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The NFL’s Win-Now Rookies

Who are this year’s Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott? Meet the 11 first-year players who could impact the playoffs next season.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Typically, the NFL draft is about building for the future. For many clubs, the success or failure of last weekend’s haul won’t be fully realized until a couple of years down the road. While plenty of rookies will get into games and make exciting plays for their new teams this fall, only a small percentage will provide the type of impact that contributes to division titles and playoff wins.

Last year, Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott powered the Cowboys to the best record in the league, and Tyreek Hill diversified a Chiefs offense that won the AFC West. Let’s take a look at which just-drafted players could play a similar role in in 2017.

Houston Texans: Deshaun Watson

Watson may have been the third quarterback off the board, but it’s doubtful that either Mitchell Trubisky or Patrick Mahomes will have as big of an impact in Year 1 as the former Clemson playmaker. Coming into Round 1, there wasn’t a better realistic situation for a rookie QB to drop into: Watson has the support of a top-tier defense. With J.J. Watt coming back, the Texans will be even better than last year and should provide the offense with plenty of short fields and close score lines. Plus, Watson will be able to lean on DeAndre Hopkins, a top-tier contested-pass specialist and reliable third-down target; he’ll have a speedy field-stretching deep threat in Will Fuller that should keep defenses honest downfield; and he can hand off early and often to the explosive Lamar Miller.

Watson may be raw, and he’ll have to adjust to running a pro-style, non-spread offense, but the Texans have gone to the playoffs two straight years while cycling through Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates, Brandon Weeden, Brock Osweiler, and Tom Savage behind center. With Watson, head coach Bill O’Brien finally has a top-end talent to work with. If O’Brien can design a simplified passing attack that suits Watson’s dynamic skill set, Houston’s offense could finally start pulling its weight. With any semblance of balance, the Texans could go from by-default division champs to legitimate conference title contenders.

Indianapolis Colts: Malik Hooker and Quincy Wilson

The Colts have been the inverse of the Texans for the past few years: In Andrew Luck, Indianapolis has its franchise quarterback, but the team hasn’t been able to give him the support of a competent defense. The Colts haven’t finished better than 19th in points allowed over the past four seasons. Well, first-year general manager Chris Ballard has worked quickly to rectify that.

Ballard shored up the Colts’ front seven with the free-agent signings of defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, defensive lineman Margus Hunt, pass rushers Jabaal Sheard, John Simon, and Barkevious Mingo, and inside linebacker Sean Spence. But Indianapolis still needed playmakers in the secondary in order to take advantage of that infusion of talent up front.

With his first two picks of the draft, Ballard grabbed Ohio State free safety Hooker and Florida cornerback Wilson. Wilson should start opposite Vontae Davis from the beginning. And Hooker slots right into the deep-center-field spot as a ball hawk; he can read the opposing quarterback’s eyes, break on the ball, and intercept passes. The Colts tied for second-to-last in interceptions last year, picking off just eight passes; Hooker picked off seven on his own in just 13 games for the Buckeyes last year, and he returned three for touchdowns.

Hooker’s impact should extend beyond just creating turnovers, too. His instincts as the last line of defense can help Indy cut down on touchdowns and big plays down the middle of the field, and his range to provide support over the top and break up deep passes toward the sidelines should make Davis and Wilson that much more effective on the outside. With Davis, Wilson, and Hooker patrolling deep, the Colts defense could finally make a long-awaited jump and help the team take a big step up on last year’s 8–8 finish.

Tennessee Titans: Corey Davis and Adoree’ Jackson

Quarterback Marcus Mariota had a breakout performance in his sophomore 2016 season, throwing 26 touchdowns and just nine picks while finishing with a 95.6 passer rating. And he did that while throwing to a, um, less-than-awe-inspiring group of receivers that included veteran retread Rishard Matthews, rookie Tajae Sharpe, and the underwhelming former first-rounder Kendall Wright. So, with the fifth pick of the draft, general manager Jon Robinson went out and got Mariota a big, explosive playmaker with the potential to develop into a true no. 1 receiver: Western Michigan’s Davis.

Davis finished his career at Western Michigan as college football’s all-time leader in receiving yards and racked up a whopping 52 touchdowns in four years, including 19 scores as a senior. At 6-foot-3 and 209 pounds, he’s a go-up-and-get-it red zone threat, but he’s also much shiftier than you’d expect a player of his height to be. The combination he presents as a speed threat down the field and as a reliable receiver with yards-after-the-catch ability everywhere else, both from the outside and in the slot, means he should get a slew of targets as a rookie.

Davis isn’t the only early contributor that could emerge from Tennessee’s 2017 class, either. After the release of last year’s starter, Jason McCourty, there’s a clear path for Tennessee’s second first-round pick, former USC cornerback Jackson, to start from day one. In addition to slotting into a role on the outside for the Tennessee defense, Jackson’s a playmaker in the return game, and it also wouldn’t be a surprise if Mike Mularkey tries the two-way collegiate player in a role in the Titans’ “exotic smashmouth” offense.

If Davis and Jackson play to their potential, Tennessee, which finished 9–7 last year and lost a tiebreaker to Houston, could play spoiler to the Texans and Colts — even if they both improve, too.

Seattle Seahawks: Malik McDowell and Ethan Pocic

In last Friday’s press conference, general manager John Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll both referenced Calais Campbell when talking about their second-round pick, Michigan State defensive lineman McDowell. That’s obviously a pretty lofty comparison, but if you don’t buy that, the 6-foot-6 295-pounder’s three closest athletic comps in the MockDraftable database are all pretty good players in their own right: Leonard Williams, John Henderson, and Gerald McCoy. Possessing the size and power of a defensive end but the first-step quickness and agility of an end, McDowell has the potential to rush from anywhere on the line and play against the run and the pass.

However, McDowell is as boom-or-bust as they come. In a few games last year, he looked like a guy who could’ve warranted a top-10 pick, but a lack of consistency and effort, along with reports that he didn’t interview well at the combine, dropped him into the early second round. Seattle’s betting on Carroll working his motivational magic on the soon-to-be 21-year-old, and if the Seahawks can tap into McDowell’s potential, they could get a sack-making disruptor from both end spots and on the inside.

While McDowell could be a boon for Seattle’s defense, he might not even be the team’s most important addition: The Seahawks’ offensive line has been nothing short of a dumpster fire over the past several seasons, and that’s where LSU’s Pocic comes in. Also a second-round pick, Pocic mostly played center at LSU, but should be a day-one starter either at right guard or right tackle for the Seahawks, combining with last year’s first-rounder, Germain Ifedi, to hold down that side of the line. A three-year starter in LSU’s pro-style scheme, he should help pave the way for the run game and improve Seattle’s league-worst pass protection pressure rate from last year.

Even with a terrible O-line, the Seahawks went 10–5–1 and made it to the divisional round, so if that issue is addressed successfully, they’ll be back among the NFC’s elite.

Garett Bolles and Roger Goodell (Getty Images)
Garett Bolles and Roger Goodell (Getty Images)

Denver Broncos: Garett Bolles

Denver painted itself into a corner over the offseason when it declined to pick up the option on left tackle Russell Okung’s contract and failed to sign his replacement in free agency. The Broncos went into the draft with a vacancy at one of the most important positions in the sport.

Well, due to luck (or maybe John Elway’s brilliant foresight), there was a historic slide at the offensive line position, and the Broncos ended up with their pick of any of the draft’s top tackles at the no. 20 spot. Bolles was their top-rated man, and the Utah product should start on the blind side for Denver immediately. Bolles has light feet and great body control, and he plays with a mean streak and can generate power in the run game. We’ve already seen how far the Broncos can go on the back of their elite defense alone, but if their new left tackle can be a consistent pass protector on the edge and provide a spark as a run blocker, the Denver offense could make a big jump in 2017. Hell, even a modest improvement on the offensive side of the ball could make the Broncos, who went 9–7 in a tough AFC West and missed the playoffs last year, a Super Bowl–caliber squad again.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: O.J. Howard

The Buccaneers are building one of the scariest offenses in football. After adding receiver DeSean Jackson in free agency, Tampa Bay’s “pipe dream” came true when Alabama tight end Howard fell into their laps at no. 19. The 6-foot-6, 251-pound pass catcher and run blocker should hit the ground running in Tampa Bay, and his 4.51-second 40 speed down the seam could be a game-changing target for quarterback Jameis Winston.

Winston has always loved to target his tight ends in the passing game. In his final year at Florida State, he targeted tight end Nick O’Leary 80 times, third most in the nation at that position. Since he came into the league in 2015, Winston has the NFL’s fifth-best passer rating when targeting players at that spot, and Tampa Bay’s Cameron Brate tied for the league lead in receiving touchdowns among tight ends last season with eight scores. Howard is even better than Brate, and was underutilized at Alabama, but it’s doubtful he’ll have that problem with Winston running the offense.

Despite missing the playoffs, Tampa Bay finished only two games behind the 11–5 Falcons last season. If the addition of Howard (and Jackson) supercharges the offense, the Bucs should contend for not just for a playoff spot, but a division title.

Washington Redskins: Jonathan Allen

Washington’s first four picks — Alabama defensive lineman Jonathan Allen and outside linebacker Ryan Anderson, UCLA cornerback Fabian Moreau, and Oklahoma running back Samaje Perine — could all see plenty of snaps in 2017, but Allen, the 17th overall pick who fell out of the top 5 mostly due to medical concerns about both of his shoulders, has the potential to be an All-Pro early in his career.

The former Chuck Bednarik Award and Bronko Nagurski Trophy winner brings versatility — he can play on the end or at nose tackle — physicality, and intensity, and will be a consistent pocket disruptor for the Redskins’ defensive front. Washington went 8–7–1 in 2016, and Allen is the type of talent that Washington needs to add to overtake the rival Cowboys in the NFC East: a guy who can help stop Elliott and that dangerous run game, and who can push the pocket and get Prescott on the run. Allen should take over recently departed free agent Chris Baker’s role from day one, and could end up being better than his predecessor.

Green Bay Packers: Kevin King

Aaron Rodgers rediscovered whatever it is that’s made him one of the best quarterbacks in the world about 10 games into the 2016 season, and his magician-like play propelled Green Bay to a 10–6 record and an NFC championship game berth. The Packers’ success had little to do with a sieve-like secondary, though, as they finished 31st in passing yards allowed (4,308), tied for 29th in passing touchdowns surrendered (32), and last in yards per attempt (8.1).

General manager Ted Thompson addressed this enormous vulnerability with the first pick of the second round, grabbing a first-round talent in Washington’s King. He will have competition with Damarious Randall, LaDarius Gunter, and Quinten Rollins, but the safe money is on the former Husky starting on the outside opposite Davon House in Week 1 and immediately making an outsize impact. He’s not going to fix everything on his own, but Green Bay badly needed exactly what King brings as a disciplined and athletic cover corner on the outside.

King didn’t give up a touchdown for Washington in 2016, he’s 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, and tested out in the 99th percentile for NFL corners at the combine. His combination of elite size, athleticism, and coverage skills will be put to the test early on as he lines up across from Atlanta’s Julio Jones in Week 2, Cincinnati’s A.J. Green in Week 3, and Dallas’s Dez Bryant in Week 5.