These are the young guns bringing the heat this season.
Chris Giblin 1 / 11
The draft finished in May, training camps started in late July, and now, the NFL’s top-rated rookies are looking to get some preseason reps to prove that they’re ready for the big time. It’s always fascinating to look back on NFL drafts’ past and see which players lived up to their potential (Peyton Manning, 1st overall pick, 1998), which ones exceeded expectations by a wide margin (Tom Brady, 199th overall pick, 2000) and which guys were spectacular busts (JaMarcus Russell, 1st overall pick, 2007). Of course, most of the guys from this year’s crop are sure to fall somewhere between those ends of the spectrum, but the (mostly) first-rounders on this list definitely have a ton of ability, and may get the chance to hit the ground running this season. Don’t rule it out, you may even find yourself starting one of these guys on your fantasy team at some point this season, but let’s not make any hasty decisions—we know how important that fantasy league is to you. And they’re still rookies, right? Let’s see how the first few games go.
Sankey was the first running back taken in this year’s draft, and he’s coming into a nearly ideal situation to snag an opening-day starting slot with the Titans. Tennessee released its top RB option for the past six seasons, Chris Johnson, in April (he’s now with the Jets) and it seems Sankey’s main competition for carries will be Shonn Greene, who had a couple 1,000-yard rushing seasons with the Jets (2011 and ’12) but was limited to just 295 yards as a backup to Johnson last year. Sankey was among the leaders at his position by completing 26 bench press reps (225 pounds) and posting a 4-second finish in the 20-yard shuttle during this year’s combine. He also enjoyed a thoroughly dominant final college season at Washington, where he gained 2,174 yards from scrimmage and scored 21 touchdowns in just 13 games.
Even casual college football fans have to be familiar with Auburn’s Tre Mason, who had a breakout season to lead the Tigers to an unexpected BCS Championship Game appearance against Florida State. Auburn lost the title in the final seconds, but Mason bulldozed the FSU defense for 195 yards, helping him finish up with 1,816 rushing yards and 23 TDs for the year. Mason excelled in the vertical leap (38.5 inches) and the broad jump (126 inches) at the combine and his prospects are great, but it’ll be a tall order for him to dethrone Zac Stacy as the Rams’ No. 1 back after Stacy’s impressive rookie campaign last season. Mason’s best hope might be to grab the top reserve slot and simply ensure himself some touches each game.
Watkins, widely heralded as the most talented wideout coming into this year’s draft, was picked by Buffalo with the fourth overall pick. With the Bills’ recent history of poor drafts leading to annual losing seasons, fans need to hope he can establish himself as a playmaker right out of the gate, as he figures to be the Bills’ top WR option for second-year quarterback EJ Manuel. His combine results weren’t terribly impressive given his competition (4.43-second 40-yard dash, 16 bench reps, etc.), but have no doubt—Watkins has world-class speed and a very high ceiling as a 21-year-old rookie who averaged well over 100 receiving yards per game in his last college season. Hopefully, he can give Buffalo something to cheer about—they’ve needed it for a while.
Now for the guy on the other end of that BCS title game—Kelvin Benjamin was the man hauling in the game-winning 2-yard TD pass from Jameis Winston with only 13 seconds left. Not to say that that was the main reason Carolina selected him with the 28th overall pick, but it certainly didn’t hurt his cause. Benjamin was a well-oiled machine last season (1,011 yards, 15 TDs), although it was also only his second college season. In effect, it’s likely that any struggles he has in the NFL will bring about debate as to whether he should have stayed at FSU to develop his skills for another year, but at 6-5, 240 pounds with a massive wingspan and 32.5-inch vertical, it doesn’t seem crazy to think he can become a favorite target for Cam Newton this season, especially on short-range high throws—this guy can get up for those 50-50 hospital passes if need be.
Cleveland has always been down on its sports luck, but the last few years were particularly brutal and depressing. But the return of LeBron paired with the arrival of Johnny Football to the Browns might just turn things around for the city. Let’s not get carried away with Manziel though, as he still has to earn the starting job. That said, he’s been an absolute prodigy all his life—he was involved in 75 touchdowns (45 passing, 30 rushing) in his last high school season and saw his skills transfer seamlessly to big-time college football in both years he was at A&M, in which he amassed 7,820 passing yards, 2,169 rushing yards, and accounted for another 93 touchdowns (63 passing, 30 rushing). No doubt, he will have to play a more disciplined game than he’s used to in order to exploit more advanced, physical NFL defenses, but his stellar numbers show he’s ready to move up. Hopefully, he can prove himself.
Bridgewater was snagged by Minnesota as the final pick of the first round—somewhat surprising, as several analysts lauded him as the top QB prospect in the draft. Regardless, Bridgewater has huge potential in the pros, seeing as he improved quickly from a surprisingly solid freshman QB to arguably the best in college football in his junior season (2013), in which he surgically dismantled American Athletic Conference defenses all year long. In the end, he completed 71 percent of his passes for 3,970 yards, 31 touchdowns and just 4 picks. He doesn’t have any scrambling ability to speak of, unlike Manziel’s backyard-style improvisation when plays break down, but Bridgewater replaces that with steady, precise passing efficiency. He’s going up against Matt Cassel for the starting job at the moment—if it’s a close call, don’t be surprised if Minnesota injects Bridgewater’s fresh blood into their offense come opening day.
It’s tough to predict who might become a playmaker at the tight end position, seeing as so many top NFL players come from a basketball background, like Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham. Still, there are plenty of football-only draftees out there with promise, and this year, Eric Ebron leads the pack. Ebron compiled an impressive 973 yards receiving with UNC last season and was among the leaders of his position at the combine in the 40-yard dash and broad jump events. Frequently compared to Vernon Davis (another one of the best tight ends in recent years), Ebron should get plenty of opportunities in the midst of a pass-happy Matt Stafford-led offense in Detroit this season. With Megatron likely to demand the respect of defenses across the league, perhaps Ebron can find some open space to exploit.
Jadeveon Clowney, DE, Texans (1st round, South Carolina)
The USA Today National Defensive Player of the Year (2012), Clowney is an imposing one-man force with near limitless potential. Clowney, the top pick of the draft, ran an incredible 4.53 40-yard dash (at 6'5", 266 pounds) to lead all DEs in the league, along with top marks in the broad jump and vertical leap at the combine. But that’s all beside the point, since he had already established himself as a dominant defender throughout his three college years, particularly in 2012, when he registered 54 tackles, 13 sacks, and three forced fumbles (his 2013 numbers were also good but he was hampered by injuries). Houston is likely hoping to get a similar defensive spark from Clowney as the Panthers got from drafting Luke Kuechly a couple years ago, so look to be entertained by him sacking QBs and burying running backs behind the line of scrimmage for losses this season and in the coming years.
One of few players on this list to play all four college seasons, Mack was a prime example of a great player making the best of his time at a less than prestigious program. Buffalo isn’t widely known as a D-I school and rarely churns out NFL talent, but Mack was so dominant that Oakland used the fifth overall pick on him. His senior year numbers speak for themselves—100 tackles, 10.5 sacks, three picks, two TDs, five forced fumbles. So, he’s an incredibly explosive linebacker with great instincts—certainly with the ability to excel in the NFL. His main concern will be making the leap to the pros from a smaller conference (MAC), but that should simply mean getting used to competing rather than crushing his opponents.
The 14th overall pick by Chicago, Fuller led the way as a team captain in his final year at VT. Although he missed nearly half the season with injuries, he still shined as a shutdown corner, recording 24 tackles, 10 pass breakups, two interceptions, a forced fumble and a blocked punt. His speed, hands and ability to anticipate routes and passes set him apart as one of few rookies that might be able to start the season as a No. 1 cornerback. Fuller will look to help improve a middling Bears pass defense, one that so painfully got beaten up in their final game of the 2013 season against the Packers, in which they blew a perfect opportunity to win the division.