Updated NFL Rookie Report for All 32 First-Round Picks
The 2014 NFL rookie class has yet to take the field for any game action, but as the league’s spring workout season nears its close, each draft pick has had the opportunity to learn from his new team and hopefully, impress it.
As all rookies are expected to be practicing with their teams within weeks of the draft—on a timetable that was even shorter this year, thanks to the draft being pushed back to May—they are forced to acclimate rapidly.
For first-round picks, who will be expected to make significant contributions to their teams in short order, adapting quickly is especially important.
Not all learning opportunities have been created equal for this year’s rookie class thus far. Some have been kept off the field by injuries. Others have had to stay away from their teams altogether thanks to the perplexing NFL rule that does not allow rookies to attend offseason workouts (with the exception of rookie minicamps) until their respective universities hold their graduations.
Nonetheless, it’s already started to become clearer how each of this year’s 32 first-round picks could fit in with the NFL franchises that drafted them.
1. Jadeveon Clowney, OLB, Houston Texans
As the top pick in this year’s draft, Houston Texans outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney is a likely candidate for this year’s Defensive Rookie of the Year.
To uphold that status, he will have to overcome injury. The star defensive prospect from South Carolina underwent sports hernia surgery Thursday, according to ESPN.com’s Tania Ganguli.
The surgery isn’t likely to be a major setback. Texans coach Bill O’Brien said he expects Clowney to be ready for training camp, according to Ganguli. In the video above, Bleacher Report Sports Medicine Lead Writer Will Carroll said he doesn’t think the Texans should be overly concerned about the issue, but noted that Clowney has had a lingering groin issue that dates back to South Carolina’s pro day.
Given that the Texans are expecting Clowney to make a tough transition from playing defensive end in a 4-3 to lining up at outside linebacker in their 3-4 defensive scheme, any missed time will affect the rookie’s ability to learn the nuances of his new position before the regular season begins.
That said, Clowney should be an immediate difference-maker as long as he is fully healthy when the games begin. Possessing physical traits that remain largely unmatched even in the NFL, he will be able to overwhelm many of his opponents on the edge, even if he is still unpolished as a linebacker in space.
2. Greg Robinson, LG, St. Louis Rams
No player had been drafted in the top five, let alone in the top two, to begin his career as an offensive guard since the Arizona Cardinals drafted Texas left tackle Leonard Davis with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2001 NFL draft and moved him inside.
That’s what the St. Louis Rams are doing, 13 years later, with this year’s No. 2 selection, Greg Robinson. A left tackle at Auburn, the Rams are moving Robinson inside to left guard, where they expect him to play out his rookie season according to Bleacher Report’s Dan Pompei.
“The Rams want to get their best five on the field, and in order to do that they need to play Jake Long at left tackle and Joe Barksdale at right tackle,” Pompei wrote earlier this month. “Robinson actually might be more valuable at guard than tackle, because the Rams believe that in the physical NFC West, they need a powerful guard who can win the line of scrimmage and pull to get to the second level.”
Like Davis, who eventually moved to offensive tackle for three seasons in Arizona before moving back to guard with the Dallas Cowboys, Robinson is a massive, overpowering offensive lineman who should be able to dominate his opponents inside. A bulldozing run-blocker who stands 6’5” and 332 pounds yet also runs a 4.92-second 40-yard dash, he could immediately emerge as one of the NFL’s best interior offensive linemen.
All of that said, the Rams should see Robinson as their eventual successor to Jake Long at left tackle, still considered to be the premier position on an NFL offensive line. While he needs to develop as a pass protector, he is far more athletic and agile than Davis ever was, and he should be to take on that capacity when it becomes his.
3. Blake Bortles, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars
In the immediate aftermath of selecting Blake Bortles with the No. 3 overall pick, the Jacksonville Jaguars were steadfast in their assertions that their plan was to give the Central Florida signal-caller a year to develop behind incumbent starter Chad Henne.
Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley reiterated that sentiment in an interview with NFL Network’s NFL Total Access, stating that the team was “comfortable with (Henne) coming back with another year in the system.”
Despite those early proclamations, there’s reason to believe Bortles might already be making Jacksonville’s brain trust reconsider that plan. Although he has worked as the backup thus far in organized team activities, Bradley said last week that “somewhere down the line,” Bortles will start to take some practice repetitions with the first-team offense, according to Alfie Crow of Big Cat Country.
If Bortles continues to be sharp in practices, which he has been thus far, according to Ryan O’Halloran of The Florida Times-Union, there’s no reason he shouldn’t get a real shot at seizing the quarterback job. Even if the Jaguars aren’t ready to start Bortles yet, he’s undoubtedly viewed as the future of the team’s franchise, which makes Henne—a quarterback who has never thrown more touchdowns than interceptions in a season—a sitting duck.
4. Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo Bills
There might not be any team that has higher hopes for its first-round pick than the Buffalo Bills do for Sammy Watkins. In trading their first- and fourth-round selections in next year’s draft to move up just five spots to draft the Clemson wide receiver, the Bills made it clear that they think Watkins can make a big difference in the team’s quest to end its 14-year playoff drought.
An impressive athlete with great vertical speed and open-field agility, Watkins should immediately emerge as one of the top playmakers on Buffalo’s offense. He immediately stood out in the team’s rookie minicamp; according to John Wawrow of The Associated Press, “there was no ball that escaped Watkins' grasp” during his three-day debut.
In OTAs, however, Watkins has had some growing pains, according to ESPN’s Mike Rodak.
His catch radius and precision with his footwork are unmatched by any other receiver on the roster. Yet as OTAs progressed, Watkins reminded us that he's still a rookie. The mental part of the game -- lining up after the huddle, reading defenses, etc. -- just wasn't at the same level as some of his teammates, who needed to direct Watkins to the right spot at times. Again, he's new, so that's not out of the ordinary. But if there was one red flag to be had from Watkins' OTAs, it was his drops this week.
Like Rodak said, mental hiccups are to be expected from any rookie during his first few weeks of practice, so his up-and-down performance in offseason workouts thus far isn’t much reason for concern.
His inconsistency is a good reminder, nonetheless, that for as much fawning as the Bills and their fans have had over their new offensive playmaker, he’s still a newbie to the NFL. He should make an instant difference on the Bills offense, and Buffalo should look to get the ball in his hands as much as possible, but he still must improve quickly to meet the sky-high expectations many have for him.
5. Khalil Mack, OLB/DE, Oakland Raiders
The biggest lingering question with Oakland Raiders edge-defender Khalil Mack, who played in a 3-4 defense at the University at Buffalo, is whether he will end up as an outside linebacker or defensive end in Oakland’s 4-3 defense.
What’s the most likely answer to that question? Both. Possessing the size, strength and pass-rushing ability to play defensive end, but also the movement skills and coverage ability to play in space as a linebacker, Mack can be a movable chess piece for the Raiders defense.
"My role is very, very versatile," Mack said in an interview with SB Nation, according to Silver and Black Pride’s Levi Damien. “There's a lot of different things they want to put me in. I'm pretty much playing a linebacker role but even then, there's just so many things."
In the Raiders base defense, Mack projects as the team’s starting strong-side linebacker, as that is where he has lined up in OTAs, according to Damien. But as Mack is likely to also be used as a defensive end in pass-rushing situations, his overall role should be much like that of the Denver Broncos’ superstar hybrid edge defender, Von Miller.
"He'll have his hand on the ground some, too. I envision his role being very similar to what we did with Von Miller," Raiders head coach and former Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said following the draft, according to Damien.
6. Jake Matthews, OT, Atlanta Falcons
There’s not much mystery or intrigue in regards to what Jake Matthews will be for the Atlanta Falcons in 2014. A polished offensive lineman with the skill set to step in and thrive immediately, Matthews will be the Falcons’ starting right tackle in 2014.
Having played on the right side for the first three years of his Texas A&M career, Matthews shouldn’t have much difficulty, given his sound all-around technique and impressive physical traits, settling into a starting role right away.
Thus far, every review Matthews has received has been the equivalent of Siskel and Ebert’s “Two Thumbs Up.”
During rookie minicamp, Falcons coach Mike Smith said Matthews is “everything we anticipated he's going to be," according to Craig Sager Jr. of Sporting News. Following one practice of OTAs, ESPN.com’s Vaughn McClure said Matthews “showed great quickness throughout the day and looked more like a veteran next to the other four offensive linemen.”
Every rookie season comes with its share of ups and downs, but if there’s one player who’s a safe bet to find success from day one, it’s Matthews, the son of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews.
7. Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Set to become an immediate starter at wide receiver opposite Vincent Jackson, No. 7 overall pick Mike Evans should be a key player for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense in 2014. A 6’5”, 231-pound receiver with outstanding athleticism for his size, he is a reliable, big-play target who can consistently create mismatches with defensive backs.
Evans’ physical traits are going to make him tough for any opponent to stop, but he'll have to overcome a slow start to his preparation for the season. According to Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times, Evans missed time in OTAs due to a hamstring injury and was limited upon his return for the team’s mandatory minicamp.
“He’s missed a lot,” Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith said of Evans in regards to his injury, according to Stroud. “There’s no other way to sugar coat it.''
Having to play catch-up could affect Evans’ ability to realize his potential right off the bat. For as good as he is in jump-ball situations, and although he is better at extending plays in the open field than most players his size, the Texas A&M product is a somewhat unpolished route runner who would certainly have benefited from a full set of spring workouts.
Regardless of his setback, Evans should be in the starting lineup in Week 1 as long as he is then fully healthy. Beyond Jackson and Evans, the Buccaneers simply don’t have any other starting-caliber wide receivers on the roster.
8. Justin Gilbert, CB, Cleveland Browns
Despite being the No. 8 overall selection in this year’s draft, Justin Gilbert has seemingly been the Cleveland Browns’ forgotten first-round pick (more on that to come).
But that’s not to say that Gilbert isn’t already making an impression on Cleveland’s coaching staff. Specifically, Browns defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley has been pleased with Gilbert’s attitude thus far in offseason workouts, according to Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal.
“He’s confident but not cocky,” Hafley said. “He’s eager to learn. He’s not been outspoken. He’s taking it all in stride, letting the older guys help him and bring him along. He’s an impressive guy.”
The Browns certainly would not have used a top-10 selection to draft Gilbert if they didn’t expect him to immediately establish himself as a starter, but he still has work to do to get there. According to Ulrich, incumbent starting cornerback Buster Skrine has continued to work with the first-team defense opposite Joe Haden in spring workouts, while Gilbert has been taking second-team repetitions.
Browns coach Mike Pettine, according to Ulrich, said that Gilbert is “on the learning curve.”
He’s kind of put himself in some situations where he’s testing his ability to make up [ground against receivers]. I think a lot of corners — I don’t want to say play scared — but they’ll stay on top, and they get beat underneath a lot. I think the elite guys can let a guy get slightly past them, but know with their make-up speed and their length that they can still make a play on the ball. I think that’s what this time is for. [He’s] kind of testing his limits and getting used to the speed of the NFL game and NFL receivers.
Cleveland has always believed that rookies must earn their way into the lineup, and Gilbert has been no exception. That said, he has all the tools to be an excellent cornerback who can take advantage of playmaking opportunities opposite Haden. He is going to “get every opportunity to win” the team’s No. 2 cornerback spot, defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil told Ulrich, and it’s likely he’ll take advantage.
9. Anthony Barr, OLB, Minnesota Vikings
Anthony Barr has continued to make great progress in his life in the past month, as he has remained at UCLA to finish a degree in sociology, according to ESPN’s Ben Goessling. Unfortunately for Barr, this also means that he had to miss all of the Minnesota Vikings’ OTAs.
"It kind of sucks," Barr told Goessling. "I want to be out there, but I'm not allowed to. I wish it was my decision."
While Barr should never regret being able to graduate from college, it’s easy to understand why he rues the NFL rule that has kept him away from his team. When he steps on the field this week for Minnesota’s mandatory minicamp, he will have to play catch-up after missing valuable practice time.
That could have a significant effect on Barr, who is among the rawest talents in this year’s class of first-round picks. Having played only two years of defense at UCLA, he needs as many opportunities as possible to continue to improve upon his technical skills.
Barr is expected to play strong-side linebacker in Minnesota, where he should have a similar role to that which James Harrison had for the Cincinnati Bengals, whose defense was coordinated by new Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, last year. He has the athletic gifts and pass-rushing ability to develop into an excellent “Sam” in the NFL, but he needs to become a sounder tackler in space and more fluid in coverage.
10. Eric Ebron, TE, Detroit Lions
Physically, Eric Ebron has all the tools to become the Detroit Lions’ version of Jimmy Graham. Lions offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, who was an assistant coach for the New Orleans Saints for seven years before joining the Lions this offseason, believes Detroit’s 6’4”, 250-pound, athletic tight end can play a similar role to New Orleans’ star offensive playmaker.
“They are not exactly the same players but they are both very athletic guys,” Lombardi said after the draft, according to Tim Twentyman of DetroitLions.com. “Jimmy has a little bit more length while Eric has a little more quickness.
“There are some things that we did with Jimmy in New Orleans that we will be able to do with Eric and maybe some things we can do with Eric that we didn’t do with Jimmy,” Lombardi added. “They are both unique but (Ebron) is going to have a pretty big role in what we plan on doing.”
Ebron could quickly become a centerpiece of Detroit’s offense, but he has to learn its playbook first. The rookie has admitted, according to Justin Rogers of MLive.com, that he has struggled with that part of the process.
"I've had some terrible days. I've had some great days,” Ebron said. "It's all concepts. Just remembering is the hardest part."
As Rogers noted, Detroit’s new offense “isn't anything like the spread attack Ebron played in during his days at the University of North Carolina.” He has the skill set to be a go-to target for the Lions offense right off the bat, but he must overcome the early mental hurdles.
11. Taylor Lewan, OT, Tennessee Titans
After signing right tackle Michael Oher to a four-year contract earlier in the offseason, the Tennessee Titans wouldn’t have drafted Taylor Lewan with the No. 11 overall pick if they didn’t see him as their left tackle of the future. To be their left tackle of the present, he’s going to have to beat out Michael Roos, one of the league’s most reliable veterans at the position.
While the Michigan product has received practice work on both sides of the offensive line, Lewan has worked mostly at left tackle and feels most comfortable at that position, according to Nick Baumgardner of MLive.com. Possessing a rare combination of size (6’7”, 309 lbs), athleticism and power, Lewan has the potential to develop into an elite NFL offensive lineman.
At this point, however, Lewan should be considered an underdog to win that job as a rookie. While he needs experience to refine his pass-blocking technique, Roos is a very good blind-side protector who isn’t going to step aside for the young gun.
"As far as I know it's my job,” Roos said during OTAs, according to John Glennon of The Tennessean. “So until I'm told otherwise I'm not going to do anything different and I'm here."
As Roos is entering the final year of his contract, the door will open for Lewan to start at left tackle in 2015. The Titans could give Lewan a year to develop on the bench, but it’s also possible they could move him, for one year, to right tackle or guard in order to get him on the field.
“This season, it is possible Lewan will beat out Oher. And it is possible he will be bumped inside to guard,” B/R’s Dan Pompei wrote last week. “The team feels, however, he is ready to play and wants to get him on the field somewhere.”
12. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants
When Odell Beckham Jr. has been healthy in offseason workouts, it’s been evident that the New York Giants plan to make him an integral part of their offense in 2014. According to Jordan Ranaan of NJ.com, the Giants have been using “three wide receivers on almost every play” in OTAs, which should open up a spot for OBJ to start opposite Rueben Randle with veteran Victor Cruz moving inside to the slot.
When he has been on the field, he has been impressive, as Giants running back Rashad Jennings noted.
“He’s got huge hands, strong hands, he’s fast, he’s got flashes like a [Washington Redskins receiver] DeSean Jackson,” Jennings told B/R’s Adam Lefkoe in the above video.
As Jennings suggested, Beckham is an explosive athlete who typically catches everything in his radius and is a crisp route runner. Much like Jackson, who primarily played outside in six seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles despite being only 5’10” and 175 pounds, Beckham will be lining up as New York’s “X” receiver, according to Ranaan.
Getting ready to take a significant role in year one, however, requires practice. The LSU product hasn’t been able to get as much work as the Giants would have liked due to a hamstring strain that has forced him to miss “several of the team’s organized team activities,” Michael Eisen of Giants.com reported.
Beckham has enough skill to overcome his slow start, but if the Giants plan on him being a key player in their offense, they are going to want him back on the field as soon as he is healthy.
13. Aaron Donald, DT, St. Louis Rams
As Aaron Donald prepares for his rookie season, his goal should be to keep carrying the momentum that he brought from his senior year at Pittsburgh to the 2014 Senior Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine.
An explosive interior penetrator who managed 28.5 tackles for loss in his final collegiate season, then went on to a dominant week in Mobile and to running a 4.68-second 40-yard dash at the combine, Donald is expected to be an immediate starter alongside Michael Brockers as the 3-technique defensive tackle in St. Louis’ 4-3 defensive front.
"Aaron Donald, our second first-round pick, is going to be a difference-maker inside," Rams head coach Jeff Fisher told NFL Network earlier this month, according to Nate Latsch of Fox Sports Midwest. Fisher also said Donald is “way ahead [of where most rookies would be] as far as pass rush is concerned with his hand use and things.”
Donald is undersized for his position at 6’1” and 285 pounds, but he has just about everything else in terms of production and physical tools that suggests he should be successful in the NFL.
14. Kyle Fuller, CB, Chicago Bears
Kyle Fuller might not technically be a starter on the Chicago Bears defense this year, but the No. 14 overall pick should see plenty of playing time as a rookie.
The Bears have a great pair of veteran starting cornerbacks in Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman, but Fuller appears to be the No. 3 player at the position on Chicago’s depth chart. According to ESPN.com’s Michael C. Wright, Fuller has been taking Jennings’ place outside in sub packages, in which Jennings moves inside to play the slot.
That’s a plan that should play to the strengths of both cornerbacks. While Jennings is a smaller, quicker player who can take advantage of playmaking opportunities in the slot, Fuller is a bigger, physical defensive back who is well-suited to match up with size receivers on the outside.
Fuller will have to perform well in training camp and the preseason to hold his spot on the depth chart above veteran Kelvin Hayden, but the fundamentally sound rookie from Virginia Tech should be able to win that battle. Furthermore, he is likely to replace Tillman in the starting lineup in 2015, as Tillman is only signed to a one-year contract this season.
15. Ryan Shazier, ILB, Pittsburgh Steelers
How high are the Pittsburgh Steelers on No. 15 overall pick Ryan Shazier? Going against tradition, they’re set to make him the first immediate rookie starter on their defense since Kendrell Bell in 2001.
Traditionally, the Steelers have made rookies wait their turn to play with the first-team defense, but not Shazier. According to Dave Bryan of SteelersDepot.com, Shazier was inserted into the starting lineup as the “mack” linebacker on Pittsburgh’s first day of OTAs.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Shazier is set to play a major role—he offers significantly more range and playmaking ability than Vince Williams, the incumbent starter alongside Lawrence Timmons—but Pittsburgh wouldn’t have him in the lineup if it didn’t think he was ready.
Thus far, he has been in a standout in OTAs—showing plenty of versatility—according to Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
“Shazier also can cover a lot of ground in a little bit of time, one reason why, on a day the Steelers began opening up the bag of tricks that their newly acquired players provided them, Shazier was a younger version of [Steelers safety] Troy Polamalu — lining up everywhere and anywhere,” Robinson wrote.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has also praised the rookie from Ohio State. The signal-caller told Pittsburgh radio station WDVE 102.5, according to ESPN.com’s Scott Brown, that he thinks Shazier is “going to be calling the defense pretty soon."
16. Zack Martin, RG, Dallas Cowboys
Zack Martin made headlines for the wrong reason on the first day of Dallas Cowboys OTAs because he was in on a play on which Sean Lee tore his ACL. But while that unfortunate accident might have sent Dallas’ defensive coaching staff into emergency planning, all seems to be going as expected for Martin himself.
Martin, a 50-game starter at left tackle at Notre Dame, has been plugged in as the team’s starting right guard throughout spring workouts, according to ESPN.com’s Todd Archer.
The new position should be an ideal fit for the No. 16 overall pick. While he lacks the length and athleticism of a prototypical NFL offensive tackle, his in-line strength and consistent hand placement should help him excel on the inside.
One might think that learning one new position would be enough for Martin as a rookie season, but the Cowboys actually have him learning two. Archer says that Martin has been taking some practice repetitions at center, where it seems Dallas wants the rookie to be prepared in case of an injury to second-year starter Travis Frederick.
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett has expressed that he feels Martin has the intelligence to handle learning multiple positions.
“He’s a really, really smart football player,” Garrett told Archer. “The game comes very easily to him from a mental standpoint. He doesn’t seem to struggle with the different looks, playing different spots. There’s a lot of poise and confidence.
“We viewed him as a guy who could potentially play five offensive line spots,” Garrett added.
17. C.J. Mosley, LB, Baltimore Ravens
It is widely expected that C.J. Mosley, viewed as one of the most NFL-ready players in this year’s rookie class, will earn a starting inside linebacker job alongside Daryl Smith on the Baltimore Ravens defense. Thus far, however, he has been working on the second-team unit behind Arthur Brown, according to Ryan Mink of BaltimoreRavens.com.
It’s going to be tough to keep Mosley off the field. A well-rounded player out of Alabama, he is a consistently sound tackler who can fill gaps at the line of scrimmage and won’t get lost in space.
Mosley’s speed and instincts were obvious from the start of rookie minicamp, per Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun. Ravens coach John Harbaugh, according to Wilson, has said that Mosley “seems very comfortable in a defense" and "understands the game very well."
Brown, however, is no slouch. A rangy, athletic linebacker who excels at dropping back into coverage, he actually had many comparable traits as a prospect to Mosley and should absolutely be considered a legitimate challenger for a starting job.
When Mosley gets on the field, whether it be in a first-team or rotational role, expect him to be productive. Just don’t anoint him as the starter before he’s earned the job. Brown has “improved light years from a year ago,” according to Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees (h/t Matt Zenitz of the Carroll County Times), and wouldn’t be taking first-team snaps if Mosley starting ahead of him was a formality.
18. Calvin Pryor, FS, New York Jets
Calvin Pryor missed the New York Jets’ first four OTA practices after having his wisdom teeth removed, but immediately began taking snaps with the first-team defense upon his return, according to Darryl Slater of The Star-Ledger.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that Pryor will start ahead of incumbent Antonio Allen at free safety, but he probably will. While the Jets showed their confidence in Pryor by selecting him at 18th overall, Allen was benched last season in favor of Ed Reed after Reed, clearly well past his prime at 35 years old, had been released by the Houston Texans.
So far, both players appear to be in the running for starting spots, as Pryor and Allen took “most of the reps” with the first-team defense in OTAs, according to Dom Cosentino of NJ.com. But as Slater explains, however, that’s no indictment of veteran strong safety Dawan Landry; Jets coach Rex Ryan said he has been giving Pryor and Allen more snaps in practice because they need more work than Landry.
Pryor’s game tape from Louisville shows some imperfections. He is not a tremendously fluid athlete in coverage and sometimes plays too recklessly. Still, it’s unlikely that the Jets will allow Allen to stand in his way, as long as the rookie shows consistent progress and a firm grasp of the team’s defensive playbook.
19. Ja’Wuan James, RT, Miami Dolphins
The Miami Dolphins are replacing four starting offensive linemen from last year, which makes it almost certain that No. 19 overall pick Ja’Wuan James isn’t going to have to wait for his opportunity to start up front.
After starting all 49 games of his Tennessee career at right tackle, James appears set to reprise that position in Miami. According to James Walker of ESPN.com, James took first-team reps at right tackle in OTAs, and looks to be “on his way to securing the job.”
A 6’6”, 311-pound giant with 35” arms, James has good strength and rarely loses a battle once he gets his hands on his opponent. He is a limited athlete who doesn’t offer much versatility outside of the right tackle position, but he could be a fixture at that spot in Miami for many years to come.
While it can be tough for a rookie offensive tackle to succeed immediately against NFL pass-rushers, James’ four years of experience against SEC competition gives him a leg up. That’s not to say he won’t have growing pains—specifically, he could be troubled by outside speed rushers due to his limited quickness—but it’s likely that what the Dolphins see from James in year one will be close to what they get from him long term.
20. Brandin Cooks, WR, New Orleans Saints
Like Anthony Barr, Brandin Cooks missed his team’s first three weeks of spring workouts because Oregon State was still in session. Like UCLA, Oregon State is one of a number of Pac-12 schools whose academic calendars run on the quarters system, and NFL rules prohibited Cooks from attending more than one minicamp with the New Orleans Saints until the Beavers’ graduation Saturday.
Cooks is able to participate in New Orleans’ last week of OTAs, which began Monday, but missed out on six OTA practices and the team’s mandatory minicamp. This could put him behind in his preparation for the NFL. Unlike Barr, he did not graduate because he declared for the draft as a junior.
In order to keep Cooks up to speed, Saints coach Sean Payton said the coaching staff has been working with the rookie remotely through “online courses,” according to ESPN.com’s Mike Triplett.
"What we've done is set aside an hour, hour-and-a-half each night and go online basically with him and have him go through the tape with our coach," Payton said. "We'll go through practice tape and go through the installation ... He was able to take the [play]book back with him and kind of work through page by page.”
If Cooks has made sufficient progress in learning the playbook while still in Corvallis, the No. 20 overall pick should be able to catch up quickly on the field. The leading receiver in the Football Bowl Subdivision last year, and the fastest receiver at this year’s combine, he has the skill set to excel immediately in the Saints offense.
A small wideout (5’10”, 189 lbs), Cooks should see most of his playing time in the slot. As the Saints have a need in that capacity, and consistently utilize inside receivers in their offensive set, he should be a perfect fit in New Orleans.
21. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, FS, Green Bay Packers
Green Bay Packers fans will be glad to see someone other than M.D. Jennings, who was often a liability in the team’s secondary this past season, starting at free safety this year. Seemingly the most likely replacement would be Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who the Packers drafted with the No. 21 overall pick, but not necessarily.
A big, rangy athlete who can be a physical enforcer but also has center-field coverage skills, Clinton-Dix has all the tools to develop into a very good NFL free safety. That said, the Packers aren’t going to hand him the job unless he earns it.
In an interview with B/R’s Adam Lefkoe (see video above), Wes Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette said that Clinton-Dix was Green Bay’s second-team free safety at OTAs behind second-year defensive back Micah Hyde.
“I don’t know if there’s going to be one bona fide starter there,” Hodkiewicz said. “I could see them using both interchangeably.”
As Hodkiewicz also noted, however, the Packers have not had any rookies working with first-team units in spring workouts. That could mean it’s only a matter of time before Clinton-Dix overtakes Hyde, who is a good player but more naturally suited to play slot cornerback like he did as a rookie, on the depth chart.
Green Bay might be bringing Clinton-Dix along slowly, as it is with all of its rookies, but it’s likely the Alabama product will make an impact in one way or another in his first season.
22. Johnny Manziel, QB, Cleveland Browns
While you’re probably going through this slideshow looking for updates and analysis on rookies you haven’t heard much about in the past month, you’ve probably already heard more than enough about Johnny Manziel, the enigmatic quarterback selected by the Cleveland Browns with the No. 22 overall pick.
Most rookies are assumed, perhaps inaccurately, to be going quietly about their business as they prepare for their first seasons in the NFL. The same cannot be said for Manziel, who seemingly generates headlines any time his face shows up on Instagram.
On the field, however, not much has changed. The Browns have remained adamant that Brian Hoyer, a sixth-year quarterback who started three games last year before tearing his ACL, would be the starter over Manziel if the season began today.
Browns coach Mike Pettine said last week after the team’s mandatory minicamp that Hoyer “will be No. 1” when the team puts its depth chart together, according to Mary Kay Cabot of The Plain Dealer.
“Brian is securely ahead of him right now, but we will compete and we will decide,” Pettine said.
Pettine added that Hoyer’s lead is not “insurmountable,” and it shouldn’t be, as Manziel brings special playmaking potential to the Browns offense from Texas A&M. If the Browns truly believed Hoyer were a long-term quarterback option, they wouldn’t have traded up in the first round to select Manziel.
Manziel is already viewed as the face of the franchise, whether the Browns like it or not. While the team’s brain trust seems legitimately ready to start Hoyer in Week 1, it’s only a matter of time before Johnny Football gets his shot to play.
23. Dee Ford, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs
At first glance, it appears no rookie has a tougher road to getting on the field than Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker Dee Ford. Behind Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, who are both excellent pass-rushers and three-down linebackers, it’s unclear how Ford fits into a regular role in the team’s defensive rotation.
The Chiefs, however, don’t seem to see it that way. After all, it’s unlikely they would have used the No. 23 overall pick on Ford if they didn’t expect him to be an immediate contributor.
According to ESPN.com’s Adam Teicher, Ford has already made a big impression on some of his defensive teammates, including Hali, who has compared the Auburn product to Chiefs legend and Pro Football Hall of Fame outside linebacker Derrick Thomas.
"He gets off the ball so fast it's scary,” Hali said. “I just kept rewinding [the video] yesterday just looking at his first step. I don't know if he times it but his first step is incredible."
Ford, according to Teicher, “has indeed shown a first step off the ball that is most impressive. He also has shown the ability to turn the corner and keep progressing toward the quarterback while fighting off a block with his upper body.”
Eventually, Ford should get his turn in the starting lineup, either in 2015 if Houston does not re-sign with the team or in more likelihood 2016 when Hali, then to be 32, might not be brought back on an expiring contract.
In his first year, expect Ford to take on a situational pass-rushing role, which he is best suited for anyway while he develops his strength as a run defender. It will take some creativity on defensive coordinator Bob Sutton’s part, as he should look to find ways to get Houston, Hali and Ford all on the field at the same time, but it should make the Chiefs defensive front seven even better.
24. Darqueze Dennard, CB, Cincinnati Bengals
The Cincinnati Bengals’ competition at the cornerback position is a bit crowded, but it appears that No. 24 overall pick Darqueze Dennard could land significant playing time in his rookie year.
Dennard has received first-team work at slot cornerback in spring workouts, according to ESPN.com’s Coley Harvey. The rookie from Michigan State has also been practicing as a right outside cornerback, but with the second-team defense.
He might not be receiving those first-team snaps if Leon Hall, who tore his Achilles last season, was participating in OTAs. Hall, who should be a lock to start once he is healthy, typically plays in the slot in defensive sub packages. If Dennard is going to have a consistent spot in the lineup, he likely has to beat out Terence Newman or Adam Jones on the outside.
Newman and Jones were solid starters last season, so Dennard has his work cut out for him, but he is arguably the most NFL-ready defensive back in this year’s draft class. A technically refined cornerback who is excellent with his hands and has great footwork, Dennard should be ready to play right off the bat if called upon.
Thus far in offseason workouts, he has reportedly looked “terrific” and “like a pro playing the slot cornerback with the first group even though he barely played inside at East Lansing,” as reported by Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com.
25. Jason Verrett, CB, San Diego Chargers
Unlike the aforementioned Bengals, the San Diego Chargers need Jason Verrett to be ready to step in as a starting cornerback right away. If he’s not, they’ll likely be forced to rely upon Shareece Wright and Richard Marshall, two subpar veterans who Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded out among the NFL’s 10 worst cornerbacks in 2013.
A fluid athlete who has great ball skills and plays bigger than his 5’9” stature, Verrett should already be the most talented cornerback on the San Diego roster. It’s uncertain when he’ll be able to begin practicing with the team, however, as he is recovering from pre-draft surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder.
It’s not a huge deal that Verrett is unable to participate in OTAs and minicamps, but he is also in jeopardy of missing the start of training camp, according to Michael Gehlken of the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Verrett is still trying to learn in practice by visualizing himself on the field and taking mental repetitions, per the UT-San Diego report, but that’s not the same as getting out on the field and matching up with receivers, many of whom will have a distinct size advantage over the rookie from TCU.
A four-year collegiate starter who has already shown himself to be technically sound, Verrett’s experience coming into the NFL should help him adapt quickly. He’s still a favorite to be in the lineup for San Diego on Week 1 because of the lack of quality competition, but with less practice time, he will have to progress rapidly and be able to overcome his mistakes quickly.
26. Marcus Smith, OLB, Philadelphia Eagles
Philadelphia Eagles general manager Howie Roseman didn’t help his team’s fanbase feel any better about the No. 26 overall selection of Louisville outside linebacker Marcus Smith when he admitted on the WIP Morning Show, according to Philly.com’s Jimmy Kempski, that the first round didn’t go the way the team had expected it to.
Smith himself can certainly make the Eagles feel smart for selecting him by performing well on the field. Thus far, however, it’s unclear how the rookie might fit into the Philadelphia defense in 2014.
ESPN.com’s Phil Sheridan believes Smith could contend for Trent Cole’s starting job as the Eagles’ outside "Predator" linebacker, but all reports, including Sheridan’s own and that of NJ.com’s Matt Lombardo, have indicated that Smith is working behind Connor Barwin at Philadelphia’s “Jack” OLB spot.
As explained by Sheil Kapadia of PhillyMag.com, the Jack position stands for “Jack of all trades,” which means the Eagles expect the player in that role to be able to both rush the passer and drop back into coverage. Smith has not yet learned the Predator role, according to Kapadia, but by description, it would seem the Jack position is more comprehensive and might lend to Smith being able to play on either side of the defense.
A versatile defender who obtained coverage experience in college and has played as both a stand-up linebacker and with his hand in the dirt as a defensive lineman, Smith should fit the Eagles defense and be able to handle a complex role. It seems most likely, however, that he will come off the bench as a rotational defender for the 2014 season.
27. Deone Bucannon, SS, Arizona Cardinals
One might expect that Deone Bucannon, who the Cardinals selected with the No. 27 overall pick, would quickly win the starting strong safety job over Tony Jefferson, who went unselected in the 2013 NFL draft. That said, Jefferson is coming off a promising rookie year in which he made two starts, and he isn’t going to easily concede his spot to the new guy from Washington State.
Bucannon missed some time in OTAs with turf toe, but “returned to practice during minicamp and appeared to not be bothered” by the injury, according to ESPN.com’s Josh Weinfuss. While Bucannon could use every practice he can get to grow as a player and push Jefferson and Rashad Johnson for a starting job, he has already impressed his teammates with his play and his knowledge of the game, per Alex Williams of ArizonaSports.com.
"He can do it all," Johnson said of Bucannon, according to Williams. “He's a very smart guy.”
As for Jefferson, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians told reporters that the former undrafted free agent is “really making progress," as reported by Jess Root of Revenge of the Birds.
That said, it remains likely that if Bucannon also makes progress throughout training camp and the preseason, he will ultimately start taking first-team snaps and potentially take the starting job from Jefferson. Bucannon is both bigger and faster, has more playmaking upside and, as Weinfuss pointed out, it’s unlikely the Cards would have made a first-round commitment to Bucannon if they believed that Jefferson was the answer.
28. Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Carolina Panthers
As part of an essentially brand-new receiving corps on a team that lost all four of its wideouts who caught passes for the team last season, Carolina Panthers rookie Kelvin Benjamin should be afforded every opportunity to earn a starting job this summer.
The 6’5”, 240-pound playmaker, best known for catching the game-winning touchdown for Florida State in the last ever BCS National Championship Game this past season, seems to be on the right track thus far. According to ESPN.com’s David Nelson, Benjamin has “worked a lot with the first team” in OTAs, along with veteran free-agent additions Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant.
Cotchery, who caught 46 passes for 602 yards and 10 touchdowns with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2013, is probably the surest bet to start for the Panthers offense, assuming he is healthy, in Week 1. Opposite him, the job should be Benjamin’s to win if he finishes spring workouts strong and performs well in training camp.
Only a two-year player for the Seminoles, Benjamin is somewhat of a project, a receiver who needs to become more sure-handed and consistent with his routes. That said, his size gives him the ability to create consistent mismatches on the field, something no other wideout on the Carolina roster can offer.
Avant, who caught 38 passes for 447 yards and two touchdowns last season for the Philadelphia Eagles, is best suited for playing in the slot. If Benjamin catches the ball well in practices and the preseason and continues to work on his route running, there’s no one who should keep him from emerging right away as one of Carolina’s top targets.
29. Dominique Easley, DT, New England Patriots
The New England Patriots took one of the bigger risks of the first round when they selected Dominique Easley with the No. 29 overall pick. While the explosive defensive tackle’s talent made him well worth a first-round selection, he is still recovering from a torn right ACL he suffered during a practice at Florida in September.
He is expected to return in time for the 2014 season, but according to ESPN.com’s Mike Reiss, he hasn’t yet been cleared for practice. On a Patriots defense that is complex and ever-changing, that could be a significant setback to Easley in his quest to earn significant playing time in year one.
Having also torn his left ACL in 2011, Easley's knee problems are a concern, but once he is healthy and up to speed, he could emerge as a star. The 6’2”, 288-pound penetrator has a rare combination of burst, power and versatility, which should enable him to move all over the front of New England’s hybrid defense.
Given that he will not have practiced with the team until at least the start of training camp, it’s likely that Easley will begin his career in a rotational role behind veteran starting defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly.
When he is back in action, however, expect the rookie to make a push for immediate playing time. His exceptional quickness and hand skills give him the potential to be the interior pass-rushing threat that the Patriots have needed to find for years.
30. Jimmie Ward, DB, San Francisco 49ers
Another first-round rookie who will have to play catch-up in training camp is San Francisco’s Jimmie Ward. Recovering from surgery to repair a Jones fracture in his right foot, the 49ers’ No. 30 overall pick has been held out of all spring workouts, according to CSNBayArea.com’s Matt Maiocco.
An All-American safety at Northern Illinois, Ward is expected to be a backup for starters Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea in 2014, but he will primarily play slot cornerback in his rookie season, according to Eric Branch of SFGate.com.
The move should be a fine fit for Ward, who has some experience covering the slot and is both a very fluid athlete and a physical defensive back who uses his hands well. Missing the 49ers’ OTAs and minicamp, however, will force him to adjust to his new position rapidly, which could be a challenge.
“He’s going to be behind,” 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said of Ward’s development, according to Branch. “And it’s going to be important for him – and for us as coaches – to realize he’s behind and just fight through that. Because he’s not going to look good early.”
Even with a delayed start to getting on the field, Ward should be favored to earn the fifth defensive back spot. He has the tools to quickly emerge as one of the stars in San Francisco’s secondary, and he doesn't have a lot of legitimate competition.
31. Bradley Roby, CB, Denver Broncos
With Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and Kayvon Webster all on the cornerback depth chart, the Denver Broncos could ease Bradley Roby into the lineup as the No. 31 overall pick learns to become a more disciplined player, but that doesn’t seem to be the plan for the rookie from Ohio State.
According to ESPN.com’s Jeff Legwold, “with cornerback Chris Harris Jr. still working his way back from ACL surgery, Roby has been pressed into action with the defensive regulars more than he may have been if Harris Jr. was completely healthy.”
There’s little doubt that Talib will start on one side, and Harris, assuming he is healthy, will man the other starting cornerback spot. But it seems that Roby, who Broncos coach John Fox has been “very impressed” with thus far according to Legwold, is making an immediate push to supplant second-year player Webster on the depth chart.
Legwold expects Roby to line up as an outside cornerback, with Harris moving inside to the slot, when the Broncos use nickel packages on defense.
An explosive athlete who plays with physicality and has a nose for the football, Roby has all the tools to be an impact player in Denver from day one. In order to see significant playing time as a rookie, however, Roby must prove that he can play with the patience and positioning to avoid giving up just as many big plays as he makes.
32. Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Minnesota Vikings
Thanks to the Minnesota Vikings’ decision to trade back into the first round and acquire the No. 32 overall pick in this year’s draft from the Seattle Seahawks, the last rookie on this slideshow is one of the first you’ll be hearing about all summer.
Although Teddy Bridgewater was the third quarterback selected in this year’s draft, he might actually be the most likely rookie signal-caller to start for his new team in Week 1 this year. While he is not as physically gifted as Blake Bortles or Johnny Manziel, Bridgewater is the most polished, mechanically sound pocket passer in this year’s rookie class.
He has more upside than Matt Cassel, who started six games for Minnesota last year, and Christian Ponder, who started nine. Both of those quarterbacks have been average at best in their tenures as NFL starting quarterbacks, which should leave the door open for Bridgewater to potentially ascend to the top of the depth chart.
But that’s not to say he’ll be handed the job. According to ESPN.com’s Ben Goessling, the Louisville product has taken some first-team snaps in OTAs, but Cassel has done “the majority of the work with the Vikings' starting offense and figures to go into training camp as the starting quarterback.”
If Bridgewater is going to seize the job right off the bat from Cassel, who re-signed with Minnesota on a two-year contract this offseason, he’s going to have to be outstanding in this week’s mandatory minicamp and in training camp.
Yet regardless of where Bridgewater ends up on the quarterback's depth chart, he’s in a good situation. If the Vikings don’t feel he is ready to take over the offense this year, they can afford to keep him on the bench. That won’t change the team’s expectation for him to rise up and become the franchise quarterback in short order, as Cassel is no more than a short-term stopgap option.
All measurables courtesy of NFL.com unless otherwise noted.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.