NFL Rookies Flying Up Depth Charts This Offseason
The games have yet to begin, but the competition to climb depth charts has already started throughout the NFL. That’s especially true for the league’s rookies, who need to use every opportunity they can get—including spring workouts—to prove to their teams that they deserve to play right away.
For many early round picks from the 2014 NFL draft, moving up the depth chart will be little more than a formality. Even if they aren’t working with first-team units yet, most players selected in the first and second rounds are expected to at least contend for starting jobs in their rookie seasons.
Draftees from later rounds truly have to earn their playing time. It’s typically a less-than-ideal situation when an NFL team turns to a middle- or late-round choice to start immediately, but some of them are already performing well enough to take advantage of playing time opportunities.
Gabe Jackson, LG, Oakland Raiders
Among third-round selections from this year’s draft, Gabe Jackson is one of the most likely to become an immediate standout for his team.
The No. 81 overall pick, Jackson is a massive, powerful guard who rarely loses when he gets his hands on an opponent. He was a 50-game starter at Mississippi State.
Now with the Oakland Raiders, Jackson started to take some first-team repetitions at left guard away from incumbent starter Khalif Barnes, according to Steve Corkran of the Bay Area News Group.
There’s no reason Jackson, whose strength is using his 6’3”, 336-pound frame to open holes as a run-blocker, shouldn’t have every opportunity to beat out Barnes, who had Pro Football Focus’ (subscription required) fourth-worst run-blocking score among guards this past season despite playing just five games at the position.
Coach Dennis Allen likes what he's seen so far, per Corkran, but notes he still has some work to do:
I like Gabe. I liked him when he came out in the draft. I’ve liked what I’ve seen on the practice field. Mentally is where he’s really got to work to improve. Because any time you get in this situation as a rookie, you’re behind from a mental standpoint and just picking up the offense, not to mention the physical aspect of the game.
A nimble mover for his size, Jackson has the ability to quickly establish himself as a very good NFL interior offensive lineman, and he could potentially be the league’s best rookie guard this year.
Donte Moncrief, WR, Indianapolis Colts
A late third-round pick out of a deep draft class of wide receiver talent, Donte Moncrief has reportedly been displaying the skills to potentially emerge as an instant playmaker for the Indianapolis Colts offense.
In at least one offseason practice, Moncrief was “spectacular” and “spent considerable time with the first-team offense,” according to Stephen Holder of The Indianapolis Star. The 6’2”, 221-pound receiver, who has outstanding speed for his size, has shown that he can “run by defenders with ease.”
For as good as he might have looked in OTAs, it’s unlikely that the speedster from Ole Miss will end up remaining with the first-team unit in training camp. That opportunity came after free-agent addition Hakeem Nicks suffered a practice injury, according to Holder, while the projected starter opposite Nicks, Reggie Wayne, sat out OTAs while continuing to recover from the torn ACL he suffered last season.
Wayne, Nicks and T.Y. Hilton will almost certainly be the top three wide receivers on the regular-season depth chart, as long as each of them is healthy, but Moncrief seems to be soldiering ahead of the rest of the Colts roster to be the No. 4 wideout. That should put Moncrief in a position to see some playing time, then to be the first to step into a key role on the outside if Wayne or Nicks gets injured.
Regardless of where he shakes out on the pecking order, it’s a good sign for the Colts if Moncrief, their No. 90 overall pick who has the physical tools to be a star but was considered to be unpolished as a prospect, is on a developmental fast track.
John Brown, WR, Arizona Cardinals
Having played his college football at Pittsburg State, a Division II school in Kansas, John Brown was hardly a household name when the Arizona Cardinals selected him in the third round of this year’s draft. He started to change that by standing out in offseason workouts.
Brown drew considerable praise from both media and Cardinals coaches during organized team activities. Head coach Bruce Arians said earlier this week that Brown was “way ahead of most rookies,” per Kyle Odegard of AZCardinals.com, while the team reportedly believes Brown will be a “special player,” according to NFL.com’s Gil Brandt.
The positive impressions Brown has already made increase his likelihood to see significant playing time in 2014. A small receiver who is both explosively fast and quick in space, he projects well at slot receiver, a position he could start at immediately if he can beat out veteran Ted Ginn.
Ginn is a solid player who is coming off one of the most productive seasons of his career, and he signed a three-year contract with the team this offseason. However, if Brown continues to be as impressive in the preseason as reports have indicated he has been thus far, the No. 91 overall pick will be tough to keep off the field.
Richard Rodgers, TE, Green Bay Packers
After an underwhelming collegiate career in which he caught less than 60 passes and had fewer than 900 receiving yards, Richard Rodgers was seemingly a developmental prospect who was unlikely to contribute significantly for a few years. The Green Bay Packers’ compensatory third-round pick, however, has other plans.
Described by Packers.com’s Vic Ketchman as a potential “Underwear League MVP”— a reference to the fact that OTAs and minicamp practices did not include full pads or contact—Rodgers is making an immediate push for playing time in Green Bay.
ESPN.com’s Rob Demovsky recently wrote that it appears Rodgers “might have the inside track” on the team’s starting job at tight end. “At least once a practice, he made an eye-catching play in the passing game,” Demovsky said of Rodgers’ performance this spring.
Rodgers is an unpolished blocker, having moved to wide receiver in his junior season of a largely dysfunctional career at California, but he has impressive size (6’4”, 257 lbs) and has demonstrated the pass-catching skill to be a dynamic receiving target over the middle of the field.
If he makes strides in his blocking and continues to impress with his hands, Rodgers could very well emerge as the starter.
The No. 98 overall selection in this year’s draft, Rodgers has significantly more playmaking upside than either Andrew Quarless, the incumbent starter at the position, or Brandon Bostick, who took first-team repetitions in place of the injured Quarless during OTAs, according to Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Russell Bodine, C, Cincinnati Bengals
Teams don’t usually draft players in the fourth round with visions of them starting right off the bat, but the Cincinnati Bengals very well might expect that from Russell Bodine, the No. 111 overall pick in this year’s draft.
Bodine, an athletic center who made a name for himself by posting 42 repetitions on the bench press at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine, practiced frequently with the first-team offense in OTAs, according to Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com. While that occurred at least in part due to veteran interior offensive lineman Mike Pollak sitting out with a knee injury, Hobson later wrote that he believes Bodine is “their guy at center.”
Third-year Bengals lineman Trevor Robinson could also factor into the competition, but the fact that Bodine has already started taking away his repetitions is a bad sign for Robinson. Pollak, meanwhile, has never established himself as a full-time starter in six NFL seasons and is best suited for a primary backup role at both center and guard.
That should leave the window of opportunity wide open for Bodine, a North Carolina product whom the Bengals traded up to secure in Round 4, to seize the starting job. He will need to put together a strong training camp and preseason, but he has displayed a “nice nasty streak and a real serious demeanor,” according to Hobson.
Brock Vereen, FS, Chicago Bears
Despite having a major need to upgrade the safety position in this year’s draft, the Chicago Bears didn’t add one until they selected Minnesota’s Brock Vereen in the fourth round. That’s good news for Vereen, the No. 131 overall pick, who already appears to have a shot to start at free safety.
“Vereen took all the first-team reps at free safety” by the end of Chicago’s OTAs, according to ESPN.com’s Michael C. Wright. Per Wright, the team “believes he’s got the acumen, desire and football intelligence to quickly become a viable contributor.”
There’s reason to believe that Vereen, despite his relatively low draft position, is the most viable option to start at free safety. A versatile defensive back who also has experience playing cornerback, he has enough athleticism and coverage ability to handle center field responsibilities in the secondary.
He won’t necessarily remain with the first-team defense when incumbent starter Chris Conte, who missed OTAs, returns from offseason shoulder surgery. But Vereen has already beaten out M.D. Jennings, who started for the Green Bay Packers last season, and he deserves a real shot to beat Conte, whom Pro Football Focus graded as the NFL’s fifth-worst safety in 2013.
Vereen could also face competition from veteran Adrian Wilson, who was signed by the Bears earlier this week, but the 34-year-old is a better fit for strong safety and a long shot to return to prime form after missing all of last season with a torn Achilles.
Prince Shembo, ILB, Atlanta Falcons
It initially came as a surprise that the Atlanta Falcons envision Prince Shembo, a player they selected with a compensatory fourth-round pick in this year’s draft, as an inside linebacker. Yet if Shembo can make a smooth transition to the inside after playing his Notre Dame career as an edge defender, he could have an unexpectedly immediate opportunity to play in Atlanta.
As Sean Weatherspoon is out for the season with an Achilles injury and Akeem Dent was traded to the Houston Texans, the Falcons’ only inside linebackers with NFL playing experience are two guys they picked up after last year’s draft as undrafted free agents—Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu—and Tim Dobbins, a journeyman inside linebacker who has started just 22 games in eight NFL seasons.
Worrilow and Bartu, who were both pleasant surprises on an otherwise abhorrent Falcons defense in 2013, should be penciled in as the starters in Atlanta’s hybrid, 3-4-based defensive scheme. That said, Atlanta is likely to rotate them in and out of the lineup—especially Bartu—and ESPN.com’s Vaughn McClure believes Shembo has a “legitimate chance to win a starting job alongside Worrilow.”
There’s nothing particularly special about Shembo, but he is a solid tackler and good athlete who knows how to fight through blocks. He has to prove himself in training camp, but there also isn’t much standing in his way of at least being a priority backup at the position for Atlanta.
Two additional Day 3 selections, fifth-round choice Marquis Spruill from Syracuse and seventh-rounder Yawin Smallwood of Connecticut, could also factor into the competition for playing time at inside linebacker.
Bene Benwikere, CB, Carolina Panthers
With a secondary full of largely uninspiring talent, the Carolina Panthers can use any immediate source of help they can get in the defensive backfield. They might get that source, apparently, from cornerback Bene Benwikere, a fifth-round selection from San Jose State.
Going into spring workouts, one of the most solidified roles in the secondary seemed to be that of Charles Godfrey, who was a safety for the Panthers before suffering a torn Achilles last season. Benwikere, however, has made an immediate push for the job, according to multiple reports.
With Godfrey working his way back slowly from injury, “Benwikere took most of the reps at nickel corner in Godfrey’s absence and showed good ball-hawking skills” at Carolina’s OTAs, according to Joe Person of The Charlotte Observer. Expecting him to make a run at taking that job away from Godfrey, ESPN.com’s David Newton said Benwikere stood out in offseason practices.
Ultimately, the battle could be determined by how well Godfrey returns from injury in training camp and the preseason; if he doesn’t play as well as he has in previous years, the job will be there for Benwikere to potentially seize.
While this year’s No. 148 overall pick has subpar length and speed for an outside cornerback, he is a good fit in slot coverage, where he can put his ball skills, instincts and short-area quickness to good use. He is an inconsistent tackler in run support, but he attacks the ball in the air and, like Godfrey, has experience playing safety.
Whether it be as the Panthers’ No. 3 cornerback, in dime packages and/or on special teams coverage units, Benwikere should make an immediate impact for Carolina, but he could be a quick fifth-round steal if he takes on a key defensive role in his rookie season.
All measurables courtesy of NFL.com unless otherwise noted.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.