Help on an NFL roster can come from unexpected places.
Last season, the Detroit Lions roster looked like a barren wasteland of talent at wide receiver. Fourth-round rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown emerged as Detroit’s leading receiver and tied for 15th in the league with 90 receptions.
The 112th overall pick entered the league as a slot receiver with marginal straight-line speed. However, St. Brown took advantage of the opportunities laid before him and excelled.
“If you’re in the NFL, you’re part of the one percent,” former Indianapolis Colts cornerback Tony Brown, who entered the league as an undrafted free agent, said to The Athletic’s Bob Kravitz. “To make it, you’ve got to be the one percent of the one percent. It’s a challenge.”
When everyone is on the field, a player’s draft status is just a number.
Once a rookie shows he belongs, he’ll have a chance to contribute. Typically, those expectations are immediately placed on first- and second-round selections. The same can’t be said of those who hear their names called during the third through seventh rounds. Some still do, though.
Ten rookies chosen beyond this year’s first two frames are already making waves as potential instant-impact performers or even starters. Their respective teams appeared to have made the right investments and will look to benefit from these draft-day steals.
The Houston Texans’ decision to release veteran running back Marlon Mack set the stage for fourth-round rookie Dameon Pierce to become the team’s featured ball-carrier.
Mack signed a free-agent deal to join the Texans this offseason and looked like the clear top option. Instead, Houston’s brass saw something special in this year’s 107th overall selection.
Pierce was part of a rotation at Florida and accumulated 329 carries for 1,806 yards and 23 touchdowns. While the 5’10”, 218-pound back was never previously asked to take on a full-time role, his traits and lack of relative wear project well to the NFL ranks. He was already graded as the preseason’s top running back, per Pro Football Focus.
“In today’s NFL, we’re kind of running back by committee, however you want to chop it up,” Pierce told reporters in June. “So I feel like, with my usage rate and my productivity, how it fits into the NFL, schemes well, that means I can put up good numbers on a few amount of carries and just overall less of a usage. So that is definitely a plus to me, especially my role on special teams—played a role in that, too.”
The Texans see an explosive back with a powerful running style and a little wiggle in the hole to either punish or juke defenders. Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy noted that Pierce posted the fastest in-game GPS speed during the event, which occurred during the opening kickoff. Special teams play often opens coaches’ eyes to where an individual can help elsewhere.
“You’re looking at what players can do,” Texans offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton said. “There’s a ton of different offenses in college football, and it’s hard to, at times, try and predict how a player that plays within a scheme is going to be able to adjust and adapt to the pro game. But we do know that certain skill sets have a better chance of adapting to our game.”
Speed, toughness, vision and a team-first mentality certainly fit the criteria of skills that adapt.
A rookie catching more than the attention of the back-to-back NFL MVP, Aaron Rodgers, is serious.
The summer of Romeo Doubs continues after the Green Bay Packers chose him with this year’s 132nd overall pick. Doubs continually showed in practices and preseason games that he’s a dynamic vertical threat with a special catch radius.
The 38-year-old quarterback is spending significant time together with Doubs to groom the rookie as one of his top targets.
“I think the standard for him is not gonna be maybe the standard for a normal rookie that we’ve had here in the past four to five years. Cuz he’s gonna be expected to play based on his performance so far in camp. So we’ve gotta hold him to a standard that I know he’s capable of reaching,” Rodgers told reporters.
Doubs wasn’t supposed to be the guy, though. The Packers traded up in the second round to acquire Christian Watson with the 34th overall pick. But Watson wasn’t ready for the start of camp, and Doubs shined every single day.
Allen Lazard is clearly Green Bay’s top target with Davante Adams gone.
Nonetheless, the excitement over what Doubs can do shouldn’t be tempered. Lazard is at his best working as a power slot. Doubs can continue to be a threat down the field and outside the numbers.
“He’s made some instinctual plays that you can’t really coach,” Rodgers said last week. “He ran a little in and back out in the game, and at the top of the route, there’s a guy right there, and instead of drifting on it and letting the guy make a play, he comes hard back to the ball, strong hands. You like seeing those plays. It gives you confidence that he’s capable of doing some things that aren’t on the paper offense.”
If Rodgers truly believes in Doubs, the rookie’s golden ticket awaits.
Usage at the collegiate level can shroud a specific prospect’s talent.
For example, Daniel Bellinger was a three-year starter and team captain at San Diego State. Despite being a big part of the program, the tight end never caught more than 31 passes or 357 receiving yards in a season. Both of those numbers came last year and should be considered marginal at best.
His utilization depended on the scheme. The Aztecs are a run-first offense and have been for a long time. Bellinger served as a traditional in-line tight end who excelled as a blocker. Yet his limited opportunities flashed significant potential as a receiver.
At 6’5″ and 253 pounds, this year’s 112th overall pick is a powerful and athletic target. He can create mismatches and yards after the catch.
He’s a massive target who recorded a 4.63-second 40-yard dash and 34.5-inch vertical at the combine. Bellinger posted an elite relative athletic score as the 35th-most athletic tight end over the last 35 years, according to Pro Football Network’s Kent Lee Platte. Furthermore, he’s a true Y-tight end with the expanded capabilities of playing at the end of the line of scrimmage and split out wide.
The New York Giants immediately recognized the fourth-round pick’s potential, and Belling quickly assumed snaps with the first-team offense.
“We’ve thrown him in there, and he’s played a lot of football for us,” head coach Brian Daboll told reporters two weeks ago. “Still has a ways to go to learn a lot of the intricacies that you need to have in playing. But he’s willing. He’s smart. He’s tough. He’s got good qualities to work with. We just got to keep working with him and improving.”
Bellinger is currently in the concussion protocol after getting dinged during Sunday’s contest against the New York Jets. Once healthy, he should slide into his spot as the Giants’ TE1 since the team doesn’t have much behind the rookie to really challenge his standing.
Certain prospects possess very specific skill sets, and they’re knocked throughout the draft process as a result. Isaiah Likely is a true F-tight end. Basically, he’s an oversized wide receiver who will do little to nothing as an inline blocker. Moreover, the two-time first-team All-Sun Belt performer isn’t an exceptional athlete. Thus, Likely doesn’t necessarily look like a mismatch waiting to happen.
However, the 6’4″, 241-pound target has a good feel for his routes, knows how to find the spots in a defense and creates after the catch.
“I try to tell you all, he’s just got that ‘it’ factor to him,” All-Pro teammate Mark Andrews told reporters Wednesday. “He’s going to be big for our offense, so I’m excited about him. He’s going to continue to grow, but his game is already very, very high. He doesn’t play like a rookie. It’s going to be great to have him in there, playing with him and making plays.”
The Baltimore Ravens present a unique offense that has the most productive runner the NFL has ever seen behind center and a tight end-centric scheme. While questions still exist about what the team will realistically do at wide receiver beyond Rashod Bateman, Likely provides a different, albeit unique, option.
“He is a guy that’s going to require attention,” Andrews added. “He’s going to make plays, and for me, that’s big. Being able to find spots, get open, and have some other guys take attention.”
In two preseason games, Likely posted the highest overall grade among all positions and forced the most missed tackles of any rookie, according to Pro Football Focus.
A prospect with Likely’s skill set isn’t for every team. He’s certainly not a schematic fit in certain situations. But the move-tight end fills a niche that’s perfect for the Ravens.
On paper, the Chicago Bears look to have one of the league’s worst offensive lines. However, a significant boost could come from the rapid development of rookie left tackle Braxton Jones.
This year’s 168th overall pick already claimed a starting spot as the Bears’ Week 1 meeting with the San Francisco 49ers nears. Jones began working with the first-team offense at the end of organized team activities and hasn’t relinquished the spot.
“Braxton is going to be a good player,” left guard Cody Whitehair told reporters. “The way he studies. The way he understands stuff. He’s very athletic. He’s got great length. He uses his hands well. I really like where Braxton’s at.”
The fact that Jones is a fifth-round pick in the starting lineup presents enough obstacles, but the rookie also played at the FCS level for the Southern Utah Thunderbirds. The transition hasn’t been overwhelming, though.
Physically, the rookie is an exceptional athlete. The 6’5″, 310-pound blocker ran a 4.97-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. He also has extremely long arms at 35 3/8 inches, which tied for the second-longest among those in Indianapolis.
The movement skills are obvious, and the first-year left tackle continually works on taking advantage of his length. His hand placement while consistently shooting his hands will be a tremendous help, as will setting a strong anchor. A baptism by fire during Bears practices certainly helps in Jones’ maturation.
“One of the things with Braxton is he gets to go against Robert Quinn every day,” offensive line coach Chris Morgan noted. “He gets to go against our defensive ends every day. So that work he’s getting is priceless.”
Abraham Lucas played in an Air Raid scheme at the collegiate level. All he ever did was pass block. His transition to the pro game will take some time.
Or so many thought. They appear to be wrong since Lucas is penciled in as the Seattle Seahawks’ starting right tackle.
Lucas’ predraft grades varied greatly because of the circumstances in which he played coupled with an exceptional athletic profile. How athletic? This year’s 72nd overall pick posted the 34th-best relative athletic score among offensive tackles over the last 35 years, according to Pro Football Network’s Kent Lee Platte.
For comparison, the Seahawks choose Lucas’ bookend, Charles Cross, with this year’s ninth overall pick. Cross barely cracked the top 300.
Lucas was a four-year starter for the Washington State Cougars. During that span, the team threw the ball 1,991 times. The right tackle didn’t allow a single sack on true pass sets last season, according to Pro Football Focus. During the preseason, Lucas allowed only one pressure. The young blocker knows how to set, though he’ll face a higher level of competition during the regular season.
The surprising aspect of Lucas’ performance so far is how he seems to relish run blocking. A highlight of pancake blocks can be made from his preseason tape, and he can be found burying multiple defenders.
In fact, both rookie tackles came from pass-first offenses and they’ve adapted relatively well.
“They have made the transition to be run guys, and they come off the rock; they’re both physical and athletic,” head coach Pete Carroll told reporters. “They’re finishing well. That’s the stuff that we’re looking for. They really took to the coaching, and they give us a chance to have a really, really good-looking group for a long time.”
An offensive line is only as strong as its weakest link. A cliche may not be appropriate in most cases, but the saying certainly fits as it pertains to the Cincinnati Bengals’ starting front five.
Fourth-round rookie Cordell Volson appears to be the final piece to the puzzle, and he simply needs to be good enough.
“I see steady improvement,” head coach Zac Taylor said of this year’s 136th overall pick. “He’s consistent. We know what we are getting out of him.”
Last season, Joe Burrow endured more sacks than any other NFL quarterback. Defenders continually harassed and hit the former No. 1 overall pick. Despite the obvious deficiency, the Bengals still made it to Super Bowl LVI because of Burrow, an amazing set of wide receivers and an underrated defense. Even so, the game ended in the Los Angeles Rams’ favor because the Bengals offensive line couldn’t protect its quarterback when it mattered the most.
Director of player personnel Duke Tobin did everything in his power to upgrade nearly the entire unit. Ted Karras, Alex Cappa and La’el Collins will take over at center, right guard and right tackle, respectively. But left guard remained a sore spot as Cincinnati entered training camp.
The 24-year-old Volson brings accountability, physicality and toughness. Basically, the rookie brings all of the traits the Bengals’ front lacked last season. Volson didn’t even play in the Bengals’ third preseason contest and Taylor named him the starter at left guard Wednesday.
“He’s hungry. He’s always asking for meeting time, asking good questions to the vets. You can tell when you got a great mentality like that,” the coach said during the team’s final preseason postgame press conference. “His presence, being around, is impressive to see from a young guy.”
The Cleveland Browns defense is built around its talented defensive ends. Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney can both take over games and completely disrupt opposing offenses. But both have missed games throughout their careers, particularly Clowney, who hasn’t played a full season since 2017.
The team lacked quality depth behind its two game-changers. Last season, another former first-round pick, Takkarist McKinley, as well as Porter Gustin and Ifeadi Odenigbo, didn’t get the job done when they rotated on the field.
Whereas rookie third-round pick Alex Wright is in the perfect situation to develop properly. In a lot of ways, he already looks the part.
Garrett and Clowney are towering presences on each end of the line of scrimmage. They stand 6’4″, 272 pounds and 6’5″, 255 pounds, respectively. They’re built exactly how teams envision their edge players. Wright is 6’5″ and 267 pounds himself. The 21-year-old has the size and length to turn a dynamic duo into a terrific trio.
“I really get a three-for-one instead of a two-for-one or one (coach) only,” Wright told reporters last week. “It’s kind of like a bonus that I take advantage of each and every day.”
Wright already showed throughout preseason that he’s capable of handling a higher level of competition after playing at UAB. Physically, the rookie edge-defender is still developing a plan of attack, particularly as a pass-rusher. But he’s consistently worked his hands when getting after opposing quarterbacks and showed the ability to stack and shed to set the edge. His preseason flashes portend an individual capable of taking over a series.
“He was really a favorite across the organization—scouts, coaches and our research and strategy group,” general manager Andrew Berry said after the Browns selected Wright with this year’s 78th overall pick. “We like him because he is a player who profiles as what we call a big end or a strong-side end, but with Alex, he really has the versatility to rush outside and inside. We love his frame. We love his ability to rush the passer.”
The transition from Hard Knocks star to actual productive player during the NFL’s regular season can be difficult.
Malcolm Rodriguez is deserving of the hype, though. He’s done everything the Detroit Lions coaching staff asked of the sixth-round draftee.
“He is a pretty amazing little player, isn’t he?” defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn told reporters.
“Well, you guys made him a star. I’ve said it before and this is what Bill Parcells says, ‘Don’t put him in the Hall of Fame just yet.’ But I’ll tell you what, he’s a really humble kid. If the starting job is his, it’s his. If it’s not, it’s not. He’ll play special teams. He has to earn his keep. He knows that. And I think he’s doing a really good job of that. He’s a focused individual. He understands exactly what he has to do to have a role as far as this as this defense is concerned.”
The linebacker fell to the 188th overall pick of April’s draft for a simple reason: he’s undersized. Even in today’s smaller-yet-faster world where defenders are regularly asked to play in space, Rodriguez didn’t quite fit as a 5’11”, 230-pound defender. But his nose for the football is special.
Over the last three years, the Oklahoma State standout accumulated 314 total tackles. Yes, Rodriguez is a sawed-off linebacker who lacks length and can be engulfed at the point of attack. But he consistently works to be in the right position and make plays.
Rodriguez’s emergence as a potential starter helped ease the decision by the Lions to cut former first-round pick Jarrad Davis.
“He’s pretty steady,” head coach Dan Cambell said. “He does what he’s being coached to do, and he just gets a little bit better every day and memory-banks it and continues to go.”
When a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year points out how well a rookie is doing during his first training camp and preseason, something must be going right.
“I think (safety Nick Cross is) coming along well,” Indianapolis Colts cornerback Stephon Gilmore said, per Horseshoe Huddle’s Andrew Moore. “He’s always in the right position. He wants to be great, he’s fast, he can tackle, he can do it all. He doesn’t act like a normal rookie to me and I think he’s going to help us out a lot.”
An unexpected series of happenings occurred to place this year’s 96th overall draft pick into a significant defensive role.
First, Khari Willis unexpectedly retired to pursue a career in ministry. Whereas 32-year-old safety Rodney McLeod required offseason knee surgery. The Colts activated the 10-year veteran from the physically unable to perform list on July 27, though he needed time to adjust at the start of training camp.
Because of these circumstances, Cross immediately filled in as the team’s starting strong safety. The 20-year-old excelled.
“I don’t know if I’ve had a guy 20 years old at the level that he is,” defensive backs coach Ron Milus, who’s a 22-year NFL coaching veteran, told The Athletic’s James Boyd. “When you think about it, if you’re 20 years old, aren’t you supposed to be like a junior in college? And now he’s out here in the National Football League. Obviously, he can run, he can cover, he’s got size, he’s got strength. Sometimes I do wonder because a 20-year-old at his level? That is kind of unique.”
Cross plays like he’s shot out of a cannon. Sometimes, that trait can be positive and negative. His collegiate tape suggests he can get caught with his eyes in the backfield or he’ll bite on a double-move, though Cross’ hair trigger and 4.34-second 40-yard dash speed allow him to be an eraser, either playing downhill or on the back end.
With the proper guidance, the Colts’ third-round draft pick can be one of the league’s best defensive rookies. He already graded as the league’s best safety, albeit in the preseason, per Pro Football Focus.
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