Werner from a pass-rushing standpoint, but he can play with his hand in the dirt or standing up. Former track star Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah also ran well at the combine (he’s a former track star, after all) and is likely to be selected in the first 11 picks. He’s powerful, holds up well at the point of attack and doesn’t have a lot of wasted movement. He’s not as explosive off the line as Moore or Jordan, but he’s scheme versatile after playing in 43 and 34 fronts at BYU. At defensive tackle, Star Lotulelei is drawing comparisons to Haloti Ngata (although recent reports about his heart condition is concerning), while Florida’s Sharrif Floyd is receiving top-1o attention as well. Floyd is built like an ox but is quick, agile and strong. He isn’t as explosive as fellow top prospect Sheldon Richardson of Missouri, but he’s the perfect fit for a 3-technique in a 4-3 and could wind up being a double-digit sack guy down the road. (The same could be said for Richardson, really.)
Jones a top 5 pick?
SI.com’s Peter King believes that Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones could be a top-five pick, although that’s hard to envision. Jones suffers from spinal stenosis, which is why he transferred from USC to Georgia in 2010. And while Chris Mortensen reports that Jones got a “favorable review” of his neck at the combine, his medical history could cause him to drop a la Clemson defensive end DaQuan Bowers in 2011. Bowers was widely regarded as a top 5 pick before the draft but offseason knee surgery caused him to drop into the second round. Granted, we’re not exactly comparing apples to apples, but the main takeaway is that Jones is a potential red flag for NFL teams. That said, he’s one of the better pass-rushers in this year’s class thanks to his athleticism and has decent cover skills. He’s seemingly a perfect fit as an OLB in a 3-4 but again, it’s hard to envision a scenario where he’s a top 5 selection.
Barkley a fit for the WCO?
One of the more polarizing prospects in this year’s draft class is USC quarterback Matt Barkley, who was once considered to be a candidate to be taken first overall. Scouts are reportedly worried about his arm strength and his ability to stretch a defense vertically. But he’s not without skill. He gets the ball out of his hand quickly, displays good touch and is a tough kid. He also throws the ball better outside the numbers and between defenders than people give him credit for but again, he won’t survive in a vertical-based offense. Considering he worked the short-to-intermediate game while at USC, he would be a good fit for a team running the West Coast Offense. But because of his arm, teams will have to figure out whether or not he’s worth taking before the third round.
As the 2013 NFL scouting combine quickly approaches (it’ll kick off this Wednesday and run through the following Tuesday), here are some thoughts and observations on this year’s class.
1. Good luck if you’re a quarterback-desperate team.
It’s a bad year to be a team desperate for a franchise signal caller. Geno Smith is a good athlete but he progressively got worse as the 2012 college season wore on. Matt Barkley is closer to being a third-round prospect than the first overall selection, which is where some pundits had him slated at the start of the college season. Mike Glennon has NFL-caliber arm but was mistake prone at NC State. Ryan Nassib, Tyler Wilson and Zac Dysert are “sleepers,” although none project as first-year starters. One year after Andrew Luck, RGIII and Russell Wilson burst onto the NFL scene, we might not see a quarterback drafted in the first round this year.
2. It’s a deep OT class but who’s at the top?
Thanks to his combination of height, weight and agility, Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel might be the safest pick in this year’s draft. But is he unquestionably the best offensive tackle prospect in this year’s class? How concerned were defensive ends about losing contain on quarterback Johnny Manziel that they didn’t challenge Joeckel from a pass-rushing standpoint? Considering the Aggies’ offense was predicated on getting the ball out of the quarterback’s hand as quickly as possible, did Joeckel benefit from A&M’s system? Now, it’s not like Central Michigan ran a pro-style offense in the MAC. But Eric Fisher has the size (6’7″, 305 pounds), frame (he might be able to add 20 pounds), and arm length (34 inches) to start at left tackle as a rookie. That’s not to suggest that Joeckel can’t, because the steady prospect does project as a first-year starter. But coming off a dominating season and an impressive week at the Senior Bowl, Fisher at least deserves mention as being the top tackle in this year’s draft.
3. Vaccaro is worth a top 10 selection.
The safety position is deep this year but Texas product Kenny Vaccaro is a stud and it would be a crime if he fell past the first 12 teams. He’s a ball-hawking centerfielder that is athletic enough to defend receivers in the slot and also come up in run support. He hits like a 218-pound MAC truck and is clearly the best all-around safety in this year’s class. Eric Reid, Matt Elam and T.J. McDonald are no less intriguing, but Vaccaro is the best of the bunch.
4. Dion Jordan is maddening.
Watch Oregon’s Dion Jordan for 20 minutes and you’ll spend half the time being mesmerized and the other half feeling unsatisfied. He’s far from being a polished product and someone will need to teach him how to bend the arc when rushing the passer. (Too often he’ll burst upfield only to be forced to work his way back to the quarterback, which creates clear passing windows and running lanes for the opposition.) But his length, burst and athleticism make him attractive to teams with creative defensive coordinators. After spending time as a drop end and as an outside linebacker while at Oregon, he has the versatility to play with his hand in the dirt or standing up in a 3-4. He’s raw, but he also might be a perfect fit for the Patriots, Jets, Cowboys, Saints or Falcons, teams that run hybrid looks.
5. Have we seen the best that Banks has to offer?
While at Mississippi State, cornerback Jonathan Banks spent a lot of time playing in a cover 3 zone. That allowed him to break on underneath passes and keep plays in front of him. But at 6’1″ and 185 pounds he’s cut from the same mold as players like Antonio Cromartie and Richard Sherman, who excel playing up at the line of scrimmage and using their length to disrupt routes. Behind only Dee Milliner of Alabama, Banks is widely considered one of the top cornerbacks in this year’s draft. But considering he has the ability to play in multiple coverages despite not being asked to in college, we may not have seen the best that he has to offer. He would appear to be a complete corner, one that can play in either a zone or in press man.
6. The best prospect in the draft that won’t go No. 1.
Alabama guard Chance Warmack is arguably the best prospect in this year’s draft but he won’t be selected with the top overall pick. In fact, he might slide out of the top 10 altogether. Guards usually aren’t selected within the first 10 picks because they’re simply not valued that high. Warmack might wind up being the exception, although the odds suggest otherwise. Teams know that they can find starting guards in rounds three through four and despite Warmack being an exceptional prospect, he’s still likely to fall into the teens.
7. How quickly things can change.
Heading into the 2012 college season, Ohio State’s Jonathan Hawkins was hands down the best defensive tackle prospect in the nation. Now he might not even be the third-best prospect at his position. He has the athleticism and power to consistently control the line of scrimmage but he often disappeared during games and his motor ran hot and cold. In September he was chasing down mobile quarterback Zach Maynard (Cal) from the backside, but by November he was merely average on a week-to-week basis. Star Lotulelei, Sharrif Floyd and Sheldon Richardson are more intriguing defensive tackle prospects at this point and speaking of Floyd, it wouldn’t be an upset if he were selected in the top 10. He’s the perfect fit as a three-technique in a 4-3, but he also has experience playing outside in a five-technique. He was one of the more disruptive defensive tackles in the nation last year and is built like a tank.
8. As usual, teams will be playing Russian Roulette when it comes to pass rushers.
Due to his combination of length and burst of the edge, Texas A&M defensive end Damontre Moore gave offensive tackles fits last year. But he’ll need to improve his technique and learn how to use his hands more while rushing the passer at the next level. Meanwhile, Bjoern Werner of Florida State isn’t as scheme versatile as Moore, but he’s quick off the line and uses his hands well to create separation. He’s drawn comparisons to Chris Long, although his motor also ran hot and cold at Florida State. BYU’s Ezekiel Ansah might be the most polarizing prospect in this year’s draft, as some pundits believe he has the potential to be the best player in this year’s class while others think he’s overrated. The former track athlete has only played football for three years but his technique has improved nearly every season. If a team shows patience with him, he might become a key starter in three years. But considering teams now expect a quick return on their investment, it’ll be interesting to see if Ansah can develop under pressure. This is a deep class for pass rushers but as usual, finding the right fit will be a risky proposition.
9. Teams might want to wait on a linebacker.
The linebackers projected to go in the first round have some serious baggage. Jarvis Jones is a hell of a pass rusher but is he destined to be a situational player? (He also has durability issues.) LSU’s Barkevious Mingo is a freak athletically but wasn’t a productive player despite his intriguing skill set. One could make the argument that Alabama exposed Manti Te’o in the national championship game and, well, nobody has forgotten about his relationship “issues.” His speed and athleticism not withstanding, Alec Ogletree was suspended in 2012 for violating Georgia’s substance abuse policy and he recently was arrested for DUI. In terms of risk, teams in need of linebacker help might want to wait until the middle rounds where Khaseem Greene, Zaviar Gooden and Nico Johnson could be had.
10. Cordarrelle Patterson is dynamic.
It’s hard not to be a fan of Tennessee wideout Cordarrelle Patterson. For being 6’3″ and 205 pounds he moves like a 5-10 scatback. Tennessee lined him up as a receiver as well as a kick returner, and also gave him the ball on end-arounds. With all due respect to Cal’s Keenan Allen, Patterson is the best receiving prospect in this year’s draft and it’s not even close. It’s not often that you see a receiver that is as dynamic outside the numbers as he is between the hashes, but Patterson has that sort of talent.