There are a handful of rookies in the AFC South that are looking to make a name for themselves during the 2014 season. The following is a list of players who will certainly have an opportunity to make an early impact for their respective teams.
The Atlanta Falcons had the league’s worst rushing attack in 2013, posting a meager 77.9 yards per game on the ground. The Falcon’s top two running backs (Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers), combined for just 875 yards and 8 touchdowns on 253 carries. The Falcons took to the 2014 NFL draft to ameliorate their ground game and selected running back Devonta Freeman in the fourth round. Head coach Mike Smith has repeatedly stated the coaching staff sees Freeman as an every-down running back. Freeman will have every opportunity to earn the role as lead back for the Falcons during training camp and I believe he has the tools to get it done.
Freeman has very good vision and despite his size, he is an outstanding interior runner. He displays above average hands out of the backfield and has more than enough wiggle to make defenders miss in the open field. Freeman’s toughest challenge will be pass protection as it is with most young running backs. With that said, he is a willing blocker but will need to learn to meet defenders in the hole as opposed to waiting on them. Once he improves upon his techniques and learns his blocking assignments, I certainly look for Freeman to make an impact for his team, running behind fellow rookie Jake Matthews of Texas A&M.
I can’t think of a single quarterback in the NFL that has been let down by his receiving corps more than Cam Newton. With the departure of Steve Smith, Newton’s most consistent target, it was common knowledge that the receiver position needed to be addressed this offseason. The Panthers selected Kelvin Benjamin with the 28th pick in the 2014 NFL draft to bolster a position that had virtually no upside prior to this selection. The Panthers will rely on him heavily to move the chains in 2014 and as long as Cam Newton is the quarterback for the Panthers, I have a hard time believing he won’t make a tremendous impact.
Benjamin has an exceptional catching radius and will take advantage of the smaller defensive backs in the NFC South. While he doesn’t possess great speed or lateral quickness to separate, he can play in what many scouts call the fifth dimension, meaning he possesses the ability to high point the football. His ability to high point the football will allow him to win a great deal of jump-ball scenarios. I’m not the biggest fan of Benjamin’s talent alone, as I believe he must improve tremendously as a route runner. With that said, the eye discipline of a cornerback changes when you add a mobile quarterback into the equation, as they must account for the run. If Benjamin can continue to improve as a route runner he could have an outstanding rookie campaign.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints lost Lance Moore and Darren Sproles but they will attempt to replace both players with rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks. The Saints selected Brandin Cooks with the 20th pick in the 2014 NFL draft and are hoping for an immediate impact. Cooks was unable to join his new team as a result of rules forbidding him to participate in OTAs until the end of his school’s academic year. Cooks was able to join his team with four practices remaining and by many accounts, he didn’t miss a beat. One thing that works on Cooks’ behalf is he played in a rather complex pro-style offense at Oregon State. Additionally the Saints have created online courses to help Cooks learn the playbook prior to his arrival.
Cooks is very hardworking and eager to learn and his talent flashed with each OTA session. He has the ability to read leverage and find pockets in the defense similar to Lance Moore. The Saints also might utilize him out of the backfield similar to the way they used Sproles. While Cooks is capable of many things on the football field, the Saints have to be careful not to overload him so he can play freely and not think too much while on the field. The Saints will look to the rookie to make plays early and often during the 2014 season and he has all the talent necessary to be an impact player for them.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Last season the Buccaneers finished 24th in red zone efficiency, last in passing yards and last in total offense. One way to consistently achieve offensive continuity is to accumulate talent that presents matchup problems for opposing defenses. With the addition of first-round draft pick Mike Evans, who will play on the opposite side of Vincent Jackson, safeties will often times be preoccupied with making certain the defense isn’t beaten along the perimeter. If the safeties rotate to cover the receivers on the outside, the middle of the field will subsequently become vacant leaving room for Austin Seferian-Jenkins to have an outstanding rookie season.
Seferian-Jenkins is a do-it-all tight end in the sense that he’s a very good in-line blocker, but he is also an excellent receiver. He has an exceptional catching radius and more than enough speed to stretch the seam. His 6-foot-5, 265-pound frame and ability to win jump balls underscores why I believe Jenkins will have an early impact for the Buccaneers. He will improve their red zone efficiency in 2015, as he is a matchup problem by sheer virtue of his size and athleticism.
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