Rounding Up Latest Buzz Surrounding NFL's Big-Name Rookies
NFL OTAs have opened up leaguewide, giving us a glimpse into what teams think of their newly-drafted rookies. Every head coach or general manager has glowing reviews on rookies when there's a hot microphone around, so measuring action over talk is paramount.
Organized team activities, which are optional, present the first chance to see how coaches integrate rookies into a roster of veterans. Some rookies are expected to be immediate starters, while others are on third-team units alongside players who likely won't make the 53-man roster in September.
We'll take you through notable news on 10 rookies who were drafted in the first three rounds of the draft as we try to drink out of the firehose that is practice write-ups for 32 teams.
Baker Mayfield, Quarterback, Cleveland Browns
According to Cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot, first overall pick Baker Mayfield is starting his career with the Browns as the third-string quarterback. He's behind Tyrod Taylor, who Cleveland acquired this offseason from Buffalo, and Drew Stanton, a 34-year-old journeyman.
This looks to be a classic case of a rookie who has to earn his stripes. No one believes Mayfield will start the season behind Stanton, even if he does play behind Taylor in 2018. According to SBR Sports Picks, the implied odds that Mayfield starts more games than Taylor this year is 58 percent.
Throwing three interceptions in an early OTA practice isn't the start we had pinned down for Mayfield, but he'll beat out Stanton, who has a career passer rating of 66.3.
Saquon Barkley, Running Back, New York Giants
John Schmeelk of Giants.com made note of running back Saquon Barkley's pass protection on the first day of OTAs: "In simulated blitz pickup scenarios, it looked like Saquon Barkley was in the right place at the right time. If he continues that, I would expect him to be a fixture on third down. There has been a steady rotation at running back throughout OTAs so far."
In 2018, there is more value in pass-catching running backs than ever. If the second overall pick can refine his pass-protection ability, then there should be no reason why Barkley would lose footing in a "steady rotation."
For reference, Barkley caught 102 passes for 1,195 yards and eight touchdowns in college. The other two first-round backs drafted in this class, Rashaad Penny (42 receptions, 479 yards and six touchdowns) and Sony Michel (64 receptions, 621 yards and six touchdowns), didn't come close to touching Barkley's production in the passing game.
My hunch? Barkley is the full-time back with the Giants while Jonathan Stewart spells him off the bench and punches in goal-line carries. Despite sharing the backfield with dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton and first-round rookie back Christian McCaffrey, Stewart recorded 18 touches inside the 10 with the 2017 Carolina Panthers.
That tied for the ninth-most in the league in that range. Worth noting: 53 percent of the NFL's passing and rushing touchdowns last season came from inside the 10. If we start to hear that Barkley's goal-line workload is increasing in practices, that will be big news.
Denzel Ward, Cornerback, Cleveland Browns
Fourth overall pick Denzel Ward is receiving the same message as quarterback Baker Mayfield: Nothing is going to be handed to you, rookie. According to the Akron Beacon Journal's Nate Ulrich, E.J. Gaines and Terrance Mitchell were the Browns' starting cornerbacks to start OTAs.
Gaines, who played 59 percent of Buffalo's defensive snaps last season, signed a one-year, $4 million deal with Cleveland this offseason. Mitchell played 64 percent of Kansas City's defensive snaps before signing a three-year, $10 million deal with the Browns.
Those contracts aren't meaningless, but they don't promise starting roles in today's NFL. Gaines' 2018 cap hit ranks 411th in the league, while Mitchell's is tied for 543rd. Ward has some obstacles to hurdle for playing time, but let's not make mountains out of molehills.
Mike McGlinchey, Offensive Tackle, San Francisco 49ers
One of the bigger surprises of the first round was the San Francisco 49ers' drafting Notre Dame offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey with the ninth overall pick. With left tackle Joe Staley and right tackle Trent Brown set to return, there looked to be no immediate way for the bookend to see the field.
Trading Brown to the New England Patriots on Day 2 of the draft opened up a right tackle opportunity for McGlinchey. According to Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee, McGlinchey was the only rookie starter for the 49ers on their first day of OTAs as he slid into the spot Brown vacated.
While fourth-round defensive lineman Kentavius Street is recovering from injury, it is a surprise that no other San Francisco rookies are slated to start, as receiver Dante Pettis, linebacker Fred Warner and safety Tarvarius Moore were all drafted in the top 100. Spending a first-round pick on McGlinchey and a second-round pick to acquire quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo might be enough for head coach Kyle Shanahan, though.
Derrius Guice, Running Back, Washington Redskins
According to the Washington Post's Kareem Copeland and Kimberley A. Martin, Rob Kelley took Washington's first carry in OTAs, Samaje Perine took the second and rookie second-round pick Derrius Guice took the third. The team is going to make Guice work for a starting role if it doesn't go running back by committee.
Chris Thompson, who had over 500 receiving yards last season out of the backfield, is already slated as a third-down back, meaning one or two of the backs in Washington will have a limited role. According to Pro Football Reference's expected points model, the 2017 team lost 74 points in the ground game, the worst mark in the league.
Kelley's 3.1 yards per carry and Perine's 3.4 yards per carry didn't help Washington out. On paper, Guice should be the early-down runner while Thompson takes on a third-down role. Michael Phillips of the Richmond Times-Dispatch noted early praise for Guice despite his current slot on the depth chart:
"The Washington Redskins had their first open session of offseason workouts on Wednesday, and the player everybody was on hand to see didn't disappoint.
"New running back Derrius Guice didn't get a chance to show off all his moves, since these are non-contact practices, but he earned an endorsement from Jay Gruden for his ability to pick up the playbook quickly."
Courtland Sutton, Receiver, Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos clearly have taken a draft-and-develop approach with their wide receiver unit. Over the last two years, the team has drafted Courtland Sutton (second round), Carlos Henderson (third round), DaeSean Hamilton (fourth round) and Isaiah McKenzie (fifth round) to compete for playing time behind the established Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders.
According to Spotrac, the Broncos could save over $25 million if they released Thomas and Sanders next season, giving them incentive to go to bat for young receivers who could be ready to start in 2019. Based on DenverBroncos.com's Andrew Mason's reporting of OTAs, Sutton has separated himself from the pack.
"Rookie WR Courtland Sutton had the catch of the day four snaps before the end of practice, leaping over second-year CB Brendan Langley for a grab from [Paxton] Lynch near the left sideline," Mason wrote. "It was exactly the kind of catch the Broncos drafted Sutton to make, and it was similar to a slew of receptions he had at SMU."
Mason noted that Sutton's receptions, along with Hamilton's, came on passes from second-string quarterback Paxton Lynch, meaning the rookies are not likely contributing to the starting offense yet. This is not surprising, but it appears Denver's future at receiver is bright.
Donte Jackson and Rashaan Gaulden, Cornerbacks, Carolina Panthers
Rookie hazing in Carolina is real. According to Panthers.com's Bryan Strickland, rookie cornerbacks Donte Jackson (55th pick) and Rashaan Gaulden (85th pick) are both working with the third-team defense.
The Panthers have struggled to replace Josh Norman since his departure after the 2015 season, so it's a bit of a surprise that neither rookie has cracked the starting lineup. Instead, Kevon Seymour, a third-year sixth-round pick, is slated to start opposite James Bradberry.
Seymour played 32 percent of Carolina's defensive snaps last season, the 16th-most for a Panthers defender and sixth-most for a Panthers defensive back. The chances he starts in Week 1 seem slim, but Jackson and Gaulden will have to hop over several cornerbacks for a chance to start early too. Hopefully, Jackson or Gaulden can contend for the job, as Seymour has started just five games in his two NFL seasons.
Carlton Davis and MJ Stewart, Cornerbacks, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Unlike their NFC South counterparts, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who also double-dipped at cornerback in the draft, are dishing out playing time to at least one of their young defensive backs. With the 53rd and 63rd overall picks in April's draft, the Buccaneers selected North Carolina's M.J. Stewart and Auburn's Carlton Davis, respectively.
Per Pewter Report's Trevor Sikkema, Davis is lining up with the first-team defense as an outside cornerback. It's possible the return of incumbent starter Brent Grimes could change that, as Grimes did not show up to early OTAs, but when other teams are playing second-round picks on third-team defenses, Davis' playing time is absolutely a story.
It's possible Davis and Grimes start in Week 1 with cornerback Vernon Hargreaves in the slot. Either way, it's interesting that Davis has seemingly already surpassed Stewart, who was drafted ahead of him, on the depth chart.