Every NFL Team’s Top Impact Rookie Candidate: NFC North

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Jun 13, 2019; Allen Park, MI, USA; Detroit Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson (88) runs after a catch during practice at Lions Headquarters and Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 13, 2019; Allen Park, MI, USA; Detroit Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson (88) runs after a catch during practice at Lions Headquarters and Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

It seems like rookies are making league-altering impacts earlier than ever before. Playoff teams are relying heavily on first year players all over the field, and in many cases, they are delivering right out of the gate on the grandest stage.

For the next week, we will pick the rookie most likely to make the biggest splash on their new team. That impact  could entail instigating a turn-around a la Baker Mayfield or Darius Leonard, or simply fitting into an already-strong system and helping said system take a leap, a la Derwin James or Bradley Chubb

In many cases, the team’s top pick will earn the spot, by nature of their talent. However, that will not always hold true. Some top picks will have to wait their turn this year, or the players around them do not project to bring out the best in them right now. With that being said, let’s get started with the NFC North.

Chicago Bears: RB David Montgomery

Chicago is getting on the band wagon of modern running back philosophy. That is, draft a running back in the middle rounds and insert him into the starting lineup early. It worked out well recently for Kansas City and New Orleans, after all. David Montgomery is almost certainly going to be the Bear’s bell cow. They have Tarik Cohen for change-of-pace, but it is safe to assume he will be reserved for around 150 touches and kick return purposes. The bulk of the carries will go to Montgomery right away.

And given his physical makeup and college production, it is a fair bet that he can handle the workload. He is a strong, patient runner who can make plays in traffic or in space, which should add an element they lacked with the more north-south Jordan Howard. Plus, Montgomery has more receiving potential than Howard did, which is a must for Matt Nagy running backs. Bottom line, Montgomery’s ability to handle bulk touches and the Bears’ offensive makeup should place Montgomery among the early Rookie of the Year contenders. 

Detroit Lions: TE T.J. Hockenson

Granted, the Lions recent track record of first round tight ends is murky. But T.J. Hockenson is not at all the same player as Eric Ebron. Hockenson’s steadiness goes beyond athleticism and red zone ability. He is the complete package as a top tight end prospect: a plus blocker and a technical route runner with good ball skills and well-above-average burst. As a pass-catcher, he should be an instant matchup problem. But just as importantly, he can stay on the field for run downs in his first year.

Here is where the question marks are, however. Matthew Stafford’s connections with tight ends have often been spotty, as only twice has a tight end eclipsed 700 yards with Stafford at quarterback. What is more, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell is hardly a subscriber to  tight ends as consistent receiving threats. Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay are both 1,000-yard threats, and new acquisition Danny Amendola will take his share of targets, as well. So the opportunities for Hockenson may not be as high as other rookie tight ends out of the gate. 

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That said, Hockenson has the clearest path of any Lions rookie to a starting spot. Plus, with his blocking ability, he will be on the field in most personnel groupings, and should play a massive role in play action. He may not rank among the top rookie tight end producers in the league as a whole. But in Detroit, Hockenson should have the largest role of first year players.

Green Bay Packers: TE Jace Sternberger

This is a tough call between each of the Packers’ first four picks. as all have their respective draws. Rashan Gary is as physically gifted a pass rusher as Green Bay has. Darnell Savage could be the dynamic safety they need to round out the developing secondary. Elgton Jenkins is a smooth blocker with the ability to hold down the middle of the line. And Jace Sternberger, with his athleticism and vertical ability, could give Aaron Rodgers the reliable tight end threat he has only had intermittently since Jermichael Finley.

Ultimately, the choice is Sternberger for one major reason: he will have Rodgers throwing him the ball. With Jimmy Graham on the other side and a relatively thin receiver group, Green Bay will use a lot of two tight end sets, which will give Sternberger plenty of chances to flash his plus traits. If he can work the middle of the field and the sideline like he did in his last year at Texas A&M, Rodgers will look to get him the ball a lot.

Minnesota Vikings: C Garrett Bradbury

The Vikings’ greatest weakness this offseason was obvious, and the solution relatively simple. Kirk Cousins faced a lot of pressure up the middle in 2018 and the offensive sputtered accordingly. In kind, Minnesota overhauled the interior line, cutting Mike Remmers and letting Tom Compton and Nick Easton walk, while signing Josh Kline. But the biggest step was selecting Garrett Bradbury in the first round.

The Vikings had not selected a lineman in the first since Matt Kalil in 2012. And given how that pick turned out, it is hard to blame them. But Bradbury brings a steadiness and a rare excitement to the center position that, on paper, makes the high pick seem justified. Bradbury is an elite athlete who possesses good enough power to stand up to firm bull rushes. But most importantly, his style fits in perfectly with the Vikings’ outside zone system. His sense of angles and lightning quick feet should open up holes right away, while also keeping the area in front of Cousins cleaner than it ever was last year.

–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.

 Follow @fpc_vikings and Follow @fpc_nfl

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