Predicting Every NFL Team's Surprise Rookie Gem
Where a player was drafted is just a number.
While it's true—it's damn true—top picks receive more opportunities because of their natural talent, later-round picks can have as much if not more of an impact for their teams.
The NFL is often described as the ultimate meritocracy. If a player can help his team win, almost everything else, especially how he was acquired, will be overlooked.
Hundreds of rookies enter the league each year. Only 64 hear their name called during the draft's two most valuable rounds. But others seem destined to produce regardless of their standing coming into the NFL.
Each and every year, teams receive bigger contributions from rookies drafted in the third round or beyond than their first- or second-round counterparts.
Nine members of Bleacher Report's 2016 Consensus NFL All-Rookie Team weren't first- or second-round picks. Some of the NFL's very best—Tom Brady, Antonio Brown, Richard Sherman, etc.—were famously drafted later in the process.
Thus, it's only logical to assume each team has a potential gem from this year's draft class.
Arizona Cardinals: WR Chad Williams
Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians doesn't shower his rookies with praise if it's undeserved. After all, the team's last two first-round picks didn't even start a game during their initial campaigns, because they weren't ready.
As such, Arians' comments about this year's third-round selection, wide receiver Chad Williams, shouldn't go unnoticed.
"He's shown up a lot already," Arians said during minicamp, per the Cardinals site. "It's a tough room to crack, but he's off on a good start."
Williams will have a difficult time establishing himself in the Cardinals' wide receiver rotation with Larry Fitzgerald, J.J. Nelson, Josh Brown and Jaron Brown expected to take the bulk of the reps. However, Arians and his staff will likely find a role for the 6'1", 204-pound target, because the organization sees potential.
"He's somebody who can possibly replace Larry Fitzgerald in a year or two," a Cardinals source told ESPN's Josina Anderson.
Atlanta Falcons: S Damontae Kazee
Over the last four years, Damontae Kazee was one of college football's best cornerbacks. He had a great career at San Diego State, but he must grow accustomed to playing safety for the Atlanta Falcons.
Kazee can possibly serve as Dan Quinn's version of Earl Thomas in Atlanta's defensive scheme.
"I told him earlier, with Tae, I said, 'Man, we were really looking to see you communicate as a middle field safety,'" Quinn said after the start of rookie minicamp, per The Falcoholic's Jeanna Thomas. "And that part of that job, he came through. I was really looking for that. I knew the speed would be there, the breaks on the ball."
The fifth-round pick fell in the draft because of his size (5'10", 184 lbs) and the fact he ran a 4.54-second 40-yard dash at the combine.
But, as Quinn intimated, his instincts and ball skills are special, especially when he's playing in zone coverage with the ball in front of him. Kazee snagged 17 interceptions and forced six fumbles during his collegiate career. Even if he doesn't unseat Ricardo Allen as the starting free safety, the rookie will likely see plenty of time in sub-packages as an extra defensive back.
Baltimore Ravens: LB Tim Williams
Hyperbole often follows the players selected in each NFL draft. Everyone hopes for the best before reality takes over. For example, Tim Williams was regarded as one of the best pure pass-rushers in this class before he slid to the third round because of off-field concerns.
Even so, Williams drew high praise from the man who helped bring Lawrence Taylor to the New York Giants.
"Williams, right now, is an impact player that can do things Lawrence did," former NFL head coach Ray Perkins said, per ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley. "How he comes off the edge, affects the pass protection, getting to the quarterback, chasing him down."
Every pass-rusher strives to be the next Taylor, just like every basketball player wants to be the next Michael Jordan. It's an impossible standard to achieve. But there is a hint of truth to Perkins' comparison. Williams is a gifted pass-rusher.
In three seasons with Alabama, Williams played 685 snaps, per Pro Football Focus. He managed a sack, quarterback hit or hurry on 18.1 percent of those plays.
Since the Baltimore Ravens are bereft of explosive edge-rushers besides Terrell Suggs, Williams should be counted upon as an immediate pass-rush specialist.
Buffalo Bills: QB Nathan Peterman
The Buffalo Bills seem incapable of committing to Tyrod Taylor as their franchise quarterback. Despite an impressive 37-to-12 touchdown-to-interception ratio over the last two seasons plus 1,148 rushing yards, the Bills haven't completely bought into him as their starting signal-caller.
The fact Taylor isn't a traditional 6'4" pocket passer is part of the reason for the uncertainty. Also, he's been dinged the last two seasons and missed a few games. With that in mind, Buffalo could receive surprise contributions from this year's 171st overall selection, quarterback Nathan Peterman.
The Bills are in the midst of a major transition with a new general manager and head coach. No one on the roster is guaranteed anything, and an opportunity will be presented to everyone. A fifth-round rookie quarterback with pro-style experience and a cool head may get more of an opportunity in Buffalo than anywhere else. According to Pro Football Focus, Peterman performed better than any quarterback in this year's class when under pressure.
Head coach Sean McDermott said after the draft that "nothing is promised to anyone," and Peterman and Cardale Jones will compete for the starting job, per ESPN.com's Mike Rodak. Peterman has a chance, though it might be slight, as the Bills continue to search for their long-term quarterback answer.
Carolina Panthers: DE Daeshon Hall
Daeshon Hall was overlooked before he joined the Carolina Panthers.
He served as Myles Garrett's bookend and couldn't escape the No. 1 overall pick's shadow. The Panthers then selected the Texas A&M product in the third round, and he joined Julius Peppers, Charles Johnson, Mario Addison and Wes Horton.
Even among Carolina's deep and talented defensive front, the Panthers coaching staff expects Hall to make a contribution this fall.
"Our philosophy is this: If we draft them, we expect them to be in a position to contribute," defensive line coach Eric Washington said, per Bryan Strickland of the Panthers site.
At 6'5" and 265 pounds with 35-inch arms, Hall is a long and explosive athlete off the edge. As a two-year starter, he accumulated 27.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks. His raw ability is something Carolina coaches can mold as they work him into the team's defensive end rotation.
"He's what we thought he was—and more," Washington said. "Good speed, good length, and he's learning rapidly."
Chicago Bears: S Eddie Jackson
During the draft process, everyone seemed to forget about Alabama's Eddie Jackson. Prior to suffering a season-ending broken leg, Jackson ranked among the top safety prospects.
Because of the injury and being unable to work out for teams prior to the draft, the former National Championship Game Defensive MVP fell to the fourth round, where the Chicago Bears selected him with the 112th overall pick.
Jackson is a natural ball hawk who can change the complexion of a game.
"I call it 'athletic intuition' to have those kind of innate instincts to be able to track the ball, play the ball, anticipate where the ball is going, know where the reception area is," Alabama head coach Nick Saban told the Chicago Tribune's Rich Campbell. "That's one of the things Eddie always did well."
The cornerback-turned-safety snagged nine interceptions during his collegiate career. It's what Jackson does after the turnover that makes him especially dangerous. The Florida native left Alabama as its career leader with 303 interception yards. He's also a talented punt returner and provided a pair of touchdowns as a senior.
The Bears have a solid safety duo in Adrian Amos and Quintin Demps, but Jackson will be part of the mix, maybe play a little corner and serve on special teams, too.
Cincinnati Bengals: LB Carl Lawson
A lot can change in a matter of months. At the start of the 2016 campaign, Auburn defensive end Carl Lawson was viewed as a first-round draft talent. Nine months later, Lawson is a member of the Cincinnati Bengals after being selected with the 116th overall pick in the fourth round of April's draft.
What made Lawson such an intriguing prospect earlier in the process was why the Bengals wanted to obtain his services: He's a quick-twitch pass-rusher with a knack for terrorizing quarterbacks.
Lawson's 15 quarterback hits and 45 hurries ranked among college football's top 10 edge-rushers last season, per Pro Football Focus. A long injury history coupled with a less-than-desirable athletic profile (6'2", 261 lbs, 31.5" arms) pushed him down draft boards, though.
"We can teach him to play linebacker in our defense, [and he can] have an opportunity to be a down guy on third downs and in passing situations," head coach Marvin Lewis said about Lawson's transition into the Bengals system, per Cincy Jungle's Kyle Phelps.
He'll boost an edge rotation that needs more from those not named Carlos Dunlap. The rest of the team's defensive ends provided 9.5 sacks in 2016. Lawson, along with fellow rookie Jordan Willis, will reshape the Bengals pass-rush presence in the coming years.
Cleveland Browns: DT Larry Ogunjobi
Since he was the first pick of the third round, it may be cheating a little bit to name defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi as the Cleveland Browns' surprise rookie gem. However, the Charlotte product has an opportunity to become the team's starting 3-technique even after becoming the organization's fifth draft selection behind Myles Garrett, Jabrill Peppers, David Njoku and DeShone Kizer.
Three-fourths of the Browns' revamped defensive line is set.
Garrett will take over as the team's lead rusher off the blind side at right defensive end. Emmanuel Ogbah found a home at left defensive end toward the end of the 2016 campaign. And former first-round pick Danny Shelton is the team's 1-technique.
Cleveland requires a disruptive presence to play next to Shelton. With veterans Desmond Bryant, Xavier Cooper and follow rookie Caleb Brantley on the roster, Ogunjobi has plenty of competition to earn a starting role. However, he entered this year's class as the top interior run defender, per Pro Football Focus. In his four seasons with the fledgling 49ers program, Ogunjobi registered 49 tackles for loss and 13 sacks.
Dallas Cowboys: WR Ryan Switzer
Ryan Switzer entered the draft as the class' best pure slot receiver. His ability to separate in small areas is exceptional.
The Dallas Cowboys used the 133rd overall pick to select the North Carolina product, even though the team already has a similar target on the roster. In fact, Cole Beasley led the Cowboys last season with 833 receiving yards, and the majority of Beasley's playing time came from the slot.
Even so, head coach Jason Garrett and his staff are concocting ways to get both of these jitterbugs on the field at the same time.
"He's a very good inside receiver as a slot, a lot of the same traits that Cole Beasley has and his ability to get away from people in man-to-man coverage, to find soft spots in zone coverage, very productive, very quarterback-friendly," Garrett said of Switzer, per ESPN.com's Todd Archer. "You can see him playing in Beasley's role. You can see him playing in an offensive package where both those guys are out on the field at the same time."
Even if Beasley dominates the reps out of the slot, Switzer can still make an impact as a returner. During his collegiate career, the 5'8", 181-pound receiver returned seven punts for touchdowns. The Cowboys finished 23rd overall in average punt return yards last season.
Denver Broncos: TE Jake Butt
Once healthy, Jake Butt will have an opportunity to prove he's the best tight end from this year's draft class. Butt tore an ACL in January's Orange Bowl, which prevented him from being a high-round draft selection.
Instead, the Denver Broncos used the 145th overall pick in the fifth round to acquire the two-time All-American. Butt is also the reigning John Mackey Award winner as the nation's best tight end.
According to the Denver Post's Cameron Wolfe, the Broncos expect Butt to return from his January surgery in August or September. He already took part in some post-practice drills during rookie minicamp, but those are just the first steps toward a return.
Otherwise, Butt already earned his head coach's respect with his approach.
"When you're around Jake you can see the maturity as far as the football player and the person," Vance Joseph said, per Wolfe. "In meetings, he's in the front row. He's taking every note. He's a guy who has played at a high level for a long time."
When the opportunity arises to play, it shouldn't take too long to see why Butt was once considered a top-two or -three tight end prospect.
Detroit Lions: TE Michael Roberts
In a draft class loaded with tight end talent, few in-line options existed. Michael Roberts was one of the few who can create mismatches in the passing game and serve as a viable blocker. The Detroit Lions used a fourth-round pick to acquire the 6'4", 270-pound target.
Eric Ebron remains the Lions' top option at tight end. The organization picked up Ebron's fifth-year option, but he's a move tight end who will be used extensively in the passing game.
Detroit also signed Darren Fells in free agency. However, he's a blocking specialist.
What the offense lacks at the position is a true red-zone threat. This is where Roberts can make a significant impact early in his career. The Toledo product led all FCS tight ends last season with 13 touchdowns.
He's a big target who knows how to use his body and displays soft hands. No one is going to confuse Roberts for Ebron, because he doesn't display the same burst or athleticism. However, his size and feel for working underneath and over the middle make him an ideal target to keep the chains moving and improve upon the single touchdown the team's tight ends provided last season.
Green Bay Packers: RB Jamaal Williams
Ty Montgomery spent an entire offseason getting ready to take over as the Green Bay Packers lead back. However, the organization hedged its bet on the former wide receiver by drafting three running backs to complete the team's stable and compete for carries.
Any of the three could rise up and usurp Montgomery's role. Jamaal Williams is the most likely candidate to do so after being the first selected with the 134th overall pick in the fourth round.
Williams is a terrific complement to Montgomery. While Montgomery presents versatility with the potential for explosive plays, the BYU product is a hammer at 212 pounds.
"Very tough, very aggressive downhill runner," Packers director of college scouting Jon-Eric Sullivan said of Williams, per Packers Wire's Zach Kruse. "Strong. Can break tackles. I think he’s going to be a great addition to the group."
The California native left BYU as the program's all-time leader with 726 rushing attempts and 3,901 rushing yards. Even if Montgomery maintains a starting role all season, Williams should still see the field as a short-yardage specialist and red-zone threat.
Houston Texans: DT Carlos Watkins
The NFL today is a sub-package world. Nickel has become the league's base defense. Thus, defensive linemen with the skill sets and flexibility to play multiple roles can add something to even the league's best defense.
The Houston Texans featured the NFL's top-ranked defense in 2016. Despite multiple established stars among the team's front seven, there's still room for improvement. Last season, the team's interior defensive linemen provided 4.5 sacks.
In order to find a more active interior presence, the Texans selected Carlos Watkins with the 142nd overall pick in the fourth round of April's draft.
"This guy is a guy that we feel can come in here with a lot of hard work and good coaching, can fill a couple of different roles for us," head coach Bill O'Brien said, per Scout.com's Patrick Starr. "He can play on the inside in a couple of different of packages."
The 309-pound defensive lineman led the national champion Clemson with 10.5 sacks last season. He also provided 23 quarterback hurries, per Pro Football Focus. Watkins' ability to create pressure from the interior by collapsing the pocket will make life easier for J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus.
Indianapolis Colts: RB Marlon Mack
Frank Gore can't play forever (or can he?). The Indianapolis Colts must develop a replacement for the 34-year-old running back sooner rather than later.
Gore provided yet another 1,000-yard campaign in 2016—the ninth of his career. The Colts can't rely on him doing it again this fall. As a result, the team spent a fourth-round draft selection to acquire South Florida running back Marlon Mack.
"We went with Marlon because of the speed and the explosive play-making ability," general manager Chris Ballard said, per the Indianapolis Star's Zak Keefer.
Mack became the team's highest drafted running back since the franchise spent the 119th overall selection on Delone Carter six years ago. Colts faithful should expect more from Mack than the 399 rushing yards Carter provided during his two seasons with the organization.
In three seasons, Mack became USF's all-time leading rusher with 3,609 yards. He's a slashing runner who excels working in space. His 4.50-second 40-yard dash ranked second-best at the combine among running backs over 210 pounds.
With an opportunity to learn from Gore for a season, Mack can slowly take on a bigger role as the season progresses on his way to becoming the Colts' lead back.
Jacksonville Jaguars: LB Blair Brown
Alabama's Reuben Foster graded as college football's best off-ball linebacker last season, per Pro Football Focus. Ohio's Blair Brown finished second.
The Jacksonville Jaguars drafted Brown 117 picks after Foster came off the board. The All-Mid-American Conference performer led the league with 128 total tackles during the 2016 campaign.
At 5'11", 238 pounds with 4.65-second 40-yard dash speed, Blair isn't the ideal athlete. Yet his instincts are outstanding. Even though he didn't fit all of the normal requirements for most teams, he did for the Jaguars.
"He's got a lot of good edge to him as we like to call it—very physical player, really loves football," Jaguars director of college scouting Mark Ellenz said, per John Oehser of the team's site. "He's into it—kind of meets all the criteria that we're looking for in a linebacker."
The rookie will need to establish himself behind the trio of Telvin Smith, Myles Jack and Paul Posluszny. But Posluszny is playing under the last year of his contract, which should open the door for an instinctive linebacker to receive playing time and eventually take over the veteran's role.
Kansas City Chiefs: RB Kareem Hunt
The Kansas City Chiefs' Spencer Ware is a talented back with the potential to be a breakout star this fall. He'll be pushed by rookie runner Kareem Hunt to become the team's lead back, though.
The Chiefs used this year's third-round pick to provide more competition in their backfield.
"I definitely see myself as a home run back and I definitely see myself as a guy who can pound the ball in the four-minute [clock-killing] drill," Hunt said, per ESPN.com's Adam Teicher. "I definitely feel like I can do it all. Honestly, if you need a big play, I can hit a big play any time of the game."
Hunt ran for 1,475 yards in 2016 and added 403 receiving yards, too. Pro Football Focus graded the Toledo product as the nation's best running back last season. He also forced the second-most missed tackles of any back in this year's class, per PFF.
The 216-pounder shined at the Senior Bowl, and his versatility will make him difficult to keep off the field. Ware is still the team's starting back, but Hunt is lurking.
Los Angeles Chargers: OG Dan Feeney
The Los Angeles Chargers wasted Philip Rivers' talent over the last two campaigns. The veteran quarterback is still counted among the league's best, but he lacked the surrounding talent, particularly along the offensive line, to make the team into a winning squad.
To rectify the situation, the organization used its first three picks in April's NFL draft to accentuate the offense. The front office used two of those selections to improve the offensive line, adding Forrest Lamp and Dan Feeney.
Many considered Lamp the class' top guard prospect, while Feeney didn't fall too far behind in the rankings. With Lamp expected to transition from collegiate left tackle to guard, Feeney will move from guard to center.
"We think [Feeney] can play center for us," head coach Anthony Lynn said, per ESPN.com's Eric D. Williams. "We've got two guards and a center position where we’re kind of looking at different combinations, and he's definitely in the mix."
Last season, veteran Matt Slauson surrendered eight quarterback hits and 18 hurries, per Pro Football Focus. Both were among the league's worst figures. Even as a rookie making a position switch, Feeney can step in on Day 1 and improve the Chargers' center spot.
Los Angeles Rams: WR Josh Reynolds
The Los Angeles Rams' wide receiver corps needs all the help it can get. In order to rebuild its skill positions and help 2016 No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff, the organization selected tight end Gerald Everett along with wide receivers Cooper Kupp and Josh Reynolds between the second and fourth rounds.
"We're expecting some of these guys to contribute," head coach Sean McVay said of the team's offensive rookies, per the Los Angeles Times' Gary Klein. "They certainly have to earn it."
It may not take much for the two wide receivers to earn their spots since the team lost last year's top two targets in free agency. The Rams signed Robert Woods to offset their losses, but Los Angles needed upgrades across its wide receiver corps long before Woods' arrival.
With Woods and Austin, the team lacks size and a consistent vertical threat. Second-round pick Kupp is a reliable yet non-explosive option. Fourth-round pick Reynolds showed at Texas A&M that he can stack defensive backs and come down with difficult receptions. During his final two seasons on campus, Reynolds averaged 17.4 yards per catch. His 6'3" frame coupled with 4.52-second 40-yard-dash speed will help make him the offense's primary deep threat.
Miami Dolphins: OG Isaac Asiata
Two years ago, the Miami Dolphins took a chance by selecting running back Jay Ajayi in the fifth round of the draft. Concerns over a knee injury caused him to fall, but the Boise State product developed into a star last season. Lightning could strike twice with the team's acquisition of offensive lineman Isaac Asiata in this year's fifth round.
The biggest difference between the two situations is Asiata should contribute right away instead of waiting a couple seasons before breaking through. The Utah product is a 6'3", 323-pound force of nature at guard. He doesn't just blocks opponents; he buries them.
"I believe that an offensive lineman needs to play with intellectuality and brutality," Asiata said, per 247 Sports' James Parks. "He needs to be smart, and he also needs to put guys in the dirt. That is the kind of style of play that I bring to the table, and I am ready to bring that down to Miami."
Asiata will compete with veteran Ted Larsen to earn a starting job, and the rookie's combination of size, strength and nasty demeanor is exactly what the Dolphins want along their offensive line. He's an ideal fit and a ready-made NFL starter.
Minnesota Vikings: DT Jaleel Johnson
Even though the Minnesota Vikings entered the draft without a first-round pick, the organization couldn't have asked for a better group of picks to supplement its roster.
Near the top of the fourth round, the organization may have landed a starter in defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson. The rookie will compete with multiple veterans to fill the void left by Shariff Floyd. Floyd is still recovering from nerve damage suffered during a surgery meant to repair the meniscus in his knee, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport (via NFL.com's Chris Wesseling).
With Datone Jones, Tom Johnson and Will Sutton on the roster, Johnson won't be handed a job as the team's starting 3-technique, but he's best suited to play the position. The 316-pound Iowa product is bigger and more physical than all three of the veterans. He may not be as explosive as each of them, but his strength at the point of attack could give the rookie an edge in this position battle.
Head coach Mike Zimmer already envision's Johnson as a potential starter.
"Andre Patterson is the best defensive line coach in football," Zimmer said, per Craig Peters of the Vikings site. "He gets these guys to play better than they've ever played in their entire lives. Regardless if it's [Sutton] or Jaleel Johnson or whoever it is, I have complete faith in Andre Patterson."
New England Patriots: DE Derek Rivers
The New England Patriots didn't have much draft capital to work with after they made multiple trades for veteran commodities, but the organization still found a way to maximize each of its four selections.
Everything started with defensive end Derek Rivers, the 83rd overall pick. Rivers shouldn't be considered a developmental prospect just because he went to Youngstown State and wasn't drafted until the third round.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick rarely offers effusive praise, but he liked what he saw when evaluating Rivers.
"Played competitively in the all-star games," Belichick said, per the Boston Herald's Jeff Howe. "I think Derek has been in a good system. He's been well-coached. Even though he is from a smaller school, we'll see what he can do here for himself."
Rivers is a natural and fluid edge-rusher, which is something the Patriots lacked going into the draft. The team lost both Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long in free agency. Trey Flowers and Kony Ealy are expected to pick up the slack, but Rivers is a better athlete than both. With his inclusion, the team will have a rotation of talented pass-rushers to attack quarterbacks after tying for 16th overall with 34 sacks last season.
New Orleans Saints: LB Trey Hendrickson
Top pass-rushers are usually guaranteed a spot in the first round. Usually, but not always.
Myles Garrett opened this year's draft as the No. 1 overall pick to the Cleveland Browns. Fourteen other edge-defenders came off the board before the New Orleans Saints selected Trey Hendrickson with the 103rd overall pick. The Florida Atlantic product posted the second-most quarterback hurries last season among this year's draftees, per Pro Football Focus.
The Saints finished 27th overall in sacks a year ago with 30. Cameron Jordan is the only consistent threat to opposing quarterbacks on the New Orleans roster.
At 6'4" and 266 pounds, Hendrickson can play outside linebacker and slide to defensive end in sub-packages. While the transition to linebacker may be difficult, he posted top-five performances in both the short shuttle (4.20 seconds) and 60-yard shuttle (11.43 seconds) at the combine.
Plus, his 22.5 sacks and 29.5 tackles for loss over the last two seasons indicate he'll be difficult for any blocker to handle. Hendrickson proved this when he took home the E. Jack Spaulding Award for Most Outstanding Defensive Player at the East-West Shrine Game.
New York Giants: DE Avery Moss
New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese places a heavy emphasis on the defensive line and continually invests in the position so the the front can come at opposing quarterbacks in waves.
Reese spent a pair of draft picks on defensive linemen to boost the team's depth and overall talent. In the second round, the team selected defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson in an attempt to replace Johnathan Hankins, who left in free agency. The team added Avery Moss in the fifth round.
"This is like D-End U, coming to this team," Moss said, per the New York Post's Paul Schwartz. "You look at everybody from [Jason Pierre-Paul], Justin Tuck was here, [Michael] Strahan. I guess it's like they always develop good D-ends, and I want to learn as much as I can and hopefully be one of those guys in that same position."
Moss, a Nebraska transfer, registered 59 tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks and four forced fumbles during his final 15 games with Youngstown State. The 6'3", 264-pound edge-rusher adds some explosiveness behind Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon after their backups finished with a measly 1.5 sacks last season.
New York Jets: TE Jordan Leggett
While it may not have seemed like it the last two seasons, the New York Jets employed a few tight ends. They weren't used, but they were on the roster.
Everything should change with new offensive coordinator John Morton calling the plays and the addition of Jordan Leggett in the draft's fifth round.
"The way Coach Morton used the tight end at the Saints, it's definitely a position that's going to be there this year," Leggett said, per Randy Lange of the Jets site. "I'm excited for my chance, excited to be here, and I'll just go out there and fight to make the team and play on Sunday."
Leggett fits the mold of a modern tight end. At 6'5" and 258 pounds, the Clemson product is a mismatch in the passing game and accustomed to being detached from the line of scrimmage. He's not going to be a traditional blocking tight end who lines up next to an offensive tackle. That job will fall to veteran Austin Seferian-Jenkins.
The rookie's task will be to improve upon last year's dismal production from the position. Seferian-Jenkins and Brandon Bostick combined to make 18 receptions for 183 yards. The Jets desperately need a presence over the middle of the field, and Leggett can provide it.
Oakland Raiders: OT David Sharpe
This year's offensive line class was degraded at every turn. Even though the narrative stated this was a weak year to find blockers, a few will rise to the occasion and develop into quality starters. The Oakland Raiders' David Sharpe may be in that group.
Oakland used its fourth-round selection to acquire the 6'6", 343-pound blocker. Predraft questions about whether he had the requisite movement skills to remain at offensive tackle or would have to move to guard persisted. Not only is he going to remain at offensive tackle, but he also has a chance to become the Raiders' starting right tackle.
"Right now I'm playing right tackle," Sharpe said during an interview on SiriusXM NFL Radio. "That's where they want me, and that's where I have a great chance to play."
A left tackle by trade, this mountain of a man will compete with Austin Howard to take over on the strong side. Howard hasn't played a full slate of games since his first season with Oakland in 2014. Menelik Watson was given every opportunity to start, but injuries and inconsistency held him back. Sharpe should take over Watson's role as a raw prospect the staff wants to develop into a starter.
"He's a big, talented guy," head coach Jack Del Rio said during rookie minicamp, per ESPN.com's Paul Gutierrez. "We think he can play either side. ... He has really good feet. We think his best football is in front of him."
Philadelphia Eagles: LB Nate Gerry
Versatility presents value.
As a safety, Nate Gerry might have gone undrafted. As a linebacker, he was a project. The fact he could play both for the Philadelphia Eagles made him valuable to the organization in the fifth round of the draft.
The Eagles coaching staff immediately converted Gerry to linebacker—a position he previously played with Nebraska—at the team's rookie minicamp.
"To me, he wasn't just a safety that could play down in the box," Eagles vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas said, per Metro's Evan Macy. "He was an athletic guy that could range all over the field, and I think you're going to see that range even more so at the linebacker position."
While listed as a linebacker, Gerry can be used as a weakside option or in a hybrid role to fit today's shifting NFL landscape. At 6'2" and 218 pounds, the South Dakota native won't consistently take on offensive linemen or lead blockers. But he can excel if he's asked to play off the line of scrimmage.
Gerry presents a unique blend of physicality, athleticism and a comfort level in space, which the Eagles can exploit in numerous sub-packages or formations.
Pittsburgh Steelers: RB James Conner
Le'Veon Bell is the Pittsburgh Steelers starting running back and one of the NFL's most unstoppable players. The only thing that has stopped Bell at this point is himself—whether that's been because of suspension or injury.
In his four seasons, Bell has only played 16 games once. Thus, the Steelers' No. 2 running back serves an important function.
James Conner is expected to fill the role after the team drafted him in the third round and allowed veteran DeAngelo Williams to depart following two seasons as Bell's backup.
But Conner is more than just a rookie who will try to make his mark behind the NFL's best running back. He's a cancer survivor, a former Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year and a hometown hero ready to make his mark in the professional game.
"At this point, I'm pretty much recognized around the world as 'that football player who battled Hodgkin's and then came back to play the following year,'" Conner wrote for the Players' Tribune. "... I've come to realize that me being a cancer survivor is something I'll never get away from. It's a part of my story, no doubt.
"But I'm writing you today to let you know that I am more than the guy who beat cancer."
The Steelers added the 6'1", 233-pound back who sandwiched a pair of 1,000-yard campaigns around his memorable recovery late in the third round. His size and physical running style will make people see him for the talent he is—even though he's already proved to be as unstoppable off the field as Bell is on it.
San Francisco 49ers: RB Joe Williams
The fondness for Joe Williams within the San Francisco 49ers organization is well known.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan said he would be sick if the team didn't draft him in the fourth round, per The MMQB's Peter King. According to CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco, running backs coach Bobby Turner kept in touch with the Utah product even when he wasn't on the 49ers draft board.
The San Francisco 49ers backfield has plenty of potential among a quartet of young runners. Carlos Hyde, Kabri Bibbs and undrafted free agent Matt Breida will have opportunities to start or earn reps alongside Williams. The decision about who plays will come down to the best fit in Shanahan's zone-stretch scheme.
Speed to hit the outside and decisiveness to get downhill in a hurry are needed to excel. Williams fits both criteria.
"When you come to the style of runner, that's what we liked about [Williams] the most," Shanahan said, per the Press Democrat's Grant Cohn. "He can press it. He can make a one-foot cut."
Williams has the chance to join a long list of relatively unknown yet successful running backs, like Terrell Davis or Alfred Morris, who fit the Shanahan mold—whether it was Mike's or Kyle's.
Seattle Seahawks: S Tedric Thompson
The Seattle Seahawks front office sent a message to its famed Legion of Boom secondary with this year's draft class. The organization selected three safeties.
After Earl Thomas discussed retirement following a broken tibia last season and with Kam Chancellor entering the last year of his contract, the team is preparing for life without both.
Thompson will be prepped as Thomas' heir apparent. The 6'0", 204-pound Colorado product doesn't possess the same speed as the five-time Pro Bowler, but his ball skills are special. Last season, Thompson tied for the major college football lead with 23 defended passes.
During his collegiate career, the fourth-round pick defended 36 passes and snagged 10 interceptions. He excels when asked to roam the deep third, but concerns arose about his inconsistency as a tackler. Thomas acts as the Seahawks eraser. If a mistake is made somewhere up front, he flies to the ball and makes the play. Thompson needs to prove he can do the same.
The Seahawks are also interested in trying all of their incoming safeties out at cornerback, per the Seattle Times' Bob Condotta. If Thompson's ball skills translate to multiple positions, he'll certainly be on the field this fall with a chance to take over a starting safety spot in the next year or two.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: WR Chris Godwin
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are building something special around quarterback Jameis Winson. Along with wide receivers Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson, the team drafted the top tight end prospect in O.J. Howard and added wide receiver Chris Godwin in the third round.
Godwin is a versatile piece who can play multiple roles in the offense since Evans and Jackson will dominate most of the available targets. The rookie will be asked to line up at all three receiver positions, per SiriusXM NFL Radio (via Joe Bucs Fan).
The Penn State product recorded 2,083 receiving yards and 16 touchdown receptions over the past two seasons. He then had an opportunity to work with future Hall of Fame wide receiver Calvin Johnson during the offseason.
"One of the things he said he liked about my game was just my ability to kind of attack the ball, and he said he liked how fluid I looked when I was running my routes," Godwin said, per the Detroit Free Press' Dave Birkett. "He said just how aggressive I was with going and playing the ball—and kind of shedding off defenders was something that he liked about my game."
When Godwin's ability to win 50-50 balls is added to Evans' size and Jackson's speed, Winston will have multiple mismatches to exploit.
Tennessee Titans: TE Jonnu Smith
Because of the additions of wide receivers Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor earlier in the draft, the Tennessee Titans' third-round selection of tight end Jonnu Smith has been overlooked.
The Titans wanted to become more athletic and explosive at the skill positions. Smith is another piece to the puzzle, and the coaching staff expects this year's 100th overall pick to be a big part of the offense, even as a rookie.
"We are going to move him around a little bit," head coach Mike Mularkey said, per Jim Wyatt of the Tennessee site. "He is going to play both the Y and the F tight end, and he is going to be an every down player for us."
Of course, veteran Delanie Walker is still on the roster and finished second on the team last season with 800 receiving yards. Smith's versatility, however, will allow both tight ends to be on the field at the same time.
The 6'3", 248-pound target provides another option for quarterback Marcus Mariota. A year ago, the Titans struggled to create chunk plays around a limited group of targets. Smith will place more pressure on defenses since Tennessee can become more creative with its formations and route combinations.
Washington Redskins: RB Samaje Perine
Every team loves all of their draft picks. Even if a front office didn't, it wouldn't say so. But the Washington Redskins' acquisition of Samaje Perine in the fourth round was an absolute steal.
According to ESPN.com's John Keim (via Pro Football Focus' Scott Barrett), the organization graded Perine as the fourth-best running back in this year's class. Considering the fact two of the backs with higher grades, Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey, went in the top eight overall and the other, Dalvin Cook, came off the board in the second round, Washington was more than fortunate to land Perine with the 114th overall selection.
Everyone should be leery of crowning a rookie before he gets a chance to establish himself among a team's veterans, but expectations are already sky-high for Perine. The 235-pound back is being projected as Washington's starting running back even though incumbent Robert Kelley is still on the roster.
"He'll be all about the Redskins and that team," Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said about his former running back, per Keim. "Guys in the locker room will love him. He's the total package."