Five NFL Rookies set to surprise in 2016

By Vincent Frank

Here we are. Less than a month remains until NFL training camps get underway. All 32 teams start off the summer program on equal footing with 0-0 records.

Some of the teams have higher expectations. Meanwhile, others are looking to simply improve off last year’s lack of success.

Among those expected to play important roles are rookies. These are young and talented performers looking to make a name for themselves early in their careers.

From former Eastern Kentucky standout Noah Spence to a hard-hitting safety in Northern California, some will make larger impacts than others out of the gate.

Here are five under-the-radar rookies set to surprise for their respective teams during the 2016 NFL season.

1. Noah Spence, EDGE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Spence was definitely a top-five talent heading into the 2016 NFL Draft. Unfortunately for the pass rusher, off-field issues in college dropped him to the second round. Should Spence remain clean off the field, and there’s no recent indication he won’t, the Buccaneers will have a steal on their hands.

At 6-foot-2 and 251 pounds, Spence will have initial issues playing an every-down role along the Buccaneers defensive line. Though, there’s every reason to believe he will be a situational pass rusher as a rookie. In fact, the Eastern Kentucky product is already drawing rave reviews.

“That cat (Spence) has a lot of ability and he’s willing to learn,” new Buccaneers defensive lineman Robert Ayers said back in June, via the Pewter Report. “He’s making mistakes like all of us, but he has the want-to and the ability. I personally feel like the sky is the limit.”

This is going to be the biggest key for Spence early in his career. If he’s able to latch on to the team’s veterans, it will create a situation in which the youngster learns the nuances and speed of the NFL game.

In terms of how the surrounding talent will help Spence, Gerald McCoy is among the most-dominating defensive tackles in the game. He takes on double teams more than any other player along the interior of the line, which will open up one-on-one scenarios for the speedy Spence on the outside.

If that happens, we can expect plays similar to the ones that made Spence among the most-electric prospects heading into this year’s draft.

2. DeForest Buckner, defensive end, San Francisco 49ers

In terms of frame and athleticism, the the 6-foot-7, 291-pound Buckner boasts the most upside of any defensive player in this year’s draft. His massive frame coupled with what was an absurd 7.51 three-cone drill and five flat 40-yard dash at the combine suggests this Oregon product is going to be a nightmare for opposing offensive linemen.

It’s this type of speed and strength that could make Buckner an instant-impact performer in his first season with the 49ers.

Initial issues with pad level and playing a bit too high at point of contact will need to be addressed. Though, it must be noted that San Francisco exists in a division with two of the worst offensive lines in the NFL in the form of the Seattle Seahawks and Los Angeles Rams. If you don’t think that makes a difference, we are not exactly sure what to tell you.

Unlike the previous two regimes in San Francisco, there’s very little doubt that first-year head coach Chip Kelly will play his youngsters. The mass exodus of veterans over the past two seasons makes this a near requirement for the rebuilding franchise.

What we can expect here is for Buckner to begin the season as one of San Francisco’s first defensive linemen off the bench. Though, there’s a chance Kelly’s former recruit with the Ducks could push Quinton Dial for one of the starting positions.

If this were to happen, and with both Ian Williams as well as Arik Armstead more than capable of taking up double teams, opposing NFC West offensive lines might have their work cut out for them here.

It might not result in double-digit sacks, but Buckner’s presence is much more important than that. As a physical presence along the front of a 3-4 defense, one of his primary goals will be to open pass rush lanes for up-and-coming EDGE rusher Aaron Lynch. It’s in this that his impact might be most felt.

3. Laquon Treadwell, wide receiver, Minnesota Vikings

A possession receiver if there ever was one, this Mississippi product fits perfectly into what Minnesota needs in the passing game.

Third-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater might end up having a mighty fine career ahead of himself. But some of his struggles as a sophomore were magnified by his lack of arm strength. It’s not a knock on Teddy in any way. Instead, it’s just one of the areas he doesn’t stand tall in comparison to other young signal callers.

Magnifying this a bit further last season, The Vikings didn’t possess that one big-bodied receiver that could go up and get the ball. Without this, Bridgewater’s lack of arm strength hurt.

In Treadwell, we’re talking about a receiver with a huge catch radius. It’s not as much about his 6-foot-2, 221-pound frame as it is about the pass catcher’s ability to go up and get the ball. Equally as important, he’s physical at the point of contact, continually making the contested catch.

Playing with substandard quarterbacks at Ole Miss, Treadwell averaged nearly six catches per game while bringing in over 65 percent of the passes thrown in his direction. Again, this is an area the Vikings were lacking during their run to the NFC North title in 2015.

What we can expect from this dynamic young receiver as a rookie is for him to play a huge role in the Vikings’ passing game as a starting outside receiver and Teddy’s go-to possession guy on third down. If so, something to the tune of 80 receptions for over 1,000 yards isn’t an unlikely end result.

Not too shabby for someone that ended up being the fourth receiver off the board after spending much of the pre-draft process as the consensus No. 1 guy at this position.

4. Devontae Booker, running back, Denver Broncos

Are we really sold on C.J. Anderson holding down the starting job for the entire 2016 season? Sure Denver matched the Miami Dolphins restricted free-agent offer for the running back, but that was purely out of necessity.

In reality, Anderson struggled with consistency for Denver last season after breaking out big time during the 2014 campaign.

Anderson tallied less than 50 rushing yards in 11 of Denver’s 16 regular season games, including a three-game stretch that saw him put up a total of 74 yards on 32 attempts early in the year. That’s most definitely not going to cut it, especially if Mark Sanchez is indeed the guy under center.

Insert into the equation a player in Booker who dominated PAC 12 competition with Utah over the past two seasons. The 5-foot-11, 219-pound running back put up nearly 3,400 total yards with 23 touchdowns in 23 games with the Utes.

A perfect fit for Gary Kubiak’s zone-blocking scheme, Booker’s ability in the passing game should also play a role here. After all, he did average nearly four receptions per game with Utah.

While speed might be somewhat of an issue here, Kubiak-led offenses have not necessarily relied on game-breaking ability from its running backs.

With a prototypical frame to be a three-down back and patience to go with it, we wouldn’t be surprised to see Booker overtake Anderson for the starting job relatively early in the season.

5. Karl Joseph, safety, Oakland Raiders

With Reggie Nelson set to take over for Charles Woodson at free safety, Joseph’s role with the Raiders as a rookie is clear. He’s going to be asked to be that in-the-box safety that lays the wood near the line of scrimmage.

And boy can this kid hit.

We’re looking at a true strong safety in every sense of the word, someone that’s not afraid to shed blocks at the second level to get up there in the run game. Someone that’s not afraid to take on EDGE pass protectors to get to the quarterback.

Some may conclude that the Raiders reached for Joseph with the 14th pick. While that may very well be true, he fits perfectly into what the team needed to upgrade its presence in the secondary. That’s going to make Joseph an immediate-impact performer out of the gate.