Looking back at the 2014 NFL draft, let’s break down the rookies who have the opportunity to contribute early and play key roles because of their fit from a scheme perspective.
Here are five rookies on my list whom I will be focusing on this season as they make the transition to the NFL level and their respective game plans.
Cody Latimer, WR, Broncos
If you study Peyton Manning and the Broncos offense, the Denver route tree is based on short-to-intermediate concepts that target both zone and man schemes.
This plays into Latimer's skill set because of his ability to create separation at the break point with his size (6’2”, 215 lbs) and the straight-line speed (mid-4.4 range) to produce in the open field. When also factoring in his exceptional leaping ability (39-inch vertical jump) and a large catch radius, there is no question Latimer can create some matchups inside of the red zone (slant/fade).
However, think about the three-step game, shallow drive route, deep dig, curl and tunnel screen in the Broncos playbook—those will allow Latimer to work away from the defender’s leverage and make plays after the catch.
This is a quick look at the Broncos' Hi-Lo Crossers concept versus the Patriots from the AFC Championship Game.
With Eric Decker in a reduced split (top of the numbers, ball on the near hash) to the open (weak) side of the formation, the Broncos create a “rub” (or “pick”) situation inside versus 2-Man. This puts the defender in a trail position versus Decker and provides Manning with an easy read underneath that produces an explosive gain after the catch.
The Broncos signed receiver Emmanuel Sanders this offseason after Decker signed with the Jets via free agency. And the addition of Latimer gives Manning yet another target who can win in Denver's route tree based on his skill set.
Lamarcus Joyner, FS/N, Rams
Joyner doesn’t have elite size (5’8”, 184 lbs) or speed (4.55) in the secondary, but look for new Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to maximize his talent and put him in a position to make plays on the ball.
The Florida State product has a playmaking skill set, and he brings some versatility to St. Louis. Joyner can align as a deep middle-of-the-field safety, roll down in coverage or even move inside as a nickel defender.
Given that the Rams are loaded up front after the addition of first-round pick Aaron Donald, this defense under Williams has the opportunity to play some two-deep while also showing aggressive looks with its coverage calls in the secondary.
Think of combination coverages that allow defensive backs to sit hard on routes, bracket slot receivers and challenge intermediate concepts because the ball has to come out.
This is an example of Williams’ Cover 7, with the free safety and nickel using a “slice” call to take away the No. 2 (or slot) receiver.
As you can see in the playbook diagram I drew up, the nickel plays the “first out” in a “slice” call while the free safety (dropping down from a middle-of-the-field alignment) plays the “first in” to bracket/eliminate the slot receiver based on the down-and-distance situation.
Joyner can play multiple roles for Williams, and I’m excited to see how the Rams defensive coordinator utilizes the rookie this season based on game plan and opponent.
Carlos Hyde, RB, 49ers
When game-planning the 49ers, opposing defenses have to prep for Tank/22 (1WR-2TE-2RB) and Heavy/13 personnel (1WR-3TE-1RB) to defend the downhill, power-run schemes that show up on the tape every Sunday.
At 6’0”, 230 lbs, Hyde has the size and toughness to carry an increased workload at the NFL level. He should produce in the 49ers' core schemes (Power O, Counter OF, Lead, Wham) that cater to his pro-style skill set at the position.
A back who plays with balance and accelerates through the hole, Hyde has the ability to use his size at the point of attack to run through contact at the second level of the defense while dropping his pad level to finish runs.
Here’s a look at the 49ers’ Power O scheme versus the Panthers' 4-3 defense from the divisional playoff matchup this past January.
With the 49ers kicking out the edge support (strong safety) and doubling down on the defensive end, the backside guard can pull to lead up on the linebacker. That creates a running lane for Frank Gore to work vertically up the field.
Given that Gore is 31 years old, this was a smart move by the 49ers, who no doubt added the former Ohio State running back because of his size and ability to run downhill in Jim Harbaugh's offense.
Louis Nix, NT, Texans
The former Notre Dame defensive tackle slid down the draft board this past weekend, but I see value here with the Texans landing Nix in the third round. He's an ideal fit in Romeo Crennel’s 3-4 scheme.
Nix has the size (6’2”, 331 lbs) and lateral quickness in the defensive front to contribute early as a 3-4 nose tackle who can play the traditional two-gap technique we see in the “Okie” and “Eagle” fronts.
Plus, he can also align in a shade (tilted nose) if the Texans use a one-gap technique in the 3-4 “Under” front to utilize their personnel along the defensive line.
Here’s a quick look at the 3-4 “Under” front with the nose in a shade alignment, the closed-side defensive end in a 5/6-technique and the Sam ‘backer in a 7-technique.
Nix's conditioning level will have to improve to meet the demands of the pro game, and he isn’t going to produce multiple sacks as a pass-rusher from the nose tackle position. However, as a run defender in the middle of the defense, Nix can play the 3-4 nose to complement with J.J. Watt and No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney along the Houston defensive front.
Brandin Cooks, WR, Saints
Think matchups here, with Cooks playing in Sean Payton’s offense because of his ability to win inside the numbers and create after the catch.
The former Oregon State receiver has 4.3 speed and lateral quickness and is electric in the open field. With the vertical burst to push past defenders, Cooks can erase angles from the secondary and produce numbers once he has the football in his hands.
And with Darren Sproles now in Philadelphia, the Saints have a player they can use in multiple personnel groupings to generate positive matchups from a variety of alignments.
Here’s an example from the Saints-Cowboys tape, with Sproles removed in an empty set to the open side of the formation.
A simple blitz read for quarterback Drew Brees, who identifies the matchup of Sproles versus a safety in man coverage. The result is a basic three-step slant that allows Sproles to press up the field and take advantage of the large cushion to win back to the inside.
Given the amount of formations we see from Payton’s offense, look for Cooks to run routes out of stack and bunch formations with pre-snap motion designed to get him a clean, free release off the ball.
That should lead to production and an impact role for Cooks as a rookie this season in New Orleans.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.