Predicting NFL's 2019 Surprise-Impact Rookies
Regardless of draft status, position battles allow the best players to emerge in the most prominent roles. The cream rises to the top.
Based on the round in which a player is selected, we form expectations on their potential rookie impact. Coaches, meanwhile, cannot strictly adhere to overall pick numbers; they have to separate the top 53 for their final roster by September.
If a late-rounder has an impressive showing during the offseason program, he should open the year with the first unit. That's not a rare feat; the Seattle Seahawks drafted Tre Flowers in the fifth round last year, and he started 15 games, only missing Week 2 with a hamstring injury.
Typically late-round prospects aren't expected to contribute right out of college. Usually, they have developmental needs and injury or character concerns, which explains their drop in the selection process.
Early-round players can fall into the potential "redshirt-year" category because of the depth at their position. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes sat behind Alex Smith for a year before becoming the league MVP last season. Three established veterans at cornerback aren't likely to cede a starting role to a talented rookie who's yet to play a down in the NFL.
Yet, every year, a group of late-round gems—players on the mend and talents who outplay their veteran counterparts—find ways to contribute on a weekly basis. Although there are low expectations for the eight rookies below, they'll have opportunities to rise above those low-bar outlooks in the upcoming campaign.
QB Ryan Finley, Cincinnati Bengals
Dak Prescott is the most recent Day 3 quarterback to claim a starting position. Tony Romo suffered a back injury during the 2016 preseason, and the Mississippi State product took the reigns. Now, he's on the verge of signing a lucrative deal. Ryan Finley could become the next fourth-round signal-caller to lead his team's huddle.
Quarterback Andy Dalton doesn't have a lengthy injury history. The 31-year-old missed five games last year because of torn ligaments in his thumb, but he's expected to start Week 1. The eight-year veteran will embrace a new system under head coach Zac Taylor.
Bengals owner Mike Brown was non-committal about an extension for Dalton, per Cincinnati Enquirer's Fletcher Page. "After he re-establishes himself, we would want to get together with him and see if we can extend it," he said.
Although there's optimism about his fit with the new coaching staff, it's hard to predict actual results before the offense takes the field.
If Dalton struggles to move the ball through the air, Taylor, who's viewing this roster with fresh eyes, may turn to Finley. ESPN's Todd McShay highlighted the North Carolina State product's abilities that should translate at the pro level.
"I think Finley can be an NFL starter. He has very fast eyes and reads the defense better than any of the other quarterbacks in the class…," McShay said. "Andy Dalton has two years left on his deal, but the Bengals could cut Dalton before the 2020 season with no dead money attached if Finley is ready to be the guy."
Finley could have an impressive training camp, and that would give the new-look Bengals enough confidence to make a switch at quarterback if Dalton stumbles early in the season.
RB Bryce Love, Washington Redskins
In December, Stanford running back Bryce Love tore his ACL. Typically, players need a year before a return to pre-injury form. According to NFL Network's Tom Pelissero, teams had concerns about his recovery during the pre-draft process.
The Washington Redskins put trust in their medical staff and selected Love in the fourth round of this year's draft. He'll join a crowded running back stable, which includes Adrian Peterson, Derrius Guice, Chris Thompson and Samaje Perine. All four tailbacks have contributed on the ground in Washington or have a higher draft status than the Stanford product.
There's a slim chance Love can contribute for the upcoming season. He hopes to take the field in three months, per Washington Times reporter Matthew Paras. "My goal is to be ready by training camp, mid-training camp," Love said. "Being able to find a way to compete and do my thing."
If the 21-year-old meets his demand, he can provide something unique to the backfield—big plays. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller tweeted about Love's explosiveness when healthy. "Forgot how much I liked Bryce Love in 2017. Master of the chunk play. Hope he can get back to that level of play."
Washington likely rolled the dice on Love because of his ability to rip off big gains after the handoff. At Stanford, the elusive tailback averaged 6.8 yards per rush attempt. He also caught 49 passes for 465 yards and two touchdowns through four terms.
The rookie provides a complement to Peterson and Guice, who run with physicality between the tackles. Thompson has missed 12 games in the last two terms—primarily because of a fractured fibula and a rib injury. If that trend continues, Love could see the field in a solid role.
RB Ryquell Armstead, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jacksonville Jaguars added three veteran running backs this offseason: Thomas Rawls, Alfred Blue and Benny Cunningham. Furthermore, the front office addressed the position during the draft with fifth-rounder Ryquell Armstead.
Based on Leonard Fournette's injury history, the reserves are likely to handle a portion of the rushing workload. The LSU product has missed 11 games in two seasons because of hamstring, ankle and foot injuries along with a one-game suspension for violating the league's unsportsmanlike conduct policy.
Armstead must stand out during the summer to put himself on the coaching staff's radar for carries, but it's not a daunting task. The veterans behind Fournette on the depth chart held minimal roles with previous teams.
Among the trio of experienced backups, Rawls has had the strongest performance—during the 2015 campaign with the Seattle Seahawks—but his carries have significantly dropped over the last three years. In 2018, he didn't log a rush attempt with the Bengals before the team waived him in October.
Armstead's run style compares closely to Fournette. He's 5'11", 220 pounds and goes downhill with decisive cuts. The Temple product can absorb hits and move the pile to grind out extra yards. If the Jaguars' lead tailback misses more time with nagging injuries, the rookie fifth-rounder could become a solid replacement.
RT Isaiah Prince, Miami Dolphins
Five-year starting right tackle Ja'Wuan James signed with the Denver Broncos, leaving a vacancy on the offensive line. Sixth-round pick Isaiah Prince therefore lands in an ideal spot with an open competition at his position under a new coaching staff.
Despite his sixth-round draft status, Prince will likely battle Zach Sterup for the starting spot. The second-year tackle has only started two games since going undrafted out of Nebraska in 2016.
Prince started three years primarily in the right tackle spot at Ohio State and served as a team captain last year. The former Buckeye checks boxes for experience and the ability to garner respect from his peers, which bodes well for a chance to rise through the ranks in Miami.
At 6'6", 305 pounds with 35½" arms, he's a physical presence on the perimeter equipped to clear lanes for the ground attack and stifle powerful pass-rushers who use force to collapse the pocket.
The Dolphins can sign a veteran to compete with Sterup and Prince, but head coach Brian Flores and offensive coordinator Chad O'Shea may have a diamond in the rough replacement at right tackle.
DE Maxx Crosby, Oakland Raiders
The Oakland Raiders added two defensive ends through the first four rounds of this year's draft, selecting Clelin Ferrell with the fourth overall pick and Maxx Crosby at 106th. The former will undoubtedly start on one side, but the other spot is wide-open.
Last year, the Raiders plugged 2018 third-rounder Arden Key into a starting position six games into the season, which may not have been the initial plan. When asked about the LSU product's outlook for the upcoming season, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther shared a revealing comment, per The Athletic's Vic Tafur.
“Arden can play in the role we envisioned for him last draft,” Guenther said.
Oakland drafted Key with Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin manning the defensive end spots. The front office traded the former (to the Chicago Bears) and released the latter over the last eight months, which thrust the 238-pounder into a bigger role than the coaches likely anticipated for him.
Guenther's comment suggests Key could take fewer snaps as a rotational pass-rusher. The battle for a starting role may feature six-year veteran Benson Mayowa and Crosby. According to general manager Mike Mayock, the rookie has a hurdle to jump over to contribute at this level.
"So he has some twitch," Mayock said. "He has length, he has twitch. He has a great motor. What he doesn't have yet is power. He doesn't have strength yet, and he needs to develop that."
We can't count Crosby out of this competition. If he flashes a physical presence in the coming months, the Raiders could field two rookie defensive ends to open the season.
ILB Dakota Allen, Los Angeles Rams
A seventh-round pick's ascension to a starting position is the epitome of a storyline filled with defying odds. And it's a fit for Dakota Allen.
In 2016, Texas Tech dismissed Allen from the program after he was arrested for a home burglary. He appeared on Last Chance U, a Netflix series that highlighted collegians who were needed new opportunities to pursue their football aspirations. The Red Raiders accepted Allen back into the program, and he became a team captain in his last two terms.
Allen's rough road to the NFL likely factored into his draft placement, but he'll suit up for a team that's not quite settled at inside linebacker.
The Los Angeles Rams signed linebacker Clay Matthews, who could line up on the inside, but he's 33 years old. The coaching staff may limit his snaps at this stage, especially after a down year in Green Bay. Meanwhile, Micah Kiser, a 2018 fifth-rounder, didn't play a defensive snap last season and only contributed to special teams.
Looking at Allen's collegiate film, he should give the Rams a physical boost in run defense and the ability to break up passes in the middle of the field. The 6'1", 232-pound linebacker will have a golden opportunity to play significant snaps next Cory Littleton.
CB Justin Layne, Pittsburgh Steelers
Typically, Day 2 selections have a fair chance at a contributing role in their rookie campaigns, but Justin Layne will have to compete with tremendous depth.
We'll assume Joe Haden, newly signed cover man Steven Nelson and slot defender Mike Hilton hold the top three spots at cornerback. Lane will have to fight for snaps over 2016 first-rounder Artie Burns and 2017 third-rounder Cameron Sutton to provide an impact in the secondary.
The Pittsburgh Steelers declined Burns' fifth-year option; he's come up short on expectations after a solid rookie term, with less interceptions and tackles in each season since. In 2018, the Miami product only started six contests and logged 22 total tackles with one pass breakup. The team will likely move on from him—hence the decision to take Layne in the third round.
"You've seen Cam Sutton play some safety," Tomlin said. "You've seen Mike Hilton play safety on our football team in the past. I'm sure there are others who are capable, as well. So, we're comfortable, not only with our numbers, but with the flexibility of others that may not be quote unquote safeties."
Last season, Sutton played 32 defensive snaps after Week 8. He's an unproven cornerback who may become susceptible to more looks at safety because of his limited experience. Even if that's not the case, Layne should have a fair chance to surpass him on the depth chart.
At 6'2", 192 pounds with 33" arms, Layne provides length that Sutton (5'11", 188 lbs and 30" arms) cannot provide. The Steelers may opt to go with size and reach to shore up their secondary.
DB Marvell Tell, Indianapolis Colts
Marvell Tell's versatility may work in his favor. The USC product played safety as a collegian, but his coverage skills could lead to snaps at cornerback. He logged five interceptions over the last three terms.
Andrew Walker, of the team's official website, asked the rookie fifth-rounder about his prospective position in the Colts secondary. "Probably as a corner, corner-safety knowing both," he said.
In 2018, Kenny Moore had a standout year in the slot. Pierre Desir put together a solid campaign on the perimeter—a performance that helped him earn a three-year extension.
Indianapolis selected cornerback Rock Ya-Sin in the second round, but Tell may have an opportunity to unseat Clayton Geathers at safety. The four-year veteran hasn't developed into a consistent playmaker in the first unit, logging nine pass breakups without an interception in 41 contests, which includes 24 starts. He's also headed into a contract year.
Despite being 6'2" and producing top-three results among corners and safeties in the vertical jump, broad jump, three-cone and 20-yard shuttle, Tell weighs just 198 pounds and lacks the ideal physicality to complement Malik Hooker at safety.
Still, defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus may experiment with the rookie at the position because of his ball-tracking skills. It's rare that a team limits a defender capable of forcing turnovers.
If the coaching staff defines Tell's role early in training camp, and it's at safety, he could see a good number of snaps in passing situations.