Vernon Hargreaves III, Cornerback, Tampa Bay — The Buccaneers used the ninth overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft on Vernon Hargreaves in early May, just weeks later (during OTA’s in June), they realized that he’s got the talent and the polish to contribute to the Buccaneers defense immediately. After recording two interceptions in Tampa Bay’s win against Jacksonville in the second week of the preseason, he proved his coaches right. Head coach Dirk Koetter has already stated that Hargreaves will see extensive playing time on the first team defense, and he’ll get plenty of tests from the quarterbacks in his division (Cam Newton, Drew Brees, and Matt Ryan). He’ll have an opportunity to make a name for himself very early in his career.
Jared Goff, Quarterback, Los Angeles — Considering he was the #1 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, and the Rams don’t exactly have a franchise stalwart ahead of him at quarterback, it’s just a matter of time before the starting job is given to Goff. By all accounts, he’s experienced some bumps along his learning curve, which is to be expected for someone transitioning to the professional level after playing in a spread-type offense in college. Still, the Rams’ coaches rave about his work ethic and football intelligence, and his accuracy has continually flashed in different situations. If the Rams can just keep him upright and actually give him a system and scheme to grow in, he could be a very good player, very soon.
Michael Thomas, Wide Receiver, New Orleans — Coming out of Ohio State University, there was a sizable contingent of draftniks who believed that Michael Thomas was the best wide receiver prospect in the 2016 NFL Draft. He ran sub-4.6 in the 40 yard dash (4.57 at the combine and 4.55 at his pro day), which is crazy swift for a guy standing 6’3 and 212lbs. During OTA’s and training camps, there’s been non-stop buzz about coming out of New Orleans about Thomas; they love how fast he’s been able to assimilate himself within the offense as a rookie. The door is wide open for him to step in from day one and take over the role left by the departed Marques Colston, who Thomas is basically a younger and faster version of anyway.
Sterling Shepard, Wide Receiver, New York Giants — If there’s a darkhorse player for offensive rookie of the year award, it’s Sterling Shepard. Shepard was a fast and silky-smooth slot receiver at the University of Oklahoma, who showed a fantastic ability to create separation and get in space for anticipatory throws, so, he’s going to fit in beautifully in Ben McAdoo’s quick passing attack in New York.
The Giants featured three wide receivers on the field in 91% of their pass plays last season, so Shepard figures to get a lot of playing time — and likely a lot of targets — throughout his rookie season, especially with teams doing everything they can to cover Odell Beckham Jr.. Shepard has “Victor Cruz 2.0” written all over him (especially as the “original” Cruz continues his uphill rehab-fro-injury-battle).
Ezekiel Elliott, Running Back, Dallas Cowboys — Considering that the Dallas Cowboys spent a top five draft pick on him — with the hopes that he’ll be the workhorse running back that provides some balance to their offense — and the offensive line that he’ll get to run behind, Ezekiel Elliott has to be the odds-on favorite to win the offensive rookie of the year award. Many people thought Elliott was the most complete running back prospect to enter the NFL Draft since Adrian Peterson in 2007. Considering Elliott ran for 3,699 yards and 41 touchdowns in his last two seasons in Columbus, if he doesn’t break a thousand yards rushing and approach double-digit touchdowns in Dallas, it’ll be a colossal disappointment.
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