By Matt Citak
The 2017 NFL Draft produced what looks to be a strong rookie class. A number of top prospects seemed to land in perfect situations, and some are in great positions to make an impact on the field in their first professional season. It’s always tough to predict which rookie will be the biggest difference maker. No one expected Dak Prescott to play such a vital role in Dallas in 2016 prior to Tony Romo’s preseason injury. Yet Prescott went on to win Offensive Rookie of the Year after leading the Cowboys to a 13-3 record, highlighting the fact that you never know which first-year player will go on to have a significant affect on their team.
Several members of the NFL on CBS team took a crack at predicting which rookies, on both offense and defense, would have the biggest impact in their rookie campaign. Let’s start with the offense.
QB DeShone Kizer, Cleveland Browns
The Browns selected Kizer with the 52nd overall selection in this year’s draft with the hope that he would eventually take over as the team’s starting quarterback. Well, that time is coming sooner than they originally thought, as head coach Hue Jackson named Kizer the starting quarterback for Cleveland’s season opener against the Steelers.
“I love the idea that DeShone Kizer is starting for Cleveland,” said NFL on CBS’s lead reporter, Tracy Wolfson. “With Cleveland, you can only go up. I really like their young team, he’s going to have a big impact. [But] they have a lot of pieces that they need to put together.”
Kizer is coming off a strong junior year at Notre Dame in which he completed 58.7 percent of his passes for 2,925 yards, 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions. The young quarterback proved to be a legitimate running threat as well, carrying the ball 129 times for 472 yards (3.7 yards per carry) and eight touchdowns.
In three preseason games, the 21-year-old threw for 351 yards on 51 percent passing (25-of-49) with one touchdown and one interception, finishing with a QB Rating of 72.7. The rookie added eight rushes for 47 yards (5.9 yards per carry) and a rushing touchdown, and was able to beat out veteran Brock Osweiler and second-year quarterback Cody Kessler for the starting role.
“After watching him in the preseason games, that is going to be their best option,” said NFL on CBS reporter Jamie Erdahl. “I really like Hue Jackson as a coach. He’s easy to buy into. The Browns are going to be exciting to watch… We could see another Cowboys situation from last year, where, if you have a good offensive line, you could buy a rookie quarterback some time. Does he have the weapons offensively to throw to? Will he have enough time? Those remain questions.”
As Erdahl pointed out, Cleveland still has some big question marks surrounding their offense. However, after signing Kevin Zeitler and JC Tretter to join Joe Thomas, Joel Bitonio and Shon Coleman on the offensive line, that unit will likely see a vast improvement from last year, and should provide their rookie quarterback with plenty of time to operate.
RB Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers
McCaffrey was one of the top-rated running backs heading into the 2017 NFL Draft after dominating college football for the last two years. The Carolina Panthers selected the running back out of Stanford with the eighth overall pick, leaving many to believe that McCaffrey will play a large role in the Panthers’ offense starting from day one.
“I’m not a rookie guy. It’s really hard for rookies to make a contribution,” said NFL on CBS game analyst Adam Archuleta. “But McCaffrey has a chance to have a pretty good role. How good is he going to be? Is he going to take the league by storm? Probably not. But he has a chance to have a pretty good role because of the offense that he’s in. It’s a unique offense, as it stands with Cam [Newton] at quarterback and how they run things. But that gives them a unique matchup guy that they never really had before. That’s going to be pretty interesting.”
McCaffrey burst onto the scene in 2015 when he ran the ball 337 times for 2,019 yards (6.0 yards per carry) and eight touchdowns, becoming the first Stanford player to ever rush for 2,000 yards in a season. The running back caught 45 passes for 645 yards and five touchdowns that season too, while also racking up 1,200 return yards and two return touchdowns. McCaffrey’s 3,864 all-purpose yards broke Barry Sanders’ NCAA record of 3,250, and helped the young back win the Associated Press College Football Player of the Year award, as well as the Pac-12 Player of the Year award. While his stats last season were not as jaw-dropping, McCaffrey still ran for over 1,600 yards and 13 touchdowns, while averaging 6.3 yards per carry.
McCaffrey showed flashes of his immense versatility during the preseason. In three exhibition contests, turning 17 carries into 87 yards (5.1 yards per carry) and a touchdown. The 21-year-old back also had three receptions for 51 yards. McCaffrey should get a good number of touches each week, despite the presence of veteran Jonathan Stewart in the Carolina backfield.
“Christian McCaffrey will have a great impact on Carolina,” added NFL Today analyst and former Super Bowl champion Bill Cowher.
The team has not shied away from talking up their rookie first-round pick throughout the summer. And with a recent report stating the Panthers have put together a package of plays tailored specifically for him, it’s clear they will make a concerted effort to get the ball in McCaffrey’s hands.
RB Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
Despite being one of the most highly regarded running backs heading into the draft, Cook dropped to the second round due to off-the-field problems and character concerns. The Vikings, surrendering their fourth-round pick, traded up seven slots to select him 41st overall. He was the third running back selected in the draft behind Leonard Fournette and McCaffrey.
“Dalvin Cook is a legitimate star,” said NFL on CBS play-by-play announcer Ian Eagle. “I don’t know how the playing time is going to be divvied up. To me, he’s the one that stands out when I’ve watched preseason games, that could step in and be a legitimate game-breaker out of the gate.”
Cook was an absolute stud in his three years at Florida State, rushing for at least 1,000 yards each season and finishing his college career as FSU’s all-time leading rusher with 4,464 yards. During his sophomore and junior campaigns, Cook ran for 1,691 yards and 1,765 yards, respectively, and 19 touchdowns in each season. Those two performances represent the school’s top two single-season rushing totals, while his 19 touchdowns fell one shy of the school record.
The 22-year-old back did more of the same in his limited preseason action. Cook carried the ball just 17 times for 70 yards (4.1 yards per carry) in three preseason games, adding six receptions for 35 yards. But the most important development for the rookie running back has been the absence of veteran Latavius Murray throughout the preseason. Murray managed only two carries for six yards in one preseason game, and has fallen behind Cook on the depth chart. The rookie will likely serve as a three-down back for Minnesota, and has the potential to have an amazing year.
“Dalvin Cook has a chance to have a sensational season,” said CBS Sports lead play-by-play announcer, Jim Nantz. “I’ve been watching his preseason games. I know they have Latavious Murray there, but this kid can pass block, he can catch out of the backfield. He’s got a lot of things.”
Cook has thoroughly impressed everyone that has watched him this summer. With the talent of a top-10 pick, the rookie back could end up being quite a steal for the Vikings in the second round. As long as Sam Bradford and the offensive line can hold up, then Cook could wind up being the best back selected in this year’s draft.
Sleeper Pick: WR Cooper Kupp, Los Angeles Rams
“I had one of the preseason games with Cooper Kupp,” Nantz said about the rookie third-round pick. “I saw him catch a touchdown against the Cowboys in the first preseason game on a deflection. Then I had a practice game with Tony [Romo], the Rams and the Raiders, and this kid was making plays all over the field. That’s a dynamic offense if [Sean] McVay is able to make Goff into the player that franchise, not McVay, drafted number one overall a year ago. This kid, you can tell, already has some chemistry with his quarterback.”
As for players on defense, CBS Sports’ experts almost all agreed which rookie would have the biggest impact on the defensive side of the ball.
DE Myles Garrett, Cleveland Browns
It’s tough to argue against the number-one overall pick making the largest difference to his team. Garrett was ranked the top overall prospect and defensive end by Pro Football Focus, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, NFLDraftScout.com and many others. As a 6-foot-4, 272-pound defensive end who runs a 4.64 40-yard dash, Garrett has all of the tools to be an absolute force in the Browns’ pass rush this season.
“It’s hard to think Myles Garrett in Cleveland, that anyone will have more of an impact than him,” said NFL on CBS analyst Jay Feely. “You watch him, the way he gets off the ball, the quickness, the power that he has. The combination of speed and power. His ability to get around the corner and just create havoc from that outside defensive end position. He’s going to have a big impact on that Cleveland defense.”
The 21-year-old defensive end picked up 31.0 sacks, 47.0 tackles for loss, seven forced fumbles and an interception in his three seasons at Texas A&M. He was named first-team All-American and first-team All-SEC in his final two seasons, while earning second-team All-SEC his freshman year.
Perhaps the best news for Garrett this offseason was Cleveland’s hiring of Greg Williams to be the team’s defensive coordinator. Williams is known for running aggressive 4-3 schemes that put a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The coordinator and defensive end seem to be a perfect match for each other in the Browns’ defense.
“The merging of Greg Williams and Myles Garrett, being this super talent… I get the sense that Cleveland is about to show some signs of pointing in the right direction. And it’s going to start with him,” said Nantz about the rookie defensive end.
“I’m interested to see what Myles Garrett can do. He’s looked the part in preseason,” said Archuleta, the former NFL safety. “Now you’ve got to be on a team and a defense that has all the pieces to it. But I’m excited to see what he does. He has potential based on his talent to put some heat on the quarterback. Now they need to find someone else on that defense to compliment that. But I’m excited to watch him.”
Members of the Browns’ coaching staff, along with several veteran players, have been raving about Garrett’s maturity and approach to the game. The young lineman’s willingness to listen and learn should do wonders for his development, both in his rookie season and through his first few years in the NFL. Garrett has the potential to finish his first professional season as not only one of the best rookie defenders, but also one of the league’s top pass rushers.
Sleeper Pick: S Jamal Adams, New York Jets
“Defensive rookie, I would say, just based on the amount of responsibility that he’s been given, Jamal Adams of the Jets,” said Eagle. “They’ve turned over play-calling duties to him. They’re trusting him to be well beyond his years as a rookie. It’s based on a number of factors. One — they believe in him. Two — they have made sweeping changes, and one of those changes was to get younger at that position. So Adams will end up probably having the most impact from an individual standpoint, just based on need and his skill set.”
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.