NFL Rookies Who Will Be Household Names by Season's End

Ryan McCrystal@@ryan_mccrystalFeatured ColumnistMay 3, 2017

NFL Rookies Who Will Be Household Names by Season's End

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    The 2017 NFL draft is in the books, and now it's time to look ahead to September and analyze how all these rookies fit into their rosters. 

    To determine which rookies could become household names, a few different factors need to be considered. 

    First, position matters. While there will be offensive linemen and defensive tackles who make significant contributions, those types of players rarely become household names, and it likely won't happen during their rookie year. 

    The second factor is playing time. Many prospects from this class will become stars down the road but may not have a clear path to an impact role right away. 

    Among the players not included is Myles Garrett. The former Texas A&M pass-rusher will likely become a household name in his career, but it won't happen immediately because he needs at least one season to refine his talent. 

    Here's a look at eight rookies who are in position to take advantage of those factors by making a substantial impact in 2017 and potentially become household names by season's end. 

Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    There aren't many true workhorse running backs in the NFL, with more and more teams opting for two complementary backs to share the workload. But Leonard Fournette is a throwback and can be the type of power runner who takes the ball 20 or more times per game. 

    Jacksonville has struggled to establish the run in recent years, with Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon leading the NFL's 22nd-ranked rushing attack last year, but it appears to be committed to making it work. 

    Not only did the Jags land Fournette, but they also used their second-round pick on Alabama lineman Cam Robinson, arguably the best run-blocker in this year's draft class. 

    Both of these selections indicate Jacksonville wants to win by running the ball, which should create plenty of opportunities for Fournette. Combine that with quarterback Blake Bortles' recent struggles, and expectations should be high for his performance in 2017. He'll be a strong Rookie of the Year candidate. 

John Ross, Cincinnati Bengals

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    One of the biggest surprises of the first round was the Cincinnati Bengals' decision to select John Ross at No. 9 overall. Wide receiver wasn't their biggest need, and Ross is more of a luxury than a necessity. 

    However, Ross does solidify their offense and provide the perfect complement to A.J. Green. He's such a perfect fit that he could easily be this year's top rookie receiver over both Mike Williams and Corey Davis, who will get a lot more attention from opposing defenses.

    Green, due to his combination of size (6'4", 210 lbs) and speed, often requires attention from a safety over the top. But Ross, thanks to his elite speed (record-breaking 4.22-second 40-yard dash), will often require the same attention. But teams will likely bracket coverage over to Green leaving Ross in a lot of one-on-one scenarios. It's a nightmare situation for opposing defensive coordinators, who have to chose to either keep extra help in the secondary or leave one of their cornerbacks on an island versus one of these dangerous receivers. 

    Since Ross is a complementary piece, he may never put up No. 1 receiver numbers, but his speed makes him a big play waiting to happen. Expect plenty of long touchdowns and highlight-reel plays from Ross this season. 

O.J. Howard, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    NFL teams are always thrilled this time of year due to the upgrades to their roster, but no one gets a bigger upgrade than O.J. Howard. After catching passes from Jake Coker and Jalen Hurts the past two seasons at Alabama, Howard now gets to work with Jameis Winston. 

    It's easy to write off Howard's mediocre production (114 catches, seven TDs in four years) with the Crimson Tide due to the poor quarterback play, and he should easily outpace his college performance as a rookie in Tampa. 

    Howard will likely step into Cameron Brate's starting role, though the incumbent put up surprising numbers a season ago. Brate's 57 receptions for 660 yards and eight touchdowns should be realistic goal for Howard, even as a rookie. 

    Not only will Howard benefit from working with Winston, but receivers Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson will also help attract attention away from him on the outside and allow Howard space to work the seams. 

Malik Hooker, Indianapolis Colts

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    It's more difficult for defensive players to become household names, but Indianapolis Colts first-round selection Malik Hooker has a chance to make that type of impact. 

    During his redshirt sophomore year at Ohio State, Hooker snagged seven interceptions and returned three of them for touchdowns. It's unlikely he'll ever replicate that dominant performance, but it shows the type of playmaking ability he has in the deep secondary. 

    Hooker's range as a free safety is exceptional, and he will put himself in position to make highlight-reel interceptions during his rookie year in Indianapolis. 

    It also doesn't hurt that Hooker will play in the AFC South, a division loaded with young quarterbacks (Blake Bortles, Marcus Mariota, Tom Savage/Deshaun Watson) who are capable of the type of bad decisions that lead to interceptions. 

    Hooker's playmaking ability makes him a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate, and he should be one of the first defensive players in this draft class to establish himself as a household name. 

Kareem Hunt, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Kansas City Chiefs third-round pick Kareem Hunt isn't guaranteed a starting job, but he has the skill set to take over the top spot on the running back depth chart. 

    Hunt has a similar skill set to current starter Spencer Ware, which likely means the Chiefs didn't select Hunt to be a complementary piece in the backfield. Like the 5'10", 229-pound Ware, Hunt has the size (5'10", 216 lbs) to run between the tackles but is also quick enough and has the hands to be effective as a receiver out of the backfield as well. 

    The Chiefs traded up in the third round to select Hunt, indicating he was high on their board. Based on that decision, the coaching staff likely sees an immediate role for him, and if his preseason goes as planned, Hunt should be starting in in Week 1. 

    While Jamaal Charles had been the star of the offense before injuries derailed his last few seasons, since Andy Reid came to town in 2013, every running back he has plugged in has found success. Ware, Charcandrick West and Knile Davis have all had moments of success while filling in for Charles, and a similar breakout performance should be expected of Hunt in 2017. 

Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    After playing in two national championship games, Deshaun Watson is already a household name in college football. But if any NFL fan out there doesn't already know about Watson, they'll be introduced to him this season. 

    Despite being the third quarterback off the board after Chicago's Mitchell Trubisky and Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes, Watson is in the best position to play immediately and have success as a rookie. 

    Watson will have to beat out Tom Savage, but based on what we've seen from Savage in the NFL so far, it shouldn't be long before Watson is leading the Houston Texans. By contrast, Mahomes will have to sit behind Alex Smith in Kansas City, and Mike Glennon will likely get the first shot in Chicago after the Bears signed him for three years and $45 million in the offseason.

    Not only does Watson have the clearest path to playing time, but he also has the best weapons around him. DeAndre Hopkins gives him an elite possession receiver to rely upon, while Will Fuller serves as the team's deep threat. 

    Any rookie quarterback is bound to make mistakes early on, but Watson is surrounded by enough talent to minimize the damage. If he can limit his mistakes and simply manage the game as a rookie, Watson could lead Houston back to the playoffs. 

Evan Engram, New York Giants

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    Thomas Graning/Associated Press

    The New York Giants have invested heavily in their offense in recent years in an effort to build up the talent around Eli Manning and make another Super Bowl run before his career is over. The selection of Evan Engram was the latest move, and it gives Manning a dominant pass-catching tight end for the first time in a number of years. 

    Engram will take a backseat to Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandon Marshall in the passing game, but he will offer Manning a new weapon to utilize across the middle and down the seams, which adds a new dimension to the Giants passing attack. 

    Giants tight ends in recent years have primarily been possession receivers, offering minimal speed to get open down the field. But Engram has the skill set of an oversized receiver. His ability to stretch the field will create mismatches and make him an dangerous weapon when lined up in the slot. 

    Rookie tight ends often struggle to make an immediate impact in the league, but Engram will likely be used more as a slot receiver, which should make him an instant contributor in New York. 

Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers

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    Christian McCaffrey probably won't lead the Carolina Panthers in rushing or receiving, but he might be the most important player on their offensive depth chart not named Cam Newton

    It's rare for a role player to land in the first round of the draft, let alone the top 10, but McCaffrey's remarkable versatility makes him a fascinating weapon in Carolina. 

    Carolina can use McCaffrey in the backfield or lined up as a receiver in the slot, which could create confusion for defenses. His presence on the field makes the Carolina offense one of the most versatile units in the league, and it will allow the Panthers to vary their offensive play-calling to stay a step ahead of opposing defensive coordinators.

    It's also worth mentioning second-round pick Curtis Samuel, who brings a similar skill set to Carolina. With both Samuel and McCaffrey on the roster, the possibilities for Carolina's offense—particularly in the passing game—are endless.

    While McCaffrey may not put up huge numbers, his ability to create mismatches should lead to a number of potentially game-changing plays in 2017 and beyond. 


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