Tuesday, April 28, 2020
The Eight NFL Draft Sleepers Who Could Make an Instant Impact
Most of the post-draft limelight focuses on the big-name players who teams take on the first two days, and those fourth-, fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-rounders always feel a bit left out. But that doesn’t mean those lesser-known Day 3 picks can’t be factors in 2020: With the right combination of talent and opportunity, later-round picks can earn major snaps in key spots this season. Here are eight of those rookies who have a chance to contribute in Year 1.
The Giants quietly put together a very solid first two days of the draft, finding a starting tackle in Andrew Thomas in the first round, a dynamic and versatile safety in Xavier McKinney in the second, and high-upside tackle Matt Peart in the third. Their first pick on Day 3 kept the team’s momentum going, as GM Dave Gettleman added an electric potential day-one starter in Holmes. The former Bruins star joins a crowded cornerbacks group but has a path toward rookie-year snaps if he can prove he can handle duties in the slot. The 5-foot-10, 195-pound former five-star recruit primarily lined up on the outside for UCLA but showed his skills playing both outside and in the slot at the Senior Bowl, regularly locking down opponents in man-to-man coverage.
Holmes, who started three seasons for UCLA and amassed eight career picks and 20 passes defensed, will have to clean up issues with overplaying routes and biting on double moves, but he has the size, twitchy athleticism, and aggressive temperament against the run to transition seamlessly to a full-time slot role. The Giants have shored up their outside cornerback spot, adding James Bradberry in free agency to go with last year’s first-rounder, Deandre Baker, but the team’s nickel corner situation is in flux. Holmes should have an opportunity to compete with sophomore defensive back Julian Love (and a few others) for snaps in 2020.
With running back Melvin Gordon gone in free agency, the Chargers have a big role to fill in 2020. And while ascending superstar Austin Ekeler stands to inherit a chunk of Gordon’s 44 percent carry share from last season (that number includes four games Gordon missed), the team is likely to lean on a committee approach again this year. That vacancy gives Kelley a strong chance to contribute on early downs from day one―and his fourth-round draft capital implies the team sees the speedy, physical back as a potential upgrade over the incumbent no. 2, Justin Jackson.
At the combine, Kelley boosted his stock by running a 4.49-second 40-yard dash at a rock-solid 5-foot-11 and 212 pounds, and his 6.95-second three-cone time (a drill that does well to measure short-area quicks and the ability to cut on a dime) was best among running backs. He stood out at the Senior Bowl and should benefit from what may end up being a more run-heavy approach in Los Angeles this year (whether Tyrod Taylor or rookie Justin Herbert is under center).
Robertson will fit in with the new-look Raiders defense perfectly. Picture a miniature, souped-up version of the team’s first-round safety from last year, Johnathan Abram, and you get the former Louisiana Tech star. Robertson combines natural ball-hawking instincts and the type of back-down-from-nobody intensity that will make it difficult for Jon Gruden and GM Mike Mayock to keep him off the field. Robertson fell down draft boards in part because of his diminutive size―he checks in at just 5-foot-8 and 187 pounds―but teams reportedly had concerns about groin and hip-flexor injuries that nagged at him last season and forced him to miss combine testing.
After playing primarily on the outside in college, Robertson projects as a slot player in the pros. As Mayock said after the draft, “He’s got the physical competitiveness and toughness that you would love as a nickel in the NFL.” He’ll have to adapt to that new role, but the fact that Robertson was dominant in man-to-man single coverage last year (surrendering a 19.8 passer rating on 40 targets in 2019 while giving up just 13 receptions and finishing first in Pro Football Focus’s coverage grade among all corners in those situations) certainly bodes well for that role. Las Vegas’s depth chart is a bit fluid at the moment. Lamarcus Joyner operated in the slot for the Raiders last year, but he could move back to his normal free safety role and give Robertson a chance to compete for early snaps.
Hall is another cornerback who took a surprising fall into the third day, which can be blamed at least in part on a serious ankle injury suffered in 2019. Hall missed all but six games last season after dislocating his ankle and tearing a ligament, ending his push to build on a strong 2018 campaign and preventing him from testing at the combine. Those two factors helped push my 55th-ranked player all the way to no. 158 in the draft―and I think he’ll end up looking like a steal for the Jets.
Now that Trumaine Johnson and Darryl Roberts are gone, New York heads into 2020 with free-agent addition Pierre Desir slated to start on one side and (likely) Blessuan Austin on the other, with Brian Poole in the slot. The lack of clarity around the team’s starting cornerback spots should give Hall a chance to earn a role as a rookie. The former Virginia star is a big, long-levered cornerback with excellent instincts and ball skills in coverage; he led all of college football with 22 pass breakups in 2018. Quarterbacks didn’t test him as much in coverage in those six games last season, but he still allowed an opposing passer rating of just 50.9, per Sports Info Solutions. The Jets could give Ashtyn Davis, the team’s third-round pick out of Cal, some looks at corner in addition to safety, but if Hall is healthy, don’t be surprised if the fourth-round rookie challenges for snaps at some point this season.
The Buccaneers continued their offensive remodel over the weekend, boosting the Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski additions by grabbing right tackle Tristan Wirfs in the first round and running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn in the third. They may have added an early role-playing pass catcher in Johnson as well in an under-the-radar move on Day 3.
The former Gophers star will have to compete with the likes of Scott Miller (2019 sixth-rounder) and Justin Watson (2018 fifth-rounder) for the no. 3 spot behind Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, but he brings a big frame and top-tier jump-ball skills to the fold and could be a reliable middle-of-the-field target. Johnson was absurdly productive in college, reeling in 164 passes for 2,487 yards and 25 touchdowns in his past two seasons. He’s primarily a “big slot” weapon but his catch radius, ball tracking, and ability to win above the rim made him a threat at all three levels—and particularly in the red zone. Johnson lacks suddenness as a route runner and that’s a big reason he fell, but it’s just tough to ignore his incredible knack for producing big plays and jaw-dropping catches―a talent that could help him outplay his draft spot at the next level.
The Dolphins made a handful of additions to their pass-rush group this offseason, signing Kyle Van Noy, Shaq Lawson, and Emmanuel Ogbah in free agency to upgrade a group that already included Charles Harris and Taco Charlton, among others. So while Weaver faces an uphill battle to win a full-time job early in his career, it wouldn’t be surprising if he contributes in a rotational role on the edge.
Weaver is a rugged technician with enough short-area quickness and bend to make an impact as a situational rusher. He strikes with a heavy punch and works his feet and hands in unison to deftly discard blocks. Like Johnson, he lacks prototypical athletic traits but his production is impossible to ignore: He racked up 46.5 tackles for a loss—including 34.0 sacks—while adding six passes defensed, three forced fumbles, and two interceptions in his three seasons at Boise State, and garnered second-team Associated Press All-American honors last year while finishing with 18.5 tackles for loss, including 13.5 sacks, and 59 total pressures (seventh among edge rushers). He’ll have some work to do as a run defender before the Dolphins’ coaches will trust him to play on all three downs, but the former Bronco could work his way into an important passing-down role.