NFL Rookies Who Won't Start but Definitely Should
Not every early-round pick will start as a rookie. Those who think otherwise have out-of-whack expectations. Some individuals take time to adjust to the professional game. Others' paths toward starting aren't given.
Patience is needed for the first category. The latter is interesting because they could become key contributors early in their careers despite not breaking into starting lineups.
Starter is a relative term anyhow. Most still frame the term as the traditional 11 spots that date back decades.
But the game continues to change. Nickel corners and slot receivers are every bit as much starters today as fullbacks and third linebackers used to be. Defensive sub-packages allow more players to get on the field over the course of games.
Opportunities dictate a player's situation in many instances. What if they didn't?
The following 10 first- or second-day draft picks (first through third rounds) likely won't be starters, but they should be despite their particular circumstances.
QB Daniel Jones, New York Giants
Jake Locker is the last first-round quarterback not to start a game as a rookie. Daniel Jones might be the next, but he shouldn't be.
The vast majority of first-round picks will find their way into starting lineups at some point during their rookie campaigns. But a quarterback often has to wait if his team has a respected veteran option.
Eli Manning is the New York Giants' starting quarterback. The organization, specifically general manager Dave Gettleman, insists it prefers to start the veteran for one more year and let Jones develop, a la Aaron Rodgers behind Brett Favre or Patrick Mahomes behind Alex Smith.
The Giants aren't a good team, though, and Gettleman saw something in Jones to make him the sixth overall pick.
"The thing that convinced me about him as a player was the Senior Bowl," Gettleman said of his new quarterback, per The MMQB's Albert Breer. "I watched [Jones'] three series. The first series, he was three-and-out. Series 2 and Series 3, he takes them right down the field for touchdowns. And he just looked like what a professional quarterback should look like."
If the franchise's belief in Jones is any indication, he should take over as the starting signal-caller once the season suffers a downturn. The Giants believe they can win while rebuilding. But the roster isn't built to win now. By starting Jones at some point this season, the Giants would expedite his development and the rebuilding process.
QB Drew Lock, Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos couldn't resist drafting quarterback Drew Lock despite placing faith in Joe Flacco.
"Our comfort with Joe enabled us to pass on a quarterback," general manager John Elway told NBC Sports' Peter King about passing on a quarterback in the first round. "What made that decision is, Joe is fitting really well with what we want to do offensively, and he looked great in our minicamp last week. He really put on a throwing exhibition last week in camp. I truly think we've got a guy coming into his prime."
That's all well and good, but Flacco is still Flacco. He's an average-to-below-average performer.
Denver graded Lock as the draft class' top quarterback prospect, according to King. The team traded second-, fourth- and sixth-round picks to move up 10 spots and draft Lock with the 42nd overall pick.
Like the Giants with Jones, the Broncos don't plan to rush their new quarterback.
"I think technique is always a big thing," Elway said, per ESPN.com's Jeff Legwold. "We talk about accuracy and accuracy a lot of times comes down to technique and throwing on rhythm. We believe he has a ton of talent, but we also believe he has a lot left to work on."
The Broncos aren't tethered to Flacco since the final three years of his contract (including this year) aren't guaranteed. Flacco eventually gave way to Lamar Jackson. He'll likely do so again with Lock next in line.
RB Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles
The Philadelphia Eagles backfield is loaded.
The unit already featured Corey Clement, Josh Adams, Wendell Smallwood and Donnel Pumphrey before the front office flipped a 2020 sixth-round pick for Jordan Howard. General manager Howie Roseman then drafted Penn State's Miles Sanders with this year's 53rd overall pick.
Sanders won't be content as a role player in the team's expansive rotation, nor should he be.
"I feel like I'm the most complete running back in the draft," Sanders told Pro Football Focus' Austin Gayle. "I have a natural running ability, vision, always able to make the first guy miss, ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and from the slot. I feel like I've shown an ability to pick up pass protection, too."
The Penn State product actually ran for three more yards (1,274 total) in his final season on campus than Saquon Barkley did. Granted, opposing defenses didn't key on Sanders as much as they did against Barkley, but Barkley's replacement showed his effectiveness in a lead role. According to PFF, the 211-pound back finished second among draft-eligible Big Ten running backs with an average of 3.84 yards after contract per attempt.
Philadelphia will almost certainly open the season with Howard as the starter based on his previous production. His contract expires after this year, though.
Eventually, Sanders will be provided every opportunity to become Philadelphia's featured back.
WR Diontae Johnson, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers may have found Antonio Brown's replacement in another MAC product.
No one can replace Brown's production over the last six seasons, but this year's 66th overall pick, Toledo wide receiver Diontae Johnson, brings a similar skill set.
Brown isn't the biggest or fastest receiver. His game is predicated on creating separation through short-area quickness and pristine route running. The same can be said of Johnson.
"He's a tremendously gifted young man," Steelers wide receivers coach Darryl Drake said, per the Associated Press' Will Graves. "The most natural catcher that I've seen in a while. ... He doesn't have great timed speed but he plays the game fast. He's really, really good against the press and this is a press league. DBs walk up to your face and try to fingerprint you. He gets off bumps, gets in and out of his breaks as well as anybody I've seen in a long time."
The Steelers coaching staff may be excited about Johnson's potential, but he'll have to fight for targets with JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, Donte Moncrief and Eli Rogers already on the roster.
Johnson displays traits to eventually surpass each of those targets, except Smith-Schuster. The rookie moves far more suddenly and is better at running intermediate routes compared to Washington and Moncrief, who generally serve as vertical threats. Johnson is also quicker and better after the catch than Rogers.
As soon as the first-year receiver earns Ben Roethlisberger's trust, he'll become a big part of the offense, even if he's not technically starting.
TE Irv Smith Jr., Minnesota Vikings
Kyle Rudolph is the Minnesota Vikings' starting tight end. His standing isn't about to change, even with Irv Smith Jr.'s addition.
However, the Vikings plan to expand their offense while playing the long game.
"Two different styles, what Kyle does and what Irv can do," general manager Rick Spielman said, per KFAN Sports Radio's Aj Mansour. "Just totally two different types of tight ends."
The Vikings can lean heavily on 12 or 22 personnel (two-tight-end sets) to use both Rudolph and this year's second-round pick. The 6'6", 265-pound veteran is a true Y tight end. His size and approach allow him to play on the end of the line of scrimmage. Whereas, the 6'2", 242-pound rookie is more of an H-back and weapon in the passing game, though he was a willing and well-coached blocker at Alabama.
Offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski can utilize both in multiple different looks to help the run game and create further issues for secondaries by creating mismatches in the passing game beyond Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs.
"We can line him up wide. We can line him up in tight. We can use him in the backfield. He has a lot of versatility," Vikings director of college scouting Jamaal Stephenson said, per the Associated Press (via Fox Sports). "We want to be more explosive on offense."
Utilization of both is a short-term plan. Rudolph, who turns 30 during the season, is a free agent next year. Smith isn't just a complementary piece; he's the current starter's replacement.
OG Elgton Jenkins, Green Bay Packers
Elgton Jenkins started 26 straight games at center for the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Even so, the Packers have different plans for this year's 44th overall pick.
"We took him as a guard, but you watch the tape, you feel comfortable putting him anywhere you need him to be," Packers college scout Charles Walls said, per the Associated Press. "Definitely a light bulb goes off when a guy with that much value, that much versatility falls to you."
Center and left guard are set with Corey Linsley and Lane Taylor, respectively. Right guard is wide-open, and a position competition will ensue between Justin McCray, Cole Madison, Billy Turner and Jenkins. However, the 310-pound rookie isn't expected to win the job after Green Bay signed Turner to a four-year, $28 million free-agent deal.
Basically, Jenkins is an insurance policy.
The approach is unfortunate because Jenkins was the best point-of-attack blocker among this year's interior class. He's a people mover and brings a different level of power than the Packers' other linemen.
"I feel like I can play all positions," he said. "Right now, they're looking at me at guard. But I feel like I can play all the positions on the line."
If Jenkins doesn't win a starting job this year, he could be the team's right tackle next season since Bryan Bulaga is scheduled to become a free agent in 2020.
OT Max Scharping, Houston Texans
The Houston Texans desperately needed offensive linemen entering this year's draft. General manager Brian Gaine chose a pair of blockers in the first two rounds.
Alabama State's Tytus Howard came as a surprise with the 23rd overall pick after the Philadelphia Eagles swooped in and selected Andre Dillard one pick prior.
Howard has all of the physical traits (6'5" and 322 pounds with 34-inch arms) to excel as an NFL tackle. However, he's a work in progress. Even the Texans don't know where their top pick will play.
"I feel like we have a guy here that can play tackle and guard," head coach Bill O'Brien said, per Anthony R. Wood of USA Today's Texans Wire. "We're going to start him off at tackle and we're going to teach him both positions. We'll get going right away with him."
His draft status and potential indicate he can start at left tackle and replace Julie'n Davenport. This shouldn't automatically be the case, though. Howard started at right tackle his final season on campus. Whereas, this year's 55th overall pick, Max Scharping, started every single game of his collegiate career and played the last two at left tackle.
Scharping allowed just one sack in his last three seasons.
Of course, the Texans will place a priority on getting this year's first-round pick in the lineup. Davenport remains an option at left tackle. If either tackle struggles, Scharping will likely step in, excel and not give up his spot.
CB David Long, Los Angeles Rams
The Los Angeles Rams drafted the best all-around cornerback in this year's class with the 79th overall pick. Seriously.
Long allowed a 24.3 career passer rating into his coverage, according to Pro Football Focus. He also finished his final season on campus with the lowest reception rate of any draft-eligible cornerback. Long is fast (4.45-second 40-yard dash), athletic and fantastic with route anticipation.
But he lacks length. The 5'11" cornerback has sub-31-inch arms. He's also stuck behind a settled cornerback rotation of Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters and Nickell Robey-Coleman.
"Anybody who is a Rams fan knows that I have a very talented position group," cornerbacks coach Aubrey Pleasant said, per the Detroit Free Press' Orion Sang, "and you could say that the rich have gotten richer."
"[Long is] in a position where he can grow, he can be patient."
Also behind Troy Hill, Long is, at best, the fifth cornerback on the Rams' depth chart.
Even so, Long is an aggressive corner with exceptional man-coverage skills—which should fit in quite nicely with Wade Phillips' defensive scheme. Peters disappointed last season and enters the final year of his rookie deal. Talib is 33 years old with only one year remaining on his current contract.
Long could easily work his way into the rotation and supplant one of the veterans if he's not performing to expected levels.
CB Greedy Williams, Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns didn't own a first-round pick after the Odell Beckham Jr. trade yet still found a way to draft a first-round talent in cornerback Greedy Williams.
Despite being the class' best pure cover corner, one specific trait, or lack thereof, continued to hound the slender defensive back.
"I like his physical tools," a longtime NFL talent evaluator told Cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot. "He's long, fluid and fast. What caused him to slip was the league seriously questioned his competitiveness and toughness."
The perception Williams is a poor tackler was a factor in his draft status. The Browns made sure to put a stop to his plummet by trading for the 46th overall pick and selecting the 6'2", 185-pound cornerback.
"He's playing in the hardest conferences there are in college football, and I think he holds up really well," general manager John Dorsey said, per Cabot. "I have no problem with his tackling. Corners are paid to cover. The tackling aspect, just get the guy down."
Williams might be a great cover corner, but he's entering a lineup already loaded with talent. Last year's fourth overall pick, Denzel Ward, made the Pro Bowl in his first season. Terrance Mitchell impressed last season after he earned the starting job opposite Ward. Sixth-year veteran T.J. Carrie mans the nickel spot.
The rookie's best chance to start this year is to beat out Mitchell. A starting position won't be handed to Williams, but his length, balls skills and man-cover traits will make him Ward's bookend sooner or later.
CB Joejuan Williams, New England Patriots
NFL wide receivers continue to get bigger and more athletic. Defenses struggle to handle these targets since cornerbacks tend to be on the smaller side.
"So, this is another year where there's a lot of big receivers—6'4", 225, 230, whatever they are—I mean, somebody's going to have to cover those guys one of these days," New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said prior to the draft, per The Athletic's Nick Underhill.
The Patriots might have found a solution with this year's 45th overall pick. Joejuan Williams is different than any other corner.
At 6'4" and 211 pounds, Williams is an inch taller and 16 pounds heavier than Richard Sherman was coming into the league. Brandon Browner, whom the Patriots signed prior to the 2014 campaign, is the closest physical comparison.
Right now, the Patriots feature the game's best corner in Stephon Gilmore. J.C. Jackson and Jason McCourty are the top two options opposite Gilmore. Williams brings a completely different dynamic.
"With those big guys, you've got to get hands on them," Williams said, per the Boston Globe's Ben Volin. "They will go up and get the ball, so you’ve got to go up there and fight for it. That’s something I feel like I bring to the table."
New England faces the Miami Dolphins' DeVante Parker (twice), New York Jets' Robby Anderson (twice), Baltimore Ravens' Miles Boykin, Philadelphia Eagles' Alshon Jeffery and Cincinnati Bengals' A.J. Green this season. Each of those targets is 6'3" or taller. Williams will have his hands full.