NFL Playoffs 2019: These eight rookies have an opportunity to make a major playoff impact
The 2018 draft class has produced a lot of talent, but these rookies picked between 14-40 can impact the postseason
This has been the year of the rookie. The 2018 draft class already looks potentially transformational and generational. Week after week we have seen novice player after novice player make game-changing plays and create season-defining moments.
As we headed toward the playoff push, it was clear that there were going to be a handful of rookies altering the course of their franchises and quickly making a name for themselves among the best in the NFL. I chronicled it a few weeks ago, and it's hardly lost on NFL executives around the league. And, as one would expect with four quarterbacks selected within the first 10 picks and with attention usually hottest on the top half of the first-round, it's easy to forget about some of the players selected later in that round who are paying big dividends.
And now many of them are about to take part in something unlike anything they have ever experienced before. They are about to have all eyes on them at the highest level this game is played, with the playoffs upon us. Some will become instant household names and experience a degree of fame and marketing opportunities unlike anything they have seen before should they continue on the path they have already charted. I expect many of them to take full advantage of this expanded platform.
We already know plenty about Baker Mayfield, who should be the Rookie of the Year and who has helped turn the Browns into a team suddenly feared after years of being a laughingstock. And we know that Browns rookies Denzel Ward and Nick Chubb have been stars also. Saquon Barkley was what the Giants hoped he would be, Sam Darnold has flashed Pro Bowl potential, Bradley Chubb is already one of the best pass rushers in the NFL, and Quenton Nelson is living up to the potential Hall of Fame billing for the Colts, in the top 10 alone. But of that group, Nelson is the only one with a chance to go to the postseason, and Bears stud rookie linebacker Roquan Smith is the only top-10 rookie selection who already knows a post-season berth awaits.
On just that group alone, this draft class would deserve accolades. But consider the kids selected from picks 14-40 who have an opportunity to make big things happen in the playoffs:
Marcus Davenport, Saints, 14th overall
Sean Payton made one of the biggest splashes in the draft, grabbing the best pass rusher not named Chubb, and my, has it worked out. Davenport was becoming a beast off the edge before his injury, and he is back to menacing quarterbacks again. Now with essentially a chance to get fully healthy before New Orleans plays its first playoff game, Davenport is positioned to become one of the faces of this postseason should the Saints maintain this form into January. The trade was made with 2018 in mind, to say nothing of what could be a long career, and to put this defense over the top. He just might do it.
Derwin James, Chargers, 17th
He is a do-everything safety who has lifted every aspect of the Los Angeles defense. There seems to be nothing he can't do, including get to the quarterback and force turnovers. He will be showcased in the postseason as the Chargers have to face the possibility of running a gauntlet of QBs that could include Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. He may be the Defensive Rookie of the Year already.
Leighton Vander Esch, Cowboys, 19th
All he has done is replace Cowboys leader and linebacking force Sean Lee on the fly as a rookie and become a do-everything player for Dallas in the process. He has strengthened and solidified what can be an elite front seven any given week, and with the Cowboys' passing game still limited and this not a quick-strike team, his emergence has been absolutely vital.
Rashaad Penny, Seahawks, 27th
He had a very slow start and gets lost in the mix of a Seahawks' running game that is overflowing with options … but he has the ability to be sudden and electric and I suspect there are a few tricks with him involved in the postseason. One play can make the difference and with him and Russell Wilson lined up ion the pistol, there are some matchups that could be exploited. A few big gains in the playoffs could color the way his rookie season is remembered.
Sony Michel, Patriots, 31st
What an impact he has made from the moment he was finally healthy enough to hit the field. And with Brady looking mortal and with Rob Gronkowski looking done and with Josh Gordon suspended indefinitely, again, Michel is the key fulcrum in the New England offense. They will go as far as his young legs can take them, and they need a ball-control approach to limit how long their shaky defense is on the field. If New England has one more long playoff run, this kid will have to be a big reason why.
Lamar Jackson, Ravens, 32nd
All he has done is totally transform a 4-5 team, that was ranked 31st in yards per carry and almost dead last in yards per attempt as well, into one of the most interesting and unique offenses in football. His ability to dictate in the run game has overcome the lack of playmakers on the rest of the offense and has Baltimore with a chance to win the AFC North. One of the more dynamic athletes in the league, he continues to make just enough big passes to win games. Baltimore could be a tough out in the playoffs and having to assume starting duties midseason with virtually every week feeling like a playoff game hasn't been too big for him.
Darius Leonard, Colts, 36th
He has become the face of this upstart defense and someone who always shows up around the ball. He is a tackling machine for a unit that most expected to be among the worst in football, and huge part in why the Colts, shockingly, stand one win away from reaching the postseason. In most years he would be getting tons of talk about Defensive Rookie of the Year, but, as noted, this particular class is ridiculously deep and talented. That doesn't mean he won't get some of that attention should Indianapolis knock off a team or two in the postseason, which is hardly out of the question.
James Daniels, Bears, 39th
The least heralded of this group and one who has had a limited spotlight – due in part to the position he plays and the fact that Nelson is a guard as well. But Daniels was thrust into a starting role midway through the season and he looked the part in an offensive line that has incubated Mitchell Trubisky. Daniels, from Iowa, just turned 21 in season and has had to take on the likes of Aaron Donald already, and has held his own. His PFF numbers are quite strong and if he can hold up like that in the playoffs he'd be an unsung hero on this team that has already exceeded expectations.
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