For football fans, the most recognizable sign of the game’s impending return is when training camp rolls around. While it’s the time of year veterans don’t look forward to, youngsters are more than pumped up to get their careers started.
Training camp provides unproven NFL players, especially rookies, the chance to prove themselves in front of all their teammates. In a competitive atmosphere, it’s the time when rookies make their first impression and either establish themselves or leave more questions about their ability than confidence in it.
Before training camp kicks off, we take a look at the rookie landscape in advance of the frenzy that is about to come. Ranking the top-20 rookies before the pads come on and Twitter is peppered with videos of highlights and gaffes by first-year players.
20. Sam Darnold, quarterback, New York Jets
While Darnold was the No. 3 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, he just clings to a spot on the top-20 list. There is still plenty of room for growth and he could rise up the ranks after training camp, but there are a couple of factors working against him.
First, the situation in New York isn’t ideal. While Robby Anderson offers immense potential and finished with 941 yards last season, legal trouble could force him to serve a suspension. When Anderson is covered or if he can’t take the field, Darnold will have to rely on a below-average corps of receivers to try and make plays.
There is still plenty of reason for optimism in New York. Darnold drew praise from veteran Josh McCown and offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates indicated the rookie could start in Week 1. Get excited Jets fans, just be patient with the rookie.
19. Jaire Alexander, cornerback, Green Bay Packers
Green Bay loaded up at cornerback this offseason with the additions of Tramon Williams, Josh Jackson and Alexander. While Williams is the veteran and should have an important impact on Green Bay’s secondary, Alexander is the player to watch.
The rookie cornerback impressed at the NFL Scouting Combine with a 4.38 40-yard dash and turned in a 35-inch vertical jump. He offers great instincts and quick explosion for the position, which could help him become a play maker early in his career.
18. Mike McGlinchey, offensive tackle, San Francisco 49ers
After San Francisco landed Jimmy Garoppolo as its quarterback of the future, the focus immediately shifted to protecting the face of the franchise. While McGlinchey may not start at left tackle right away, he will have an impact from the beginning.
The 24-year-old and No. 9 overall pick in this year’s draft will start immediately at right tackle. His biggest strength comes in the running game, which should be huge for running back Jerick McKinnon.
McGlinchey will also have the opportunity to be mentored by Joe Staley, who will provide a great influence on the rookie tackle. This is just the beginning for McGlinchey and he could quickly become an important staple of San Francisco’s success. If everything goes well, a top-15 offensive line could become a top-10 unit by the end of the year.
17. Vita Vea, defensive tackle, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa Bay loaded up on the defensive line this season and provided star Gerald McCoy with even more support. What should excite fans in Tampa Bay the most is the pairing of McCoy and Vea on the interior of the line.
The No. 12 overall pick in the 2018 draft, Vea comes in as a massive player to move on the line. The 23-year-old carries a 6-foot-4, 247-pound frame and is packed with massive strength and the ability to overpower smaller linemen. What will work especially in his favor is when offensive linemen turn their attention to McCoy and allow Vea to create interior penetration with ease.
16. Tremaine Edmunds, linebacker, Buffalo Bills
While Buffalo’s first-round selection of quarterback Josh Allen drew plenty of mixed reviews, its selection of Edmunds received high praise. Working under defensive-minded coach Sean McDermott, the upside with Edmunds is through the roof.
Edmunds is a young defender everyone will want to pay attention to during training camp. The 20-year-old brings immense athleticism and size to the table, which is exactly the type of player someone like McDermott would love to mold.
There will be some growing pains given his youth, but Edmunds’ versatility, athleticism and length should help him make some great defensive plays as a rookie. In a league that is constantly looking for great, young linebackers, Edmunds could easily be one of the league’s best in a few years.
15. Josh Rosen, quarterback, Arizona Cardinals
Among the quarterbacks in this year’s rookie class, Rosen might be in the best position for success. While he may start the season behind Sam Bradford, the veteran quarterback’s persistent knee issues could open the door for Rosen to take over.
When Rosen takes over for Arizona, he will have a No. 1 wide receiver to rely on in Larry Fitzgerald and an elite running back behind him in David Johnson. Both provide outstanding pass-catching weapons to help him move the ball down the field, while rookie receiver Christian Kirk offers big-play ability.
14. Harold Landry, EDGE, Tennessee Titans
When NFL teams passed on Landry in the first round it created a dangerous situation. It added a chip on the shoulder to a great player who didn’t need it. Now Landry joins an underrated defense in Tennessee and will be coached by Mike Vrabel. He already has a great first step and burst with great length to maneuver and work over tackles.
The 22-year-old linebacker tested at the 87th-percentile for athleticism and should contribute immediately on passing downs as a rookie and could record six-plus sacks.
13. Baker Mayfield, quarterback, Cleveland Browns
Cleveland executed its offseason plan to perfection. After adding several weapons in Jarvis Landry and Nick Chubb, the Browns addressed the present and future at quarterback. The addition of Tyrod Taylor will allow the Browns to bring Mayfield along slowly. As time goes on and he picks up Todd Haley’s offense, expect an improvement in his mechanics and overall play.
When Mayfield is ready to take over, he will add an exciting element to this offense. When Mayfield takes over, the No. 1 overall pick will provide fans with hope for the future now that Cleveland finally has its franchise quarterback.
12. Nick Chubb, running back, Cleveland Browns
Chubb just missed out on being a first-round pick, but the 22-year-old could quickly become the featured back in Cleveland’s offense.
While he isn’t a great receiving back out of the backfield, it simply isn’t needed with Duke Johnson. Instead, Chubb can carry the rock and be a bulldozer between the tackles. He is really the perfect complement to Johnson with their strengths and weaknesses matching each other.
11. Sony Michel, running back, New England Patriots
Michel couldn’t have asked for a landing spot much better than New England. After the Patriots helped Dion Lewis thrive last season, Michel should look to fill the same role this season with the Patriots.
The 23-year-old brings the perfect combination of vision, strength and burst. More importantly, especially in New England, he can hold his own in pass protection. He should find open running lanes behind New England’s offensive line and is a sneaky candidate to be Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2018.
10. Denzel Ward, cornerback, Cleveland Browns
Last year, Cleveland began to rebuild its defense with the selection of Myles Garrett. After it landed its star defensive lineman, the next step was to find a No. 1 cornerback for the future.
While Ward may be shifted into the slot, Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. has shown how valuable an elite cornerback on the inside can be. Ward offers outstanding athleticism and when paired with his sound instincts and movement, it will help him see the field immediately.
There will be some bumps along the way for the 21-year-old, especially when matched up against stronger and more physical receivers. Fortunately, time spent with NFL trainers and nutritionists should help him become an excellent all-around cornerback who can quickly become a shutdown player.
9. Derwin James, safety, Los Angeles Chargers
For whatever reason, James fell to the No. 17 pick. As a result, one of the league’s best defenses added one of the elite prospects in this year’s draft class.
The Chargers’ secondary was already loaded with Casey Hayward, Jason Verrett and Desmond King. Pair it with a strong pass rush and they already had the makings of a top-10 defense entering the season.
James drew plenty of comparisons to Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry and could deliver a similar impact in his rookie season. He offers the leadership intangibles teams look for in a safety and pairs it nicely with a versatile skill set that will allow him to be the Swiss Army Knife for this defense.
8. Calvin Ridley, wide receiver, Atlanta Falcons
While Ridley’s arrival in Atlanta may not be a delight to fantasy owners, the marriage between the two should pay huge dividends for Ridley’s future.
Not only will Ridley get to learn behind Julio Jones, but he’ll also benefit from all the attention given to the All-Pro receiver. In three-receiver sets, Ridley will regularly square off against single coverage and be matched up against No. 3 cornerbacks.
The 23-year-old is an excellent route runner who can separate with explosion in his routes and quick footwork. He’ll have less pressure to thrive as the No. 3 option in Atlanta’s passing attack, but should thrive in the role thanks to his skill set.
7. Rashaad Penny, running back, Seattle Seahawks
Seattle drew plenty of reactions when it selected Penny in the first round, but the 22-year-old is expected to help provide a needed turnaround to the team’s running game.
Penny excelled at San Diego State last season, finishing the year with over 2,200 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns. While he is inexperienced as a pass protector, the Seahawks are hopeful he can quickly pick up the skill and become an every-down back.
6. Minkah Fitzpatrick, safety, Miami Dolphins
Miami entered the 2018 NFL Draft with needs practically everywhere and when a player of Fitzpatrick’s caliber fell on to their laps, they jumped at the opportunity to take him.
While he may not quite have a defined role, the 21-year-old showed he can contribute in a number of ways at the University of Alabama. Now with the Dolphins, he is a strong bet to be moved around the field as a blitzed, pushed into the slot to cover and asked to make plays as a safety over the middle of the field. Fitzpatrick won’t lead Miami’s defense in any specific category, but he will prove immediately why Miami’s owner was wrong for being against drafting him.
5. Derrius Guice, running back, Washington Redskins
Due to a variety of strange concerns, ranging from how he dressed to an allegation of an altercation during a meeting with the Philadelphia Eagles that was denied, Guice fell to Washington at 59 overall.
It clearly wasn’t the ideal road to D.C., but it might work out in the end for the young running back. Guice landed in a spot where he’ll immediately become the starting running back and receive a heavy touch of carries from the start.
While he isn’t expected to be a major contributor on third downs, Guice has shown he can be a multi-dimensional back and share a backfield with Chris Thompson. Saquon Barkley might be the heavy favorite to be the top offensive rookie this season, but Guice is an outstanding dark horse candidate. Expect the 21-year-old to play with a chip on his shoulder and run angry after everything that went down this offseason.
4. Roquan Smith, linebacker, Chicago Bears
Chicago is a team many expect to quickly ascend in the NFC. And while plenty of attention rightfully goes to its offense, the defense deserves plenty of eyes as well.
The 21-year-old out of the University of Georgia was a top-five talent in this year’s draft thanks to his skills in coverage and as a pass rusher. He has drawn comparisons to Atlanta Falcons linebacker Deion Jones, who made a number of impressive plays last season.
Smith is capable of having similar success early in his career and can become the next defensive centerpiece for an organization with a history of legends on that side of the ball. Working under defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, the No. 8 overall pick could easily follow in the footsteps of those before him.
3. Bradley Chubb, EDGE, Denver Broncos
When a team already has one of the best edge defenders in NFL history, it’s usually wise to not let the team pair him with another physical force.
Naturally, Denver’s defensive coordinator nearly passed out when he saw the star defensive end still on the board. The rookie should start immediately from the first snap and while Miller draws double teams on one side, Denver’s first-round pick will attack a lonesome tackle from the other side.
The 22-year-old possesses good athleticism, size and a motor that never seems to quit. Meanwhile, the few weaknesses in his game that can be addressed will be thanks to the help of Von Miller. Together, Chubb and Miller will make opposing quarterbacks have nightmares the night before they face Denver’s defense.
2. Quenton Nelson, offensive guard, Indianapolis Colts
It’s rare for offensive linemen to enter the draft as good as Nelson. Players of his caliber come around once a decade and for a team desperately needing help on the offensive line, Indianapolis nailed the pick.
Rated as the No. 1 overall prospect on several draft boards, the No. 6 pick in this year’s draft could quickly become an All-Pro at his position. His ability to provide stability on the interior of the offensive line comes at the perfect time with the impending return of Andrew Luck. As long as he stays healthy, the 22-year-old should be a perennial Pro Bowl guard for the next 10-plus years.
1. Saquon Barkley, running back, New York Giants
Simply put, no skill-position player belongs in the same tier as Barkley. At Penn State, he demonstrated an elite skill set both as a runner and receiver, carrying the Nittany Lions’ offense on a regular basis.
One of the best running back prospects in a decade, the 21-year-old has a chance to star in New York along with Odell Beckham Jr. Barkley has already become one of the highest-paid running backs in league history. He may find life a little tougher given below average quarterback play and a pedestrian offensive line in New York, but Barkley has the ability to overcome it.