Several NFL teams — including Super Bowl contenders — will be counting heavily on rookies this season. The Seattle Seahawks will start Justin Britt at right tackle. The Denver Broncos might suddenly need a lot from Cody Latimer at receiver. The New England Patriots, who never shy away from the kids, have seven rookies on their roster, including Tom Brady’s backup (Jimmy Garoppolo).
Nine rookies made the San Francisco 49ers’ roster. New Orleans Saints receiver Brandin Cooks could be the Offensive Rookie of the Year. The Green Bay Packers could start rookies at center, nose tackle and safety before long. And on and on …
But a few other teams will be heavily leaning on their rookie classes even more. That might not be a bad thing, either.
Here are the seven teams that could be asking the most from their rookie crops:
Carolina Panthers — Partly out of necessity, the kids will have to perform right away. First-round pick Kelvin Benjamin is expected to be Cam Newton’s top dog right out of the chute, and he could end up being a double-digit touchdown producer in Year 1.
Third-round pick Trai Turner is the starting right guard — another player pushed into the lineup because of roster deletions in the offseason — and two other rookie offensive linemen (David Foucault and Andrew Norwell). The team also appears to have a role earmarked in the secondary for Bene Benwikere, who could be the nickel back. Second-round defensive end Kony Ealy might have to wait, but he could be a factor on a line that needs to establish depth.
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Cleveland Browns — Johnny Manziel is the hallmark draft choice for sure, and it would be a shock at this point if he didn’t start (or at least contribute) early on. Are the Browns ready to turn things over to him and live with the lumps that are sure to come? They might not feel they have any other choice. But don’t overlook all the other first-year contributors.
Corner Justin Gilbert is off to a slow start and might not be starting right away, but he’ll get his chance in the secondary, as could corner Pierre Desir. Offensive guard Joel Bitonio hasn’t received nearly the hype of either of them, but he’s athletic and nasty — a poor man’s Logan Mankins — and will start Week 1.
Linebacker Christian Kirksey might have been knocked down a few pegs with his "Madden" video game snub, but he’s going to factor on special teams and in the subpackages on defense. Fullback Ray Agnew and tailbacks Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell also figure to be part of the run-game mix. The Browns opened the season with 11 rookies — five of them undrafted — which could speak to the team’s lack of established depth.
Green Bay Packers — We mentioned the Packers above, and it’s not too much to say that rookie center Corey Linsley will have his hands full right away. After projected starter J.C. Tretter went down with a serious injury that could sideline him half the season or more, Linsley was promoted to the starting lineup with a daunting first assignment in Seattle. Good luck, kid.
Expected to start alongside him will be tight end Richard Rodgers, who could be a decent contributor in the passing game, but he must prove he can block, too, as a complementary part. Undrafted nose tackle Mike Pennel shined in the preseason in limited chances, but now he’s in the rotation up front with B.J. Raji out for the season. Receivers Davante Adams and Jeff Janis appears to be the fourth and fifth receivers, respectively, and could get on the field with the Packers going four- and five-wide more often than other teams.
Will first-round safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix win a starting job? Not yet, it appears, but he’s in the mix on the back end. Ten rookies made Green Bay's opening 53-man roster — a high total for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
Houston Texans — Top overall pick Jadeveon Clowney has to be considered the frontrunner for the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award, and he’s running opposite J.J. Watt in what should be a nice front. Can Clowney put the questions of his effort behind him as a rookie? Expect some splash plays right away from this manchild, but consistency will be the key.
The only other projected rookie starter right now appears to be fullback Jay Prosch (when the team uses one), but there are other expected contributors, including swing offensive lineman Xavier Su’a-Filo, blocking tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, defensive linemen Louis Nix and Jeoffrey Pagan and developmental quarterback Tom Savage.
Jacksonville Jaguars — The clock is ticking on No. 3 overall pick Blake Bortles, and we figure to see him this season, but the coaching staff has pledged a patience approach for the impressive quarterback. It likely will take an extended slump by Chad Henne for a switch there, but it’s coming.
Marqise Lee (second round) and Allen Hurns (undrafted) are ahead of Allen Robinson (second round) at receiver, but you could see all three factor into the passing game by season’s end. The position is in good hands long term.
Luke Bowanko is the starting center, and Brandon Linder might force his way into the lineup at guard. Linebacker Telvin Smith has intriguing speed that will make him a contributor on the nickel defense and likely special teams. The Jaguars have some nice young blood that will help right away.
Oakland Raiders — The first two picks, linebacker Khalil Mack and quarterback Derek Carr, are immediate starters and could work themselves into Rookie of the Year talk if they can handle the spotlight. Mack has flashed, but can he be a three-down difference maker right away? Carr has a laser arm and confidence coming out of his pores, so it will be fascinating to see how he operates as the first rookie to start for the team at QB since the NFL merger of 1970.
They’re the main two, but the Raiders kept a total of eight rookies on their opening roster. Keep an eye on impressive young guard Gabe Jackson, who might start soon if there are blocking problems.
Pittsburgh Steelers — Speedy Ryan Shazier is the first Steelers rookie linebacker to start in more than a decade, and he could help revitalize a unit that was starting to age and slow down. So, too, could defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt, who figures to play a lot up front in the team’s 3-4 system, even if some other high picks the team has made up front in recent years haven’t been huge producers.
Dri Archer’s speed will be a huge blessing on special teams, as well as a big-play option on offense. Don’t be shocked if he pops half a dozen long touchdowns this season as a change of pace.
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