10 non-first-round rookies who can make a big impact
The NFL draft is far from an exact science. Of PFF’s last four Rookie of the Year award winners, two were selected outside the first round. Very seldom do teams have so few needs that they can let their later-round picks develop on the bench. While many rookies will be thrust into playing time, these are the non-first rounders expected to have the biggest impact this season.
1. Dak Prescott, QB, Cowboys
There’s little doubt that Dak Prescott will have the biggest impact of any non-first rounder, as he’s the only such quarterback starting. As far as the preseason goes, it’s difficult to have a more impressive start to a career than the former Mississippi State standout. Prescott recorded an 89.4 adjusted completion percentage, averaged 9.1 yards per attempt, and had only one throw deemed turnover-worthy. The regular season is obviously a different animal altogether, but the results so far are encouraging as Prescott takes the field in Tony Romo’s stead.
2. Chris Jones, DE, Chiefs
How Chris Jones lasted all the way until the second round, I still don’t have no idea. The Chiefs aren’t complaining, though, after Jones put up the highest grade of any interior defender this preseason. The second Mississippi State alum on this list didn’t notch a sack or a hit, but his eight hurries led the league, despite seeing only 36 pass-rushing snaps. So far there aren’t many holes to poke in Jones’ game, as he graded above-average in both run defense and pass rushing in each of the three preseason outings he saw action in.
3. Joe Thuney, G, Patriots
Look no further than the AFC Championship game from a season ago to find why Joe Thuney will be a difference-maker. In that game, the Patriots’ offensive line yielded pressure on 49.2 percent of Tom Brady’s dropbacks, with an outrageous 12 of those being charged to left guard Josh Kline. In 91 pass-blocking snaps this preseason, the former N.C. State guard has yielded only two hurries.
4. Tajae Sharpe, WR, Titans
Even though he graded out as one of the top receivers in college football a season ago at UMass, no one here at PFF could tell you with a straight face that they saw this hype coming. The fifth rounder swiftly rose to the top of the Titans’ depth chart, and then owned his 59 preseason snaps, earning the sixth-highest grade of any receiver. There was a big to-do in the draft process about Sharpe’s unusually small hands, but he didn’t drop a ball once this preseason, and had only three drops in 115 opportunities last season in college.
5. Derrick Henry, RB, Titans
Derrick Henry is yet another Titan in what was a lucrative 2016 draft for Tennessee. The former Heisman winner may not be the starter, but with as much as the Titans figure to run the ball, that may not matter for Henry to see significant touches. In the preseason, Henry average 6.4 yards per carry, with a ridiculous 4.1 of those coming after contact. His 12 broken tackles led the league, and unsurprisingly, he finished with the highest grade of any back.
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6. Noah Spence, DE, Buccaneers
In a draft bereft of talented edge rushers, Spence has looked the most adept of any in his handful of preseason snaps. In 56 pass rushes this preseason, he’s collected six pressures, including a sack. The rookie’s run defense leaves something to be desired, but the Bucs knew that coming in. He’ll be a designated pass-rusher in year one, and has a chance to add significantly to the Tampa Bay’s third-down defense.
7. Cody Whitehair, C, Bears
The Josh Sitton signing means Whitehair likely ends up at center for the Bears, but I don’t anticipate it lessening the rookie’s impact. Not only was Whitehair the highest-graded tackle in college football last year, but he also came in right away this preseason and graded above-average as both a run and pass blocker, playing with Chicago’s first-team offense. If he can keep it up, the Bears will have one of the best interior lines in football.
8. Cyrus Jones, CB, Patriots
It’s a tad surprising for a team as talented as the Patriots to have two players making this list, but without a first-round pick, they drafted two players that are ready to start immediately, even if they might not have the perceived upside. Jones figures to be the nickel corner for the Pats after a season at Alabama, where he finished as the third-highest graded corner in the SEC. He’s been solid this preseason, allowing 101 yards in 92 coverage snaps and adding an interception.
9. Blake Martinez, ILB, Packers
With the incumbent talent at inside linebacker in Green Bay, if Martinez isn’t making an impact as a rookie, that’s a bad sign. He posted the highest coverage grade of any ILB in college last season, and in 70 snaps this preseason, he’s been above-average in that respect, allowing only one catch for 6 yards. If the Packers can even get average play from the Stanford product, that will be an upgrade at the position.
10. Kenneth Dixon, RB, Ravens
In an extremely crowded Baltimore backfield, expect the Louisiana Tech product to rise to the top of the depth chart at some point this season. Dixon was the second-highest rated back on our draft board, and his NFL comp was a back like Dion Lewis. What really sets Dixon apart from the other Ravens backs is his receiving ability; Baltimore hasn’t had a do-it-all back since Ray Rice, and Dixon was the fifth-highest graded receiving back in the FBS last season.