Predicting the Top NFL Rookie Performer at Every Position
Every NFL team will be hoping their rookies emerge as immediate standouts in 2014, but with regards to both skill sets and situations, some first-year players glisten above the rest of the pack as potential top performers for their new teams in 2014.
Not all of the rookie standouts are easily predictable. While it shouldn’t have surprised anyone that New York Jets first-round pick Sheldon Richardson was the league’s top rookie defensive lineman this past season, it might have come as a bigger surprise that San Diego Chargers third-round pick Keenan Allen was the top rookie wide receiver and that Detroit Lions guard Larry Warford, also a third-rounder, stood out among the first-year class at his position.
With that being said, all of the following selections from the 2014 NFL draft stand out as being among the most likely to represent their rookie class in a memorable and positively impactful fashion this season.
While logic and history would both suggest that the players selected highest in the draft have the best chance of being instant success stories, there’s more to projecting the top performers than simply cherry-picking the top of the draft board.
Each of the following players were top-100 picks, but they furthermore stand out as players who were productive in college, should be ready to play well in at least one capacity in 2014 and are in situations that should lead them to significant playing time right away.
QB: Teddy Bridgewater, Minnesota Vikings
It remains uncertain whether any rookie quarterback will begin the 2014 NFL season as a starter, but the door seems to be most widely open for Teddy Bridgewater, who is also the most polished, NFL-ready passer among this year’s crop of first-year signal-callers.
Going into training camp, the No. 32 overall pick is set for a three-way quarterback competition with Minnesota Vikings veterans Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder. Bridgewater has better physical tools and significantly more upside than either Cassel or Ponder, and the Louisville product has reportedly impressed Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner in offseason workouts, per Brian Hall of Fox Sports North.
"One of the things that has been the most impressive to me is, I knew he'd be very accurate, I knew he'd make great decisions, quick decisions, but he's been outstanding throwing the ball deep, which some people thought that was going to be an issue," Turner said of Bridgewater, via Hall.
The Vikings wouldn’t have signed Cassel to a two-year, $10 million contract this offseason if they weren’t comfortable with him starting, but they also wouldn’t have drafted Bridgewater if they expected Cassel to be in that position. If Bridgewater continues to be sharp with his throws in training camp, Minnesota shouldn’t hesitate to make him the starter.
Should he get the opportunity to play right away, Bridgewater is more than capable of successfully leading the Minnesota offense. That’s not to say there won’t be bumps in the road, as there almost always are for rookie quarterbacks, but his already sound mechanics, clean footwork and ability to read defenses should lessen the slope of his learning curve.
Cleveland Browns first-round pick Johnny Manziel should make his fair share of electrifying plays if he gets to play in 2014, while No. 3 overall selection Blake Bortles of the Jacksonville Jaguars has huge potential as well. As of now, however, neither of them is as cut out to take on the responsibilities of an NFL signal-caller and pocket passer as Bridgewater is.
RB: Bishop Sankey, Tennessee Titans
The first runner selected in this year’s draft, No. 54 overall pick Bishop Sankey could be set to emerge as the Tennessee Titans’ feature back from the outset, and the Washington product's well-rounded skill set should translate to rapid NFL success.
A strong runner both inside and outside the tackles, Sankey has very good ball-carrier vision, can cut his way smoothly between running lanes and is able to bounce off contact. A compact back with the speed and agility to extend plays in space, Sankey is also a good pass-catcher out of the backfield.
He’s likely to split carries with Shonn Greene in 2014, but unless Greene performs significantly better than he did in his first year with Tennessee (3.8 yards per carry), it shouldn’t be long before Sankey establishes himself as the No. 1 tailback on the depth chart.
Capable of contributing on any down and in any situation, Sankey should see a great deal of touches in his debut season, assuming he stays healthy. With no other rookie running backs projected to be first-stringers, at least not for the start of the upcoming year, Sankey is among the odds-on favorites to lead all first-year players in yards from scrimmage.
WR: Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Although he only played two seasons at Texas A&M, Mike Evans caught more than 150 passes for 17 touchdowns and nearly 2,500 yards. Even though he must continue to develop as a pass-catcher and route-runner, his immense physical ability should enable him to immediately carry that production to the next level.
Any existing flaws in Evans’ game won’t keep the 6’5”, 231-pound receiver with a 37-inch vertical jump from immediately creating matchup nightmares for opposing defenses. A terrific athlete for his size, Evans is a jump-ball target who has enough speed and strength to extend plays in the open field.
The clear-cut choice to start across from Vincent Jackson as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ No. 2 wide receiver, Evans should quickly emerge as a go-to target in the team’s passing offense, regardless of whether Josh McCown or Mike Glennon ends up being the team’s starting quarterback.
Evans suffered a minor setback in spring workouts when he strained his hamstring, as noted by Roy Cummings of the Tampa Tribune, but as long as he is healthy come September, his talent and tools should supersede anything he loses in missed practice time.
With virtually nonexistent depth at wide receiver, the Buccaneers need Evans to be productive right away, and opposing defensive backs will have their work cut out for them in trying to stop him from doing so.
TE: Eric Ebron, Detroit Lions
It’s unclear exactly what Eric Ebron’s role will be in his rookie season, but his dynamic skill set should allow him to be a key player right away on the Detroit Lions’ regularly prolific passing offense.
Although he technically plays a different position than the aforementioned Mike Evans, Ebron possesses many of the same qualities. A 6’4”, 250-pound playmaker with rare athleticism for his size, Ebron can line up all over the field and create mismatches.
More of an oversized receiver than he is a true tight end at this point, the No. 10 overall pick from North Carolina could be used in line, flexed to the slot and as an outside receiver. He is a great vertical threat over the middle who plucks the ball out of the air with strong hands, while he is also unusually gifted for a tight end in his ability to extend plays in the open field.
Depending on what the Lions choose as a base offensive formation under new coordinator Joe Lombardi, Ebron might not necessarily be a starter in 2014. Because he is a subpar in-line blocker, the Lions are more likely to use Brandon Pettigrew as their No. 1 tight end in running situations.
With that being said, the Lions should find plenty of ways, no matter how creative they have to be, to get Ebron on the field early and often. He is a player whose skill set defenses will have to account for, and he could quickly become the second-most dangerous weapon in Detroit’s passing offense behind superstar wide receiver Calvin Johnson.
OT: Jake Matthews, Atlanta Falcons
There is no safer bet to be one of the standouts of this year’s rookie class than Jake Matthews, who is set to start at right tackle for the Atlanta Falcons in 2014.
Perhaps the most complete player at any position to come out of this year’s draft, the No. 6 overall pick has everything an NFL offensive tackle needs to be successful. A 6’5”, 308-pound lineman who moves with the grace of a ballet dancer, Matthews is an impeccably technical blocker who consistently wins in pass protection and covers ground quickly on running plays.
A four-year collegiate starter who spent his first three years at Texas A&M at the right tackle position, Matthews’ experience should make his transition go smoothly. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s the son of Pro Football Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews.
Matthews might eventually end up taking over as Atlanta’s left tackle—his skill set projects well to either side of the offensive line—but he could easily end up being one of the NFL’s best on the right side in his opening campaign.
OG: Gabe Jackson, Oakland Raiders
Much like rookie sensation Larry Warford went from being a third-round pick to a standout guard for the Detroit Lions in 2013, Gabe Jackson’s massiveness and experience should enable him to help solidify the Oakland Raiders interior offensive line in 2014.
A four-year starter at Mississippi State, Jackson is known to dominate his opponents with strength and power. Measuring in at 6’3” and 336 pounds at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine, Jackson rarely loses once he gets his hands on an opponent.
He isn’t as naturally athletic as most of the offensive linemen who were selected ahead of him, which likely was a primary factor in his slide to the No. 81 overall pick, but he’s still relatively light on his feet for a blocker of his size. Nonetheless, the Raiders should know well enough to play Jackson to his strengths—inside, where he can control opponents in one-on-one matchups—than to have him moving all over and pulling outside.
Jackson still has to beat out incumbent left guard Khalif Barnes to secure a starting job, but he has already begun receiving first-team repetitions, according to Steve Corkran of Bay Area News Group. It would be a surprise if he doesn’t win that job by the start of the regular season and then proves he deserves it when the games begin.
C: Weston Richburg, New York Giants
It’s possible there won’t be any rookie starters at the center position in 2014, but it should be only a matter of time before Weston Richburg is handling first-team responsibilities in the middle of the New York Giants offensive line.
He worked as a backup interior offensive lineman during spring workouts, per CBS Sports’ Rob Rang, but the 50-game collegiate starter has all the tools to overtake projected starting center J.D. Walton in camp.
Richburg is an agile blocker who has refined technique and a strong punch. For a Giants offensive line that was shaky throughout the 2013 season, the No. 43 overall pick should be ready to be a stable anchor in the middle of the unit if called upon during his first season.
There are a number of other rookie centers who could end up stealing starting jobs and having breakout campaigns in 2014, including Russell Bodine of the Cincinnati Bengals and Corey Linsley of the Green Bay Packers. However, Richburg, the only center drafted in the first two rounds this year, stands out as the most polished first-year player at the position.
4-3 DE: Demarcus Lawrence, Dallas Cowboys
Thanks to most of the draft’s top pass-rushing prospects being selected by teams who run 3-4 defensive schemes, there might not be any rookie starters at the 4-3 defensive end position in 2014. One player who should at least put up some production in a rotational capacity, nonetheless, is Demarcus Lawrence of the Dallas Cowboys.
If the Cowboys didn’t expect Lawrence to be an impact player for their defense, they wouldn’t have traded up in Round 2 to the No. 34 overall pick to select him.
Lawrence is a developmental project who needs to become stronger against the run in order to be a starting defensive end. That said, he has an explosive burst off the edge that he should be able to put to good use off the bench as a situational pass-rusher.
The Boise State product isn’t as NFL-ready as the other players in this slideshow; his best football is probably two or three years ahead of him. But he’ll still probably see the most playing time among rookie 4-3 defensive ends, and he should be able to generate some pressure on opposing backfields off the edge.
3-4 DE: Stephon Tuitt, Pittsburgh Steelers
As tailor-made for the team who selected him as any prospect in this year’s draft class, Stephon Tuitt is an excellent fit to play 5-technique defensive end in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 3-4 defensive front, and he is likely to make an immediate impact in a rotational role.
A fluid athlete who stands 6’5” and 303 pounds, Tuitt is a strong point-of-attack defensive lineman who has the ability to beat blockers both inside and outside as a pass-rusher. He can be moved around between a number of positions on the defensive line and is capable of being disruptive from any spot.
If the Steelers’ recent history is any indication, Tuitt’s unlikely to start right away, as the Pittsburgh Steelers haven’t had a Week 1 rookie starter on defense since Kendrell Bell in 2001, as noted by Dave Bryan of SteelersDepot.com. However, that shouldn’t stop the second-round pick from taking on an immediate role in Pittsburgh’s defensive line rotation and potentially taking over Cam Thomas’ starting spot at defensive end by the end of the year.
Having played both defensive tackle and defensive end at Notre Dame, Tuitt is ideally cut out to transition to the three-man front. He might not have enough explosiveness to ever emerge as a star, but he already has enough strength and skills to play right away and hold his own.
DT: Aaron Donald, St. Louis Rams
Everything has seemingly been trending up for Aaron Donald ever since the start of his senior season at Pittsburgh last fall. After racking up 28.5 tackles for loss and taking home a litany of major college football awards in 2013, Donald parlayed strong performances at the Senior Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine into being the No. 13 overall pick of this year’s draft.
That’s the same spot in which Sheldon Richardson, the Associated Press’ choice for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year this past season, was selected by the New York Jets in 2013. Much like Richardson, whose performance ranked him as the league’s best first-year player, Donald could become an immediately disruptive force for the St. Louis Rams’ interior defensive line.
Production has clearly been no issue for Donald, and despite being undersized at just 6’1” and 285 pounds, his skill set should translate to the next level without much of a hitch. He is a refined interior pass-rusher with great hand skills, while he also has jaw-dropping athleticism and very good functional strength.
Expected to start as the 3-technique defensive tackle in St. Louis’ 4-3 front, Donald should continue to explode through offensive line gaps and blow up plays in the backfield. He could have some issues versus the run against bigger blockers, especially as he is still getting his feet wet in the NFL, but one can count on Donald being consistently active when he is on the field.
Although he might be limited to one or two specific roles on the Rams defense, Donald has the potential to be one of the NFL’s best inside penetrators in short order. The completing puzzle piece to an already talent-laden defensive line, Donald will benefit from having players around him who can occupy blocks and help free him up to make stops of his own.
4-3 OLB: Kyle Van Noy, Detroit Lions
Another player to land in a seemingly perfect situation, Kyle Van Noy is an exceptionally well-rounded player who could contribute in a multitude of capacities on the Detroit Lions defense in his rookie year.
Van Noy is an ideal fit to play strong-side linebacker in Detroit’s new hybrid defensive scheme, in which coordinator Teryl Austin could expect the No. 40 overall pick to take on a versatile role. Van Noy is a rangy athlete who should excel as a run defender in space in base packages, but he is also very good at dropping back into coverage and can bring pressure off the edge in pass-rushing situations.
He might not be an every-down player right away, as the Lions already have two great linebackers in DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch, but Van Noy is likely to make it difficult for the Lions to keep him off the field. While he hasn’t yet taken first-team repetitions away from incumbent Sam linebacker Ashlee Palmer, per Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, he should move his way up the depth chart in only a matter of time.
Reunited with BYU teammate Ezekiel Ansah, a defensive end whom Detroit selected at the fifth spot in the 2013 draft, Van Noy is in an environment and system that should set him up to thrive.
Wherever he gets opportunities to play—whether it be against the run, as a multi-dimensional pass defender and/or on special teams—expect the rookie to not only accumulate statistics for himself but also be an assignment-sound football player who makes his teammates around him better.
3-4 OLB: Jadeveon Clowney, Houston Texans
It’s often a mistake to assume that a traditional defensive end will be able to make the transition to outside linebacker in a 3-4 defensive scheme in the NFL, but it’s also safe to say that just about every player who has had to make that transition before Jadeveon Clowney didn’t have the physical tools that this year’s No. 1 overall pick possesses.
That’s not to say there won’t be growing pains for Clowney, who doesn’t have much experience playing in space and dropping back into coverage, as he adjusts to his new role. The switch should be well within the capacity of the South Carolina product, nonetheless, as the 6’6”, 266-pound edge defender has incredible athleticism.
An explosive disruptor who accelerates like a sprinter, can win with power and is ferocious with his long arms, Clowney really should be too gifted to fail. While his primary position will be outside linebacker as the Houston Texans shift to a more traditional 3-4 scheme under new coordinator Romeo Crennel this year, the team could certainly move him all around in an effort to free him up and create mismatches.
A sports hernia surgery that has left Clowney uncertain whether he will be healthy for the start of Houston’s training camp, according to Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle, has thrown a wrench in Clowney’s development, which needs to remain ongoing in his rookie season. His schematic adjustment only adds to that need to improve.
Nonetheless, Clowney should still be able to find his way onto the highlight reel regularly in 2014 by exploiting his physical advantages as both an edge rusher and run-stopper. Should he live up to his potential, Clowney will already be blossoming as one of the league’s defensive superstars by the end of his rookie campaign.
ILB: Ryan Shazier, Pittsburgh Steelers
Remember that precedent of the Pittsburgh Steelers not starting defensive rookies? While that still might keep Stephon Tuitt out of the lineup initially, it’s a trend that the Steelers have already thrown out the window in regards to No. 15 overall pick Ryan Shazier.
Shazier worked as Pittsburgh’s first-team weak-side inside linebacker throughout spring workouts, per ESPN.com’s Scott Brown, which shows how highly the Steelers already think of their first-round pick. But it shouldn’t come as any surprise that Pittsburgh expects Shazier, a terrific athlete who can attack as a blitzer but is also fluid in coverage, to be a key playmaker right away in 2014.
Known for consistently flying to the football and getting his nose in on plays at Ohio State, Shazier can invigorate the Steelers defense with youth and speed. He should be one of the team’s most active tacklers in space from the outset of his rookie campaign, and he’s certainly capable of turning the tides of games by making big plays.
If the Steelers weren’t confident that Shazier could be the best inside linebacker of the rookie class this season, they’d be slow-playing him into the lineup, much in the way they have for most first-year defenders in recent years. He’s simply expected to be too good not to be on the field as soon as he has the opportunity, though.
CB/S: Lamarcus Joyner, St. Louis Rams
It’s not yet clear what Lamarcus Joyner’s exact role will be within the St. Louis Rams secondary, but it’s likely that he will be one of the top immediate playmakers of his rookie class.
A four-year collegiate playmaker who spent time at both cornerback and safety at Florida State, it’s likely that Joyner will see time at both positions in St. Louis.
Similar in skill set and style of play to 2013 Arizona Cardinals rookie standout Tyrann Mathieu, Joyner could end up taking on the same type of hybrid role with the Rams. He would be an upgrade over Rodney McLeod at free safety in the Rams base defense, but where Joyner truly projects to excel is as a slot cornerback in defensive sub-packages.
At just 5’8” and 184 pounds, Joyner is too small to play outside cornerback, but he’s proven himself over the years to be a straight-up playmaker. He has tremendous instincts, ball skills and short-area quickness, all of which make him a dangerous player to have around the ball, while he also hits with authority and is dynamic as a blitzer.
Should he be utilized regularly and properly in the Rams secondary this year, the No. 41 overall pick could be one of the most evident game-changers in this year's rookie class.
CB: Justin Gilbert, Cleveland Browns
Shifting gears to considering who could be the best outside cornerback in this year’s rookie class, the odds-on favorite projects as Justin Gilbert, selected with the No. 8 overall pick as the top defensive back selection in this year’s draft.
Starting at cornerback is notoriously one of the most difficult spots on an NFL team for a player to excel at in year one, so it’s likely that Gilbert, whose technique proved to be flawed at times during his Oklahoma State career, will have some growing pains in his first season with the Cleveland Browns.
That said, the progression Gilbert showed in his senior season of college football was a very promising sign for his professional career. Having made clear improvements in his coverage fundamentals, Gilbert finally showed that he could take full advantage of his physical gifts and became the star of his team’s secondary.
A tall, fast defensive back who plays with physicality and has great ball skills, Gilbert is set up for a prime opportunity to make plays in Cleveland. Should he earn the No. 2 cornerback job away from Buster Skrine—a position he still has to earn, according to Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal—he will get to start opposite Joe Haden, a top-notch cornerback who regularly shuts down No. 1 wide receivers.
While that position could put Gilbert in a spot to be targeted heavily, that also means that he’ll have many opportunities to put his ball skills to use for potential big plays. And despite having all the physical tools to take on elite wideouts as a No. 1 cornerback, he could draw some more favorable matchups if the Browns continue to make it Haden’s responsibility to handle the opposing team's toughest opponents.
S: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Green Bay Packers
If Ha Ha Clinton-Dix hits his stride as a rookie with the Green Bay Packers, opposing offenses won’t spend much time laughing when trying to make plays over the middle against him.
Clinton-Dix still has to beat out Micah Hyde for Green Bay’s starting free safety job, according to Jason Wilde of ESPN Wisconsin, but the No. 21 overall pick should be able to do so in training camp. He has all the tools to be the center-field presence the Packers lacked at the back end of their defense this past season.
He wasn’t always a big-play guy at Alabama and might not necessarily be in the NFL, either, but he is a big, athletic safety who is both fluid in coverage and impactful in run support. Clinton-Dix can handle all responsibilities expected of a free safety, and he will provide stability for Green Bay at a position where M.D. Jennings was a liability in 2013.
Assuming he is utilized in deep coverage roles, Clinton-Dix should be able to make some plays on the ball, as he has adequate ball skills. An active player who seems to be around the football whenever he needs to be, Clinton-Dix has the most potential among this year’s rookie class of safeties to be an instant-impact contributor for his defense.
All measurables courtesy of NFL.com, unless otherwise noted.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.
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