Coaches and scouts attempt to downplay the expected potential of rookies during OTAs and minicamps, but even astute evaluators have high hopes for their team's top picks when the regular season rolls around. With mandatory minicamps providing most teams with their final look at first-year players until training camps begin in July, now is a great time to examine how 10 of the top rookies could perform in Year 1.
Joey Bosa, DE, San Diego Chargers
No. 3 overall pick, Round 1, Ohio State
Best-case scenario: The Chargers' pass rush gets a major boost from the rookie playmaker. Bosa's dynamic rush skills and exceptional versatility allow defensive coordinator John Pagano to use him in various spots on passing downs. From an inside spot on a base front to an edge position in sub-packages, Bosa makes an immediate impact as the team's designated "hunter" in critical situations.
Worst-case scenario: Despite Bosa's impressive collegiate résumé as a pass rusher, he gets off to a slow start due to the arduous transition to the pro game. The counter moves and techniques that made him a dominant rusher in the Big Ten are nullified by veteran blockers adept at eliminating a player's go-to maneuver. With Bosa experiencing a severe learning curve as a first-year starter, the ex-Ohio State standout fails to make the immediate impact expected from a top-five pick.
My projection: 45 total tackles, six sacks, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
Jalen Ramsey, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 5 overall pick, Round 1, Florida State
Best-case scenario: The Jaguars' new CB1 immediately emerges as a premier cover corner in the team's hybrid bump-and-run coverage scheme. Ramsey's world-class athleticism and feisty temperament makes him a nightmare for receivers to face on the perimeter. With Gus Bradley encouraging his young star to bully and badger receivers on the island, the Jaguars' defense dramatically improves behind a young, athletic nucleus of playmakers.
Worst-case scenario: Ramsey's knee injury lingers into the regular season and prevents him from thriving as the Jaguars' CB1. After missing valuable reps during OTAs and minicamps, Ramsey fails to master the proper footwork and shadow technique needed to blanket shifty receivers on the edges, which leads to inconsistent play from the rookie corner.
My projection: 55 total tackles, two INTs and 21 passes defensed.
DeForest Buckner, DE, San Francisco 49ers
No. 7 overall pick, Round 1, Oregon
Best-case scenario: Buckner joins his former collegiate teammate (Arik Armstead) to form a young, athletic defensive line that wreaks havoc on the interior. The rookie, in particular, gives Chip Kelly a long, rangy pass rusher on the inside to harass quarterbacks from multiple angles. Most important, Buckner becomes the centerpiece of a defense that slowly begins to grow into a championship-caliber unit.
Worst-case scenario: Buckner continues to struggle with his pad level and leverage at the point of attack. His inability to anchor or hold his ground makes him a liability against the run and limits his impact as a pass rusher. Without another legitimate threat on the defensive line to command a double team, Buckner fails to see enough one-on-one matchups to create impact plays at the line.
My projection: 45 total tackles, four sacks, seven tackles for loss, two forced fumbles.
Leonard Floyd, OLB, Chicago Bears
No. 9 overall pick, Round 1, Georgia
Best-case scenario: Floyd gives John Fox the electric pass rusher that he typically builds a championship defense around. Although the Georgia standout has size and strength to go with power, he overwhelms opponents with his first-step quickness and acceleration off the edge. Considering the number of pass-happy teams within the division, Floyd's ability to get after the passer could be a game changer for the Bears.
Worst-case scenario: Despite Floyd's versatility and explosiveness, he struggles to make an immediate impact off the edges as the Bears' designated pass rusher. He not only lacks the strength and power to win against elite offensive tackles, but also fails to display the hand skills to counter physical tactics with arm overs, swipe maneuvers and rip moves off the edge. Considering Floyd's limited production as a pass rusher in college, the Bears rookie leaves some thinking he might be a better athlete than playmaker off the edge.
My projection: 55 total tackles, four sacks, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
Eli Apple, CB, New York Giants
No. 10 overall pick, Round 1, Ohio State
Best-case scenario: Apple thrives as the Giants' CB3 behind a ferocious pass rush that allows him to aggressively jump routes in his area. The instinctive defender excels at pattern reading (route recognition) and displays the technique versatility to shadow or press receivers on perimeter. Against a talented stable of receivers in the NFC East, Apple's length, diverse skill set and IQ help the Giants' defense carry the team to a division title.
Worst-case scenario: Skeptics loudly questioned Apple's selection as a top-10 pick based on his inconsistent play throughout his career at Ohio State. Those struggles come to light as he experiences a rough transition to the NFL as the Giants' nickel corner. Apple is unable to match up with the speedy WR3s in the division, and also has a number of mental lapses in a complex defense that features several checks and adjustments.
My projection: 45 total tackles, two INTs and 10 passes defensed.
Vernon Hargreaves, CB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 11 overall pick, Round 1, Florida
Best-case scenario: Despite lacking the ideal physical dimensions to match up with the big-bodied receivers that dominate the NFC South, Hargreaves flashes the talent to occupy the Buccaneers' CB1 role as a rookie. He not only displays the competitiveness and skills to go toe-to-toe with elite receivers, but he shows a high football IQ that helps him aggressively jump routes in his area. Hargreaves' knack for delivering splash plays makes the Buccaneers a legitimate playoff contender this season.
Worst-case scenario: Hargreaves' size becomes an issue in a division that features a couple of big-bodied receivers (Julio Jones and Kelvin Benjamin) on the perimeter. The 5-foot-10, 204-pounder will certainly battle and compete on the edges, but he fails to win 50-50 balls and gives up a number of big plays despite being in ideal position.
My projection: 60 total tackles, four INTs and 15 passes defensed.
Sheldon Rankins, DT, New Orleans Saints
No. 12 overall pick, Round 1, Louisville
Best-case scenario: The Saints enter the season counting on their rookie defensive tackle to make an immediate impact as a disruptive presence on the interior. Rankins delivers in splendid fashion as an up-the-field penetrator in Dennis Allen's aggressive scheme. He wreaks havoc on running plays with his quickness and agility, but also overwhelms blockers with his exceptional hand skills. Given plenty of opportunities to play one- on-one on the inside of a movement-based defense, Rankins quickly emerges as a Pro Bowl-caliber player as a rookie.
Worst-case scenario: The Saints' defense continues to perform at a historically low level under Allen's direction. The inability to stop the run limits Rankins' pass-rush opportunities and makes him a non-factor on a defense that fails to generate enough stops in critical moments.
My projection: 65 total tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
Karl Joseph, S, Oakland Raiders
No. 14 overall pick, Round 1, West Virginia
Best-case scenario: Despite coming back from an ACL injury that prematurely cut short his final season at West Virginia, Joseph hits the ground running for the Raiders as the designated playmaker in the middle of the field. The instinctive ballhawk thrives behind a formidable frontline that forces the ball to come out quickly and off target, resulting in a number of interceptions on tips and overthrows. With Joseph also packing a punch as a "bang-bang" hitter, the Raiders' rookie discourages opponents from throwing the ball down the middle of the field.
Worst-case scenario: The rookie safety struggles regaining his pre-injury form and fails to display the movement skills or agility that made him a playmaker at West Virginia. Although he gradually finds his way as a rookie, the limited mobility prevents Joseph from making an impact as an "MOF" (middle of the field) playmaker on a rebuilt defense that's capable of fueling a playoff push.
My projection: 75 total tackles, three INTs and 11 passes defensed.
Keanu Neal, S, Atlanta Falcons
No. 17 overall pick, Round 1, Florida
Best-case scenario: Dan Quinn handpicked Neal to give the Falcons a Kam Chancellor-like presence on the second level. The Florida standout thrives in the role as the designated hitter/box defender in the team's hybrid Cover 3 scheme. Neal immediately becomes one of the Falcons' top tacklers and anchors a defense that dramatically improves against the pass, particularly down the middle.
Worst-case scenario: Neal's limitations in pass coverage makes the Falcons' defense vulnerable against spread formations. Teams target the rookie in key situations and use slot receivers or tight ends to attack the middle of the field in the passing game. With Neal struggling to adjust to playing in space, the Falcons' pass defense becomes vulnerable between the hashes.
My projection: 100 total tackles, one INT and 10 passes defensed.
Darron Lee, LB, New York Jets
No. 20 overall pick, Round 1, Ohio State
Best-case scenario: Todd Bowles taps into Lee's athleticism and versatility to feature the rookie as the hybrid linebacker in the middle of the Jets' defense. He blankets running backs and tight ends on the perimeter while also adding some punch to the pass rush as a blitzer off the edge. In a division with multiple premier tight ends (Rob Gronkowski, Martellus Bennett, Jordan Cameron and Charles Clay) and a pair of dynamic running backs (LeSean McCoy and Dion Lewis), Lee's unique talents make him an immediate star in New York.
Worst-case scenario: Lee's athleticism is certainly enticing, but his inability to take on blockers at the point of attack makes him a liability against the run. He routinely gets blown out of holes, and opponents persistently pound the ball between the tackles to attack the Jets' most vulnerable area.
My projection: 95 total tackles, three sacks, two INTs and 10 passes defensed.