Buying or Selling Latest Buzz Around 2014 NFL Rookie Class
Despite the aftermath of the draft being perhaps the quietest time of the NFL year, that hasn’t stopped players, coaches, media and fans around the world from buzzing about the league’s incoming class of rookies.
It’s obvious that big-name talents like Houston Texans No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney and Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel will garner most of the national spotlight among this year’s rookie class, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll make the biggest impacts on their teams in 2014.
At this point in the cycle, offseason workouts have only just begun, and it remains largely unknown what roles each rookie will play on his team and how successful each could be at the next level.
That said, every team activity can be another opportunity for a first-year player to prove his worth or raise doubts. While veteran performances in OTAs are typically ignored, as the impressions a player makes in an unpadded minicamp means little in comparison to his past NFL experience, rookies have to establish themselves quickly to factor significantly into their teams’ 2014 plans.
Sell: Johnny Manziel as Cleveland Browns’ Third-String Quarterback
In Johnny Manziel’s first two weeks as a member of the Cleveland Browns, the team has made a clear effort to mitigate expectations and defer attention away from their popular No. 22 overall pick.
If Manziel is going to start for the Browns this season, he’s going to have to earn it.
The Texas A&M product has started offseason workouts as Cleveland’s third-string quarterback, behind Brian Hoyer and Tyler Thigpen, according to NFL Media’s Aditi Kinkhabwala (h/t NFL.com's Marc Sessler). Browns general manager Ray Farmer has gone as far as saying, in an interview with CBS Cleveland’s Bull & Fox, that Hoyer is better than Manziel “by a substantial margin.”
Being stuck on the back end of the depth chart in May, however, doesn’t mean he’ll still be buried with the third-team offense in September. As Manziel develops and becomes more acclimated to the Browns offense, expect him to receive more significant work with the first- and second-team offenses.
Hoyer could legitimately hold off Manziel for the starting job—he made a good impression in three starts last season before tearing his ACL—but at the very least Manziel should eclipse Thigpen on the depth chart and make a serious push for playing time. If the Browns didn’t expect Manziel to play early, they wouldn’t have drafted him with a first-round pick.
Buy: Derek Carr to Be Matt Schaub’s Backup as Rookie
While the Browns’ public dismissiveness toward Manziel’s starting potential comes across as an effort to temper external expectations, the Oakland Raiders might not face that same pressure with rookie quarterback Derek Carr.
As a second-round pick (No. 36 overall), Carr does not represent as significant of an investment, which should allow Oakland to be more patient in turning to the Fresno State product to play.
Furthermore, the Raiders have expressed their intent to starting Matt Schaub at quarterback ever since acquiring him from the Houston Texans in March. According to ESPN’s Jim Trotter, Raiders coach Dennis Allen is “firmly committed to Schaub,” and it will “take something 'catastrophic'” for Carr to surpass Schaub on the depth chart.
Some might point out that the Raiders only traded a sixth-round pick to acquire Schaub, and therefore have placed greater stock into the long-term success of Carr.
For 2014, however, starting Schaub might be the right decision. Carr had a fantastic senior year at Fresno State and possesses all of the physical tools to succeed as an NFL passer, but he must improve upon his ability to throw under pressure. And although Schaub is coming off a disastrous year in Houston, he is an experienced player who has accrued 90 starts and completed 64 percent of his career passes.
Sell: Blake Bortles to Back Up Chad Henne All Year
Every NFL team that spent a high draft pick on a rookie quarterback this year is being cautious in setting expectations, and the Jacksonville Jaguars have been no exception. Despite selecting UCF’s Blake Bortles with the No. 3 overall pick, the Jaguars front office has said it sees Chad Henne as the team’s starting signal-caller for the upcoming season.
Earlier this month, team general manager David Caldwell told ESPN’s Mike & Mike (h/t Pro Football Talk’s Mike Wilkening) that the team hopes to “go with Chad this year.” Head coach Gus Bradley reiterated that plan during a Tuesday appearance on NFL Network’s NFL Total Access (h/t NFL.com's Dan Hanzus):
We really felt comfortable with (Henne) coming back with another year in the system. I think it gave us flexibility. When Blake was there available for us, we really wanted to capture that opportunity.
And we do feel good about where Blake's at, but we feel like this time that he has under Chad, a year to develop, will be really good in the end result.
It makes sense for the Jaguars to sit Bortles for 2014. While he has the tools to potentially be a great quarterback, he could greatly benefit from having a redshirt year to work on accuracy and his mechanical flaws.
The problem with that is Henne has a career NFL completion percentage of 59.5, and he has more career interceptions (62) than passing touchdowns (55). Although he has started 50 games in the past five seasons, he has consistently failed to play up to the level expected of an NFL starting quarterback.
Unless Bortles makes exceptional progress this offseason or Henne gets injured, the Jaguars will start the season with the veteran under center. They might feel pressure from the fanbase to play Bortles sooner rather than later, however, barring a spike in Henne’s performance.
Buy: Jimmie Ward to Play Slot Cornerback
The San Francisco 49ers came into this year’s draft with a big need at the cornerback position. By selecting Jimmie Ward with the No. 30 overall pick, their solution might have been to draft the best defensive back available—despite the fact Ward played safety at Northern Illinois—and move him to corner, at least for his rookie season.
According to CSNBayArea.com’s Matt Maiocco, “Ward is expected to be the 49ers’ nickel cornerback and play approximately 60 percent of the defensive snaps while covering the opposition’s slot receiver.”
Often used in slot coverage at NIU, Ward is a fluid athlete with the man-coverage skills, instincts and physicality to make a smooth transition to the position.
As the 49ers have a terrific second-year free safety in Eric Reid and have signed Antoine Bethea this offseason to replace Donte Whitner at strong safety (and are relatively weak in terms of cornerback depth), playing the slot is Ward’s best opportunity to contribute as a rookie.
Eventually, he’s likely to be a starter alongside Reid at safety, but that doesn’t mean he won’t keep playing the slot. He may be most impactful as a hybrid safety/slot cornerback, the role that Tyrann Mathieu played so effectively last year as a rookie for the Arizona Cardinals.
Sell: De’Anthony Thomas to Play Slot Cornerback
Some of the rookies “who will [or should] switch positions,” as detailed in an article by Sports Illustrated’s Doug Farrar earlier this week, are only making position changes because of schematic considerations or lineup openings.
For example, Jadeveon Clowney is expected to move to outside linebacker from defensive end, as he switches to the Texans’ 3-4 defense from South Carolina’s 4-3, while former Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson could play left guard for the St. Louis Rams because it’s the biggest position of need on their offensive line.
One potential position switch suggested by Farrar, however, would be drastic. Kansas City Chiefs fourth-round pick De’Anthony Thomas made a name for himself as a big-play runner, receiver and returner at Oregon, but according to Farrar, “there are some who think that the ‘Black Mamba’ could also be a credible slot cornerback, especially against speed slot receivers.”
“He could convert to a slot corner,” NFL Network’s Charles Davis recently said, according to Farrar. “With his quickness and ability, that would be a move that could be beneficial to him. He might end up having a longer career [there].”
The idea is reasonable, especially since he was 5-star cornerback/athlete coming out of high school, per 247Sports.com. Although Thomas is a dynamic offensive weapon, he lacks the size to run between the tackles while he is also limited as a downfield receiver. He certainly has enough athleticism to play slot cornerback at the next level.
Success stories from position switches like the one suggested, however, are unusual. Thomas did not play any defense in his three years at Oregon, and he would be undersized even for a slot cornerback.
He’s very much a project who might not have a true position at the next level, but Kansas City would be best to focus on utilizing Thomas as a kickoff returner and finding ways to get him the ball in space on offense.
Buy: Ryan Shazier Standing Out Early
First-round picks are expected to stand out in rookie minicamps, and that was apparently the case in Pittsburgh. Steelers.com’s Mike Prisuta and Bob Labriola reported (h/t Matthew Marczi of SteelersDepot.com) that No. 15 overall pick Ryan Shazier had “a presence that you would expect, or hope for, from a number one pick.”
He stood out athletically, he was vocal—I won’t say he was a leader in terms of telling other people what to do, because he was just learning what to do himself, but he was the first one up in every drill. Like I said, he just had a presence, a vibe about him that you’re hoping to see out of your number one pick.
Held in high regard by his coaches as a leader and high-effort player during his career at Ohio State, the report from Prisuta and Labriola suggests that he is already making a positive impression upon his peers and superiors in Pittsburgh.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise. While Shazier wasn’t necessarily expected to be a top-15 pick going into the draft, it’s not hard to see why he went that high.
An explosive and fluid all-around athlete, Shazier was highly productive at OSU and is effective as a playmaker in space. He's also adept at blitzing and dropping into coverage. ESPN.com’s Scott Brown expects Shazier to overtake Vince Williams as Pittsburgh's starting inside linebacker alongside Lawrence Timmons.
Sell: Jaylen Watkins to Start Outside for Eagles as a Rookie
The brother of Buffalo Bills No. 4 overall pick Sammy Watkins, Jaylen Watkins was the first player selected on Day 3 (No. 101 overall) by the Philadelphia Eagles.
Despite waiting until the top of the fourth round to select him, the Eagles could expect big things quickly from the Florida corner. At least that’s what Eagles beat writer Sheil Kapadia of PhillyMag.com thinks. In his analysis of the Philadelphia depth chart earlier this week, Kapadia wrote that he wouldn’t rule out Watkins “as someone who could potentially push (outside stating cornerback Bradley) Fletcher for a starting spot.”
The Philadelphia cornerback group should absolutely be open for competition. In their first year with the Eagles this past season, Fletcher and Cary Williams did not impress as starting cornerbacks.
Despite that, it would still be a surprise if Watkins as a rookie ends up leaping over either of them on the depth chart. As a fourth-round pick, Watkins is likely to be worked in gradually rather than being thrust immediately into a starting role, unless Fletcher or Williams gets injured or truly crashes and burns in terms of play.
Watkins is more likely to start his rookie season as Philadelphia’s sixth defensive back in dime packages. The Eagles should look to eventually develop him as an outside corner, as they arguably have the league’s best slot cornerback in Brandon Boykin, but Watkins is likely to start his career playing over the slot until he gets acclimated to the NFL game.
Buy: Robert Herron to Emerge as Buccaneers’ Slot Receiver
Sixth-round picks don’t usually become immediate staples of their teams’ lineups, but receiver Robert Herron might be an exception to the rule. According to ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are hoping Herron, the No. 185 overall pick in this year’s draft, can emerge as their slot receiver.
While some sixth-round picks will be fighting just to keep a roster spot, Herron has the advantage of being drafted by a team that has little depth at his position.
It came somewhat surprisingly that Herron was passed upon for more than five full rounds of this year’s draft, but the Wyoming product has enough talent to be an immediate playmaker. While his limited size (5’9”, 193 lbs) could confine him to the slot, he has the speed and shiftiness to make defenders miss in the open field.
With two big wideouts on the outside in Vincent Jackson and this year's No. 7 overall pick, Mike Evans, Herron’s athleticism and ability to create yardage provides the contrast that Tampa Bay should be looking for in the slot.
Herron reportedly “turned some heads in rookie camp,” according to Yasinskas, and holdover receivers don’t present a daunting level of competition, if their numbers from last year are any indication. Eric Page, Chris Owusu, Skye Dawson and even Jeff Demps combined for just 22 catches and 215 yards in 2013.
The rookie could also see playing time on special teams as a kickoff and/or punt returner, though he was not used in those capacities at Wyoming.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.