Here are eight rookies with the ability to do some unusual things at a very high level with their new teams in the 2016 NFL season.
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Sometimes, projecting a player from college to the pros is easy because the adjustments a rookie needs to make to the NFL aren’t that drastic. But some teams can’t help tinkering with athletic talent, and some players have the ability to fill out the most unusual visions of their coaches and general managers. Here are eight rookies with the ability to do some unusual things at a very high level with their new teams.
Jalen Ramsey, CB/S, Jaguars
The Jaguars had a fine defensive draft in 2016, and they made the Florida State defensive back the centerpiece of it with the fifth pick of the first round. Ramsey did it all for the Seminoles—press cornerback, slot defender and free safety—and he has the potential to be just as dynamic and versatile for his NFL team.
“For us and our scheme and what we look for, he’s an ideal fit,” GM Dave Caldwell recently told NFL Network. “It was probably one of the easier decisions we’ve had here in our three years.”
As a big, aggressive cornerback, he looks like a natural in the Cover-3/Cover-1 base preferred by coach Gus Bradley. It may take some time for Ramsey to get the little nuances of the position against more seasoned receivers, especially those receivers familiar with option and quick-breaking routes, but he could turn into one of the league’s true lockdown corners from a man-on-man start. And if the Jags decide to move him around a bit—say, in a Charles Woodson role—he has all the physical characteristics required to handle it.
DeForest Buckner, DE, 49ers
San Francisco GM Trent Baalke was asked why he picked Buckner at No. 7, and Baalke made it pretty clear: “Why not? I mean, what’s not to like?”
Buckner found a place in Oregon’s defense over the last four seasons, but he shined in 2015 with 45 solo tackles, 17 tackles for loss, and 10.5 sacks. He can play credibly everywhere on the line—from head-over nose to defensive end. At 6' 7" and 291 pounds, he probably projects best as a three-tech tackle with end potential in a four-man front, not unlike Cardinals star Calais Campbell. The 49ers took fellow Oregon lineman Arik Armstead in the first round of the previous year’s draft, but Buckner looks twice as versatile and developed. San Francisco defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro, who worked the defensive line at Oregon and in Philadelphia with Chip Kelly, should have a field day moving someone of Buckner’s speed, length and strength around.
Leonard Floyd, OLB, Bears
Floyd tore it up last year for Georgia, with 41 total pressures on just 115 pass-rush snaps, but we’ve seen light guys hit the NFL before and fizzle out as pass rushers. He dropped into coverage a ton last season, and did so effectively. The question now: How will the Bears use their first-round pick? At his post-draft press conference, Floyd espoused the similarities in scheme between the 3–4 base he worked in college and the one he’ll be learning at the NFL level. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio likes a hybrid scheme with his fronts, and he could have Floyd doing everything from rushing to covering. Floyd played at 6' 6" and around 235 pounds last season. The Bears will most likely prefer him to be in the 240–245 range.
“We didn’t talk about a number, but I believe that they want me to gain,” Floyd said. “I will do whatever they want me to, whatever the coaches see me playing at, what weight they see me playing at.”
Based on his college tape, Floyd got his pressures with more speed than strength or technique, which limits his impact against more advanced NFL blockers. He could be stymied until he develops the kind of leverage moves that are required at the next level.
Paxton Lynch, QB, Broncos
The Broncos moved up in the 2016 draft to take Lynch as their future franchise quarterback, leaving just one question: How soon will he take the ball from veteran Mark Sanchez? Denver was able to overcome spiky play from Peyton Manning last season and ride the defense to the Lombardi Trophy, but putting it all in the hands of a kid is a slightly different story. However, when you watch Lynch’s Memphis tape and superimpose it on the kind of passing offense preferred by head coach Gary Kubiak, it's a pretty great fit. Kubiak prefers quarterbacks who run play-action and boot-action concepts from under center, and while Lynch ran a lot of shotgun and Pistol in college, the boot-action part of the game is built right in as a natural thing for him. In addition, with Memphis, Lynch did everything from full-house backfield stuff to simple option runs.
“I think I’m going to have to get under center and really push the tempo on my footwork and getting my feet lined up where I have to throw the ball,” Lynch said after he was drafted.
If he can make progress there during training camp and the preseason, he may supplant Sanchez by Week 1.
A’Shawn Robinson, DT, Lions
The Lions got a steal with Robinson at the No. 46 pick—it seemed as if a lot of people didn’t know what to make of the Alabama defensive lineman. Robinson put up just nine sacks over three seasons, with a high of 5.5 in 2013, when he was asked to rush upfield and penetrate more than his subsequent seasons. As the years went on, Robinson was tasked to two-gap more often, allowing openings for other defenders to make plays. He’ll need an advanced array of hand moves at the next level if he wants to transcend that run-stopping role, but he has the potential to do it. Detroit’s coaches have already encouraged him to do so.
“To come from two-gapping and be able to attack, it’s amazing,” he said this week of the Lions’ defensive scheme. “I know I’m changing my stance and just coming off the ball and explode on offensive linemen. It’s cool.”
Su’a Cravens, S, Redskins
Cravens played everything from safety to linebacker to occasional press corner at USC and proved to be a valuable defender from inside to the slot to the boundary. It was just going to take one team to recognize his value as a truly versatile player as opposed to a “tweener”, the deadliest of labels. The Redskins took a shot on him with the No. 53 pick, and Washington GM Scot McCloughan seems to grasp that this athlete can make a difference on multiple levels.
“The thing that’s really cool about him is the diversity he brings,” McCloughan said. “Safety, linebacker, maybe a nickel linebacker, maybe a nickel corner. The guy is a really good football player.”
Cravens projects well as a slot defender and box safety with some linebacking chops and the ability to occasionally step in for boundary pass defense.
Vonn Bell, S, Saints
The Saints allowed a horrid 45 passing touchdowns in 2015—to put that in perspective, the Eagles ranked second-worst with 36—and finding ways to remedy that through the draft was a necessity. Free safety Jairus Byrd has been a high-priced mess in coverage when he’s been healthy enough to play, which has been just 17 games over two seasons. At Ohio State, Bell proved he was able to play deep for a top-ranked defense, but he was also a great slot defender, which is where the Saints may have him play most of the time. Per Pro Football Focus, in 2015 Bell allowed just 15 receptions on 30 targets in the slot, with two touchdowns, one pick and an opposing quarterback rating of 77.8.
“He is someone that can run over the slot quite a bit,” said coach Sean Payton of Bell. “Our vision would be the same in that we think he can be on the field covering down over a slot. We think probably the first position would be free over strong safety, and then we just let it unfold from there and see how he does.”
Yes, Bell will get some deep reps, but don’t be surprised if he’s a top slot man from the start.
C.J. Prosise, RB, Seahawks
The Seahawks are looking for a reliable third-down back, which is why Prosise was one of the three backs the team took in the 2016 draft. Yes, there’s the need to replace Marshawn Lynch over time, but Prosise is a different type of weapon. He played safety and receiver at Notre Dame until depth issues forced him to the running back position ahead of the 2015 season, and he responded with 1,029 yards and 11 touchdowns on just 157 carries, averaging 2.83 yards after contact and totaling 43 missed tackles on those 157 carries. He’s a projected do-it-all guy for Seattle who will attack defenses as a receiver just as much as he will as a back.
“He’s a guy that I fell in love with because when I went back and watched him on film at receiver, and [he would] run all of the routes,” Pete Carroll said of Prosise after the team’s rookie minicamp. “He was a regular receiver. He got 50 targets or something like that two years ago. He’s a natural football player at that position that became a running back. Well, that’s really unusual that it happens like that, and that he would be so dynamic at the running back spot.”
The Seahawks, one of the more open-minded teams in the NFL when it comes to position matches and switches, could well be Prosise’s perfect fit.