NFL rookies most likely to make biggest impact in 2018

Draft position doesn’t always equate to immediate impact, but there are several highly touted NFL rookies who figures to make a big splash in 2018.

Read on for the mix of first-years who figure to have the strongest rookie seasons based on opportunity, skill set and performance to date through early training camp action, ordered by draft position.

Saquon Barkley, running back, New York Giants (2nd overall)
A playmaker who should be the front-runner for Offensive Rookie of the Year, Barkley ran a 4.4-second 40-yard dash at 233 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine. His tree-trunk quads help him squat the planet like Atlas and propel him to run like Hermes.

Barkley is an athletic deity masquerading as a human. Or so it seems. One of the best running back prospects ever, the Giants finally have a star in Barkley to anchor their rushing attack.

With the additions of Nate Solder at left tackle and second-round pick Will Hernandez at guard, New York upgraded the blocking to help Barkley take pressure off aging quarterback Eli Manning. Since Barkley also had 54 receptions last season for Penn State, he’s likely to give Manning some easy completions and help the G-Men contend in the NFC East.

Denzel Ward, cornerback, Cleveland Browns (4th overall)
After taking their latest long-term quarterback hopeful Baker Mayfield first overall, the Browns went with Ward, marking a rare occasion in recent years in which Cleveland chose from the deep talent pool at Ohio State.

The Buckeyes have produced numerous successful pros over the years, yet Ward was only the third such player the Browns drafted since returning in 1999. He’s living up to his high draft billing so far, already asserting himself in the starting lineup as an outside cornerback.

Ward is expected to lock down the opponent’s top receiver, and gets the ultimate test against Pittsburgh superstar Antonio Brown in Week 1. That’s a lot to put on a rookie, but Ward has shown the rare talent to suggest he’ll embrace the challenge.

Bradley Chubb, linebacker, Denver Broncos (5th overall)
Once upon a time, Shane Ray was supposed to start opposite Von Miller and wreak havoc in one of the NFL’s top pass-rushing tandems. The 2015 first-rounder hasn’t panned out, though, making only 15 starts to date, leading to Denver declining Ray’s fifth-year option.

Even though Ray is in a contract year, he narrowly avoided a fourth surgery on his left wrist this offseason. ESPN analyst Louis Riddick liked Chubb more as a prospect than 2017 No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett. That’s the type of talent the Broncos couldn’t pass up in the draft.

With Miller attracting so much attention and Ray being so inconsistent to date, Chubb should be freed up to dominate as a rookie.

Quenton Nelson, guard, Indianapolis Colts (6th overall)
Credit to the Colts for trading down and still landing the man they would’ve taken at No. 3 — perhaps the safest, surest pick in the entire draft.

Nelson was touted by one NFL decision-maker as a superior prospect to fellow Notre Dame alum Zack Martin, who’s only been named to the All-Pro first and second teams twice apiece in his first four NFL seasons with the Dallas Cowboys.

Star quarterback Andrew Luck, who missed all of 2017 with a right throwing shoulder injury, has been plagued by a lack of pass protection during his tenure in Indianapolis. Not only is Nelson exceptional in that regard, he’s also an absolute mauler in the running game and will help the Colts be more balanced offensively.

Josh Rosen, quarterback, Arizona Cardinals (10th overall)
The “chosen” Rosen has moxie, confidence and the pure passing talent to be an immediate franchise quarterback. In an NFC West division filled with other standouts under center in Russell Wilson, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jared Goff, the Cardinals must keep up.

Arizona’s decision to trade up and acquire was a great one. Only Sam Bradford, with a twice-torn ACL and the same knee limiting him to two games last season, stands between Rosen and the starting gig. It seems only a matter of time before the ex-UCLA star is atop the depth chart.

Rosen was the most pro-ready quarterback in the 2018 draft class, capable of making full-field reads and all anticipatory throws. Despite three signal-callers being selected before him, he’ll be the first to see the field, and put up the biggest numbers of any of them.

Tremaine Edmunds, linebacker, Buffalo Bills (16th overall)
Much fanfare accompanied the selection of quarterback Josh Allen seventh overall, but Edmunds, who was a beast as a two-year starter at Virginia Tech, is the better prospect.

While Roquan Smith continues his holdout in Chicago, Edmunds gains ground in his bid to be the best first-year linebacker and potential Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate. He racked up 108 total tackles (14 for loss) and 5.5 sacks last season.

A sideline-to-sideline player who runs a 4.54-second 40 at 6’5″, 253 pounds, there’s no doubt Edmunds will start somewhere in the Bills linebacker corps in Week 1. He should be at the heart of the defense as middle linebacker, and figures to only keep improving under defensive-minded head coach Sean McDermott.

Jaire Alexander, cornerback, Green Bay Packers (18th overall)
Intercepting Aaron Rodgers is no small achievement for a rookie. Alexander did so in organized team activities, which wasn’t in pads, but backed it up with another nice pick in training camp this Tuesday.

Already running with the first-team defense as the primary nickel cornerback, it looks like Green Bay will get an immediate return on its investment in Alexander. He has the swagger of a seasoned pro and evidently doesn’t back down from a challenge.

The inside corner slot is vital in today’s NFL, and the Packers have struggled to fill that spot. Alexander presents a swift solution with elite change of direction, evident in his combine 20-yard shuttle time of 3.98 seconds, ranking him third among all participants.

Frank Ragnow, guard, Detroit Lions (20th overall)
The former Arkansas center hasn’t blinked in transitioning to the NFL, filling in as the Lions’ first-team left guard from Day 1. As the team’s official site pointed out, Ragnow was the top-graded college center by Pro Football Focus the past two seasons.

Ragnow also had experience playing his pro position for the Razorbacks, has a high football IQ and knows exactly what to do in terms of picking up blitzes in pass protection and coming off defenders at the right time to trigger big gains on the ground.

Some linemen have superior physical tools, yet Ragnow should be a dependable starter and help the Lions run the ball far better after they ranked dead-last with a meager 76.3 yards per game in 2017.

DJ Moore, wide receiver, Carolina Panthers (24th overall)
One of only two receivers to be drafted in the first round, Moore seems better positioned to make an impact in Carolina than Calvin Ridley in Atlanta, since the Falcons already have a solid receiver duo in Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu.

Quarterback Cam Newton has been saddled with slower, bigger-bodied targets among his best wideouts of late, but the former Maryland star is a breath of fresh air.

Devin Funchess has been inconsistent at best, while veteran Torrey Smith is on his last legs. As for Moore, he’s got a nice blend of size, speed and reliable hands and should be a high-volume target who could easily be the No. 1 receiver by season’s end.

Mike Gesicki, tight end, Miami Dolphins (42nd overall)
When you see names like DeVante Parker, Kenny Stills and Danny Amendola, it seems the Dolphins have a decent receiving corps. However, none have posted a 1,000-yard season, Parker has underachieved as a 2015 first-round pick and Amendola, injury-prone throughout his career, is entering his age-33 season.

All that adds up to a big opportunity for Gesicki. Dolphins coach Adam Gase helped Julius Thomas rise to stardom in Denver (24 touchdown catches from 2013-14) and should find a way to make use of Gesicki.

The Penn State product posted ridiculous combine numbers, including a 4.54-second 40-yard dash and a 41.5″ vertical at 6’6″, 247 pounds. He’s shown incredible flashes in camp with highlight-reel catches. Despite lackluster blocking, Gesicki is too dangerous a weapon to be kept off the field.

Dante Pettis, wide receiver, San Francisco 49ers (44th overall)
Not many better rookie route-runners come to mind when watching tape of Pettis in training camp practices. This 2018 draft class certainly wasn’t hyped for its receiver talent, and teams may have overlooked the 6’1″, 186-pound Pettis as a result.

Whether it’s a downfield deep in, a quick in-breaking route, or a fly pattern toward the end zone, Pettis is sensational at beating press coverage with short-area quickness. Once defensive backs are on skates, they’re all but helpless when Pettis arrives at his break.

Pettis returned nine punts for touchdowns at Washington, but he seems well on his way to hauling in plenty of passes from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in 2018.

Anthony Miller, wide receiver, Chicago Bears (51st overall)
Another apparent second-round steal may have blown into the Windy City. New coach Matt Nagy is bringing in a new offensive system, and Miller has the production to suggest he’ll contribute after posting 2,896 receiving yards and 32 touchdown catches over his final two years at Memphis.

Miller is slightly shorter and bulkier (5’11”, 201 pounds) but shows off similar route-running precision to Pettis. Veteran NFL personnel man Phil Savage recently observed Bears practice and said Miller was arguably the best player on the field.

Past first-round pick Kevin White hasn’t stayed healthy, and presumptive No. 1 receiver Allen Robinson is coming off a torn ACL, so Chicago will count on Miller to help second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. I don’t buy into the Trubisky hype quite yet, but the buzz surrounding Miller is real.