Post-draft hype typically gravitates toward big-name players taken on the first two days. That makes sense, of course; those first-, second-, and third-round rookies are usually the highest-rated and best-known players in the class, and most have clear paths to major roles with their new teams from the outset. But, there’s always a few lesser-known later-round picks with the right combination of talent and opportunity who could earn major snaps in key spots in 2019. Here’s seven Day 3 rookies who have the chance to contribute from day one.
DE Maxx Crosby, Raiders
The Raiders took a big step toward addressing their massive, Khalil Mack–sized need at the edge rusher spot by selecting Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell with the fourth overall pick. But for a team that managed a league low 13 sacks in 2018—a whopping 17 fewer than the next-worst Giants and Patriots—doubling up at the position made a ton of sense. In the fourth round (no. 106 overall), Oakland grabbed one of my favorite sleepers in this class in Crosby: a long, athletic, and aggressive small-school edge menace out of Eastern Michigan who lit up the stat sheets over the past two years. Since the start of the 2017 season, the 6-foot-5, 255-pound playmaker racked up 18.5 sacks and 35.5 tackles for a loss while registering a ridiculous 112 pressures, second among all FBS edge defenders in that stretch.
Crosby explodes upfield out of his stance and knows how to use his length to get off blocks, whether he’s employing a long-arm stab, a club move, or any combination of push-pull rips. He finishes every rush with reckless abandon.
The former Eastern Michigan star could be valuable to the takeaway-starved Raiders because of his uncanny ability to dislodge the football from the opposition. Crosby forced an incredible eight fumbles over the past two seasons; on this play, he swung a haymaker at the ball and punched it out of the running back’s hands:
The fourth-rounder is a bit raw though; he played against a lower level of competition in college, and, as general manager Mike Mayock said after the draft, he needs to add some weight so he can play with little more power in the pros. Until then, he may struggle to establish himself as a three-down player the Raiders will trust to hold up against the run. But the rookie has all the athletic traits—and the hair-on-fire playing style—to come in and be productive as a sub-package pass rusher early on. Part of that is because there just isn’t many players in front of him at the moment: Arden Key (a third-rounder last year) had an up-and-down rookie season, grabbing just one sack in 16 games; Shilique Calhoun (a third-round pick from 2016) played just 138 snaps in seven games; and Bruce Irvin (250 snaps), Frostee Rucker (550 snaps), and Fadol Brown (175 snaps) are all gone. That lack of depth is a big opportunity for Crosby.
DT Greg Gaines, Rams
The Rams made one of the most aggressive moves of Day 3, jumping up 28 spots to grab Gaines with the no. 134 pick overall. That trade certainly implies the team has a big role in mind for the stout former Husky: Gaines comes in with big shoes to fill as a base-down player at L.A.’s nose tackle spot, a position manned last year by free agent Ndamukong Suh. Gaines doesn’t offer the pass-rush upside or positional versatility that Suh did, but he’s an outstanding run defender who can take on multiple blocks, anchor well, and even penetrate the backfield to bring ball-carriers down. That skill set could come in handy for a squad that finished dead last in opponent yards per rush (5.1) and 23rd in total rushing yards surrendered (122.3 per game)—and that couldn’t afford to bring Suh, who played 888 snaps last year, back.
With those cap constraints in place, Gaines is the early leader in the clubhouse as Suh’s replacement. “He is a guy that we identified that we feel like really will do a great job as a nose guard in our base package,” head coach Sean McVay said after the draft. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips didn’t hide those intentions when he called Gaines on draft night, either. “We got a place for you,” Phillips said. “You know Ndamukong Suh left, so you’ve got a spot. We’re looking for you to get after it.”
Gaines was one of the best run-defending interior linemen in the PAC-12 last year, racking up 36 stops, per Pro Football Focus, easily best in the conference. He was a big standout at the Senior Bowl, dominating one-on-ones with a low center of gravity and elite strength. Moreover, Gaines has a pretty clear path to the top of the depth chart, facing minimal competition in the form of 2017 sixth-rounder Tanzel Smart (six snaps in 2018) and 2018 sixth-rounder Sebastian Joseph-Day (zero snaps).
WR Gary Jennings, Seahawks
Doug Baldwin’s abrupt injury-related release (and likely retirement) last week was the end of an era of Seahawks football and created a major production vacuum in the team’s pass-catching corps, particularly in the slot. Baldwin logged 229 snaps from the inside last year, where he grabbed 27 receptions and four touchdowns; while Seattle will likely look to Tyler Lockett to help fill part of that vacancy, the team is going to need another one of its young pass catchers to step up. Jennings—the team’s fourth-round pick out of West Virginia—looks like a potential year-one contributor because of his size, speed, and ability to run routes on the inside: The 6-foot-1, 214-pound former Mountaineer was one of the most efficient receivers in the nation last year while racking up 54 receptions for 917 yards and 13 touchdowns, much of which came out of the slot. He explodes off the line of scrimmage, is tough going up to get the ball in traffic, and tracks the ball well downfield.
That gives Seattle the chance to deploy a different style of receiver than either Baldwin or Lockett on the inside. “He could be that power guy in there,” general manager John Schneider said after the draft. “He’s really strong ... and he can fly for a 216-pound guy.”
Jennings will have competition for snaps from veteran Jaron Brown, third-year pro David Moore, and fellow rookies D.K. Metcalf and John Ursua, but because of the rookie’s experience and toughness over the middle of the field—and his ability to take the top off the defense—Jennings could emerge with a big role early on.
DE Anthony Nelson, Buccaneers
Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul is expected to miss much of the 2019 season after suffering a neck injury in a car accident in early May, leaving Tampa Bay shorthanded at its pass-rushing group—which is now headlined by an unproven commodity in Noah Spence and new additions Carl Nassib, Shaq Barrett, and rookie Anthony Nelson. Adding further uncertainty to the equation is the defense’s transition to a hybrid 3-4 defense under new coordinator Todd Bowles.
With what looks like a wide-open competition to fill a few spots on the Buccaneers’ edge, Nelson has a better shot than most Day 3 picks to emerge with a major role as a rookie. The former Iowa standout racked up 111 pressures over the last two seasons, third among FBS edge defenders. He’s got length and athleticism and plays with the combination of power and speed that Tampa Bay desperately needs in 2019:
His versatility could help him earn snaps as a rookie, too. As Buccaneers GM Jason Licht said after the draft, the team has multiple roles in mind for the 6-foot-7, 271-pound defender. “We’ll probably play him a little bit in the outside linebacker role, we’ll have him put a hand down in sub. We’ll see if he can rush inside. We’ll have plenty of 4-3 looks in our defense, it’s not just a base 3-4 all the time so we like the versatility and you have to be intelligent to do all those things with Todd [Bowles], so he fits that mold.”
It’s easy to see Nelson playing a number of important roles on Tampa Bay’s front.
RB Tony Pollard, Cowboys
Ezekiel Elliott is still the Cowboys’ foundational offensive player, but the All-Pro could benefit from a slightly lower snap count throughout the grueling season. That’s where Pollard—a fourth-round running back/receiver hybrid out of Memphis—has the chance to step in. Essentially, Pollard has the chance to be what the team wanted from Tavon Austin: a change-of-pace back that can complement Elliott. But he’s bigger and more physical than Austin, and in college he showed that he has the speed, elusiveness, and toughness to do it all, whether he’s being deployed on screens and jet sweeps as a between-the-tackles runner or flexed out as a receiver.
”I think this guy can be a lot different than just a space player,” said Dallas Executive Vice President Stephen Jones after the draft. “Pollard is a real running back. I think he can give you plays between the tackles. … It’s very unfair to him because [Alvin] Kamara is one of the best in the business, but he’s got some Kamara-esque, poor man’s traits.”
That’s high praise of course, but the team seems determined to lighten Elliott’s load. Pollard is also a special teams ace who tied an NCAA record with seven kick-return touchdowns in college, giving him the chance to contribute in that phase, too.
WR Darius Slayton, Giants
The Giants’ decision-making this offseason has been strange, to say the least: After trading away Odell Beckham Jr., the team signed Golden Tate in free agency, adding a playmaker who thrives underneath while neglecting the team’s massive need for more deep-receiving weapons. Beckham was one of the league’s most dangerous field-stretching threats, but neither Tate nor Sterling Shepard, who also got a big new contract, thrives deep down the field. That’s where rookie fifth-rounder Darius Slayton could quickly carve out his niche: The 6-foot-1, 190-pound former Auburn star boasts elite speed (he ran 4.39 in the 40-yard dash at the combine), averaged 20.3 yards per catch, and caught eight passes of 50-plus yards in his three-year college career.
The depth chart behind Tate and Shepard is anything but settled, and Slayton will duke it out with the likes of Corey Coleman, Cody Latimer, Bennie Fowler, and Alonzo Russell. Whether they go with Eli Manning or Daniel Jones under center, the Giants need a receiver or two who can threaten defenses deep down the field and make them think twice about loading the box to stop Saquon Barkley. Slayton has the skill set to emerge in that role.
RB Ryquell Armstead, Jaguars
Yeah, there’s a chance that Armstead, the Jags’ fifth-round pick, ends up playing a mostly backup role behind starter Leonard Fournette as a rookie. (Afterall, Fournette was the fourth overall pick back in 2017.) If Fournette is healthy and in good standing with coaches, the team will likely lean hard on their incumbent as the bell cow in the backfield. However, those are a couple of significant “ifs” for the oft-injured Fournette who’s butted heads with the Jacksonville staff on numerous occasions during his first two seasons in the NFL.
Fournette missed three games as a rookie with various lower-body injuries and played in just eight games in his sophomore season, missing seven to a injury and another to suspension for leaving the bench to fight a player in a game against the Bills. He drew the ire of team president Tom Coughlin for disinterestedly sitting on the bench during the team’s Week 17 game against the Texans; then was arrested for driving on a suspended license in April. All that, combined with the fact that Fournette didn’t eclipse 4.0 yards per carry in either season or establish himself as a dynamic receiver, leaves the team’s former top pick on relatively thin ice. It also leaves the door open for a pretty major role for Armstead in 2019.
The former Temple star has a scintillating combination of size and top-tier speed—he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds at 220 pounds at the combine—and runs with the type of tenacity the Jaguars have modeled their offense around.
At worst, Armstead has a shot to establish himself as the team’s third-down, change-of-pace back. If Fournette can’t stay healthy or on the field though, the rookie’s path to major carries is through a handful of less-than-dynamic veteran retreads in Benny Cunningham, Thomas Rawls, and Alfred Blue.