Predicting NFL's 2020 Surprise Impact Rookies

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistMay 12, 2020

Predicting NFL's 2020 Surprise Impact Rookies

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    NFL fans are familiar with the big names in the 2020 draft class. Players like Joe Burrow, Chase Young, Jerry Jeudy and Isaiah Simmons have dominated headlines.

    But when you look back on the 2019 season, it wasn't just the most hyped prospects who produced.

    Gardner Minshew II. Terry McLaurin. Maxx Crosby.

    At this time last year, we weren't talking about those guys, yet each of them became an impact player. Every year, rookies who didn't get picked in the first two rounds make a mark.

    Predicting these unexpected stars is tough. Over 250 prospects are drafted each year. However, only a handful outside the first two rounds will see meaningful playing time, let alone thrive.

    Potential surprise impact rookies in the 2020 class must meet these criteria:

    • Chosen in the third round or later
    • Does not appear in Matt Miller's top 50 prospects
    • Based on his team's depth chart, has a chance to play meaningful snaps

    Whether there isn't much talent in their respective position rooms or they have injury-prone players in front of them, each of these players could climb the depth chart and make some noise.

RB/WR Antonio Gibson, Washington Redskins

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    Antonio Gibson barely meets the criteria as the second pick in the third round, but he has the potential to outperform that draft slot.

    The former Memphis playmaker was a divisive prospect. He was mocked anywhere from the fourth to the sixth round, so the fact that he was taken at the top of the third was surprising, but perhaps it shouldn't have been.

    Gibson lacks a lengthy resume—he only had one year at Memphis as a real contributor—but he made the most of his time on the field. Employed as a receiver and running back, he averaged 15.5 yards on his 38 catches and 33 carries while scoring 12 touchdowns.

    Testing at the combine confirmed the film: He's a blazing fast athlete. At 6'0" and 228 pounds, he ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash with a 35-inch vertical and 118-inch broad jump. His versatility and athleticism have drawn comparisons to Christian McCaffrey, and the star receiving back's former coach Ron Rivera didn't shoot down those comparisons.

    "No, that's fair. He's a little bit bigger than Christian, but he's got a skill set like Christian," Rivera told reporters. "This is a very versatile, young football player that we really think is going to be a guy that can get on the field for us early and contribute."

    Gibson's odds of playing a major role in the Redskins offense look even better when you consider who he will be competing with. The Skins' other options at running back include Derrius Guice—who is talented but played just five games last year because of knee injuries—a 35-year-old Adrian Peterson, third-down back J.D. McKissic and Bryce Love, who is still rehabbing an ACL injury suffered at Stanford.

    Gibson only had 33 carries in his final season at Memphis, so this may seem like hyperbole, but given the backfield in Washington, it isn't hard to envision a scenario when he leads the team in rushing.

EDGE Jabari Zuniga, New York Jets

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    If you're looking for a sleeper candidate to lead the rookie class in sacks, it's Jabari Zuniga. That might sound outrageous, but remember fourth-rounder Maxx Crosby finished second among 2019 rookies in sacks, just a half-sack behind Josh Allen and one ahead of Nick Bosa.

    Zuniga had a frustrating final season with the Gators. He only played six games because of a high ankle sprain in his senior season and compiled three sacks. That production belies the fact that he was one of the better athletes at his position in the draft. He ran a 4.64 40-yard dash at the combine and is in the 74th percentile or higher in the 40-yard dash, speed score, burst score and bench press, per Player Profiler's metrics. At 6'3" and 264 pounds, he looks the part too.

    His explosiveness caught the eye of Jets general manager Joe Douglas, who told the media:

    "I think, for me, when you're watching tape on Jabari, even when he was dealing with the ankle injury, his explosiveness, his suddenness jumps off tape. He plays with really good hand strength. He can really disrupt gaps. He's an edge presence. His disruption percentage rate was high. He was close to a 16% pressure rate. ... He's been a consistent producer in his four years at Florida, even with the injury, and I think we feel good about his makeup, the way that this guy competes."

    Zuniga could have an opportunity to make an immediate impact with the Jets. Unless the team signs Jadeveon Clowney or another veteran edge-rusher, his primary competition for snaps will be Jordan Jenkins and Tarell Basham. Jenkins established himself with eight sacks and 16 pressures last season, but Basham is entering his fourth season and had just two sacks and 14 pressures in 2019.

    Zuniga was one of the better edge-rush prospects, his reason for falling (injury) could be irrelevant if he's healthy and he is on a roster with a clear path to earning a starting spot. The ingredients are there for him to shine despite waiting until the third round to hear his name called.

LB Akeem Davis-Gaither, Cincinnati Bengals

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    The Cincinnati Bengals' additions on the offensive side of the ball made headlines, but they bolstered the defense too. They addressed linebacker with back-to-back selections of Logan Wilson and Akeem Davis-Gaither in the third and fourth rounds, respectively.

    They also drafted linebacker Markus Bailey in the seventh round, showing how desperate they were to add new blood to the position. That's for good reason. Their options before the draft were Josh Bynes, who has 47 career starts in nine seasons with three franchises; Germaine Pratt, who played well last season but started just nine of his 16 games; and Jordan Evans, who started nine games in his first two seasons with the team but zero in 2019.

    Wilson was drafted first, but that doesn't mean he was the better prospect. Matt Miller ranked Wilson (seventh LB) higher than Davis-Gaither (13th LB), but The Athletic's consensus big board—which combined more than 60 big boards across different media—had Davis-Gaither (82nd overall) higher than Wilson (86th).

    One reason to believe Davis-Gaither will outplay his fourth-round billing is the versatility he brings as a player who can cover and rush the passer. He racked up 14.5 tackles for a loss and five sacks along with an interception and eight passes defended while playing a wide range of roles for Appalachian State.

    "He has some position flex, which we like. He can do both, so we can move him around a bit," Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said. "He played nickel some at Appalachian State. He's been out of the box, in the box. A guy like that can really help our special teams. He has the potential to be on the field for all four downs."

    On a defense where the competition figures to be wide-open, Davis-Gaither has the potential to stand out for his ability to make splash plays that will set him apart.

CB/S K'Von Wallace, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Isaiah Simmons got all of the hype on Clemson's national runner-up defense last year, but he wasn't the only defender with versatility. K'Von Wallace showed the ability to play multiple roles in the defensive backfield and was valuable as both a slot corner and a box safety.

    Wallace was adept at making plays on the ball in coverage (10 passes defended, two interceptions) and was also a sure tackler in the alley who could make plays against the run (72 tackles, three tackles for loss and two sacks). He's a physical presence who can cover in the slot. He had the fifth-highest-graded coverage in the slot over the last two seasons, per Pro Football Focus.

    Now he joins a Philadelphia Eagles secondary in flux that could offer him two separate routes to playing time. At minimum, he should compete with Will Parks as the third safety on the depth chart. But outside of Darius Slay, there isn't much to get excited about in the secondary, which was a troublesome unit for the Eagles and could continue to be that way in 2020. Here's the passer rating allowed by the returning candidates to play safety and/or slot corner:

    • Jalen Mills: 107.8
    • Will Parks: 94.9
    • Nickell Robey-Coleman: 86.9
    • Avonte Maddox: 85.1

    Wallace doesn't have to prove to be more useful than all of those guys to earn a spot on the field. His ability to cover in the slot and rack up tackles should make him an appealing option.

    He may not start in Week 1, but Wallace should be an easy alternative if Mills' transition to safety doesn't go as planned or Robey-Coleman doesn't live up to expectations in the slot.

CB/S L'Jarius Sneed, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Going into the draft, a lot of mocks projected the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs to take a cornerback.

    Bashaud Breeland is reportedly facing a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy, and that was before he was arrested in April on multiple charges that include possession of marijuana. Kyle Fuller and his 507 snaps in 2019 will need to be replaced after he left for Washington in free agency. There aren't a lot of exciting options on the roster outside of Charvarius Ward, who is an obvious starter, and Breeland.

    Based on raw physical tools, L'Jarius Sneed fits the bill. He transitioned to safety in his final season at Louisiana Tech but figures to return to cornerback, where he played previously and could fight for playing time sooner. At 6'0" and 192 pounds with a 4.37 40-yard dash, 41-inch vertical and relatively long arms, he has the frame and athleticism to be a press corner in the Chiefs' zone-heavy scheme.

    In addition to his physical tools, Sneed demonstrated the ability to make a play on the ball in the air for the Bulldogs. He had eight interceptions and 19 passes defended to go with his 177 total tackles in four seasons.

    With the profile of an NFL athlete and the opportunity to be a surprise contributor on one of the NFL's best teams, Sneed could make a name for himself if everything works out in his rookie campaign.

RB DeeJay Dallas, Seattle Seahawks

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    DeeJay Dallas could not have asked for a better landing spot than the Seattle Seahawks. Pete Carroll and company have shown they value the running game year after year, yet they haven't had the best of luck with running backs.

    Chris Carson has established himself as the top back. However, he's coming off a hip injury that forced him out of the 2019 playoff run and left the team to rely on the unretired Marshawn Lynch and Dallas' former Miami teammate Travis Homer, neither of whom showed much. Rashaad Penny is still recovering from a torn ACL, and if the team felt confident about his recovery and play, it wouldn't have spent a pick on Dallas.

    The Miami running back didn't receive as much hype as his fellow running backs in the draft process. He ranked 17th among running backs on Miller's board and was graded lower than seventh-round selection Eno Benjamin by

    Clearly, the Seahawks saw something in Dallas to take him earlier than most expected. He came to Miami as a receiver and was converted to running back, so he has the potential to become a diverse weapon in Seattle.

    At best, Dallas starts eating into Carson's role as the No. 1 option in the run game. Carson has performed well, but he had seven fumbles in 2019, is coming off a hip injury and has just one year left on his contract.

    At worst, Dallas battles Homer, who has shown little, and the injured Penny for the backup role and potential third-down duties.

WR Tyler Johnson, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Nineteen wide receivers were drafted before Tyler Johnson. It would be shocking if 19 receivers put up better numbers than the Minnesota Golden Gopher in his rookie campaign.

    Johnson doesn't possess the best physical tools. At 6'1" and 206 pounds, his size doesn't stand out. He didn't run at the combine, but he doesn't pop elite speed on tape. However, what he does have on his side is production.

    Johnson is an analytics darling whose production at Minnesota projects well to the NFL. Fantasy football players will be familiar with breakout age and dominator rating. Essentially, the two indicators mark how much of the market share of yards and touchdowns a player commanded and at what age he hit those thresholds. Johnson is in the 98th percentile for dominator rating and 90th for breakout age, per Player Profiler.

    He left Minnesota with 213 catches, 3,305 yards and 33 touchdowns in four seasons. He was also PFF's second-highest-graded slot receiver in the draft.

    Johnson is an ultraproductive slot receiver whose biggest knock is that he doesn't have the athleticism you'd see in a dominant NFL receiver.

    Think Tom Brady might know what to do with a guy like that?

    Johnson has a good shot at winning the slot receiver job as Mike Evans and Chris Godwin man the outside spots. Breshad Perriman's departure leaves the WR3 spot wide-open on the Bucs depth chart, and Johnson was the first receiver they drafted when they made him their fifth-round selection.

    It shouldn't take him long to outplay that draft slot.

WR K.J. Hill, Los Angeles Chargers

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    The hit rate on seventh-round draft picks is incredibly low. The number of seventh-round draft picks who are the all-time receptions leader at a college football blueblood is also incredibly low.

    K.J. Hill is the all-time leading receiver at Ohio State, a school that has produced Michael Thomas, Parris Campbell and Terry McLaurin in recent seasons. Not to mention the likes of Cris Carter and Terry Glenn if you prefer to go historical.

    Hill isn't as good a prospect as any of those receivers. Despite his impressive career totals, he was the second receiver for three consecutive seasons while Campbell and Chris Olave led the team in yardage.

    Hill does not have impressive physical tools. He's just 6'0" and 196 pounds and only ran a 4.6 40-yard dash at the combine. He isn't going to electrify after the catch, but he possesses an uncanny ability to find the hole in zone defenses and is a consistent option underneath. That was especially true in the red zone last season, as 10 of his 57 catches were for touchdowns.

    The downside is that he's likely maxed out in terms of potential. The good news is there's still a place in the NFL for a slot receiver with good route running, solid hands and a nose for the end zone.

    That makes Hill's potential on the Chargers roster interesting.

    There's a good argument to be made for fifth-round pick Joe Reed. The Chargers drafted him before Hill, and he is a bigger, more athletic prospect. Both will have the opportunity to fight for reps in a receiver room that doesn't have much behind Mike Williams and Keenan Allen.

    While Williams and Allen are clearly the best receivers on the roster, both have had their fair share of injuries. Williams missed a game last season with a back ailment, sat out most of his third season at Clemson with a neck injury and was plagued by a back injury as a rookie. Allen has been able to stay healthy for the last three years but has struggled to stay on the field in the past with ankle, knee and collarbone injuries.

    Should one of the Chargers' top two receivers go down this season, quarterback Tyrod Taylor (and/or Justin Herbert) will need to find new options in the passing game fast. Allen's ability to make plays in the slot would be especially missed. Hill's polished game is a good candidate to contribute sooner than later even if he doesn't pan out as a superstar receiver.