Projecting Every NFL Team's Next Big Thing
Potential just means a player has yet to do anything. Potential can be a boon or a curse. For the NFL's elite, they converted their potential into on-field production. But they were all unproven prospects at first.
Due to the nature of the NFL's 53-man rosters, each team places high hopes upon those expected to make a big leap and provide an invaluable service. They have to. An established veteran can't be found or afforded at every position.
Some flash during earlier portions of their careers but never showcase their full ability. Others seem to come out of nowhere and develop into impact performers. Or rookies fulfill their destiny as the saviors their organizations envisioned during their selections.
It doesn't matter if it takes a few years or a player enters the spotlight during his initial campaign. All that matters is they realize their potential and develop into the stars their teams need.
Bleacher Report identified an individual on every roster capable of becoming the next big thing.
Arizona Cardinals: DE Robert Nkemdiche
The Arizona Cardinals made a habit of sitting their first-round picks in recent years. Lacking the maturity to handle the professional game, neither of the team's previous two top picks—D.J. Humphries or Robert Nkemdiche—started a single game as rookies even though both are gifted athletes.
Humphries started 13 games in his second season. Nkemdiche will be relied upon just as heavily, if not more so, during his sophomore campaign.
"Oh my gosh; he's learning it and he's getting it down and he's a stud," right guard Evan Boehm told Burns & Gambo during training camp, per 98.7 FM Arizona Sports Station's Craig Grialou. "That's the type of guy you want to go against in practice because he's got a motor that just doesn't stop. He's strong, physical, fast. He's got the qualities to be that dude for us here on the defensive line."
Nkemdiche entered the collegiate ranks as the nation's No. 1 recruit. At 6'4" and 296 pounds, he displayed the physical tools to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft. Yet inconsistency on the field and concerns off the field caused him to fall to the 29th overall selection.
When his motor runs hot, Nkemdiche can be nearly impossible to block. The Cardinals need him playing at full tilt to replace Calais Campbell along the defensive front.
Atlanta Falcons: DT Grady Jarrett
Grady Jarrett came to the forefront on the biggest stage in professional football. During Super Bowl LI, the defensive tackle sacked New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady three times.
Interior defenders with the ability to consistently collapse the pocket are worth their weight in gold. The Falcons front office expected similar things from the 305-pound Jarrett.
"Too often, interior guys don't give you the pass rush he has," general manager Thomas Dimitroff said after Jarrett's Super Bowl performance, per ESPN.com's Vaughn McClure. "But he has the ability to slice through the gap, and he's got a short-area quick burst that was very impressive for us. We expected him to come in and have an element of rush ability from the inside."
Despite the standout performance, Jarrett still has room to improve and should increase his four career sacks during the regular season.
Donatri Poe's addition to the defensive front will take some pressure off the smaller and highly active defender. With Vic Beasley also rushing from the outside, opposing offenses must decide who to block, giving Jarrett more opportunities to win one-on-one battles.
Baltimore Ravens: NT Michael Pierce
A year ago, undrafted free agent Michael Pierce just wanted to make the Baltimore Ravens roster. A year later, he'll be one of the most integral parts of the team.
Pierce will never receive the recognition he deserves as a nose tackle, but his impact sends ripple effects throughout the entire roster. For example, the Ravens made two moves this offseason that were directly related to his outstanding play last season.
As a rookie, the 340-pound nose tackle finished second overall among defensive tackles by making a defensive stop on 12.5 percent of his run defense snaps, per Pro Football Focus.
With Pierce in the lineup, general manager Ozzie Newsome became comfortable with the idea of trading Timmy Jernigan to the Philadelphia Eagles. Pierce's presence also placed more expectations upon Brandon Williams, who will be asked to play a bigger role after signing a five-year, $52 million contract this offseason. Instead of just defending the run—that's now Pierce's job—Williams must get after the quarterback, too.
A nose tackle sets the tone for an entire defense. An immovable presence in the middle allows the unit to hold its own against opposing ground games and place offenses in difficult down-and-distance situations. With Williams expected to play more 3-technique, Pierce automatically becomes the wall in the middle of the Ravens defense.
Buffalo Bills: WR Zay Jones
All Zay Jones does is catch footballs. He's exactly what the Buffalo Bills need after losing Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin and Justin Hunter in free agency. Sammy Watkins is entering the final year of his rookie contract, too.
The 6'2", 200-pound target left college football as the FBS career leader in receptions with 399. Jones set the single-season record as a senior with 158 catches. He is a reliable target with the ability to play outside or in the slot.
"Well, we had to move him around a little bit but he's young so young receivers have to know more than one position," Bills offensive coordinator Rick Dennison said Monday, per the Buffalo News. "I think that may have cost him a little bit a couple days ago but then he bounced back and had a good day yesterday. I think he's handled it very, very well. I think he's very positive every time we go out there. He's trying to find something that he can improve on and he does that every day."
Some of the pressure will be taken off Jones to produce after the team signed 14-year veteran Anquan Boldin to a one-year, $2.75 million deal. Boldin is still an effective option, particularly out of the slot. His presence will help Jones become a better receiver.
"That is a big part of this acquisition, and I wouldn't be honest if I didn't admit that," head coach Sean McDermott said, per Bills Wire's Robert Quinn. "That's important. This is a short-term win, but it's also a long-term vision of how this could help our football team moving forward for years to come."
Carolina Panthers: RB Christian McCaffrey
The Carolina Panthers offense is built around quarterback Cam Newton. The scheme will expand with rookie Christian McCaffrey in the backfield.
The organization decided a different approach was needed after Newton was beaten to a pulp last season. He's still experiencing the lingering effects of last year's pounding as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery.
The Panthers offense will no longer primarily rely on a power running game and a downfield passing attack. McCaffrey's presence allows the unit to do more.
Former NFL offensive lineman and SB Nation contributor Geoff Schwartz noted the Panthers offense featured more outside zone runs in Wednesday's preseason contest against the Houston Texans than it did all of last season.
Head coach Ron Rivera expects McCaffrey to be a weapon in the short passing game.
"We're just working a lot of different things, different ways to get the ball in his hands," Rivera said, per ESPN.com's Jodie Valade. "The screen pass obviously is one of them. It's a weapon, it's a tool we've used in the past. But we do know it's something he runs very well."
McCaffrey will take pressure off of Newton, and the duo has a chance to be truly special.
Chicago Bears: LB Leonard Floyd
Leonard Floyd's play during his rookie campaign compared favorably to both the Oakland Raiders' Khalil Mack and Pittsburgh Steelers' James Harrison. This may be a startling proclamation considering Mack is the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year and Harrison is Pittsburgh's all-time leader in sacks.
However, Floyd ranked second sandwiched between both in pass-rush productivity from 3-4 outside linebackers who primarily rush from the right side, per Pro Football Focus.
Obviously, Floyd has a long way to go before he dominates at the same level of those aforementioned stars, but the potential is there to be counted among their ranks.
Last year's ninth overall pick finished his first campaign with seven sacks and 36 more quarterback pressures, according to PFF. He did so in 12 games while he dealt with a calf injury and a concussion.
Now fully healthy, Floyd readies himself for a breakout sophomore campaign. The 6'6", 251-pound edge defender has a chance to become a double-digit sack artist.
"[I'm] just being more mature and more calm in situations," Floyd said, per ESPN.com's Jeff Dickerson. "As a rookie, I played kind of jittery at times and missed a few sacks. I'm going to make sure this year I don't miss any."
Cincinnati Bengals: LB Carl Lawson
Usually, expectations aren't heaped upon a fourth-round rookie long before he plays a preseason game.
Mid-round picks aren't expected to be immediate contributors or impact players; they were drafted later in the process usually due to some lingering concerns.
The Cincinnati Bengals' Carl Lawson appears to be an exception.
"I felt like I got totally disrespected in the draft," Lawson said, per Geoff Hobson of the Bengals' official site. "I watch everyone else. I know how good I was. Even as better as I've gotten, there's still no reason I feel … a player … should have got drafted over me."
This is a common rallying cry from those who were drafted later in the process. Most aren't expected to be instant contributors, though.
Head coach Marvin Lewis wants Lawson to play a hybrid linebacker role where he'll also put his hand in the dirt, take advantage of his first-step quickness and rush the passer.
"He's going to get unleashed," Lewis said. "That's what I told him again in the team meeting. It's a hard thing. He's trying to be impressive. Well, he's impressed me enough."
Cleveland Browns: S Jabrill Peppers
The Cleveland Browns selected three prospects in the first round of April's draft. Of course, Myles Garrett automatically became the new face of the franchise after being chosen with the No. 1 overall pick. Yet he may not even create the biggest impact on the Browns defense among the team's first-year players.
Jabrill Peppers has a chance to be a more important addition due to the defensive back's versatility and scheme fit.
Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams loves to disguise his pressure packages and coverage schemes. In order to do so, he needs hybrid performers who can thrive in multiple roles. Many questions arose regarding Peppers' fit at the NFL level. Well, he found the best possible situation for his skill set.
Peppers will be the Browns' starting strong safety in title. He'll also cover the slot, rotate in coverage as a single-high safety, become a force player against the run, play a little linebacker and blitz from unexpected angles. Bottom line is he's expected to become a primary playmaker with a revamped Browns defense.
Big hits, turnovers and sacks all garner attention. Peppers is also a standout athlete with the potential to contribute as a returner on special teams and a play or two on the offensive side of the ball. The more he does, the more he'll be recognized.
Dallas Cowboys: LB Jaylon Smith
Greatness is defined by the ability to overcome adversity. Jaylon Smith is on the precipice of greatness.
The linebacker's talent was never in question; his health still is.
Many viewed Smith as a top-five talent during the 2016 draft process. He dominated for Notre Dame. The 2015 Butkus Award winner as the nation's top linebacker led the Fighting Irish with 119 total tackles. He also registered nine tackles for a loss, 10 defended passes, six quarterback hits and a forced fumble.
Unfortunately, he suffered a devastating left leg injury during the 2016 Fiesta Bowl against the Ohio State Buckeyes. The Dallas Cowboys still selected him in the second round.
Unlike most knee injuries where ligaments are repaired and the player returns to action, Smith also suffered nerve damage. His future remained cloudy throughout his first NFL campaign, but those concerns have subsided during this year's training camp.
"The caveat is what we all wonder: Can he play like he had the career playing at that particular time?" Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said, per ESPN.com's Todd Archer. "So that's what we're here to see. To me, he's just like looking at a No. 1 draft pick out here coming out on the field for the first time. We all know his circumstances and what he needs to overcome. It looks really good, all testing, all feeling, really looks as good as I could have hoped that it would look at the time. We'll see."
An extra level of projection exists due to the seriousness of Smith's injury, but he still possesses the ability to develop into an impact defender.
Denver Broncos: LT Garett Bolles
Denver Broncos left tackle Garett Bolles is a perfect example of how ageism can define a player's draft status despite immense talent.
The 25-year-old rookie is at least two or three years older than most first-year performers, but his ability to stabilize the Broncos' offensive line should prove to be invaluable.
Bolles fell to the 20th overall pick because of his age and past history, even though he was considered the best offensive line prospect in this year's class. The blocker's previous setbacks provided a level of maturity most rookies can't replicate, though.
The Utah product already sits atop the Broncos depth chart, but he continues to compete every day.
"He [Bolles] always wants to learn, he wants to be great, and all the greats have that type of hunger," teammate Von Miller said, per Mile High Huddle's Colby Valdez. "It just happened and he's only been here for a couple of months so I'm excited about this season and the years that we have coming up."
Bolles is an outstanding athlete on the blind side and an aggressive blocker in the run game. His presence at left tackle helps solidify Denver's offensive line and improve the entire unit.
Detroit Lions: LB Jarrad Davis
Every team hopes their recent first-round pick can make an instant impact. It's asking far more from a rookie to step in and become a leader in either the offense or defense.
This is what the Detroit Lions are asking of Jarrad Davis.
Davis is slotted as the Lions' starting middle linebacker. He'll make the play calls during games, essentially serving as the quarterback of the defense.
"I have to make sure, with everything that's in front of me, on my plate, I have to take care of that," Davis said, per the Detroit News' Justin Rogers. "After that's done, then I can work on the other things and making sure everyone else is on point."
The Lions coaching staff hasn't shied away from Davis' importance in its defensive scheme.
"There's no choice," linebackers coach Bill Sheridan said, per the Detroit Free Press' Dave Birkett. "It's on him, and he knows that. It's not a wait and see. We took him for a purpose at that position in the draft and he's going to be the mike."
The rookie linebacker's combination of size (6'1" and 238 pounds), speed (4.56-second 40-yard dash) and instincts coupled with the importance placed on his position signal a 100-plus-tackle campaign.
Green Bay Packers: RB Ty Montgomery
The Green Bay Packers found an interesting solution to their running back problems last year when Ty Montgomery converted from wide receiver. Not only did the team find a solution in the short term, but it may have found its future at the position, too.
On the surface, Montgomery didn't post eye-popping numbers in his six starts. He carried the ball 58 times for 383 yards and three touchdowns. It's what he did in limited opportunities that impressed considering the extenuating circumstances.
His average of 5.9 yards per carry would have finished first among all running backs last season if he qualified. According to Pro Football Focus, Montgomery ranked first overall in elusive rating. Plus, he's always a receiving threat out of the backfield.
The former wide receiver is now fully committed to running back.
"It's just me," Montgomery said during an interview on Peter King's MMQB podcast [via ESPN Milwaukee's Pratik Patel]. "It feels natural. It's fun. I like being back there. ... Running back gives me the ability to do everything. And I love that. It's a whole lot of fun. It challenges me, and I love being challenged."
In today's NFL, Montgomery is the ideal weapon for any offense. He can be downright deadly playing alongside quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Houston Texans: QB Deshaun Watson
One Bill O'Brien quote said it all about Houston Texans rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson.
"Deshaun is ahead of any rookie quarterback I've ever been around," the head coach stated, per MMQB's Peter King.
Watson's quick adjustment may be surprising to some who believed he needed time to understand and execute an NFL offense beyond the normal scope of a first-year signal-caller. This stems from the quarterback's time in Clemson when too many wrongly believed the Tigers offense to be another run-of-the-mill spread scheme without any NFL-caliber reads or progressions.
"He had to learn a pretty sophisticated offense at Clemson," O'Brien said, per the Houston Chronicle's John McClain. "He had to do a lot of things at the line of scrimmage. I think he was trained really well. That's a credit to the Clemson staff.
Concerns about the first-round selection's game arose regarding his post-snap decision-making and how he responded when moved beyond his first option. No one should have ever questioned his ability to absorb a playbook or execute, though. Watson proved to be particularly strong with his pre-snap reads.
Sooner or later the rookie will work his way into the starting lineup. He's already in a better situation than fellow rookie QBs Mitchell Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes and DeShone Kizer.
Once Watson is officially named the Texans starter, he'll never look back.
Indianapolis Colts: S Malik Hooker
Very little has gone right for the Indianapolis Colts during training camp.
Andrew Luck's status for the regular season has yet to be determined. Last year's first-round pick, center Ryan Kelly, limped off the practice field Thursday and came back on crutches, per CBS 4 Indianapolis' Mike Chappell.
Malik Hooker's return to the field has been a silver lining, though he still has plenty of catching up to do.
Hooker wasn't ready for the start of training camp, either. He didn't work out for teams prior to the NFL draft and missed all of OTAs and minicamp after the Colts selected him in the first round due to his recovery from hip and hernia surgeries.
"This is a big jump and he's missed some chances to improve, but I know him as a guy and I know the type of man that he is and the type of competitor that he is," defensive coordinator Ted Monachino, per ESPN.com's Mike Wells.
At Ohio State, the safety proved to be a true ball hawk. Hooker finished tied for third in college football last season with seven interceptions. His sideline-to-sideline range is truly breathtaking. When he did surrender a reception last season, he allowed the fewest yards after catch among safeties, per Pro Football Focus.
As long as Hooker adapts quickly, the Colts have one major positive going into the 2017 campaign.
Jacksonville Jaguars: DE Yannick Ngakoue
Potential breakout stars can be found throughout the Jacksonville Jaguars roster.
This April's fourth-overall pick, running back Leonard Fournette, is an obvious option. Last year's top pick, cornerback Jalen Ramsey, already counts himself among the league's better corners. Myles Jack moved to middle linebacker and should post impressive tackle numbers.
Yet it's a lesser-known defender with the chance to become one of the game's premier pass-rushers who gets the nod as the Jaguars' next big thing.
Yannick Ngakoue finished second among rookies last season with eight sacks and 47 quarterback pressures, per Pro Football Focus. The former third-round pick's production has a chance to increase during his second campaign for two reasons.
First, he's a fluid pass-rusher with the ability to bend the edge, and top sack artists tend to experience significant improvement from their first to second campaigns. Second, opportunities should be more prevalent. Ngakoue is expected to move into the starting lineup this fall after serving in a part-time role last season. Plus, the free-agent addition of Calais Campbell to play alongside Malik Jackson will demand plenty of attention from opposing offenses.
Ten or more sacks should be a legitimate goal for Ngakoue in his second year.
Kansas City Chiefs: DE Chris Jones
When last year's top rookie defenders are mentioned, it may take a while before Chris Jones' name comes to the forefront.
The Kansas City Chiefs defensive end didn't have the type of production to warrant league-wide recognition. After all, he managed 28 total tackles and two sacks.
Yet the former second-round pick played much better than his statistics indicate.
According to Pro Football Focus, Jones graded as the top rookie interior defender last season. The site ranked him 13th overall among the league's 3-4 defensive ends and eighth in pass-rush productivity.
With Dontari Poe's departure, Jones will be the focal point of the Chiefs defense, even if he's currently recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery. The second-year defender laid to rest any rumors that Roy Miller's recent signing has anything to do with his rehabilitation on his Twitter account.
The Chiefs have difference-makers at every level of their defense. Those start with Jones along the defensive front.
Los Angeles Chargers: LB Jatavis Brown
The Los Angeles Chargers should be excited about Joey Bosa after last year's standout rookie campaign. He wasn't the only first-year defender to create excitement, though.
Jatavis Brown's skill set in new defensive coordinator Gus Brady's scheme has the potential to be electrifying.
Brown plays the game with reckless abandon. The undersized (5'11" and 221 pounds) defender is an ideal weak-side linebacker. He may only be slightly bigger than most safeties, but he's just as fast. Dropping into space is a strength for the former fifth-round pick.
His size isn't a hindrance against the run, either.
Brown flies downhill to blow up blockers and running backs. He finished his rookie seasons with 79 total tackles, 3.5 sacks, six defended passes and a pair of forced fumbles in 12 games, including seven starts.
"For the most part, (we'll use) the ability to use his speed, the ability to put him in position where he can run and chase and get off blocks," Bradley said, per Hayley Elwood of the Chargers' official site. "That's an area we're working on with him. But he's made really good strides."
Los Angeles Rams: TE Gerald Everett
Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff is in search of a top target in head coach Sean McVay's new offense. His options include wide receivers Tavon Austin, Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp and Josh Reynolds, but a tight end has a chance to emerge as the Rams' primary offensive threat.
The organization didn't have a first-round pick in April because the front office traded it as part of the Goff deal. The team then used its top pick—the 44th overall selection—to acquire South Alabama tight end Gerald Everett.
Everett is expected to become McVay's version of Jordan Reed in Los Angeles.
"I feel like we could be better than the Redskins tight ends, if I can say that," Everett said about himself and teammate Tyler Higbee, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.
Like Reed, the Rams' rookie tight end is an undersized option with the athleticism to create mismatches against most defenses. The 6'3", 239-pound target finished top five among tight ends at the NFL combine in bench press (22 reps), vertical jump (37.5 inches), broad jump (10'6"), 3-cone (6.99 seconds) and 20-yard shuttle (4.33 seconds).
As long as Everett can stay healthy—unlike Reed—he'll be a big part of the Ram's plans this year and beyond.
Miami Dolphins: WR DeVante Parker
Miami Dolphins faithful patiently (impatiently?) waited two years for wide receiver DeVante Parker to emerge in the team's offense, and now Parker is ready to explode in his third campaign.
"He'll be a monster," wide receivers coach Shawn Jefferson said, per the South Florida Sun-Sentinel's Chris Perkins. "If he keeps progressing like we think he can, he'll be invited to the Monster Bowl after the Super Bowl.
"His name is not DeVante, he's a Monster. So if he keeps performing like this he'll be invited to the Monster Ball after the season is over."
All hyperbole aside, Jefferson's enthusiasm is being prodded by Parker's training camp performance. The former first-round pick is finally healthy after dealing with foot and hamstring issues during his first two seasons. He looks explosive and nearly impossible to cover.
"A new work ethic," Parker admitted is the reason behind his improvement, per the Palm Beach Post's Joe Schad.
The 6'3", 212-pound target has the ability to create chunk plays alongside Jarvis Landry and Kenny Stills. As a result, the Dolphins will feature the league's best wide receiver corps—even if Jay Cutler is the starting quarterback.
Minnesota Vikings: RB Dalvin Cook
Teams like the San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers and Indianapolis Colts experienced smooth transitions from Hall of Fame quarterbacks to future franchise saviors. The Minnesota Vikings could experience the same, albeit at running back.
Adrian Peterson played 10 seasons for the Vikings and leaves a large shadow as one of the greatest runners in NFL history. His name became synonymous with the franchise.
However, Peterson's age and production no longer warranted the amount of money the organization spent for his services. The Vikings decided not to pick up his option in February, and he signed a free-agent contract with the New Orleans Saints in April.
When the franchise made the move, no one in the front office could predict Dalvin Cook would be available to the team in the second round of April's NFL draft. But he was.
Cook was considered a first-round talent throughout the draft process, yet concerns over a poor combine workout and off-field issues forced a tumble down boards. The Vikings gladly traded up to the 41st overall selection to select the Florida State running back.
The two-time first-team All-American rewarded Minnesota by coming into training camp as the team's top back. Last season, Cook averaged more yards after contact than any runner at the FBS level, per Pro Football Focus. He left Florida State as the program's all-time leading rusher over the likes of Warrick Dunn, Greg Jones and Devonta Freeman.
The Vikings plan for Cook to fill Peterson's shoes like he did those greats at Tallahassee.
New England Patriots: DE Trey Flowers
Trey Flowers' Super Bowl LI performance portends a bright future for the New England Patriots pass-rusher. Flowers led the Patriots last season with seven sacks. He registered 2.5 more in the biggest game of his life against the Atlanta Falcons.
With Rob Ninkovich's retirement and Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long's departures in free agency, Flowers is now the Patriots' primary edge-defender.
"If my role increases and they expect more of me, then that's what I'm gonna deal with," Flowers said, per the Boston Herald's Stephen Hewitt. "That's one of the things, I come out, understand what they want me to do, and work hard to do it."
What makes the defensive end truly special is his ability to rush the passer from any position. Last season, 18 of his quarterback pressures came when he lined up over center, according to Pro Football Focus' Brett Whitefield.
He isn't just a situation pass-rusher, though. Flowers ranked 10th overall among 4-3 defensive ends in run-stop percentage last season, per PFF.
The 23-year-old edge-defender started eight games last season. A full-time role should allow him to register double-digit sacks and become a true difference-maker along the defensive front.
New Orleans Saints: WR Willie Snead
The New Orleans Saints' decision to trade Brandin Cooks presents plenty of opportunities for other receivers on the roster. Willie Snead is the most likely to emerge as a favorite for quarterback Drew Brees.
Snead combined to make 141 receptions for 1,879 yards during the past two seasons. But Cooks posted 1,100-plus yards in both campaigns, and someone must pick up the slack.
The Saints signed Ted Ginn to provide a vertical threat. Of course, Michael Thomas will continue to grow in his second season after a breakout rookie campaign. Brandon Coleman and Corey Fuller will compete for reps, too.
Snead already showed he can produce, though, especially from the slot. The 24-year-old target finished ninth last season in yards per route run from the slot, per Pro Football Focus.
With Cooks out of the way, Snead should finally be able to eclipse 1,000 yards receiving in his third campaign.
New York Giants: TE Evan Engram
So much attention will be paid to New York Giants wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr., Brandon Marshall and Sterling Shepard this season, rookie tight end Evan Engram could be overlooked.
Engram has the potential to become the offense's X-factor. The 6'3", 242-pound tight end runs a 4.42-second 40-yard dash combined with a 36-inch vertical.
"He's unbelievable," former Giants tight end Mark Bavaro said prior to training camp, per the New York Post's George Willis. "I don't know what he's going to look like in pads and playing football. But he can move. He can run and he can catch. He's impressive."
The first-round pick isn't just a workout warrior. The Ole Miss product led all tight ends at the FBS level last season with 926 receiving yards on his way to becoming a first-team All-American.
Engram presents matchup problems. Linebackers won't be able to cover him. He's too big for defensive backs to handle. He's a better blocker than he's given credit, too. He'll work the middle of the field or along the seam, while the receivers do plenty of damage outside the numbers and down the field.
New York Jets: TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins
The New York Jets haven't featured the tight end in their offense since Dustin Keller played for the team. The former first-round pick left the team five years ago. Austin Seferian-Jenkins' presence in the lineup should change the team's approach. The former second-round pick is finally committed to football and in the best shape of his life.
"I feel like a different person on and off the field," Seferian-Jenkins said, per Ethan Greenberg of the Jets' official site. "The weight loss [30 pounds] has been tremendous and I'm just really happy I have the opportunity to show the Jets taking a chance on me is going to pay off. I'm just trying to work every single day on the team like everybody else."
The 6'5" tight end was considered a developing target with star potential prior to being released by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and receiving treatment for alcohol abuse. He can still be the player the Bucs envisioned when the organization used the 38th overall pick in the 2014 draft to select him out of the University of Washington.
Despite being suspended for the first two games of the upcoming campaign, the odds Seferian-Jenkins produces at a high level increased when the Jets placed top receiver Quincy Enunwa on injured reserve with a bulging disc. Plus, veteran Luke McCown loves to target his tight ends. Gary Barnidge experienced a breakout campaign in 2015 with McCown throwing to him.
Oakland Raiders: S Karl Joseph
Good things come in small packages. Oakland Raiders safety Karl Joseph isn't the biggest or fastest safety, but his nose for the pigskin and teeth-rattling hits still made him a first-round talent.
The Raiders defense never experienced a version of Joseph going full throttle last season, though.
The 5'10", 205-pound safety suffered a season-ending knee injury during his senior campaign at West Virginia. Even so, the Raiders used the 14th overall pick to select the heat-seeking missile. Joseph's recuperation lingered into his first professional campaign where he started nine games.
The player who entered camp last year is completely different from the one seen this summer.
"I think if you watch him, you see Karl making checks, he's disguising, he's blitzing, he's covering, he's hitting," defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. said, per Kyle Martin of the Raiders' official site. "I saw a couple times he used his shoulder today, put his body on people, he's explosive. Everything you saw earlier in his career and the reason he's here is because he's got all of that. I think he's really eager to get this thing going."
Now fully recovered with a complete NFL offseason under his belt, Joseph is ready to show the entire league the caliber of player he really is. A few running backs and wide receivers will be on the wrong end of his emergence.
Philadelphia Eagles: DT Timmy Jernigan
The Philadelphia Eagles took advantage of an opportunity when the Baltimore Ravens were willing to part with defensive lineman Timmy Jernigan.
Philadelphia's defensive front already featured Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry. The organization also added Chris Long and Derek Barnett in free agency and the draft, respectively.
Jernigan will serve in a different role, though. He's expected to create a push as a 1-technique. His presence in the middle of the defense will create more opportunities for others when he collapses the pocket.
"I think Tim Jernigan is really going to be a big addition for us," defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said, per Pro Football Talk's Josh Alper. "He was hard to handle inside. Last year when Fletch had such a good start, that first month, teams adjusted. They started taking him away, and we didn't win enough one on ones away from him because that other tackle got the one on ones. Well, that happened in OTAs, and Timmy's able to get good pressure. So I think that was—I don't know if it flew under the radar, but it was an important acquisition for us. I think that will affect our pass-rush as much as bringing a first-round draft pick or veteran player into the mix."
The Eagles' defensive front will come at quarterbacks from every angle, and Jernigan will serve as the tip of the spear.
Pittsburgh Steelers: NT Javon Hargrave
Javon Hargrave is a different monster along the Pittsburgh Steelers' defensive front. He's not Casey Hampton, Chris Hoke or Steve McLendon, and he never will be. His skill set diverges from his predecessors. Instead of being a traditional two-gap nose tackle whose primary function is eating up two blockers, Hargrave is a creator.
The 305-pound defender creates disruptive plays. His first-step quickness allows him to overwhelm interior blockers. He's not just a run defender. Hargrave is expected to be a vital part of the team's pass rush, too.
Hargrave became a starter in Week 2 of his rookie campaign. He took a few weeks to really acclimate himself to the professional game, but he performed exceptionally well down the stretch. The Steelers nose tackle graded as the top first-year interior defender in pass-rush productivity during Weeks 12-17, per Pro Football Focus [via Steelers Nation].
Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt flank Hargrave. The threesome can create pressure without the help of blitzes or dogs.
"Every defensive lineman likes sacks," Hargrave said, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Gerry Dulac. "Ain't no telling how many I can get. I feel like I can do it with the best of them. When I'm put in that situation, I feel like I'm going to make it happen."
San Francisco 49ers: RB Joe Williams
Fantasy football gurus know to target running backs in Kyle Shanahan's offensive scheme. Shanahan orchestrates one of the game's best systems and seemingly produces 1,000-yard rushers out of nowhere.
For example, Pro Football Focus graded Alfred Morris and Steve Slaton as the top two rookie running backs in the last 10 years. Both played under Shanahan and neither was viewed as a standout prospect.
Joe Williams has similar potential.
More importantly, the first-time head coach went to bat for the running back who quit football to deal with personal issues before returning and rushing for 1,332 yards during his final seven collegiate games.
"I'm telling you right now: If we don't get him, I'll be sick," Shanahan said before the 49ers drafted Williams in the fourth round, per MMQB's Peter King. "I will be contemplating Joe Williams all night."
Williams started slowly in training camp and has yet to overtake Carlos Hyde as the team's top backfield option, but it may be only a matter of time before the Utah product becomes the team's lead back.
"His ability to run the ball is very, is as good as anybody's," Shanahan said after the draft, per the Santa Clara Press Democrat's Grant Cohn. "I mean, as far as speed, cutting ability, running through tackles, his overall balance."
Seattle Seahawks: CB Shaquill Griffin
The Seattle Seahawks want a specific type of cornerback to fit into their Legion of Boom secondary. Their defensive backs must be long, aggressive and physical to play in their Cover 3-heavy scheme. Third-round pick Shaquill Griffin presents an awesome blend of size, length and speed.
"We've never had a guy who can run this fast and be this big," head coach Pete Carroll said, per the Tacoma News Tribune's Gregg Bell.
Griffin is listed at 6'1" and 198 pounds with arms over 32 inches long and 4.38-second 40-yard-dash speed. He also finished top five among cornerbacks at the combine with a 38.5-inch vertical jump and an 11-foot broad jump.
Both DeShawn Shead and Jeremy Lane have dealt with injuries during training camp. Their absences provided the rookie with an opportunity to participate with the first-team defense opposite Richard Sherman. Even when Lane returns, he'll primarily cover the slot, which creates an opening for Griffin at right cornerback.
"I am pretty excited about him," Carroll said, per the Seahawks Wire's Lindsey Wisniewski. "He is doing really well. He has only taken positive steps. He is learning well. He is serious. He has a mentality that I think is going to allow him to deal with the issues and challenges of playing when Richard is on that side, and there is a guy over there, you are getting the ball a lot you know."
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: DE Noah Spence
Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Noah Spence fell to the second round of the 2016 NFL draft because of a combination of factors. He didn't test as well as expected at the NFL combine, and some teams shied away from the talented defender on account of his checkered past.
Even so, Spence was arguably the best natural pass-rusher in his class. A year later, the Buccaneers offensive line has struggled to block the defensive end during training camp sessions.
"He's improved," teammate William Gholston said, per Pewter Report's Scott Reynolds. "In camp, he has been a vicious animal."
Spence managed 5.5 sacks during his rookie campaign with 40 quarterback hurries, per Pro Football Focus. Far greater expectations are being placed on him as he prepares for his second season.
"This is his second year and Noah definitely has the explosiveness," defensive tackle Clinton McDonald said. "He has the bend off the edge and the motor to get those things done and be a 15-sack guy. He can sack, fumble, pick it up and run 50 yards for a touchdown. He has the speed for it. With that combination you can look at this guy and see he has a bright future here."
Tennessee Titans: WR Corey Davis
The Tennessee Titans didn't surprise many when they selected a wide receiver with the fifth overall pick in April's draft. Who the team picked wasn't expected, though.
General manager Jon Robinson chose Western Michigan's Corey Davis over Clemson's Mike Williams and Washington's John Ross. By merit, Davis being the top receiver off the board wasn't surprising. Throughout the season, the MAC product established himself as an elite prospect.
However, the surprise came from the fact Davis didn't work out for a single team prior to the draft because of an ankle injury, yet the Titans still saw enough value in him to select him as high as they did.
Tennessee's decision speaks to how highly it views the FBS all-time leader in receiving yardage. Granted, Davis is dealing with hamstring issues during his first training camp, but the team expects him to hit the ground running during the regular season as a starter.
The receiver excels in creating separation and yards after the catch. He's an ideal weapon for quarterback Marcus Mariota to exploit in the Titans' burgeoning offense.
Washington Redskins: WR Jamison Crowder
In his second season, Jamison Crowder grabbed 67 catches for 847 yards and led Washington with seven touchdown receptions.
But Crowder is far more similar to targets such as Julian Edelman and Jarvis Landry. These two operate primarily out of the slot yet lead their team in receptions. Crowder has the same potential because of his ability to separate in small areas and create after the catch.
"Short guys are crafty, so you have to get crafty with them," Washington cornerback Josh Norman said, per ESPN.com's John Keim. "Some things they do, it’s more they’re trying to set you up."
Washington signed Terrelle Pryor in free agency to fill the void left by the veterans. Pryor has the potential to be a monster playing alongside Cousins. But Crowder is far more polished and has the ability to become the quarterback's security blanket. He ranked first among second-year receivers in passer rating when targeted last season, per Pro Football Focus.