Predicting Every NFL Team's Surprise Rookie Gem
Everyone knows the big names out of the 2014 NFL draft. Guys like Jadeveon Clowney, Johnny Manziel, Sammy Watkins and Teddy Bridgewater have no problem being recognized on a page. But what about some of the lesser-known rookies who might make an impact for their teams?
We see rookies surprises every season. Who is each team's hidden gem from the 2014 draft? First-round picks are eliminated because they are anything but "hidden," but anything beyond that is fair game.
Some of these gems may not actually be unearthed until after they are rookies, as circumstances may conspire to keep them off the field. But many of them have a legitimate shot of playing as rookies, and they could make a splash if so.
The wide receiver position was a deep one in the draft, so it's no surprise that John Brown went virtually unnoticed to the Arizona Cardinals in the third round. He has gotten off to a great start, per Kent Somers of AZCentral.com:
John Brown, a third-round pick out of Pittsburg State, has exceeded expectations.
"John Brown is blowing everyone away," a team source said. "Explosive and sudden. Great hands and a better route runner than we even thought."
"I've always had a chip on my shoulder — a point to prove since I was little," Brown said. "They told me I wasn't going to be able to play varsity (high school). They told me I wasn't going to start in college and they told me I wouldn't make it to the NFL. I still feel like I have a chip on my shoulder."
Unlike most of these hidden gems, Brown was actually drafted much higher than expected. Once considered a late-round pick, the Pittsburgh State product was taken in the third round by Arizona.
Perhaps the Cardinals were enamored with Brown's speed. The 5'10" receiver ran a 4.34-second 40-yard dash at the combine. He is a great replacement for the departed Andre Roberts, a deep threat with the potential to become a great slot receiver.
The Atlanta Falcons got themselves a steal when linebacker Yawin Smallwood fell to them in the seventh round. He was considered by many a mid-round prospect but fell rather far.
The Connecticut product wasn't elite in college, but he was a productive linebacker nonetheless. He brings plenty of experience to the Falcons, having been a three-year starter in college.
The Falcons have some question marks at linebacker in the coming years, as they have six rookies at the position right now.
Smallwood might be an answer in the middle sooner than later.
With quarterback Joe Flacco locked into a huge deal and the starting gig for years to come, pegging a backup quarterback to be the hidden gem of a team's draft might be a bit of a stretch.
It helps that there weren't many others worthy of being a hidden gem. Defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan was a nice second-round value, but it's hard to be hidden coming from a national championship squad like Florida State. Safety Terrence Brooks is in a similar boat.
Keith Wenning can be that guy for the Baltimore Ravens, though.
Wenning doesn't possess the cannon arm or athleticism Flacco does, but he is a smart quarterback with uncanny accuracy. He should be able to win the backup job right away, with the possibility of winning the starting job in years to come.
If there is a lecture on "How to Tank Your Draft Stock" at rookie symposiums in coming years, Seantrel Henderson might be one of the leading examples
Once considered an early-round prospect due to his tantalizing combination of size, athleticism and potential, Henderson set fire to his draft stock and plummeted all the way to the seventh round.
He possesses the talent and physical tools to be a quality starter at the next level. He just needs to find and keep the motivation, something that he couldn't muster even as he was being evaluated during pre-draft season.
If he gets his act together for the Bills, they may have found one of the brightest late-round gems in the entire draft.
The draft wasn't kind to the Carolina Panthers, who may have gotten the most overrated receiver in the first round and didn't address other big positions of need.
One position they did address was offensive guard, where they landed Trai Turner in the third round.
Granted, a third-round pick is hardly hidden, but offensive guards aren't exactly the sexiest bunch in football. The big lineman was a great run-blocker in college.
Turner is going to be a quality starter in the NFL, perhaps even as a rookie.
For linebacker Christian Jones, the draft was a disappointment. The former Florida State star went undrafted, perhaps a victim of a leaked drug test failure from the combine.
Jones is a talented linebacker, and the Chicago Bears need help at the position. The 6'3", 240-pound rookie is a versatile, athletic player who can contribute on special teams right away.
It's easy to see Jones playing his way into a contributing role as a rookie with the potential to be a starter in a year or two.
Had Jeremy Hill been in the draft three years ago without those off-field concerns, he might have gone in the top 15.
As it stands, Hill was the second running back taken in the entire 2014 draft. Unfortunately, that was near the end of the second round. Like Giovani Bernard last year, though, he could have a huge impact right away.
Hill might be the most talented running back in the draft class. The 6'2", 235-pounder averaged a whopping 6.9 yards per carry last season in college. Not bad for a big back.
The LSU product could become the thunder to Bernard's lightning right away in Cincinnati.
The Cleveland Browns landed a nice mid-round running back in Terrance West. The one they signed in undrafted free agency, though, might be better.
Isaiah Crowell fell all the way out of the draft thanks largely to character concerns stemming from his unceremonious ouster at the University of Georgia.
With apologies to newly signed Ben Tate, Crowell may just be the most talented running back in Cleveland right now. Well, that may be hyperbole for an undrafted rookie, but he might have been drafted highly had he not gotten into trouble at Georgia.
If he stays on the straight and narrow, Crowell should win a job on the 53-man roster behind Tate and West. Who knows where that will lead in a year or two.
With receiver Miles Austin gone, the Dallas Cowboys were a little light at the wide receiver position heading into the draft. They got some help in Devin Street out of the fifth round.
The former Pittsburgh wideout has a great combination of size and speed, and he is a great natural receiver with soft hands. The biggest concern for him is weight at 6'3" and 190 pounds, but a little time in the training room should help.
Street will have a serious shot to contribute early. Only Cole Beasley and Dwayne Harris stand in his way to the No. 3 receiver position.
Another second-rounder makes this list.
Prospects hailing from Indiana University are typically unheralded heading into the NFL draft. Cody Latimer got some buzz during pre-draft season, but he was largely lost in a river of wide receivers.
Latimer made some waves at Indiana's pro day after being unable to perform at the combine, running a 4.39-second 40-yard dash despite still recovering from a broken foot.
The rookie wideout will have his work cut out for him to get on the field early with Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Emmanuel Sanders. At 6'2" and 215 pounds, though, he makes a perfect "Z" receiver complement to Thomas, meaning he might find himself in the starting lineup sooner than later.
Caraun Reid fell victim to a bit of a value drop at the defensive tackle position during the draft. If guys like Timmy Jernigan and Louis Nix III fell well below initial draft projections, what chance did Reid have?
It didn't help that he played at Princeton—not exactly a NFL pipeline. Still, he was considered a mid-round prospect but fell all the way to the fifth round.
Reid was a great pass-rushing defensive tackle in college, a player with loads of potential at the next level. His fall was a bit surprising, but the Detroit Lions may have found a suitable replacement for Nick Fairley should they let him go after this season.
Green Bay Packers
Jeff Janis is a fantasy football darling in some circles.
The 6'3" receiver out of Saginaw State has fantastic measurables, running the 40-yard dash in the 4.3-second range and generally ranking among the top 10 receivers in most of the drills.
More importantly, he looks the part on tape. He was a stat monster in college, amassing 4,305 receiving yards and 46 touchdowns. Of course, he didn't exactly do that at Alabama, which is why he wasn't drafted much higher.
Janis steps into a bit of a crowded situation at receiver, with incumbents Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Jarrett Boykin being joined by rookies Davante Adams and Jared Abbrederis in his way. But he could break through with a great preseason.
It was a bit of a surprise to see linebacker Max Bullough fall all the way out of the draft, even considering his Rose Bowl suspension.
Bullough wasn't a world-beater at Michigan State, but he was a solid linebacker who was a captain and a three-year starter.
His leadership qualities alone will make this a fantastic signing in undrafted free agency. The Houston Texans needed help at middle linebacker, and Bullough has an outside chance of starting as a rookie.
There wasn't much to the Indianapolis Colts' draft—relative to most other teams, at any rate—thanks to trades that netted them just five picks.
One of those picks was receiver Donte Moncrief, one of the underrated receivers in a deep class.
The 6'2", 220-pound receiver out of Mississippi has a great combination of size and speed. The biggest reason he wasn't drafted in the first or second round was because the class had so many quality receivers.
In Moncrief, the Colts got their real replacement for aging Reggie Wayne. He will likely be hidden as a rookie, but that will give him a year to develop behind Wayne, Hakeem Nicks and T.Y. Hilton.
There were a couple of candidates here for the Jacksonville Jaguars, who made some nice value picks with receiver Allen Robinson, linebacker Carl Bradford and running back Storm Johnson.
Johnson gets the nod here, though, mainly because he should give the Jaguars the most bang for their buck out of the seventh round.
The rookie out of Central Florida was the victim of a depreciation at the position and fumbling issues in college; otherwise, he might have gone much higher. He is a big back with great feet capable of making waves at the next level if he can curb those fumbles.
Johnson has Toby Gerhart and Jordan Todman ahead of him on the depth chart, but those two aren't exactly Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles. It wouldn't be surprising if he saw the field as a serious contributor in his rookie season.
Kansas City Chiefs
How do you replace Pro Bowl return man Dexter McCluster? Draft De'Anthony Thomas, of course.
The diminutive running back out of Oregon might be a bit small for any sort of traditional role, but the Kansas City Chiefs should utilize him in similar ways than they did McCluster.
Most importantly, Thomas should pick up at least some of the return duties right away. If the Chiefs choose to utilize him in that fashion, Thomas could be the second coming of Dante Hall in Kansas City.
The Miami Dolphins found a nice late-round gem at linebacker when Jordan Tripp fell to them in the fifth round.
Tripp will have an opportunity to contribute right away on special teams, and he might win himself a starting job on that defense sooner than later. He is an aggressive playmaker who needs some seasoning at the next level before being able to contribute on a regular basis. If he is a quick study, though, the Dolphins may have little choice.
Miami's linebackers aren't terribly good. The Dolphins signed Philip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe to big contracts a year ago, but the team is already trying out Koa Misi to start in Ellerbe's spot, and Wheeler might be fighting for his job as well.
Tripp is one of the players who might give Wheeler a run for his money, and he could certainly be a big part of the defense in 2015.
Why offensive tackle Antonio Richardson fell all the way out of the draft is a bit of a mystery—even for him. He told Brian Hall of Fox Sports North:
"I was very surprised," Richardson said during Minnesota's rookie minicamp. "But I'm a strong individual, it didn't shake me. I knew that somebody would pick me up. I know what type of player that I am and I had people in my family remind me that you're the same player that you were in 2012 and 2013, first-round talent. So, it really doesn't matter. I'm just here to learn and just become a better player."
In Richardson's and his family's minds, he is still the same player who started alongside James with the Volunteers for two straight years. Richardson anchored the left side of the offensive line while James maintained the right side.
Sure, a knee injury surfaced during pre-draft season and he didn't work out well, but should that have caused a precipitous fall out of the top rounds all the way to undrafted free agency?
That means the Minnesota Vikings may have landed their right tackle of the future. Indeed, the massive offensive lineman—Richardson is 6'6" and 336 pounds—can be compared to current starting right tackle Phil Loadholt, a 343-pound mammoth who excels as a run-blocker.
New England Patriots
The wide receiver position has been a bit of a Ferris wheel for the New England Patriots in recent years. Guys like Wes Welker and Julian Edelman have left their marks, but head coach Bill Belichick has been searching for some consistency at the position.
Expecting that from a seventh-round pick is ludicrous, but that doesn't mean Jeremy Gallon won't rise to the occasion.
It won't be easy for the 5'7" receiver out of Michigan, though. Gallon is competing with second-year receivers Josh Boyce, Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, not to mention veterans Danny Amendola and the aforementioned Edelman.
Still, he is a tough receiver who might remind Belichick of Welker, who was also drafted late.
New Orleans Saints
A torn ACL did a number on fifth-round pick Vinnie Sunseri's draft stock.
The former Alabama safety wasn't necessarily going to be a first-round pick, but most prospects drop a few rounds when recovering from a big injury.
Sunseri wasn't the most athletic player when healthy, but he made up for it with great instincts and intelligence in that Crimson Tide defensive backfield.
Unfortunately for him, the New Orleans Saints drafted Kenny Vaccaro last year and signed Jairus Byrd to a massive contract this offseason. But Sunseri should be able to contribute on special teams and perhaps see the field in a few seasons if he cashes in on his potential.
New York Giants
Pop quiz, hot shot—who led the South Carolina Gamecocks in sacks last season? If you guessed Jadeveon Clowney, well, you weren't paying attention to the name at the top of this slide. Defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles had 9.5 sacks last season in college.
The New York Giants landed the big defensive tackle in undrafted free agency at a position of need. Linval Joseph signed with the Vikings, and the Giants have some sorting out to do at defensive tackle in his wake.
Incidentally, if he adds some weight, Quarles could wind up being the same size as Joseph.
New York Jets
The NFL is rather ageist when it comes to the draft.
How else can we explain linebacker Trevor Reilly's fall to the draft's cellar, a nearly forgotten seventh-round pick for the New York Jets.
He may be 26 years old, but the Jets got themselves a versatile linebacker with a ton of experience heading into the NFL. Reilly can line up at any linebacker position, the likeliest being outside in head coach Rex Ryan's 3-4 defense.
The Utah product isn't the most athletic linebacker in the draft class, to be sure, but he makes up for it with his instincts and intelligence.
It's tough to gain acclaim as a football player if you hail from Western Kentucky.
To wit, safety Jonathan Dowling was largely invisible throughout pre-draft season, and he was selected in the seventh round. Of course, he did that to himself after getting booted off the University of Florida football team.
Dowling oozes potential, though, making the pick a nice late-round gamble by the Oakland Raiders. At 6'3", the rookie possesses a great combination of size and speed. He needs to gain some weight—he entered the draft at 190 pounds—but that can be done with proper training.
The University of Florida saw three starting defensive backs jump to the pros last season, and much of the talk surrounded cornerbacks Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson. Their teammate, Jaylen Watkins, created relatively little buzz.
Fortunately for Watkins, he looked good through the pre-draft process, eclipsing his former teammates, as they fell well past him in the draft.
Watkins is a versatile defensive back, capable of playing cornerback or safety like he did in college. He should find a home in that Philadelphia Eagles defensive backfield early. The question is where.
If you have been paying attention in recent weeks, it's no secret that yours truly loves receiver Martavis Bryant.
The 6'4", 210-pound wideout from Clemson offers massive upside at the next level, a raw talent with a high ceiling. He was stuck behind DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins for most of his college career, and he might be in a similar situation right off the bat with Antonio Brown and Markus Wheaton as a rookie.
The Pittsburgh Steelers might not be able to keep him off the field for long if he delivers on his promise, though. If he develops quickly, Bryant will be a great option as an "X" receiver at the next level.
San Diego Chargers
The San Diego Chargers needed a mountain in the middle, a space-eating nose tackle that would anchor the center of the defensive front. They may have found their man in the fifth round.
Ryan Carrethers is a mammoth of a man, a 6'1", 337-pound run-stuffing monster who fell to the Chargers in the fifth round.
Unfortunately, stopping the run is just about all he can do right now. Sean Lissemore and Kwame Geathers sit ahead of him on the depth chart, but Carrethers could be a rotational player as a rookie with the opportunity to grow into a starting gig in a year.
San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers had a fantastic draft, finding value after value as the rounds went on. Their best value may have come in the fifth round, when they took a chance on defensive end Aaron Lynch.
The former USF lineman has loads of talent, but he fell in the draft due to—you guessed it—character concerns. Lynch has been perceived as a lazy and selfish player, which may have led to a lackluster season at South Florida after transferring from Notre Dame.
Lynch possesses great physical tools that can be molded into a fantastic player at the next level, though. If the 49ers can maximize his talents, this will be one of the best picks to come out of the 2014 draft.
Safety Dion Bailey was another of those mysterious draft skiers, a high-round prospect who flew right off a cliff for no good reason, save that analysts were far too high on him.
Defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat was in a similar boat. The reigning Big-12 Defensive Player of the Year, Jeffcoat slid right out of the draft and into the waiting arms of the Seattle Seahawks.
Bailey was a better pickup, though. He's a tough safety with good instincts who could be one of those diamonds in the rough the Seahawks keep finding.
They don't have a big need at the position given that Earl Thomas was just locked up to an extension and Kam Chancellor has four years left on his deal. But it's a good problem to have if you are the Seahawks. Bailey could easily develop into a starting-caliber player in the coming years.
St. Louis Rams
It was quite the tumble for cornerback Marcus Roberson out of Florida.
Once considered a second- or third-round pick, Roberson and fellow starter Loucheiz Purifoy had a horrendous pre-draft season, stumbling at every turn and taking a hatchet to their draft stocks in the process.
Roberson landed with the St. Louis Rams, though, a good destination for a cornerback trying to prove himself in undrafted free agency. The Rams have plenty of question marks at the position, and Roberson will be jockeying with several young players for a job.
The former Gator had a great sophomore season that did not translate to his junior year, the biggest reason why he fell out of the draft. He has good size and athleticism, and he has the potential to rebound from the past year and become an early contributor at the next level.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers spent a lot of money and draft capital improving their offense this offseason.
Drafting Mike Evans and Austin Seferian-Jenkins added more big, talented targets for quarterback Josh McCown. One of the more underrated additions of the draft came when the Buccaneers drafted receiver Robert Herron in the sixth round.
Herron adds one thing the team really lacked in its offensive overhaul: speed. The burner out of Wyoming ran a blazing 4.25-second 40-yard dash, one of the fastest times we saw all spring, at Wyoming's pro day earlier this offseason.
First thing's first—Zach Mettenberger needs to clean up his act off the field.
The quarterback out of LSU might have gone much higher in the draft had character concerns not dogged him throughout the draft process. A back injury didn't help either.
His loss was Tennessee's gain, however, as the Titans scored one of the most naturally talented quarterbacks in the 2014 draft all the way in the sixth round.
Mettenberger has an honest chance to start at the next level if he can keep his head on straight. What's more, he only has Jake Locker ahead of him.
Despite a productive season before he got hurt, Locker is on an increasingly short leash, as fans continue to grow impatient in Tennessee. If Mettenberger stays out of trouble and impresses this preseason, the heat will be on Locker to produce early.
It will be interesting to see how the running back position shakes out for the Washington Redskins this season with a new regime in town.
Former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan ran the offense a particular way, one that catered to incumbent starter Alfred Morris' particular set of skills. That may no longer be the case under new offensive coordinator Sean McVay.
Of course, McVay initially said the running game wouldn't look much different, according to ESPN.com's John Keim. That was way back in January, though—things may have changed.
One of those things is the addition of Lache Seastrunk, a draftnik favorite at the running back position who fell to Washington in the sixth round. It's hard to ignore the fact that he averaged 7.6 yards per carry in college, even if he played in an offense that opened up those running lanes for him.
Seastrunk hasn't impressed thus far—ESPN 980's Chris Russell said he has a "long way to go"—but it's still early. Even if he winds up on the practice squad this season, Washington may have found a gem for future years.