It’s hard to believe, but the 2018 NFL season is literally hours away now. For so many rookies, this will be the beginning of a path toward stardom or obscurity. There are a multitude of first-year-player-related storylines to follow this season, but here are the five that I’m most looking forward to revisiting when the season ends.
1. Rookie Quarterbacks vs. Saquon Barkley
To me, this is probably the rookie storyline I look forward to following the most, for this season and beyond. There are very few who doubt Barkley’s impending NFL success (I was probably “lower” on him than anyone, and he was still the seventh overall player on my board), but the matter is not that simple.
For Barkley to be worth the no. 2 overall pick, not only does he have to be one of the best backs in the league, but Eli Manning also has to be capable of making the Giants a contender over the next few seasons. Even if he does somehow return to peak Eli, which would defy all odds at this stage of his career, will the Giants immediate success be great enough to justify bypassing Sam Darnold or Josh Allen or Josh Rosen?
If any one of those three quarterbacks become a stud, the Giants probably made the wrong move in taking Barkley. Taking a running back no. 2 overall with quality quarterback prospects on the board and an obvious need at the position is a massive gamble, and while Barkley will probably be a very good pro, there are a lot more layers to this in the end.
2. Who leads rookies in rushing by the end of the season?
Arguably one of the most talented running back classes in NFL history, it will be fascinating to see who emerges at the top back amongst all rookies this season, especially with so many of the top picks currently injured. Barkley, Sony Michel and Rashaad Penny have all been injured, and Derrius Guice is out for the year with a knee injury.
In the meantime, fellow top 50 picks Nick Chubb and Ronald Jones have been a pretty mixed bag during the preseason, although the former really found his way over the last two games. Neither back has had much room to run, but it’s also fair to wonder if that is an issue that extends into the regular season for either player.
The good news is that Barkley, Michel and Penny should all be back for Week 1, making it an even race from the start of the season. Watch out for third round pick Royce Freeman in Denver and second round pick Kerryon Johnson in Detroit. Both should be the feature guys for their teams, and both will outproduce a couple of the backs selected ahead of them as a result.
If you want a really deep sleeper, I believe the Colts’ Jordan Wilkins will emerge as the guy in Indy by midseason. He could get an opportunity to start Week 1 with Marlon Mack nursing an injury.
3. Can Bradley Chubb be an impact player early?
It was a quiet preseason for Bradley Chubb, who put some good stuff on tape, but ultimately registered just half-a-sack and eight tackles. Playing across from Von Miller, I think Chubb has the potential to be an 8-10 sack player if he gets the reps this year, as offenses won’t be able to help their left tackle nearly as much.
Nevertheless, the Broncos should be under a similar microscope as the Giants, in that they passed on Allen and Rosen to take a player at a position that wasn’t a huge need for them. Chubb plays the second most important position on the football field, so as long as he plays well this pick will look better than Barkley. Still, Case Keenum also needs to meet expectations for the Broncos to be blameless in all of this. If Rosen or Allen excel, expect the criticism of John Elway to reach new heights.
4. Can Rosen and Allen survive/thrive in their situations?
You can argue about where the quarterbacks in the class should have come off the board, but the clear reality is that Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold are in more winnable situations than Rosen and Allen.
The Bills offense is in shambles, potentially offering the worst offensive line and the worst receiving corps in the league on the same unit. Having LeSean McCoy is nice, but I’m not expecting much out of the ground game behind that front five.
In Arizona, Rosen nearly died behind the Cardinals’ backup offensive line in Week 1 of preseason action, and the first team has already seen one starter go down in center A.Q. Shipley. Left tackle D.J. Humphries looked rough against the Cowboys during the preseason, and right tackle Andre Smith wasn’t better.
I’m not sure either player has a strong chance of reaching anywhere close to their peak this season, I’m just hoping both can survive the onslaught coming their way when they’re inserted into the lineup.
5. Will a highly-drafted wide receiver have a big rookie season?
It didn’t happen with Corey Davis, Mike Williams, John Ross, Zay Jones or Curtis Samuel. It sure as heck didn’t happen with Corey Coleman, Will Fuller, Josh Doctson or Laquon Treadwell, and of Amari Cooper, Kevin White, Devante Parker, Nelson Agholor, Breshad Perriman and Phillip Dorsett, only Cooper had a rookie season that came close to first round expectations. And he’s regressed since that point.
Every class since the Odell Beckham-Sammy Watkins-Mike Evans group has been a massive disappointment, both early in their careers and up to this point. The 2018 group may have been labeled as the weakest of the four most recent classes, so the odds do not seem in their favor heading into the 2018 season.
But first rounders D.J. Moore and Calvin Ridley will both get steady playing time right away this season in 11 personnel, and both flashed a lot during the preseason. Second round picks Courtland Sutton, Dante Pettis, Christian Kirk, Anthony Miller and James Washington all had positive preseasons, and should be early contributors for their teams as well.
Will we have a 1,000-yard rookie receiver? I’m not sure we have a Cooper or Michael Thomas-level rookie performer in this group, but I do believe Miller, Kirk and Pettis will play big roles for their teams early on, while Ridley sees his fair share of targets as well. Should be fun to see who emerges from a class that was largely considered pick-your-flavor at the position.