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Five rookies that will make biggest impact in NFL playoffs

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Veteran stars are expected to do the heavy lifting on most playoff squads, but this season we've seen more first-year players making their mark on title contenders. Teams are increasingly relying on their rookie playmakers to deliver big plays in critical moments and that expectation will only increase when the playoffs kick off this weekend.

With that in mind, I thought it was the perfect time to point out five rookies who could have the biggest impact on the postseason. Here are my top five, ranked by how much of an impact I expect them to make in the playoffs.

1. Alvin Kamara, RB, New Orleans Saints

It's uncommon for a rookie running back to emerge as an offense's most valuable player, but that is exactly what Kamara has done. The electric playmaker is the Saints' most dynamic offensive weapon and his versatility sets the table for the team's game plan. Whether it's delivering explosive plays on perimeter runs or creating chaos as a quasi-receiver on the perimeter, No. 41 is the straw that stirs the drink in New Orleans. If the Saints make a run to Super Bowl LII, it will be largely due to Kamara spitting out 100-yard games like an ATM machine.

2. Kareem Hunt, RB, Kansas City Chiefs

For all of the attention that Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce command as Kansas City's top offensive weapons, the Chiefs' offense needs Hunt to be a major factor to put points on the board. The NFL rushing leader posted six games with at least 100 yards on the ground as the team's workhorse runner -- he had nine games of 100-plus total yards from scrimmage. Considering the team's 8-1 record when he tallies 100-plus scrimmage yards, the Chiefs' playoff hopes hinge on Hunt's production as a runner-receiver.

3. Leonard Fournette, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars

Whenever a head coach suggests that a perfect offensive game would feature zero pass attempts, you know that the team's RB1 is expected to be a major factor in big games. When healthy, Fournette has been a leading contributor to the Jaguars' offense as a rugged runner with explosive strength, speed, and power. He posted five 100-yard games in 13 starts but his attempts matter more than his production in the playoffs, as evidenced by the team's 4-2 record when No. 27 runs the rock 20 or more times. Based on that success and the concern over QB Blake Bortles' turnover woes, the Jaguars will need their RB1 to be a dominant force in the postseason to have any chance of making a deep playoff run.

4. JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers

Few expected Smith-Schuster to be the life of the party when he joined the Steelers as a second-round pick last year, but the rookie pass-catcher has energized the offense with his production and TD celebrations. The NFL's rookie leader in receiving yards had emerged as the team's WR2, and of late he has capably stepped into the No. 1 role with Antonio Brown ailing with a calf injury. Although AB84 is expected to return for the Divisional Round, Smith-Schuster's playmaking ability as the focal point of the passing game could determine whether the Steelers' offense continues to light up the scoreboard in the postseason.

5. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers

Everyone in the 704 (Charlotte area code) knows the Panthers' playoff hopes hinge on the play of Cam Newton, but the former league MVP needs McCaffrey to be a factor on the perimeter to help him in his efforts. McCaffrey is the Panthers' most dynamic offensive player as a hybrid running back with exceptional hands and receiving skills. He finished the regular season with 80 catches and an average of 8.1 yards per catch, but he delivered enough splash plays in the passing game (seven catches of 20-plus yards, five receiving touchdowns) to command attention from opponents. If McCaffrey can produce a handful of big plays in the passing game to complement Newton's big-play ability as a runner-thrower, the Panthers could generate just enough offense to win a few games in the postseason.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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