Late-Round NFL Rookies Poised for Big Performances in 2014

Curt Popejoy@@nfldraftboardContributor IJuly 25, 2014

Late-Round NFL Rookies Poised for Big Performances in 2014

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    The NFL draft can represent an arduous process. Young prospects enter with dreams of fame and fortune, which all begin with their name being called.

    Unfortunately, for many draftees, there is a wait. And that wait is made worse when expectations and reality fail to find one another on the first two days of the draft.

    Nevertheless, being selected on Day 3 is still a beginning, and for plenty of players, that is all they need. Just get on that roster, and once the work starts, these players can show that they belong.

    For the most part, the eight players on this list were very high-profile, successful college football players. However, all NFL teams want is production. So, even though most of these young men were able to make their name in college football, their path to NFL success starts with some humility.

    There’s no order to this list. These are just eight prospects who have tremendous upside and potential, and have been drafted by teams on which they have a genuine opportunity to contribute early in their rookie years.

     

    All college stats provided by sports-reference.com.

     

    All draft data courtesy of NFL.com.

Logan Thomas (QB Arizona Cardinals)

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    Oh, to be so full of potential. That is the story of Arizona Cardinals quarterback Logan Thomas. There aren’t many players to come out in recent years with the physical gifts of Thomas. At 6’6” and 248 pounds, Thomas is an imposing figure at quarterback.

     

    All of these physical traits kept him in the first-round discussion most of the 2012 college football season, which many assumed would be his last. At the time, ESPN NFL draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. still considered Thomas a first-round pick late in the season. In mid-November 2012, Mark Giannotto of The Washington Post relayed Kiper's comments from a conference call: 

    He has things that nobody else has, ... Which are things that you can’t coach, can’t teach. Which is the great size, physicality, arm strength and all that, mobility. He would be a guy a quarterback coach would have to work with and tweak some things, but as far as potential, he has the most.

    Thomas elected to return to school, and all those first-round aspirations came tumbling down. When the Cardinals took Thomas in the fourth round, they did so in hopes that all of that physical potential could be married with real football skills, and he could be a starter in the league.

     

    Right now, Thomas is battling with Ryan Lindley for the third quarterback spot, while veteran Drew Stanton seems to have the backup spot locked up. Nevertheless, Thomas has the most impressive bag of tools of any of these quarterbacks. He simply needs polish—the patience to sit on his progressions, go through reads and have confidence in his receivers. 

     

    B/R's Tyson Langland tweeted:

    Bruce Arians said “Logan Thomas developed a bad habit of deciding where to throw during his dropback at VTech.” http://t.co/D9aVuENt8D

    — Tyson Langland (@TysonNFL) May 26, 2014

    Having said all that, there is no better long-term answer on this roster than Thomas. He is going to wow people in preseason action and find his way to the final 53-man roster. And don’t be shocked if he’s in the mix to start in 2015.

Seantrel Henderson (OT Buffalo Bills)

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    Buffalo Bills offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson was about as frustrating a prospect as there was in the 2014 NFL draft. He had stretches while at Miami where he was far and away the best offensive lineman on the roster. He was just this massive young man (6'8", 344 lbs), mauling and destroying everything in his path.

     

    However, as quickly as it happened, things would turn. And when they turned, things got ugly. Henderson would find himself on the sidelines during key moments due to poor play and poor conditioning. It was this inconsistency and uncertainty that turned a potential first-round talent into a seventh-round pick.

    Nevertheless, it appears that Henderson is taking full advantage of his opportunities since arriving in Buffalo.

    According to NFL Network's Albert Breer:

    Bills rookie LT Seantrel Henderson left practice earlier. Was with the 1s, in place of Cordy Glenn (illness). Chris Hairston is there now.

    — Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) July 20, 2014

    Even with the inevitable return of starting left tackle Cordy Glenn, the fact that Henderson has earned the confidence of the staff enough to be his fill-in with the starters is promising. Not everyone shares this opinion.  

    Per B/R's Scott Carasik:

    If you start Seantrel Henderson at left tackle, you're gonna have a bad time. #Buffalo

    — Scott Carasik (@ScottCarasik) July 21, 2014

    With Henderson, the Bills are always going to get a series of highs and lows. When he’s good, he’s very good, and when he’s bad, he’s a dumpster fire. They key for his NFL future is to keep a fire extinguisher handy and minimize those lows.

Tyler Gaffney (RB Carolina Panthers)

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    If you are a fan of physical, hard-nosed football, then you have to love what Carolina Panthers running back Tyler Gaffney brings to the party. Gaffney battered defenses to the tune of 1,709 yards rushing in 2013. Gaffney also brought some surprising speed after running a 4.49 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, per NFL.com.

    Gaffney might not be the flashiest back in the 2014 class, but he is powerful and productive, and he never lets up on a play. 

    ESPN CollegeFootball noted his performance in this year's Rose Bowl: 

    Another version of Tyler Gaffney's touchdown for #Stanford to open up the scoring for the #RoseBowl100: http://t.co/nHvR4W0ysE

    — ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) January 1, 2014 

    It may seem that Gaffney is buried on the Panthers depth chart behind guys like DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. However, Williams is 31 years old, and Stewart has been plagued by injuries his entire career. 

    With an athletic, dynamic quarterback like Cam Newton in charge of the offense, Gaffney makes perfect sense. No one wants to see Newton taking any more hits than necessary, and Gaffney can be that guy to gut out the tough carries and absorb those hits. 

    Don’t be shocked if Gaffney ends up the No. 3 running back on the roster this year and ends up an invaluable asset to the run game right out of the gate.

Devin Street (WR Dallas Cowboys)

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    The Dallas Cowboys got a real steal when they took wide receiver Devin Street in the fifth round of this year's draft. Street is a long (6'3"), rangy wide receiver with sneaky speed and excellent instincts. Street functions very well in the slot receiver role, which is where Dallas can really use the help. Having Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams on the outside gives Street room to operate, much like what he saw at Pitt. 

    I liked a @YouTube video http://t.co/FzlqDWm5WB Official Highlights | Pittsburgh WR Devin Street

    — Rossi (@DiGyalDemSugah) May 28, 2014

    Why did Street fall?

    Most point to his slender build (198 lbs) and poor ball security as the primary culprits. Fortunately, both things can be corrected to varying degrees. The best thing that can happen for Street is to line up inside, move around with motion and keep himself free of the jam at the line of scrimmage. 

    B/R's Ryan Riddle points out via Twitter:

    The #Cowboys rookie WR Devin Street is a name to watch out for this summer. I think is going to show up big.

    — Ryan Riddle (@Ryan_Riddle) July 23, 2014

    Defenses that take on Dallas are going to have to focus so much attention on Bryant and Williams, Street could see some very tasty matchups.

    The primary competitors pitted against Street are Cole Beasley (5'8", 180 lbs) and Dwayne Harris (5'10", 207 lbs). Neither player brings the size or speed to the party that Street does. Beasley and Miles Austin shared that third wide receiver role in 2013 and got 63 catches. Street might not get there, but he will take full advantage of his opportunities.

Nevin Lawson (CB Detroit Lions)

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    Former Utah State cornerback Nevin Lawson might be the least known of any player on this list. However, his impact might be the most significant of any of the eight listed. 

    Lawson comes to the NFL as a very heady, polished zone-coverage cornerback. Although Lawson is only 5’9”, he plays with superb length and lots of football smarts. His strength is zone coverage, but in off-man, Lawson could be very effective as well. 

    If the season started today, Bill Bentley would probably be the starting cornerback opposite Darius Slay. However, Lawson is the more interesting cornerback on the roster beyond the starters and is best suited to plug into the nickel or slot cornerback role. 

    As B/R's Jeff Risdon points out via Twitter:

    Went back and watched more Nevin Lawson. He's grabby but I stand by earlier assessment he's the best slot CB in this draft. #LionsDraft

    — Jeff Risdon (@JeffRisdon) May 12, 2014 

    Lawson might not be ready to be a full-time starter until he can polish his man skills, especially when it comes to being physical with wide receivers. This is perhaps one area in the NFC North he must improve, as most teams have a very competent third wide receiver.

Chris Smith (LB Jacksonville Jaguars)

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    Of all the players on this list, Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Chris Smith might be the one to see the most snaps as a rookie. As of now, according to ourlads.com, Smith is the starter on paper at strong-side outside linebacker. 

    Smith is moving from his college position of defensive end to outside linebacker, and it sounds as if progress is going well. He also holds the confidence of his coaches and teammates.

    ESPN's Louis Riddick noted: 

    Mentioned last month #Jaguars rookie 5th rd DE Chris Smith was someone to watch as far as his development pace. So far - so good...

    — Louis Riddick (@LRiddickESPN) June 19, 2014

    Smith is a little squatty, but he has a nice burst and plays with exceptional strength. The Jaguars are playing a defensive front similar to what the Seattle Seahawks use, meaning they have a massive defensive line. This will put a lot of the onus on outside linebackers Smith and Geno Hayes to get after the quarterback on passing downs.

    The Florida Times-Union (via Pro Football Spot) likes Smith's prospects:

    The #Florida Times Union expects fifth-round DE Chris Smith to make a year-one impact on defense. #Jaguars

    — Pro Football Spot (@pfspot) July 15, 2014

De'Anthony Thomas (RB/WR Kansas City Chiefs)

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    Sometimes when a team and a player come together it just makes sense. That is definitely the case with former Oregon running back De'Anthony Thomas and the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs have all-world running back Jamaal Charles, but Thomas’ role will be something a bit more unique.

    As with former Chief Dexter McCluster, Thomas could be asked to work more as a wide receiver than pure running back. Keep in mind, although Thomas only hauled in 22 receptions in 2013, he had 91 total in the two previous seasons.

    De'Anthony Thomas || Oregon Highlights ᴴᴰ || The Black Mamba http://t.co/hrf5RYUrXx what my bro @Elijah_J28 bout to look like this year🏈

    — CAT (@SavageSquad_2) July 24, 2014

    Thomas’ skill set is evident. Thomas ran a disappointing 4.5-second predraft 40-yard dash, per NFL.com, and raised some eyebrows. However, Thomas has impressive field speed. That’s due in part to the fact that he gets to top speed very quickly and loses very little in his cuts.

    Adam Burns points out:

    He looked quick. Very. Quick. My guess is he'll be a more effective Dex. "@KevonM4: How does de Anthony Thomas look?"

    — Adam Burns (@AdamBurnsKC) July 22, 2014

    The Chiefs depth chart at wide receiver consists of Dwayne Bowe and a bunch of mediocre talents. Aside from the return game, Thomas should see plenty of targets in the passing game in subformations. McCluster is a very good player, but Thomas is a more than adequate replacement.

Devon Kennard (LB New York Giants)

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    Sometimes, a player’s draft stock is really out of their control. For New York Giants linebacker Devon Kennard, that really does apply. Kennard went to USC, and during his time there played for four different defensive coordinators. He was moved back and forth between defensive end and middle linebacker.

    However, in New York, the team has other plans for the versatile linebacker, per ESPN's Dan Graziano: 

    Giants just handed out a depth chart. Rookie Devon Kennard listed as starting SLB with McClain at MLB.

    — Dan Graziano (@DanGrazianoESPN) July 24, 2014 

    For the Giants, Kennard looks like a natural fit for the outside linebacker in their scheme. Kennard is strong and attacks downhill. His speed as a defensive end is put to effective use on the edge, as he flows to plays. 

    With all his skills, you just have to wonder why he ended up a fifth-round pick. It could simply be that teams weren’t sure what they were going to do with him if they drafted him.

    Giants linebacker coach Jim Herrmann echoes this sentiment, per Howie Kussoy of the New York Post: 

    I liked him on film, obviously our college scouting liked him on film, Herrmann said. He played at USC and he played under four different coordinators, and played four different positions, so I think he kind of got lost in the college shuffle a little bit there. 

    As long as Jon Beason and Jameel McClain are unable to get on the field, Kennard is going to be able to continue to develop and make progress toward winning that starting linebacker spot.