From Rookie to Starter: NFL Draft classes with immediate contributors

A draft can transform a team into a contender overnight. PFN's Lead NFL Writer Cole Thompson breaks down which teams have the most rookie contributors as starters.

The NFL Draft won’t be won over by a single pick, it is a range of players who can become immediate rookie contributors. A team could find a late-round gem but blow their first several selections. The same could be said on the flip side as perhaps the team’s top pick is the only one that matters.

A team that can execute a quality draft on days one, two, and three should feel confident heading into the season. Nailing their top selection while also grabbing talent for their immediate future should boost their stock as training camp rushes around the corner. Sometimes, the upside is all it will take for a player to go from late-round addition to starting-caliber standout.

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Who are the immediate rookie contributors?

The 2020 NFL Draft was far from different, but not every selection will have a franchise fighting for the postseason. Still, the main goal is to win more than the season before —proving the franchise is moving in the right direction. It could be another year or so before we see the finished product, but early results from rookies in their starting roles will only help build a contender. 

Expect these draft classes to have plenty of first-year starters. 

Baltimore Ravens 

Notable names: LB Patrick Queen, RB J.K. Dobbins, DL Justin Madubuike, WR Devin Duvernay, LB Malik Harrison, WR James Proche

If you want to be a good team, learn this lesson — follow the Eric DeCosta method. Before the draft ever was a thought, the Ravens’ GM added both Marcus Peters and Calais Campbell to a standout defense for nothing more than a fifth-round pick each. Then, DeCosta struck gold on both sides of the ball for the team’s immediate future.

Patrick Queen was considered a top-15 player and the draft’s consensus top pure linebacker prospect (Isaiah Simmons does it all). A sideline-to-sideline defender with excellent coverage ability, the LSU product was a steal at No.28. Plus, paring Malik Harrison, a thumper with the knack for tackling, creates a new duo to take over for CJ Mosley and Patrick Onwuasor.

Offensively, Lamar Jackson will have another weapon out of the backfield in J.K. Dobbins. Pairing the Ohio State’s dynamic running style with Mark Ingram’s power play should give Baltimore an unstoppable punch at the line of scrimmage. At wide receiver, Texas’ Devin Duvernay has straight-line speed on the outside and soft hands while SMU’s James Proche was a production machine and multiple positions.

With the addition of Justin Madubuike in the middle, the Ravens could have five full-time starters before the season’s end. The defense’s most substantial weakness was corrected with yin and yang compliments, while Jackson’s progression to All-Pro potential should only develop with three new offensive weapons.

Some teams play checkers while drafting. DeCosta decided to play chess — checkmate AFC.

Carolina Panthers 

Notable names: DL Derrick Brown, DL Yetur Moss-Gratos, S Jeremy Chinn, CB Troy Pride Jr., S Kenny Robinson

Perhaps it was shocking the Panthers added seven new defensive players to their roster after finishing 23rd overall while their offense ranked 19th. Then again, in back-to-back offseasons, Carolina has lost Julius Peppers, Thomas Davis, James Bradberry, Star Lotulelei, Gerald McCoy, Eric Reid, and Luke Kuechly, among others.

While the team could have added Isaiah Simmons, the addition of Derrick Brown should help improve their run game. The former Auburn product led the team last season with a team-high 11.5 stops behind the line and finished second in sacks (4.0). Yetur Gross-Matos should be a quality pairing with former first-rounder Brian Burns, creating a force off the edge that could cause double trouble.

Jeremy Chinn, the versatile safety prospect, should fill the need of Reid both at the position and in coverage. The 221-pound defenders will stack up low in the front seven to play the run but possess the recovery time to play in man against tight ends. On the deep end, expect former XFL star Kenny Robinson to only continue with progression after taking the ropes against older pros this spring.

The Panther’s defense will be a new identity in 2020. Perhaps that’s not a bad thing and could be what keeps them around longer in the competitive NFC South. The front seven was rebuilt overnight while despite still some issues at linebacker, the re-tooled secondary should help. Hard to hate on a team accepting the rebuild.

Dallas Cowboys 

Notable names: WR CeeDee Lamb, CB Trevon Diggs, DL Neville Gallimore, CB Reggie Robinson, OL Tyler Biadasz

Imagine getting three players who were all mocked to you in the first round at one point this offseason. Now imagine you’re Jerry Jones on that gorgeous yacht in the middle of nowhere and had the board go your way.

Are you mad? The rest of the league is. 

Dallas should have never been in the running for CeeDee Lamb, perhaps that top pass-catching prospect who is easily an immediate NFL rookie contributor. They certainly didn’t need to address the position after extending Amari Cooper and a breakout year from Michael Gallup. Then again, you add the most reliable hands in the class as the No.3 option; Dak Prescott is going to be delighted. Both Trevon Diggs and Neville Gallimore are tremendous value selections who could work their way into the starting lineup and become immediate NFL rookie contributors by midseason thanks to their youth. 

The team’s late-round additions of Robinson and Biadasz could not have been any better. Robinson shined during his week in Mobile, boosting his role as a special teams standout. Meanwhile, Dallas will be able to replace their All-Pro center from Wisconsin with a center from Madison with All-Pro potential. There doesn’t seem to be a problem with any selection, and all five should be long-term players soon.

For once, maybe Jerry knows what he is doing down in the Lone Star State.

Denver Broncos 

Notable names: WR Jerry Jeudy, WR K.J. Hamler, OL Lloyd Cushenberry

If you’re a Drew Lock fan, you’ll love the Broncos’ draft class. While the team still could be a year away from returning to the postseason, everything will be dictated off their potential franchise quarterback’s progression in year two. It’s going to be hard not to be enamored with what’s happening in the Mile High City.

Jerry Jeudy was PFN’s consensus top receiver. The former Crimson Tide star is an elite route-runner and has sound hands that make him a nightmare after the catch. He’ll pair well on the outside with Courtland Sutton while K.J. Hamler competes for his chance to shine in the slot. The 5-foot-8 target might not be the most significant player, but his speed will bury defenders in their tracks as he breaks for the end zone up the middle.

John Elway also made sure to fix the offensive line woes by adding Mike Munchak, perhaps the top o-line coach, in 2019 and Graham Glasgow in March. The former Super Bowl quarterback wasn’t done there as LSU center Lloyd Cushenberry, will join the team fresh off a national title, where he helped orchestrate one of the top offenses in NCAA history.

Everything Denver did should only help Lock improve in his sophomore season. If not, the problem will be with the quarterback and not the front office. With a rebuilt offense and three new starters, the sky’s the limit in the AFC West for the second-best roster to begin the decade.

Minnesota Vikings 

Notable names: WR Justin Jefferson, CB Jeff Gladney, OT Ezra Cleveland, CB Cameron Dantzler, DL James Lynch, LB Troy Dye

The Minnesota Vikings needed to address multiple needs following an overhaul of players hitting the free-agent market. Challenge accepted, challenge complete for ole slick Rick Spielman. 

If Justin Jefferson can begin to transform into a Stefon Diggs-type player, Minnesota’s offense shouldn’t miss a beat. Already adjusted to the No.2 role during his time at LSU, the former Tiger still finished tied for the NCAA lead in receptions with 111. Plus, his speed should only make him a serviceable threat across the middle of the field as a smooth route-runner. 

The same could be said for Jeff Gladney as the reincarnation of Xavier Rhodes in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Unlike the man he’ll replace, the former Horned Frog has the speed that will make up for his 5-foot-10 frame in press-man coverage. And if anyone questions his toughness, Gladney answered that when he ran a 4.48 40 with a torn meniscus in Indy.

The addition of Ezra Cleveland should provide depth at either tackle and tighten Riley Reiff’s leash as a starter. The same could be said for Holton Hill with Cameron Dantzler joining the secondary with an SEC pedigree. Even Troy Dye is a wrap-up tackler that could push his way into a contributing role after four 80-plus tackle seasons in Eugene. 

Thirteen picks should be enough to make up for the plethora of talent lost following the NFC divisional round. If the rookies can expand their roles early, Mike Zimmer might be thinking past a postseason appearance to begin the decade. 

New York Jets 

Notable names: OT Mekhi Becton, WR Denzel Mims, S Ashtyn Davis, CB Bryce Hall, P Braden Mann

Are the New York Jets the favorite to win the AFC East? No, but after this overhaul of quality talent, Joe Douglas likely has stopped the jokes for a little while. 

The team’s first two picks should finally help Sam Darnold develop into a promising franchise quarterback. Mekhi Becton will be raw to begin his career, but the size, speed, and ability to open or close lanes should help a resurgence of Le’Veon Bell and Darnold in pass protection. The team will now add a left tackle to an offensive line that allowed 52 sacks a season ago.  

The same could be said for Denzel Mims, who could be one of the early steals from day two. A perfect blend of size and speed, the former Baylor product could be a physical presence that transforms the offense in dead last into a touchdown machine factory. Production has been a part of missing from New York’s game, but near 3,000 receiving yards and 28 touchdowns from Mims’ college career should fix that.

Defensively, Ashtyn Davis should fit well into a defense that will need to improve in the pass-happy league. One of the better cover safeties, the former Bear, could play multiple roles on the back end or in the nickel. The same could happen for Bryce Hall, who fell to the Big Apple late due to an ankle injury. Plus, Braden Mann holds the NCAA record for punting average  —helping the team enhance their special team woes. 

There still are pieces that will need to be added for the future of the team’s success, but New York has caught ground in their division. Hopefully, their progression of this rookie bunch could pair well with the veterans, adding hope to a franchise that hasn’t been to the postseason in a decade. 

Cole Thompson is a lead NFL writer for PFN. You can follow him on Twitter @MrColeThompson and follow PFN @PFN365.


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