Predicting This Year's Surprise Impact Rookies

Matt Bowen @MattBowen41NFL National Lead WriterMay 14, 2015

Brian Spurlock/USA Today

Since the end of the 2015 NFL draft, we've discussed the top rookie scheme fits along with some of the first-year offensive playmakers who should create matchup issues for opposing defenses. 

But who are the rookies in this year's class who could make a surprise impact during the NFL season?

Let's take a look at five players who have the ability to produce this year, based on skill set, versatility and big-play potential.

Tevin Coleman, RB, Falcons (Indiana)

The Falcons' third-round pick is on this list because of his home run ability from the running back position. Tevin Coleman has the speed (he ran a 4.39/4.40-second 40-yard dash at his pro day, according to NFL.com), quick burst and vision to hit the hole versus NFL defensive fronts. This is a player who can push the ball up the field and then vertically expose run support from the secondary.

John Sommers/Associated Press

In Atlanta, Coleman is going to carry the ball in Kyle Shanahan's zone/stretch schemes. That will allow the Indiana product to press the edge of the formation, find cutback lanes and then finish with his pads square. Just think of the instant impact he could bring running the ball out of three-wide receiver personnel. There will be some opportunities there to gash the defensive front.

Coleman will have to adapt his game to NFL competition and show more patience with the ball in those zone schemes to find daylight and force the linebackers to over-pursue. But the idea of the rookie in this Falcons offense is intriguing, despite the negative talk surrounding his "fit" in this scheme. Pick a hole and go. 

Shaq Thompson, LB, Panthers (Washington)

Some in the draft industry looked at the Panthers' decision to grab Shaq Thompson in the first round as a reach, but I understand the pick of the former Washington linebacker/safety/running back because he's a playmaker. Just get him on the field and cater to his versatility as an athlete.

Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

I expect the Panthers to play Thompson at the "Will" linebacker position in their base 4-3 defense opposite vets Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. That's where he can run to the ball, clean up from the weak side and break on the throw in zone coverage. However, as a sub-package defender, Thompson could provide the biggest impact due to his tackling ability versus the run, along with the eyes/closing speed in the passing game. That gives the Panthers some options to play Thompson as a linebacker or even roll him down at the strong safety position in the nickel package.

Guys such as Thompson make your football team better because they can impact the game plan in a variety of different roles. Along with the high-level special teams production the Panthers should get out of Thompson, the former Husky can also be used as a creative piece on defense.

Devin Smith, WR, Jets (Ohio State)

With six wide receivers coming off the board in the first round of the draft, Devin Smith and the deep-ball ability he brings to the NFL outside of the numbers were an afterthought. He is a player who can instantly flip the field and create scoring opportunities in New York for Todd Bowles' team.

COLUMBUS, OH - NOVEMBER 1: Devin Smith #9 of the Ohio State Buckeyes makes a 32-yard touchdown reception behind Zane Petty #21 of the Illinois Fighting Illini in the first quarter of the game at Ohio Stadium on November 1, 2014 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo b
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

In terms of looking for a true vertical threat, Smith is at the top of the class with his 4.4 speed, body control and the ability to effortlessly track the ball downfield. This is a smooth wide receiver who can get on top of the secondary and pull away after the catch. Think of the speed here as a complement to veterans Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker in the Jets offense.

Drafting Smith doesn't solve the quarterback depth chart in New York, but that type of explosive-play ability at wide receiver gives Geno Smith (or Ryan Fitzpatrick) a target on the outside who can stretch the defense and also open up the intermediate throwing windows. Put it up and let the rookie go make a play.

Kevin Johnson, CB, Texans (Wake Forest)

The predraft hype at the cornerback position focused on Trae Waynes, Marcus Peters, Byron Jones and Eric Rowe, but Kevin Johnson could be the most pro-ready guy in the group because of his footwork, coverage ability and natural athleticism. Yes, Johnson is a first-round pick, but the lack of post-draft talk on the Wake Forest product is a little surprising.

Julio Cortez/Associated Press

In Romeo Crennel's system, the Texans can play the rookie outside the numbers or slide him inside to the nickel role. At 6'0", 188 pounds, Johnson can play press, he has good change-of-direction speed, and he can also align off the ball as a zone defender. This is a solid all-around cornerback here despite not having top-tier vertical speed (4.52 40 time) on the stopwatch.

The rookie could start off camp as the No. 3 cornerback behind vets Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph, but expect Crennel to utilize Johnson's skill set in the various sub-package schemes the Texans show on game day. That will create opportunities for Johnson to find the ball, produce and impact this Houston secondary in 2015.

Ty Montgomery, WR/KR, Packers (Stanford)

Ty Montgomery's immediate impact for the Packers comes on special teams as a return man. This is a dynamic player in the kicking game, and he should give Green Bay a weapon on teams that can set up Aaron Rodgers with good field position.

PALO ALTO, CA - OCTOBER 10:  Ty Montgomery #7 of the Stanford Cardinal returns a kickoff during their game against the Washington State Cougars at Stanford Stadium on October 10, 2014 in Palo Alto, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

On offense, Montgomery doesn't have a natural position, as he played all over the field for Stanford last season. But can head coach Mike McCarthy install/create some specific packages for the 6'0", 221-pound rookie? Think about Montgomery running routes out of the backfield or getting the ball on the jet sweep. He could be another piece to this Green Bay offense.

But regardless of the offensive contributions the Packers get from Montgomery this season, the true impact will be felt on special teams. The Packers needed to upgrade here, and Montgomery has the kind of return ability that generates scoring opportunities. A short field for Rodgers? That leads to points.

Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.


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