In the aftermath of the 2014 NFL Draft, with grades being handed out and prospect hauls being assessed, excitement for the future is high. But as fans and observers gush over developmental quarterbacks and other need-filling depth plays, we should remember that, of the hundreds of players picked, a relative few will have a significant impact this season. While many draftees have the potential to ultimately become key contributors, only the truly special player -- placed in the right setting -- can excel as a first-year pro.
With that in mind, I've compiled a list of six instant-impact rookies. These youngsters all have the talent and opportunity to make things happen right away in 2014. Of course, this is by no means a definitive list; this is merely a collection of rookies who I can see shaping the course of the 2014 season. And while many were drafted early, I included a couple of players selected outside of the first 50 picks.
Here, presented in no particular order, is a list of rookies I expect we'll be hearing from in the immediate future:
Instant impact: Sparking a long-suffering franchise.
Manziel is like a cross between Fran Tarkenton and Jim McMahon -- he has Tarkenton's ability to roll out and make things happen, plus McMahon's competitiveness. He's also smart and a very quick learner, which are essential traits for a successful NFL signal-caller. The fearless improviser needs to get better in the pocket, but I think he'll do the work to make that happen. At Texas A&M, he notched a career completion percentage of 68.95, the best in the SEC since 1956, and he averaged 8.27 yards per play, also the best mark in the SEC in that time and the fifth-best career mark in the NCAA. And, of course, he won the Heisman Trophy in 2012 as a redshirt freshman. Finally, we should not underestimate the impact of the size of Manziel's hands, which, at 9 7/8 inches, are big enough to help him grip the ball in the inclement weather that often plagues Cleveland.
I know the Browns want Manziel to behave like a backup, and I know veteran Brian Hoyer played pretty well for Cleveland last season before getting hurt. Still, I think Manziel has a good chance to start Week 1; I've just seen too much of this guy prevailing against all odds to think otherwise. The only thing Hoyer beats Manziel on at this point is experience. Before news of receiver Josh Gordon's potential suspension came to light, I would have said Manziel could lift Cleveland to the playoffs. If Gordon misses significant time, of course, that will be much more difficult to accomplish. Still, I wouldn't completely count Manziel out. Think of how he rallied the Aggies back from a major deficit against Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Cleveland has been waiting for something good to happen for an absurdly long time; Manziel will excite the fans there immediately and eventually grow into a special player.
Instant impact: Bringing heat to Oakland -- and capturing some hardware.
Oakland defensive coordinator Jason Tarver is one of the best in the business at devising schemes that take advantage of opponents' weaknesses. I think he'll be creative with where he lines up Mack, who can do all kinds of things for the defense, from making plays in space to bringing down the quarterback. Speaking of which, I would not be surprised if Mack were to rack up a double-digit sack total.
Mack is a physical specimen, a 251-pounder with a 40-inch vertical who can run the 40-yard dash in 4.65 seconds. He also posted outstanding times at the NFL Scouting Combine in the short shuttle (4.18 seconds) and three-cone drill (7.08 seconds), which -- as with running backs -- are a good indicator of future linebacking success. When he was at Buffalo, opponents did everything they could to block Mack, double- and triple-teaming him, and he still made plays. He has relatively limited football experience but possesses top-notch instincts, and he's still improving. He's the rare player with both the temperament and ability to excel at linebacker. At this point, he'd be my early pick for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Instant impact: Ending an epic dry spell.
Watkins has all the attributes needed to be a great receiver. He's extremely speedy -- he seems to have two gears: super-fast and super-super-fast -- but he's also strong enough that pads won't slow him down. He has great hands and the kind of catch-and-run ability that reminds you of Hall of Fame receiver Bob Hayes. Watkins is excellent at getting separation from defenders. He's also versatile, able to line up outside or in the slot.
As a true freshman at Clemson, Watkins defied convention by racking up 82 catches for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns. For a player to have that kind of production at that stage of his career is almost unheard of. Watkins will make Bills quarterback EJ Manuel better, and Buffalo offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett will have some special things ready for the dynamic receiver. Ultimately, I think Watkins has a good shot at helping the Bills end their 14-season playoff drought.
Instant impact: Reviving a once-fearsome attack.
In 2012, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked just 28 times, tied for 18th-most in the NFL -- and the team went 13-3 while scoring 419 points. Last season, Ryan's sack total skyrocketed by a whopping 16 takedowns, giving him the third-most sacks taken in the league (44) -- and Atlanta sank to 4-12 while scoring just 353 points. One big difference was the absence of veteran left tackle Sam Baker, who started 16 games in 2012 but played in just four last season, landing on injured reserve in November with a knee injury. For what it's worth, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said last weekend that Baker would remain the starter at left tackle for now. But wherever Matthews ends up playing -- and he's capable of contributing anywhere on the offensive line -- he'll make the team significantly better from Day 1.
Very few offensive linemen enter the NFL as prepared as Matthews is. The very athletic Texas A&M product is an outstanding technician who makes very good decisions on blitzes. While Greg Robinson, the Auburn tackle who was drafted second overall by the St. Louis Rams, has a higher long-term ceiling, Matthews is more ready to contribute right now. Matthews is one of the keys to Atlanta's success this season; with him on the line, the Falcons will see results closer to what they accomplished in 2012.
Instant impact: Hitting the field running.
At the combine, Sankey posted the best time in his position group in both the short shuttle (four seconds flat) and three-cone (6.75 seconds) -- two drills that tell you a lot about a running back prospect's chances to succeed in the NFL, even more so than the vaunted 40-yard dash. He's also strong, having notched 26 reps on the bench press. In that way, he reminds me of Emmitt Smith and Maurice Jones-Drew. At Washington, Sankey broke Corey Dillon's single-season record for rushing yards (1,870 in 2013) and surpassed Napoleon Kaufman as the school's career leader in rushing touchdowns (Sankey finished with 37). It's worth noting that Dillon and Kaufman both went on to be pretty good NFL players.
With the Chris Johnson era having ended in Tennessee this offseason, the Titans lack an established running back. I think Sankey should start Week 1. Furthermore, the second-round pick's pass-catching ability means he can stay on the field for all three downs. New coach Ken Whisenhunt likes to run the ball; consider how much the San Diego Chargers relied on the ground game to control the clock when Whisenhunt was their offensive coordinator. While I don't think Sankey can necessarily match Johnson in running ability -- Sankey's not going to make a 91-yard run like Johnson -- he's very good. In fact, I think he's a better back than Eddie Lacy, who won the Offensive Rookie of the Year award with the Green Bay Packers last season.
Instant impact: Helping to fill a departed dynamo's shoes.
After spending four years at Oregon, Huff should already be familiar with the system of Eagles coach (and former Ducks head man) Chip Kelly -- and that will be a huge advantage, especially for a receiver. Notably, Huff played immediately upon arriving at Oregon rather than redshirting, even making two starts as a true freshman. When a player doesn't get redshirted in his first year, especially at a strong program, it's an indicator of significant talent. Huff grabbed my personal attention last November in a rivalry game against Oregon State, which I was watching to get a look at Beavers receiver (and future Saints draft pick) Brandin Cooks. Huff was unbelievable in that game, hauling in nine catches for 186 yards and three scores.
The third-round pick has very good running ability; he can line up in the slot and go in motion on sweeps, which is the role that DeSean Jackson thrived in with the Eagles last season. With Jackson now in Washington, Huff should have a shot to start Week 1. While he's not quite as fast as Jackson, he is stronger. I think he'll be able to help make up for Jackson's absence and produce. I wouldn't worry about fighting for playing time with fellow rookie Jordan Matthews (drafted by Philly in the second round), as Huff and Matthews will be used differently -- Matthews is more of an outside threat. And while recently acquired running back Darren Sproles might cut into Huff's catches a bit, I'd expect Sproles to have a bigger impact on fellow ball carrier LeSean McCoy. Huff is also a good kick returner. With such a versatile skill set, he has a chance to be pretty valuable as a rookie.
Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.