Despite the shimmer and shine the top-drafted NFL rookies exude every year, it’s well known some of the league’s best players are diamonds in the rough.
Overlooked in the first rounds of the draft for various reasons, there are plenty who fit that mold heading into 2017. For the purposes of this article we’ll focus on 10 players — five offensive and five defensive — who have a chance to make some significant noise as rookies for their respective teams.
Some will end up as starters while others will make an impact as role players. Regardless, all will prove valuable, and it’s highly likely a few will emerge as legitimate superstars in the years to come.
These players are hidden gems, just waiting to be polished so they can shine for all to see.
Samaje Perine, running back, Washington Redskins
— Michael P.McCarthy (@michaelp2153) May 15, 2017
Perine, if you’re not familiar, was a highly productive Oklahoma running back who split time with Joe Mixon the past couple of seasons.
He was a three-year star for the Sooners, racking up 4,443 yards from scrimmage and 51 total touchdowns during that stretch. That averages out to over 123 yards and 1.4 touchdowns per game.
Washington landing him in Round 4 was highway robbery. In fact, the franchise that drafted him thought so highly of Perine that it had him as its fourth-ranked running back behind Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey and Dalvin Cook, per John Keim of ESPN.
There is no doubt Perine has a chance to earn a starting job over Robert Kelley, who came on strong as the starter last year. Perine is a diverse back who is not only a punishing runner but who has good hands and can protect the passer on third downs.
At the very least, he will see plenty of action behind Kelley, if he doesn’t beat him out in training camp.
Trey Hendrickson, linebacker, New Orleans Saints
One of the biggest areas of need facing New Orleans heading into the draft was on the edge defensively. The Saints simply haven’t gotten much production out of their pass rushers in recent seasons, ranking near the bottom of the league the past three years running (34, 31 and 30 sacks respectively from 2014-16).
Needless to say, anyone the team drafted to fill the void in this department will have a shot to make an immediate impact.
This brings us to Hendrickson, a late third-round pick out of Florida Atlantic with a relentless motor who specialized in chasing down quarterbacks the past few years. His final three years playing with the Owls, Hendrickson tallied 39.5 tackles for loss and 28 sacks.
Anyone wondering if Hendrickson’s skills translate to a bigger stage than the CUSA need look no further than what the pass rusher was able to do at the East-West Shrine Game in January.
— FAU Football (@FAU_Football) January 26, 2017
At the least, we expect Hendrickson to make an impact as a nickel pass rusher. At best, he could surprise by earning a starting job opposite Cameron Jordan on the defensive line.
Ryan Switzer, wide receiver, Dallas Cowboys
Of course the Cowboys drafted the guy whose last name is Switzer (though, no relation to Barry). And based on the early returns, Cole Beasley needs to look over his shoulder.
Ryan Switzer already looks like a plug and play immediately player. Replaced an injured Cole Beasley in practice and caught everything
— Clarence Hill Jr (@clarencehilljr) May 24, 2017
Though, based on comments made by head coach Jason Garrett recently, Dallas could feature both receivers on the field at the same time.
“He’s a very good inside receiver as a slot, a lot of the same traits that Cole Beasley has and his ability to get away from people in man-to-man coverage, to find soft spots in zone coverage, very productive, very quarterback-friendly,” Garrett said, per ESPN.com’s Todd Archer. “You can see him playing in Beasley’s role. You can see him playing in an offensive package where both those guys are out on the field at the same time.”
Before he was reeling in Dak Prescott lasers, Switzer was hauling in a high volume of Mitch Trubisky passes at North Carolina. The diminutive receiver (5-foot-8, 181 pounds) caught 96 passes for 1,112 yards and six touchdowns as a senior last season for the Tar Heels and is already making big plays for the ‘Boys this offseason.
Because of his small size and lack of elite speed, it’s easy to understand why Switzer fell to the fourth round in the draft. But when it’s all said and done, it won’t be shocking whatsoever if this kid ends up catching more balls in 2017 than any other receiver in his class.
Larry Ogunjobi, defensive tackle, Cleveland Browns
Coming out of Charlotte, Ogunjobi is a player most fans likely hadn’t heard much about before the Browns made him the first pick of the third round this past April.
Name (un)recognition aside, this is a young man who has a chance to be a starter for Cleveland. A run-stuffing specialist, he is a guy who will do the dirty work inside while fellow rookie Myles Garrett creates havoc on the edge.
Browns rookie defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi could make an immediate run-stopping impact in Cleveland. pic.twitter.com/9KUeDeQhZw
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) May 9, 2017
In two years at Charlotte, Ogunjobi racked up 127 total tackles, 29 for a loss and 5.5 sacks.
It might be a stretch to think he will emerge as the starter right out of the gate. But it won’t be surprising if Ogunjobi ends up overtaking the likes of veterans Desmond Bryant and Xavier Cooper sooner, rather than later in that role.
At the least, he’ll be an important rotational lineman for Gregg Williams and Co. as a rookie in 2017.
Joe Williams, running back, San Francisco 49ers
There has been some chatter that this former Utah star could unseat Carlos Hyde as the starter in Kyle Shanahan’s offense this year. That’s probably a bit far fetched if Hyde stays healthy. But we can’t imagine the rookie head coach not plugging his hand-picked guy into the lineup at least in sub packages right out of the gate.
“I’m telling you right now: If we don’t get him, I’ll be sick. I will be contemplating Joe Williams all night,” Shanahan told Peter King of The MMQB the night before the 49ers drafted Williams in Round 4.
Clearly, Shanahan is enamored with what the former Ute brings to the table. And it’s not hard to see why.
Despite playing in just nine games last year (he quit the team while dealing with mental health issues), Williams gained 1,514 yards from scrimmage and scored 10 touchdowns. He’s a quick, agile back with plenty of raw speed who catches the ball naturally — a perfect fit for what the 49ers will do offensively now that Shanahan is running things.
Even if Hyde does hang onto his job, Williams will be a dynamic change-of-pace back who’ll see plenty of action as a rookie.
Carl Lawson, defensive end, Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals might have landed one of the draft’s biggest steals selecting Lawson in the fourth round.
Injuries largely derailed Lawson’s career at Auburn, which began with so much promise during his freshman campaign. A torn ACL led to a lost season in 2014, and injuries kept him out of the lineup for almost half of 2015.
However, Lawson came back strong in 2016, starting 12 games for the Tigers and racking up impressive pass-rushing stats in the process. He tallied 14 tackles for a loss and 9.5 sacks, earning First-Team All-American and All-SEC honors in the process.
One well-known NFL analyst thinks Lawson is a sleeper pick for the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award in 2017.
— The Bengals Wire (@TheBengalsWire) May 26, 2017
Cincinnati had a void in production from its defensive ends last year. Carlos Dunlap was solid, with eight sacks, but the rest of the team’s defensive ends managed less than 10 between them. This leaves the door wide open for Lawson to come in, prove himself capable and earn significant playing time as a rookie this upcoming season.
Nathan Peterman, quarterback, Buffalo Bills
The events that transpired in Buffalo this offseason surrounding Tyrod Taylor prove without a shadow of doubt that he’s not viewed as a long-term answer. This was amplified further when head coach Sean McDermott made it clear the starting quarterback job was an open competition heading into offseason workouts.
Taylor will be competing with both Peterman (drafted in the fifth round) and Cardale Jones, who was a fourth-round pick in 2016. Jones wasn’t all that impressive in limited time last year, completing just 54.5 percent of his passes with no touchdowns and one interception. He was seen as a huge project to begin with, whereas Peterman enters this competition as the most pro-ready quarterback of anyone taken in the draft this year.
At least, that’s the opinion of Jon Gruden, former NFL quarterback whisperer turned ESPN analyst.
A two-year starter at Pitt after transferring away from Tennessee, Peterman displayed reasonable accuracy and excellent judgement playing in a run-first offense. He completed 61.1 percent of his passes while throwing 47 touchdowns and just 15 interceptions for the Panthers.
Though we don’t expect Peterman to beat out Taylor this summer, he could be the first man off the bench if Taylor gets hurt. And at the least, he’s a very intriguing option going forward in 2018 and beyond.
Eddie Jackson, safety, Chicago Bears
Because he missed half the 2016 season with a broken leg, it’s easy to forget just what type of impact Jackson had for the title-winning Crimson Tide in 2015. He showed himself to be a ball-hawking, big-play safety who brought in six interceptions and scored twice that year.
— College Football + (@CFBPlus) May 23, 2017
Unfortunately for him, his injury caused him to tumble down draft boards this spring. The Bears were fortunate, however, that he was still there in the fourth round. He’ll have a very real chance to earn a starting job this summer playing in a secondary that needs significant help.
Though he was unable to work out for teams before the draft, Jackson is confident he’ll be 100-percent ready for the start of training camp.
“I’m just ready to get there and work with the training staff at the Bears,” Jackson said, per CSN Chicago. “I know I’m gonna be ready for training camp 100 percent, no limitations.”
A natural free safety, the former Alabama star should beat out all competition to slide into the starting lineup playing next to veteran Quintin Demps. The two of them give Chicago a formidable safety tandem capable of making big plays deep in coverage as well as at and behind the line of scrimmage.
Jordan Leggett, tight end, New York Jets
This Clemson product is long on pro potential, even though he slid into the fifth round where the Jets scooped him up at No. 150 overall.
A two-year starter for the Tigers, he emerged as a scoring threat and reliable target in the middle of the field for Deshaun Watson. In his final two seasons at Clemson, Leggett tallied 86 catches for 1,261 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Tight end isn’t exactly a position that’s been utilized much by the Jets in recent years. This is partly due to the fact the Jets haven’t featured much talent at the position and partly because the team’s offense just hasn’t featured the position much as a point of emphasis. But that could all be changing now that John Morton is running the offense — something that Leggett talked about after inking his rookie contract.
“The way Coach Morton used the tight end at the Saints, it’s definitely a position that’s going to be there this year,” he said, per the team’s website. “I’m excited for my chance, excited to be here, and I’ll just go out there and fight to make the team and play on Sunday.”
If Leggett can prove his self-described lazy habits are a thing of the past and forges a new identity as a pro, then he’ll have a chance to make a big impact on a team that needs impact players on offense.
Desmond King, defensive back, Los Angeles Chargers
A four-year starter at cornerback during his college career at Iowa, King could be making a transition to safety at the NFL level for the Chargers. But it’s not going to be a laborious learning process for the hard-hitting defensive back, who we actually projected as an impact player at the safety position well before the draft.
King is extremely physical at the line of scrimmage, has the quickness to cover slot receivers as a nickel corner and the pure instincts to become a ball hawk on the back end. After failing to intercept a single pass as a freshman, he went on to nab 14 during his final three years for the Hawkeyes, including eight as a junior in 2015.
So how did he fall to the fifth round? That’s a question we still don’t have a real good answer for, though a lack of elite size and speed likely had a lot to do with his slide. Regardless, we’ll be stunned if King isn’t a productive player right out of the gate for Los Angeles.
Seems like King could have versatile role: nickel CB, outside CB and free safety. Plenty of opps for playing time. One of my fave sleepers.
— Eric Edholm (@Eric_Edholm) May 7, 2017
San Diego features an outstanding defensive front but came into the offseason needing significant help on the back end. Whether he contributes on the corner, in the slot, as a safety or as a do-it-all guy, King will be part of the team’s solution.