7 Under-the-Radar Rookies Set to Surprise the NFL in 2013
As we prepare for the start of training camp in less than a month, teams are starting to gauge where new additions might stand when it comes to their depth charts. Among those players being discussed and dissected are rookies.
While most of the focus is going to be on high-round picks, I thought it made sense to take a look at seven under-the-radar rookies who will surprise the NFL in 2013.
You will see players who suit up and do dirty work along the offensive line. You will also see electric performers at wide receiver and a major sleeper at running back in the form of Zac Stacy, who's with the St. Louis Rams.
As we saw in 2012, rookie production isn't limited to those heralded prospects who we spend months talking about leading up to the draft.
Instead, a number of mid-round picks stand up and raise an important question. Why weren't they drafted much higher than they went?
These seven rookies will surely force organizations into asking themselves this very same question.
Terron Armstead, Offensive Tackle, New Orleans Saints
By virtue of losing offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod to the Chicago Bears in free agency, at least one starting tackle position has opened up in New Orleans.
Terron Armstead was a workout warrior at the combine in Indianapolis this past February, which led many scouts to believe that he would be a surprise early selection come April.
Despite being a small-school product, Armstead was extremely impressive in the lead up to the annual event at Radio City Music Hall.
Bleacher Report's Sigmund Bloom filed the following report on the Arkansas-Pine Bluff product immediately prior to the draft:
Like last year's small school offensive line stud, Carolina's Amini Silatolu, Armstead was initially projected to move inside to guard by some, but the Combine and all-star performances dispelled the notion that he couldn't hang as a left tackle in the NFL. He'll need to get a little stronger in the lower body, but there's no reason that Armstead won't be tried as a left tackle until he proves that he can't handle it.
Other projections also had Armstead translating into being a blindside protector in the NFL.
ESPN filed this report after the Saints made Armstead a third-round pick in the draft:
The Saints lost left tackle Jermon Bushrod in free agency, and they have replaced him with oft-injured Charles Brown. But he may not be the long-term answer. They also tried four players at right tackle last season with marginal success.
Obviously, the Saints aren't overly happy with their tackle situation. Armstead will likely get a shot to win the left tackle job, and if not, compete on the right side or at the very least be a swing contributor.
The reason I have Armstead on this list is pretty simple. New Orleans lacks any left tackle-caliber veterans and needs to find someone to protect Drew Brees from getting hit a ton in 2013. It doesn't seem like Charles Brown or free-agent acquisition Jason Smith, who have struggled a great deal in their careers, are fully prepared to take on that responsibility.
If the Saints come to the conclusion that Armstead is their best option at left tackle, he will be the Week 1 starter.
According to Mike Triplett of The New Orleans Times-Picayune via Twitter, Armstead got first-team reps during organized team activities last month.
With a strong training camp showing, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the rookie win a starting gig prior to the start of the regular season.
Zaviar Gooden, Linebacker, Tennessee Titans
I had the ability to scout Zaviar Gooden more than most prospects leading up to the 2013 NFL draft, and what I saw impressed me a great deal.
As I indicated in an article this past April, Gooden was among one of the best pass-coverage linebackers in the entire draft. He seems to read offensive sets extremely well and will be able to drop back between the hashes to cover opposing tight ends.
That's a rarity for young players in their first NFL season.
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller indicated in his final big board that Gooden had the best potential of any outside linebacker in the draft class. That's pretty high praise.
Reports from Tennessee Titans camp has also been darn good.
According to The Tennessean, assistant coach Chet Parlavecchio came away impressed from what he saw earlier this month:
As far as change of direction, I haven’t seen a linebacker this athletic in a long time...He has such beautiful footwork, he’s such a fluid athlete that he was the best example of each drill that I wanted to show
Ourlads.com currently has Gooden listed behind second-year breakout candidate Zach Brown at the weak side. That being said, the Titans could easily have to do some rotating during the season.
Starting middle linebacker Colin McCarthy, despite displaying a tremendous amount of upside, has missed 12 games in his first two NFL seasons.
Ace Sanders, Wide Receiver, Jacksonville Jaguars
Whoever is under center in Jacksonville will need to find consistent targets at wide receiver. While Cecil Shorts did his part last season, the rest of its receiving group was mediocre.
Outside of Shorts, who dropped nine passes himself, Jaguars receivers dropped a whopping 26 passes on 284 targets for a high drop rate of 9.2 percent, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Compare that to a team like Atlanta, whose receivers dropped under four percent of their passes, and you have somewhat of a theme here.
Enter into the equation the sure-handed Ace Sanders.
John Pollard of @JPStats official Twitter account indicated prior to the draft that Sanders didn't drop a single pass on 73 targets this past season in South Carolina. Now that's what you call consistency.
According to the Jaguars official website, Sanders lined up as the starting slot receiver in camp last week:
Sanders returned from an early offseason injury to get progressively healthier, and toward the end of OTAs he made significant plays. He was working in the slot with the first team on the final day of minicamp, which indicates he has a chance to be in the rotation early in the season.
As reported by Pro Football Talk, with Justin Blackmon lost for at least four games due to off-field issues, someone is going to have to fill the void.
Look for the rookie to get some early playing time. If he surprises the coaching staff, Sanders could easily be one of the biggest rookie surprises in the entire league.
Phillip Thomas, Safety, Washington Redskins
I personally had a second-round grade on former Fresno State safety Phillip Thomas, who ended up going to the Washington Redskins in the fourth round.
He was one of the best natural safeties in the entire draft class and shouldn't have a huge learning curve transitioning to the speed of the NFL.
Bleacher Report's BJ Kissel filed the following scouting report on Thomas leading up to the draft in April:
Thomas showed to be versatile enough to play either safety position, both in the box and back deep, and can come off the edge on a blitz. He’s a playmaking safety that in addition to the eight interceptions he had last season, in which three were returned for touchdowns, he also had 12 tackles for loss and four sacks.
It's that type of ball-hawk mentality that Washington seems to be missing in the defensive secondary.
One of the things I noticed a great deal on tape was that Thomas, despite getting turned around at times, was able to recover and still make plays on the ball. His ability to close down the field should help him transition to the next level, either as a free safety or a strong safety.
Via The Washington Post, Washington defensive backs coach Raheem Morris indicated earlier this month that Thomas is more of a fit at strong safety, while fellow rookie Bacarri Rambo fits better at strong safety:
The one thing I can say is Phillip is a natural box player...When he gets in the box, he knows where to fit, he knows how to read his keys, he knows how to do those things.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Washington's starting strong safety Reed Doughty ranked 63rd among safeties against the pass last season. In addition, free safety Brandon Meriweather, who missed all but one game last year, graded out at 56th against the pass the previous season.
Needless to say, Washington will give both of its young safeties an opportunity to see the field a lot this upcoming season.
Quinton Patton, Wide Receiver, San Francisco 49ers
The simple fact that Bleacher Report's Matt Miller had a second-round grade on wide receiver Quinton Patton should pretty much tell us what we need to know about this selection. Once again, the San Francisco 49ers were able to find value at a need position later in the draft; this time in the fourth round.
Patton, a small-school product from Louisiana Tech, was one of my favorite wide receiver prospects to scout leading up to the draft. He possesses natural route-running ability and soft hands. In fact, it would be hard to argue that Patton didn't own the best set of hands of any receiver in the draft class.
In terms of ability to make an instant impact, I defer to Sigmund Bloom:
Patton is an ultra-productive, tough receiver who can beat his opponent in a number of ways. He gets up to speed right out of his stance and puts immediate pressure on cornerbacks. Because of this, he usually gets a big cushion and can take advantage on short and intermediate routes by creating a lot of separation.
Sound familiar? It should because that's pretty much the same set of skills that Michael Crabtree came to the San Francisco 49ers with a few years back.
With Crabtree out for a majority of the 2013 season, it looks like Patton will be given every shot to earn playing time as a rookie. If so, he'll be able to make an instant impact.
For an in-depth analysis of what Patton brings to the table, check out my recent article here on Bleacher Report.
Zac Stacy, Running Back, St. Louis Rams
When the St. Louis Rams decided to part ways with Steven Jackson or the other way around, it became apparent that they were prepared to go out there and add a running back in the draft.
Four full rounds passed before general manager Les Snead decided to pick one up, but the Rams may have received a steal in the process.
Former Vanderbilt standout Zac Stacy was one of the most unheralded running backs in the entire draft class but was extremely productive in college.
He put up over 2,600 yards and 24 touchdowns in his final two seasons in Nashville.
Despite this production, Stacy fell in the draft due to a lack of track speed and some concerns over injuries early in his college career.
Bleacher Report's Gary Davenport took a look at what Stacy might be able to bring to the table and even went out on a limb to compare him to Alfred Morris from last season—at least in terms of production:
The similarities between the two ball-carriers are numerous.
For starters, Morris and Stacy are built very similarly. Both backs pack quite a bit into a compact frame. Morris tips the scales at 5'9" and 218 pounds, while Stacy is a virtual carbon copy at 5'8" and 216 pound.
Davenport went on to expand on the comparison, noting that Stacy might be given the same chance to produce as Morris was given last year in Washington.
This sentiment appears to be somewhat widespread in nature. Marc Sessler of NFL.com had the following to say via Twitter in a conversation with his colleague Chris Wesseling:
Think Zac Stacy landed in a nice spot. He's my Alfred Morris candidate for this season.
You also have the fact that second-year running back Isaiah Pead will miss the first game of the regular season due to a suspension for marijuana possession, according to Pro Football Talk.
As we saw last year, head coach Jeff Fisher doesn't take too kindly to off-field issues. Via NESN.com, this was apparent when he benched rookies Janoris Jenkins and Chris Givens for missing curfew prior to an important game against the San Francisco 49ers last season.
Look for a stellar rookie campaign from Stacy.
DeVonte Holloman, Linebacker, Dallas Cowboys
As the 2013 NFL draft continued on this past April, many scouts were caught off guard that this former South Carolina linebacker fell to the Dallas Cowboys in the sixth round.
Prior to the draft, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller indicated via Twitter that DeVonte Holloman was among the best cover linebackers in the entire draft.
This bodes well for a Cowboys defense looking to make the switch to a Tampa 2 under new coordinator Monte Kiffin. As most of you already know, that type of scheme relies heavily on linebackers to drop further back in coverage than the traditional 4-3 does.
Rotoworld's Josh Norris filed the following report immediately after Dallas selected Holloman in the third day of the draft:
I truly do think Holloman can start on the strong side. Now, that might not happen immediately, since teams’ expectations for sixth-round selections are quite low. And even claiming a player to be a potential starter isn’t a ringing endorsement. However, Holloman can help a team win, which is the base level evaluation you want in every draft selection.
Whether Holloman is asked to play at the line with his hands down or drop back into coverage, which is a more natural fit, he should see action as a rookie.
If the youngster impresses Kiffin in training camp, there is no reason to believe that he can't supplant marginal veteran addition Justin Durant for the starting job.
Vincent Frank is an NFL featured columnist at Bleacher Report.