There has been no shortage of impressive rookies in the NFL this year. From pass rushers Myles Garrett and T.J. Watt, running backs Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, and Kareem Hunt, corners Tre’Davious White and Marshon Lattimore, to tight end Evan Engram and many more, the 2017 draft class has already lived up to (and in some cases, surpassed) expectations—especially when you add guys whose breakout seasons were cut short by injury, like Texans breakout star Deshaun Watson, Vikings running back Dalvin Cook, and Colts safety Malik Hooker.
But while each of those individual feats are spectacular, a few teams have gotten major snaps and production from more than just one member of their draft class. That’s certainly been true for rebuilding teams like the Niners, Colts, Bears, Jets, and Browns, who all have seen an abundance of playing time and promising results from their first-year players, though that player development hasn’t yet translated to the win column. For the league’s contenders, though, we’ve seen that an outstanding rookie class can turn a middling squad into a playoff team or transform a postseason also-ran into a legit Super Bowl contender. Whether it’s the combination of four or five draft picks that have come in to fill much-needed roles, or the infusion of just two or three high-impact playmakers, here are the nine rookie classes that have provided their new teams the biggest boost.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints’ rookie class is integral in the the team’s sudden development of a defense-minded, run-heavy identity, and is a big reason New Orleans is one of the top teams in the NFC through 10 weeks. The team took Lattimore at no. 11 overall in April, and he’s quickly established himself as one of the top shutdown corners in the NFL. The rookie out of Ohio State has yet to give up a touchdown. He has picked off two passes, forced one fumble, and forced quarterbacks throwing to the receivers he covers to have a combined 42.3 passer rating, third-lowest for any cornerback in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus. The team’s second first-round pick, offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk (no. 32 overall) has started all nine games this year and is registering a 97.0 pass block efficiency grade per PFF with just one sack and four quarterback hits surrendered on 309 pass-blocking snaps.
New Orleans’s second-round pick, safety Marcus Williams, has started nine games and picked up 33 tackles, an interception, and three pass breakups. The defense has gotten contributions from a pair of third-round picks in linebacker Alex Anzalone and outside linebacker Trey Hendrickson. Of course, the team’s other third-rounder, running back Alvin Kamara, is already a dual-threat star. He’s dangerous on the ground, where he has 417 yards rushing and four scores, and elusive out of the backfield as a pass catcher, with 43 catches for 373 yards and two touchdowns. He’s paired with backfield mate Mark Ingram to make up the backbone of New Orleans’ new-look offense, where an unrelenting ground attack combined with Drew Brees’ precision in the passing game has helped make the Saints nearly impossible to defend.
The Steelers draft class is top-heavy, but the team’s first two picks have quickly developed into key pieces of what looks like a championship-caliber puzzle. Pass rusher T.J. Watt, the team’s first pick (no. 30 overall) out of Wisconsin, has lived up to his family name to rack up four sacks (tied for second among all rookies) and an interception in nine games. The über-athletic edge rusher still has a ways to go to earn comparisons to his older brother, but together with Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Bud Dupree, he has helped establish Pittsburgh as one of the most dominant fronts in football.
Meanwhile, second-round receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster has already unseated Martavis Bryant to become the team’s no. 2 option opposite Antonio Brown, giving quarterback Ben Roethlisberger another dynamic run-after-the-catch option in the passing game. Smith-Schuster is third on the team in catches (behind Brown and Le’Veon Bell) with 29, second for yards with 521, and has a team-high five touchdowns. He’s been fun as hell to watch, too: From big plays to a classic hide-and-seek touchdown celebration, a stolen bike saga, a driver’s license test, and more, the rookie pass catcher is already one of the league’s most entertaining young breakout stars. Rookie running back James Conner (third round) has run the ball 19 times for 101 yards in relief of Bell, which is a bonus, but it’s Watt and Smith-Schuster’s ability to fill a pair of key roles that could provide the push the Steelers need to get back to the Super Bowl this year.
Jacksonville’s top two picks have been integral in shaping its identity this year as one of the league’s most committed ground-and-pound run teams. At that heart of that change has been running back Leonard Fournette (fourth overall), who’s carried the ball 147 times for 629 yards (seventh in the league in both) and six touchdowns (fourth) and is tied for third in the NFL in forced missed tackles (27). He’s gotten help from fellow rookie tackle Cam Robinson (second round), who’s had an up-and-down performance this year but has shown plenty of promise as a road-grading force on the left side of the line. There’s also encouraging play from undrafted free-agent receiver Keelan Cole, who’s caught 14 passes for 219 yards, including this incredible one-hander against the Bengals.
Carson Wentz is the major force powering the Eagles’ worst-to-first transformation this year in the NFC East, but it sure hasn’t hurt that the team’s gotten a few big-impact players from their draft class. Defensive end Derek Barnett (14th overall) has picked up 2.5 sacks in nine games as a rotational pass rusher on Philly’s front, and ranks third among all rookie edge defenders in pressures this year (25). Third-round cornerback Rasul Douglas has started four games in relief of injured starter Ronald Darby and acquitted himself well; he’s given up two touchdowns but also has two picks on the year, surrendering an opposing passer rating of just 74.4 in coverage, per Pro Football Focus.
Wide receiver Mack Hollins (fourth round) has emerged as a big-play threat with nine catches for 172 yards and a touchdown, and running back Corey Clement (undrafted free agent) has established himself in the team’s running back rotation by carrying the ball 48 times for 182 yards and three scores while catching three passes for 46 yards and two touchdowns. Even kicker Jake Elliott, whom the team signed off of the Bengals’ practice squad in early September (he was a fifth-rounder for Cincy) has impressed enough that the team may keep him instead of the injured Caleb Sturgis when Sturgis returns.
It’s unlikely top pick Malik McDowell takes the field this year (he’s still on the non-football injury list after an offseason ATV accident), but the rest of the class has really picked up the slack. Offensive lineman Ethan Pocic, the team’s second-round pick, has come on in relief of injured starter Luke Joeckel to start the last four games at guard, and he’s allowed just one sack and nine total pressures. Third-round cornerback Shaquill Griffin earned a starting job in his first season and his quick development becomes even more important with the loss of Richard Sherman for the year to an Achilles injury. Griffin has played well in his first nine appearances, where he’s allowed just one touchdown on 58 targets to surrender an opposing passer rating of 79.7 in coverage. Third-round defensive tackle Nazair Jones has played 215 snaps for the team and registered two sacks, an interception, and is tied for third among rookie interior lineman in pressures with eight.
Rookie seventh-round running back Chris Carson somehow still leads the team’s running backs group in rushing yards (208) despite the fact he’s been on injured reserve since Week 5.
Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers’s injury could potentially ruin Green Bay’s hopes for a postseason run, but the contributions of a few key rookies this year have given the Packers a narrow chance to stay afloat long enough for the two-time MVP to return in time for the postseason. Defensively, second-round rookie corner Kevin King and second-round safety Josh Jones have already stood out. King’s started five games on the outside for the Packers, registering four pass deflections, while Jones has started three games and picked up two sacks as a great blitz option for the team. On the other side of the ball, fifth-round rookie running back Aaron Jones took over for injured Ty Montgomery and provided a spark for the run game, carrying the ball 70 times for 370 yards and three scores before suffering an MCL injury last week. He’ll be replaced this week by another rookie back, fourth-rounder Jamaal Williams, who could prove integral to the Packers’ playoff push.
All of the shine has come off the Bills after the team’s early-season success, but a trio of rookie standouts were crucial in getting the team to where it currently sits, with a 5-4 record and what looks like a shot, still, at the postseason—even after the team’s decision to bench starter Tyrod Taylor. Cornerback Tre’Davious White (27th overall) is a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate with one pick, one forced fumble, and 13 passes defensed in nine starts this year, and he’s been a huge part of head coach Sean McDermott’s reshaping of the Buffalo defense. Offensively, as left tackle Cordy Glenn has struggled with an ankle injury, rookie offensive lineman Dion Dawkins (second round) has come on to start four games for the team and played well in relief. Meanwhile, receiver Zay Jones overcame an early-season bout with the drops and has caught 16 balls for 168 yards and a touchdown.
The rookie contributor list is about to grow for the Bills, too, who will start quarterback Nathan Peterman (fifth round) in the team’s upcoming matchup with the Chargers. We’ll find out soon if that ends up being a good thing or not.
The Titans’ rookie class has been headlined by the team’s second first-round pick, cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, who’s not only settled in and made some plays opposite Logan Ryan in the secondary, but has started making an impact for the offense, too. The explosive rookie has carried the ball four times for 50 yards as a gadget player in Mike Mularkey’s “exotic smash-mouth” scheme to go with his nine pass breakups and 37 tackles on the other side of the ball. Meanwhile, while top pick Corey Davis has missed five games to injury, he and fellow rookie Taywan Taylor (third round) have combined to catch 26 balls for 357 yards and one touchdown, with rookie tight end Jonnu Smith (third round) adding 13 passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns on the year. Linebacker Jayon Brown (fifth round) has collected 31 tackles and passes defensed in a rotational role for the defense.
Los Angeles Rams
A lot of the credit for the turnaround we’ve seen from the Rams can be given to head coach Sean McVay, quarterback Jared Goff, and running back Todd Gurley, and a host of the team’s savvy free-agency additions like left tackle Andrew Whitworth and receivers Robert Woods and Sammy Watkins. But L.A. might not be at the top of the NFC West right now if it weren’t for the solid play from receiver Cooper Kupp (third round) and safety John Johnson (third round). Kupp has emerged quickly as Goff’s favorite target over the middle of the field, racking up 32 catches for 417 yards and three scores as a reliable route runner who can get open against just about any coverage. Johnson has played well in the Rams’ secondary, where he’s started five games, making 25 tackles and intercepting one pass. Add in tight end Gerald Everett (second round), who has already shown up as a big-play threat down the seam with eight catches for 198 yards (24.8 yards per catch) and a touchdown, and the rookie class has been key in the Rams’ incredible turnaround.
Honorable Mention: Houston Texans
The Texans found what looks like a franchise quarterback and future superstar in Deshaun Watson, and that’s enough to get them onto this list. Watson dazzled this year, throwing 19 touchdowns to eight picks before an ACL injury ended his rookie year, and if he were still on the field, the high-flying offense he helmed would make Houston a playoff contender. The Texans are not likely to head back to the postseason with Tom Savage under center, but there are a few more bright spots from the rookie class that have stood out. Linebacker Zach Cunningham (second round) has been a force against the run for the Texans, and running back D’Onta Foreman has been elusive out of the backfield, carrying the ball 68 times for 262 yards. Offensive tackle Julie’n Davenport has showed promise filling in briefly at left tackle, and defensive tackle Carlos Watkins has played 118 snaps on the Houston defensive line rotation.
All stats are current prior to Thursday’s game.