Predicting This Year's NFL Surprise-Impact Rookies
First- and second-rounders are seemingly expected to make an impact as rookies regardless of their position. As top-64 picks, fans and teams alike look for these players to produce at high levels, as they’re treated almost like free-agent signings rather than rookies entering their first year as professionals.
After those top two rounds, expectations fall drastically for incoming rookies. However, that doesn’t mean immediate impacts can’t be found in the third through seventh rounds. Just last year saw third-rounder Keenan Allen, fourth-rounder David Bakhtiari, fifth-rounder Zac Stacy and sixth-rounder Andre Ellington contribute heavily to their teams' success.
Jay Bromley, DT, New York Giants
The Giants have thrived as a defense with their pass rush led by their defensive line. However, the team now is set to rely heavily on Jason Pierre-Paul while throwing plenty of young defensive linemen around him, hoping a few can stick and produce.
Jay Bromley of Syracuse was the team’s third-round pick, which came as a bit of a surprise to many non-NFL evaluators, as Bromley was viewed as a solid Day 3 prospect. He lacks great anchor and ability versus double-teams in the run game, opening the door to concerns as to whether he can be a full-time NFL defensive tackle.
However, being a productive and laterally quick interior rusher is likely what made him coveted by the Giants, and he has a chance to contribute immediately in that pass-rushing role.
Battling with aging tackle Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson, along with last year’s second-rounder, Johnathan Hankins, Bromley will need to earn his snaps. But his pass-rushing skill set and the team’s lack of talent in that area could make him a surprise six- or seven-sack defensive tackle.
Ryan Grant, WR, Washington Redskins
With the signing of DeSean Jackson from the Eagles, the Redskins bolstered their receiving corps substantially to support Robert Griffin III. And with Pierre Garcon, Santana Moss and Leonard Hankerson still on the roster, it would seem difficult for a rookie receiver to earn a spot, nonetheless make an impact in his first year.
But the team opted to draft Ryan Grant out of Tulane in the fifth round with every expectation that he’ll make the team. However, his skill set is unique to almost every other receiver on this roster. While the team clearly wants to utilize Robert Griffin’s vertical accuracy and arm strength, it lacks a short-area receiver who can consistently win middle of the field.
Add in Grant, who lacks great vertical speed but consistently finishes in the middle of the field and in traffic and is a decisive route-runner. Don’t be surprised if he makes an impact similar to what Marvin Jones did for Cincinnati with Jay Gruden in charge.
Jalen Saunders, WR, New York Jets
The Jets made it clear this offseason that they were going to put a premium on adding to their offense. After first adding Eric Decker and Jacoby Ford in free agency, the team drafted two receivers in the fourth round. While Shaquelle Evans has a great opportunity to make an impact as well, the vertical ability and explosiveness Jalen Saunders possesses could make him a threat on offense and special teams.
Certainly undersized for a consistently starting receiver, he’ll likely be used in the same way Tavon Austin was used at West Virginia and so far in his career with the Rams. With Geno Smith as the “quarterback of the future," that'll give him offensive options he’s used to and has been productive with in his past.
Chris Smith, DE, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars focused on offense early in the 2014 draft but didn’t dismiss the defensive side of the ball, especially when Day 3 came around. Chris Smith of Arkansas was one of the team’s fifth-round picks, and while his role in the defense isn’t easy to figure out, the potential is there for him to be a key part of the team’s pass-rushing plans.
As a bit of an undersized edge-rusher in college and at the Senior Bowl, Smith likely doesn’t fit in a 4-3 base defense except in Wide 9 situations. However, for the versatile Jaguars defense led by head coach Gus Bradley, finding a role for Smith that’s similar to the Seattle Seahawks' use of Bruce Irvin is certainly a possibility.
Ryan Carrethers, NT, San Diego Chargers
Based on their depth chart, the Chargers are not only hoping Ryan Carrethers exceeds his fifth-round draft position, they need him to if the defense will have success this season. Playing the always important nose tackle position, Carrethers is battling with Sean Lissemore and Kwame Geathers, neither of which boasts experience or starter-level talent.
Carrethers was an active and highly touted Sun Belt defensive tackle but appeared to lack the top-end talent to be worthy of a high draft pick. It’s not a lock that he’ll be a starter, but if he’s unable to be a “surprise” impact defender, the Chargers defense will struggle in 2014.
Jordan Tripp, OLB, Miami Dolphins
Last year, the Dolphins spent money on bringing in Phillip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe during free agency to bolster their linebacking corps. A year later, they still aren’t satisfied with their unit, with potentially an open competition once again at all three spots.
Jordan Tripp got work on the inside and outside during his career at Montana, and that versatility in both positioning and skill set could allow him to battle for immediate playing time despite being a fifth-round rookie.
Omar Kelly of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, meanwhile, expressed surprise with the fact that Tripp has been working as an inside linebacker with the Dolphins in the preseason.
He’ll need to beat out one of those two starters along with last year’s fourth-round pick, Jelani Jenkins, but based on my evaluation of Tripp, that’s certainly possible.
Robert Herron, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs drafted Mike Evans with the seventh pick in the draft, but there was almost no question the team was going to double up at the position thanks to its severe lack of talent. Despite waiting for the sixth round to add that additional pass-catcher, the Bucs may have landed an ideal fit and a steal with Robert Herron of Wyoming.
A quick, smooth route-running slot receiver, Herron makes up for his lack of ideal size with decisive footwork and explosiveness after the catch. He’ll immediately battle for the starting slot receiver spot, and with two big-bodied targets for teams to focus on, he could have plenty of room to work with on the inside.
Jemea Thomas, DB, New England Patriots
As a late sixth-rounder, expectations shouldn’t be high for Jemea Thomas, especially in a Patriots secondary that’s seen five defensive backs drafted in the last two years. However, New England still hasn't seemed comfortable at the position, constantly adding competition and new pieces every year.
Now they add Jemea Thomas, who’s currently listed as a free safety but can play cornerback or strong safety as well, and it gives them a unique roster piece to work with.
He’s no lock to make the team, and he’ll be battling with Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner for free safety snaps as a rookie. But the hope in taking him was likely that he can challenge at multiple spots, make an immediate impact on special teams and eventually develop into a nickel and dime defensive back during his rookie season.