Predicting Every NFL Team's Surprise Rookie Gem
It wasn’t too long ago that with the exception of top draft picks, rookie seasons in the NFL were viewed as developmental years. In the modern, less patient NFL, every rookie is expected to contend for immediate playing time—and potentially emerge as a gem for his team—in order to secure his status with the organization going forward.
This trend ratchets up the pressure on first-year players—many of whom are not yet ready to be successful at the professional level—to prove themselves immediately. The good side of that for rookies, however, is that they typically get opportunities to demonstrate their skills right away, even if they were late-round picks or undrafted free agents, so long as they make the regular-season roster.
Given that, rookies on every NFL team have a chance to be surprise standouts in 2015. While virtually all first- and second-round picks will be expected to get on the field and begin to make an impact in Year 1, there will also be plenty of other league newcomers who become positive contributors to their new organizations.
The following slides highlight one rookie on each roster who has a real chance to exceed expectations in 2015, taking into account both the player's skill set and where he is likely to slot in on the depth chart.
Players selected in Rounds 1 or 2 were not considered for inclusion, and the exclusion of other rookies not drafted in those rounds should not be viewed as an expectation that those rookies will not be productive, unless such is stated in the slide. The potential surprise rookie gem chosen for each team is one player—though not necessarily the only first-year player—in each team’s class who realistically projects to be productive but was drafted lower or might not be as noteworthy as some of the other rookies on his team.
Arizona Cardinals: NT Xavier Williams
The Arizona Cardinals let nose tackle Dan Williams walk in free agency this offseason, and they did not sign or draft a true replacement for him. That leaves the door open for Xavier Williams, an undrafted free-agent signing, to come in and steal playing time.
Alameda Ta’amu projects as the starting nose tackle, but he is coming off a disappointing 2014 season in which he played just 24 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, and “basically ate himself out of a job,” according to Jess Root of Revenge of the Birds. Offseason addition Corey Peters could also see playing time at nose tackle, but he is smaller than ideal for that position at 6’3” and 305 pounds.
Williams, who is coming off a 93-tackle season at Northern Iowa, should have an opportunity to not only make the roster but potentially climb the depth chart. At 6’2” and 320 pounds, he has the size and strength to play the position while also offering good on-field quickness, hand skills and ability to generate power.
As an undrafted player, Williams will have to be on top of his game in both training camp and the preseason to earn his way into Arizona’s defensive line rotation. Initially, it would be a surprise if he beats out Ta’amu and Peters for a spot in the lineup.
That said, Williams should offer a valuable ability to be disruptive from the middle of the defense, assuming he can make a clean jump to the NFL from the Football Championship Subdivision. So if Ta’amu fails to step up his game in 2015, Williams could end up getting an opportunity to make a difference up front for Arizona this year.
Atlanta Falcons: WR Justin Hardy
The Atlanta Falcons rookie class is full of players with the potential to be instant contributors. Of all of them, the one who might be in the best position to start outperforming his draft position right away is fourth-round pick (No. 107 overall) Justin Hardy.
Hardy, the Football Bowl Subdivision’s all-time leader in receptions, is a natural fit to replace Harry Douglas as Atlanta’s No. 3 receiver. Ideally suited to play from the slot, Hardy should fit in greatly as a complement to outside receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White.
Hardy lacks the size (5'10", 192 lbs) and speed (4.56 40-yard dash) that NFL teams look for in outside wideouts—which is why he fell to the draft’s third day—but he is a savvy player. He runs clean routes, is a consistent pass-catcher and has enough change-of-direction agility to extend plays down the field.
In any competition the Falcons might have for the No. 3 receiver job, Hardy should have the upper hand. Devin Hester is much better as a return specialist than he is as a receiver, while free-agent signing Leonard Hankerson has just 81 receptions for 1,081 yards in four NFL seasons.
Hardy is not likely to be a big-play weapon in the NFL, but he should be a reliable intermediate target from the get-go. His learning curve as a rookie should be significantly less steep than that of most players drafted outside the top 100.
Baltimore Ravens: OLB Za’Darius Smith
Despite being fourth in the Baltimore Ravens’ outside linebacker rotation, Pernell McPhee was able to be productive, especially in 2015, when he recorded 7.5 sacks among 27 total tackles. After losing McPhee to the Chicago Bears this offseason, the Ravens used one of their fourth-round picks (No. 122 overall) to draft Za’Darius Smith, who projects to take McPhee’s place within the rotation.
Smith is unlikely to play at McPhee’s level right away—McPhee was actually so impressive in limited playing time last season that Pro Football Focus ranked him as the NFL’s second-best 3-4 outside linebacker—but he offers a similar skill set and readiness to be productive.
Like McPhee, Smith is a big edge defender at 6’4” and 274 pounds. The Kentucky product lacks the optimal athleticism desired in an outside linebacker convert, but he is a high-motor player who can collapse the edge with strength and win with his hands.
Because of his limited explosiveness and agility, it’s reasonable to question whether he can become a readily impactful pass-rusher on an NFL defense, especially in the 3-4 scheme. There were reasons to have the same questions about McPhee, however, and his role within the Ravens defensive rotation proved to be a great fit.
Smith should offer the versatility to play both standing up and with his hand in the dirt while providing quality run defense and a complement to Baltimore’s more explosive pass-rushers, Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. If he can show his ability to disrupt the same way he did for two years at Kentucky and at the East-West Shrine Game and Senior Bowl, Smith should see significant playing time—just as McPhee did—and be a solid contributor.
Buffalo Bills: G John Miller
The Buffalo Bills need significantly better play at the guard position in 2015 than they had in 2014. John Miller, their third-round pick (No. 81 overall), might be their best bet to provide that, even in his rookie season.
A four-year starter who alternated between the left and right side of the offensive line as the strong-side guard at Louisville, Miller comes to the NFL as a player who is technically sound and has significant experience. Strong throughout his body and able to generate push as a drive blocker, he projects as a good fit for the power-running offense led by new offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
There is nothing physically spectacular about Miller, which limits his upside to be a player who makes blocks all over the field. Yet as long as he can consistently hold his own in pass protection and open holes between the tackles for the running game, he will be an upgrade over the turnstiles the Bills had at the position last season.
Because he is a steady player who rarely blows assignments, Miller appears to be well on his way to earning a starting job this season. Bills coach Rex Ryan already has Miller “running with the first team” during offseason workouts, according to Jay Skurski of the Buffalo News.
While many other offensive linemen were selected in the 2015 NFL draft and have higher ceilings than Miller, the Louisville product has one of the highest floors. On a team that has no other rookies with clear paths to immediate playing time, Miller could end up being not only a first-year standout for the Bills but potentially one of the most steady rookie starters in the NFL.
Carolina Panthers: CB Garry Peters
Over the past few years, the Carolina Panthers’ modus operandi at the cornerback position has been to bring in late-round draft picks or undrafted free agents and try to find gems. 2012 fifth-round pick Josh Norman, 2013 undrafted rookie Melvin White and 2014 fifth-round pick Bene Benwikere have all stepped in to play significant roles in the secondary.
Garry Peters, an undrafted signing from Clemson this year, could be next in line.
The Panthers’ results with those players have been lukewarm, which leaves the door for another unheralded cornerback to come in and quickly earn playing time, potentially even to compete for a starting job. Peters has enough coverage skill to make that happen.
He didn’t make many highlight-reel plays at Clemson, but his performance was consistent. Pro Football Focus, in its first year evaluating NFL draft prospects, actually graded Peters’ 2014 season as the best of any cornerback in the 2015 draft class.
A 6’0”, 191-pound cornerback who ran a 4.61-second 40-yard dash, Peters has limited physical upside. Nonetheless, his technical ability should give him a good shot of making the roster and getting on the field for a team that lacks top-end defensive back talent.
Chicago Bears: CB Bryce Callahan
The Chicago Bears’ lack of cornerback depth was exposed last season when Charles Tillman went down with a season-ending injury and Kyle Fuller battled some ailments of his own. Forced to have players like Demontre Hurst and Al Louis-Jean take on significant roles, the Bears struggled when they did not have all of their best cornerbacks on the field.
While Chicago signed free agent Alan Ball to a one-year contract this offseason, it also opted not to retain Tillman, leaving the Bears still with a question of depth at the position. Having not used any of its six draft picks on a cornerback (though safety Adrian Amos has the versatility to play the position if needed), the door is open for one of the team’s undrafted rookies to earn a roster spot and potentially slot in as the No. 4 cornerback.
The popular pick to do that might well be Jacoby Glenn, a second-team AP All-American for Central Florida in 2014 who was widely projected to be a middle-round draft pick. The lesser-known player who could prove to be a better talent in training camp this summer, however, is Rice product Bryce Callahan.
If the 5’9”, 183-pound Callahan was a little bit bigger, he almost certainly would have been drafted. An explosive athlete who had a 43-inch vertical jump and 11-foot broad jump at his pro day, according to NFLDraftScout.com, Callahan possesses fluid hips, quick feet and a proven ability to make plays on the ball.
He projects to be too small to play as an outside cornerback in the NFL, but his movement skills and ball skills make him a good fit to play in the slot. He will need a strong preseason just to make the roster, with competition to come from Glenn, Hurst, Louis-Jean and others, but he could end up being a playmaker in dime packages—and perhaps in a greater capacity if the Bears have cornerback injuries again this year.
Cincinnati Bengals: DT/DE Marcus Hardison
The Cincinnati Bengals need better play from their defensive line this season after registering a league-low 20 sacks in 2014. One player who might be able to help the Bengals get that is Marcus Hardison, whom they selected with a compensatory fourth-round pick (No. 135 overall).
A good athlete for his size at 6’3” and 307 pounds, Hardison plays with a combination of power and quickness that can make him a handful for blockers to deal with. Although he is more naturally suited for playing defensive end in a 3-4 defense, he has the potential to line up both inside and outside for the Bengals.
Hardison is a one-year wonder who came out of nowhere at Arizona State in 2014 to record 15 tackles for loss, including 10 sacks. His game remains a work in progress technically, and he has limited Football Bowl Subdivision playing experience. If he can build upon the success of his senior season, however, he has the potential to emerge as a highly disruptive player in the NFL.
The Bengals bolstered their defensive line this offseason by bringing back two of their former veterans, defensive end Michael Johnson and defensive tackle Pat Sims, as free agents. They will also be expecting their best defensive tackle, Geno Atkins, to return to form after a disappointing 2014 season following a recovery from a torn ACL.
Even so, the Bengals should be looking to experiment with a multitude of ways to reinvigorate their pass rush, and getting Hardison involved could be a way to do that. His versatility to play multiple spots increases his value, but as a rookie, his shot to make a name for himself could come as a situational interior pass-rusher, which projects to be his best initial role.
Cleveland Browns: ILB Hayes Pullard
Many seventh-round draft picks are projects, prospects who have intriguing tools but need refinement to their games in order to become productive contributors in the NFL. The Cleveland Browns, however, got a potential instant-impact player in Round 7 by drafting Hayes Pullard with the No. 219 overall pick.
A consistent and sound tackler, he accumulated 377 total tackles over the course of his career as a four-year starter at the University of Southern California. An instinctive and fluid player, Pullard consistently gets himself in position to make plays, which should enable him to contribute immediately in the NFL.
Not exceptionally big or explosive, Pullard is not a player who will regularly shut down runners in the backfield. When he is clean in space, however, he flows to the ball well and typically executes his assignments. He will work his way into running lanes and is more than adept at dropping back into coverage.
The Browns already had a strong trio of inside linebackers in Karlos Dansby, Christian Kirksey and Craig Robertson, so Pullard probably won’t see the field much on defense as a rookie. With that being said, he should shine on special teams while also having the readiness to step in and play if injuries strike in front of him on the depth chart.
It’s possible that the Browns’ other seventh-round pick, former Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, could also prove to be one of the late-round gems of the 2015 draft class. However, he will likely spend his rookie season on injured reserve as he recovers from a torn ACL and dislocated knee. Pullard, on the other hand, is one of the most likely late-rounders to have real value for his team in Year 1.
Dallas Cowboys: LB Damien Wilson
There is a stark contrast between the Dallas Cowboys’ three big-name rookie acquisitions—Byron Jones, Randy Gregory and La’el Collins, who were all considered to be first-round talents even though the latter two did not go in Round 1 due to off-field reasons—and the rest of their rookie class, which is made up mainly of relative unknowns.
Even so, a number of other players in the Cowboys rookie class should have a chance to produce in 2015. The most likely candidate among them might be Damien Wilson, the Cowboys’ fourth-round pick (No. 127 overall).
After losing outside linebackers Bruce Carter and Justin Durant in free agency this offseason, “the Cowboys considered linebackers Eric Kendricks and Benardrick McKinney before ultimately choosing defensive back Byron Jones in Round 1," according to Jon Machota of the Dallas Morning News. That consideration illustrates the team’s need for new blood to come in and play at the position.
Wilson, an attack-minded linebacker with adequate size and athleticism, should get a real opportunity to seize immediate playing time. Having recorded 197 tackles in two seasons at Minnesota, he has demonstrated good playmaking range and an ability to hit with authority.
Lacking top-notch instincts and agility, Wilson is probably best-suited for playing on special teams, where he should perform well. It’s possible, though, that a strong summer could put him in position to see immediate playing time in the defensive rotation.
According to Machota, Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said after the draft that the team thinks Wilson could potentially be “a little better” than Anthony Hitchens, who currently projects as one of the team’s starting outside linebackers.
Denver Broncos: C Max Garcia
Offensive linemen drafted in the fourth round are typically brought in to be backups, at least for their rookie seasons, but No. 133 overall pick Max Garcia could end up with a more immediate opportunity to play up front for the Denver Broncos.
After moving on from three interior offensive line starters from last season, including two who played center (Will Montgomery and Manny Ramirez), the Broncos are rife with uncertainty in the middle of their offense.
Garcia, a Florida product who bolstered his draft stock with a solid showing at the Senior Bowl, could end up proving to be the best center on the Denver roster. He is not an ideal fit for the Broncos’ zone-blocking offense, as he is a limited athlete, but Denver wouldn’t have drafted him if it didn’t think he could play the position to its liking.
The Broncos likely envision Gino Gradkowski, who played for new Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak with the Baltimore Ravens in 2014, as their new starting center. But they shouldn’t hand Gradkowski the job. In 2013, when he was a 16-game starter for Baltimore, Pro Football Focus graded him as the worst center in the NFL.
According to Troy Renck of the Denver Post, the team has “told Garcia that they expect him to compete for starting center's job.” So if Garcia can acclimate quickly to the NFL, he could follow in the footsteps of four 2014 third-day picks—Corey Linsley, Russell Bodine, Bryan Stork and Luke Bowanko—and be his team’s starting center as a rookie.
Detroit Lions: DT Gabe Wright
The Detroit Lions’ top four defensive tackles from last season—Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, C.J. Mosley and Andre Fluellen—are not on the roster for 2015. That leaves the door wide open for Gabe Wright, whom the Lions traded up to draft in Round 4 (No. 113 overall), to potentially play in heavy rotation as a rookie.
Other than Haloti Ngata, whom Detroit acquired in a trade with the Baltimore Ravens in March, the Lions have virtually no proven talent at the defensive tackle position.
Free-agent signing Tyrunn Walker flashed as a rotational player for the New Orleans Saints over the past two seasons, but he has just one career start. Beyond Walker, the only other defensive tackles on the Lions roster who have seen any NFL game action are Caraun Reid and Jermelle Cudjo.
Considering they traded their 2016 third-round pick to acquire the selection used to draft Wright, the Lions clearly held the Auburn product in high regard. A penetrator with an explosive burst off the snap and quick hands, he has the potential to replace some of the interior pass-rushing ability Detroit lost with the departures of Fairley and Suh.
Although Wright’s game remains a work in progress, he has a prime opportunity to get on the field and make a difference for the Lions in 2015. He could be their best inside pass-rusher right off the bat, and because of that, he could end up being one of the most productive rookie defensive linemen in the NFL.
Green Bay Packers: RB John Crockett
No team in the NFL has harvested more production from undrafted free-agent signings in recent years than the Green Bay Packers. Always looking to find gems among the players who go unselected, they could end up with another in 2015 from their signing of former North Dakota State running back John Crockett.
Crockett, a key player for a trio of Football Championship Subdivision national championship teams from 2012 to 2014, has the skills to continue being a productive runner in the NFL. At 6’0” and 217 pounds, he is a tough, hard-charging runner who can make defenders miss with his cuts and is a capable receiver out of the backfield.
Signing with the Packers was a good decision for Crockett, not only because of their history with undrafted rookies but also because of their running back depth chart. While Eddie Lacy is firmly entrenched as the feature back, James Starks is the only other tailback on the roster who has ever played in an NFL game.
Crockett should be the favorite to earn a roster spot among the other backs on Green Bay’s roster, and given the Packers’ willingness to give undrafted rookies playing time, he could potentially even challenge Starks to be the No. 2 running back.
A highly energetic and confident player coming off a 1,994-yard senior season, Crockett has the agility and all-around running ability to perhaps be an upgrade over Starks, who averaged just 3.9 yards per carry on 85 rushing attempts in 2014. Crockett will need to stand out all preseason to have a chance of making that happen, but it shouldn’t be ruled out that he might make a real contribution to the Green Bay offense in his rookie season.
Houston Texans: WR Jaelen Strong
An impressive rookie year for Jaelen Strong probably wouldn’t take many by surprise, considering that he was widely projected to be a first- or second-round pick going into the 2015 NFL draft. Outside of the Houston Texans’ top three picks, however, none of their other rookies appear likely to see considerable playing time in their debut seasons.
Strong, whom the Texans traded up to draft with the No. 70 overall pick in Round 3, is one of the best bets to emerge as one of the steals of the 2015 draft, even with Houston’s move up factored in.
A 6’2”, 217-pound wide receiver who has above-average athleticism for his size, Strong is fresh off a two-year Arizona State career in which he regularly displayed the ability to make high-degree-of-difficulty catches. While he needs some improvement as a route-runner, his ability to attack the ball in the air—even when covered—makes him a dangerous downfield weapon.
Despite his fall to the third round, he could potentially emerge as a starter in his rookie year. As the Texans replace longtime star wide receiver Andre Johnson in 2015, Strong will battle with veteran free-agent additions Cecil Shorts and Nate Washington for the chance to be Houston’s No. 2 wide receiver opposite DeAndre Hopkins.
Even if Strong doesn’t win that battle from the outset, he should still have plenty of opportunities to get on the field this season. His upside as a playmaker is significantly higher than that of Shorts and Washington, and the Texans would not have traded up for him if they did not think he could quickly play a part in filling the void left by releasing Johnson.
Indianapolis Colts: SS Clayton Geathers
Despite being the team’s fourth pick (No. 109 overall) in this year’s draft, Clayton Geathers might have the best chance of any Indianapolis Colts rookie of working his way into the starting lineup this season.
The Colts found strong short-term veteran fixes at most of their positions of need this offseason, but they didn’t do much on the free-agent market to get better at safety. Free-agent signing Dwight Lowery is capable of being the starting free safety, but he’s a journeyman who has bounced around from one team to another for a reason.
With Lowery penciled in as one starter and the other being Mike Adams, a 34-year-old on the back end of his career, Geathers should have a good shot to gradually push his way into playing time if he performs well this preseason.
A hard hitter who is well-built at 6’2” and 218 pounds, he is characterized as a box safety but is also a solid athlete for his size who is capable of taking on downfield coverage assignments. Once acclimated to life in an NFL secondary, Geathers has the skills to be an upgrade for the Colts, both as an enforcer against the run and in defending the pass on the back end.
His first opportunity to make a name for himself will probably come on special teams, where his ability to attack downfield and lay the boom could make him a lightning rod. Ultimately, though, it might not be long before Geathers is a regular on defense if Lowery or Adams struggles early in the season.
Jacksonville Jaguars: G A.J. Cann
Even though Zane Beadles signed a five-year, $30 million contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2014, the writing is already on the wall for the veteran left guard. If they were still planning on Beadles being with them through 2018, they presumably wouldn’t have selected A.J. Cann with their third-round pick (No. 67 overall).
Having also signed veteran free agent Stefen Wisniewski to a one-year deal in April, the Jaguars are clearly looking for improvement on their interior offensive line. So while Wisniewski could unseat Luke Bowanko as Jacksonville’s center for 2015, Cann could potentially push Beadles out of the starting lineup as well.
Beadles qualifies as a solid starter for the offensive line, so Cann should be considered the underdog for now, but he might not be for long.
A four-year starter at South Carolina, he is arguably the most well-rounded and technically sound guard in the 2015 rookie class. He doesn’t have excellent length or athleticism, which likely led to his fall to the third round, but he is a powerful drive blocker who exhibits clean footwork and is as ready to play as any newcomer to the league this season.
Brandon Linder, the Jaguars’ third-round pick in the 2014 draft, immediately established himself last season as one of the NFL’s better right guards, making him one of last season’s true surprise rookie gems. If Cann can overtake Beadles for a spot in the starting lineup, he’s more than capable of doing the same at left guard in 2015.
Kansas City Chiefs: TE James O’Shaughnessy
The Kansas City Chiefs already have one of the NFL’s best tight ends in Travis Kelce, who emerged as a star in 2014 after missing his entire rookie season in 2013 due to injury. There’s always room to have two tight ends on the field, however, and fifth-round pick (No. 173 overall) James O’Shaughnessy could end up emerging from obscurity to take on the No. 2 tight end role.
As last season proved to a historic extent, the Chiefs offense with Alex Smith at quarterback utilizes tight ends and running backs as pass-catchers just as much as wide receivers. With Travis Kelce and Anthony Fasano as their regulars at the position, the Chiefs used two-tight end sets more than any other team in the NFL in 2015.
As Fasano was released this offseason, the Chiefs will be looking for another tight end to take on significant playing time in tandem with Kelce. None of the four veteran tight ends on the Chiefs roster—Richard Gordon, Demetrius Harris, Ryan Taylor and Adam Schiltz—have ever caught more than six passes in an NFL season.
Despite being a better athlete than in-line blocker and facing a tough jump to the NFL from Illinois State, O’Shaughnessy has the skill set to quickly emerge as a contributor in the passing game. If the Chiefs are going to have a legitimate second receiving threat at the tight end position this year, they’re going to need him to be.
O’Shaughnessy—whose name is not pronounced O-Shag-Hennessy, much to the chagrin of Key & Peele’s “Substitute Teacher”—fits the prototype for a modern NFL “move” tight end. While he is smaller than a traditional in-line tight end, he has enough speed to stretch the field and should be able to create mismatches in the seam.
Miami Dolphins: LB Mike Hull
As outlined in a Bleacher Report article earlier this month, any one of four undrafted rookie linebackers—Jeff Luc, Zach Vigil, Mike Hull or Neville Hewitt—could end up emerging as a gem from off the radar for the Miami Dolphins this season.
Possessing limited veteran talent and depth at the linebacker position, the Dolphins present an opportunity to those rookies that most undrafted newcomers around the league will not have. It’s likely that Miami will have to turn to one of its undrafted rookie linebackers to take on legitimate playing time on defense, while also being a contributor on special teams, this season.
Of the aforementioned quartet, Hull might be the most well-equipped to play in 2015. While he went undrafted due to his limited physical gifts, he is a smart, instinctive player who changes directions cleanly, tackles efficiently and is capable of dropping back into coverage.
Players like Hull, who was the star of Penn State’s defense in his senior season, are the type who often flourish despite going undrafted. A high-motor player who consistently gets himself in good positions, he is capable of maximizing the skill set he has even though he is a step slow for the NFL game.
Ultimately, Hull’s quest to make the roster will be determined by whether he can show the versatility to play all three linebacker positions and makes enough plays, in competition with the other rookie linebackers, on defense and special teams this preseason. If he wins the battle, Hull could well end up being a key player in the defensive rotation in short order.
Minnesota Vikings: S Anthony Harris
The Minnesota Vikings don’t appear to be sold on Robert Blanton as their starting strong safety, having benched him in favor of Andrew Sendejo late last season. If Blanton and Sendejo are to compete for the starting position this preseason, they could end up with company from undrafted rookie Anthony Harris.
Perhaps the most well-rounded prospect who wasn’t selected in this year’s draft (excluding La’el Collins), Harris has the skill set to be an immediate contributor if given the opportunity.
A three-year starter at Virginia, he is both solid in run support—although he is slim for an NFL player at 6’1” and 183 pounds—and able to drop into coverage effectively. The Football Bowl Subdivision leader with eight interceptions in 2013, he also accumulated 289 total tackles over the course of his collegiate career.
While Harris lacks top-notch size and speed, he has no major deficiencies that should keep him from making the Vikings roster and earning playing time on both defense and special teams.
The biggest thing that could hold him back—and likely also the reason he went undrafted—is that he is still recovering from shoulder surgery that forced him to miss the NFL Scouting Combine and Virginia’s pro day, as noted by Bleacher Report’s Brad Gagnon. But as long as he can get healthy and secure a spot on the team, Harris could make a real push to get on the field in 2015.
New England Patriots: CB Darryl Roberts
Last year’s surprise rookie gem for the New England Patriots was Malcolm Butler, an undrafted cornerback from West Alabama who went on to make the game-winning play in the Super Bowl. As the Patriots move on to 2015 without three key cornerbacks from their 2014 roster, they could be banking on another unheralded rookie to emerge at the position this season.
With their seventh-round selection (No. 247 overall) of Darryl Roberts, the Patriots added a spectacular athlete who posted a 4.38-second 40-yard dash, 39-inch vertical jump and 11'1" broad jump at his pro day, according to NFLDraftScout.com. Able to close quickly on the ball, Roberts proved his ability to make plays on it at Marshall last season by recorded 18 total passes defensed.
Despite his physical gifts and ball skills, he is a project who needs to improve significantly upon his technique to cover the top receivers in the NFL. With that being said, going to New England—a team with one of the NFL’s best track records in talent development—could be the perfect place for Roberts to find success.
If he proves to be a quick learner in training camp this summer, he could move up the cornerback depth chart just as quickly. Outside of Butler, the Patriots have a disconcerting lack of talent at the position after letting go of Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington this offseason.
As the hardly believable rise of Butler proved last season, it’s possible for anyone with talent to defy expectations and carve out a role with the Patriots. Roberts could make that happen in the New England secondary in 2015, but even if he doesn’t, he should still make the roster and utilize his speed to become a difference-maker on special teams.
New Orleans Saints: OLB/DE Davis Tull
Needing to add a spark to their pass rush in this year’s draft, the New Orleans Saints used two of their choices to select edge defenders. They used a second-round pick (No. 44 overall) on Hau’oli Kikaha, who led the Football Bowl Subdivision with 19 sacks in 2014, but it’s possible Davis Tull, whom they selected with a fifth-round pick (No. 148 overall), could end up making a bigger impact in 2015.
Like Kikaha, Tull also had outstanding production in his collegiate career—he just did it at a lower level. A three-time Southern Conference Defensive Player of the Year for Tennessee-Chattanooga, he finished his four-year career in the Football Championship Subdivision with 60 total tackles for loss, including 37 sacks.
Those numbers, in themselves, indicate his ability to win off the edge and make plays in the backfield. But while Kikaha’s production came against better teams than Tull and is the more skilled pass-rusher of the two at this point, Tull is the significantly more explosive athlete of the two.
He wowed at the NFL Scouting Combine, where he went 42.5 inches in the vertical jump and 11 feet in the broad jump and followed it up with a 4.57-second 40-yard dash at his pro day, according to NFL.com. He is undersized for an edge defender at only 6’2” and 246 pounds, but his combination of athleticism, pass-rushing moves, ability to bend and tenacity makes him a good fit for New Orleans’ hybrid defensive scheme, in which he can play outside linebacker.
If only as a situational pass-rusher for Year 1, the door is open for at least one of the Saints’ rookie edge defenders to play a significant role in the rotation this year. Kikaha will get every opportunity to carve out his role, given that the team used one of its prime draft picks to select him, but Tull should push him and the rest of the Saints’ edge players for playing time.
New York Giants: FS Mykkele Thompson
It came as a surprise to many that Mykkele Thompson—who was not even ranked on the final big board of Bleacher Report NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller, a self-acknowledged Texas fan—was drafted at all, let alone in the fifth round, where the New York Giants drafted him at No. 144 overall.
Thompson was never a star player for the Longhorns—he had just two interceptions and five total passes defensed in his four-year Texas career—and was considered to be a project. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t end up surprising the masses again and emerging as a player of significance in the NFL in 2015.
Having let go of veteran safeties Antrel Rolle, Stevie Brown and Quintin Demps this offseason, the Giants had to draft players at the position whom they could expect to play in short order. After trading up to the No. 33 overall pick in Round 2 to draft Landon Collins to be their strong safety of the future, the Giants went for Thompson to add him to the mix at free safety.
Set to compete with a pair of previous fifth-round picks, 2013 selection Cooper Taylor and 2014 selection Nat Berhe, he might actually have a shot at earning the starting free safety job, despite his lack of previous name recognition.
A 6’2”, 191-pound safety who ran a 4.47-second 40-yard dash at his pro day, according to NFL.com, Thompson is a rangy athlete who shows potential to handle the deep coverage responsibilities required of the free safety position. He needs to work on his angles and getting himself in better positions to make plays, but he shouldn’t be ruled out in New York’s no-name battle to play center field in the secondary.
New York Jets: OLB Lorenzo Mauldin
Lorenzo Mauldin, whom the New York Jets selected after trading down to the No. 82 overall pick in the third round, might not be the explosive pass-rusher they really needed at the outside linebacker position. But even if he is not that, he could still be a tough player for the Jets to keep off the field.
Mauldin, whose childhood was spent being shuttled between foster homes, consistently got better each year at Louisville and made himself into a complete player on the edge. After a breakout junior season as a 4-3 defensive end, he made a successful transition to outside linebacker in 2014, proving himself to be a fit for a 3-4 defense like that which the Jets run.
Lacking the explosive get-off found in most NFL pass-rushers, Mauldin might never be a consistent source of pressure for quarterbacks to deal with off the edge. But he brings just about everything else to the field that one should want in a 3-4 outside linebacker.
He has good size for an edge player, at 6’4” and 259 pounds, and good strength to play the run. He is effective with his hands, able to work both inside and outside of blockers and can generate power. A sound tackler, he also has excellent coverage ability for a player of his size, giving him value that offsets his limitations as a pass-rusher.
Even if Mauldin is not destined to be a great NFL pass-rusher, it’s not as if the Jets have any outside linebackers on their roster who are significantly better than him in that regard. With the third-round pick’s ability to contribute in all facets of playing defense, he should at least become a staple in the rotation and perhaps become a more productive player than many expect.
Oakland Raiders: OLB Neiron Ball
There might not be any player in the 2015 rookie class who has overcome more adversity in his life than Neiron Ball. As detailed in a March article for Bleacher Report, he has battled through multiple medical situations—including a life-threatening brain malformation—and losing both of his parents as a child to have a successful career at Florida and make it to the NFL.
More than just an inspirational story, Ball is a great athlete and a talented football player too, which is why the Oakland Raiders selected him with a fifth-round pick (No. 161 overall) in this year’s draft. If he can stay healthy and take advantage of his athleticism this summer, he just might emerge as an impactful player on the Raiders defense in 2015.
Ball, a 6’2”, 236-pound linebacker, ran a 4.65-second 40-yard dash at his pro day while still recovering from microfracture knee surgery, according to NFLDraftScout.com. At Florida, he showed the range to make plays all over the field, doing everything from pass-rushing off the edge to dropping back into coverage like a safety.
Seemingly tailor-made to be a special teams standout, Ball should at least make an impact in that regard so long as he can stay injury-free in his rookie year. But his versatility could also afford him an opportunity to be a chess-piece type defender for the Raiders’ front seven under new defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.
The Raiders already have a solid starting trio of linebackers in Khalil Mack, Sio Moore and Curtis Lofton, but Ball could factor in as a rotational player at strong-side linebacker—specifically in pass defense situations where Mack slides down to defensive end. One way or another, the rookie's athleticism and resolve could make him a tough player to keep off the field in 2015.
Philadelphia Eagles: CB Randall Evans
While the Philadelphia Eagles’ first two 2015 draft picks—wide receiver Nelson Agholor and cornerback Eric Rowe—are likely to be starters this season, the rest of their rookie class members look far less likely to hold significant roles on the depth chart. If any of them are to make surprise impacts for the Eagles in 2015, though, it could be Randall Evans.
One of two additional cornerbacks selected by the Eagles in the sixth round (No. 196 overall), Evans projects as a potential successor to Brandon Boykin as the slot cornerback. Boykin, one of an ever-shrinking minority of Eagles players still on the team from the pre-Chip Kelly era, is set to be an unrestricted free agent in 2016.
It would be a surprise if Evans—or any other Eagles cornerback, including fellow sixth-round pick JaCorey Shepherd, for that matter—makes a serious push for Boykin’s job this season. Because of his projected role in the team’s future, however, Evans has a solid shot to make the roster as a rookie and become a contributor on special teams.
A 6’0”, 190-pound cornerback with great speed and ball skills, he is a natural fit for playing inside. If the Kansas State product can stand out in training camp and the preseason, he could earn a role in dime packages as the sixth defensive back/secondary slot cornerback.
If nothing more, Evans’ athletic range should make him an asset to Philadelphia’s special teams coverage units this upcoming season, assuming he survives the cutdown to the 53-man regular-season roster.
Pittsburgh Steelers: CB Doran Grant
Finally addressing a position that had been a lingering draft need for years, the Pittsburgh Steelers used two of their first four picks this year to select cornerbacks.
Senquez Golson, their second-round pick (No. 56 overall), is a short (5'9") cornerback who has proven playmaking ability and should be a quick fix in the slot. Yet it’s possible an even greater role could be played by Pittsburgh’s fourth-round pick (No. 121 overall), Doran Grant, who could emerge as an outside starter at cornerback by the end of his rookie season.
Cortez Allen, the incumbent No. 2 cornerback, struggled mightily last season before going down with a season-ending thumb injury. That should leave the door open for competition, and Grant comes in with enough skill to potentially steal Allen’s job away.
There’s reason to believe that Grant, despite his fall to the fourth round, can be a capable starting cornerback in the NFL. He does not have great size (5'10", 200 lbs), but he is a smart, technically sound player who is fluid in his hips, technically sound, fast and a willing tackler.
Grant might never be a regular source of big plays for an NFL defense, but if he can provide consistent coverage without frequently suffering bad beats, he’ll be an upgrade over Allen. The Steelers might be hesitant to give Grant the starting job over Allen right now—considering their relatively low investment in Grant while Allen carries a 2015 cap hit of nearly $7 million—but even if he does not start right away, the rookie should be able to contribute in dime packages and on special teams.
San Diego Chargers: OLB Kyle Emanuel
The two leading snap-getters among San Diego Chargers outside linebackers last season—Dwight Freeney and Jarret Johnson, according to Pro Football Focus—are no longer with the team. That leaves the Chargers with little experience at the position, which could open the door for their fifth-round pick (No. 153 overall), Kyle Emanuel, to get on the field as a rookie.
He lacks the length and explosiveness to be the premier pass-rusher that the Chargers need to emerge on their defense this season, but he can nonetheless bring a valuable skill set to the defense.
Honored with the Buck Buchanan Award as the Football Championship Subdivision’s best defensive player in 2015, Emanuel brings versatility, technical skill and a high-running motor to the NFL from North Dakota State.
He is an effort rusher who might not win with burst but can work his way around blockers with his hand skills and his ability to dip and bend. A strong tackler who is a good fit to drop back and play in space in the Chargers’ 3-4 defense, Emanuel should offer the ability to play in coverage and even to move to inside linebacker if needed to play in those capacities.
It would be a surprise if he beats out Melvin Ingram or Jeremiah Attaochu for a starting spot, but there is no one else who should keep Emanuel from earning a solid rotational role, while he can also be a stalwart on special teams. Highly productive in college and instinctive toward the football, he is ready to contribute in the NFL despite playing against lower-level competition at NDSU.
San Francisco 49ers: TE Blake Bell
With Vernon Davis coming off the least productive season of his NFL career, the San Francisco 49ers would benefit from the emergence of another weapon at the tight end position. Although it will certainly take some rapid development on his part, Blake Bell has the potential to be that in 2015.
Bell, whom San Francisco selected with a fourth-round pick (No. 117 overall), played just one collegiate season at tight end after converting to the position from quarterback. As the new starting tight end for Oklahoma in 2014, he caught 16 passes for 214 yards and four touchdowns.
For a player who could be considered solely on the basis of his inexperience, Bell was impressive both in his senior season and at the East-West Shrine Game. While he still has to learn the intricacies of the tight end position, the 6’6”, 252-pound “Belldozer” displayed natural pass-catching ability, athleticism and ability to take advantage of his size as a blocker.
Under general manager Trent Baalke, the 49ers have consistently emphasized drafting for long-term potential over short-term gratification. The selection of Bell, who is likely a few years away from being truly gradable, very much fits those criteria.
Yet even though he is considered a project, he could still make a surprise impact in his rookie year. His physical tools enable him to be a mismatch-creator and a player who is tough to tackle after the catch. As such, Bell could break off some big plays and/or catch some touchdowns in the red zone in 2015, even though he will likely only play in a limited capacity.
Seattle Seahawks: WR Tyler Lockett
Much like with the aforementioned Jaelen Strong, who was selected one pick after Tyler Lockett in the draft, it would not be a surprise if Lockett has a productive rookie season. But because the Seattle Seahawks traded three of their Day 3 draft picks to move up for him, and used the rest of their Day 3 picks mainly to select athletic projects, he is one of the only Seahawks rookies with a good shot at being a gem in 2015.
How Lockett could still surprise people, being the No. 69 overall pick, is that he could end up truly being one of the best rookies in the NFL this year.
Highly productive as both a wide receiver and kickoff/punt returner at Kansas State, he was drafted to be a weapon on both offense and special teams in Seattle. He fell to Round 3 due to a lack of size (5'10" 182 lbs), but he has an excellent combination of route-running skill, open-field running ability and speed that should enable him to continue his success at the next level.
Well-suited to play inside as a slot receiver, Lockett should have the inside track at emerging as the No. 3 wideout behind Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse. The only other wide receiver on the roster with more than 11 receptions last season, Paul Richardson, is unlikely to be ready for the start of the 2015 season as he recovers from a torn ACL.
Regardless of where Lockett ends up on the wide receiver depth chart, he should be a big upgrade for the Seahawks’ return game in 2015. Having scored a total of six return touchdowns in his collegiate career, his acceleration and agility make him an omnipresent threat to break for a big return any time he has room to run.
St. Louis Rams: LB Bryce Hager
Having traded running back Zac Stacy for nothing more than a seventh-round draft pick, the St. Louis Rams will want to see that seventh-rounder turn into a productive player for their team, especially if Stacy goes on to have success for the New York Jets. The player they selected with that pick, No. 224 overall choice Bryce Hager, could prove to be well worth it.
Hager, who had 322 total tackles over the course of his four-year career at Baylor, is a rangy and instinctive linebacker who is good at finding his way to the football and finishing with strong tackles.
Although he is small for a true middle linebacker at 6’1” and 234 pounds, he nonetheless offers the versatility to play all three linebacker positions in a backup/rotational role for the Rams. He could struggle to get off blocks against NFL offensive linemen, but he is a solid run-stopper who can attack lanes as a blitzer and also drop back into coverage.
On a team with limited depth behind starters James Laurinaitis, Alec Ogletree and Akeem Ayers, Hager could have a legitimate shot to emerge as the top rotational player in St. Louis at his position. A smart, high-motor player, he should be ready to contribute on defense as a rookie, whenever his number is called.
Even if Hager doesn’t carve out a significant role on defense in 2015, he should earn his spot on the 53-man roster by standing out on special teams. His ability to recognize and chase down ball-carriers should translate well to coverage responsibilities on kickoffs and punts and can make him well worth the Rams’ seventh-round investment.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: WR Kenny Bell
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have two terrific pass-catching weapons in outside wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans, but as they move to a more pass-oriented offense with No. 1 overall pick quarterback Jameis Winston, they need to also find a No. 3 wide receiver who can move all over the formation and get open to make plays.
Tampa Bay’s fifth-round pick, Kenny Bell, might well net the team that player. The No. 162 overall selection in this year’s draft, he is a fast and fluid receiver who has the skills to end up significantly outperforming his draft position.
Bell combines his top-end speed with agility, and he has a proven ability from his time at Nebraska to elevate for high throws and haul in tough catches. He has the body control to contort his body in midair and make challenging plays on the ball, even when he is covered.
Even though he does not fit the traditional mold for the slot receiver position, Bell still projects as the Buccaneers’ best candidate to fill that role, and one who can be successful in doing so. He needs to exhibit improvement this summer as a route-runner, but he is a stronger pass-catcher than Robert Herron and a better athlete than Louis Murphy.
Ultimately, Bell’s most important step to making an impact as a rookie will be developing a rapport with Winston. Having been the new quarterback’s roommate during rookie minicamp, he appears to be off to a good start.
Tennessee Titans: FB Jalston Fowler
Fullbacks don’t get much love in the modern, pass-happy NFL, but they can still be productive players if utilized to their strengths. Jalston Fowler, whom the Tennessee Titans drafted with the No. 108 overall pick despite his position, has the skill set to quickly become one of the NFL’s best of a dying breed.
Presumably, the Titans wouldn’t have used an early fourth-round pick to draft Fowler if they didn’t think the fullback could factor in significantly to their offense for 2015 and beyond. As long as Tennessee plans to do that this season, it shouldn’t take long for him to translate to the NFL and make an impact.
Fowler, who started his career at Alabama as a power tailback, offers some value as a short-yardage and goal-line running option at 5’11” and 254 pounds. He doesn’t have the speed or agility to run away from anybody, but he has the size and strength to push a pile forward.
Where his primary value should come, however, is as a blocker and receiver. While he should have some occasional opportunities to contribute to the power-running game as a ball-carrier, he will more often be tasked with blocking defenders out of the way of a running back behind him. Fowler also has good hands and can be a short-yardage pass-catching weapon out of the backfield.
He is never going to be an every-down player in the modern NFL, but he should take over the lead fullback duties right away and make some plays—perhaps more than most other fullbacks in the NFL—when he is in the game. If he can do that and also provide solid play on special teams, Fowler will prove to have been well worth a fourth-round pick.
Washington Redskins: RB Matt Jones
The Washington Redskins came away with an outstanding surprise rookie gem in 2012, when No. 173 overall pick Alfred Morris made an immediate name for himself by rushing for 1,613 yards. Seemingly, the Redskins should be set at the running back position for 2015 by virtue of still having Morris, who has the second-most total rushing yards in the NFL since 2012, trailing only Marshawn Lynch, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.
Instead, Washington appears set to allow another running back to challenge for a piece of the pie, and that running back is reportedly already making a strong case for himself. Matt Jones, whom the Redskins surprisingly selected with a third-round draft pick (No. 95 overall), is already generating buzz from Ashburn, Virginia, before Washington’s full-team offseason workouts have even gotten rolling.
A big, powerful back at 6’2” and 231 pounds, Jones has been compared to Lynch by Washington general manager Scot McCloughan, according to Tarik El-Bashir of CSNWashington.com. As the Redskins shift toward a power-based offense in 2015, as noted by Mark Bullock of the Washington Post, Jones could end up offering a skill set more befitting of the scheme than Morris.
Don’t expect Jones to suddenly supplant Morris on the depth chart this summer, but it does appear quite possible that the rookie will get significant playing time as the No. 2 running back. As Jones is a quality pass-protector who occasionally showed pass-catching ability at Florida, El-Bashir believes the Redskins could be trying to mold him into “one of the biggest third-down backs in the league.”
Jones is not a particularly fast or agile back, but his size and strength can make him an imposing presence. Even in the NFL’s modern era, which emphasizes speed more than it does power, a back like Jones could end up being asset for the Washington offense as quickly as his rookie year.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.