Top 5 NFL Rookies Who Will Have the Most Immediate Impact
The draft is done, and now it is the time for rookies to start proving themselves. Rookie minicamps opened up around the league, and they give coaches their first real look at the players they drafted in the context of their team. The pressure is on now for each rookie to define what they can bring to the team and carve out a spot on the depth chart.
Recently, we have seen numerous rookies come in and make an instant impact for their team. Some of these players, like Andrew Luck and Von Miller, were merely living up to expectations. Others, like Andy Dalton and Russell Wilson, defied expectations and became instant impacts on their team.
This year's crop of players is no different as there are numerous players primed to be instant impacts. Following is a list that breaks down the top five players that could be the next Luck or Wilson. It was based on not just the talent of the prospect, but also the situation the player is going into. Some better players missed the list because less is expected of them or because there are better players already on their team. Also, I took into account the likelihood of them winning the Offensive/Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
Here is a brief list of players who just missed the cut.
Sammy Watkins, Wide Receiver, Buffalo—Watkins is the top receiver in the draft, but his quarterback is what brings him down here. The receivers ranked ahead of him all have a more established QB throwing to them, thus raising their stock.
Jadeveon Clowney, Outside Linebacker, Houston—Clowney would rank on the list if he was playing his natural 4-3 DE position, but since he has to learn a new position, it may take a year or two for his impact to be fully felt.
Any quarterback—So far only Teddy Bridgewater has been announced as a possible starter. I don't expect much from this quarterback class this season. Down the line is another story, though, as this could be one of the best quarterback classes in history.
Eric Ebron, Tight End, Detroit—Matthew Stafford is one happy quarterback, but Ebron is stuck behind both Calvin Johnson and Brandon Pettigrew. It isn't even certain he will be the starting tight end, despite being drafted 10th overall.
5. Kelvin Benjamin, Wide Receiver, Carolina
One of the biggest wide receivers in the draft, Kelvin Benjamin had a monster year last year. He posted 1,011 yards on just 54 receptions and had 15 touchdowns. At 6'5" and 240 pounds, Benjamin is a mismatch for nearly every corner in the NFL.
Benjamin will take his talents just a few states north, as he was drafted by the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers have a completely rebuilt receiving corps, as their three top wideouts from last year, Steve Smith, Branden LaFell and Ted Ginn, all left via free agency. Benjamin figures to be the early favorite to be the number one receiver for Cam Newton.
Due to this, Benjamin will see a lot of targets and probably rack up a ton of catches his rookie year. This was seen in Newton's rookie year with Smith. Prior to Newton's arrival, Smith seemed to be hitting a decline in his career. Once Newton took the reins, Smith had a career revival, logging 79 catches for 1,394 yards and seven touchdowns. The same scenario seems likely to play out again this season for Benjamin.
It would be no stretch of the imagination to see Benjamin put up numbers close to those. He has the tools necessary to be a reliable target for Newton and will be a favorite target in the end zone. He will be a massive size mismatch for nearly every corner in the division (fellow rookie Stanley Jean-Baptiste of the Saints is the tallest of the bunch at 6'3"). His 83-inch wingspan will create an incredible catch radius for Newton to throw to.
When he was first drafted, NFL Network's Mike Mayock was a little wary of the pick, stating:
He's 6-foot-5, 240 pounds with 35-inch arms, and you're talking about a catching radius. However, there's one thing about wide receivers with only one year of college production (like Benjamin at FSU) and it's a little sobering when you look at the names on that list: Stephen Hill, Greg Little, Devin Thomas, Anthony Gonzalez
While Mayock does make a legitimate point, it seems Benjamin is already putting some of those concerns to rest. According to David Newton of ESPN.com, he has impressed his coaches at his rookie minicamp by making an incredible catch, jumping into the air to catch the ball one-handed and come down with it with two defenders draped over him.
The main thing that could hold Benjamin back is his inexperience. As Mayock mentioned, he has had one good year of production, his 2013 totals dwarfing his 2012 numbers. If he progresses along quickly enough, he could have a legitimate shot at the Offensive Rookie of the Year award, but it is too much of a question mark to rank him any higher.
4. Justin Gilbert, Cornerback, Cleveland
Gilbert entered the 2014 draft as the top corner and that's how he left it, being the first defensive back taken. Cleveland made him their first selection after first trading back with the Buffalo Bills and then trading up with the Minnesota Vikings, selecting him eighth overall.
Gilbert joins a defense that is on the rise, possessing many young, talented players, including All-Pro corner Joe Haden. For Cleveland, this is a match made in heaven. They play in a division that features two Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, and a number of Pro Bowl-caliber receivers, so they need all the help they can get on the back end.
Gilbert earned his placing as the top corner in the draft by being an explosive playmaker, having 12 career interceptions, including seven last year, and six kick return touchdowns. He has great size for the position, coming in at 6 feet tall and 202 pounds and has excellent athleticism to go with it. He is very fluid in his motions, which allowed him to easily outplay his opponents.
By joining Haden in Cleveland, he will help form the best young corner duo in the league, according to NFL Media analyst Daniel Jeremiah:
If we're going to stress young pairs, I don't know who is more athletic than these two. When they get the ball in their hands, they are going to do something with it. I think they're both playmakers, and Mike Pettine's defense has two pretty good building blocks.
By virtue of playing across from one of the best corners in the league, Gilbert is primed to get a lot of targets, especially early on in the season. Given how well he played in college, this should not be an issue and may work in the Browns' favor, given his knack for interceptions. If he progresses quickly enough, he and Haden could lock down two receivers at once, allowing the pass rush to hit home.
Cleveland already boasts one of the better defensive units and just got a coach who led one of the best pass-rushing defenses in the league last year in Buffalo. The addition of Gilbert, along with the extension for Haden, will ensure things stay that way for years to come. However, the last time a corner won the Defensive Rookie of the Year award was in 1998 by Charles Woodson, so things aren't exactly stacked in Gilbert's favor in that regard.
3. Brandin Cooks, Wide Receiver, New Orleans
Like Benjamin listed earlier, Brandin Cooks is in prime position to get a lot of targets. The normally deep Saints receiving corps has thinned out a bit lately but still packs a punch. Cooks will come in as a great complement to Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston and Kenny Stills.
Cooks is the perfect slot receiver, being small and exceptionally quick and fast, posting a 4.33 40-yard-dash time. He figures to play a similar, not identical, role that Darren Sproles played. Cooks will be used on some running situations, as he had fairly good success when carrying the ball last year, racking up 217 yard on 32 carries (6.8 ypc). Cooks' versatility has already caught the eye of head coach Sean Payton:
He is versatile. He's obviously a receiver and I think we can line him up in the slot, line him up outside. He's got a very good skill set with regards to his acceleration, his speed. He catches the ball well. I like his toughness. He's handled these first three practices well.
The biggest boon for Cooks is he will have Drew Brees throwing him the ball. In the Saints wide-open offense, Cooks shouldn't have much trouble finding open room over the middle on a drag route, which will allow him to get the ball in his hands quickly and run with it. Brees is deadly accurate on these type of throws, which will allow Cooks to become a quick favorite of his.
Cooks also benefits from defenses having to pay extra attention to Jimmy Graham. With Graham clearing out the middle of the field, it will give Cooks more room to operate and do what he does best. With his combination of size, speed and supporting cast, this could be a big year for the PAC-12 single-season receptions and yards leader. It would not be surprising to see Cooks reel in 70-80 receptions this season, which could definitely pave his way to the Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
2. Aaron Donald, Defensive Tackle, St. Louis
Aaron Donald was one of this year's biggest risers during the draft process. He shot up draft boards, following an impressive combine performance where he showed off speed and strength, being a top performer in both the 40-yard-dash (4.68 seconds) and the bench press (35 reps). He surpassed previous top-rated defensive tackles like Timmy Jernigan and Louis Nix to be taken by the Rams 13th overall.
Donald is an explosive interior lineman who led the country in sacks for a defensive tackle, getting to the quarterback 11 times. When you watch the above video, he looks absolutely unstoppable. He draws many comparisons to Cincinnati defensive tackle Geno Atkins. Per Mike Mayock of NFL Network:
Donald is a disruptive one-gap three-technique defensive tackle. The lack of size (6-foot-1, 285 pounds) concerns some teams, but not me. He had a really big week at the Senior Bowl. He's as quick a defensive tackle I've seen since Geno Atkins
One reason Donald ranks this high on the list is because of his supporting cast. The entire Rams front line consists of first-round picks in Chris Long, Robert Quinn and Michael Brockers. Both Long and Quinn play at a Pro Bowl level, with Quinn gaining All-Pro honors last season. Donald will settle in on this star-studded defensive line and really take advantage of the extra attention his teammates will get.
It isn't hard to imagine Donald having a rookie season similar to what Ndamukong Suh had. Suh took the league by storm, racking up 10 sacks. Donald should have plenty of opportunities to get to the QB with Long and Quinn crashing in on the edge.
Donald's size could end up benefiting him, allowing him to get lower than the guards and centers he will face. Size didn't negatively impact the play of Hall of Fame defensive lineman John Randle, and I don't see it affecting Donald. He should make a real push for Defensive Rookie of the Year and is my early favorite to do so.
1. Bishop Sankey, Running Back, Tennessee
Bishop Sankey ended up setting a draft day record, and he didn't even have to do anything. When the Titans picked him with the 54th overall pick, it marked the latest the first running back has ever been drafted. This by no means is a reflection on Sankey's abilities, as he has consistently been considered a top-five running back prospect.
Sankey joins a Titans team in need of a new running back. Their former star running back, Chris Johnson, was cut and joined up with the New York Jets. Sankey is definitely not a replacement for Johnson in that he is the same type of running back. Sankey is a bit bigger than Johnson and is a better between-the-tackles type of runner. He will, however, replace Johnson as the feature back for Tennessee.
Sankey will likely face little competition for the starting role in Tennessee. His main competition will be Shonn Green, who didn't exactly impress in his first year as a Titan, totaling 295 yards and four touchdowns. Free-agent acquisition Dexter McCluster will likely split time as a receiver and running back and is more of a change-of-pace back whereas Sankey proved in college that he can be the main back for a team.
One thing that will really help Sankey out is the talent of the offensive line. Tennessee boasts one of the best offensive lines in the game, anchored by Michael Roos, Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack. Sankey will benefit greatly from their blocking, something the Titans were expecting Johnson to be able to do. As NFL Media analyst Charles Davis put it:
CJ2K has left the building. Bishop Sankey was drafted to be the featured guy. With that offensive line they've put together, then adding Taylor Lewan, that team has a real chance at establishing a solid run-first base. Sankey will get plenty of carries and he'll catch the ball out of the backfield as well.
With this in mind, it is easy to see why Sankey ranks first on this list. He will see a lot of action and can handle it as well. Jake Locker, or whoever is the starting quarterback, will appreciate being able to lean on a young player like Sankey. He will be able to grind the clock out and allow the Titans to control the game. He is my early favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.