NFL Rookies Turning Heads Before Training Camps Even Begin
Teams draft and sign players who have never stepped foot on an NFL field because they believe they can improve their on-field products. Ideally, they'll do so sooner rather than later.
Making the leap from college football to the pros is no easy task, of course, but we have seen plenty of rookies come into the league and dominate over the years. Just look at the campaign Kareem Hunt produced in 2017 or the one from Michael Thomas the season before. They were stars almost immediately, and you can bet they showed glimpses of greatness early.
So, which rookies are turning heads before 2018 training camps even begin? That's what we're here to discuss.
Denver Broncos DE Bradley Chubb
When thinking of rookies who are poised to make immediate impacts, Denver Broncos pass-rusher Bradley Chubb quickly comes to mind. He's joining a defense that has a strong secondary, and premier pass-rusher Von Miller will be playing opposite him.
Chubb should have time to get to the quarterback, and he won't be the first blocking priority for opposing offenses. All he'll have to do is take advantage of the situation and produce.
According to veteran cornerback Chris Harris Jr., Chubb has the skills he needs to do that.
"Oh man, he has all the tools," Harris told Alex Marvez and Gil Brandt on SiriusXM Radio's Late Hits. "... He's around 280, around there. He can move, so I see him being all over the field. I think he'll start. He's been able to be that big of an impact player in OTAs."
Harris knows a thing or two about pass-rushers, having played with the likes of Miller and DeMarcus Ware in Denver.
If Chubb has been an impact player during organized team activities, one can only imagine what he can do when the pads are on and the hitting is for real. Expect Chubb to be in the early Defensive Rookie of the Year conversation.
Arizona Cardinals QB Josh Rosen
Arizona Cardinals rookie Josh Rosen may not have the same early impact as a player like Chubb, but this is largely due to his position and the other players on the roster. The former UCLA quarterback hasn't been on the field in a situational role and is sharing reps with veterans Mike Glennon and Sam Bradford.
However, Rosen has still used his opportunities to shine.
Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson had the following to say of the rookie during an appearance on The Rich Eisen Show:
"Honestly, since he's been with us, he's been the total opposite of what you hear from the media or you hear from outside people. The way he's able to grasp the offense right now and get guys in line right now, I've been very, very impressed with that. As far as his throwing motion and his quarterback IQ and his pocket presence and all that stuff, it's off the charts. I've never seen a rookie come on a team and do some of the things that he's doing."
Rosen was widely viewed as a pro-ready prospect heading into the 2018 draft, but it's encouraging to hear Peterson discuss his early development. The Cardinals won't need to rush Rosen on the field as long as Bradford remains healthy (admittedly, a big if), but it's already looking like the 10th overall pick will be ready to run with the starting job once Arizona presents it to him.
Falcons WR Calvin Ridley
Earlier, we mentioned Thomas' first-year success (1,137 yards, 9 TDs). However, it's worth noting that he has been an exception to a recent rookie-wideout trend. While he was quick to adjust to the pro game, recent first-round selections such as John Ross, Corey Coleman, Laquon Treadwell and Corey Davis have struggled.
The Atlanta Falcons hope that former Alabama star Calvin Ridley can be another exception.
The 26th overall pick in 2018 finds himself joining a stacked receiver corps that features Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and tight end Austin Hooper. He won't have pressure to be a star right out of the gate, but he's going to need to develop quickly in order to make a big impact alongside his new teammates.
Fortunately, Ridley appears to be NFL-ready.
"Comfort-wise, I think he came in a little bit ahead of the curve," head coach Dan Quinn said of Ridley, per Vaughn McClure of ESPN.com.
According to safety Ricardo Allen, the rookie is showing that readiness on the practice field.
"[What] I'm already excited to see is him in Year 4 and Year 5," Allen said, per McClure. "I know that's kind of jumping ahead early, but because he's such a disciplined route-runner and because he already kind of moves like a veteran, I just want to see when he becomes a veteran how much better a player he's going to be."
If Ridley is able to play like a veteran in his first season, the Falcons' passing attack may be virtually unstoppable.
Cleveland Browns CB Denzel Ward
When the Cleveland Browns passed on Chubb with the fourth overall pick, it came as a mild surprise because of the premium the league places on pass-rushers. However, the Browns had their reasons for taking former Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward.
"Basically, we aren't covering long enough to let [Myles Garrett] get to the quarterback [last season]," defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said, per Peter King of The MMQB. "Myles and others—especially [defensive end] Emmanuel Ogbah—will get more chances because of Denzel."
Cleveland is banking on Ward to be the kind of shutdown corner Joe Haden was. According to veteran linebacker Christian Kirksey, the rookie is looking like it.
"Just to see him on the practice field, he's like a silent assassin," Kirksey said of Ward during an appearance on NFL Total Access. "He don't say too much, but when he's on the field, his play is loud. And him being a lockdown corner that I see, that will give Myles Garrett an extra step to the quarterback."
Ward, who was promoted to the first-team defense in June, appears to be set to start when the season opens in September. If he continues to make loud statements with his play, he could be a candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year—just like former Buckeyes teammate Marshon Lattimore in 2017.
Los Angeles Chargers S Derwin James
Ward isn't the only rookie defensive back turning heads prior to training camp. Los Angeles Chargers safety Derwin James has also flashed his potential.
"For the most part, he's had an outstanding spring," head coach Anthony Lynn said, per Eric D. Williams of ESPN.com. "We've put a lot on his plate. He's taken more reps of any DB on the team right now, and I think in the situations we've put him in, he's handled very well."
James is a hard-hitting safety with the range and the instincts to make plays when the ball is in the air. Like most rookies, his biggest challenge will be adjusting to the speed and the nuances of the NFL game. The good news is that the former Florida State standout hasn't been overwhelmed.
"It wasn't too much that I can't handle," James said, per Fernando Ramirez of NBC San Diego. "I'm used to playing multiple positions, knowing what to do in different situations. It's kind of the same here. They asked me to do more, and I can do it."
As long as James continues to handle everything the Chargers throw at him, he'll be in line for a significant role from day one. If he takes care of opposing offenses in the regular season, he could be one of the biggest rookie stars of 2018.
Minnesota Vikings CB Mike Hughes
The Minnesota Vikings boasted a defense that allowed an NFL-low 15.8 points per game in 2017. However, this doesn't mean a rookie defender cannot make an immediate impact. If early offseason observations are accurate, first-round pick Mike Hughes could be the one to do it.
The former Central Florida defensive back has had his rookie moments, but as Eric Smith of the team's official website noted, he has shown the short-term memory needed to be a top-tier cornerback.
"Early on in practice, Mike Hughes got beat deep early when quarterback Kirk Cousins found wide receiver Stefon Diggs," Smith wrote last month. "But the Vikings rookie cornerback didn't flinch, bouncing back to stand out during the rest of the session."
Hughes has also shown the ability to make plays on the football. A pick-six capped what head coach Mike Zimmer considered a good early offseason.
"I was pleased with him," Zimmer said, per Chris Tomasson of the Pioneer Press. "I thought he did a nice job. Still a learning experience for him. I thought the way he handled himself, the way he tried to learn and listen and all those things, I thought it was good."
Expect Hughes to bring both depth and talent to a secondary that was good for most of last season but was gashed by the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC title game.
Minnesota Vikings WR Brandon Zylstra
If there's one thing we know for certain, it's that not every player takes the same path to the NFL. Hughes joined the Vikings as a first-round selection. Wide receiver Brandon Zylstra, on the other hand, came over from the CFL after signing a reserve/futures contract with Minnesota in January.
With Adam Thielen, Diggs and tight end Kyle Rudolph in the fold, Minnesota already has a strong receiving corps. However, Zylstra, a CFL All-Star in 2017, appears to have the talent to make it even better. He heads into training camp with a lot of buzz.
Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo recently lauded the Concordia College product. He said the following, per Matthew Coller of ESPN 1500:
"That guy continues to impress. He continues to impress. The more that he starts to understand the speed of the NFL game, he's a big strong guy [6'2", 215 lbs]. People are going to have a hard time getting up in his face and pressing him. He has tremendous hands. He's smart. He's one of the guys that can line up anywhere; we could put him at any position."
Talent and versatility will get a player a long way in the NFL, no matter how he got there. Don't be surprised if Zylstra pushes for a significant offensive role in 2018—perhaps making fans forget about the disappointment of Treadwell.
New York Giants RB Saquon Barkley
The New York Giants made running back Saquon Barkley the No. 2 pick in the draft, and the former Penn State star is expected to have a huge impact immediately. He is the early favorite to win Offensive Rookie of the Year, according to OddsShark.
While Barkley will obviously need to prove himself in an actual NFL game, early reports suggest he is living up to the hype.
"He's a smart football player. He picks things up very fast," running back Jonathan Stewart said during OTAs, 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."
Barkley is a home run threat as a runner, and his pass-catching ability will help add a new dynamic to the New York offense. As tight end Evan Engram explained, the Giants simply need to continue acclimating him to the NFL.
"Saquon's a great player," Engram said in May, per Matt Lombardo of NJ.com. "He's an all-around back. He's going to come in and help us immediately. We just have to get him in there, keep learning the offense, and start getting the chemistry going with everybody."
Philadelphia Eagles TE Dallas Goedert
The Eagles parted with two tight ends this offseason—Trey Burton and Brent Celek—which is why drafting South Dakota State product Dallas Goedert in the second round made sense. He is a 6'4", 260-pound tight end who can be a major mismatch in the passing game.
Goedert topped the 1,000-yard mark in each of the past two seasons, and while he is clearly going to face stiffer competition at the NFL level, his size and skill set should allow him to make an early impact.
Eagles head coach Doug Pederson liked what he saw during June minicamp.
"He detailed the routes. He had great hands," Peterson said, per Dave Zangaro of NBC Sports Philadelphia. "He's a big target, made some plays in the red zone last week [and] making some plays this week."
Pederson isn't the only one the tight end has impressed with his hands and running ability.
"In around six or seven practices that have been open to the media, I have yet to see rookie tight end Dallas Goedert drop a pass," Jimmy Kempski of PhillyVoice.com wrote. "If you put the ball on him, he's catching it. Goedert also looks nothing like a rookie from a Division 1-AA school when it comes to route running."
Expect Goedert to be a reliable impact player sooner rather than later.
Indianapolis Colts RB Nyheim Hines
The Indianapolis Colts are counting on having a healthy Andrew Luck this season. If they're going to keep him under center, they'll need to support the quarterback with a strong running game. Now that Frank Gore is with the Miami Dolphins, the rushing responsibility will largely fall on the shoulders of unproven players like fourth-round pick Nyheim Hines.
Fortunately, the speedy (4.38 40-yard dash) North Carolina State product can break open games on the ground. Last season, he rushed for 1,112 yards and averaged 5.6 per carry. Hines won't just be a runner for the Colts, though. He has the physical skills to contribute in multiple phases of the game.
"He kind of reminds me a little bit of a Dexter McCluster type," offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni explained, per Zak Keefer of the Indianapolis Star. "Teams didn’t know what he was. Is he playing running back this week? Is he playing wide receiver this week? What is he? How do I defend him?"
According to Keefer, Hines also served as Indianapolis' top kick returner during OTAs. Given Hines' spectacular speed, this isn't surprising in the least.
Hines is shaping up to be a player who can produce big plays on the ground, as a receiver and in the return game. The Colts like what they've seen from the rookie so far, and fans are likely to love what he can provide come September.