Mailbag: Which Under-the-Radar Rookies Will Make the Biggest Impact This Year

We know the impact Joe Burrow and Chase Young should have this year. But what rookies from outside the first round are ready to step up? Plus, expectations for Daniel Jones, only some stadiums having fans, what's next for Earl Thomas and more.
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My training camp swing is all wrapped up. You can read about some of my stops in the MMQB column, MAQB, and last week’s GamePlan. Now let’s dive into the mailbag …

From Master Chief Anakin Chrysler Skywalker Darth Vader (@jaychocnh): Which rookie will make the most individual impact for their team?

Master, right now, I’ll go with the stock answer—Joe Burrow. We know he’s starting on Sept. 13. He plays the most important position. With a couple of linemen developing under line coach Jim Turner, he’ll have a pretty solid supporting cast around him. And he’s very ready, having spent five years in college in two elite programs. I think he’ll be pretty good, and pretty good at quarterback should make you the most impactful.

No. 2 for me would be the No. 2 overall pick, and I know that’s also boring. But Chase Young is walking into the same sort of situation his ex-teammate Nick Bosa was last year, into a position group flush with first-round talent that he’s capable of taking over the top. Washington could wind up with a top-10 defense and Young’s a huge reason why.

Alright, so then you’d want some off-the-board guys, I’d assume. Here are a few non-first-rounders to chew on …

lloyd-cushenberry-nfl-rookies-impact

Broncos C Lloyd Cushenberry: If you want to discuss important, Cushenberry is certainly that for Denver. Their line is deficient at the tackles, and pretty good at the guard spots, and that makes the team’s third-round pick a pretty important piece at the pivot spot.

Chiefs ILB Willie Gay: This is my darkhorse. The second-round pick’s speed and athleticism has wowed K.C. staff, and the defense around him improved fast at the end of the year. I love the idea of an ascending group getting a jolt at a need spot from a rising young star.

Bills RB Zack Moss: The Bills love him. He’s been great since he got there. And his physical style will be just what Sean McDermott and Brian Daboll are looking for out of the position.

Patriots LB Josh Uche: Uche was mostly an edge player at Michigan, but the Patriots have moved instinctive guys like him off the ball in the past—Mike Vrabel once did it, and Kyle Van Noy is a more recent success story. Keep an eye on this one.

Buccaneers S Antoine Winfield: He’s making big plays on a daily basis in Tampa’s camp, and Bruce Arians and Todd Bowles are eyeing a role like the one Tyrann Mathieu and Budda Baker filled in their system in Arizona. Buy stock in the second-generation NFLer now.

From evan alcazar (@evanalcazar_): Expectations for Daniel Jones now that he is in his second year, yet he has to learn a whole new offense again?

Evan, I think so much of this is going to come down to what happens at tackle. The Giants lost Nate Solder, which pushes fourth overall pick Andrew Thomas onto center stage, and fellow rookie Matt Peart potentially into a starting role too. And while Thomas and Peart might wind up being the bookends there for a long time to come, starting them both right away would probably mean accepting some bumps, that Jones will have to feel.

On the flip side, thanks to the presence of Saquon Barkley, the Giants won’t have to lean on Jones like some others have leaned on young quarterback, and he’s got a good group of guys (Evan Engram, Golden Tate, Sterling Shepard) to throw to. So if the line settles, there’s reason to believe good things could follow for Jones.

And now, we can get to Jones himself. I wanted to get to the rest first, because I firmly believe a young quarterback’s ability to blossom is tied largely to his supporting case. Jones has gotten a little bigger and stronger, and the new staff has been pleasantly surprised by (while he’ll always be a little reserved off the field) how willing he’s been to be vocal on the field. It’s shown he can be assertive, and that he already has command of Jason Garrett’s offense.

There’s also this: Garrett did a pretty good job, overall, with Dak Prescott and Tony Romo as young quarterbacks in Dallas. I think it can happen here too, so long as that aforementioned issue gets worked out.

From Qualitysmoke (@qualitysmoke): How much would you pay for an NFL stadium ticket to be one person per ten seats with no food, drink or tailgating and to constantly wear a mask?

Quality, I’ve got a story on this coming on Thursday. But for now, if I was a fan, would I? I can actually tell you for sure, I would. Before the Big 10 office called off fall football way too early in an effort to look like visionaries (sorry, still bitter), I actually had talked to a few of my buddies from school about going to a game that would, in all likelihood, have about 25,000 fans in a stadium that holds well over 100,000.

Now, you might ask why, and I’ll answer. To me, I love the idea of being there, and thought Ohio State had a team with potential to be as good as any since I was in school. I wanted to see Justin Fields in person. I wanted to see Chris Olave, Wyatt Davis, Josh Myers, Shaun Wade and Zach Harrison too.

Would I have gone to more than one game? Probably not, unless we’re talking about the national title game. And I’m saying this because I do think there’ll be fans who will look at their season the way I was looking at mine. I could see a lot of fans saying, this is such a weird and different year, and I want to witness it for myself … But just once.

So yes, I’d go to a game. But probably not all of them.

From eyeglooo (@Eyeglooo): Why does Joe Douglas seem so apprehensive with getting WR help for Sam Darnold? Only 1 WR in the draft and no WR trades unlike other GMs who surround their QB with talented playmakers. Is he THAT shrewd with his draft picks, or does he just not see the value?

Eve, it’s not hesitancy to go and get Darnold help at receiver. It’s a philosophical approach to team building, borne of Douglas’s time Baltimore and Philadelphia. The foundation of any Douglas plan is going to be grounded at the line of scrimmage, which is how his old bosses Howie Roseman and Ozzie Newsome built their teams.

Let’s look at the Jets’ offseason. They signed George Fant to play tackle, Greg Van Roten to play guard and Conor McGovern to play center, and all that was after trading for Alex Lewis last summer. They drafted Mekhi Becton with the 10th overall pick. And after all that, they did draft Denzel Mims with their next pick in April.

That’s not to say Douglas won’t eventually put resources into the receiver position. It’s just not a mistake that he’s building the team in this order.

From ColtsRocketsStarsDodgers (@ussportsfanmelb): With the cap likely lowering next season, do you anticipate any teams trading higher-priced players before this season starts, to get better compensation than they would before more teams need to do it next offseason?

Good question, Colts! I hadn’t thought of that. For a few reasons, though, things have been relatively quiet on the trade market. The first one is that teams haven’t gotten to watch each other’s players in preseason games. The second is that depth will likely be more important this year than it ever has been before, so teams view surpluses on their rosters differently. Third is the looming cap shortfall—which is making teams less willing to bring in high-priced pieces, and more apt to hold on to draft picks (that become cheap labor).

That said, what you’re laying out may come into play once we get close to the trade deadline. Teams very well could look to dump more expensive players they don’t plan to re-sign due to lack of future cap space, or guys who cost too much with a cap crunch on the horizon for a team. And there are a whole bunch of looming 2021 free agents (the guys franchise-tagged and otherwise) who fit into that category.

So my guess would be it’ll be quieter than usual on the trade front ahead of the final roster cutdown, with some potential for fireworks later on.

From NYGfaninCLT (@clt_ny): With no pre-season game film to circulate, will waiver wire claims September 5 be more or less than normal, or the same?

NYG fan, I do think there’ll be fewer waiver claims. A few weeks ago, I wrote a story on Matt Rhule about all this, and he made the point that this year’s camp will mirror college football in a way I hadn’t thought of—the team you start with will likely be the one you wind up having into the regular season. His feeling was with the 53-man roster, plus a 16-man practice squad, and less poaching, really, what you had in August would wind up being close to what you’d have in September. Or closer than normal.

I think he’ll be right. I’ve talked to a ton of GMs who’ve said they’ll be leaning on college scouts to help with evals on young players, and they’ll be digging through last year’s preseason tape. I just don’t know that that’ll be enough to send teams on the claiming sprees they normally go on, when the cost is taking a player off your own roster in, again, a year when depth will be at a premium.

I would say that teams with new regimes (Carolina, Cleveland, Giants, Washington) would be more likely to take advantage of a less-active waiver wire aggressively, because they’re less married to their own guys. But overall, I’d say it’s fair to guess it’ll be quieter on the waiver-claiming front come Labor Day weekend.

From drew (@alldaydrew3): Who do you think will get the starting QB job, Cam or Stidham?

Drew, straight-forward question, so I’ll give you a straight-forward answer.

I believe the job is Cam Newton’s. And that’s nothing against Jarrett Stidham. I think he could be very capable, especially working Josh McDaniels. The thing is, his game resume isn’t close to Newton’s now, and that means that in order to beat Newton out, he was going to have to just crush the entire summer.

That hasn’t happened. And again, that’s no red flag on where his career’s going. It’s just that Newton’s played, and played at a very high level, and when you’re running a quarterback competition without a single preseason game or spring workout, that has to make a very significant difference. Especially when the other guy still hasn’t taken a meaningful snap in a pro football game.

From SRNY10 (@shamshirosenfe2): Why is the NFL not stepping in and making an agreement that there will be ZERO fans at games this year? Why is it fair that the Dolphins get to have fans but the other teams can’t, it’s a real disadvantage.

SRNY is echoing the words of Bills coach Sean McDermott, who was, understandably, upset about the inequity coming—some teams will have fans in the stands in Week 1, and others have already announced they will not. From a pure football standpoint, McDermott is right. The NFL’s always preached the importance of competitive balance, and promoted its team-to-team parody, and this idea really serves neither of those things.

But doing this does serve another group of people: the business folks. And that the business folks will win here actually could mean wins for everyone. We know losses stand to creep toward nine figures per team this year, and the NFL’s basically taken the approach that any cash that can be recovered should be recovered. So if Jerry Jones can put a butt in a seat and Terry Pegula can’t? So be it. In the end, both Jones and Pegula will benefit from that.

So will the players, by the way. The loss of revenue will have to be accounted for cap-wise, and the fewer losses there are, the fewer dollars there will be to account for coming out of the players’ pockets down the line.

Dec 8, 2019; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Baltimore Ravens free safety Earl Thomas (29) reacts to a defensive play against the Buffalo Bills during the second quarter at New Era Field. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

From Tim Riggle (@timriggle): Is there any chance we see Earl Thomas in Cleveland?

Tim, I’d be a little surprised. Thomas’s outburst wasn’t the first problem he had, even going back before he arrived in Baltimore. The Ravens knew he was a loose cannon, and he was habitually late and erratic, problems that only got worse in this, his second summer as a Raven. In Seattle, having Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman around helped keep him in check, and you’d noticed that his behavior there, too, went a little sideways after they left.

Accounting for that, I’m not sure, even with the loss of Grant Delpit (which I assume is why you’re asking the question), you’d want to have Thomas on a team that’s got a lot of good, rising young players. So yeah, logically, I’d guess the Browns stay away.

From Roberta Wears A Mask You Should Too (@AceandJasper): At the end of the season, which former Patriot will be missed more, #12 or #3?

Roberta, this seemed like a stupid question at first. Then I thought about it. Is the dropoff from Tom Brady to Cam Newton as precipitous as the dropoff from Stephen Gostkowski to Nick Folk/Justin Roihrwasser? Belichick really does value kicks, correct? And maybe I can sit here for another five minutes and convince myself that this is a real argument to have that I need to spend some time on.

But I’m going to do that. It’s No. 12, Roberta.

From Tanner James (@PatriotsDisect): How impressed with TB12 where you when in Tampa? I’ve heard and read that he looks incredible in practice.

Tanner, we’ll have more soon on this soon. What I would say now is that he played better on Monday than he did on Sunday, and those were the two days I was there. What stuck out more, as far as I’m concerned, is how he interacted with his teammates.

Brady set a very high bar in New England and could be tough and driving on those around him. It was to make everyone better, and everyone understood that, and the results of the last 20 years absolutely speak for themselves.

All that said, this was a little bit of a different guy in Tampa. All the reinforcement I heard out there was overwhelmingly positive and encouraging. As a result, some younger Bucs are playing with more confidence, and you can feel chemistry building. I’m told Brady still isn’t shy about correcting those guys, but he’ll do it by pulling a guy aside and having a quiet moment with him away from practice, rather than airing these sorts of problem out in front of everyone.

It was pretty interesting to see. I don’t know what, if any, impact it’ll make. It was just interesting to see.