Buying or Selling Each 1st-Round Rookie as a Day 1 Starter
Long gone are the days when an NFL rookie's first season was seen as a year of development. That’s especially true for first-round draft picks, who are expected to become immediate impact players—and in many cases starters—for their new teams from Day 1.
Last season 19 of the 32 players selected in Round 1 of the 2013 NFL draft were in the starting lineup for their teams on Week 1.
That proportion is likely to rise in 2014 with a rookie class that has consistently been hailed as one of the league’s deepest in terms of talent in recent memory.
Jadeveon Clowney, OLB, Houston Texans: Buy
Much like they did by selecting Mario Williams with the first pick in the 2006 NFL draft, the Houston Texans passed up the draft’s top offensive players this year in favor of an impact edge-rushing threat in Jadeveon Clowney. They certainly did so with the expectation that the South Carolina product will be an immediate star of their defense.
He is expected to line up as the right outside linebacker, the same position that Williams played in his years in a 3-4 defense, opposite superstar left defensive end J.J. Watt. The No. 1 overall pick should immediately improve the Texans’ underwhelming outside linebacker corps and give Houston elite edge defenders on both ends on the line.
Although it could take some time for Clowney to become comfortable in his transition from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 OLB, the explosive playmaker is too talented for the Texans not to have him on the field right away. He’ll likely displace Whitney Mercilus, or possibly Brooks Reed, from Houston’s starting lineup.
Greg Robinson, LG, St. Louis Rams: Buy
It’s atypical for a player to be selected with the No. 2 overall pick to play left guard, but at least for the short term, that’s where Greg Robinson is expected to line up. According to ESPN.com’s Nick Wagoner, St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher said the team will play the Auburn product where “he's got the best chance to be successful right now.”
We don't know exactly where that is, but he may start out inside before we move him back outside. You talk about an athlete. Powerful, quick, great quickness and strength. He's got a chance to be a dominant player inside initially.
Robinson has the physical potential to be an elite offensive tackle, but as he needs to develop as a pass-protector, he might not be ready to take on an immediate starting role outside. The 6’5”, 322-pound lineman would likely benefit from playing inside as a rookie.
The biggest reason for the Rams to move Robinson inside, however, might simply be their lineup. While there’s little doubt they’ll want the rookie behemoth to be on the field from Day 1, they have a solid set of starting tackles for 2014 in left tackle Jake Long and right tackle Joe Barksdale.
Blake Bortles, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars: Sell
The trend of first-round picks increasingly receiving more immediate playing time has been especially noticeable at the quarterback position. Since 2008, 12 of the 16 quarterbacks drafted with first-round picks have been starters for the first games of their rookie seasons.
Despite that trend, Jacksonville Jaguars decision-makers have said they do not plan to start No. 3 overall pick Blake Bortles out of UCF.
During an NFL Total Access appearance last week, head coach Gus Bradley said the team’s desire is to give Bortles “a year to develop” behind incumbent starting quarterback Chad Henne. Earlier this month, general manager David Caldwell told ESPN Radio’s Mike and Mike (h/t Mike Wilkening of ProFootballTalk.com) that the team would “like to give Chad this whole year and go with Chad this year.”
If Henne continues to perform at a subpar level—he has thrown 62 interceptions and just 55 touchdowns over the past five years—Bradley and Caldwell will be pressured to reconsider that plan and give Bortles the starting role. But unless the rookie blows the Jaguars away with his development in the preseason, it’s likely they’ll at least give Henne a chance to fail before turning to the rookie.
Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo Bills: Buy
If the Buffalo Bills didn’t feel certain that Sammy Watkins will be an immediate difference-maker for their offense, they wouldn’t have traded two 2015 draft picks, including their first-round selection in next year’s draft, to move up to the No. 4 overall slot and draft him.
Buffalo has plenty of talented wide receivers, including Robert Woods, Mike Williams and Marquise Goodwin, but that shouldn’t stop Watkins from moving right to the top of the depth chart. The Clemson product has a combination of speed, agility, route-running skill and strength that no other wideout on the roster can match.
He has the makeup of a No. 1 wide receiver yet can be moved all around the field to play outside, in the slot and even as a runner out of the backfield. The Bills should find a spot for him right off the bat in just about every offensive formation.
Khalil Mack, OLB/DE, Oakland Raiders: Buy
If Khalil Mack is going to start right away for the Oakland Raiders, he’s going to have to earn his spot in the lineup, but he might be too talented for Oakland to keep him off the field.
The Raiders made significant improvements to the edge of their defense this offseason by not only drafting Mack but also signing veteran free agents LaMarr Woodley and Justin Tuck.
Mack could battle Woodley and Tuck for a starting spot at defensive end, but he should also go toe-to-toe with second-year player Sio Moore for the starting strong-side linebacker job.
That said, Mack is expected to play a similar role to Denver Broncos hybrid edge defender Von Miller, as CSN Bay Area’s Scott Bair and Bleacher Report’s Adam Lefkoe discuss in the video above. The No. 5 overall pick is best suited to play SLB in Oakland’s base defense and then line up as a pass-rushing DE in sub-packages.
With Woodley, Tuck and Moore already in place, the Raiders could work Mack in gradually as a rotational player if they believe that would be best for his development. The Buffalo product, however, has the potential to be better than any of the veterans standing in front of him on the depth chart, and he should get on the field sooner rather than later.
Jake Matthews, RT, Atlanta Falcons: Buy
Perhaps the most NFL-ready player in this year’s draft class, Jake Matthews should be a fixture at right tackle for the Atlanta Falcons throughout his rookie season.
Matthews, a technically proficient blocker who played on the right side for his first three seasons at Texas A&M, can be an immediate upgrade, especially in pass protection, over Lamar Holmes and Mike Johnson.
The son of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, Jake Matthews has the potential to emerge as an All-Pro on either side of an NFL offensive line. He could eventually end up taking over for Sam Baker as Atlanta’s starting left tackle, but barring injury to Baker or himself, the No. 6 overall pick should be a lock to start at right tackle from Day 1 in 2014.
Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Buy
When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers traded away No. 2 wide receiver Mike Williams earlier this offseason, they created a major void in their starting offensive lineup opposite Vincent Jackson. They made a big move to plug that hole by drafting Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans with the No. 7 overall pick in this year’s draft.
Evans, a 6’5”, 231-pound receiver with 35.125” arms and great athleticism for his size, has no real competition for his starting spot. Outside of Jackson, Chris Owusu’s 13 receptions and 114 yards this past season were the most of any returning wideout on the roster. Lavelle Hawkins and Louis Murphy both have NFL starting experience, but neither free-agent addition is a sure bet to even make Tampa Bay’s roster.
Compared by Bleacher Report's Matt Miller (see video above) and others to Vincent Jackson leading up to the draft, Evans wouldn’t traditionally be seen as the ideal complement to the 6’5”, 230-pound Jackson.
Nonetheless, it should work in Tampa Bay. In their time with the Chicago Bears, both head coach Lovie Smith and starting quarterback Josh McCown proved, in working with starting wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, that they can have success with an offense that features two big, rather than fast, starting wideouts.
Justin Gilbert, CB, Cleveland Browns: Buy
In tandem with standout veteran Joe Haden, No. 8 overall pick Justin Gilbert could quickly give the Cleveland Browns one of the NFL’s best tandems of starting cornerbacks.
A top-notch athlete who has good length, great ball skills and impressive instincts and physicality, Gilbert has all the tools coveted in an NFL outside cornerback. If Haden can continue to lock down one side of the field, Gilbert should be in a position to make plays and succeed right away as the team’s No. 2 cornerback.
The Oklahoma State product could face competition from Buster Skrine and Leon McFadden, but both of them are smaller cornerbacks who are better suited to play inside in the slot. Neither of them has shown the skill set in his career with the Browns to justify maintaining a spot ahead of Gilbert on the depth chart.
Anthony Barr, OLB/DE, Minnesota Vikings: Buy
Anthony Barr is among the first-round picks whose games need the most development, and he might be best suited to start his career in a rotational pass-rushing capacity, but he’s likely to be the Minnesota Vikings’ starting strong-side linebacker instead.
The Vikings had a major need to upgrade at linebacker this offseason, but the only significant investment they made at the position came in drafting Barr, a hybrid edge defender from UCLA, with the No. 9 overall pick.
He could play defensive end as well as linebacker, but the team’s depth chart suggests that he'll primarily play at the second level. The Vikings already have a strong trio of defensive ends, each under contract for at least four years, in Brian Robison, Everson Griffen and third-round pick Scott Crichton.
At linebacker, however, new Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer could see Barr playing in a similar capacity to how James Harrison did last year when Zimmer was the defensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals. With little linebacker talent on the roster outside of Barr, it would make sense for Minnesota to start him as the “Sam” linebacker and move its most proven veteran at the position, Chad Greenway, to weak-side linebacker.
Eric Ebron, TE, Detroit Lions: Buy
Whether Eric Ebron is in the starting lineup for Week 1 might ultimately depend on what offensive formation Jim Caldwell and company roll out to start the Detroit Lions’ first game of the season, but there’s little doubt the former North Carolina tight end should factor significantly in the game plan from Day 1.
The No. 10 overall pick in this year’s draft, Ebron has a combination of size and athleticism that makes him a tough matchup for any defender. Along with superstar Calvin Johnson and free-agent addition Golden Tate, Ebron should quickly emerge as a go-to receiving target for Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Ebron should immediately be the Lions’ top receiving tight end, but he might not necessarily be the starter at the position because Brandon Pettigrew is a stronger blocker. But while the Lions could favor Ebron in some situations and Pettigrew in others, it’s likely the Lions will use two-tight end sets frequently to get both players on the field.
If the Lions emphasize getting their best 11 players in their offensive starting lineup, Ebron should be in the mix. That could mean he supplants Pettigrew on the depth chart, that the Lions use two tight ends in their starting lineup, or even that they flex Ebron out as a wide receiver, where the team has limited talent outside of Johnson and Tate.
Taylor Lewan, OT, Tennessee Titans: Sell
Offensive tackles aren’t typically drafted in the top half of the first round to begin their careers as backups, but it’s unclear where No. 11 overall pick Taylor Lewan might fit into the Tennessee Titans lineup in 2014.
The Titans have a very good left tackle in veteran Michael Roos, while they signed Michael Oher to a four-year, $20 million contract this offseason to replace David Stewart at right tackle.
It’s quite possible that the Titans could release Roos, who is 31 years old and entering the final year of a contract that owes him $6.5 million this season. As Oher is coming off a rough season with the Baltimore Ravens, it’s also possible that Lewan could beat him out.
The most likely scenario, however, is that Lewan will be the swing backup tackle for the 2014 season and then take over at left tackle next year when Roos becomes a free agent. The four-year Michigan starter has the physical potential to be a great left tackle, and Roos is unlikely to be re-signed, but Roos is the better option for 2014 as Lewan develops his technique.
Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants: Buy
Like the Detroit Lions and Eric Ebron, whether Odell Beckham Jr. starts for the New York Giants in Week 1 could depend on what formation the team starts with offensively, but the No. 12 overall pick will surely be a key player in New York’s game plan right away.
If he is going to be one of the top two receivers on New York's depth chart, Beckham is going to have to beat out Victor Cruz or Rueben Randle. But although Beckham is smaller than a typical outside receiver at 5’11” and 193 pounds, Giants general manager Jerry Reese has said that's where he expects him to play, according to Jordan Ranaan of NJ.com.
Victor is an inside receiver, [Beckham] is an outside receiver. [Beckham] has more speed than Victor on the outside. I don't think they are similar.
Even if Cruz is moving inside to the slot, he'll likely remain the No. 1 receiver on the depth chart and play outside in two-receiver packages. Reese's comment and the team's lack of talent at tight end, however, would suggest New York will have three wideouts on the field more often than not.
A great athlete who runs terrific routes and has consistent hands, Beckham brings reliability and big-play ability to the field, and that could push him ahead of Rueben Randle on the team's depth chart. One way or another, expect Beckham to be in the lineup when the Giants take the field for their first game.
Correction: This slide previously stated that Beckham was likely to play inside and Cruz was likely to play outside.
Aaron Donald, DT, St. Louis Rams: Buy
If Aaron Donald can keep the momentum going from a 28.5-tackle for loss senior season, dominant week at the Senior Bowl and outstanding performance at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine, he should win a starting job for the 2014 season on the St. Louis Rams defensive line.
The No. 13 overall pick showed the skills in his senior season at Pittsburgh that could enable him to quickly emerge as one of the NFL’s best interior penetrators. He is an ideal fit to play the 3-technique defensive tackle inside, alongside bigger defensive tackle Michael Brockers, on St. Louis’ 4-3 defensive front.
Donald will have real competition from incumbent starter Kendall Langford and free-agent signee Alex Carrington, but the rookie has more explosiveness and pass-rushing ability than either of them can muster. Despite being undersized for a defensive tackle at just 6’1” and 285 pounds, Donald is one of the most ready-to-start players in this year’s rookie class.
Kyle Fuller, CB, Chicago Bears: Sell
Kyle Fuller has the versatility to play multiple defensive back spots and could be a very valuable addition to the Chicago Bears secondary, but he might start out his career in a situational role.
Should the Bears keep him at his natural position of cornerback, he is likely to compete with Kelvin Hayden for slot cornerback duties behind starters Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings. Fuller has the size and skill to be a starter on the outside, but it’s unlikely the Bears would have re-signed Tillman for 2014 if they did not intend to keep him in the lineup.
Fuller’s best chance to start would come with a move to safety, as the Bears have no sure starters at either the free or strong safety position. The No. 14 overall pick has some experience at safety from his time at Virginia Tech.
It’s more likely, however, that he will play primarily in nickel and dime packages as a rookie and then take over a starting cornerback job from Tillman, whose new contract is only for one season, in 2015.
Ryan Shazier, ILB, Pittsburgh Steelers: Buy
The Pittsburgh Steelers felt they needed a “defensive playmaker,” and according to Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin thinks No. 15 overall pick Ryan Shazier fits the bill.
Shazier, from Ohio State, is likely to immediately earn a starting job at inside linebacker alongside Lawrence Timmons. Playing inside in a 3-4 will be an adjustment from playing outside in the 4-3, but it’s a move Shazier should handle quickly.
He could face legitimate competition for his starting job from Vince Williams, a 2013 sixth-round pick who had an impressive rookie year and started 11 games.
Shazier’s athleticism and versatility, however, will make him tough to keep off the field. He has range and coverage ability that Williams cannot match.
Zack Martin, RG, Dallas Cowboys: Buy
Zack Martin was a four-year starter at left tackle for Notre Dame, but like Greg Robinson, the No. 16 overall pick is expected to begin his career playing inside.
The Cowboys are starting Martin out at right guard, according to Charean Williams of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He should have little trouble beating out Mackenzy Bernadeau, who has been a weak link of the Dallas offensive line for the past two seasons.
Martin is a technically superb blocker with the versatility to play any spot on the offensive line, but he might be best served by remaining at guard for the long term. His hand placement and footwork are good enough for him to be a starting-caliber tackle, but his limited length (32.875” arms) is less of a detriment inside.
Nonetheless, there is reason to believe he can have immediate success as a starter on Dallas’ offensive line. He brings experience, fundamentals and enough strength and athleticism to solidify any spot up front for the Cowboys from Day 1.
C.J. Mosley, ILB, Baltimore Ravens: Buy
It would be a surprise if C.J. Mosley, one of the most polished and well-rounded players in this year’s NFL rookie class, doesn’t take on an instant role in the starting defensive lineup for the Baltimore Ravens.
The No. 17 overall pick is a similar player to 2013 second-round pick Arthur Brown, who will be his main competition to start alongside Daryl Smith as Baltimore’s weak-side inside linebacker.
Brown is a physically gifted player who should be expected to make a bigger contribution in his sophomore season, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of Mosley, a two-time All-American at Alabama who is a more complete version of Brown.
As the Ravens replace Jameel McClain, it’s likely that Smith, Mosley and Brown will rotate between the two inside linebacker spots, and Josh Bynes should also factor into the equation. The other players on the roster, however, should not keep the smart, fluid and instinctive Mosley from being a regular on the field from Day 1.
Calvin Pryor, S, New York Jets: Buy
The New York Jets’ need for a new starting safety became very clear when they signed Ed Reed before their Week 11 game this past season, despite him being 35 and well past his prime, and instantly inserted him into the lineup.
Reed struggled in his seven-week stint with the team and was not retained, but the Jets addressed their need at the position by selecting Louisville’s Calvin Pryor with the No. 18 overall pick in this year’s draft.
The hard-hitting ball hawk should beat out Antonio Allen, who lost his job to Reed last year, for the starting free safety job alongside Dawan Landry.
That role could be a struggle for Pryor initially, as his flaws in coverage will get exposed if he is asked to play in a center field capacity. Nonetheless, he’s a playmaker whom the Jets aren’t likely to waste any time getting on the field and into the starting lineup.
Ja’Wuan James, RT, Miami Dolphins: Buy
With only one returning starter (center Mike Pouncey) from last season’s offensive line, the Miami Dolphins will have little choice but to make No. 19 overall pick Ja’Wuan James an immediate starter at right tackle.
The 6’6”, 311-pound blocker from Tennessee was drafted to replace Tyson Clabo, who remains unsigned after a season of subpar play in his only year with the Dolphins. James, who was seen as a draft reach by many analysts including ESPN.com’s James Walker, wouldn’t have been Miami’s first-round selection if the team did not expect him to contribute right away.
He might not have been considered a top-20 prospect in this year’s draft, but James is a good fit for the right tackle position, where he should be able to beat out veteran Jason Fox for a spot in the lineup. With James and Branden Albert, the Dolphins project to have a much more solid pair of starting tackles than they did this past year.
Brandin Cooks, WR, New Orleans Saints: Buy
Known for their spread offensive formations that frequently feature at least three wide receivers on the field, the New Orleans Saints will be expected to have No. 20 overall pick Brandin Cooks in the lineup from Day 1.
The small but exceptionally fast and quick Cooks, from Oregon State, is ideally suited to play as an inside slot receiver in three-receiver sets. That’s likely where he will see most of his playing time with Marques Colston and Kenny Stills outside, but he has enough skill and big-play ability to push Stills for his standing as the No. 2 receiver.
Having traded away Darren Sproles earlier this offseason, New Orleans should immediately make Cooks its top offensive playmaker in space. He should be on the field more often than not; if the Saints didn’t expect him to play in a major capacity from the get-go, they wouldn’t have traded up in the first round to draft him.
HaHa Clinton-Dix, FS, Green Bay Packers: Buy
The best prospect at a position that was the Green Bay Packers’ biggest position of need going into this year’s draft, HaHa Clinton-Dix was an ideal No. 21 overall selection who should be able to earn the starting free safety job by default.
He has all the tools to be a fine starter at the position and to handle deep coverage responsibilities when needed. He is a big, athletic safety who plays the ball well, has good footwork and hip fluidity and hits with authority.
Sean Richardson, who never cracked the starting lineup last season despite poor play from M.D. Jennings at free safety, is unlikely to stack up against Alabama product Clinton-Dix in preseason competition.
Johnny Manziel, QB, Cleveland Browns: Buy
No rookie’s fight for a starting job will be covered in more detail this offseason than Johnny Manziel’s pursuit to be the Cleveland Browns’ first-string quarterback.
In his first two-plus weeks as a member of the Browns, the company line has been that the No. 22 overall pick has a long way to go to win the starting job.
Manziel has been working with Cleveland’s third-team offense thus far in offseason workouts, according to NFL Media’s Aditi Kinkhabwala, while general manager Ray Farmer told ESPN Cleveland’s Bull and Fox earlier this month that veteran Brian Hoyer is currently better than Manziel by a “substantial margin.”
Making the rookie quarterback earn his way up the depth chart isn’t a bad decision by the Browns. It’s also believable that Hoyer, who played well in three starts last season before tearing his ACL, is more ready to lead the Cleveland offense than a player who is just getting his feet wet in the NFL.
That said, Manziel has significantly more potential and playmaking ability than Hoyer, and the Browns will feel significant pressure to play him from Day 1. Opposing defenses will have to account for Manziel’s ability to create plays outside the pocket, even as he develops his passing fundamentals.
If the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner from Texas A&M makes consistent progress through the next three months in becoming a more mechanically sound thrower and learning Cleveland’s offense, the Browns shouldn’t delay the Manziel era past Week 1.
Dee Ford, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs: Sell
Barring an injury to Justin Houston or Tamba Hali, Dee Ford is a safe bet not to start for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2014.
An explosive edge defender who can fly around the corner to bring pressure, the No. 23 overall pick from Auburn could make an immediate impact as a situational pass-rusher.
The problem for Ford, who projects to outside linebacker in Kansas City’s 3-4 defense, is he plays the same position as two of the Chiefs’ best players. Houston and Hali, who were both Pro Bowl selections this past season, aren’t going to be beaten out for their starting spots.
Starting his career in a situational capacity ultimately might be a good scenario for Ford. While his burst and speed make him dangerous when he is coming after the quarterback, he needs to become a stronger run defender at the point of attack.
Darqueze Dennard, CB, Cincinnati Bengals: Sell
With five potential starting cornerbacks, the Cincinnati Bengals will have one of the NFL’s most intriguing position battles at the position. No. 24 overall pick Darqueze Dennard will be an immediate factor in that competition, but it’s a leap to believe the rookie will emerge from that cluster as a starter right away.
In regard to his skill set, Dennard might actually be the most NFL-ready player among all the cornerbacks in this year’s draft class. While his physical upside is more limited than the other cornerbacks selected in this year’s draft, he is an instinctive defender who uses his hands well, excels in press coverage and has great ball skills.
That skill set makes him a real contender to earn an immediate starting job. However, the Bengals might prefer to start him out as the third or fourth cornerback and then gradually work the Michigan State product up to a starting role, as they have enough established talent at the position to do so.
Leon Hall will almost certainly be the team’s No. 1 starter if he is fully recovered from the Achilles injury he suffered last season. That should leave Dennard in a competition with Terence Newman, Adam Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick for the other starting spot.
Unless Dennard makes it clear that he is better than his competition, it’s likely the Bengals would opt for Newman or Jones, who each started 13 games this past season, to line up with the first-team defense when the season starts.
Jason Verrett, CB, San Diego Chargers: Buy
It’s not clear right now if the San Diego Chargers even have one starting-caliber cornerback on their roster, but their most likely option to play up to that standard is No. 25 overall pick Jason Verrett.
At just 5’9” and 189 pounds, he is a small cornerback, but he proved at TCU that he can play much bigger than he stands. He is an explosive, fluid athlete who has great ball skills and isn’t afraid to be aggressive.
The other options to start for the Chargers at cornerback aren’t very promising. Shareece Wright and Richard Marshall were both rated among the NFL’s 10 worst cornerbacks this past season by Pro Football Focus (subscription required), while 2013 fifth-round pick Steve Williams missed his entire rookie season with a torn pectoral muscle.
Verrett is more talented than any of them, so there’s no reason the Chargers should wait to get their rookie in the lineup.
Marcus Smith, OLB, Philadelphia Eagles: Sell
Marcus Smith should see playing time in his rookie season as a situational pass-rusher off the edge, but it would be an upset if the No. 26 overall pick ends up in the Philadelphia Eagles’ starting lineup this year.
The Eagles have a solid set of starting outside linebackers for their 3-4 defense in veterans Trent Cole and Connor Barwin. They also have a talented fifth-year rotational player in Brandon Graham, though he has never attained a consistent role in the Philadelphia defense and has come up in trade rumors, per NFL.com's Chris Wesseling.
Regardless of whether or not Graham is dealt, Smith should be worked into the rotation gradually. The athletic edge defender from Louisville will be groomed to potentially start in 2015, when Graham will be an unrestricted free agent and Cole’s $11.625 million cap hit could lead to his release.
Deone Bucannon, SS, Arizona Cardinals: Buy
Tony Jefferson performed well in limited action in his rookie season, but it’s unlikely a second-year safety who has two career starts and went undrafted last year is going to keep No. 27 overall Deone Bucannon out of the Arizona Cardinals’ starting lineup.
Jefferson is a solid player, especially against the run, but Bucannon is a better athlete and a bigger hitter. Both players still have significant room to improve in coverage, but Bucannon has more upside in that capacity.
There could be a legitimate competition between two promising young players at the position, but if the Cardinals believed Jefferson was their long-term starter—or didn’t believe that Bucannon could be—they wouldn’t have selected the Washington State playmaker with a first-round pick in this year’s draft.
Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Carolina Panthers: Buy
Having lost all four wide receivers who caught passes in regular-season games for the team last season, the Carolina Panthers are essentially starting over at wide receiver. That’s a good situation for Kelvin Benjamin in regard to his potential to earn a starting job right away in the offense.
A 6’5”, 240-pound wideout who creates mismatches on the outside and excels in jump-ball situations, Benjamin is the only receiver on Carolina’s roster who comes close to possessing the traits of a No. 1 wide receiver.
Although he is a solid route-runner who was a key component of Florida State’s national championship season this past year, Benjamin’s game is very much a work-in-progress, and he might struggle to separate from faster cornerbacks in the NFL.
His competition for a starting job, however, consists of Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood, who have a grand total of one 1,000-yard receiving season (Cotchery in 2007) in 23 combined years in the NFL. Benjamin has the most playmaking potential in the group, so it’s likely the Panthers will have the No. 28 overall pick in the lineup from Day 1.
Dominique Easley, DT, New England Patriots: Sell
As long as he is fully recovered from the ACL tear he suffered during a practice at Florida last September, No. 29 overall pick Dominique Easley should be a significant factor in the New England Patriots defensive line rotation right off the bat. It’s less likely, however, that he’ll be in the starting lineup by Week 1.
He is the explosive, penetrating interior defensive lineman that the Patriots have lacked for years. Ideally suited for the 3-technique tackle position in New England’s four-man fronts, he has the physical traits to also play nose tackle and defensive end situationally. He should immediately become the team’s best interior pass-rusher.
All of that should make him a regular on the field for the Patriots early on in his career. But even if he ends up seeing a majority of snaps in 2014, it’s likely he’ll start games on the bench behind veteran defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, assuming they have fully recovered from injuries that ended their seasons prematurely last year.
Jimmie Ward, CB/S, San Francisco 49ers: Sell
A hybrid defensive back who could play both cornerback and safety for the San Francisco 49ers in his rookie year, Jimmie Ward is projected to have no shortage of playing time in 2014, but it probably won’t come in the starting lineup.
He is expected to be San Francisco’s slot cornerback and play “approximately 60 percent” of the 49ers’ snaps this season, according to CSNBayArea.com’s Matt Maiocco.
If Ward were an outside cornerback prospect, the No. 30 overall pick would probably have a good shot at unseating Chris Culliver for a starting job, but he’s better suited to play inside. Having played safety at Northern Illinois, he could eventually be a starter at that position but is likely to back up Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea on the depth chart this year.
Seemingly set to be San Francisco’s fifth defensive back regardless of where he technically lines up, Ward should consistently see the field on nickel and dime packages but might not play in the base defense unless injuries to starters push him into action.
Bradley Roby, CB, Denver Broncos: Sell
After filling nearly all of their significant needs in free agency, the Denver Broncos could afford to draft a player for the future more than the present, and that’s likely when they will be expecting No. 31 overall pick Bradley Roby to become an impact player for their team.
He looked like an elite cornerback prospect at times during his roller-coaster career at Ohio State, but his often reckless play also led to a noticeably high number of mistakes. In his rookie season, he needs to become a more disciplined player in order to be ready for a starting role on an NFL defense.
If Chris Harris is fully recovered from his torn ACL in time for the start of the season, he will start opposite highly paid free-agent signee Aqib Talib. Roby could ascend to the No. 3 spot on Denver’s cornerback depth chart and play in defensive sub-packages, but he could face legitimate competition from 2013 third-round pick Kayvon Webster and veteran Tony Carter.
Should he become a more fundamentally sound player so that he can capitalize upon his potential, Roby will eventually emerge as a starter for the Broncos, but that’s probably not going to be in 2014.
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Minnesota Vikings: Buy
Despite his fall to the final pick in the first round, Teddy Bridgewater might be the best-equipped quarterback in this year’s rookie class to start from Week 1. He also might be in the most likely scenario of any of this year’s rookie quarterbacks to earn that responsibility from the get-go.
Like the Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns with their first-round quarterbacks, the Minnesota Vikings are being cautious not to commit to their rookie signal-caller as a starter. During rookie minicamp, head coach Mike Zimmer said the team will “bring Teddy along at the right time,” according to Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
That said, it’s already clear that Bridgewater has a real shot at winning the job. The Louisville product will receive a share of repetitions with the first-team offense during spring workouts, according to Matt Vensel of the Star Tribune.
If he’s going to be the starter when the 2014 season begins, Bridgewater will have to beat out incumbent quarterbacks Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder. They’re not particularly steep competition. Cassel has a career completion percentage of 59.0 and an 80.5 career passer rating, and Ponder is no better with a 60.2 completion rate and 77.3 quarterback rating.
Bridgewater might have to work his way up the depth chart over the course of the preseason to win the job, but he has all the tools to do so. A mechanically sound, accurate pocket passer with enough arm strength and athleticism to keep defenses honest, he could be an immediate upgrade over the disappointing Ponder and average-at-best Cassel.
All measurables courtesy of NFL.com.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report.
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