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 South.
Atlanta Falcons: G Chris Lindstrom and OT Kaleb McGary
Atlanta’s decision to go with two offensive linemen in round one was a hair unexpected, but certainly not unwarranted. Matt Ryan has seen a flurry of line combinations since the Falcons’ run to the Super Bowl, and at times, has been among the more pressured passers in the league. While Pro Football Focus placed them fifth in the league in pass blocking efficiency, that was more a matter of the individual excellence of Jake Matthews and Alex Mack than praise for the group as a whole. As a complete unit, Atlanta has had glaring holes for a couple years now.
Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary are both plug-and-play guys who very well could bring Atlanta’s line to the next level. They are plus-plus athletes for their position with great size and figure to be day one starters. The two of them should anchor the right side of the Atlanta line not only for the long haul, but also in year one.
That said, the Falcons’ greatest draft need was arguably pass rush help, something they largely neglected. They remain fairly thin on the edge, so fourth-round pick John Cominsky could turn some heads and make a run for playing time in his rookie season.
Carolina Panthers: DE Brian Burns
Only one rookie on Carolina’s roster is penciled in as a starter entering camp. Brian Burns was viewed as the premier athletic clay to be molded among pass rushers in the draft, thanks to his staggering combination of length and quickness. And despite the “raw” label some bestowed upon him, it appears that he will get his shots at the quarterback from the get-go. Carolina is thin at pass rusher, which means Burns’ role will be massive right out of the gate.
The question with Burns is how his frame will hold up in year one. His length and quickness bode well for pass rushing where he can maintain separation to turn corners. In the run game, however, there are fair concerns of him getting swallowed up. Much of his rookie impact will come down to if he can play three downs consistently, rather than just be a pass rush specialist. After all, Carolina is not exactly flush with edge talent.
A sleeper for Carolina could be receiver Terry Godwin out of Georgia. Godwin was a star of the pre-draft process, upping his stock enough to get taken in the seventh round. Like with pass rusher, the fact that the Panthers’ receiver group is less-than-stout could open some chances for the smaller Godwin to get reps out of the slot.
New Orleans Saints: DB Chauncey Gardner-Johnson
New Orleans’ secondary is a bit of an analytical conundrum. On the one hand, they seem to have three stud starters with Marson Lattimore, Vonn Bell and Marcus Williams. On the other hand, the thought of giving meaningful playing time to P.J. Williams and Eli Apple is not exactly the dream of a Super Bowl contender. Enter Chauncey Gardner-Johnson to potentially lift the defensive backfield.
Gardner-Johnson’s versatility resembles Minkah Fitzpatrick’s from the 2018 class. That is, he has significant experience at every conceivable defensive back role. He could play in the box (58 snaps in 2018), on the line (23 snaps), on the outside (16 snaps) or in center field (11 snaps). But where Gardner-Johnson thrives, and thus generally plays, is in the slot (557 snaps). He allowed a passer rating of just 45.4 when targeted as a slot defender in 2018, best among draft-qualified SEC defensive backs per Pro Football Focus. As such, he could step in day one and take most of P.J. Williams’ reps, alleviating the Saints of one of their top defensive liabilities.
But truth be told, Gardner-Johnson can fit any role they need him to. That is what makes him the top candidate for New Orlean’s impact rookie, and frankly, a steal as a fourth-round pick.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: LB Devin White
Bruce Arians was hired more to save the career of Jameis Winston than anything else. But he also brought along Todd Bowles to ensure the development of a young Tampa defense. And a lot of that is going to work through their young linebacker, Devin White.
With the Buccaneers’ switch to a 3-4 under Bowles, a lot is going to fall on the shoulders of White and Lavonte David. White has the speed to cover sideline-to-sideline, and that is going to play a significant role in Bowles’ defense right out of the gate, both in run defense and pass coverage. Much of that impact will come as an off-ball pass rusher, as well, as Bowles utilizes all-out blitzes often. White was third among off-ball linebackers in pass rush win rate, according to Pro Football Focus.
Simply put, by taking White with the fifth pick, it is clear the Buccaneers plan on building a defense around their strong linebacker corps. They have the massive tackles in Ndamukong Suh and Vita Vea to occupy the line, so White and David will likely rack up some massive tackle numbers in 2019.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.
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