NFL Rookies Who Already Look Like Draft-Day Steals

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystJune 29, 2019

NFL Rookies Who Already Look Like Draft-Day Steals

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    We're in the last lull of the NFL offseason—the gap between the end of OTAs and the start of training camp.

    The calm before the storm, if you will.

    Soon enough, the pads will go on, the hitting will start, and we'll get a real feel for how the league's teams will look in 2019—including how this year's rookie class fits into the picture.

    Of course, we've already learned a few things about this year's incoming crop. Whether it was rookie minicamp, OTAs or mandatory minicamp, rookies have already had their first opportunity to make a good impression on their new teams.

    And some youngsters have made the most of it.

    You won't find any first-round picks in this article, because they essentially have to shine just to live up to their draft slot.

    What you will find is Day 2 and Day 3 picks who have earned nods of appreciation. Praise from the coaches. And a chance to play prominent roles in their first year in the pros.

    You'll find players who already have the look of draft-day steals.


Greedy Williams, CB, Cleveland Browns

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    Leading up to the 2019 NFL draft, LSU's Greedy Williams was widely considered one of the best cornerbacks available in this year's class. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller ranked the 6'2", 185-pounder as the top prospect at the position.

    However, Williams fell further than many expected when the draft rolled around—he was the seventh corner off the board, selected by the Cleveland Browns at No. 46.

    Early indications are that was a bargain.

    Like many young cornerbacks, Williams had something of a shaky start to OTAs. But he's steadily improved—so much so that he's already running with the first-team defense opposite second-year pro Denzel Ward.

    While speaking with Nick Shook of the team's website, Williams credited his rapid ascension to good, old-fashioned hard work.

    "Just working my way in. Coming in and watching extra film," Williams said. "Getting down what I need to do, and I pushed up to the ones, have been practicing well with the ones and I have kind of kept there for a minute. Like I said, all spots are open, and my job is to maintain where I am."

    There's still a long way to go before the Browns host the Tennessee Titans in Week 1, but if Williams holds onto that starting slot and plays up to the potential so many in the draftnik community believe he has, it will be just one more feather in the cap of Browns general manager John Dorsey.

    He's racked up so many of those this offseason that he looks like an orange and brown peacock.

DK Metcalf, WR, Seattle Seahawks

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    Like Greedy Williams, Ole Miss wide receiver DK Metcalf was highly regarded heading into this year's draft after blowing the roof off Lucas Oil Stadium at the combine. More than a few mock drafts had the 6'3", 228-pounder with 4.33 speed going in the first half of Round 1.

    However, like Williams, Metcalf fell further than expected, dropping out of the first round entirely and almost out of the second.

    Metcalf landed in Seattle with the 64th overall pick, and early on, it looks like a Seahawks team badly in need of help at wide receiver may have hit the jackpot.

    As Brady Henderson reported for ESPN, while no one has questioned Metcalf's physical gifts, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has been impressed by Metcalf's football IQ.

    "Everybody knows about his ability to run and everything else, and jump and catch and all that," Wilson said. "You guys have been talking about that for months, but I think more than anything else, it's his brain and how he processes information and how quickly he understands it. He's really intelligent. He really understands the game really well. He takes coaching really well. He gets extra work. He's a legit pro wide receiver. He's everything that everybody was talking about in terms of what he's capable of and more."

    The depth chart at wideout in the Emerald City gets muddy quickly after Tyler Lockett. If Metcalf continues to impress, he could easily lead all rookies in receiving yards in 2019.

Parris Campbell, WR, Indianapolis Colts

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Metcalf isn't the only second-round receiver who has shown out like a first-round talent so far this summer.

    After catching 90 passes for 1,063 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2018 for the Ohio State Buckeyes, Parris Campbell moved one state to the west after being drafted at No. 59 by the Indianapolis Colts. And as an all-time great at the position in Indy, Reggie Wayne wrote at that Campbell hasn't wasted any time making a positive first impression on his new team.

    "Playing my entire 14-year NFL career in Indianapolis, I am more than familiar with the organization and know what is expected," Wayne said. "Campbell didn't waste any time making an impression, as several coaches recently told me they were happy with the rookie in OTAs. The speedster will man the slot for the Colts' offense this fall and serve as a great complement to T.Y. Hilton and free-agent addition Devin Funchess. At Ohio State, Campbell impressively gained 809 of his 1,063 receiving yards after the catch in 2018 (second-most in the FBS), according to Pro Football Focus. With the veterans attracting most of the attention, the second-round pick should get ample opportunity to showcase that speed."

    Campbell appears to have the inside track to being Indy's No. 3 receiver as a rookie, and given all the attention that Hilton commands from opposing defenses, there's going to be a fair amount of single coverage.

    That means opportunities for Campbell to showcase his 4.31 speed—and help the Colts get back to the postseason.

Damien Harris, RB, New England Patriots

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    Just last year the New England Patriots spent a first-round pick on a tailback in Georgia's Sony Michel. But while Michel showed promise as a rookie, durability continues to be an issue—Michel missed most of OTAs and minicamp after having a cleanup procedure done on his knee.

    With Michel on the shelf, third-round pick Damien Harris was afforded the opportunity to work extensively with the first team.

    The 87th overall pick in this year's draft reportedly made the most of that opportunity.

    Per Paul Perillo of the team's website, Harris impressed on the practice field.

    "The rookie third-round pick should provide some added depth and talent to a deep and talented backfield, and considering the way he was moving on the practice fields his role may be larger than many anticipated," Perillo wrote. "Harris looked comfortable running between the tackles and moving out of the backfield as a receiver. He showed some explosiveness and agility, albeit without pads. Many scouting reports indicated he was comfortable as a receiver and in pass protection, and those traits could give him some added reps in his rookie season."

    It's Harris' ability to pass-protect that stands out, as it's an area where more rookie runners than not struggle in the early-going. That ability to keep Tom Brady clean plus better than expected receiving chops are making a case for Harris to see significant reps as a rookie.

David Montgomery, RB, Chicago Bears

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Harris isn't the only third-round tailback making waves in minicamp.

    After shipping Jordan Howard to the Philadelphia Eagles in the offseason, the Chicago Bears were left looking for an early-down back to complement Tarik Cohen. The addition of Mike Davis helped, but the Bears were still expected by most to take a running back relatively early in this year's draft.

    Sure enough, they did—trading up to select Iowa State's David Montgomery at No. 73. And while Montgomery wasn't the first runner selected this year (or the second), he may well wind up being the best.

    The 5'10", 222-pounder hasn't yet had a chance to show off his physical running style since OTAs and minicamp are non-contact. But as Patrick Finley reported for the Chicago Sun-Times, Bears head coach Matt Nagy has been impressed by the skills Montgomery has been able to display.

    "He's quiet," Nagy said. "But he's so driven, and you can just see how competitive he is, and he wants to be perfect on every single play. So he's gonna practice the way he plays. And he's making plays. We always knew he had great hands. You don't know how great of a route runner a college back is, but he's a really good route runner. ... This kid can't wait. [Neither can] Mike Davis and these other backs. They want to put the pads on."

    Montgomery's a favorite of the fantasy football community to lead the Bears in rushing yards and backfield touches. And in Nagy's offense, he has a real chance to join Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara as third-round steals who go on to explode into NFL prominence in their first season.

Darius Slayton, WR, New York GIants

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    Given that minicamps and OTAs feature minimal contact, it's a venue that favors quarterbacks, skill-position players and defensive backs. It's much easier to show off speed and agility than power and physicality.

    However, that doesn't take away from a Day 3 pick making such a positive impression that many now believe he'll see substantial playing time as a rookie—and that's exactly what Darius Slayton of the New York Giants has done.

    Granted, Slayton's camp didn't get off to the best of starts—he was plagued by a case of the dropsies in the early-going. But as the 6'1", 190-pounder got his sea legs, Slayton started showing off his 4.39 speed and making plays—so much so that he earned first-team reps.

    Per Mike Moraitis of Giants Wire, head coach Pat Shurmur singled Slayton out as a player who improved greatly from the beginning of OTAs to the end.

    "I think the guy who's made huge improvements in my eyes has been Slayton," Shurmur told reporters last week. "He's done a really good job. I think we were all here during rookie minicamp when he had the yips, drops and whatnot. He's really smoothed it out and has been making plays. He's the first guy that comes to mind in my eyes. This time of year, it's more about throwing and catching and less about blocking and tackling."

    Slayton's size and speed offer the Giants something the team sorely needs—a vertical threat to complement Golden Tate and Sterling Shepard.

    If Slayton keeps this momentum going into training camp and makes any kind of real contribution to the New York offense in 2019, he'll more than live up to his fifth-round draft slot.

Jamel Dean, CB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Jamel Dean was one of the stars of the 2019 scouting combine, peeling off a 4.30-second 40-yard dash in Indianapolis that was the event's fastest among corners and second-fastest overall. However, despite that blazing 40 and good size for the position (6'1", 190 pounds), Dean didn't come off the board until the 94th overall pick as part of an overhaul of the secondary in Tampa Bay.

    Dean joined fellow cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting and safety Mike Edwards as a trio of Day 2 picks by the Buccaneers. Not only have all three earned time with the first-team defense, but all three notched interceptions in minicamp, earning praise (and a bit of profanity) from new Tampa head coach Bruce Arians.

    "I don't give a s--- if they're rookies, these guys can play. They're getting their hands on a lot of balls. They're doing things that veterans do, because they listen and they're smart," Arians said, via ESPN's Jenna Laine. "I don't worry about our young corners. Somebody asked me about Julio Jones -- well, they have to cover Mike Evans every day. That's a pretty good charge. If they can cover him a little bit, we'll be OK."

    The Buccaneers also spent a pair of Day 2 picks on corners last year in Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart, so it will take consistency and improvement from Dean to earn a prominent role in 2019. But Dean's blend of size and speed is the stuff of dreams for NFL coaches.

    If he's got coverage skills to match, Dean could be a difference-maker.

Dawson Knox, TE, Buffalo Bills

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    One of the primary goals of the offseason in Buffalo was improving the passing-game talent around young quarterback Josh Allen. The team went aggressively after the wide receiver position in free agency and added a veteran tight end in Cincinnati's Tyler Kroft.

    However, Kroft's hold on the starting job at tight end might not be as firm as expected—at least if third-round pick Dawson Knox has anything to say about it.

    The Bills traded a pair of fourth-rounders to Washington for the chance to move up and select Knox, a 6'4", 254-pounder who showed a knack for stretching the field at Ole Miss.

    As Joe Buscaglia wrote for ABC Buffalo, to date, that appears to have been a wise investment, as Allen looked Knox's way early and often in minicamp.

    "With how he's played in the spring so far," Buscaglia said, "Knox can enter camp as one of the ones to keep tabs on the most. If he continues to prove himself when the physicality comes along in camp then the Bills might have something on their hands. If he doesn't, it will be yet another example of not going to overboard with the results of spring. The one thing that you can't ignore, even for spring, is how often it seems Allen is looking for him."

    Some catches in minicamp don't guarantee that Knox will beat out Kroft to start at tight end in Buffalo. But the fact that he and Allen have built a rapport so quickly is big—Allen would benefit greatly from a reliable "safety valve" over the middle.

Josh Oliver, TE, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    The Jacksonville Jaguars made a major financial investment this offseason in quarterback Nick Foles. Now the team needs to maximize the potential of a good return on that investment by surrounding Foles with good skill-position talent.

    The tight end spot appeared to be a weakness in that regard, but it looks like the team may have come across a gem on Day 2 of the draft in a player who barely made it inside Miller's top 10 at the position.

    As John Oehser reported for the team's website, Josh Oliver has steadily impressed coaches since arriving in Jacksonville after being selected in the third round of April's draft.

    "I think he has done a nice job," head coach Doug Marrone said. "He has shown the ability to make some plays."

    Oliver admitted that (like many rookies at the position) his blocking is a work in progress. But he said he's committed to carrying his momentum over into training camp.

    "I just came in with the mentality of getting better at everything – whatever I'm doing," Oliver said. "The coaches have done a hell of a job of getting me revved up in the blocking game, and just critiquing little things and helping me come along. I'm a football player at the end of the day. I'm willing to do whatever the team wants me to do. I don't view that as something I'm not going to do."

    The depth chart at tight end for the Jaguars is wide open. If Oliver does keep things rolling along into camp and the preseason, there's a real chance he could start Week 1. 

Quincy Williams, OLB, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Josh Oliver isn't the only third-round pick of the Jaguars who has turned heads this summer.

    Oliver starting and playing well for the Jaguars could be a nice boost for the team, but getting a strong first season from outside linebacker Quincy Williams could be that much more important.

    After Telvin Smith stunned the Jags with his announcement that he intends to take the 2019 season off, Jacksonville was left with a massive hole at weak-side linebacker. And while the Jags likely didn't expect Williams to play a major role as a rookie, the 98th overall pick out of tiny Murray State has done his best in the early-going to answer the call.

    As Daniel Popper wrote for the Athletic, Williams' showing in Jacksonville's mandatory minicamp in mid-June made a positive impression on one of the team's defensive leaders.

    "He's a playmaker," defensive end Calais Campbell said. "He finds the ball. To me, instincts are where you can find the ball. When it's not your play to make, you still know how to get over the top of it and still know how to get to where the ball is. Marcell Dareus's best (attribute) is that he has incredible instincts. He just has a nose for the ball. It finds him, it seems like. Quincy has some of those same characteristics. He's not on Marcell's level. Marcell is at a different level. But he might be one day. He's a rookie. He's just scratching the surface."

    Williams doesn't have to be a world-beater—if he becomes even an adequate starter for the Jaguars in 2019, the youngster will be a lifesaver.