2014 NFL Rookies Who Already Look Like Draft Steals
NFL personnel departments spent all year trying to determine which prospects held the most value in the 2014 draft, but the evaluation of those players didn't end with the selection meeting.
Now that each team has its rookie class assembled and is preparing for training camp, every franchise is continuing to reassess the value of its new players and determining which players might bring even more to the table than it expected.
Those players, whether they immediately rise to a high level of production or gradually emerge from obscurity, end up being labeled as "steals" if they sustain their success. While all first-round picks are expected to become integral players for their teams or risk becoming known as busts, there are always players who outperform the expectations typically associated with the slots in which they were drafted.
Until the regular-season games begin in September, we can't know who those steals will actually be. Even then, a player who stands out early could prove to be a flash in the pan who fizzles quickly, while other developmental projects will take more time to emerge but eventually become stars at a level that no one in the NFL expected they would reach.
Patience, however, is a dying principle in professional football. As the emphasis on immediate results increases around the league, so too does the market for prescient information on which rookies will quickly impact games despite being forced into extended periods of waiting during the draft.
The following 10 players are among those who, before training camp has even started, have already begun making names for themselves. If their early progress doesn't translate forward when the pads come on, their names will be quickly forgotten, but for now they stand out within a crowded pack as first-year players to watch this summer.
Jordan Matthews, WR, Philadelphia Eagles
Given the depth of wide receiver talent in this year's draft, it was no surprise to see Jordan Matthews fall to the second round. It also won't be a surprise if the Vanderbilt alumnus, whose skill set might have made him a first-rounder in a different year, ends up being one of the draft's best values.
The No. 42 overall pick has already stood out in offseason workouts, according to multiple reports. The most noticeable attention for the rookie has come from Philly.com's Jimmy Kempski, who said Matthews "looked like the best WR on the team" during limited media access to organized team activities (OTAs).
Unlike the five wide receivers selected in Round 1, Matthews doesn't have any eye-popping physical traits, but he's as polished as any wideout in this year's rookie class. The SEC's all-time leading receiver, having caught 262 career passes for 3,759 yards at Vanderbilt, Matthews is a good-sized, strong wideout who runs crisp routes, stays on his lines through contact and plucks passes with sure hands.
Despite already having a skill set that should enable him to succeed both outside and in the slot, Matthews is clearly focused on getting better. How so? He's spending time this offseason training with Calvin Johnson and A.J. Green, arguably the NFL's top two wide receivers, according to Eliot Shorr-Parks of NJ.com.
From his consistent collegiate production to seemingly making all the right moves in preparation for training camp, every sign points to Matthews being productive right away in 2014 and making the Eagles look smart for trading up in Round 2 to draft him.
Carlos Hyde, RB, San Francisco 49ers
As the perceived value of running backs is annually declining, the opportunities for teams to come away with draft steals at the position is conversely increasing. It was immediately believed that the San Francisco 49ers might have gotten the best value among runners in this year's draft when they landed Carlos Hyde late in Round 2.
Considered by many draft analysts, including Bleacher Report's Matt Miller, to be the best and most NFL-ready running back in this year's class, Hyde ended up being the third tailback off the board. If the big, explosive Ohio State product ends up meeting expectations at the next level, the teams who drafted other running backs ahead of him—the Tennessee Titans (Bishop Sankey) and Cincinnati Bengals (Jeremy Hill)—might regret their decisions.
Hyde, according to ESPN.com's Bill Williamson, "shined out of the backfield as a runner and as receiver" in spring workouts. Despite the fact that Hyde faces competition from Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, Marcus Lattimore and LaMichael James on the San Francisco running back depth chart, Williamson expects the Buckeye to "get a chance at playing time right away."
"He was considered a steal at No. 57 on draft night and is still looking like one," Williamson said.
Gore, the elder statesman of the 49ers backfield, has also been among those to praise Hyde; he told Taylor Price of 49ers.com that Hyde has been "doing a great job" in practices.
Hyde might not necessarily see a great deal of carries as a rookie, but he can earn his way into a significant place in the rotation by continuing to impress. The 49ers should be very pleased with their value, nonetheless, if Hyde, who is known best as a between-the-tackles bruiser but is also a solid receiver out of the backfield, eventually becomes a highly productive feature back as Gore's successor.
Donte Moncrief, WR, Indianapolis Colts
You'll see a few wide receivers in this slideshow, and that’s a testament to how much talent there was at the position in this year's draft. Among the wideouts already making the media take notice: Donte Moncrief, the 14th receiver selected in this year's NFL draft.
Chosen by the Indianapolis Colts with the No. 90 overall pick, Moncrief isn't as polished as the pass-catchers drafted before him. He has the physical traits of a prototypical No. 1 receiver, however: He measured in at 6'2" and 221 pounds and ran a 4.40-second 40-yard dash at this year's NFL Scouting Combine.
The speed Moncrief brought with him to that event in February apparently came back with him for offseason workouts. According to Stephen Holder of The Indianapolis Star, Moncrief has "run by defenders with ease" in practices. Moncrief had at least one "spectacular practice" during Colts minicamp, according to Holder.
Moncrief's ceiling on the wide receiver depth chart for 2014, barring injuries, might be the No. 4 spot, as the Colts have a strong veteran trio at the position in Reggie Wayne, Hakeem Nicks and T.Y. Hilton. That should still give the Mississippi product opportunities to play, nonetheless, while he is also competing to be the team's kickoff returner, according to Kevin Brown of Colts.com.
The future looks bright for Moncrief. With Nicks and Wayne both playing on contracts that will expire in 2015, Moncrief should be groomed for a starting role in his second season as long as he continues to stand out in his development.
John Brown, WR, Arizona Cardinals
You probably didn’t hear much about John Brown prior to this year's draft—in large part because he hails from Pittsburg State, a Division II school—but few rookies generated as much buzz in OTAs and minicamp as the No. 91 overall pick.
A small, shifty playmaker who ran a 4.34-second 40-yard dash at the scouting combine, Brown fits the traditional mold that Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians has looked for in slot receivers. Arians has been impressed with his third-round rookie's progression thus far.
"He's way ahead of most rookies, and coming from a small school, that's unusual," Arians said earlier this month, according to Kyle Odegard of AZCardinals.com. "It doesn't overwhelm him at all. He learns fast and he can apply it fast."
One of the Cardinals' top veteran players, defensive end Calais Campbell, has also liked what he has seen.
"That guy is special," Campbell told Jess Root of SB Nation's Revenge of the Birds. "He's a good player for us. He makes us that much better just having that depth as a slot guy and gives us a chance to throw deep."
Brown wasn't even expected to go as high as he did given his small-school background, but if early indications lead to regular-season success, he could make the Cardinals look very smart for taking a chance on him.
Trai Turner, RG, Carolina Panthers
Trai Turner wasn't even 21 years old when the Carolina Panthers selected the redshirt sophomore guard out of LSU, but the young, physically gifted blocker has apparently been a quick learner in offseason workouts.
Veteran center Ryan Kalil said Turner has done an "incredible job" with his transition thus far, according to Joseph Person of The Charlotte Observer.
"He's got an incredible work ethic and his football awareness is really good," Kalil said.
Coming out of minicamp, Person wrote that Turner "has the edge" to start at right guard, where his competition really should be with himself. Chris Scott started eight games for the Panthers at the position last year, but Turner is stronger and more explosive.
Despite his relative youth, Turner demonstrated all the makings of a starting-caliber guard in his career at LSU. If that's what he can be right away for Carolina, the team will be happy it landed him with the 92nd pick in this year's draft.
Richard Rodgers, TE, Green Bay Packers
Like John Brown before him, Richard Rodgers was far more likely to be classified as a reach than a steal in any post-draft analysis of this year's picks by the Green Bay Packers.
After underwhelming performances both throughout his collegiate career at California and in his slower-than-expected 4.87-second 40-yard dash at this year’s combine, it didn't seem likely that Rodgers would warrant a top-100 pick. Yet he did, and he's already trying to make a statement that if anything, he was selected too low with the No. 98 overall pick.
Being described as an "Underwear League MVP" might be a backhanded compliment, but that appellation nonetheless makes it clear that Rodgers, according to Packers.com's Vic Ketchman, has stood out.
"Rodgers made the play of the spring yesterday, a one-handed catch that caught the head coach's attention," Ketchman wrote on June 11. "He has a unique opportunity to be the pass-catching tight end the Packers lost last season."
Another Packers beat writer, Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, also anointed the tight end as an "MVP of organized team activities." Rodgers "plucked passes with one hand" throughout the spring, Dunne wrote.
Rodgers, who started his California career as a tight end but moved to wide receiver in 2013, has to prove himself as a blocker in training camp. He certainly has the size to take on that role, at 6'4" and 257 pounds, but he needs to develop his technique.
Although he does not have outstanding athleticism by NFL standards, Rodgers' size and receiving skill enables him to create mismatches against opposing defenders. If Green Bay's third-round compensatory pick ends up separating himself from Andrew Quarless and Brandon Bostick to become the Packers' starting tight end in 2014, the team might have itself another mid-round gem.
Cassius Marsh, DE, Seattle Seahawks
Look at the roster of the NFL's defending champion Seattle Seahawks, and you'll find no shortage of draft steals. From quarterback Russell Wilson and cornerback Richard Sherman to safety Kam Chancellor and linebacker Malcolm Smith, Seattle built the foundation for its success by finding studs with selections in the middle and late rounds.
Therefore, it should surprise absolutely no one if a hidden gem arises immediately from the team's 2014 draft class, and that diamond in the rough might end up being Cassius Marsh.
"If the offseason workouts were an indication, the Seahawks might have hit on fourth-round pick Cassius Marsh," Bleacher Report's Dan Pompei wrote last week on the No. 108 overall choice out of UCLA.
A versatile defensive lineman who played multiple spots for the Bruins, Marsh is reportedly being viewed as a 5-technique defensive end in the Seahawks base defense and as a 3-technique defensive tackle for nickel packages, according to Pompei.
Among those impressed by Marsh, ESPN.com's Terry Blount said last week that the defensive lineman, despite being among the players who were barred from participating in OTAs due to the NFL's rule for rookies whose colleges are still in session, "made a big impression" and was "fast off the edge" in minicamp.
Seattle's defensive line, which thrives in part because of its varying looks and multitude of elements, can take advantage right away of the skill set of a player like Marsh. Reportedly up to 265 pounds, according to Pompei, Marsh is an unspectacular athlete, but he wins with functional strength, active hands and a high motor.
The depth chart behind starting defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril should be wide open for competition, and with a need for players to rotate in up front, Marsh could end up in a key role off the bench in 2014.
Lamin Barrow, MLB, Denver Broncos
Most fifth-round picks don't get drafted into situations where they'll have a chance to start as rookies, but that just might be case for Lamin Barrow with the Denver Broncos.
Barrow, according to ESPN.com's Jeff Legwold, "already has the look of a guy who's going to push early and often for playing time." The linebacker, who made his living fighting through blocks and actively pursuing the ball as a tackler at LSU, has shown "lateral quickness and some precision in his drops into pass coverage" in offseason workouts, according to Legwold.
That puts Barrow in a position to compete for the team's top spot at middle linebacker, which is perhaps the most uncertain spot in Denver's entire lineup. As Nate Irving has yet to establish himself as a starter in three seasons with the Broncos, Legwold expects Barrow to make a real push to leap him on the depth chart.
At the very least, Barrow should be able to provide solid depth and an integral special teams presence as a rookie, which in itself would make him well worth the No. 156 overall pick. If the instinctive, athletic linebacker can be more than that right away, the Broncos' loaded roster will look even stronger.
Jon Halapio, G, New England Patriots
The New England Patriots selected three offensive linemen on the third day of this year's draft. Florida State center Bryan Stork and Stanford tackle Cameron Fleming were both fourth-round choices, but it might be the third blocker New England chose, sixth-round pick Jon Halapio, who proves his value most immediately.
The No. 179 overall pick out of Florida, Halapio "stood out as a first-year player who appeared to get plenty of reps with what looked like a reasonable facsimile of the No. 1 offense" in offseason workouts, according to WEEI.com's Christopher Price.
The guard "appeared to fit well with the rest of the starters," according to Price, who isn't the only one attesting to Halapio's impressive early showings. Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald wrote during minicamp that Halapio looked like he "could compete for a starting job at guard," while ESPN.com's Mike Reiss described the rookie as a "momentum builder" who showcased "a bit of a mean streak" in offseason workouts.
Since the 6'3", 323-pound Halapio started at least seven games in all four non-redshirt seasons of his Gators career, it shouldn't come as a huge surprise that he is parlaying his massiveness and experience into competing for a starting job right off the bat.
With that being said, sixth-round picks are typically made for immediate depth and/or future development; if the Patriots end up with a first-year starter from a Round 6 choice, he'll certainly be regarded as a steal.
T.J. Carrie, CB, Oakland Raiders
It wouldn't have been hard to find reasons for T.J. Carrie to go undrafted. A soon-to-be 24-year-old rookie whose career at Ohio University was littered by injuries and an arrest for receiving stolen property, Carrie beat the odds when the Oakland Raiders took a chance on him in this year's draft.
In his short time with the team, Carrie has already made it look as though the Raiders were on to something when they selected him at No. 219 overall, and the seventh-round pick could end up developing into a player of significance.
Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle has described Carrie as "one of the stars" of Oakland's offseason workouts. Raiders coaches have said the cornerback is a "playmaker" and always around the ball, according to Tafur.
Specifically, Oakland head coach Dennis Allen has been "very impressed" with Carrie, according to Levi Damien of SB Nation's Silver and Black Pride.
"What you look for in guys like that is you look for a guy who is gonna make a play that kind of catches your attention," Allen said. "Really every day there's been something that he's done that you say 'Damn, that was a pretty good play.' I like where he's at and the development in the process here."
Expectations shouldn't be raised too high for Carrie, but any production from him in 2014 would be a solid step considering where he was drafted. He is considered the favorite to be Oakland's punt returner, according to Damien. It's also quite possible he could factor in on a cornerback depth chart that is thin behind unproven second-year player D.J. Hayden and veterans Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers.
All measurables courtesy of NFL.com unless otherwise noted.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.