We’re more than a month removed from the NFL Draft, and we’ve had a chance to see a lot of the rookies make their debuts with their new teams. Based on OTA observations and reports from their head coaches, it should not come as a shock as to which rookies will have the biggest impact this coming season.
Here are the top 10 rookies on the defensive side of the ball for 2014:
This selection is obvious, but Clowney has a chance to make the Houston Texans’ front seven go from great to elite. If Clowney is at full strength for 2014, he and J.J. Watt are an indefensible tandem on the edge of the defensive line. I expect little to no transitional period for Clowney as a rookie.
2. Ryan Shazier
The Pittsburgh Steelers were not the Pittsburgh Steelers of old this past season, especially on defense. But the team is going back to do what it does best — a strong linebacking corps, including Jason Worilds, Lawrence Timmons, last year’s first-rounder Jarvis Jones and Shazier, a quick riser leading up to the draft. Shazier has a chance to be an athletic presence in a revamped front seven.
3. Calvin Pryor
Rex Ryan needed a safety to man center field in the New York Jets’ defensive backfield, and that’s what he’s got in Pryor. The Louisville standout fell to the Jets’ lap and Ryan could not pass up on a player with his skill-set. I expect Pryor not only to bolster the Jets’ run and pass defense, but allow other corners Dee Milliner and Kyle Wilson to be more aggressive.
Opposing quarterbacks are not going to throw in the direction of Joe Hayden, leaving the rookie Gilbert as their main prey. Expect the Oklahoma State standout to be up to the challenge. Not only should Gilbert have an opportunity to excel at corner, but could spark the Cleveland Browns’ return game as well.
5. DeMarcus Lawrence
DeMarcus Lawrence not only shares a first name with his predecessor, but a similarly large responsibility. Lawrence will be tasked with making Dallas Cowboys fans forget about DeMarcus Ware, who after one injury riddled down year was ran out of town. Lawrence has big shoes to fill and will have plenty of opportunities to make a name for himself.
6. Michael Sam
Whether Sam makes much of an impact on the field or not, his presence in the NFL is already being felt. The first openly gay player, Sam is making history each and every day. There’s no reason to hide your sexual orientation, and Sam is showing that it has zero impact on a player’s ability on the field or in the locker room.
7. C.J. Mosley
Mosley is the missing link to an already impressive Baltimore Ravens front seven. Former ‘Bama standout Courtney Upshaw rounds out a linebacking corps that includes Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil and Daryl Smith. The Ravens have a history of grooming strong backers, so it’s not surprising to see them put Mosley in a position to succeed.
8. Marcus Smith
The Philadelphia Eagles need to find a pass rush, and Smith will likely take over for Trent Cole at some point in the season. Philadelphia will have no trouble scoring points, but getting stops will continue to be an issue. Smith can be a key cog in upgrading the defense.
With an aging Terence Newman and Adam Jones, Dennard provides a strong No. 2 corner opposite Leon Hall, who in his own right is coming off a season-ending injury. Dennard has a chance, as a rookie, to fill big shoes right away, especially if one of the two veterans doesn’t play up to par.
10. Kyle Fuller
The Chicago Bears secondary was atrocious in 2013, and playing in the NFC North with wide receivers such as Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, corners are a much-needed commodity. Charles Tillman can be Fuller’s mentor, and he’ll need to grow up sooner rather than later to give Chicago a shot.