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2017 NFL Impact Rookies

2017 NFL Rookies to Watch: Potential Impact Players
By Jay Horne, NFL Football Handicapper,

During the 2017 NFL Draft back in May, each team attempted to make the best of their draft picks by not only evaluating incoming rookies through NFL combines along with numerous scouting reports but also by making the perfect selections with each draft pick. Teams do not always have the luxury of just selecting the top talent but rather have to select players that best fit the needs of the team. If we learned anything from the 2016 season, it was that first year players can have an immediate impact and even arguably turn around a franchise like we saw when the Dallas Cowboys struck gold twice with Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. With the preseason underway, I feel like it is a good time to give a preview on the rookies that could impact the 2017 pro football season and help their teams in a big way. Let's take a look at the best 2017 NFL rookies to watch in the final weeks leading up to the start of the regular season!

10. Mike Williams (WR, Los Angeles Chargers)

If you are judging this list from a fantasy perspective, then Mike Williams is probably overvalued at the No. 10 position. Williams will join a rather healthy group of receiving targets at QB Phillip Rivers’ disposal alongside Keenan Allen, Travis Benjamin, Dontrelle Inman, and Antonio Gates. Also, there is a chance Williams does not even play this season considering he is battling a back injury that could potentially require season ending surgery. So why is he still listed at the 10 position? Well the surgery is not guaranteed and if Williams does get the opportunity to play, he is the best wide receiver on this list. He could be the best skill position player on this list from a long term perspective. Williams has the physicality to win tough matchups and has the speed to break open big plays. If he gets a chance to showcase that talent this season, watch out because he is truly an incredible talent!

9. Deshaun Watson (QB, Houston Texans)

Another risky play from the fantasy perspective but has the makings for a Cinderella story includes rookie QB Deshaun Watson in Houston. Watson is not listed as the current starter as that role belongs to Tom Savage. However, one has to question how long Savage can keep the starting job. Houston cannot afford another season with an extinct offense and I believe the pressure will build with each passing week. When you have guys like DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller, you have to find ways to get them the ball. The good news is that the Texans will likely have one of the better defenses in the league. Therefore, when they do make a change at quarterback they will not need Watson to perform miracles. However given the opportunity, Watson is a guy that is very dangerous with his legs and can extend the play from the quarterback position. I am normally not a fan of rookie dual threat quarterbacks but this is a situation that could work in Houston.

7. Zay Jones (WR, Buffalo Bills)

The only downside that Zay Jones will encounter in Buffalo is the fact that he is in Buffalo. The quarterback situation is still rocky with Tyrod Taylor and this offense does not exactly air the ball out. However, Jones is a very talented receiver that has reportedly already been penciled into the No. 2 WR position behind Sammy Watkins. Therefore, Jones has already owned a starting role and can hopefully help this Bills offense re-establish themselves as a passing threat. From an individual standpoint, Jones has the durability that mirrors a Julian Edelman and is just solid in every facet of the game. He broke the NCAA record for all-time receptions at East Carolina so I hope that Buffalo gives him the targets that he deserves. If that happens, Jones will be a very solid receiver even as a rookie this season.

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7. Joe Mixon (RB, Cincinnati Bengals)

Joe Mixon is the first of several running backs on my list. Rookie running backs made a big splash in 2016 with the likes of Ezekiel Elliott and Jordan Howard earning the top 2 spots in terms of total rushing yards. With so many question marks in the backfield for several teams this season, it is no secret that rookie ball carriers are going to get plenty of chances this year. The same can be said for the Cincinnati Bengals who are reportedly losing faith in the future of Jeremy Hill. Running back Giovanni Bernard has already proven that he is better in a complementary role. Therefore, the door is open for rookie Joe Mixon. Let’s face it, Mixon would have likely been a top 15-20 pick in the 1st round if not for his issues off the field. If he can keep it together, he has the pure talent to lead this Bengals offense at some point this year.

6. Samaje Perine (RB, Washington Redskins)

Redskins rookie Samaje Perine is in a opportunistic situation in Washington. The Redskins are not sold on current starter Rob Kelley and I believe they will be willing to take chances with Perine to see what the rookie can do. I personally feel like Perine is the better back for the Redskins offense as he could provide a change of pace threat for quarterback Kirk Cousins in similar fashion to what he accomplished for Baker Mayfield at Oklahoma. If he has success early this season, Rob Kelley’s starting job will be in serious jeopardy as the season progresses.

5. Christian McCaffrey (RB, Carolina Panthers)

It seems like everyone is very high on Panthers rookie Christian McCaffrey even though I hold a certain level of skepticism. My skepticism revolves around McCaffrey’s toughness and quickness to perform at the next level. If he surpasses those hurdles, I feel like he is the perfect fit for the Panthers. McCaffrey was used in every way imaginable at Stanford and the Panthers are so desperate for playmakers that they will likely use him in similar fashion. McCaffrey will get the opportunity to lineup in the backfield and move out as a receiver as well. This is probably a boom or bust pick for this season. However, I tend to think it could work to some degree because the Panthers will find ways to make it work until they can find a reliable go to threat.

4. Kareem Hunt (RB, Kansas City Chiefs)

Do you want the surprise story of the year? At this point, Spencer Ware is firmly locked into the starting role in the Chiefs backfield. However, let’s not forget that Ware was extremely overvalued in 2016 in every stretch of the imagination. Despite the Chiefs focus on running the football, Ware found paydirt just 3 times on the ground. Therefore, he is not the long term solution for the loss of former starter Jamaal Charles. Enter rookie Kareem Hunt who I believe has huge upside and fits very well for Andy Reid’s offense. Hunt is a hard runner that accelerates quickly between the tackles and he can catch passes out of the backfield very well which is an important attribute for Kansas City tailbacks. It has already been reported that Hunt has had a very productive training camp and I think that is going to turn into playing time. Fun stat that I am sure Andy Reid is aware of: Hunt never lost a fumble at the college level in 723 career rushing attempts.

3. Corey Smith (WR, Tennessee Titans)

A lot of people do not know the name Corey Smith but I expect that to change over the course of the season. The former Western Michigan Bronco will have the luxury of inheriting the no. 1 receiver spot because the Titans do not have a no. 1 receiver. Luckily for Smith, that will give him plenty of opportunities to make noise this year especially with TE Delanie Walker grabbing most of the early attention in the passing game. Smith is a big and physical wide receiver with a body type that mirrors the builds of a Andre Johnson or Terrell Owens. Unlike some NFL teams that inherited rookie talents, Tennessee has a combination that can work with QB Marcus Mariota, RB Demarco Murray, and TE Delanie Walker. Therefore, I think Smith will be the perfect fit for the Titans offense as long as he stays healthy and his role will grow as the year progresses.

2. Dalvin Cook (RB, Minnesota Vikings)

Many people will point to the fact that Latavius Murray is listed as the starter in the Vikings backfield. However, I believe Minnesota’s move to trade up to get Cook speaks volumes of their faith in Murray. Let’s face it, Murray had very modest stats last year with one of the best offenses in the league. Therefore, I think Cook is going to get playing time right away and take over the starting spot within several weeks of the season. Minnesota’s offense is built to run the football and that is something that Cook is familiar with going back to his role at Florida State. Cook has tremendous upside and gives Minnesota a home run threat with each carry. Expect Cook to be the undisputed starter by the mid-point of the season.

1. Leonard Fournette (RB, Jacksonville Jaguars)

I have been a huge fan of Leonard Fournette over the last few years and even picked him to win the Heisman Trophy in our College Football Heisman Trophy preview last year. Fournette battled injuries throughout the 2016 season at LSU which limited his results but he will get his chance to shine this year in Jacksonville. The Jaguars do not have an every down running back and that will open the door for Fournette to be the workhorse from the opening snap of the season. More importantly, Fournette has the size, speed, and talent to impress this season even behind a rather mediocre offensive line. I don’t believe he can post Ezekiel Elliott type numbers in Jacksonville but he is going to show people why he was considered the top running back in the NFL Draft. Only 12 running backs eclipsed the 1,000 yard plateau in 2016 and I expect Fournette to be in that group by the end of the year. Anything less would be a disappointment as he is clearly the most talented rookie in this year’s class.

If you're got a few more minutes and wanna read about some more NFL action, I invite you to check out my take on how the 2017 NFL season will play out This article will be live the evening of Wednesday, August 9th).

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