This year’s draft dropped a banner class of running backs, receivers, and defensive backs into the NFL. Headliners like Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, and Deshaun Watson will all make their pro debuts this fall, carrying massive expectations with them. The result could be the tightest Rookie of the Year race in league history.
Two running backs jumped into this year’s top 10 picks. They were flanked by a trio of top 10 wideouts. The pool of cornerback and safety help was so deep that first-round talents languished long into Day 2 of the draft.
Only two can follow in Dak Prescott’s and Joey Bosa’s footsteps and win the Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year awards, though.
This isn’t a list of each team’s best rookie, but rather a look at the most likely award winner from the draft class of 2017. No offensive lineman has ever won the AP’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award. There’s more diversity on the defensive side where linebacker is the most common recipient, but every standard position from tackle to safety has earned the honor at least once.
Here’s a look at the rookies on each team likely to make a big splash — on the field and with voters — this season.
1. Jacksonville Jaguars: Leonard Fournette
Jacksonville needs a big-time running presence after T.J. Yeldon and Chris Ivory disappointed last season. The Jaguars will get it in Fournette, the early front-runner for Offensive Rookie of the Year. The burly tailback isn’t just hype — he can back it up. He went to LSU as the nation’s top recruit and promptly ran for 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns as a true freshman. He nearly doubled that yardage in 2015 before injuries cut his final season in the NCAA short.
2. Carolina Panthers: Christian McCaffrey
McCaffrey’s ability to contribute as a versatile tailback and kick returner made him one of college football’s most valuable players. He gained more than 6,000 all-purpose yards in his final two seasons at Stanford, proving himself an asset as a runner and receiver. That’s great news for Cam Newton, who needs all the playmaking support he can get after last year’s 6-10 season.
3. Houston Texans: Deshaun Watson
All Watson did at Clemson was win, playing in two national championship games and earning a College Football Playoff title in January. The question now is whether he can scale that success up to the NFL. Houston will give him several opportunities to thrive, surrounding him with offensive talent and a quarterback competition that requires him to beat out Tom Savage to earn a starting role.
4. Minnesota Vikings: Dalvin Cook
The Adrian Peterson era is over in Minnesota. In 2017, the Dalvin Cook era begins. Cook was prolific at Florida State, setting a program record with 4,464 rushing yards in three seasons with the Seminoles. Character concerns and a deep running back class dropped him to the second round, where he’ll be counted on to improve a rushing attack ranked dead last in the NFL in yards per attempt last season.
5. Tennessee Titans: Corey Davis
The Titans needed an undisputed No. 1 wideout and spent the fifth overall pick in this year’s draft to get one. Davis was spectacular at Western Michigan, putting up big numbers against MAC opponents and performing well in non-conference games against the Big Ten. Injuries kept him from much of the pre-draft workout tour, but he’ll be healthy and have plenty to prove for Tennessee when the season begins.
6. Cincinnati Bengals: Joe Mixon
John Ross was the team’s premier pick at No. 9 overall, but it’s Mixon who has the chance to earn the unquestioned top role in the Bengals offense. Ross will team with A.J. Green to give Cincinnati an explosive passing attack, while Mixon could earn the team’s starting running back spot if he outplays Gio Bernard (3.8 yards per carry in 2016) and Jeremy Hill (3.7). That’s a big opportunity for Mixon, who will also have to prove he can keep his nose clean off the field after punching a woman while a student-athlete at Oklahoma.
7. Green Bay Packers: Jamaal Williams
Williams is one of three rookie tailbacks who could rise into a starting role with the Packers this fall. Green Bay drafted Williams out of BYU in the fourth round, then added Aaron Jones and Devante Mays to bolster its offense’s weakest position. Williams ran for 1,375 yards as a senior and showed off capable hands in his early NCAA seasons, recording 27 receptions as a freshman. He’ll have the chance to unseat Ty Montgomery as the team’s starting running back.
8. Cleveland Browns: Myles Garrett
The Browns are loaded with rookie talent for 2017, with Garrett headlining a class that includes Jabrill Peppers, David Njoku, and DeShone Kizer. The freakish athlete will be a terror as an edge rusher in the NFL, and if he can replicate the sack numbers from his final season at Texas A&M, he’ll have a great opportunity to take home some hardware at the end of the year.
9. Chicago Bears: Mitchell Trubisky
Chicago paid out the nose for the opportunity to draft a passer with just one season of starting experience under his belt. The Bears gave up three draft picks to move from No. 3 to No. 2 overall to select Trubisky, who stood out as a third-team All-ACC pick at North Carolina. He’ll have to outplay Mike Glennon to earn a spot behind center, but since the former Buccaneer has only thrown 11 passes the past two seasons, there’s a good chance the rookie can rise to the top of the depth chart.
10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: OJ Howard
Howard’s collegiate hype was based more on potential than production, but his combine numbers were a showcase of the kind of athleticism that will make him a matchup nightmare in the NFL. The Alabama tight end maxed out at 602 receiving yards in a season, but his 4.5-second 40 time and ability to make quick cuts downfield give him the potential to do much more. Cameron Brate’s breakout 2016 season with the Bucs suggests Tampa will find more ways to utilize its athletic tight end than the Crimson Tide ever did.
11. New York Giants: Evan Engram
Eli Manning will get another weapon to pair with Odell Beckham Jr. in Engram, a converted wide receiver who brings great speed and hands to the tight end position. Engram won’t be a plus blocker in his first pro season, but he can wreak havoc up the seam. He had 926 receiving yards and eight touchdowns in his final season with Ole Miss.
12. Buffalo Bills: Zay Jones
Robert Woods, the Bills’ top receiver in 2016, maxed out at 613 yards — good for No. 71 in the league. Woods has since departed for Los Angeles, and while Sammy Watkins will return, constant questions about his health cloud his future with the team. Enter Jones, who was second among FBS receivers with 1,746 yards last fall. Jones has a steep learning curve after going from East Carolina to the AFC East but should immediately slide into a starting role in Buffalo.
13. San Francisco 49ers: Solomon Thomas
Thomas, who gets his quick feet from Irish step dancing in his teens, is a versatile defensive end who can scramble passers and tailbacks with equal aplomb. He’s a big presence who can record the kind of sack numbers to sway voters this season. San Francisco’s rebuilding defensive depth chart should afford him plenty of pass-rushing chances.
14. New York Jets: Jamal Adams
New York got a bargain when Adams, who was projected to be a top-three pick, fell all the way to No. 6. He’ll have the opportunity to contribute immediately for a team caroming deep into the valley of a long rebuild. He could be the brightest spot on a bad Jets team in 2017.
15. Kansas City Chiefs: Kareem Hunt
The Toledo back is facing a major jump in competition but stood out as one of the nation’s most explosive — and inconsistent — runners in college. Hunt failed to follow up on an incredible sophomore campaign in which he ran for more than 1,600 yards and eight yards per carry, but his 2016 proved he can be a versatile addition after making 41 catches out of the backfield. That’ll be useful for a Chiefs team with conservative quarterback Alex Smith behind center for at least one more season.
16. New Orleans Saints: Alvin Kamara
The Saints have a pair of first-round picks who could make an immediate impact with cornerback Marshon Lattimore and offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk, but Kamara plays a position RoY voters typically give preference to. The former Tennessee talent is a dynamic threat out of the backfield as both a runner and receiver, and he’ll have plenty of opportunity to shine in a New Orleans offense known for taking off the restrictor plates and letting it fly.
17. Arizona Cardinals: Haason Reddick
Reddick went from unranked walk-on college prospect to one of the nation’s most productive linebackers, recording 9.5 sacks, 22.5 tackles for loss, and three forced fumbles in his senior season at Temple. He also lit up the NFL Combine, putting up running back-style numbers at the event. His combination of athleticism, strength, and ability to grow will help him make an instant impact in his first season with the Cardinals.
18. Philadelphia Eagles: Derek Barnett
The Eagles used a fourth-round pick on diminutive but uber-productive tailback Donnel Pumphrey, and while he’ll have the chance to make plays from the backfield, Barnett should be the headliner of the team’s rookie class. The athletic defensive end is a powerful edge rusher who can turn the corner and harass quarterbacks at the next level. A handful of sacks and pressures will sway voters in his favor.
19. Indianapolis Colts: Malik Hooker
Indianapolis got a top-five talent all the way at No. 15 after injuries and questions about his experience made the Ohio State safety a draft bargain. Hooker made an impact in just his second active season with the Buckeyes, hauling in seven interceptions and displaying the range that should make him a dynamic safety in the NFL.
20. Baltimore Ravens: Tim Williams
The Ravens reloaded their defense with a handful of high-ceiling picks, including two outside linebackers who have All-Pro potential. Houston’s Tyus Bowser and Alabama’s Williams each starred on successful college teams and should put up significant numbers in their first season in the NFL — that is, as long as they don’t cancel each other out on the Baltimore depth chart.
21. Washington: Jonathan Allen
Allen was another major draft discount, as lingering shoulder issues forced the disruptive Alabama lineman to slide all the way to No. 17. Allen’s flexibility in the trenches and ability to get to the quarterback from anywhere — he had 22.5 sacks his final two seasons with the Tide — will make him a valuable asset in the NFL, as long as he can stay healthy.
22. Los Angeles Chargers: Mike Williams
The only reason Williams is this far down on the list is his health — a herniated disk could cost him his rookie season. But if Williams is able to get back on the field without missing much or any time, he’s got a good chance of putting up big numbers (after all, Joey Bosa missed the first four games for the Chargers and took home Defensive Player of the Year honors last season.) Philip Rivers might be nearing the end of his career, but he was still fifth in the league last year with 4,386 passing yards, and he turned little-known wideout Tyrell Williams into a 1,000-yard wideout. Mike Williams had 1,361 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns as a senior at Clemson.
23. Denver Broncos: Jake Butt
The Broncos have had a hole at tight end since Julius Thomas departed for Jacksonville. Enter Butt, a fifth-round pick with second-round talent who is coming off a torn ACL. If he’s healthy this season, he’ll be a valuable safety net for a team with two young quarterbacks, Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch.
24. Detroit Lions: Kenny Golladay
Golladay only played two seasons at Northern Illinois, but he was one of the league’s top producers of MACtion in that span. He caught 160 passes for nearly 2,300 yards and 18 touchdowns with the Huskies. At 6’4, he’ll be a big target for Matthew Stafford, who played his way into MVP consideration last fall before a finger injury sapped his effectiveness.
25. Miami Dolphins: Charles Harris
Harris’s pass-rushing ability has the Dolphins hoping he can be Cameron Wake’s successor. While Miami is in solid shape at defensive end with Wake and William Hayes as potential starting bookends, they’ve got a combined 67 years of life between them. That means Harris will have the opportunity to work his way through the rotation and into the starting lineup as long as he proves capable of finding NFL quarterbacks.
26. Oakland Raiders: Obi Melifonwu
Melifonwu and Gareon Conley are two high-profile picks who can overhaul the Oakland secondary, but the former UConn safety gets the early nod here thanks to his remarkable athleticism and Conley’s injury concerns. Melifonwu burned down the combine with some of the finest numbers every recorded. He’s still growing as a player, but his ability to contribute as a center fielder and special teamer will turn heads in 2017.
27. Atlanta Falcons: Takkarist McKinley
McKinley will instantly beef up an Atlanta defense that jelled throughout the team’s run in the playoffs. He’s explosive off the line, driving through gaps to make plays in the backfield — as evidenced by his 18 tackles for loss in 11 games in his final season at UCLA. He and Dontari Poe should immediately improve the Falcons’ defensive line, and some gaudy sack numbers could make him a DRoY candidate.
28. Dallas Cowboys: Taco Charlton
Chidobe Awuzie is a rangy cornerback with great tackling skills, but his pedestrian interception numbers could keep voters from recognizing him. Enter Charlton, who showed strong improvement throughout his college career before landing as Dallas’s first-round pick this spring. At 6’6 and 280 pounds, he’s a beast who can use that leverage to confuse blockers and attack quarterbacks.
29. Pittsburgh Steelers: T.J. Watt
JuJu Smith-Schuster has the talent to thrive in the NFL, but as a rookie, he’ll be staring up the depth chart at Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and Sammie Coates. As a result, Watt appears the most likely candidate to make a splash in 2017. He’s got name value thanks to older brother J.J., but his resume at the University of Wisconsin paints him as a high-level pass rusher — 11.5 sacks in his lone season as a starter last year.
30. Seattle Seahawks: Amara Darboh
Darboh was an efficient and dependable wideout for the Michigan Wolverines, and he’ll join a Seattle depth chart that will offer him opportunities as a rookie. The Seahawks need a clear WR2 to step up behind Doug Baldwin, and while Darboh isn’t an explosive athlete, he’s steady enough to fill that role on a team in need of aerial targets.
31. Los Angeles Rams: Cooper Kupp
Kupp is the most prolific receiver in NCAA history, but after dominating FCS opponents through four seasons at Eastern Washington, he has to prove he can get open against NFL defensive backs. He’ll have his work cut out — the Rams ranked No. 31 in passing offense in 2016.
32. New England Patriots: Derek Rivers
Bill Belichick’s push to add young veterans in exchange for draft considerations left his team without a pick until the third round, but the Patriots still may have come away with a top-tier talent in defensive end/linebacker Rivers. He had 15 sacks in 16 games last season for Youngstown State, which despite its FCS status played a lineup of solid teams. He’ll have the chance to contribute right away thanks to his ability to rush the passer — one of New England’s few weaknesses in 2016 — but he’ll face a steep learning curve in the jump going from facing Duquesne to the Steelers.