By Greg DePalma, OFN Executive Producer
Every April we’re extremely focused on the players who get selected in the early stages during the NFL Draft. But as we’ve learned by now, the successes and failures for each team are usually dictated by the players who are chosen in the later rounds as well as the ones who get passed over until they become free agents.
That’s why we decided to put a list together of the top rookies to keep an eye on who had to wait until after the second round and beyond before knowing where their pro destination would be.
We list the following players according to how far they’ve had to come in order to prove themselves as true ‘under-the-radar’ types as well as who we feel will have the best chance to end up as key players for their respective clubs either this season or in seasons to come.
2017 Watch List: Under-the-radar rookies
1 RB Matt Breida, 49ers (FA)…A true underdog camp story if there ever was one. Breida’s stock took a hit before his senior season at Georgia Southern after his former Head Coach (Willie Fritz) left for Tulane. Through his sophomore and junior seasons with the Eagles, Breida eclipsed over 3,000-yards with 34 TDs while leading the nation in yards-per-carry. The 49ers appear confident enough in Breida’s ability that they decided to cut veteran Tim Hightower even as rookie fourth-round pick Joe Williams sits on IR.
2 RB Chris Carson, Seahawks (7th)…With Thomas Rawls and CJ Prosise both coming off injury-plagued seasons and with overrated Eddie Lacy also in the mix on the depth chart, Carson has a legitimate shot at getting reps after an excellent showing during camp and the preseason.
3 DT Davon Godchaux, Dolphins (5th)…The former LSU Tiger has been coming along much faster than anticipated. Godchaux started three seasons in the SEC with one of the top defenses in the land and now that experience has presumably paid off. With former second-round pick Jordan Phillips yet to make his mark in Miami, Godchaux could end up starting as early as next week. It should also help his development to play alongside one of the top interior defenders in the league in Ndamukong Suh.
4 DE Jordan Willis, Bengals (3rd)…This pick should come as no surprise considering Willis had a first-round grade by Dan Shonka and was a major bargain in the third-round. Willis was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year last season and followed that up by being named the South’s Most Outstanding Player in the Senior Bowl. His momentum hasn’t fallen off either thanks to leading the league with four sacks in the preseason.
5 LB Carl Lawson, Bengals (4th)…The former Auburn Tiger is another Bengals draft pick who was added to the roster to help improve the pass rush. Lawson is not as versatile as Willis, but he does have what it takes to excel as a premier edge rusher as was evidenced by his sack in the preseason against Redskins tackle, Trent Williams. Now he just has to find a way to stay healthy long enough to garner trust from his team.
6 WR Taywan Taylor, Titans (3rd)…Some might have pegged Taylor as a product of the Western Kentucky high-octane offense produced at a lower-level of competition in the Conference USA. You can forget those assumptions now though as Taylor has proven his above-average route-running ability and overall confidence during camp and the preseason. He’s also taken advantage of the lost reps from top pick and fellow receiver, Corey Davis. Taylor should be a trusted target for QB Marcus Mariota for years to come.
7 WR Kenny Golladay, Lions (3rd)…The Lions have to be pleased with what they’ve seen so far out of the former Northern Illinois star who’s expected to impact the offense the most as a key red-zone threat. Golladay was drafted to replace the retired Anquan Boldin, who led the receiving unit in TDs last season.
8 RB Kareem Hunt, Chiefs (3rd)…A no-brainer choice thanks to the season-ending injury to Spencer Ware. Truth be told, I believe Hunt would have taken over as the team’s top rusher at some point this season anyway. All he did was run for nearly 5,000 career-yards over his career at Toledo. Hunt has a good chance to win the AFC Rookie of the Year award.
9 WR Cooper Kupp, Rams (3rd)…Speaking of the rookie award, Kupp could be your top NFC pick if he gets enough help from second-year QB Jared Goff. We espoused Kupp’s talents on countless shows for several months leading up to the draft and his preseason work so far has done nothing to change my mind of his potential greatness.
10 RB Alvin Kamara, Saints (3rd)…Kamara ended up getting drafted by the perfect coach (Sean Payton) and will play with the perfect quarterback (Drew Brees). I don’t really see him as a No. 1 back, but that’s not why he’s with the Saints. His primary role will be to provide Brees and the offense with a younger and possibly better version of former Saint, Darren Sproles. His explosive ability has already made the rounds in the preseason, as he ended up averaging 10.7 yards-per-attempt on just nine carries.
Best of the rest
LB Alex Anzalone, Saints (3rd)…The Saints have long waited for a linebacker to enter the scene on defense and skillfully cover backs and tight-ends and it appears they’ve finally found their man. The main issue moving forward is going to be keeping Anzalone healthy after he ended up missing time due to a myriad of injuries in college.
RB D’Onta Foreman, Texans (3rd)…The big between-the-tackles runner will have a great chance to take over for the average Lamar Miller at some point over the next season or two. Foreman enjoyed a nice preseason by averaging 5.8 yards-per-carry on 16 touches.
WR Chris Godwin, Bucs (3rd)…Godwin will end up starting alongside Mike Evans in Tampa Bay for many seasons to come. He was a major factor for the resurgence at Happy Valley last season for the Nittany Lions.
WR Chad Hansen, Jets (4th)…Hansen was a nice bargain in the fourth-round for the receiving starved Jets. Look for Hansen to have an important role with this team especially if QB Bryce Petty takes over.
RB De’Angelo Henderson, Broncos (6th)…Henderson is going to have a long career in this league. His diminutive size dropped him to the later rounds, but his productivity at Coastal Carolina for the past four years is undeniable. Henderson gained 4,635-career yards and tallied 58 TDs while also displaying top receiving skills by hauling in 93 receptions the last three years combined.
TE Jacob Hollister, Patriots (FA)…The undrafted free agent from Wyoming was one of my top deep draft sleepers who played a pivotal role in the Cowboys’ offense last season, which was directed by future first-round pick, QB Josh Allen. Hollister ended up signing with a perfect team that will provide him with a great tutor in Gronk and with a legend to catch passes from in Brady.
RB Aaron Jones, Packers (5th)…Jones was another one of my deep draft sleepers following an impressive career at UTEP. The former Miner ended up with 4,114-career yards rushing even after missing parts of two seasons with injuries.
TE George Kittle, 49ers (5th)…Kittle has the all-around game for the position that new Head Coach Kyle Shanahan is looking for and he’s already slotted to start Week 1. It won’t hurt Kittle either if his former quarterback at Iowa (CJ Beathard) winds up getting the top gig here someday.
LB Calvin Munson, Giants (FA)…As Dan Shonka noted in his 2017 Draft Guide, Munson was ‘the heart and soul of the Aztecs defense’. He was expected to begin his pro career as a special team force and that’s exactly what’s happened this preseason with the Giants.
RB Samaje Perine, Redskins (4th)…Rob Kelly sure was a nice story for the Redskins last season, but there’s no doubt that the all-time leading rusher for Oklahoma is more talented than Kelly and will ultimately assume the top job in Washington before long.