NFL Rookies Who Will Play Biggest Roles This Season
Most rookies enter the NFL understanding they must earn their stripes. For a smaller group, there are expectations to look the part of starters and take on bigger roles right away.
In some cases, specifically those of first-rounders, there's no time to take reps with second- or third-stringers. Several rookies have already lined up with starters in preparation for Week 1.
In other scenarios, coaching staffs opt to follow more gradual plans through organized team activities before ramping up in-house competitions during training camps.
As most teams set up for mandatory minicamps, we'll take a look at rookies primed to assume the biggest responsibilities during the upcoming season.
RB Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
There's no question. The New York Giants drafted running back Saquon Barkley with the intention of extending quarterback Eli Manning's career via an improved ground attack.
In addition to his prospective workload as a ball-carrier, the Penn State product can be a threat in the short passing game, which should help Manning make quick and effective decisions in the pocket.
Barkley provided a preview of what he brings to the field during OTAs, per Dan Salomone of the team's official website:
"The second overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft has made the most of non-contact spring football, giving the Giants absolutely no drafter's remorse. On Thursday, he looked particularly sharp and was heavily involved as he racked up the touches. A valuable outlet for Manning, Barkley made a nice catch down the sideline for a big gain early in practice."
Similar to 2017 No. 4 overall pick Leonard Fournette and 2016 No. 4 overall pick Ezekiel Elliott, Barkley—also the first running back picked in his draft class—will take on the bulk of the work in the backfield.
CB Denzel Ward, Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns surprised some draft analysts when they drafted cornerback Denzel Ward over pass-rusher Bradley Chubb at No. 4. Nonetheless, the Ohio State product will fill a major void on the boundary.
General manager John Dorsey revamped the secondary, and Ward has stood out after missing some time with a minor hip injury. He took first-team reps during OTAs, and head coach Hue Jackson praised him.
"Ward being out there is because he's earning it," Jackson said, per Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com. "He's working at it. He plays a position that we've been needing a guy to step up. We see him improving each and every day and doing the things that we're asking. He needs to continue to do that to continue to be out there, but we know he's very talented."
The Browns traded Jason McCourty and Jamar Taylor in separate deals to clear a path for Ward. The front office signed E.J. Gaines, who should start opposite the rookie on the boundary, and T.J. Carrie, who spent most of his time with the Oakland Raiders playing in the slot.
Briean Boddy-Calhoun has started 14 games over the past two seasons. He is the only in-house competitor capable of pushing Ward for a spot in the starting lineup.
G Quenton Nelson, Indianapolis Colts
Regardless of who takes snaps under center, guard Quenton Nelson will serve as a quality interior pass-protector.
Despite his probable spot in the starting lineup, progress hasn't come without some missteps. Zak Keefer of the Indianapolis Star tweeted this practice observation: "On the few occasions Nelson has been beaten in OTAs, he's been really hard on himself. 'You're gonna be fine,' Ryan Kelly has assured him."
There's no need to panic. It's also a good sign that Nelson takes his practice reps seriously. Furthermore, the Colts selected him at No. 6 in the draft. He's not on a short leash for a starting spot.
Barring injury, it's hard to imagine the 22-year-old falling on the depth chart or taking a back seat to last year's starter at left guard, Jeremy Vujnovich, who struggled.
QB Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills
Josh Allen won't start all 16 games, but he made the list because there's no position more important than quarterback.
The rookie should see the field if the Buffalo Bills struggle to string together wins to start the season. Unless AJ McCarron looks like a bona fide starter, expect Allen to take over a team well below .500.
The Bills open the season as follows: at Baltimore Ravens, vs. Los Angeles Chargers, at Minnesota Vikings and at Green Bay Packers, which looks like 0-4. At that point, head coach Sean McDermott may consider a switch at quarterback to spark the team.
Allen isn't taking first-team reps, but McDermott called the pecking order "fluid," per Mike Rodak of ESPN.com. "McDermott said the reps at quarterback remain a 'fluid' situation," Rodak wrote, "but Allen has been taking third-team reps behind McCarron and Peterman, who have been rotating with the first team."
Wins and stellar play by McCarron would keep Allen on the sideline, but because of the schedule and McCarron's lack of playing experience, it's only a matter of time before Allen takes live snaps.
LB Roquan Smith, Chicago Bears
Even though linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski played well in limited snaps, the Chicago Bears picked Roquan Smith eighth overall. He's already building a reputation as a complete player.
"One thing that has stood out to me is he doesn't really attack the game like a rookie," fellow linebacker Aaron Lynch said, per Colleen Kane of the Chicago Tribune. "He has kind of taken to the defense like he has been in it before. The way he practices, he goes hard. The kid's smart, fast—you can tell his strength without even being in pads."
Smith displayed the ability to chase down ball-carriers and take on assignments in coverage at Georgia. He certainly flashed big hits during College Football Playoff matchups against Oklahoma and Alabama. He also consistently found his way into plays to make stops.
It shouldn't surprise anyone if he helps the front seven wherever it's needed—in run defense, pass-rushing duties or coverage.
The Bears didn't retain pass-rushing contributors Pernell McPhee and Lamarr Houston, who combined for eight sacks in Chicago last year. And Leonard Floyd has yet to reach his potential as an edge-rusher. It's an area Smith could help strengthen thanks to his quickness in diagnosing plays.
OT Mike McGlinchey, San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers immediately aligned offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey with the first-team offense, per Nick Wagoner of ESPN.com.
After selecting McGlinchey with the ninth overall pick, general manager John Lynch traded Trent Brown, who lined up primarily at right tackle over the past three seasons, to the New England Patriots.
More likely than not, the Notre Dame product's job will revolve around protecting the 49ers' investment in quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. For a rookie, it's a huge role, but McGlinchey will have Joe Staley as a mentor and on-field example by his side.
Nonetheless, it's clear San Francisco felt confident in the 23-year-old's ability to fill a critical position on a developing offensive line.
LB Tremaine Edmunds, Buffalo Bills
We'll circle back to the Bills. Unlike Allen, linebacker Tremaine Edmunds has a clear path to a starting position.
Preston Brown started 62 games at linebacker over the last four years but signed with the Cincinnati Bengals in the offseason, leaving a vacant spot for the rookie in the middle. Cornerback Tre'Davious White, an impact first-year starter in 2017, raved about Edmunds on Good Morning Football (h/t Dominic LoVallo of the team's official website):
"This is an alpha-male here. The guy goes sideline to sideline, he's a 4.4 guy. He has tremendous range, athleticism and his knowledge of the game is next to none. I feel like by training camp, he's going to be probably one of the best young linebackers in this league. This guy, since the first day he got here, he's commanded the huddle on the defensive side of the ball. And you can tell by OTAs and the offseason that he's been getting tremendously comfortable in the playbook."
Just last year, White was in Edmunds' shoes, a first-round pick with high expectations.
Based on White's assessment, Edmunds has already shown traits coaches want in their quarterback of the defense, which include leadership skills and a strong understanding of schemes. McDermott may utilize Edmunds to strengthen the pass rush if Shaq Lawson and Jerry Hughes struggle to apply pressure up front.
OL Frank Ragnow, Detroit Lions
The Detroit Lions didn't make a fantasy football-friendly pick at No. 20. However, offensive lineman Frank Ragnow should help balance the team's offensive attack.
The front office signed running back LeGarrette Blount and drafted ball-carrier Kerryon Johnson in the second round, which shows a concerted effort to elevate the ground game.
The Lions backfield may not yield a clear-cut workhorse, but Ragnow, who will play guard or center, will have to clear lanes either way.
Detroit finished 28th or worse in rushing yards in each of the past four seasons. The added talent at running back and a fortified interior offensive line could serve as much-needed complements to quarterback Matthew Stafford. For Ragnow, it's a matter of where he'll start in Week 1. For now, it looks like that may be left guard.
WR DJ Moore, Carolina Panthers
Alabama product Calvin Ridley jumped off the page as the top wide receiver in the draft, according to Matt Miller of Bleacher Report. Instead, the Carolina Panthers picked DJ Moore. He's a speedy receiver who can stretch the field.
Quarterback Cam Newton's struggles with accuracy have been well–documented. In six of his seven seasons, he hasn't completed 60 percent of his passes. In 2016, that percentage was 52.9. So, the Panthers have acquired versatile playmakers to extend plays and excel in space. Moore checks both boxes.
He averaged more than 14 yards per catch in his first two seasons at Maryland and then broke out as a 1,000-yard receiver with a new starting quarterback last year.
"He looks the part," Albert Breer of The MMQB said. "The way he moves, the way he's operated, the way he's picked up the offense. [He] looks the part of a guy who was the first receiver taken in a draft."
If Moore is Kelvin Benjamin's replacement, he'll see ample targets opposite Devin Funchess. He should be ahead of Torrey Smith, whose production has been significantly down over the past two seasons.