Predicting the Top Impact Rookie for Every NFL Team
Training camps are nigh, offering NFL rookies a chance to make an impression and win playing time or starting jobs with their teams. That means plenty of chances to make an impact.
Rookies will have plenty of opportunities to make impacts in the NFL in their first season in the league this year. Here is the first-year player from each team who will make the biggest impact—good or bad—thanks to a large role he is likely to win this preseason.
Arizona Cardinals: Troy Niklas, TE
Tight end Rob Housler has shown promise in Arizona, but the Cardinals have little to show for it. That’s why Troy Niklas will have an important role as a rookie.
The 6’7”, 270-pounder brings a different game than Housler, who is 6’5” and 250 pounds. The former is a much better blocker than the latter, whose best asset is speed.
Niklas is an excellent fit for head coach Bruce Arians’ offense, per CBS Sports’ Rob Rang, which means he should see the field plenty as a rookie. If his game translates well to the NFL, he will be a boon to that offense, particularly in the run game.
Atlanta Falcons: Jake Matthews, OT
Pass blocking was atrocious in Atlanta last season. Sam Baker was lost to injury early, and Lamar Holmes was awful in his stead. Holmes was ranked the second-worst tackle in the league over at Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
The Falcons fixed that quickly by drafting Jake Matthews, who should slide in and start right away on the left side. Even if it takes him some time to adjust to the next level, Matthews figures to be better than Holmes.
It will be interesting to see what the Falcons do with Baker when he returns from injury, but Matthews will be on the field one way or another.
Baltimore Ravens: Terrence Brooks, FS
Losing Ed Reed and Ray Lewis in one offseason was a big blow to the Baltimore Ravens, even if both were in decline.
The Ravens dealt with losing Reed by promoting James Ihedigbo and drafting Matt Elam last year. Ihedigbo had a fine year, but he is gone to Detroit. That leaves Elam free to slide over to strong safety, which opens up the starting job at free safety for rookie Terrence Brooks.
He has to win the job first, but he will certainly have a big impact if and when he does. That is not to say the impact will necessarily be positive—he is a rookie, after all.
Once he does win the job, Brooks will have big shoes to fill, even two years after the fact. His play will be key to the success or failure of that secondary.
Buffalo Bills: Preston Brown, LB
Were it not for an unfortunate injury to a teammate, Buffalo linebacker Preston Brown might not be in a position to contribute as a rookie. Unfortunately, Kiko Alonso—a Rookie of the Year candidate last season—tore his ACL, which has knocked him out for the 2014 season.
That opens up the door for Brown, who could see far more playing time than the Bills initially projected when they took him in the 2014 draft. The third-round pick was a middle linebacker in college, so it will take some doing to become a starter on the outside.
He got off to a great start with the Bills this offseason by impressing at minicamp, per Tim Graham of The Buffalo News. Hopefully for Buffalo, he can continue that momentum while moving to the outside, where he might mitigate the loss of Alonso.
Carolina Panthers: Kelvin Benjamin, WR
Who else are the Carolina Panthers going to turn to at wide receiver?
The Panthers were down to Itchy and Scratchy at the position before signing Jerricho Cotchery and drafting Kelvin Benjamin—the two presumed starters—this past offseason.
The hulking rookie should make a huge impact on that offense if he can live up to his potential. He has plenty of it at 6'5" and 240 pounds; he's a massive target for quarterback Cam Newton.
Of course, if he was indeed overrated heading into the NFL, as some have posited, Benjamin's impact will be negative.
Chicago Bears: Will Sutton, DT
The middle of the Chicago Bears defense was woeful last season. Losing Henry Melton to injury was part of the problem, and now he is with the Dallas Cowboys.
The Bears shored up the defensive line by drafting Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton in the second and third rounds of the draft, however, and both rookies should be big contributors this year.
Sutton is particularly tantalizing if he can get back to his 2012 form. He ballooned over 300 pounds for the 2013 season, which may have compromised his play and short-circuited his draft stock.
The former Sun Devil is closer to Melton than Ferguson is, at least if he returns to his 2012 form. Sutton was a great pass-rusher that year, as was Melton with the Bears before getting injured.
If Sutton can bring some of what Melton had to the table, the middle of that defensive line will be much improved from a year ago.
Cincinnati Bengals: Jeremy Hill, RB
The Cincinnati Bengals didn’t draft Jeremy Hill in the second round for no reason.
He came to the NFL with baggage, but Cincinnati paid that little mind. The Bengals took him just after the Tennessee Titans took Bishop Sankey as the first back off the board, which indicates they may have big plans for Hill.
Those plans might be set in motion early if he gets his sea legs sooner than later. BenJarvus Green-Ellis—the man Hill presumes to replace—wasn’t particularly effective last season, averaging just 3.4 yards per carry.
Hill will be the thunder to Giovani Bernard's lightning in 2014, ensuring the Bengals have a well-rounded offense with a reliable running game.
Cleveland Browns: Johnny Manziel, QB
No rookie has made a bigger splash than Johnny Manziel. After all, he has drawn the attention and ire of the public with his extracurricular exploits this offseason.
The question is whether he will make an impact on the field in 2014. Given what he brings to the table, the Browns should already know the answer.
Manziel was a dynamo in college, rushing for 2,169 yards and accounting for 93 total touchdowns in just two seasons with Texas A&M. Of course, this isn't college anymore—he will have a tougher time playing magician in the NFL.
While his game may not translate to the NFL, there is little reason to avoid giving the first-round pick a shot. His play will make or break that offense once the Browns hand him the keys.
Dallas Cowboys: Zack Martin, OG
Unfortunately for the Dallas Cowboys, Zack Martin has already made a big impact on the 2014 season.
The rookie offensive lineman fell on linebacker Sean Lee’s leg, and the stud defender was lost for the season with a torn ACL. It was an unfortunate accident in minicamp that will have big repercussions for the Cowboys, who aren't exactly the Seahawks on defense to begin with.
Martin can begin erasing the dubious start to his NFL career by living up to his first-round status. He will likely start at guard for the Cowboys, who could have one of the better offensive lines in the league with Martin in there.
Denver Broncos: Bradley Roby, CB
The Denver Broncos needed help at a few positions. Even after they signed Aqib Talib, cornerback was an area of need.
There was an abyss behind Talib and Chris Harris, and Bradley Roby was drafted to fill that void. The former Ohio State Buckeye was the best left at the time the Broncos picked, and he should fit in nicely. In fact, he should start on the outside opposite Talib, with Harris playing the nickel.
It will be interesting to see if opposing quarterbacks go after Roby early and often. If they do, he will be a big part of Denver’s defensive success or failure.
Detroit Lions: Eric Ebron, TE
The Detroit Lions weren't lacking for weapons before the NFL draft, but they couldn't resist adding one more for quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Eric Ebron was the top tight end in the draft, and the Lions took him in the first round despite having needs elsewhere. They also already had Brandon Pettigrew and Joe Fauria.
Ebron was well worth the investment, however, and he will be the final piece to the Lions' passing machine in 2014. With receiver Golden Tate signed to take the pressure off Calvin Johnson and a versatile backfield, Ebron could find plenty of space to operate.
Green Bay Packers: Hasean Clinton-Dix, S
He has Charles Woodson's old number. Can Hasean Clinton-Dix channel the former Defensive Player of the Year?
The Green Bay Packers have had issues in their secondary for some time now, particularly at safety. Clinton-Dix was brought in to help remedy that.
The former Alabama star won’t have the job handed to him—he will have to fight converted cornerback Micah Hyde to start.
Green Bay’s first-round pick should have a leg up despite his NFL inexperience, having played safety throughout college and all. It can’t get much worse than M.D. Jennings, who was awful for the Packers last season.
Houston Texans: Jadeveon Clowney
Which rookie can make a bigger impact than the first overall pick?
Whether it’s becoming a colossal bust or living up to draft status, the top pick usually has an impact on his team. That should be the case for defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
The former South Carolina star joins an already solid defensive line anchored by otherworldly defensive end J.J. Watt. If Clowney lives up to the hype, that defensive front will be a nightmare for opposing offenses.
Indianapolis Colts: Jack Mewhort, OL
There wasn’t much to say about Indianapolis’ draft. The Colts didn’t have a first-round draft pick thanks to the Trent Richardson trade, and they only had five picks altogether.
It would be nice if receiver Donte Moncrief made an impact as a rookie, but the former Ole Miss Rebel will be stuck behind Reggie Wayne, Hakeem Nicks, T.Y. Hilton and likely Da’Rick Rogers on the depth chart.
The rookie with the biggest chance to make an early impact on the team is an offensive lineman—tackle Jack Mewhort.
Now that he's in the NFL, the former Ohio State lineman will likely be moved inside to guard, which is a position of need for the Colts. His play will go a long way to determining whether running back Trent Richardson bounces back this season.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Marqise Lee, WR
The Jacksonville Jaguars had a nice draft, but it will be interesting to see who emerges as a big rookie contributor.
Despite being taken No. 3 overall, quarterback Blake Bortles has been all but shelved for the 2014 season. The Jaguars want to bring him along slowly and have no rush to throw him into the fray.
Marqise Lee, however, will have no such luxury. He should be a starter opposite Cecil Shorts III—if the Jaguars can ever sign him to a rookie deal—and he should provide a boost to that offense right away.
If Lee can regain the form from his fantastic 2012 season and stay healthy, the Jaguars offense will have a nice pair of starting receivers on its hands.
Kansas City Chiefs: Phillip Gaines, CB
With Brandon Flowers gone, the Kansas City Chiefs are going to need someone to step up at cornerback. That man will be Phillip Gaines.
Granted, he will have his hands full with Chris Owens, Marcus Cooper and Sanders Commings on the roster. The third-round pick won’t be handed a starting gig, to be sure, but he is a great fit for that defense, per CBS Sports’ Rob Rang:
Gaines possesses the height, long arms, fluidity and straight-line speed to handle making the jump from Conference USA. He was one of the hotter prospects in the class as the draft approached, in large part due to an extraordinary workout at the combine that was highlighted by his 4.38 in the 40-yard dash and 6.62-second 3-cone drill, second fastest among cornerbacks tested in Indianapolis last year.
Boasting a rare combination of athleticism, length and instincts for the position, Gaines is well suited for Kansas City's scheme.
A good fit could mean Gaines has the inside track to winning a starting job and making a big impact as a rookie.
Miami Dolphins: Ja'Wuan James, OT
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill may have spent a little more time in the ice tub than most quarterbacks last season. The 58 sacks he withstood led the league and broke a club record.
The Miami Dolphins set about fixing that in a big way this offseason, starting by signing offensive tackle Branden Albert to a huge contract and ending by taking a couple of linemen early in the draft.
The first one of those was offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James out of Tennessee. He was a bit of a surprise pick at No. 19—many had him as a third-round option—but the Dolphins had little choice with the top tackles gone by the time they were on the clock.
James should be the starter on the right side immediately, and he will be tested early. If he is found wanting, Tannehill might be in for another long season. If the rookie lives up to his first-round status, however, the Dolphins offense could dramatically improve.
Minnesota Vikings: Scott Crichton, DE
Defensive end Jared Allen gave the Minnesota Vikings a fantastic half-dozen seasons. The 32-year-old moved on to the division rival Chicago Bears, though, leaving a need at the position heading into the draft.
Outside linebacker Anthony Barr might be an athletic specimen, but Scott Crichton might have been the safer pick, at least according to CBS Sports’ Rob Rang:
Whereas Barr was never asked to play out of the three-point stance while starring at outside linebacker in UCLA's largely 3-4 scheme, Crichton comes in relatively polished and quite versatile. He routinely flipped between left and right defensive end for the Beavers and even moved inside to nose guard, at times.
Crichton has a quick first-step and uses his hands very well, demonstrating both power and technique to break free from opponents' blocks. He is an instinctive, tenacious defender who plays to the whistle and pursues laterally and downfield with fervor.
Crichton is a more complete player than Barr right now, which means he should see the field in more than just obvious passing situations.
New England Patriots: Dominique Easley, DT
It will be interesting to see how soon Dominique Easley will be back to form.
The defensive tackle out of Florida should make one-half of a fantastic duo with Vince Wilfork in the middle of that line, but he is still rehabbing a torn ACL he suffered early last season.
Easley might just be the best defensive lineman to come out of this draft. If he is truly ready for Week 1, he will turn that defensive line into a monster right out of the gate. The versatile defender could allow the Patriots to get creative on defense, per NESN.com’s Doug Kyed:
Belichick praised Dominique Easley’s versatility the night the New England Patriots coach drafted the defensive lineman 29th overall. Easley played all over the front four at Florida while he was healthy. 'I’ll say you don’t see a lot of guys who do that — who play, I mean, he lines up on the nose, he lines up on the guard, he lines up on the tackle, he lines up out wide at times,' Belichick said. 'You can see him playing all those spots.'
To put it simply, having Easley healthy and performing up to expectations could make the Patriots defense a scary one.
New Orleans Saints: Brandin Cooks, WR
The New Orleans Saints lost a weapon when they traded running back Darren Sproles to the Philadelphia Eagles. They did a nice job of replacing him with receiver Brandin Cooks in the draft.
The rookie out of Oregon isn’t quite Sproles, but he should be a dynamic weapon out of the slot for quarterback Drew Brees. At least that's what the Saints hope for, having moved up in the first round to snag him.
Combined with Marques Colston, Kenny Stills and Jimmy Graham, Cooks figures to sizzle in that offense.
New York Giants: Weston Richburg, C
The New York Giants may have drafted Odell Beckham Jr. in the first round, but the former LSU receiver may have Tavon Austin-like struggles as a rookie. He is a Victor Cruz clone, and the Giants already have a Victor Cruz.
The rookie who will have the biggest impact on the Giants will play, perhaps, the least sexy position on offense—center.
Weston Richburg was the best center in the draft, and the Giants had a massive hole in the middle of that offensive line. He plugs that hole nicely.
New York Jets: Jace Amaro, TE
The New York Jets were woeful on offense last season. They were in the bottom 10 in scoring and total yardage and the second-worst passing offense in the league. It was no surprise to see them improve on that side of the ball.
Tight end Jace Amaro was a big part of that overhaul. The second-round pick out of Texas Tech was arguably the best tight end in the draft class behind Eric Ebron. The 6’5”, 265-pound monster will need to beat out incumbent starter Jeff Cumberland first, but he figures to be a big part of the offense regardless.
Amaro wasn’t a good blocker in college, but Cumberland has been one of the worst blockers at his position in the NFL.
Oakland Raiders: Khalil Mack, LB
The Oakland Raiders had a nice offseason, even if they didn’t make any splashy moves. They let the draft come to them, landing Khalil Mack at No. 5 overall without having to move a muscle.
Mack possessed the best combination of athleticism and polish at pass-rusher heading into the draft, which is why the Raiders selected him despite signing LaMarr Woodley, Antonio Smith and Justin Tuck in the offseason.
The rookie out of Buffalo could learn a thing or two from those veterans, but that doesn't mean he won't be making an impact on the field in the meantime. He has already impressed teammates while playing strong-side linebacker, and he is versatile enough to move all over the field.
Philadelphia Eagles: Jordan Matthews, WR
He might be wearing No. 81, but Jordan Matthews is no Terrell Owens in his prime. Not yet, anyway.
In a bold move, the Philadelphia Eagles released their leading receiver from a year ago, DeSean Jackson, earlier this offseason. It seems they found his replacement in Jordan Matthews out of Vanderbilt.
The 6’3”, 212-pound wideout has been impressive, according to Mark Eckel of NJ.com:
Matthews was one of the standouts in the no-pads, no-hitting minicamp and organized team activities last month and showed the great hands that allowed him to catch 112 passes his senior year in college. 'You guys are seeing the same things we are,' Bicknell said of Matthews. 'He’s looked very good so far.'
If he continues on that path, Matthews should make Eagles fans forget about who he replaced.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Ryan Shazier, LB
The Pittsburgh Steelers had major holes at linebacker to fill this offseason, and they did just that by drafting Ryan Shazier.
The Ohio State product was one of the most athletic players to enter the draft, and the Steelers will surely try to maximize his versatility.
He has already gotten off to a good start, impressing Steelers players and coaches, per ESPN.com's Scott Brown:
That is especially true if Shazier, the Steelers’ first-round pick, progresses as much at training camp as he has during the offseason practices.
'He understands concepts and picks things up a little bit easier than most rookies,' Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler said. 'I don’t like to play rookies, because in defensive football there’s two things that can get you beat. One of them is missed tackles, the other is mental mistakes. Normally when you try to learn this defense, it’s going to take you a little while to do it.'
The Steelers don’t have the luxury of bringing Shazier along slowly.
Shazier's play will go a long way toward determining whether the Steelers defense is good.
San Diego Chargers: Jason Verrett, CB
Cornerback wasn’t exactly a position of strength for the San Diego Chargers last season.
They boasted the fourth-worst pass defense in the league thanks in large part to lackluster play from guys like Richard Marshall and Shareece Wright.
Verrett will likely find his way as a nickelback now that the Chargers have signed Brandon Flowers to shore up that secondary. He got off to a slow start thanks to a shoulder injury, but the first-round pick should be able to beat Wright and Cox for the job, barring further injury.
Once there, Verrett will have to remain in the lineup by playing well when the bullets start flying in September. If he falters, the Chargers secondary might not see much improvement from 2013.
San Francisco 49ers: Aaron Lynch, DE
It’s not too often that a fifth-round rookie has the biggest impact on his team. It might seem even more far-fetched in San Francisco, a loaded team that has had trouble finding significant roles for young players in recent seasons.
Aaron Lynch fell to the fifth round because of a lackluster 2013 college campaign. A promising career fizzled after he transferred from Notre Dame and sat out for a year, which prompted allegations that he was lazy.
His loss was San Francisco’s gain, as it nabbed a defensive lineman with first-round talent all the way in the fifth. All he needs is a little motivation.
With outside linebacker Aldon Smith in legal trouble that might yet get him suspended, Lynch might see the field much earlier than expected. That will give him a chance to prove his doubters wrong and make a big impact as a rookie.
Seattle Seahawks: Paul Richardson, WR
The Seahawks danced around the draft and made some curious choices.
One of those was Paul Richardson, a slight receiver with blazing speed. The Seahawks needed help at the position, to be sure, but he seems to be little more than a 9-route option.
Seattle did lack a deep threat last season, however, and Richardson cures that in a big way. If he puts on some weight and shows that he can do more than go deep, he could easily get on the field over the likes of Jermaine Kearse and Sidney Rice.
The Seahawks already had an explosive offense without the benefit of a bona fide deep threat. Just imagine what they might do with Richardson stretching defenses.
St. Louis Rams: Greg Robinson, OG
The St. Louis Rams needed some help along the offensive line, and Greg Robinson should provide it.
He went second overall in the draft out of Auburn, but he should slot in as the starting left guard right out of the gate, according to Bleacher Report’s own 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. 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. The Rams also think it might be easier for Robinson to make the transition to a pro-style offense at guard than it would be at tackle.
Robinson will be a nice upgrade at left guard, particularly in the run game. His former teammate Tre Mason might be following his blocks on the left side if he wins his battle with Zac Stacy, a possibility that nearly got him selected here.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Mike Evans, WR
It was a rather productive offseason for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who added talent all over the roster in both free agency and the draft.
Their top draft pick should make the biggest impact as a rookie, though, as Mike Evans brings his 6’5” frame to the twin cities of Tampa to wreak havoc on opposing secondaries alongside Vincent Jackson.
Evans looked great at rookie camp before injuring himself at voluntary minicamp. He will have to get into shape before making his impact though, as he admits he wasn't quite there in recent weeks, per Greg Auman of the Tampa Bay Times.
Getting into shape shouldn't be a problem for Evans, and opposing defenses won't like him for it.
Tennessee Titans: Bishop Sankey, RB
It was a bit of a head-scratcher to see the Tennessee Titans select offensive tackle Taylor Lewan in the first round despite already having Michael Roos and newly acquired Michael Oher bookending the offensive line. Roos’ impending free agency and Oher’s overratedness may have played a part, however.
Lewan may find himself on the field as a rookie, but no greenhorn stands to impact the team more than running back Bishop Sankey.
The first running back taken in the draft, Sankey is in prime position to challenge ever-plodding Shonn Greene for the starting job. Head coach Ken Whisenhunt may not want to hand over the reins to a rookie right away, but Sankey still figures to play a major role in whether that offense moves the ball on the ground.
Washington: Zach Hocker, K
Washington’s biggest impact rookie will be...a kicker.
That is not to say the rest of the team's draft picks were awful, but Hocker may have the easiest path to playing time. It all depends on his preseason performance and whether Washington wants to hang onto two kickers, given Kai Forbath has been pretty accurate during his tenure.
One thing Forbath doesn’t have is a huge leg, which is why Hocker was drafted. He should win the battle on those grounds alone, unless he proves utterly inaccurate.