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Welcome to Zach’s Draft Corner, where it’s always amateur hour.
The draft is an exercise full of hindsight. Teams have to evaluate a combination of a player’s current skill level, a player’s athletic ability, the match between their scheme and the abilities of the player, the delta between the player and the rostered player the team plans to replace if they were to draft this player, and the player’s ceiling within that scheme, weighing each of these aspects to come up with an overall grade to set up their board. At the top of the draft, teams are surprisingly willing to take risks, banking more on the player’s ceiling and potential over exact scheme fit. However, a player’s success, many times, is largely a result of the player’s initial skill set matching the needs for the scheme in which the player is placed. Annually, there are players outside of the first round that have an immediate impact because their skills perfectly fit a scheme. Below is a list of non-first-round rookies that will look to have that immediate impact in 2019.
Deebo Samuel, WR, San Francisco 49ers
There’s no other place I could start than with one of my favorite prospects of this draft cycle, Deebo Samuel. It is rare for wide receivers to make an impact as a rookie, but this is moreso due to general levels of rawness most receivers come into the NFL with nowadays. The wide receiver position is the glamor position, and many of the best athletes become wide receivers. However, wide receivers can get through college simply due to that athleticism, but NFL cornerbacks are just as athletic as these rookie receivers. Receivers instead need to hone the nuances of route running in order to succeed, and that takes time. Samuel is already an expert in those nuances, and was drafted to a team that reaps the most benefits possible from receivers who are expert route runners. Samuel should be an immediate starter, and his current set of skills should let him hit the ground running.
Diontae Johnson, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers had a receiver with below average size from a small school that they drafted in the mid-to-late rounds. He came into the NFL with good athletic testing, impressive route running skills, and very good hands. There were questions about whether his talent was due to the lower level of competition he faced, but he stepped in behind a stud receiver and proved he was a worthy second receiver almost immediately. That receiver, of course, was Antonio Brown, but history may be repeating itself with Diontae Johnson out of Toledo. As a prospect, Johnson is very similar to what Brown was coming out of college. It would be foolish to predict that Johnson will make the same meteoric rise Brown did in becoming one of the best receivers of this century, but it is easily foreseeable that Johnson can come in and take over Brown’s role behind JuJu Smith-Schuster and have an immediate impact on the Steelers’ offense.
Darrell Henderson, RB, Los Angeles Rams
We were all shocked when Todd Gurley all but disappeared from the Rams offense in the playoffs last year. What’s troublesome is that it seems to be a more chronic, degenerative ailment than an acute one. Running backs can heal from acute injuries, but it’s rare that they can get “better” when suffering from something akin to what Gurley is going through. This was all but confirmed when the Rams spent a day-two pick on Henderson. Henderson is an ideal back for a zone running scheme that requires the running back to be a legitimate option as a receiver. Henderson’s explosion does not come from straight line speed, but instead the ability to use his agility and quickness in the open field to make the most of every play. That exact skill set will prove bountiful for Sean McVay if Gurley’s role takes the expected dip.
Foster Moreau, TE, Oakland Raiders
We all wanted to pile on the Raiders for the use of their three first round picks, but they quietly had a very good draft after the first day. With Derek Carr, Antonio Brown, and Tyrell Williams, the Raiders will be able to stretch the field. With Josh Jacobs, the running game must be accounted for. This leaves the intermediate areas of the field wide open for Foster Moreau, a tight end who can block, catch, and pick up yards after the catch. Moreau’s route running ability leaves a lot to be desired, but Moreau will fill the Jared Cook role better than Jared Cook did. He is already a better blocker than Cook, and his ability to leak out into space will fit great with the field stretching capabilities of the outside receivers and the potential play-action misdirections with Jacobs. Moreau may never be Hockenson or Fant, but he could have a very successful rookie campaign.
David Montgomery, RB, Chicago Bears
Jordan Howard was booted out of town, and Montgomery looks to be the perfect replacement in Chicago’s power scheme. Montgomery is every bit the runner that Howard is, and has even more ability to make defenders miss once he gets past the line of scrimmage. At the very least, Montgomery will step in and get the rushing yards previously obtained by Howard. What makes Montgomery intriguing, though, is that he is a much better receiver than Howard has been throughout his career. While Tarik Cohen has been the go-to guy for receiving yards out of the backfield, Montgomery may take some of those touches away from Cohen. He is poised to make a big impact immediately.
Jachai Polite, DE, New York Jets
We all know the saga of Polite, a top-twenty player on film and a bottom-five personality. The Jets took Polite in the beginning of the third round, and they may be poised to benefit from the talent if he uses the past few months as a growing opportunity. There are few situations that could be better for him, joining a defensive line that includes two stud defensive tackles in Leonard and Quinnen Williams. Polite should see plenty of one-on-one matchups against tackles, and he will have every opportunity to prove his talent on a team desperate for help on the edge.
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, S, New Orleans Saints
Another player who was supposed to go a lot earlier than he did, the Saints look to have gotten a steal in the very versatile Gardner-Johnson. He is an extremely versatile weapon for any secondary, able to make plays on every level of the defense with both physicality and ball skills. The Saints are set on the outside, but need a lot of help at both safety positions. I’m not sure what role Gardner-Johnson will play, but he has an immediate path to playing time and is poised to make the best of it.
Armon Watts, DT, Minnesota Vikings
This one will probably be the least exciting name on the list. The Vikings lost their nose tackle when Sheldon Richardson left to join the Cleveland Browns this offseason. Watts, a sixth-round pick by Minnesota, fell as far as he did because his ceiling is a very good, run-stuffing nose tackle with limited pass rushing upside. Luckily for Minnesota, that’s the exact role they need Watts to fill. Watts will see a healthy percentage of snaps immediately, and will prove worthy of this role.
Mike Jackson, CB, Dallas Cowboys
Jackson was one of my favorite corners of this draft cycle because his impeccable technique as a press corner gives him a high floor and a path to quick starting time. He goes to a defense perfectly suited for his style, and Kris Richard will get everything he can out of Jackson. With the departure of Morris Claiborne, there is an open spot as a starting outside cornerback, and Jackson is likely to fill that role quickly and admirably.
Vosean Joseph, LB, Buffalo Bills
The Bills have done a great job building their defense. They have one of the most underrated secondaries in the NFL, and took Ed Oliver in the first round to solidify their defensive line. Their linebacking corps has been underwhelming ever since Zack Brown and Kiko Alonso left Buffalo. All they needed was a linebacker who could run around and make tackles. Joseph fits that mold perfectly. He’s weak in coverage, but they don’t need him to do that. Joseph will run around like a man on fire and hit people very hard. He may not turn into Darius Leonard, but don’t be surprised to see him with 100-plus tackles this season.
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