NFL Rookies Guaranteed to Prove Experts Wrong in 2014
For months, analysts have praised or torn down various 2014 NFL draft prospects. Now it's time to hit the field, and some of the guys who have been ripped on are going to prove all of the naysayers wrong.
This year, skepticism seemed to be especially heavy for some prospects. For some of the players here, it was merely that they weren't ranked as high as their college production or pro potential might otherwise suggest. Some of them were ranked well, but their picks generated backlash among draft analysts.
Here are the eight rookies that will make us all look silly during the 2014 NFL season.
Teddy Bridgewater, Minnesota Vikings
This is a no-brainer for the top of this list and not just because I love me some Teddy Bridgewater.
While it's a bit surprising he took a shot at Cleveland on The Dan Patrick Show (as relayed by Ryan Glasspiegel of The Big Lead), to be honest it’s showing a chip on his shoulder that you have to like.
Picked apart by the media, Bridgewater has everything to prove and it looks as if he is ready to take on all comers.
He lands in a situation that puts him in a place to succeed, too. Let’s assume for a moment that he is likely to beat out both Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder for the right to be the Minnesota Vikings' opening day starter.
As Week 1 arrives, Bridgewater lines up behind a solid offensive line (ranked at No. 6 by ProFootballFocus.com’s Khaled Elsayed in January), allowing him time to make his reads and scan the field.
He has great receiving weapons in Greg Jennings, Kyle Rudolph and an ascendant Cordarrelle Patterson. Jerome Simpson and Jarius Wright are also solid complementary options.
Additionally, Bridgewater has arguably the NFL's best running back in Adrian Peterson.
On top of that, he will play in a Norv Turner offense. While you may remember Turner more from his slow collapse in San Diego, don’t forget how much success he had with Philip Rivers.
Rick Gosselin of The Dallas Morning News noted that Turner also successfully shepherded Troy Aikman as well. However, those aren’t the successes you should concentrate on, he cautions.
Turner managed to win 10 games with Jay Fiedler as his quarterback in Miami, another 10 with Brad Johnson at Washington and nine with Gus Frerotte with the Redskins as well, Gosselin wrote. The latter two became Pro Bowl quarterbacks under Turner.
And let’s not forget Turner's success with Cleveland’s Brian Hoyer before the quarterback was lost for the 2013 season due to a torn ACL.
Yes, Bridgewater took it heavy during the draft process from multiple experts.
He’ll have the last laugh, though.
Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina Panthers
Up front, I’m not sold on this pick. When the Carolina Panthers were on the clock toward the end of the first round, Marqise Lee (my personal third-ranked receiver) was still available and is a younger and much more polished product.
Multiple people with me in press row at Radio City Music Hall weren’t just not sold on the pick; they actively disliked it.
When the grades came out, NFL Network’s Mike Mayock had doubts. CBSSports.com’s Pete Prisco had the pick under his “questionable moves” section in his draft review. ESPN.com’s Mel Kiper was also cool on the move (subscription required). Russ Lande, CFL scout and Sports on Earth writer, said he felt like Benjamin has a little too much Jon Baldwin in him (via Ross Tucker’s Football Podcast’s episode 36).
Benjamin has enough fuel to light the competitive fire, that’s for sure.
Rookie wide receivers often struggle, but Benjamin has a chance to contribute right away with Carolina.
Quarterback Cam Newton lost most of his receiving corps this offseason, and while Jerricho Cotchery is a solid possession wide receiver, Newton still needs someone to make the big plays.
He’ll look to Benjamin often, especially in the red zone where the Florida State wide receiver’s big catch radius and short-area speed will come into play.
Benjamin needs to improve his route running, but he’s got plenty of experience outside as well as in the slot and is very tough to bring down after the catch.
It may take him a little while—again, rookie wide receivers tend to struggle—but he will have the opportunity to go with the skills to shut all his critics up.
Ja’Wuan James, Miami Dolphins
Ja'Wuan James is another first-round pick who I wasn’t a big fan of considering who else was on the board. With Morgan Moses, Cyrus Kouandjio, Joel Bitonio and Xavier Su’a-Filo all still available, it would seem as though the Miami Dolphins could have—and should have—grabbed a better prospect.
Are we all wrong? I find it hard to believe, but there is always a first time for the Draftnik Industrial Complex, right? We’re not infallible.
Joking aside, here’s why this could work.
Miami's offensive line allowed a league-leading 58 sacks last season, which can’t happen again if the team hopes to remain competitive in 2014. The Dolphins have improved the left side of their line by adding Branden Albert, but these days you need bookend tackles.
James has a tremendous first step off the snap and can protect the edge. He struggles in run blocking, but that’s not the biggest problem with the Dolphins. They aren’t exactly ground-and-pound.
He can get beaten a little too often with a swim move, but he won’t have to learn to avoid that on the left side—he can work that out on the right, which is a bit less critical.
With Albert on one side and Mike Pouncey in the middle, James has talented veterans to learn from and the coaches to help him succeed.
Maybe he went higher than he should have, but he is in a good position to throw on a cape and help save the offensive line after a tumultuous 2013 season.
Marqise Lee, Jacksonville Jaguars
As the draft process went on, former USC wide receiver Marqise Lee saw his stock drop due to his production issues in 2013, as well as a nagging knee injury.
Brandin Cooks and Odell Beckham Jr. jumped ahead of him in some rankings, occasionally followed by Lee’s Jacksonville teammate, Allen Robinson. Lee may have transformed from a sure-fire first-round pick to one of the most underrated receivers in the draft.
While Lee has an issue with drops, everything else that went wrong during his final year at USC is something which can be avoided at the pro level.
Inconsistent quarterback play? Draft one of the top quarterbacks, Blake Bortles.
No help next to him? Line Cecil Shorts up on one side and draft another young player in Robinson.
The coaching staff isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, the play-calling will be much more consistent (and without Lane Kiffin, it will probably not be all bubble screens) and as far as injuries, Lee seems healthy now and had very little issue with health for most of his career.
Whether the quarterback is, as planned, Chad Henne or Bortles, Lee will be a huge help. His speed, athleticism and elusiveness after the catch are NFL-caliber and on top of everything else, he’s a good downfield blocker.
The Jaguars are a rebuilding team and that will often hamper a rookie—of any position—during his initial season in the NFL.
That aside, Lee’s ability and strengths will quickly make him a vital part of this offense and one of the better receivers from this class.
Khyri Thornton, Green Bay Packers
There were knocks on Khyri Thornton—that he was maxed-out and wouldn't add more weight or strength, that he gets held up too often at the point of attack, that he didn't produce much at Southern Miss and that his pass-rushing instincts were marginal.
However, he's set to be a tremendous addition to Green Bay, which is why, while some had a fifth-round grade on him, the Packers grabbed him in the third.
Thornton is a versatile defensive tackle who's able to move anywhere in the interior but also move to the end as well. Draft analyst Tony Pauline told Packers.com that "he's a classic 3-technique tackle. Quick, explosive. Probably a two-gap end."
Datone Jones played well last year and Mike Daniels rotated in effectively in 2013 and could be in line for more snaps.
B.J. Raji, on the other hand, is on a one-year contract and hasn't exactly "wowed" Packers fans in his time in Green Bay.
Thornton's versatility, explosive first step and acceleration could be enough to pass Raji this season and with Jones and Daniels next to him and Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews rushing from the outside linebacker positions, he could find a lot of success up the middle and prove that fifth-round grade to be very wrong.
Isaiah Crowell, Cleveland Browns
Isaiah Crowell is a tremendously talented, former 5-star high school recruit. He was amazingly productive at Alabama State in the 2013 season, totaling 1,121 yards and 15 touchdowns with an impressive 6.6 yards per carry average.
Why did he go undrafted?
Crowell had been playing for Georgia when he failed a drug test and was charged with two felony counts of possession of a firearm. This led to his dismissal from the program and in a post-Aaron Hernandez world, likely was the reason he fell out of the draft.
Here's the thing though. Crowell is insanely talented. He's able to change directions on a dime, can completely smoke defenders in the open field and will slip through tackles at the line.
If Cleveland can help him keep his head on straight, Crowell will not only outperform his street free-agent status, but also the fifth- and sixth-round grades with which analysts labeled him.
Antonio Andrews, Tennessee Titans
It's hard to say exactly why Antonio Andrews went undrafted, but he landed in a pretty good spot when signing with the Tennessee Titans.
While Bishop Sankey was a second-round selection and will probably take Shonn Greene's job, Andrews has a very good chance to take a portion of the carries as well.
Andrews had some fumbling issues and isn't the fastest guy in the world, but he does show good ability cutting. He will finish a run by lowering his pads and hammering a defender, which helps him gain yards after contact. We know he can handle a huge workload and he was insanely productive at Western Kentucky, finishing with over 3,400 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns on the ground in his final two seasons.
The current depth chart at Ourlads has Jackie Battle and Leon Washington ahead of Andrews, but neither are guys who absolutely will leave him in the dust.
And while Greene has been decent in the past, he struggled a bit during his first year in Tennessee and missed five games after suffering a knee injury in the season-opener. He's a pretty "blah" back, though—a plodder who isn't anything special but can be reliable.
He's also coming off his second knee surgery in less than a year and will miss all of OTAs, per Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.
Andrews has a chance to get a piece of the job behind Sankey and have an immediate impact on this roster.
Not bad for a street free agent.
Marcus Smith, Philadelphia Eagles
Marcus Smith is a bit of a tweener, not quite an outside linebacker but also not quite a defensive end, and he played as a hybrid between the two at Louisville. While he had a tremendous senior campaign, some of his sacks came on stunts where opponents left him completely unaccounted for.
There were also concerns he didn’t possess a wide enough variety of pass-rushing moves, and that opposing offensive lines would have too easy a time slowing him down.
The expectation was that he would go somewhere in the mid-to-late second round, but the Philadelphia Eagles took no chances and grabbed him in the late first.
Their instincts will be proven right. Smith is incredibly coachable and showed at Louisville that he can learn a variety of roles and responsibilities. He also can range from sideline to sideline in pursuit.
While Connor Barwin and Trent Cole will hold the outside linebacker positions, Cole is aging and there is room for Smith in the future. He could conceivably rotate in at defensive end for Cedric Thornton or Fletcher Cox as well.
The Eagles’ pass rush hasn’t always functioned as well as it could, but Smith is the type of versatile pass-rusher that defenses are constantly looking for—a guy who can fill roles all across the defensive front. While he may lack the prototypical size and lack the speed teams often want, he’ll prove to be more valuable than expected as he fills multiple roles for the Eagles.
Andrew Garda is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. He is also a member of the fantasy football staff at FootballGuys.com and the NFL writer at CheeseheadTV.com. You can follow him @andrew_garda on Twitter.