5 AFC players who could lose their starting jobs to rookies
Previously, we broke down five NFC veterans who could be displaced by rookies. Here’s the AFC version.
Buffalo Bills: DE Corbin Bryant vs. Adolphus Washington
The chance of Rex Ryan emerging from the draft without a defensive lineman was almost nil. He ended up taking two inside the top 80 picks. As it turned out, Shaq Lawson’s shoulder injury was a genuine concern, and the start of his NFL career will be delayed by surgery. However, the other rookie added to the defensive line, tackle Adolphus Washington, can make an instant impact. Kyle Williams has had an outstanding career, but struggled adjusting to Rex Ryan’s scheme before going down with injury before being lost for the year with injury. Replacement Corbin Bryant lacks the pass-rush tools to consistently pressure the QB (67.9 grade) and was only solid against the run (76.6 grade). He generated just 27 combined hurries in 343 snaps in 2015.
In contrast, Washington has pass-rush potential in abundance. He recorded five sacks, eight hits and 35 hurries on course to the third-highest grade rushing the passer among interior D-linemen in a stacked draft class. Chargers No. 3 overall pick Joey Bosa garnered all the headlines, but his teammate was a major part of one of the best defensive fronts in the FBS. He’s less effective against the run (Washington needs to improve against double teams specifically) and effort can be a concern, but for a team devoid of an interior presence to push the pocket, he was an ideal selection in the third round.
Denver Broncos: QB Mark Sanchez vs. Paxton Lynch
Mark Sanchez’s chances of being anything like a long-term starter are, by this point, unlikely. He actually played better in Philadelphia than he did in his first stint with the New York Jets, but ultimately the same crippling mistakes cropped up at key moments in games. A red-zone interception took points off the board in one-point reversal against the Miami Dolphins. He ended his three-game stint with as many interceptions as touchdowns (four) and a QB rating of just 80.7.
The Broncos and Hall of Fame QB John Elway were well aware that Sanchez was not the long-term solution. A modest trade-up to the 26th overall pick ensured an alternative in Lynch. His mobility should make him a good fit in Gary Kubiak’s offense, which requires the quarterback to throw on the run frequently. While consistency remains an issue for Lynch, particularly in terms of his placement, he flashed enough talent to make a late first-round-investment worthwhile. Lynch’s +25.0 grade was good enough for seventh in this class. Despite needing some development, it would be a surprise if Lynch wasn’t the starter Week 1.
Baltimore Ravens: RB Kenneth Dixon vs. Justin Forsett
The Ravens have lacked a genuine receiving threat out of the backfield since Ray Rice was in his prime back in 2012. Justin Forsett has always graded well in his seven years in the league, but lacks the dynamic ability of a back like Dixon. He’s always been more effective on the ground, recording a 76.6 grade in that facet of play in 2015. In contrast, Forsett is less effective in space. Last season, he managed only a 48.9 grade in the passing game, averaging just 4.9 yards per catch.
It would be something of a waste of Dixon’s talent if his role was limited to third downs at the next level, but he’s undoubtedly most effective in the open field. Dixon led the FBS with seven receiving touchdowns, and ranked fourth with 16 broken tackles. His shiftiness in space is a sight to behold. Although Dixon does his best work as a receiver, he makes enough plays between the tackles to suggest he can handle a full workload. Dixon is a complete back, who can compete for a starting role right away.
Tennessee Titans: DE/OLB Derrick Morgan vs. Kevin Dodd
The Titans’ pair of edge rushers are both good players, but age and scheme fit made the position a need for Tennessee heading into the draft. Brian Orakpo continues to produce, but is closing in on 30. Derrick Morgan, meanwhile, is better suited to playing defensive end and missed a major part of 2015 through injury. He amassed 30 combined pressures in 238 rushes, leaving him in the middle of the pack in terms of pass rush productivity. With his salary jumping to $8 million in 2017, the Titans are likely to be eager to get younger and cheaper at outside linebacker.
Enter Kevin Dodd, who played almost exclusively off the left side at Clemson in an edge defender role (the same position as Morgan). Dodd might have played in Shaq Lawson’s shadow, but a dominant final month saw him drafted only a handful of picks after his college teammate. He made a consistent impact throughout the season even before that excellent run, grading positively in every game. Overall he recorded 12 sacks, nine hits and 48 hurries. Dodd has room to improve against the run (11 missed tackles), but the Titans drafted him for his ability to get to the quarterback rather than stifle the ground game. Adjusting to a two-point stance might also take a little time. Long-term, though, Dodd should make an impact off the edge in Tennessee.
Miami Dolphins: WR Kenny Stills vs. Leonte Carroo
The Dolphins have invested significant resources in the wide receiver position the past couple of years. Jarvis Landry was a second-round pick in 2014, DeVante Parker was added in the first last year, and Kenny Stills cost them a third-rounder (the price they paid to acquire Stills from the Saints via trade). Not satisfied with their production after losing Rishard Matthews in free agency, the Dolphins used the 86th overall pick on Rutgers WR Leonte Carroo.
Assuming Parker is fully healthy, Carroo will likely compete with Kenny Stills for the third receiver spot immediately. Stills struggled in his first season in Miami, catching just 27 passes (45.8 percent of targers) for 440 yards, three touchdowns and four drops. His role lacked a little nuance — 23 of his 59 targets came on downfield passes — but Stills simply lacked the production expected of him when the Dolphins made the deal.
Carroo only managed to play eight games in 2015, but he was incredibly productive on limited targets. Overall, he caught 39 passes for 808 yards and 10 touchdowns. Carroo also dropped just a pair of passes in two seasons in the FBS, highlighting the strength of his hands. Downfield routes suit Carroo’s skill set, as he’s able to use his physicality to box out defensive backs and shows exceptional body control to elevate and make catches in traffic. On passes of 20-plus yards, Carroo made 13 catches for 471 yards and six touchdowns. Carroo might prove a steal with the added bonus of contributing from Day 1.