In a perfect world, every NFL first-round pick would come into the league and make an immediate impact. Yet each year, only a handful of them end up making a difference for their new teams right away.
There are a number of reasons why sometimes even the top draft picks don’t make a splash in their first season. There’s a steep learning curve for rookies, and the transition from college to the NFL is a tough one. They’re fitting into new systems, and they’re consistently facing much tougher talent than they did in college. Sometimes, injury derails their season.
It’s not always easy to predict which rookies will break out, but let’s try anyway. These are the five first-rounders we think will make their presence felt as soon as they hit the turf this September.
Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
The Giants’ run game ranked 26th in the league last year. Dave Gettleman and Pat Shurmur are hoping that will change after the team spent the No. 2 pick on Saquon Barkley.
Barkley is well-rounded. He totaled 1,271 rushing yards, 632 receiving yards, and 426 return yards in his final season at Penn State. In all, he had 23 touchdowns — and even added a passing touchdown. But there’s more to a ground game than just bringing in a quality running back. The Giants needed to fix their offensive line. The addition of Nate Solder in free agency and the selection of guard Will Hernandez in Round 2 should help pave the way for a big year for Barkley.
We’ve seen an uptick in teams spending top-five picks on running backs over the past three years. It worked well for the Cowboys with Ezekiel Elliott in 2016 and for the Jaguars with Leonard Fournette last year. Barkley’s skill set and talent suggest that he’ll continue the trend.
Josh Rosen, Arizona Cardinals
Josh Rosen landed in a pretty good spot for a rookie quarterback, even if he thinks it was a “mistake” for three other quarterbacks to get drafted ahead of him. In Arizona, he’s got Larry Fitzgerald, who still played like a top receiver last year at the age of 34. He’ll have a healthy David Johnson to help take the pressure off with a strong ground game and as an added receiving target. And Rosen is, according to Mocking the Draft’s Dan Kadar, the most talented quarterback in this class.
But the Cardinals also took the step of snagging Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk, who also should be able to play a significant role this year as a rookie. He’ll also be able to step into a larger role once Fitzgerald does decide to hang up his cleats.
Rosen isn’t guaranteed the starting job, not with Sam Bradford on a $20 million contract. But with Bradford’s inability to stay healthy, and Rosen’s readiness to start right away, it seems likely that he’ll be under center sooner rather than later.
D.J. Moore, Carolina Panthers
Cam Newton led the Panthers to a 15-1 regular season record and a Super Bowl bid in 2015 despite throwing to a bunch of guys who would have been buried on other teams’ depth charts. Moore can instantly become the top receiver on the Panthers’ roster. At 6’0, 210 pounds, Moore isn’t huge, but he plays like he is.
Moore’s style of play is reminiscent of Steve Smith — even Smith thinks so. He’s physical and pulls off contested catches. He’s exactly the type of receiver Newton needs, and he should get a lot of opportunities to flourish in the Panthers’ offense this season.
Bradley Chubb, Denver Broncos
Most people were a little surprised when the No. 4 pick came and it was Denzel Ward, not Chubb, who went to the Browns. That left the best edge rusher in the draft on the board to be snapped up by the Broncos. He’ll join arguably the best pass rusher in the league, Von Miller, in Denver. That’s going to be a scary defensive front.
Chubb is everything you could want from a pass rusher. He’s 6’4, 269 pounds, and pulled off a 4.65 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. He’s got a nose for the backfield, with 23 tackles for loss and 10 sacks in his final season at NC State. He’ll force offenses to adjust to try to contain both him and Miller, which should create the opportunity for them both to hassle each quarterback the Broncos face.
Quenton Nelson, Indianapolis Colts
Andrew Luck has to be relieved the Colts managed to snag the most NFL-ready offensive lineman in this year’s draft to keep him upright this year. Nelson is a punishing run blocker and an adept pass blocker. Our Stephen White says Nelson blocks like “a goon,” which he means in the most complimentary way possible. The Colts also used a third-round pick on Auburn guard Braden Smith, who should help.
The Colts have sorely missed their quarterback, finishing last season 4-12 with the 30th-ranked passing offense in the league. They should get Luck back this season, but that won’t matter if they can’t protect him and keep him healthy. Nelson will be a big part of that puzzle.