There are a number of first-year players who will see the field throughout the campaign and compete for Rookie of the Year honors. A lot of it has to do with the situation—it’s hard to change the game if you are sitting behind an All-Pro or stuck in a struggling offense.
With that in mind, here is a look at three rookies in particular who will turn in breakout seasons (and make fantasy owners pleased along the way).
WR Brandin Cooks, New Orleans Saints
Brandin Cooks is already making the right type of impression on the right people in New Orleans if Drew Brees’ comments are any indication, via Larry Holder of The Times-Picayune: "Yeah, you can say they're (some players) straight-line fast but not real quick or they have long strides, or short-area quickness but not long speed. This guy has it all. He's got short-area quickness, great transition ability and phenomenal straight-line speed."
In short, Cooks is a speedster on the outside. He used that speed to win the 2013 Biletnikoff Award at Oregon State as the nation’s top wide receiver in a season that saw him set Pac-12 records with 128 catches and 1,730 receiving yards. He also hauled in 16 touchdown passes and led the NCAA in receiving yards per game at 133.1.
The talent is clearly in place.
Cooks is part of a wide-open passing attack that features Marques Colston, Jimmy Graham, Nick Toon, Kenny Stills and Robert Meachem, so it will be impossible for opposing defenses to focus on just him. That means Cooks will see plenty of single coverage (especially with the safeties so concerned with Graham over the middle), which he can beat over the top with his speed.
Brees will hit him in stride for a number of touchdowns.
RB Carlos Hyde, San Francisco 49ers
Heading into training camp, the San Francisco 49ers had a stable of running backs, but Kendall Hunter suffered a knee injury and LaMichael James dislocated his elbow. All of a sudden, much of that depth disappeared.
Enter Carlos Hyde, who has already impressed Matt Miller of Bleacher Report and Brad Evans of Yahoo Sports early in the preseason:
Frank Gore is the starter in San Francisco, but he is 31 years old. It would benefit the 49ers to limit the veteran’s carries in the regular season so he is fresher come playoff time, which means the opportunity should be there for Hyde.
At 6'0", Hyde checks in north of 220 pounds and is a physical load to bring down in the open field. He possesses the rare size and speed combination that allows certain running backs to beat linebackers to the edge and run over people up the middle on consecutive plays. Hyde also ran out of shotgun and pistol sets in Urban Meyer’s offense in college, so familiarity shouldn’t be an issue alongside Colin Kaepernick's similar sets.
In his senior season at Ohio State, Hyde ran for 1,521 yards and 15 touchdowns and caught three touchdown passes. He proved he can contribute in the passing game in college and is a strong enough blocker to stay on the field for third downs.
All of that raw talent will lead to a prominent role and subsequent production behind Gore.
LB Khalil Mack, Oakland Raiders
Let’s not forget about the defense.
Khalil Mack is the type of versatile linebacker and lineman hybrid who will line up all over the field for the Oakland Raiders. His ability to make plays will prove much more important than his position designation.
Much like Hyde on the offensive side, Mack is a physical specimen who matches his size (6'3", 252 lbs) and strength with game-changing speed. At the NFL Scouting Combine, Mack ran the 40-yard dash in 4.65 seconds and the short shuttle in 4.18 seconds. That means he has impressive speed in the open field and the ability to cover laterally sideline to sideline.
Look for Mack to attack the quarterback off the edge like he did in college and cover tight ends in the passing game.
Don’t forget that Mack was double- and triple-teamed during his days at Buffalo and still found a way to sack the quarterback 10.5 times in his senior season alone. Opponents won’t be able to send two or three blockers at him on every play in the NFL, so there will be more opportunities to make plays.
Don’t say you weren’t warned, quarterbacks.
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