NFL Rookies Who Will Play Major Roles in 2013 Despite Not Being Starters
With NFL training camps about to begin, this year's rookie class is soon to get extra attention, especially those pegged to be starters in their first seasons.
However, there are other first-year players who will be making impacts on the field for their respective teams despite the fact they won't be starters in their first seasons. They'll still have roles to play, and big ones at that, regardless of their ultimate positions on the depth chart.
Here are 10 NFL rookies who will make their presence felt this year despite not having the distinction of being named starters.
RB Zac Stacy, St. Louis Rams
The St. Louis Rams selected running back Zac Stacy in the fifth round of this year's draft to add to their corps of backs, something especially of concern to the team after longtime starter Steven Jackson chose to move on. Though Stacy won't likely supplant incumbents Daryl Richardson or Isaiah Pead on the depth chart, that doesn't mean he won't have a role to play this year.
As ProFootballTalk points out, Richardson is presently listed as the Rams' No. 1 running back, and it projects that Stacy will be No. 3 this year. However, Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch believes that the Rams will take a committee approach to the run game this year, which should give Stacy plenty of of opportunities.
In a committee, the importance of the depth chart is diminished in favor of the hot-hand approach. There will be games—perhaps a string of them—during which Stacy will move the ball the best of the three or four backs the Rams will keep on their 53-man roster. Other times, it may be Pead or Richardson.
Not having a true, every-down running back will allow Stacy to be an impact-making player without having to be at the top of the depth chart for the Rams in his rookie season. It's also a way to highlight his assets—good vision, strength—while minimizing his biggest weakness—a lack of explosiveness.
ROLE: Committee Running Back
TE Chris Gragg, Buffalo Bills
Though seventh-round picks have a harder time landing on a team's final roster than a player with a higher draft pedigree, Buffalo Bills tight end Chris Gragg should find himself a spot thanks to his particular skill set.
While Gragg is not an all-around tight end, lacking the blocking skills that would cause him to leapfrog Scott Chandler on the depth chart, his receiving abilities should result in him getting a good amount of playing time this season.
New Bills head coach Doug Marrone is used to using a "flex" tight end in his passing plays and it's very possible this role could belong to Gragg. Gragg has good hands and speed that make him well-suited to do this job, though his blocking deficiencies ultimately mean he won't be a starter.
ROLE: Receiving Tight End, Based on Formation
S Shamarko Thomas, Pittsburgh Steelers
One of the positions the Pittsburgh Steelers needed to address in this year's draft was safety, and they did so in the fourth round when they selected Shamarko Thomas, moving up to do so.
Thomas has little chance to surpass current starters Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu at either free or strong safety, respectively. However, that does not mean he won't have a role to play in his rookie season. In fact, he'll have two.
The Steelers are very traditional when it comes to the usage of their defensive rookies, requiring them to make an impact on special teams in their first year rather than getting significant snaps on defense. That suits the hard-hitting, good-tackling Thomas perfectly. It will give him a chance to showcase the talent that convinced the Steelers to draft him in the first place while he learns the intricacies of Dick LeBeau's defense.
The other important role Thomas will play this year is as depth—and this, too, is not a minor one. The Steelers don't have much depth at safety presently, and the possibility of injury to either Clark or Polamalu will mean Thomas will have to step up.
Thomas may be young, but his promise is greater than the two safeties who once backed up Clark and Polamalu—Will Allen and Ryan Mundy, who both left in free agency—so the insurance policy that is Thomas' presence on the roster has far greater value than the one the Steelers had last year.
ROLE: Coverage Team Ace; Crucial Safety Depth
RB Mike Gillislee, Miami Dolphins
Fifth-round Miami Dolphins draft pick Mike Gillislee won't be challenging Lamar Miller's or Daniel Thomas' spots on the depth chart this year, but that doesn't mean that Gillislee won't make an impact in his rookie season.
As a running back, Gillislee has a complete skill set that includes good running, a strong pass-catching ability and solid pass protection, especially when it comes to identifying the blitz. This makes him a good candidate to get third-down work. If he proves effective, his spot on the depth chart could potentially rise if Thomas continues to underwhelm.
Gillislee's one-cut style of running means that he could also be considered as a kick or punt returner for the Dolphins this year. Though not projected to be a starter, Gillislee's versatility could result in significant playing time in his rookie season.
ROLE: Third-Down Running Back; Potential Returner
OLB Alex Okafor, Arizona Cardinals
Though fourth-round Arizona Cardinals draft pick Alex Okafor will be making the transition from collegiate defensive end to NFL outside linebacker, that doesn't mean his rookie season will be simply about learning the ropes of his new defense rather than playing a significant number of snaps.
Okafor has a lot to learn, to be sure, especially when it comes to defending the run. But as a situational pass-rusher, he should get time in Arizona's defensive rotation this year and make a positive impact.
Incumbent outside linebackers Sam Acho and O'Brien Schofield's jobs are safe, but the two were far better against the run last year than they were rushing the passer according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Putting Okafor into the linebacker rotation should give the Cardinals more opportunities to get to opposing quarterbacks—in his final two seasons at Texas, he had a combined 19.5 sacks.
ROLE: Situational Pass-Rusher
OW Denard Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars
Though fifth-round draft pick Denard Robinson is the only "offensive weapon" listed on the Jacksonville Jaguars roster, making him a de facto starter at this hybrid position, in reality Robinson's role is jack-of-all-offensive-trades. This means he's not a starter at any one position; instead, his playing time will be divided between a number of them.
Robinson was a quarterback at the University of Michigan, and the Jaguars had initially pegged him as a running back upon drafting him. However, his skill set is so varied that it now appears they are ready to line him up as a receiver and potentially at quarterback along with having him carry the ball.
This means Robinson will be behind Maurice Jones-Drew on the running back depth chart, behind Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne as a quarterback and behind Justin Blackmon and Cecil Shorts as a wide receiver. This should only maximize the impact Robinson can make this year—the NFL world is so abuzz about Robinson already that CBS Sports' Mike Freeman thinks he'll be the best player from this year's draft class.
ROLE: Offensive Weapon
QB Tyler Wilson, Oakland Raiders
ESPN's Ron Jaworski named Oakland Raiders starting quarterback Matt Flynn as the league's worst earlier in the summer, and while his opinion is certainly not an accurate indicator of how Flynn will perform this year, it's not a good sign.
If Flynn struggles—which he very well may, with a lack of receiving weapons, a questionable offensive line and an oft-injured running back—he could be supplanted at some point in the season. And there would no greater beneficiary in that scenario than fourth-round draft pick Tyler Wilson.
Though Wilson is presently technically behind both Flynn and Terrelle Pryor, Pryor doesn't seem to be much of a threat. Head coach Dennis Allen said in June that Pryor has a lot of work to do to become a starter in the future, while Wilson has already turned heads. If this continues, it's not hard to imagine that the Raiders begin the season with Wilson as their No. 2 quarterback and Pryor at No. 3.
This puts Wilson in a good position. Either Flynn disappoints and Wilson can take over in his rookie year, or Wilson can win the starting job in 2014. Either way, Wilson's role as backup will be very important in Oakland this year, regardless of whether he sees the field.
ROLE: No. 2 Quarterback to the Questionable Matt Flynn
S Bacarri Rambo, Washington Redskins
Sixth-round Washington Redskins draft pick Bacarri Rambo will be competing with incumbent Reed Doughty for the team's starting free safety job this year. Though Rambo has immense upside—he's a deep-coverage safety and the Redskins certainly could use his skills—the fact that he was drafted so late indicates a rawness that he may not be able to overcome during training camp.
Even if Rambo doesn't become a starter in his rookie season, that doesn't mean his impact will be limited. After all, Rambo's biggest asset is his physicality in coverage, which should earn him defensive snaps on a situational basis. And Rambo's hard-hitting ways also bode well for his special teams performance.
Granted, Rambo could win the starting free safety job this summer. If he doesn't, however, look for him to take over the position in his second season.
ROLE: Rotational Free Safety; Special Teams Coverage
RB Kerwynn Williams, Indianapolis Colts
Yes, the Indianapolis Colts have a suddenly crowded backfield, with free-agent signing Ahmad Bradshaw joining Vick Ballard, Donald Brown and Delone Carter. Yes, this makes it that much harder for seventh-round draft pick Kerwynn Williams to even crack the 53-man roster.
However, Williams' skills—particularly his explosive speed and his elusiveness—aren't shared by the other Colts backs, giving him a chance to shine despite less-than-ideal positioning on the team's depth chart. He's a good fit to play the part of change-of-pace back to more powerful runners like Ballard and Bradshaw, but where he'll really have a chance to shine is on special teams.
Williams was Utah State's top kick returner during his first three seasons and appears poised to take on the same role with the Colts. This makes his roster spot safer than those of incumbents Brown and Carter and opens the door to Williams making both a short- and long-term impact in Indianapolis.
ROLE: Kick Returner; Possible Change-of-Pace Running Back
RB Johnathan Franklin, Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers' decision to select running back Johnathan Franklin in the fourth round of this year's draft was based on more than just the injury concerns about their second-round selection, Eddie Lacy. It was a result of a disappointing performance by all of their running backs last year and a sign of the commitment they're making this year to that part of their offense.
Though Lacy has the higher draft pedigree, thus making it seem he's on the fast track to become a starter, there are other backs on the Packers roster the two rookies will have to contend with this summer. They join James Starks, DuJuan Harris and Alex Green, and the potential for one of these men to become the Packers' true feature back is as great as is the odds the team opts for a committee approach to the position this season.
Either way, Franklin should factor in heavily to their running plans, even if he's not listed atop the depth chart this year. Franklin has the elusive, shifty open-field speed that makes him idea for a change-of-pace role, and in a backfield so crowded, he has traits that make him stand out.
Further, the Packers are also looking for someone to take on the kick- and punt-return duties that have recently fallen to receiver Randall Cobb in order for Cobb to focus completely on his receiving job. Though Franklin didn't return kicks or punts in college, his speed and elusiveness make him a good candidate, and he should be practicing his return game throughout this summer's training camp.
ROLE: Change-of-Pace Running Back; Kick and/or Punt Returner