Every general manager and head coach understands that it takes three seasons to fully evaluate a draft class, but that doesn't stop decision makers from counting on rookies to make immediate contributions. Teams will spend the entire offseason evaluating their first-year players in minicamps and organized team activities hoping to find a handful of guys with the potential to crack the rotation on opening day. Of course, those opinions are subject to change when the pads start popping in training camp.
Given some time to survey the landscape, I thought I'd identify the five rookie classes with the potential to make the biggest impact on their respective teams this fall.
5) Baltimore Ravens
John Harbaugh's squad is always in the title hunt, but the Ravens will need key contributions from a few rookies to overtake the Steelers and Bengals in the AFC North. The team desperately needs Breshad Perriman and Maxx Williams to add some pass-catching oomph to an offensive lineup that lost Torrey Smith and continues to wait for the return of Dennis Pitta (whose future remains uncertain, given his serious hip injury). Perriman definitely has the speed and explosiveness to thrive as a big-play specialist, but his suspect hands are a huge concern heading into the season. Williams has all of the tools to blossom into a Pro Bowl-caliber player, but typically, it takes time for tight ends to adapt to the pro game. With new coordinator Marc Trestman installing an offensive system that skews toward the passing game, the play of the Ravens' young pass catchers could decide their playoff fate.
4) New York Jets
The Jets' decision to take the "BPA" (best player available) regardless of position or need could pay huge dividends for the team this season. With Sheldon Richardsonsuddenly sidelined for four games due to a violation of the NFL Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse, Leonard Williams not only gives the team a suitable replacement in the lineup, but he could match Richardson's disruptive production despite his inexperience. And once all of the pieces are in place up front, Williams could establish himself as a big-time playmaker -- especially under new Jets coach Todd Bowles, whose creativity runs rampant. Devin Smith could become the Jets' most dangerous playmaker in the passing game with his speed and explosiveness. Not only does the Ohio State product supply Geno Smith with a home-run hitter on the outside, but he will open up the field for Gang Green's big-bodied pass catchers (Eric Decker and Brandon Marshall). In a division where points could be hard to come by, Smith's dynamic deep-ball skills could be the boost the Jets need to compete for the AFC East crown.
3) New York Giants
The Giants are poised to make a playoff push behind an explosive offense that features a dynamic big-play weapon entering Year 2 (Odell Beckham Jr.) and a crafty slot receiver returning from injury (Victor Cruz). Given the immense potential of the Giants' passing game, it is imperative for the team to get solid play from Ereck Flowers at left tackle. Although Flowers is better suited to play on the right side based on his skills and inexperience, an injury to Will Beatty pushed the massive rookie over to the blind side, and the Giants need him to play at a high level to keep Eli Manning upright in a division that features several imposing pass rushers off the edge. Defensively, the Giants are counting on Landon Collins to become a pivotal playmaker between the hashes as the designated "MOF" (middle of the field) enforcer. Mykkele Thompson could join Collins in the deep middle to shore up Big Blue's pass-coverage woes. Jason Pierre-Paul's iffy status could force Owamagbe Odighizuwa into the rotation as a situational player. Given Steve Spagnuolo's preference for a deep D-line group, Odighizuwa could be a key component to the Giants' defensive resurgence.
2) Minnesota Vikings
Mike Zimmer is quietly building a playoff-ready team with the core components needed to make a run down the stretch: franchise quarterback, strong running game and a stingy defense. Trae Waynes gives the unit a gritty defender with the length and athleticism to challenge receivers at the line. He has shown impressive versatility working on the outside and in the slot, making him a strong candidate to earn quality minutes as a nickel corner for the Vikings. Eric Kendricks is a compelling "Mike" linebacker with the athleticism, instincts and versatility to stay on the field as a three-down player. He could emerge as the centerpiece of a nasty Vikings defense that overwhelms NFC North opponents with its collective speed and athleticism. On offense, T.J. Clemmings and Tyrus Thompson are competing for playing time at right guard. The winner will solidify an offensive line that could pave the way for a 2,000-yard rusher (Adrian Peterson). Given the potential impact of their rookie class, the Vikings are poised to make a legitimate playoff run in Zimmer's second season in charge.
1) Atlanta Falcons
If the Falcons get back into contention this season, it will largely be due to their rookie class playing at a high level. Vic Beasley gives the Falcons the explosive pass rusher they've desperately needed since John Abraham's departure; he could post double-digit sacks as the "Leo" in Dan Quinn's scheme. Jalen Collins is the long, rangy corner the Falcons need to contend with the big-bodied receivers (Vincent Jackson, Mike Evans, Kelvin Benjamin and Marques Colston) who rule the NFC South. Tevin Coleman is pegged for a complementary role as a rookie, but new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's scheme could showcase his skills as a dynamic, one-cut runner, leading to a number of home-run plays for the Falcons. Justin Hardy is a crafty route runner with strong hands and ball skills. He could develop into a nice sidekick to Julio Jones and Roddy White as a part-time slot receiver.