Sometimes the addition of one player elevates the play of everyone around him—even if that player is a rookie. For years, the Steelers’ defense was among the best in the NFL, but in 2014 the unit struggled, particularly rushing the passer. That led to the selection of Kentucky edge defender Bud Dupree in the first round of the next year’s draft.
Dupree worked his way into a starting role at outside linebacker, and in 2015 the Steelers jumped from 29th to 17th in net yards gained per pass attempt and from 25th to sixth in rushing yards per attempt. Pittsburgh’s adjusted sack rate also jumped from 6.4% to 7.4%. Though Dupree didn’t light up the stat sheet, with just 4.0 sacks and 17 tackles for a loss, his presence off the edge did wonders for the Steelers’ defense.
Similarly, the signing of center Alex Mack last off-season helped propel the Falcons become the No. 2 offense in the NFL according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA, as Mack proved to be a steadying veteran force in improving the Falcons’ run blocking and the line’s protection of MVP Matt Ryan.
While it is tough for a rookie to come in and make a significant impact, it’s certainly a possibility. Here are six 2017 draftees who could improve their respective position groups significantly right out of the gate.
Jaguars backfield: Leonard Fournette
With Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon sharing the load, the Jaguars had the NFL’s 29th-best rushing offense last season. New head coach Doug Marrone needed an upgrade to get the most out of the offense in the final year of Blake Bortles’s rookie deal, hence the selection of Fournette with the No. 4 overall pick. If there’s anyone that can turn the Jaguars’ rushing attack around, it’s Fournette, whose size, speed and strength have drawn Adrian Peterson comparisons. His ability to carve out big gains from the tiniest of holes will be a welcome addition in Jacksonville, where Bortles himself accounted for four of the offense’s seven runs of more than 20 yards in 2016.
Titans receiving corps: Corey Davis
Boosted by one of the best lines in football and a second-year leap from Marcus Mariota, the Titans fielded a top-10 offense last year—and that was with Rishard Matthews as their leading receiver. While Matthews is talented, he’s more suited for a WR2 or slot role. The Titans didn’t have a top-flight receiver on their roster who would draw double coverages and be able to make catches in traffic, which is why they took the most polished receiver in this year’s draft class with the No. 5 pick. At 6' 3" and 209 pounds, Davis will give Mariota that WR1 to take Tennessee’s offense to the next level.
Bengals defensive line: Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson
With middling play from the line last season, the Bengals’ defense dropped to No. 17 in DVOA last year (20th against the run and 15th against the pass), but the Bengals found upgrades via the draft. Both Willis and Lawson were at one point projected first-round picks, but both fell past the first night, with the Bengals drafting Willis in the third round and Lawson in the fourth. The two combined for 21.0 sacks and 31.5 tackles for loss last season, and while as rookies that type of production is doubtful, both will provide reinforcements along the line and could in time return the Bengals’ defense to the level it reached on the playoff squads of recent years.
Vikings backfield: Dalvin Cook
When Adrian Peterson went down with an injury, Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata led an anemic Vikings ground game that finished with just 1,205 rushing yards, the fewest in the NFL. Minnesota signed ex-Raider Latavius Murray to replace Peterson, but the real exciting addition to the backfield is second-round pick Dalvin Cook. Character concerns send Cook’s draft stock sliding, but he was among the most talented backs in the nation last year, finishing sixth in FBS with 2,253 all-purpose yards. Murray and the shuffling along the offensive line both count as upgrades in their own right, but Cook gives the Vikings a multi-dimensional weapon that could lift the ground game back into the top half of the NFL.
Chargers offensive line: Dan Feeney/Forrest Lamp
The Chargers’ line was among the worst in football last season: It graded out second-to-last in the eyes of Pro Football Focus, and its 6.6% adjusted sack rate was good for 24th in the NFL. But by grabbing arguably the two best guard prospects in the draft, the unit has the potential to take a major leap forward next season. The Chargers selected Lamp and Feeney a round later than most experts had projected they'd come off the board, but the picks still marked an aggressive investment in the effort to keep pressure coming up the middle off of Philip Rivers.
Cowboys defensive line: Taco Charlton
The Cowboys need a pass rusher, and it was never more evident than when Aaron Rodgers had all day to throw in the playoffs this January. Over the past few seasons, Greg Hardy wore out his welcome, Randy Gregory earned a handful of debilitating suspensions and Demarcus Lawrence has battled injury issues. Enter Charlton, the lanky pass rusher out of Michigan who totaled 10.0 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss last season. He won’t turn the Cowboys’ middling pass defense into the NFL’s best, but his contributions could get Dallas into the top half of the league.