NFL Rookies Who Look Like They Are Moving Up Depth Charts This Offseason
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While most NFL players have to fight for playing time and/or a roster spot in training camp, this is especially true for rookies. Players drafted in the early and middle rounds typically have a safe hold on roster spots, but they must prove themselves quickly and consistently in the offseason to crack the lineup when the season begins.
Modern trends have shifted toward the majority of first-round picks becoming immediate starters as rookies, but most have to outperform their competition from minicamp through training camp and the preseason to move up the depth chart.
The following slideshow looks at two handfuls of rookies who appear to be making good headway toward earning immediate playing time. These are players selected outside of the first round who are in good position to start and/or play frequently in their rookie seasons, in part because of the impressions they have already made in organized team activities and minicamps.
Players are listed in order of draft selection.
Manti Te'o, ILB, San Diego Chargers
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Manti Te'o was viewed by many to be a "two-down player" as a draft prospect because of his limited athleticism, which may be one reason why he fell out of the first round of the 2013 NFL draft. The San Diego Chargers, however, could have him playing as a three-down player in his rookie season.
"Our plan is for him to play three downs, and when we scouted him, we believed that's what he'd be,'' Chargers head coach Mike McCoy told Sports Illustrated's Peter King in May. "But he'll have to earn that, obviously."
The Chargers appear ready to throw the No. 38 overall pick into the fire right away. He has immediately earned first-team repetitions at inside linebacker alongside returning starter Donald Butler, and is expected to play more than 800 snaps as a rookie, according to Union-Tribune San Diego's Kevin Acee.
If the Chargers didn't believe Te'o was ready to handle a starting spot, they could opt for a veteran option in D.J. Smith or Jonas Mouton to start alongside Butler. Te'o, however, is the most talented player of the trio, and his early first-team work in OTAs indicates the Chargers expect him to play a major role as a rookie.
As of June 11, the Chargers were "thrilled" with Te'o's on-field progress, according to Bill Williamson, ESPN's AFC West blogger.
Robert Woods, WR, Buffalo Bills
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The Buffalo Bills added plenty of competition at the wide receiver position this offseason. Steve Johnson is locked in as the team's No. 1 wideout, but behind him, the competition has been bolstered significantly by the addition of rookie receivers Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin, Da'Rick Rogers and Brandon Kaufman.
It is likely that multiple rookie receivers will play significant roles in the Bills offense, but second-round pick Woods is likely to be an immediate starter. He is already penciled as the team's No. 2 receiver, according to Jay Skurski of the Buffalo News. He's made numerous "quality receptions" in minicamp, as Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com reports.
Woods will have to continue to perform well in training camp, as he will face competition from his fellow rookies as well as second-year receiver T.J. Graham.
Woods should be the favorite to earn the spot in the starting lineup, nonetheless. He is a very skilled receiver whose consistent hands, crisp route-running and playmaking ability in the open field should make him an immediate asset to the Buffalo passing offense.
Montee Ball, RB, Denver Broncos
2013 Rose Bowl cut-up of Ball via Draft Breakdown.
While drafting Montee Ball at the No. 58 overall pick made sense from a talent perspective, the Denver Broncos already had a full stable of running backs when they selected him. That doesn't appear to be keeping Ball, however, from making a serious run at being the team's feature running back as a rookie.
When the Broncos released veteran running back Willis McGahee in June, they opened the door for a new lead horse in the running back stable. McGahee was the team's leading rusher last season, with 167 carries for 731 yards.
Ball is a proven workhorse who can immediately be a younger, upgraded version of McGahee—a durable between-the-tackles back with good vision and quickness.
To earn the starting spot, he will have to beat out competition from returning backs Ronnie Hillman, Knowshon Moreno and Lance Ball. Among them, Hillman is likely to have the most significant role. Hillman received 75 percent of first-team repetitions at running back in minicamp and OTAs, according to Cecil Lammey of ESPN Denver.
That said, Broncos executive vice president of football operations John Elway told the Denver Post he viewed Hillman as a "change-of-pace guy." Elway stated at the time that the team viewed McGahee as their "big back," but Montee Ball could also reprise that role.
Ball has also been getting first-team repetitions, according to the Denver Post. His repetitions should continue to increase as he becomes more experienced.
ESPN's Chris Mortensen said in June (h/t Rotoworld) that Ball is "absolutely" the front-runner to start at running back for the Broncos.
The above video of Ball from Draft Breakdown shows the runner the Broncos added to their backfield with their draft selection.
Christine Michael, RB, Seattle Seahawks
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Another team to draft a running back late in the second round without a personnel need at the position was the Seattle Seahawks, who drafted Texas A&M's Christine Michael with the No. 62 overall pick.
The Seahawks already had a strong one-two punch last season in veteran Marshawn Lynch and then-rookie Robert Turbin, but it appears that Michael is set to immediately become a factor in the Seahawks' backfield rotation.
Michael received "a lot of work" with the first-team offense in OTAs, according to the Seattle Times. That was in part due to Lynch's absences during voluntary spring workouts, but Michael could end up pushing Turbin down the depth chart in his rookie season.
Michael has a rare and explosive combination of size and athleticism, but struggled to consistently stay on the field at Texas A&M due to injuries and suspensions. Lynch is one of the NFL's best running backs and a true feature back, but having Michael to spell him could turn out to be a major asset for the Seahawks offense.
If Michael is kept off of the field, it isn't likely going to be due to his talent. He has the skill set to warrant immediate playing time, but needs to stay healthy and remain on his coaches' good sides.
Dwayne Gratz, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars
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The Jacksonville Jaguars made a massive effort to rebuild their secondary this offseason, drafting five defensive backs while also signing numerous free agents, including veterans Marcus Trufant and Alan Ball.
Strong safety Jonathan Cyprien was drafted with the first pick of Round 2 to be a starter, and third-round pick cornerback Dwayne Gratz could join him as a Week 1 rookie starter.
It is unusual for a third-round pick to be a starting cornerback as a rookie, but Gratz is a well-rounded player who could outperform Trufant and/or Ball for a starting spot. According to Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union, Gratz "looked completely in place" during Jaguars OTAs and is expected to be a Week 1 starter.
2012 sixth-round pick Mike Harris could also factor into the competition for a starting cornerback job in Jacksonville.
Sio Moore, OLB, Oakland Raiders
Like his former Connecticut teammate and fellow early third-round draft pick Dwayne Gratz, Sio Moore could be in line to start immediately as a rookie. The No. 66 overall selection has reportedly made an immediate impression upon the Oakland Raiders this offseason.
The Raiders are going to have an almost completely new defensive lineup from last season, and Moore could factor into it immediately. The team currently has an open competition for both starting outside linebacker spots. Moore worked at both strong-side and weak-side linebacker during spring workouts, according to Paul Gutierrez of CSN Bay Area.
Moore is competing for one of those two starting spots against veteran free-agent additions Kaluka Maiava and Kevin Burnett and second-year linebacker Miles Burris, as reported by Steve Corkran of the Contra Costa Times.
While all of those players have starting experience and have proved to be solid starters, Moore may be the best player of any of them. An athletically-gifted defensive playmaker who can line up in a variety of spots, expect Moore to get on the field often in his rookie season, even if he starts out in a rotational role off the bench.
Tyrann Mathieu, CB/FS, Arizona Cardinals
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Tyrann Mathieu didn't play football at all last year after being dismissed from LSU’s football program, but barring any further setbacks, he appears destined to get back on the field plenty as a rookie for the Arizona Cardinals.
Mathieu, who is a candidate to play both free safety and slot cornerback in Arizona, received some first-team repetitions in OTAs, according to Sports Illustrated's Peter King. Among the Cardinals impressed with Mathieu is quarterback Carson Palmer, who told King that Mathieu "reminds of Troy Polamalu with his closing speed."
Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians has also been impressed with Mathieu's progress.
"He gets thing the first time the coaches tell it to him," Arians said in a June 3 article by Fox Sports Arizona. "He's got natural instincts to play football. I'm really happy for him. He's playing really well."
Considering Mathieu did not play at all last year, it would not have come as a surprise if the Cardinals worked him in slowly, but that does not appear to be the case. A dynamic playmaker on the field, Mathieu could end up beating out Yeremiah Bell for the starting free safety job or see immediate playing time as a nickel/dime slot cornerback.
Shawn Williams, SS, Cincinnati Bengals
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The Cincinnati Bengals needed to upgrade at strong safety, so they drafted Shawn Williams with the No. 84 overall pick as a potential answer. Going into training camp, he should have a significant opportunity to unseat Taylor Mays as the starter.
Williams is somewhat of a project, but he is a hard-hitting strong safety who can make an immediate impact against the run. What he must prove in training camp is whether he can be an upgrade in coverage, where Mays struggled significantly last season.
"We know what he can do in run support, now we have to see if he can cover," Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer told the Cincinnati Enquirer (via Reuters). "He has the ability to cover, he just has to. He has to work on his technique some. If he gets his body position in good shape he should be good."
Williams will compete with Mays and second-year safety George Iloka in training camp for a starting safety spot, according to Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com. If Williams makes the necessary progress to succeed in coverage in training camp, chances are good that he will be in the team's lineup as early as Week 1.
B.W. Webb, CB, Dallas Cowboys
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The Dallas Cowboys have a strong starting cornerback tandem in Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, but that doesn't keep them from having immediate expectations for fourth-round pick B.W. Webb.
Webb could give Orlando Scandrick a strong run for the team's nickel slot cornerback job in training camp. According to the Dallas Morning News, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told Sirius XM Radio in May that Webb is a "real, legitimate candidate to come in and compete for a lot of playing time, especially in our money packages."
Webb comes from the small-school ranks (William and Mary), but he is an athletic cornerback with great range and ball skills. Scandrick is a solid slot cornerback, but Webb could move ahead of him on the depth chart if he can continue to show his playmaking ability in training camp and the preseason.
At the very least, Webb should be the favorite to be the team's No. 4 cornerback and earn some situational playing time.
Brandon Jenkins, OLB, Washington Redskins
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After falling to the fifth round of the 2013 NFL draft, Brandon Jenkins wasn't drafted into a situation where he has a chance to immediately compete for a starting spot. That doesn't mean the Washington Redskins will not find a way to get him on the field.
The Redskins have a very good pair of starting outside linebackers in Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo, but Jenkins could immediately push Rob Jackson for the Redskins' third outside linebacker spot.
Asked whether he would be able to get Kerrigan, Orakpo and Jackson all on the field at the same time, Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said he would try to get four outside linebackers on the field to incorporate Jenkins, according to The Roanoke Times.
Jenkins is a talented pass-rusher who may have been an early round selection had he not missed nearly all of his senior season with a Lisfranc foot fracture. He has to adjust to the outside linebacker position, but if he regains his explosion being fully healthy, he could make an immediate impact as a situational pass-rusher.
Dan Hope is an NFL draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report.