When NFL draft selections are made in late April/early May, some fans have visions of those picks helping turn around their favorite team the very next season. It can happen—teams change quickly in the NFL. But some picks are like getting a new set of golf clubs in a Minnesota winter: you might have to wait awhile to see exactly how good they are.
Still, the NFL is a young man's league. Every year, a new crop of rookies joins the league and attempt to make an impact. Some make more of an impact than others, as first-rounders (particularly quarterbacks) are usually expected to make a mark sometime in their first season. But other rookies fly under the radar—such as Vikings wideout Cordarrelle Patterson did last year—until by season's end, everyone is talking about them as Rookie of the Year candidates.
Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, rookies in 2012, both took their teams to the playoffs in their first seasons. But then again, they were picks No. 1 and No. 2 in the draft, respectively, so much was expected of them. On the other hand, when it was announced this past week that rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel would not be an opening-day starter, some Cleveland fans’ hopes for the season were crushed.
But there are other rookies who will make a name for themselves this season—some you’ve heard of, and others you can’t remember which team drafted them. Here is a look at few rookies who could make a sudden impact on their team this season. And for those of you looking for a late-round fantasy football sleeper, we’ve included a few rookies you should not sleep on.
Carlos Hyde, RB, San Francisco 49ers
Frank Gore is not going to last forever. At 31, he is starting slow down and he saw reduced carries last season. Carlos Hyde may be the running back of the future in San Francisco, and he is already showing he is ready. It’s preseason, but in two games, Hyde has nine carries for 50 yards (5.6 YPC).
And in the Niners’ second game against the Broncos, he replaced Gore during the first drive and took the majority of the work with the first-team offense. He runs well and can catch the ball out of backfield. Even without an injury to Gore, expect Hyde’s opportunities to increase as the season goes on.
Brandin Cooks, WR, New Orleans Saints
Everyone knows that Sammy Watkins primed for a breakout season up in Buffalo (although some sore ribs have slowed him a bit), but another wide receiver garnering some attention is Brandin Cooks down in New Orleans. Quarterback Drew Brees has made household names out of a number of wideouts during his tenure with the Saints, and Cooks appears to be the next in line.
Cooks caught five passes for 55 yards in the Saints preseason opener, but he has performed just as well in practice, where the word is he makes one or two highlight plays every day. An in-game target and a good practice player is someone you want on your roster. With Brees (oblique muscle injury) recently being given the green light to play by his coach and Jimmy Graham attracting tough coverage, Cooks will see a lot of passes this season.
Blake Bortles, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars
I know, I know, Blake Bortles was the No. 3 pick in the draft and is expected to contribute this season, but the original plan was to bring him along slowly behind Chad Henne. While that plan is still being employed, it now has more holes in it than the 4,000 in Blackburn, Lancashire.
Bortles came in as the most NFL-ready quarterback in the draft and has impressed mightily during the preseason (28-for-45 for 435 yards in three games). His snap count with the first teamers in practice is slowly creeping up, despite the fact coach Gus Bradley hadn’t planned for any during training camp. If Henne struggles out of the gate in the regular season, look for Bortles to step in—and do well.
Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Carolina Panthers
Cam Newton lost several of his top targets from last season due to free agency, but he has to pass to someone. The No. 1 receiver position for the Panthers is wide open—and it just might be rookie Kelvin Benjamin's for the taking. Benjamin and Jerricho Cotchery are listed as the starters on the depth chart, and Cotchery is in his 11th season and has never been anything higher than a No. 2 or 3 on his previous teams.
Benjamin has led the Panthers in receiving for two of three preseason games. Look for him to become Newton’s favorite target—they have formed a pretty tight friendship off the field and that could translate onto the field this season.
Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Rookie wideout Mike Evans has improved every week. In the first preseason game he was targeted twice with no receptions. In the Bucs' second game he caught two passes for 52 yards against the Dolphins. And in the third game, Evans finished with three receptions on three targets for 44 yards and a touchdown to lead all the Bucs receivers against the Bills.
He has started opposite the team’s No. 1 receiver, Vincent Jackson, and his role has been growing every week. Evans is becoming the clear No. 2 receiver in Tampa, and you should only expect his production to increase during the regular season.
Some Sleepers that might wake up
Arizona Cardinals wide receiver John Brown has had some moments in the preseason, but second-year man Jaron Brown has been stealing the limelight lately (two catches, 86 yards vs. Minnesota). There are plenty of good pass catchers ahead of John Brown on the roster, but after catching five passes for 87 yards in the first game, his general manager compared him to Anquan Boldin, as a rookie.
Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon flashed his speed in game one and then showed some versatility as a kickoff returner in game two, making a strong case for some reps behind Adrian Peterson. While Peterson is a more than solid starter, the Vikings are planning to keep him fresh. The speedy McKinnon—who rushed six times for 43 yards and caught two passes for nine yards in game three—should be the beneficiary of some PT.
Atlanta Falcons rookie tailback Devonta Freeman will see some action this season either as a backup for aging running back Steven Jackson, or as a starter as the oft-injured Jackson winds down his career. Picking him as a handcuff pick for Jackson is good insurance.
Tennessee Titans running back Bishop Sankey is the Titans' leading rusher in the preseason and as a second-round pick has a chance to start, but his propensity for fumbling in both practices and games is holding him back. Sankey has a great opportunity with Chris Johnson gone, but continued fumbling will short-circuit that chance very quickly.
Cleveland Browns running back Terence West has received plenty of publicity (which is saying something in Cleveland) but hasn’t quite lived up to it. He has only 70 yards on 25 carries (2.8 yards per carry) through three games. The player he is pushing is Ben Tate, formerly of the Houston Texans. Tate is performing better, but has trouble staying on the field due to injuries.
Don’t count West out yet. It could be the perfect scenario for West to start the season as a backup and be ready to perform when he’s needed—perhaps just like his rookie teammate, Manziel.