Late-Round NFL Rookies Who Can Compete for Starting Jobs in Year 1
It's easy to focus on Day 1 and Day 2 NFL draft picks in terms of impact. When you read draft grades or draft reviews on individual teams, they almost always revolve around those players specifically. While this is correct as a generalization—that Day 1 and Day 2 selections do tend to play more as rookies than Day 3 players—it is not set in stone.
Last year alone, we saw players like an unknown Rodney Gunter from Delaware State start double-digit games on the Arizona Cardinals' defensive line, Baltimore's fourth-round pick Za'Darius Smith finishing third in rookie sacks and Shaq Mason starting 10 games for the New England Patriots at guard. That's not even counting some part-time skill players like Jeremy Langford and Karlos Williams, who did well when they were able to field some reps.
Heading into 2016, you should expect the majority of the NFL's rookie contributions to come from top-100 picks, but keep an eye out for possible sleepers. As far as players who were drafted in the fourth round or later go, there are five draftees who have a good shot at winning starting jobs as rookies, based off of the personnel and scheme of the franchises that drafted them.
Alex Collins, RB, Seattle Seahawks
The Seattle Seahawks are built around their running game. For as much fun as quarterback Russell Wilson is to watch, the Seahawks offense during his time with the team has relied on one-on-one matchups downfield with opponents fielding extra box defenders.
You can make the argument that the easiest system to run in the NFL is Seattle's, which was given the unique opportunity of having a top-five running back in Marshawn Lynch and a top-five mobile quarterback in Wilson. In many ways, the downfield routes and run-game blocking schemes aren't too different from what you'd see at the high school level nationally.
Lynch posted a photo on Twitter of his hung-up cleats on the night of the Super Bowl. Since then, he has essentially been retired.
Behind him on the depth chart would have been Thomas Rawls, who is now thrown into the spotlight coming off of a December broken ankle. The undrafted free agent broke onto the scene in 2015, but assuming he can repeat his 830-yard effort is dangerous. While it's true that you can supplement the ground game of an early draft choice with multiple late-round or free-agent running backs, there are few who can handle the load themselves.
For reference, Chris Ivory is the only other undrafted running back who finished in the top 23 in rushing yards in 2015. He's also the only undrafted back who had over 200 carries in 2015. Last year, the Seahawks had over 500 carries. Those touches have to go to someone, and history says Rawls is more of a mirage than a cornerstone to build the offense around.
Christine Michael is on the roster behind Rawls, but after bouncing around with the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins just to come back to Seattle in 2015, now heading into the fourth season of his career, we can all agree that he's not going to be the high-upside player many thought he potentially could have been coming out of Texas A&M.
That leaves C.J. Prosise and Alex Collins—two 2016 draftees—to give Rawls a run for his money, attempting to take some of the over 350 carries that separated Rawls' 2015 amount and the team's overall count. What differentiates Rawls and Prosise (two upside backs like Michael) from Collins is consistency.
Despite splitting carries with other future NFL running backs early on in his career, Collins had 1,000-yard rushing seasons in all three of his years at Arkansas. He also had carry totals of 190, 204 and 271 in the SEC—the nation's toughest conference. The Seahawks need a volume guy, and they drafted one in the fifth round.
Hassan Ridgeway, DL, Indianapolis Colts
The 2016 draft class was fairly thin at the top of the talent pool, but there was one position that was significantly deep: defensive tackle. If you were in the market for a defensive lineman, this was your opportunity to bring in a steal of a selection.
As far as possible interior defensive linemen were concerned, Joey Bosa, DeForest Buckner, Sheldon Rankins, Kenny Clark, Robert Nkemdiche, Vernon Butler, Chris Jones, Austin Johnson, A'Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed were all top-50 selections. Because of the volume of these defenders, many slipped through the cracks of the draft relative to their predraft expectations. For example, Jones, Robinson and Reed were all invited to Chicago's Auditorium Theatre, but they weren't drafted until Day 2.
Talents went a round or two later than they would have in an average class at the position. Possibly the biggest value selection at the position was Hassan Ridgeway, who was selected by the Indianapolis Colts in the fourth round.
To call Ridgeway a polished player would be a lie, but he flashed at Texas, and players of his talent usually go in the second round, not the fourth round. While that seems like semantics, when you look at the value of second-round picks juxtaposed to fourth-round picks, you'll understand how important that is. Day 3 selections are often used in short trade-ups in the second round.
The Colts don't have many young, talented defenders, which is a byproduct of using so many top-100 picks on offensive players to build around quarterback Andrew Luck. Even when they did use high picks on defenders, like Bjoern Werner, they struck out. This led to several vacancies on the defensive side of the ball, which Ridgeway is now available to fill.
Last season, the team drafted Henry Anderson, a long defensive lineman who had some of the best film from a rookie of last year's class. In all likelihood, Anderson is going to be the team's best hand-down defender in 2016. Kendall Langford signed a lengthy contract in 2015, but when looking at his guaranteed money, he's owed less than $1 million as a cap hit if cut from this point forward in his deal.
His contract may present an illusion that he's locked up with the team long term, but that's not the case. There's still an opening for Ridgeway to fill. Do not be shocked one bit if he ends 2016 with the same type of hype that Anderson had after his early rookie success.
Dean Lowry, DL, Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers are thin on the defensive line. Their best defensive lineman under Dom Capers, B.J. Raji, retired during the early free-agency period. That forced the Packers into the nose tackle market.
At under tackle, the starting job is fairly locked up with Mike Daniels looking like a near-Pro Bowler. Left defensive end, a semi-rotational role in today's nickel NFL, was the other position on the line—along with nose tackle—that Green Bay needed to address in the draft.
Kenny Clark of UCLA, a 20-year-old athlete, was drafted with the 27th overall pick. Based on his college role and size, it's a virtual lock that Clark sees time at nose tackle, at least in the long term. Later in the draft, though, the team made an interesting move by bringing in Northwestern's Dean Lowry.
Lowry is 6'6" with alligator arms, but he is incredibly explosive for his density. One of his top athletic comparisons on Mock Draftable is Henry Anderson, who when healthy was a significant starter for the Indianapolis Colts. On film, they were similar prospects coming out of college, and Lowry should be able to prove himself early on, like Anderson did with the Colts.
That is partially due to two other moves this offseason. First, Datone Jones, a former first-round pick, is moving from defensive end to outside linebacker, similar to the career trajectory of Mike Neal, a second-round defensive tackle who ended up moving to the edge (Neal hit free agency this past offseason). Second, Josh Boyd, who saw almost every snap of his career as a left defensive end, was cut after the draft.
The combination of Lowry's presence and the fact that Boyd ended his 2015 season with an ankle injury likely contributed to his release. Lowry is a young, gifted player on a veteran squad that needs a plug-and-play left defensive end. As far as Day 3 picks go, based on personnel and scheme, he's a slam dunk.
Charles Tapper, EDGE, Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys are in a pickle. Last year, they elected to bring in off-field concern Greg Hardy on a discount, because they were so desperate at 4-3 defensive end. Ever since DeMarcus Ware signed with the Denver Broncos in 2014, the team has lacked a premier pass-rusher.
After the Hardy experiment flopped, causing more headaches than pressured pockets, the team moved on from him. That meant that the starting gig opposite of Demarcus Lawrence, a 2014 second-round pick, was open. That role would seemingly go to Randy Gregory, a 2015 second-round pick, but after zero sacks as a rookie and a four-game suspension hanging over his head, he may lose that assumed role before his season even begins.
The Cowboys aren't just looking for one edge defender, though, as Lawrence, who had eight sacks in 2015, is also facing a four-game suspension. Investing in character risks can provide value at times, but it's a roll of the dice, and Jerry Jones' boys have fallen short in recent history.
Thankfully, one of the more intriguing players in the draft fell right into Dallas' lap. The team selected Charles Tapper of Oklahoma, once a promising 4-3 defensive end, in the fourth round. Tapper was converted to 3-4 defensive end, an odd fit for an explosive player, about midway through his college career.
After flashing at the combine, Tapper force the league to dig back to his sophomore film as a primary pass-rusher for the Sooners. According to Mock Draftable, his top six athletic comparisons are Cameron Jordan, a Pro Bowler; Owamagbe Odighizuwa, a second-year player who slipped out of the first round due to the health of his hip; Preston Smith, who led 2015 rookies in sacks; Lawrence; Robert Quinn, an All-Pro; and Noah Spence, who was selected 39th overall this year.
If Tapper looks close to any of those players as a rookie, he will be a tremendous value selection. After being miscast, he has joined the best-suiting franchise for his skill set. Tapper's athleticism would suggest he's going to be a pass-rushing force early on in his NFL career, and he's going to be afforded early opportunities because of the suspensions the Cowboys are pushing through.
B.J. Goodson, LB, New York Giants
In 2006, Antonio Pierce made the Pro Bowl—his first and last. Since then, no New York Giants off-the-ball linebacker has been given that honor. In a league that now features various alternates in the live game, that's an impressive feat in incompetence at the position.
The team's general manager, Jerry Reese, just doesn't seem to value the position much. For over a half-decade, the Giants have desperately needed a massive improvement at the position. Going into the draft, Devon Kennard, a 2014 fifth-round pick, was the team's beacon of hope in the unit, despite only having 15 starts under his belt at the NFL level.
With the selection of B.J. Goodson, though, the Giants took a step in the right direction. Goodson has the skill set to play all three positions in a 4-3 defense, but he's best suited as a "Mike" linebacker. After losing players like Vic Beasley and Stephone Anthony, Clemson was able to reload its defense to a championship-caliber group, and Goodson posting 108 tackles as a senior after totaling 30 in his career prior had a big contribution to that.
On a team with little to no linebacker talent, Goodson, a top-five inside linebacker from this past draft class, should be viewed as a lock to start for the team. On paper, there's also a good chance he's already the best player in the unit by the end of the season.