Watching the Dallas Cowboys return to prominence on the strength of their 2016 rookie class convinced coaches and scouts that a solid collection of first-year players can turn a team into a title contender in the blink of an eye.
That's exactly what happened in Dallas when quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott claimed the 2016 Offensive Rookie of the Year Award and the league rushing title, respectively, while helping the Cowboys win the NFC East and the No. 1 seed in the NFC with their spectacular play. While most of the football world expect Elliott (the fourth overall pick in the draft) to make an immediate impact on the offense, there weren't many coaches, scouts or observers who thought Prescott (pick No. 135) would thrive as the team's QB1 following Tony Romo's injury.
In fact, I'm not so sure the Cowboys were sold on Prescott as a QB1, based on the team settling on him only after whiffing on Paxton Lynch and Connor Cook earlier in the draft. With that in mind, I believe it takes a little luck and the right set of circumstances for a collection of rookies to take the league by storm.
After surveying the landscape, here are five teams who could see their rookie classes thrive this season.
Note: Click on team names to see 2017 draft classes.
The Bucs could end their playoff drought behind a rookie class that features a blue-chip talent at tight end (O.J. Howard) and a couple of underrated gems on both sides of the ball. Howard is the between-the-hashes playmaker the Bucs needed to counter the two-deep coverage opponents will use to slow down receivers Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson on the outside. The first-round pick should find plenty of room to operate over the middle of the field as a 50-plus catch target for Jameis Winston. Receiver Chris Godwin and running back Jeremy McNichols could also play key roles on an offense that looks like a juggernaut on paper.
Defensively, the addition of safety Justin Evans in the second round didn't get a lot of attention on draft day, but the 6-foot, 199-pound thumper is an instinctive playmaker with the anticipatory skills and awareness to thrive as a centerfielder in a zone-heavy scheme. Third-round pick Kendell Beckwith is an old-school Mike linebacker with the instincts and diagnostic skills to control the tackle-to-tackle box. He will have to wait his turn to crack the starting lineup, but expect him to contribute as a special teams player.
The 'Boys knocked it out of the park a season ago, with a 2016 rookie class making key contributions to their NFC East championship squad. If this year's rookie defenders make an immediate impact on a unit otherwise lacking in star power, America's Team will repeat as division champs. First-round pick Taco Charlton should give the pass rush a boost as an energetic edge defender with the length and athleticism to notch 10-plus sacks as a first-year starter. Chidobe Awuzie (Round 2) and Jourdan Lewis (Round 3) should contribute immediately as potential starters (CB2 and nickel, respectively) in a defensive backfield that desperately needs playmakers. On offense, keep an eye on WR Ryan Switzer. The electric slot receiver/returner was the MVP of the offseason. The fourth-round pick could be a wild-card playmaker as the Cowboys feature more spread formations to accentuate Prescott's skills as a quick-rhythm thrower.
When the Jaguars selected Leonard Fournette fourth overall, they essentially hitched their playoff wagon to a 6-foot-1, 240-pound workhorse with home-run potential and a violent running style. The rugged runner will anchor the team's ground game, while his mere presence will create big-play opportunities in the passing game, given that opponents will be forced to use more eight-man fronts with single coverage on the outside. To that point, the Jaguars will also need their new franchise tackle (second-rounder Cam Robinson) and big-play receiver (fourth-rounder Dede Westbrook) to make their presence known on an offense that has the potential to put up 30-plus points a game, provided quarterback Blake Bortles handles his business. On defense, linebacker Blair Brown (fifth round) could work his way into the rotation as a part-time starter, or he could emerge a special-teams demon covering punts and kickoffs as a rookie.
Credit Titans general manager Jon Robinson for quickly whipping the team into shape as a playoff contender through careful manipulation of the draft. After snagging a few core pieces in 2016 (tackle Jack Conklin, running back Derrick Henry and receiver Tajae Sharpe), the Titans added a few more playmakers, with first-rounder Corey Davis (WR1), third-rounder Taywan Taylor (WR3/WR4) and third-rounder Jonnu Smith (TE2) coming onboard. Davis and Smith, in particular, should be major contributors on an offense that is expected to open it up more with Marcus Mariota quickly developing into a high-level QB1. Defensively, first-rounder Adoree' Jackson gives the team a dynamic CB2 to pair opposite free-agent signee Logan Ryan. The ex-USC standout is a natural ballhawk with outstanding hands and instincts. He could also impact the game as a field-flipping punt returner with home-run speed.
After falling flat in 2017, the Panthers could re-emerge as title contenders behind a more diverse offense that's buoyed by the arrival of a pair of hybrid playmakers in the backfield. Christian McCaffrey (picked eighth overall) and Curtis Samuel (No. 40) will create headaches for opponents as RB/WRs with the potential to score from anywhere on the field -- from the backfield, in the slot or out wide. With the team tweaking the offense to feature more "catch-and-run" concepts designed to get the ball out of quarterback Cam Newton's hands quickly, the dynamic duo could be one of the most feared tandems by season's end. Guard Taylor Moton (Round 2) was underrated during the draft process, but he could play a vital role as a starter on the edge. On defense, expect end Daeshon Hall (Round 3) and cornerback Corn Elder (Round 5) to make contributions as situational players. Hall, in particular, could play a key role as a situational rusher on passing downs.