Predicting Every NFL Team's 2020 Surprise Rookie Gem
An unknown rookie emerging and exceeding expectations is simply the best.
Generally, first-round draft picks are supposed to produce. A second-round selection should contribute sooner rather than later. Anything beyond that during an individual's rookie year is a bonus.
There will always be those who overcome their circumstances. Underdog stories drive sports and create emotional investments in the games.
Twenty-six different prospects drafted outside of the initial 75 picks over the last five classes have already been named to the Pro Bowl. Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, Green Bay Packers edge-rusher Za'Darius Smith and San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle set the standard for this group of mid-to-late-round success stories.
Like every other draft class before it, 2020's incoming rookie crop will feature those who will immediately help their team even if their selection didn't receive much fanfare. A first-year professional drafted after the opening two frames can be identified as a potential contributor for every team before he even officially reports to his squad.
Arizona Cardinals: LB Evan Weaver
Evan Weaver is the best linebacker prospect among the Arizona Cardinals' draft class.
Yes, the class features this year's eighth overall pick, Isaiah Simmons, but he shouldn't be viewed as a traditional linebacker. He's more of a defensive weapon, whereas Weaver is exactly what a team should want in an instinctive and productive second-line defender.
Over the last two seasons, the reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year amassed a whopping 336 tackles to lead major college football.
But Weaver fell to the No. 202 overall pick because he didn't test well at the NFL Scouting Combine. Even so, the sixth-round rookie has the natural feel for the game to establish a role alongside Jordan Hicks and De'Vondre Campbell while Simmons is used all over the field.
Atlanta Falcons: OL Matt Hennessy
The Atlanta Falcons' front office identified the team's offensive interior as a problem area and responded by drafting Temple's Matt Hennessy with the 78th overall selection.
"We went into this night focused on the interior, getting stronger, bigger, more versatile inside both offensively and defensively," general manager Thomas Dimitroff told reporters after the draft's second day.
Hennessy, who is an ideal fit in the Falcons' zone-heavy scheme thanks to his movement skills, has the potential to start at two spots.
He can serve as Alex Mack's replacement since Atlanta can save $8 million by releasing the six-time Pro Bowl center. The first-year blocker is also an insurance policy at left guard since James Carpenter's 2019 campaign ended on injured reserve due to a concussion.
Baltimore Ravens: LB Malik Harrison
L.J. Fort could easily be the odd man out of the starting lineup after the Baltimore Ravens drafted a pair of linebackers.
This year's first-round pick, Patrick Queen, should be immediately inserted as Baltimore's weak-side backer. Malik Harrison, who the organization chose with the 98th overall pick, has the skill set to take over the middle.
"You don't get a lot of big linebackers anymore in college football," Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta said, per ESPN's Jamison Hensley. "He's almost 250 pounds, he has long arms, he takes guys on really, really well. He's really strong in the box and he can run."
A pair of rookie linebackers will make their share of mistakes, but the athleticism both possess could easily be an upgrade over last year's starters, Josh Bynes and Patrick Onwuasor.
Buffalo Bills: WR Gabriel Davis
Stefon Diggs became the Buffalo Bills' biggest offseason addition. His inclusion in the lineup provides quarterback Josh Allen with a true No. 1 target and pushes John Brown and Cole Beasley down a peg.
Incoming fourth-round pick Gabriel Davis could supplant Robert Foster as the team's vertical threat. Davis ranked second among FBS wide receivers last season in deep receiving yards, according to Pro Football Focus.
"I like Davis," general manager Brandon Beane said during the initial episode of Bills: Embedded 2020. "I hope he doesn't run too fast, because he plays faster—you know what I mean? Just be 4.58 or something, he'll be fine."
Davis ran a 4.54 at the combine and fell. Clearly, the organization likes the 6'2", 216-pound target enough to provide him with multiple opportunities.
Carolina Panthers: S Kenny Robinson
Kenny Robinson learned to be a professional before anyone else in this year's draft class. The former first-team All-Big 12 selection spent this past spring playing for the XFL's St. Louis Battlehawks.
The fifth-round safety matured in the now-defunct league, and he always had the physical tools to be an NFL defensive back.
"From Day 1, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the guy that's 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, that runs 4.5 and is aggressive and smart and tough to play in the NFL," former Battlehawks defensive backs coach Tim Lewis said, per the Charlotte Observer's Alaina Getzenberg.
The Panthers brought Tre Boston back, signed Juston Burris and drafted Jeremy Chinn in the second round. Despite Carolina's depth, Robinson is a gifted back-line defender capable of helping in sub-packages and special teams.
Chicago Bears: CB Kindle Vildor
The Chicago Bears desperately needed to add quality cornerback depth behind Kyle Fuller and Buster Skrine. The team invested second- and fifth-round draft picks in Utah's Jaylon Johnson and Georgia Southern's Kindle Vildor, respectively.
Johnson has a chance to start opposite Fuller, while Vildor brings a coveted mentality.
"We stress confidence when we talk about the corner position," general manager Ryan Pace told reporters. "And [Vildor] definitely has that confidence and that playing demeanor that we look for. A skill set that also translates well to special teams, which is going to be important especially in the early part of his development."
The two-time first-team All-Sun Belt performer will have to beat out a few veterans for reps, but his man-coverage and ball skills should fit favorably in the Bears' defensive scheme.
Cincinnati Bengals: LB Akeem Davis-Gaither
The Cincinnati Bengals drafted their future middle and weak-side linebacker combo in back-to-back rounds with Logan Wilson in the third frame and Akeem Davis-Gaither in the fourth.
Josh Bynes, Germaine Pratt and even Shawn Williams, if he converts to linebacker, provide veteran options, though the Bengals clearly made the position a priority after they drafted quarterback Joe Burrow and wide receiver Tee Higgins.
Davis-Gaither is an ideal sub-package linebacker. The undersized defender (6'1", 224 lbs) is comfortable dropping into space with enough athleticism to match up with targets. Plus, he's adept rushing the passer when called upon to do so.
Today's NFL leans toward positionless defenders capable of affecting multiple phases. Davis-Gaither might not be an immediate starter, but he can step in from day one and impact games.
Cleveland Browns: TE Harrison Bryant
The Cleveland Browns will likely use their tight ends as much or more than any other offense next season.
General manager Andrew Berry signed Austin Hooper to go along with 2017 first-round pick David Njoku. On top of that, he drafted the reigning John Mackey Award winner, Harrison Bryant, in this year's fourth round.
Bryant led all FBS tight ends in 2019 with 65 receptions for 1,004 yards. According to Pro Football Focus, 730 of those yards came while working from the slot.
"I really think there is a way to get all these guys on the field, sometimes at the same time and sometimes not," head coach Kevin Stefanski told reporters. "I just think there is versatility in that position. I think being able to move guys around the formation is a very big deal."
Dallas Cowboys: DT Neville Gallimore
The Dallas Cowboys rebuilt their defensive interior by signing veterans Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe. Both are quality players, but they'll be 30 or older this season.
Owner Jerry Jones capitalized on Neville Gallimore's slide into the third round to provide the position with some youth and extra athleticism.
"He's exactly what you're looking for," head coach Mike McCarthy said, per the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Clarence E. Hill Jr. "The more you can do, the more opportunities you put yourself in position for. The fact he can play multiple techniques is something that you look for. It's about rotation."
The 6'2", 304-pound Gallimore primarily served as a 1-technique at Oklahoma. He can certainly remain in said role behind Poe and then enter games as a sub-package pass-rusher. The prospect also played 3-, 4- and 5-technique, which creates more flexibility within the rotation.
Denver Broncos: TE Albert Okwuegbunam
The Denver Broncos made Drew Lock's development a point of emphasis by acquiring multiple skill-position performers. The additions of Melvin Gordon, Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler to work alongside Courtland Sutton and last year's first-round pick, Noah Fant, give Denver an outstanding young cast of playmakers.
General manager John Elway also drafted Lock's collegiate security blanket, tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, in this year's fourth round.
The two-time All-SEC performer is more receiver than tight end. The 258-pound target's 4.49-second 40-yard-dash speed adds a different dynamic when working from the slot or wing. He and Fant can create numerous mismatches out of 11 personnel against base defenses.
"It's going to put a lot of strain on the corners and safeties," Okwuegbunam told reporters. "They can't favor one side of the field. We can hit them everywhere."
Detroit Lions: OL Logan Stenberg
The Detroit Lions could realistically have a pair of rookies starting at guard this fall.
Jonah Jackson, who the organization drafted with this year's 75th overall pick, likely has the inside track at one spot. The path could be a little more difficult for fourth-round pick Logan Stenberg, but the Lions seem to adore the 6'6", 317-pound blocker's mentality.
"I love his attitude," general manager Bob Quinn said, per MLive.com's Kyle Meinke. "I told him that when we drafted him, when I got him on the phone. I said, 'I love the attitude you play with. I love the aggressiveness you play with.'"
Stenberg isn't a technician, but he's more than willing to bury his opponent on every single play. That kind of nastiness was previously missing from the Lions' front.
Green Bay Packers: LB Kamal Martin
Expect Kamal Martin, a fifth-round rookie, to start for the Green Bay Packers at some point this fall, and the reasons are twofold.
First, the spot next to Christian Kirksey is available for anyone to take. Martin will compete with Oren Burks, Curtis Bolton and Ty Summers for the job.
He continually improved at linebacker for the Minnesota Golden Gophers after converting from quarterback. Unfortunately, he suffered a knee injury during his final season on campus, which hurt his draft standing.
Another injury could provide an opportunity, though. Kirksey is now the Packers' veteran leader among the team's inside linebackers. However, he played in only nine games the last two seasons.
Martin may not outright win a starting job, but one could become available if Kirksey can't stay healthy.
Houston Texans: CB John Reid
John Reid, who the Houston Texans selected in the fourth round, is a tailor-made NFL nickel corner.
"They said that they like the way that I play, the way that I transition in and out of my breaks and they like how polished my technique is," Reid said of his conversations with Texans brass, per 247Sports' Sean Fitz.
The four-year starter is considered undersized (5'10", 187 lbs), but he's a tenacious defender with excellent lower-body fluidity. That allows him to work through traffic and take away shorter routes. He then tested better than expected at the NFL combine with a 4.49-second 40-yard dash and outstanding change-of-direction numbers.
Houston re-signed Vernon Hargreaves III to a one-year deal this offseason. The 2016 11th overall pick primarily covered the slot last season, but Reid could easily claim the role.
Indianapolis Colts: S Julian Blackmon
The Indianapolis Colts remain unsettled at safety because of Malik Hooker's uncertain standing with the organization and Khari Willis likely getting pushed into a full-time starting role.
General manager Chris Ballard hedged his bet by selecting Utah's Julian Blackmon with the 85th overall pick. He would have been drafted much earlier if he hadn't suffered a torn ACL during the Pac-12 Championship Game. He may not be ready for the start of the regular season, but the defensive back fits nicely into the Colts' plans.
The 2018 second-team all-conference selection is a converted corner with excellent ball skills. As such, Indianapolis expects to use him all over the field even if he doesn't eventually claim a starting spot.
"He can play on a tight end, he can potentially play on a bigger type receiver, he can play in the deep part of the field and he can drop down into the box and play the run," defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus told reporters.
Jacksonville Jaguars: WR Collin Johnson
Collin Johnson looked like a future first-round pick at one point during his collegiate career, but an underwhelming final season on campus made his draft stock plummet all the way to the fifth round.
Even so, expectations are still high for the Jacksonville Jaguars rookie.
"We are looking for him to come in here and perform," head coach Doug Marrone said, per the Florida Times-Union's John Reid. "He has an opportunity to win a job, has a chance to be a good playmaker when you look at his catch radius."
No, Johnson wasn't the only wide receiver Jacksonville drafted. Laviska Shenault Jr. came off the board three rounds earlier.
However, Johnson provides a different skill set than anyone else currently on the roster. At 6'6", he's an excellent jump-ball target down the field or in the red zone.
Kansas City Chiefs: S L'Jarius Sneed
The Kansas City Chiefs could get corner help from someone who might be a surprise entrant into the defense's rotation.
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo told reporters that Kansas City's coaching staff sees fourth-round pick L'Jarius Sneed as a cornerback.
"I was very impressed with his tape with regards to all of the things that he did," Spagnuolo said.
"He played corner and he's a big corner, he played some nickel, he covered the slot receivers and they actually played him at safety."
The 6'0" defensive back converted from corner to safety during his final season on campus and finished second on the Louisiana Tech roster with 73 total tackles.
Kansas City has some uncertainty at the position, especially since Bashaud Breeland's status is unclear. Sneed could start at outside corner if Breeland misses any time.
Las Vegas Raiders: OG John Simpson
The second the Las Vegas Raiders chose Clemson guard John Simpson with the 109th overall pick, rumors bubbled to the surface: Will the rookie replace Gabe Jackson at right guard?
Jackson's availability via trade has been known since before the start of the new league year.
Currently, the six-year veteran remains on the Raiders roster. But if he's moved before or during the season, Simpson is a ready-made interior blocker.
Like Jackson, the 321-pound rookie blocker excels at the point of attack. The two-year collegiate starter may not be the most nimble interior lineman, but he's more than capable of executing simple zone steps and getting to the second level.
In fact, the Raiders made sure they could draft Simpson by trading up in the fourth round to acquire his services.
Los Angeles Chargers: WR Joe Reed
The Los Angeles Chargers will find ways to utilize fifth-round pick Joe Reed.
"He can do a lot of things for us," general manager Tom Telesco said, per the Los Angeles Times' Jeff Miller. "So we'll get him in here and see where he fits."
Head coach Anthony Lynn called Reed a "multipurpose threat."
If the Chargers are truly creative, the 2019 Jet Award winner can come in and serve in a similar role as Cordarrelle Patterson, Percy Harvin or Josh Cribbs. He may never be a full-time wide receiver, yet he can impact a game through a variety of roles.
During his four seasons with the Virginia Cavaliers, Reed accumulated 1,465 receiving yards, 172 rushing yards, 3,042 kick return yards and 22 total touchdowns, including five on special teams.
Los Angeles Rams: S Terrell Burgess
Terrell Burgess is listed as a safety, but he's really a nickel corner in disguise.
The Los Angeles Rams plan to utilize numerous disguised coverages thanks to the versatility found among the group of Burgess, John Johnson III and Taylor Rapp.
"Feel really good about those guys, but there's a lot of different personnel groupings you can activate defensively where you're playing with three safeties," head coach Sean McVay told reporters. "When you've got a guy that can play safety or that nickel spot based on his athleticism, it's a really exciting thing to be adding to that group."
Big nickel could essentially become the Rams' base defensive package. This year's 104th overall pick provides the flexibility necessary to limit constant substitutions.
The Rams, in turn, will be less predictable with their defensive approach.
Miami Dolphins: EDGE Curtis Weaver
NFL franchises build certain expectations of how a player should look or test at every position. Not every individual will satisfy those standards.
Curtis Weaver is one of those prospects. He's not the biggest or longest edge-rusher (6'2", 265 lbs), and his physique isn't chiseled. He simply knows how to rush the passer.
"He can beat you with speed; he's deceivingly slippery," Boise State defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding told the Miami Herald's Barry Jackson. "He's loose in his hips and shoulders and can get around on a blocker. He also has the ability to spin and counter inside, which he has done a nice job of honing those techniques."
The two-time first-team All-Mountain West performer amassed 47.5 tackles for loss and 34 sacks in three seasons. If he continues to perform, the Dolphins will find ways to get the fifth-round pick on the field.
Minnesota Vikings: DT James Lynch
To paraphrase Liam Neeson's famous Taken quote, James Lynch has a very particular set of skills. Skills he acquired during his collegiate career. Skills that make him a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks.
The 289-pound fourth-round pick may never be an every-down defender since he isn't the most explosive or overwhelming prospect. But his disruptive capabilities are extremely valuable.
According to Pro Football Focus, Lynch led all draft-eligible players last season with 70 total pressures. His 13.5 sacks set a Baylor record.
The 2019 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year could find himself in an interesting position if his skill set shows up early in his career. The Vikings aren't entirely set at 3-technique. Lynch or any other young player could unseat Shamar Stephen and play alongside Michael Pierce.
New England Patriots: TE Devin Asiasi
The New England Patriots went from having arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history on their roster to one of the worst position groups in the league.
Benjamin Watson, who turned 39 last season, led the group with 17 receptions for 173 yards.
If the Patriots are going to have any success without Tom Brady in the lineup, the team's tight ends must become vital cogs in the scheme and provide Jarrett Stidham with reliable underneath targets.
New England responded by trading up to the 91st overall pick and selecting UCLA tight end Devin Asiasi. The 6'3", 257-pound target should be the perfect security blanket for a first-time starting quarterback. According to Pro Football Focus, 35 of his 44 receptions last season went for a first down.
New Orleans Saints: TE Adam Trautman
The New Orleans Saints selected four prospects during this year's entry draft. Four.
First- and second-round picks Cesar Ruiz and Zack Baun should be instant impact performers. Seventh-round pick Tommy Stevens looks like Taysom Hill's long-term replacement as backup quarterback/offensive weapon.
Adam Trautman is the only option as a surprise rookie gem, but he's a good choice nonetheless.
A few standouts existed in a weak overall tight end class, and Trautman was one of them. The FCS product brings a key component as a true Y-tight end.
"For a small-college player, we feel like he's got real good in-line strength," head coach Sean Payton told reporters. "... So for someone who played at a smaller level, you see a dominant player and we see him as someone that can help us as an in-line tight end."
New York Giants: OL Shane Lemieux
Spencer Pulley is the New York Giants' projected starting center, but he's not guaranteed a spot despite Jon Halapio's departure.
Incoming fifth-round pick Shane Lemieux could snag a starting role if he undergoes a smooth transition from guard.
"He's a guy that's going to have interior swing value," Giants head coach Joe Judge said, per NJ.com's Matt Lombardo. "We're going to cross-train him guard and center. It's going to be something he has been working on out at Oregon, and we're going to keep on building with that, as well."
Lemieux started 52 consecutive games at left guard for the Oregon Ducks. The transition might be difficult.
But the Giants wanted to revamp their offensive line and did so with multiple draft selections. Each will compete to play sooner rather than later.
New York Jets: CB Bryce Hall
Fifth-round pick Bryce Hall could be thrust into the New York Jets' lineup due to some uncertainty in the secondary after he recovers from last year's season-ending injury.
Hall looked like a future first-round lock after a 2018 campaign in which the second-team All-American led the nation with 23 forced incompletions, per Pro Football Focus. He decided to return for his senior season, though.
In doing so, his draft status took a major hit when the 22-year-old suffered a broken fibula, torn deltoid ligaments and dislocated ankle.
Hall told the Roanoke Times' Doug Doughty he's on track to return for the start of training camp.
When fully healthy, he has the skill set to immediately crack the Jets' cornerback rotation and play alongside Pierre Desir, Blessuan Austin, Arthur Maulet and Brian Poole.
Philadelphia Eagles: S K'Von Wallace
Isaiah Simmons overshadowed K'Von Wallace during their time together with the Clemson Tigers. Simmons became a top-10 draft pick, while Wallace fell to the fourth round. But the latter landed in an ideal situation with the Philadelphia Eagles, who should love his mentality.
Wallace graded first among draft-eligible safeties in coverage since 2017, per Pro Football Focus. The 5'11", 206-pound defensive back is also an excellent stick tackler. The question is whether he has the fluidity to be the same caliber of player at the professional level.
Still, the Eagles could use Wallace as a big nickel defender, especially near the line of scrimmage. He might even remind some of former Eagles great Brian Dawkins. The rookie actually roomed with Brian Dawkins Jr. at Clemson.
Jalen Mills and Will Parks will play under one-year deals. Wallace has a chance to steal a starting spot.
Pittsburgh Steelers: OG Kevin Dotson
Ramon Foster started 145 games for the Pittsburgh Steelers during his 11-year career before retiring this offseason.
In response, the Steelers signed veteran Stefen Wisniewski to take over at left guard, though fourth-round prospect Kevin Dotson will be provided a chance to win the job.
"[Dotson] brings flexibility to the room and gives us options," offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett told reporters. "At the end of the day, the best five will start. I think this guy is realistically that guy that can go in and compete for the spot."
Pro Football Focus graded the 6'4", 321-pound bulldozer as the best run-blocking guard in the class. The rookie can add another level of physicality to Pittsburgh's offensive interior, especially for an aging unit. Alejandro Villanueva, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro are each 30 or older.
San Francisco 49ers: OL Colton McKivitz
Offensive line depth is absolutely vital to team success. Last season, the San Francisco 49ers had to lean on backups Ben Garland, Justin Skule and Daniel Brunskill due to injuries.
All three return, but the 49ers' front looks a little different now. Joe Staley retired. Enter Trent Williams. Mike Person is no longer with the team, either.
However, Williams hasn't started a full 16-game slate since 2013. Right tackle Mike McGlinchey missed four games last season due to a knee injury. Center Weston Richburg is still recovering from a torn patellar tendon.
Fifth-round pick Colton McKivitz offers versatility as depth at multiple positions. He started at both tackle spots during his collegiate career and played some guard at the Senior Bowl.
Seattle Seahawks: EDGE Alton Robinson
The Seattle Seahawks have tried to infuse their defense with pass-rushers for two years now.
Last year, the team acquired Jadeveon Clowney, Ziggy Ansah and L.J. Collier. This year, general manager John Schneider signed Bruce Irvin and Benson Mayowa, and then he drafted Darrell Taylor and Alton Robinson.
Taylor, who the organization selected in the second round, will be a big part of the defensive line rotation. Robinson has the same potential.
"There's no way he would have made it out of the third round [if he declared a year earlier]," an anonymous scout told NBC Sports Northwest's Joe Fann of Robinson.
The fifth-round pick didn't look as explosive in 2019, but he tested better than expected at the combine and knows how to play in an opponent's backfield (19 career sacks and 32 tackles for loss).
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: WR Tyler Johnson
Tom Brady has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to his offensive weapons. Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate are more than enough to keep opposing defensive coordinators up at night.
Yet the Buccaneers landed one of the draft class' best wide receiver prospects, Minnesota's Tyler Johnson, in—checks notes—the fifth round.
"I was just shaking waiting on that one," head coach Bruce Arians said, per the Tampa Bay Times' Rick Stroud. "I actually sat here and watched that game [the Outback Bowl] here in Tampa with my son and said, 'I've got to get this guy.' I mean, it was like we really wanted him."
Johnson isn't the biggest or fastest target. He just gets open and catches the football. Over the last two seasons, the two-time first-team All-Big Ten performer caught 164 passes for 2,487 yards and 25 touchdowns.
The rookie should immediately take over the slot.
Tennessee Titans: RB Darrynton Evans
Derrick Henry is the NFL's reigning rushing champion and the league's top workhorse back. At the same time, he doesn't carry the entire load.
Dion Lewis managed 293 combined touches over the last two seasons. The veteran change-of-pace back signed a free-agent deal with the New York Giants this offseason, though.
As a result, Tennessee invested a third-round pick in Appalachian State running back Darrynton Evans.
"He's got make-miss [ability], he gets through a hole quick, and he has explosive speed," Titans general manager Jon Robinson told reporters. " … He is a speed back, catches out of the backfield, has some return value."
Henry will remain the offensive focal point, but Evans gives the team another home-run threat in the backfield.
Washington Redskins: OT Saahdiq Charles
The Washington Redskins finally traded Trent Williams, which led to the organization investing a fourth-round draft pick in the enigmatic Saahdiq Charles.
Charles has everything a team could want in a left tackle prospect from a physical perspective. But his attitude came into question throughout the predraft process.
Washington's brass knows Charles is a boom-or-bust prospect. The franchise could have landed an elite blindside protector at a heavily discounted price. As such, he'll get a shot to start straight out of the gates.
"This is a guy that's going to compete," head coach Ron Rivera said of Charles, per the Washington Times' Matthew Paras. "He's going to compete on the left side, left tackle and left guard for us. He's a guy that has a chance to contribute early on, and quite frankly, because we’re starting over, we're starting from the beginning, everything is on the table."