Five rookies who most need to succeed in Year 1: Heat on Chiefs LB

There's been so much speculation about when we'll see football again amid the COVID-19 pandemic that it's worth taking a break to ponder a different subject: How will rookies perform when the sport returns? Sure, veterans understand how to prepare their bodies and minds for a grueling season. It's another matter altogether when considering players who are entering their first year in the NFL.

Some of those first-year players landed with teams that were lousy last season and will need far more than a rookie's production to make a leap. No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow comes to mind here, since he'll be quarterbacking a Bengals squad that won only two games in 2019. Other rookies will settle into better situations, where the surrounding talent won't require them to shine so brightly right out of the gate. Think defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw in San Francisco or wide receiver CeeDee Lamb in Dallas.

Finally, there's a group of newcomers with the legitimate potential -- and opportunity -- to alter the NFL landscape if they grow up fast. It's a collection of players who wound up on playoff-caliber teams that selected them to address key flaws this offseason. The rookies that deliver for those franchises will end up being huge factors in determining postseason opportunities. They'll have to develop in a hurry while starting their careers under a microscope for their teams to live up to expectations in 2020.

So, here are the five rookies who absolutely have to get it done this season. As you'll notice, there isn't a first-rounder in the bunch.

1. Willie Gay Jr., LB, Kansas City Chiefs

As much as people touted all the things Kansas City's first-round pick, running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, will do in Andy Reid's high-octane offense, Gay is the player who will determine how successful this Chiefs draft class really is. The first thing to know is that the former Mississippi State product can flat-out fly. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.46 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine (second-best time among linebackers) and he plays just as fast when he's on the field. It's no secret that Kansas City's major weakness on defense was at linebacker, where it lacked athleticism and dynamic playmaking ability. Gay can offset those troubles because he's known for his range, blitzing and coverage potential.

The major concern about Gay, and it's a big one, is character. He served an eight-game suspension in 2019 because of an academic scandal and he was ejected from two games over his last two seasons for personal fouls. He also reportedly broke the orbital bone of a teammate during a fight after a practice late last year. The Chiefs say they weren't daunted by those issues, as they obviously see more reward than risk here. The fact is that Kansas City won its first Super Bowl in 50 years because its defense turned into a strength instead of a weakness last season. If Gay is as good as advertised, he'll be a major asset for a team hungry to repeat.

2. Trevon Diggs, CB, Dallas Cowboys

Diggs is showing up at exactly the right time for the Cowboys. The departure of cornerback Byron Jones, a 2018 Pro Bowl selectee who signed a five-year, $82.5 million deal with Miami in March, left the Cowboys with only one player at that position who had been a full-time starter (Chidobe Awuzie). Dallas still has Jourdan Lewis (primarily a slot corner) and Anthony Brown (who was re-signed to a three-year deal this offseason) but Diggs is the guy who looks most like a true replacement for Jones. At 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds, Diggs offers similar length and he loves to challenge receivers in press coverage. Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy also raves about the way he attacks the ball in coverage.

Diggs actually started his career at Alabama as a wide receiver/defensive back, and his brother is current Buffalo Bills wideout Stefon Diggs. Even though he had just four interceptions in college, Trevon's soft hands and natural instincts will come in handy in Dallas. The Cowboys ranked 10th in the NFL in passing yards allowed in 2019 but their seven interceptions tied them for last in the league. They're also opening this season with four straight games against opponents who will look to challenge their secondary (the Rams, Falcons, Seahawks and Browns). A quick maturation for Diggs -- who fell to the second round after being considered a first-round talent -- would make a world of difference.

3. Josh Uche, LB, New England Patriots

As much as people ruminate on life after Tom Brady in New England, let's not forget head coach Bill Belichick knows how to win football games. Last year, his defense was the major factor in the Patriots claiming an 11th straight AFC East title. Uche's presence suggests Belichick is contemplating even more imaginative ways to attack from that side of the football this fall. Few players created as much buzz from the end of the college season to the draft than Uche. This is a player who didn't even start until his final season at Michigan, when he blossomed into a disruptive force as a fourth-year junior. The quality that turned Uche into a college standout is the same thing Belichick loves in his defenders: the type of versatility that can make a player an invaluable chess piece. Uche's calling card is a devastating blend of quickness and explosiveness that helped him amass 15.5 sacks over his final two years at Michigan.

Sure, he's undersized at 6-3 and 226 pounds, but he also represents a breed of new ultra-athletic defenders that will be vital in a league with so many mobile quarterbacks. Belichick could utilize Uche as an edge rusher, an inside linebacker or simply a wild card who could blitz from any spot in a defensive alignment. The key here is how quickly Uche can learn. Belichick asks a lot of his players mentally and that's going to be a challenge for a rookie who primarily was asked to chase the quarterback as a hybrid defender in college. However, the Pats said farewell to several key defensive contributors from last year, including linebackers Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts. Somebody has to make up for those losses. Uche is as good a place to start as any for a team still hoping to contend in a division it has owned for two decades.

4. Michael Pittman Jr., WR, Indianapolis Colts

The Colts have been looking for a receiver to pair with T.Y. Hilton for the last five years. Finally, they found a worthy candidate in Pittman, whom Indianapolis selected with the first of its two second-round picks. It's even fair to say the Colts got a steal here, as the depth of wide receiver talent in this class prevented him from going in the first round. The two most obvious things to like about Pittman are his 6-4, 223-pound frame and his consistency. He finished his senior season at USC with 101 receptions for 1,275 yards and 11 touchdowns. You don't catch that many balls without knowing how to do the dirty work, possessing the savvy to escape coverage and being tough enough to out-fight defenders for 50-50 balls. In other words, Pittman is exactly the kind of receiver new Colts quarterback Philip Rivers made a living throwing passes to over 16 seasons with the Chargers. Rivers doesn't merely love big targets. He feeds them constantly, even when there's the potential for interceptions.

The Colts do have another rangy target in the mix that they're excited about -- second-year receiver Parris Campbell -- but it's easy to see Pittman becoming a standout in his first season. For one, he'll have the benefit of Hilton drawing the attention of opposing defenses. Secondly, Hilton sorely needs the help. Injuries limited him to just 10 games in 2019 and he still led the team with 45 receptions. If Rivers really is going to return the Colts to the level of playoff contention, he'll need Pittman to be a big boost to the passing attack.

5. J.K. Dobbins, RB, Baltimore Ravens

Baltimore's decision to select Dobbins in the second round made plenty of sense. Yes, the Ravens set a league record for single-season rushing yards in 2019 and still have Pro Bowl back Mark Ingram. However, Ingram turns 31 in December and the calf injury he sustained late last season was a major factor in the team's playoff implosion after a 14-2 regular season. Simply put, Baltimore's explosive offense wasn't the same without him at full strength. Now the Ravens add Dobbins to the mix, which should be downright scary. Anybody who watched Ohio State on a regular basis had to see that Dobbins is a legitimate beast in the backfield. He feasted on read options with the Buckeyes, so much so that he ran for 4,459 yards and scored 38 rushing touchdowns in three seasons. It's important to note here that no team in the NFL ran more runs off read options than the Ravens did last season.

Dobbins can catch, as well. He was a dangerous receiver coming out of the backfield and he looked comfortable running routes when asked to line up out wide. Dobbins also allows the Ravens to ease some of the pressure on quarterback Lamar Jackson, the league's reigning MVP. Jackson had 176 rushing attempts in 2019 and opponents sacked him 23 times. To put that into perspective, he carried the ball more than New Orleans Saints star running back Alvin Kamara and he was was tackled nearly as often as Ingram (who finished the year with 202 rushing attempts). It's safe to say Jackson isn't going to become a pocket passer this fall. However, it wouldn't be a bad thing to let someone like Dobbins to ease the QB's burden and take more of the punishment. If Dobbins can do that -- and serve as insurance for Ingram down the stretch -- the Ravens are in a far better position to finish this season on a much higher note than last year's.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.

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