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7 small school stars who could be rookie NFL starters in 2017

An Eastern Washington wideout could be 2017’s most productive rookie.

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NCAA Football: Eastern Washington at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Not playing FBS football didn’t stop 21 college athletes from living their dream and earning selections in the 2017 NFL draft. While many will struggle to earn their spot on active rosters this fall, a handful are primed to make big impacts with their new teams.

Seven players — six from the FCS and one from Division II — have strong odds of jumping from small-school standout to NFL starter their rookie seasons. They’ll hope to follow in the footsteps of players like Carson Wentz, David Johnson, and Kyle Juszczyk, who all made the jump from the NCAA’s second tier to the big leagues.

Here are the players who should make the biggest impact, listed from most likely to earn starts to least.

Cooper Kupp, WR, Los Angeles Rams

Kupp was the most prolific receiver in NCAA history after gaining 6,464 yards in four seasons with Eastern Washington. That earned him a place at the top of the third round and a less-than-desirable landing spot with the Rams.

That’s a blessing and a curse. Los Angeles’ depleted receiving corps means the accomplished wideout will have the opportunity to break into the starting lineup in week one. But Jared Goff’s fractured adjustment to the NFL means he might not be able to stand out right away.

Kupp could be the ointment Goff needs to ease him out of a sophomore slump. The 6’2 wideout runs crisp routes and has sticky hands, making him a reliable target from day one. Seeing as the Rams depth chart currently includes Robert Woods, Tavon Austin, and Pharoh Cooper, he’ll have a great shot to start right away.

Tanoh Kpassagnon, DE, Kansas City Chiefs

Kpassagnon looks every bit a game-changing pass rusher; his 6’7, 290-pound frame cuts an intimidating silhouette when he steps on the field. He cut his teeth at Villanova, spending five years with the Wildcats and developing into an FCS All-American in the process. Now, he’ll have the opportunity to boost a Chiefs defense that ranked second-to-last in the NFL in terms of sack percentage last season.

He’ll need to make a fast adjustment, but he’ll benefit from having played in one of the FCS’s tougher conferences. While he was able to overpower and outrun CAA tackles in college, the Chiefs are hoping he’ll refine his game and jump into a depth chart that needs significant improvement. He’ll have to outplay young veterans like Chris Jones, Rakeem Nunez-Roches, and Jarvis Jenkins for a starting role.

Adam Shaheen, TE, Chicago Bears

Shaheen is a project after spending his college career at Division II Ashland University, but the Bears offense is so devoid of receiving talent, he could be thrown into the fire immediately. The massive tight end (6’6, 278 pounds) should be a matchup nightmare in the end zone for Chicago, providing a valuable target for either Mike Glennon or Mitchell Trubisky this fall.

He’ll have more to prove than anyone on this list after using his physical gifts to overwhelm defenders from schools like Lake Erie, Michigan Tech, and Mercyhurst. Shaheen needs plenty of polish before he can get an edge on NFL linebackers and safeties. However, a Bears lineup devoid of standout receivers after Alshon Jeffery’s departure means he’ll have several chances to prove himself as a rookie.

Chad Williams, WR, Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals need an infusion of young talent in their receiving corps, and Williams could be the guy to do it. The Grambling State product may have been a bit of a reach in the third round — Pro Football Focus didn’t have him ranked among its top 51 WR prospects and NFL.com pegged him as a sixth-round pick — but he’s a productive wideout who will step onto a depth chart featuring an aging Larry Fitzgerald and little other help.

A look at his big performance against the University of Arizona may help explain why the Cardinals were so enamored with him. Williams roasted the Wildcats for 13 catches and 152 yards to prove he could hang with lower-level Power 5 competition. He’ll compete against players like John Brown, J.J. Nelson, and Brittan Golden for reps in what may be Carson Palmer’s last chance to win a Super Bowl.

Derek Rivers, LB/DE, New England Patriots

The Youngstown State pass rusher fills an immediate need for the Patriots; Bill Belichick drafted him to inherit the QB-hassling role Chandler Jones vacated when he was traded to the Cardinals. He has the strength and speed to fill in at defensive end or outside linebacker for coordinator Matt Patricia, and that flexibility should help him see the field early and often in Foxborough.

He’ll join an edge rushing rotation that includes Rob Ninkovich, Trey Flowers, and 2017 acquisition Kony Ealy. New England’s pass rush was mediocre last fall, landing in the middle of the league when it came to total sacks and sack percentage. Rivers will get the opportunity early and often to rectify that.

Julie’n Davenport, OT, Houston Texans

The Texans big draft continued with Davenport’s selection out of Bucknell in the fourth round. The developmental prospect will need time and coaching to turn into a bonafide starting tackle, but Houston’s needs along the offensive line could press him into action in 2017. Duane Brown will be 32 this upcoming season, and Derek Newton was injured throughout 2016 and ripe for replacement. If Davenport can adjust quickly, he could make a splash sooner rather than later for the Texans.

Larry Ogunjobi, DT, Cleveland Browns

Ogunjobi is the greatest player in UNC-Charlotte annals, a history that stretches back all the way to 2013. The 305-pound run-stuffer was the Browns’ fifth pick of the draft, rounding out a two-day high-ceiling haul that also included Myles Garrett, David Njoku, Jabrill Peppers, and DeShone Kizer.

That cache of high-profile rookies will help keep Ogunjobi under the radar, but he may not stay there long. The former 49er has only been playing football since his sophomore year of high school, but his rise has been impressive. He’s a dominant force against the run who also created an above-average pass rush from the center of the line against FCS competition.

He’ll face a significant learning curve making the jump to the pros, however, and he’ll have plenty of competition for snaps at nose tackle. The Browns drafted Danny Shelton No. 12 overall in 2015, and he started 31 games at the position the last two seasons. Cleveland also added troubled Florida DT Caleb Brantley, who has a more accomplished resume than Ogunjobi but is not guaranteed to make the team this summer.

Moving to end in the Browns’ 3-4 defense may not solve Ogunjobi’s problem either. Cleveland has a handful of young, dynamic talent like Myles Garrett, Emmanuel Ogbah, and Carl Nassib holding down spots at that position.