Which NFL Rookies Are Already Turning Heads This Offseason?
The NFL draft brings a sense of hope for football fans because each incoming player has the potential to make his new team better. Fans can't be sure, though, how quickly these first-year players will adapt to the pro game or what kind of impact they can make from Day 1.
Teams, on the other hand, are already getting a better idea.
Fans are still more than two months away from seeing this year's rookies on the preseason playing field. However, most of the incoming players have been hard at work on the practice field and in the classroom since the close of draft weekend. Rookie minicamps and organized team activities (OTAs) have given first-year players a taste of life in the NFL. They have also given teams a taste of what their newest players can be.
Naturally, some rookies have stood out more than others. We're here to take a look at the biggest rookie standouts of the early offseason. We'll examine the players who have been turning heads, the buzz they're creating and what it could mean for the coming season.
Hayden Hurst, TE, Baltimore Ravens
The Baltimore Ravens made two first-round selections in this year's draft. The second, Louisville product Lamar Jackson, will be Baltimore's quarterback of the future. The first, tight end Hayden Hurst, will help out the quarterback of the present.
Hurst is a 6'5", 250-pound pass-catcher who should quickly become one of Joe Flacco's favorite targets. While he doesn't have blazing speed (ran a 4.67-second 40), he is quick for his size and moves with a lot of fluidity. He's an NFL-ready receiver who should help replace the departed Ben Watson, who had 61 catches for 522 yards.
Jeff Zrebiec of the Baltimore Sun came away from Ravens rookie camp impressed with who Hurst is as a player:
"One of the team’s two first-round picks, Hurst came as advertised. He looked very fluid and sharp running routes and decisive in everything he did. He also caught just about everything with the exception of a lunging one-handed attempt at a pass in the back corner of the end zone. It was just one unpadded practice, but Hurst looked like the type of tight end quarterback Joe Flacco will love."
The Ravens will need to see Hurst in pads and in full-contact practices to know how he handles getting hit and how effective he is as a blocker. However, it certainly appears Hurst is the kind of addition that will improve the passing game.
This is important because Baltimore averaged just 189.4 passing yards per game last season, fourth-fewest in the NFL. Expect Hurst to make an impact right out of the gate.
Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants
The New York Giants used the second overall pick on former Penn State running back Saquon Barkley. Yes, it's a high pick for a position that isn't always valued in today's NFL, but Barkley is a do-it-all player with the potential to bolster both the running and the passing games.
It hasn't taken the rookie long to show what kind of weapon he can be as a receiver.
Here's what Jordan Raanan of ESPN.com had to say about Barkley after watching him in rookie camp:
"Catching the football looks natural for the 6'0", 230-pound running back. By my completely unofficial count while watching the practices stuck behind an obstructed view of 300-plus-pound men, Barkley didn't drop a ball during Friday or Saturday's workouts. Linebackers or safeties had no chance to stick with him as he burst and changed direction."
Barkley hasn't just been impressive among fellow rookies, either. He has continued to stand out while playing alongside veterans in OTAs.
"He's a smart football player, he picks things up very fast," running back Jonathan Stewart said, per Nick Fierro of the Morning Call. "He's explosive and he's really good in his route running. Actually, we talked about it today. That's one of the things that he's really focused on, is his ability to run routes. And you can see that today, for sure."
Stewart's opinion of Barkley shouldn't be taken lightly. This will be his 11th season as a running back in the NFL, and the former Pro Bowler has an idea of what it takes to succeed as a pro.
Expect Barkley to pair with Stewart to dramatically improve New York's ground game. Also, expect him to hold his own alongside the likes of Odell Beckham Jr. in the passing game. Barkley isn't going to disappoint.
Josh Allen, QB, Buffalo Bills
The Buffalo Bills made former Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen the third quarterback off the board in the draft. However, Allen is a raw prospect who is going to need time to adjust his mechanics and adapt to NFL speed. Buffalo will likely lean on veteran AJ McCarron while Allen transitions—perhaps for the entire season.
Then again, perhaps not. Allen is proving to be a quick study, and he may prove himself ready to start as a rookie. Head coach Sean McDermott has definitely been impressed with what he's seen from the rookie so far.
Here's what McDermott had to say about Allen on One Bills Live, via the Bills' official website:
"I’ll start with the classroom first because that’s where it starts for us, with command of the offense. We’ve seen a young man that has taken the right approach through the weekend and rookie minicamp. You see the leadership and you see the intelligence. Then when he went to the field, I felt he had great command of the offense, great command of the huddle. I thought he had two solid days throwing the football."
Allen is clearly ready to soak up everything about the Buffalo offense from coordinator Brian Daboll.
"I want to be molded by him and just anything that he says, for me [I need] to grasp that concept of whatever he's talking about, embed it into my mind, and then carry it out and do it on the field," Allen said, per Jon Scott of Spectrum News Buffalo.
Allen has a lot of work to do if he wants to earn the starting job as a rookie. However, he's already impressed his new team with his work ethic and his willingness to learn.
Josh Rosen, QB, Arizona Cardinals
Josh Allen isn't the only rookie quarterback who has been turning heads this offseason. Former UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen is doing the same with his new team, the Arizona Cardinals.
Rosen was widely viewed as the most NFL-ready passer in this draft class.
"I think he's the best guy of all the quarterbacks, at least at this point. Ready-made," former UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said during an appearance with Bickley & Marotta on 98.7 Arizona Sports Radio.
Even pro-ready prospects will have to adapt to the NFL game. Rosen is showing he can do just that. While he may have been a bit overwhelmed when he first took the field in rookie camp, he quickly adjusted.
"I think you can tell that he had some little jitters early on," head coach Steve Wilks said, per Josh Weinfuss of ESPN.com. "But he's so confident, and you can see that as he went on with practice. He settled down a little bit, settle in. Throws were on time. The accuracy was there. Everything that we know about him, you saw later on in practice."
Rosen has shown the Cardinals he can shake off mistakes, and he's also shown he knows how to command the offense.
"It has been on display thus far during his young pro tenure," Weinfuss wrote. "He looked 'phenomenal' calling plays, said coach Steve Wilks, who added that Rosen did a 'great job' taking control of the huddle, identifying coverages and getting the offense lined up."
As is the case with Allen, Rosen is currently looking up at veteran quarterback talent on the depth chart. The Cardinals also brought in Sam Bradford and Mike Glennon this offseason. Rosen is clearly the future, though, and if he continues to show that the pro game isn't too big for him, Arizona may have no choice but to start the rookie sooner than later.
Marcus Davenport, DE, New Orleans Saints
Quarterbacks face a tough transition from college to the pros. So, too, do the men who are tasked with sacking them. While chasing down a signal-caller is largely the same at any level of football, rookie pass-rushers aren't accustomed to the talent or savvy of veteran NFL linemen.
This is why it may take some time for New Orleans Saints rookie defensive end Marcus Davenport to become a star. However, the coaching staff does believe the Texas-San Antonio product has the talent to make an early impact.
"I see a talented player. I see a guy that has all the qualities that you're looking for in a right defensive end with the ability to rush the passer," defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said, via the team's official website.
Allen has also been impressed with Davenport's grasp of the New Orleans defense:
"I think certainly it's been pretty good. This camp is pretty limited in what we are asking guys to do right now, so we're not giving them too much, kind of the basics of what we do defensively. This isn't a process that happens instantaneously. It's a process that happens over time and we're going to continue push and develop. We're excited about what we have and we're going to continue to work with him and continue to watch him get better.”
If Davenport continues to handle what the coaching staff hands him schematically, he's going to be able to get on the field early and often. Raw pass-rushers often see time only in clear passing situations at the beginning of their careers. Davenport may just have what it takes to be an every-down defender as a rookie.
Tremon Smith, CB, Kansas City Chiefs
This offseason, the Kansas City Chiefs took a couple of steps to improve a pass defense that ranked just 29th in 2017 (247.0 yards per game allowed). They acquired cornerback Kendall Fuller as part of the Alex Smith trade, moved Marcus Peters and signed cornerback David Amerson. The addition of rookie sixth-rounder Tremon Smith, however, shouldn't go unnoticed.
If Smith continues to flash like he has early in the offseason, it will be hard for anyone to overlook him. The former Central Arkansas standout has shown that his small-school experience won't hamper his transition to the NFL.
"Smith was strong throughout [rookie] camp," Blair Kerkhoff of the Kansas City Star reported.
BJ Kissel of the Chiefs' official website wrote about what exactly stood out about Smith:
"While the players aren't in pads and there's no contact allowed at these minicamps, there's still something to be said for the defensive backs and offensive skill position guys going at it during the seven-on-seven, nine-on-seven, and team periods. It was during these periods that Smith stood out with his combination of length and quickness, but also for his feel for the game. ... Smith showed something during the minicamp—breaking on crossing routes and displaying an ability to win contested battles with the ball in the air all over the field."
As a sixth-round pick, Smith is going to have to work his way up the depth chart. However, he's already showing he has the ability to be a defensive asset in sub-packages. Because he is also a returner and has special teams experience, Smith should have other opportunities to make an impact as a rookie as well.
Bleacher Report draft expert Matt Miller liked Smith coming into the draft and even believed he could develop into an NFL starter. This is very well where his career could eventually take him, and don't be surprised if he continues turning heads along the way.
Nyheim Hines, RB, Indianapolis Colts
The Indianapolis Colts moved on from veteran running back Frank Gore this offseason. This leaves second-year man Marlon Mack and rookies Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins—drafted in the fourth and fifth rounds, respectively—with the task of improving last year's 22nd-ranked rushing attack (103.8 yards per game).
Hines, the NC State product with 4.38 speed, is shaping up to be an explosive and versatile member of the offense and more than just a runner. He has already impressed head coach Frank Reich with his pass-catching ability.
"The other thing that (Hines) flashed was he makes a catch on a crossing route that's a low ball, it's a little bit behind him, and he catches it with ease and without breaking stride," Reich said, per Kevin Bowen of 1070The Fan.com. "That was kind of a little bit of an unusual catch for a guy who is known as a running back to make with that much ease."
Hines has also shown he has the football IQ needed to play multiple roles on offense.
"One of the things that you have to have to have position versatility is high football intelligence," Reich said, per Bowen. "You have to be able to move and play a lot of positions and move around and play fast. (It's) very evident that he's very intelligent, besides being a 4.3 speed guy."
While Hines will certainly add a big-play element to Indianapolis' running game, he can also thrive as a safety valve for Andrew Luck and one of the Colts' greatest threats in the passing attack. This is a lot of responsibility for a guy who hasn't played a down of NFL football, but Hines is prepared for the challenge.
"Anything they ask me to do I'll do it," Hines said, per Matt Danely of Stampede Blue. "I'm really excited to be here and honestly, I'm living the dream so whatever they ask me to do I'll do it."
Akrum Wadley, RB, Tennessee Titans
The Tennessee Titans are expected to have one of the league's top backfields in 2018 because of the presence of former Heisman winner Derrick Henry and offseason addition Dion Lewis. The two have styles that complement each other well—Henry is a battering ram, Lewis a shifty ankle-breaker—and there may not be many carries to go around for the other backs on the roster.
However, undrafted free-agent Akrum Wadley may force Tennessee to create a role for him. The former Iowa standout was one of the stars of Titans rookie camp.
Here's what Jim Wyatt of the Titans' official website had to say about Wadley:
"It was just a small sample during the open periods for media, but from the get-go it's already clear running back Akrum Wadley has a burst. Wadley (5'10", 194), who ran for 1,109 yards and 10 touchdowns during his final season at Iowa, joined the team as an undrafted free agent, and he'll compete this offseason for a roster spot. ... One thing I noticed: Wadley has a running style that includes a bit of a jump-step, or a skip. It allows him to get into another gear in a hurry."
If Wadley continues to show off his speed, he's going to have a very good chance of making Tennessee's final roster. Austin Gayle of Pro Football Focus believes he can even cement himself as the Titans' No. 3 back behind Henry and Lewis.
"The Tennessee Titans may already have their go-to third-down back in Dion Lewis, but Wadley can step in as a key depth piece behind Lewis, especially if he improves in pass protection and flashes his pass-catching talents in camp," Gayle wrote.
Don't be shocked if Wadley goes from being an undrafted afterthought to an important piece of the Titans offense very quickly.
Richie James, WR, San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers ensured they'll have quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo around for the foreseeable future by inking him to a five-year, $137.5 million deal this offseason. They then got him some receiving help by taking a pair of wideouts in the draft.
Second-round pick Dante Pettis is the kind of player who can quickly become one of Garoppolo's favorite targets. The Washington product is a polished route-runner who should make a fast transition to the pro game. However, seventh-round pick Richie James has been the rookie 49ers receiver making a name for himself in the early offseason.
The Middle Tennessee State product isn't going to overwhelm you physically, but he's managed to garner attention with his effort.
"James (5'10", 183) was the standout player at the team's rookie minicamp on Friday, making a number of receptions in the middle of the field in full-team drills and seven-on-sevens," Chris Biderman of Niners Wire wrote earlier this month.
Brad Almquist of KNBR.com echoed the notion that James has been a pleasant surprise.
"Among the standouts was wide receiver Richie James, who gained solid separation and ran polished routes, resulting in four catches throughout the scrimmages," he wrote.
James has shown that he can be a playmaker when given the opportunity. He only appeared in five games last season, but when he played a 13-game schedule in 2016, he racked up 105 catches for 1,625 yards and 12 touchdowns and carried the ball 38 times for another 339 yards and four scores.
Richie may not emerge as San Francisco's biggest receiving threat as a rookie, but he should be an immediately beneficial new piece.