Many rookies are heading into training camps amid plenty of hype. But these underrated rookies have a chance to really surprise their new teams.
Two of the stars of Super Bowl XLIX were once just players fighting for a roster spot. Seahawks WR Chris Matthews made his first NFL catches in that game—and what an impact he made, finishing the day with four catches for 109 yards and a touchdown. CB Malcolm Butler, who made the interception heard around the world to secure the win for New England, was an undersized afterthought from West Alabama, who beat out Alfonzo Dennard on the depth chart.
Who will be this year's stars of little renown? As training camps open this week, it's time for those players who were selected in the third day of the 2015 draft, or were passed up altogether, to stake their claims and prove their worth. Here are some players we think could do just that.
Grady Jarrett, DT, Falcons (5th round, Clemson)
Jarrett's free-fall to the fifth round was certainly a surprise to us, as we had him ranked 61st overall in this draft class. He was certainly underrated due to his size (6'1", 304 pounds), which probably took him out of the running for most 3–4 and hybrid teams. But new Falcons coach Dan Quinn has a knack for taking unusually-sized linemen and making the most out of them, and Jarrett certainly has a lot to work with. He plays much bigger than his size when he keeps his pads low, and over time, he could have a Geno Atkins-level impact.
Za'Darius Smith, DE, Ravens (4th round, Kentucky)
The Ravens lost Pernell McPhee to the Bears in free agency, which robbed them of their best backup edge rusher and multi-gap disruptor. McPhee would rush the passer from just about everywhere, and John Harbaugh was clear that Smith is slotted in as McPhee's replacement.
"He had the physicality, the heavy hands, the high motor," Harbaugh said in May. " He has pass rush ability even maybe more so than we saw from Pernell coming out. He has hips, and he can get around blocks. If he develops like Pernell did, we're going to have something."
Smith already went from JUCO to the SEC with impressive success, racking up 61 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss and two pass breakups in 2014.
Cameron Artis-Payne, RB, Panthers (5th round, Auburn)
The 5'10", 212-pound Artis-Payne led the SEC in rushing last season with 1,608 yards and 13 touchdowns on 303 carries, which is especially impressive given his history. Artis-Payne struggled with his grades coming out of high school in 2007 (yes, he's 25), and spent two full years out of football in '09 and 2010. He then signed on with Allan Hancock Community College in 2011, committed to Auburn and backed up Tre Mason in '13, and blew up in '14.
Artis-Payne has an outstanding vision for gaps, and impressive short-area elusiveness for his size. He's not a burner by any means, but the Panthers have a pretty decent history with power backs, and given the state of their offensive line in 2015, any back who can find a gap and make the most of it would seem to be very valuable. This is the kind of player that could start at the bottom of the depth chart and shoot up with a few impressive performances.
Adrian Amos, S/CB, Bears, (5th round, Penn State)
Chicago's safety situation was an unmitigated disaster in 2014, and while that was partially due to the regressive schemes of defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, personnel certainly played a part. Right now, Antrel Rolle and Brock Vereen are projected to be the starters in Vic Fangio's defense (there's improvement number one right there), but don't be surprised if Amos gets a lot of reps at either safety or nickel cornerback based on his history.
Basically a coach on the field as he developed with the Nittany Lions, Amos finished his collegiate career with 149 total tackles, seven interceptions, nine tackles for loss, three sacks and 22 pass breakups. Fangio has a real need for hybrid situational defenders in his schemes, and Amos has the attributes to fill that role in the short term—and become a starting safety over time. In his senior season, he allowed just 3.9 yards per targeted pass.
La'el Collins, OT, Cowboys (undrafted, LSU)
Yeah, we're cheating a little bit here. Were it not for the fact that he was a person of interest in the murder of his ex-girlfriend (a story that broke the week before the draft), Collins would almost certainly have been a first-round pick. That situation remains unresolved, which is why every NFL team passed on him. The Cowboys eventually took a risk with a three-year, $1.599 fully-guaranteed deal. If Collins is implicated in the crime, that's obviously a far more serious matter.
However, if Collins is cleared, the Cowboys got themselves a ridiculous steal, and Collins will go down as one of the most unfortunate draft stories of all time. Because based on his on-field acumen, power and agility, there's no question he was going to be one of the top offensive linemen taken. Dallas has played him at tackle and guard so far, and wherever he lands on that line (if he does land on that line), Collins will make the NFL's best run-blocking line that much better.
Christian Ringo, DL, Packers (6th round, Lousiana-Lafayette)
Under defensive coordinator Dom Capers, the Packers have found success with atypically-built and underrated defensive linemen, and there are few better examples than Mike Daniels, who was one of the NFL's most disruptive rotational 3–4 ends in 2014. In just 794 total snaps, Daniels amassed seven sacks, 11 quarterback hits and 26 hurries. The Packers see Ringo as a bit of a Daniels clone, and it's easy to see why—he's also an undersized (6'1", 293) player with a sneaky combination of strength and burst.
Ringo put up 11.5 sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss in 2014, admittedly against less-than-stellar competition for the most part, but given the attrition on their defensive line over the last couple of years, the Packers are looking more for the player who fits the mold. Ringo certainly seems to do that.
Gabe Wright, DT, Lions (4th round, Auburn)
With Ndamuking Suh and Nick Fairley (not to mention backup C.J. Mosley) out the door in free agency, the Lions have a major need at the defensive tackle position, even with the acquisition of Haloti Ngata. Wright fell to the fourth round because he's a bit of a tweener—at 6'1" and 300 pounds, he's not an earthmover who will consistently take double-teams, but he's not always a consistent penetrator, either—and at his size, that's what he needs to be.
Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, however, has a great deal of faith in Wright's ability to grow in Detroit's aggressive scheme.
"We really like Gabe," the coach said in May. "He is a really hard competitor. He played a lot of football from the SEC. He falls in the mold in what we like our defensive tackles to do and that is to penetrate, attack, get off blocks and make plays. He did a really good job of those things. He is a good player, a good kid and we are really glad to have him.”
Wright has the physical characteristics to live up to all that; the questions are about his play-to-play effort. He'll certainly get enough preseason reps to prove what he's bringing to the table.
Tre Jackson, OG, Patriots (4th round, Florida State)
Jackson had two interesting connections to the Patriots as a draft prospect—former offensive line coach and current consultant Dante Scarnecchia scouted Jackson extensively through the 2014 season, and if he cracks the starting roster, he'll line up next to former Seminoles teammate Bryan Stork, the Patriots' starting center. New England wants to get younger at the guard position, and the 6'4", 330-pound Jackson certainly has the power to make an immediate impact. He'll need to advance when it comes to the finer points of the game, especially when beating first contact and getting to the second level.
T.J. Clemmings, OT, Vikings (4th round, Pittsburgh)
Outside of Grady Jarrett's plummet down the boards, Clemmings lasting until the fourth round may have been the draft's biggest surprise. Clemmings played on the Panthers' defensive line his first three years there, moving to right tackle before the 2013 season. And yes, that makes him a raw player. But it's odd that some NFL team didn't see him as worthy of an investment before the 110th overall pick—Clemmings has tremendous strength and agility, and though he'll get lost on his assignments at times, there are more than enough "wow" plays on tape to show that over time, he could be a top-tier blocker at the NFL level. The Vikings had little to lose given their tackle situation, and it'll be a surprise if Clemmings doesn't break the roster over the next couple of seasons.
After Clemmings was drafted, Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said that concerns about a foot injury were overblown, and that the team felt very fortunate to have a player of Clemmings' potential. If it all pans out, this could be the steal of the 2015 draft.
Josh Harper, WR, Raiders (undrafted, Fresno State)
The Raiders took Alabama WR Amari Cooper with the fourth overall pick in the 2015 draft because they need reliable targets for quarterback Derek Carr. In his first NFL season, Carr proved to be a pleasant surprise, though his deep ball was an issue; per Pro Football Focus, he completed just 15 of his 71 attempts 20 yards in the air or more. That's in part due to a less-than-impressive receiver corps, but it's also smart of the Oakland front office to surround Carr with targets who are more productive after the catch.
Not only does Harper qualify, he's already got a lot of experience with Carr—the two combined for 79 catches for 1,011 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2013. Harper is an excellent number-two receiver with good separation and route awareness. He'll need work at the next level with contested catches, but Harper has a real shot at becoming 2015's most productive undrafted receiver.
Tre McBride, WR, Titans (7th round, William & Mary)
The Titans are obviously in a period of transition in their passing game, with Zach Mettenberger set to back up Marcus Mariota, and a group of young receivers competing for reps. Dorial Green-Beckham is the big name among Tennessee's rookie targets, but don't sleep on McBride as a potential starting "Z" or slot receiver, especially with Kendall Wright's well-known unhappiness in the Titans' system and Justin Hunter's still-evolving assault case.
McBride was invited to the East-West Shrine Game after putting up 64 catches for 809 yards and four touchdowns as a receiver in 2014, and when you factor in his potential production as a return man, he'll certainly get his share of reps on special teams. And in his NFL home, McBride has the potential to do a lot more than that.
Thomas Rawls, RB, Seahawks (undrafted, Central Michigan)
The buzz about Rawls started in mincamps, when he impressed with his ability to take contact and drive for extra yards—something that lined up with his college tape. The Seahawks obviously prefer backs who aren't afraid of contact and can do the little things, and the word in the Pacific Northwest is that if Rawls keeps it up, and former second-round pick Christine Michael doesn't pick up more of the subtleties this season, Rawls could instigate a changing of the guard behind Marshawn Lynch.