Every year, there are the select few rookies who are able to seamlessly transition from the college level to pros and make an immediate impact for their new teams. Whether they just serve a role or end up taking the league by storm, these rookies will emerge. At this point in the offseason, it is just a matter of finding them. As a rookie in the super-competitive NFC West, these future stars will have the chance to play for a playoff and/or Super Bowl contender. Here are the top five rookies who can potentially change the landscape of the NFC West in 2014:
5. Troy Niklas, TE, Arizona Cardinals
Just by looking at Troy Niklas, you would never guess that he is a tight end. The 6’6”, 270-pound product out of Notre Dame looks like a lineman, which makes sense considering he originally played outside linebacker for the Fighting Irish. He only has two years of tight end experience under his belt, so his skills are raw and his technique needs work. But still, he has learned the position remarkably quickly and has the potential to be one of the best blocking tight ends in the league. And while no one is confusing Niklas for Vernon Davis, he moves surprisingly well for a player of his size. Hernia surgery has sidelined him for most of OTA’s, but reports are that he is starting to run again. The Cardinals still have last year’s starter Rob Housler on the roster, and they signed John Carlson and Jake Ballard in free agency. But none of those guys have any sort of breakout potential, so look for Niklas to come in right away and help out the Cardinals offense.
4. Carlos Hyde, RB, San Francisco 49ers
Thought by most experts to be the top running back in the 2014 NFL Draft, Hyde fell out of the first round and all the way to the 49ers at pick No. 57. Although he finds himself behind five-time Pro Bowler Frank Gore on the depth chart, this might turn out to be a perfect situation for Hyde. Gore is still an effective runner, but he is 31 years old and in the final year of his contract. In one scenario, Gore stays healthy, remains the starter, and teaches the similarly skilled Hyde how to play in the 49ers scheme. In another scenario, Gore either struggles or is injured, and Hyde steps in and proves why he was the best running back in his draft class. He is a downhill runner with elite catching and blocking skills, and we all know that Jim Harbaugh will always give the nod to the hot hand (just ask Alex Smith).
3. Greg Robinson, OT, St. Louis Rams
Expectations are high for Robinson, the second overall pick in the draft. The Rams have struggled for years, and fans are hoping that 2014 is the year that they can finally put it all together. The offensive line has been a wreck in St. Louis for nearly the last decade, and the team has been looking for the next Orlando Pace to stabilize the unit. Former second overall pick Jason Smith was a huge bust, and Jake Long did not have a great first year with the Rams. Robinson was a late climber up draft boards and was selected mostly on upside, but the Rams should not be too worried about his future. He is an absolute mauler in the run game, and with the proper help he could become an All-Pro blindside protector. Robinson will start this season at either left guard or right tackle, but he will slide over to left tackle if Jake Long gets hurt or struggles. And let’s be real, you have a better chance of seeing Halley’s Comet tonight than Long staying healthy for a full season. With Robinson protecting Sam Bradford, he should finally have the time to put together the breakout season Rams fans have been waiting for.
2. Deone Bucannon, SS, Arizona Cardinals
The selection of Bucannon in the first round came as a surprise to most throughout the league, but down the line we may be calling this pick a steal for the Cardinals. Bucannon was an All-American at Washington State and is the kind of player who puts the “strong” in strong safety. He might not be the fastest or most athletic defensive back, but he is great at stopping the run and will make wide receivers think twice about coming over the middle. The Cardinals obviously think highly of him, because they let Yeremiah Bell walk in free agency to give Bucannon the starting job. He should mesh perfectly with Tyrann Mathieu to become the NFL’s youngest and most versatile safety pair.
1. Aaron Donald, DT, St. Louis Rams
Perhaps the most complete defensive prospect not named Jadaveon Clowney, Donald somehow fell to the Rams at No. 13 overall. Donald, a four-year starter at Pittsburgh, dominated everything he participated in. In his senior year, he led the nation in tackles for loss, was a unanimous All-American, and won the Outland Trophy. At the Senior Bowl, he was unblockable and stood out more than any other player. He then followed this up by owning the Combine, where he ran the fastest 40-yard dash among defensive tackles and did 35 reps of 225 pounds. So, why did Donald fall in the draft? His size. You would think NFL teams would have learned by now to stop passing on prospects because they are undersized, especially when a player like Donald fits in a 4-3 defensive scheme absolutely perfectly. He will now join Robert Quinn, Chris Long, and Michael Brockers to form a defensive line that will cause sleepless nights for all opposing quarterbacks. Don’t be surprised if Donald is holding the Defensive Rookie of the Year hardware at the end of the season.