The playoffs provide plenty of opportunities for first-year players to thrive on the biggest and brightest stage. Last year, we watched Malcolm Butler become a household name on the strength of a fantastic play in Super Bowl XLIX. With the postseason set to start this weekend, here's a look at rookies poised to make a big impact in the playoffs.
5. Quinten Rollins and Damarious Randall, Green Bay Packers, CBs: The Packers will need their young cornerbacks to play like veterans in the postseason to enjoy a sustained run in January. To defend some of the vertical passing games that thrive in the NFC, Rollins and Randall will need to bring their A games when they step onto the field as sub-defenders in the Packers' nickel and dime packages. Rollins has been solid as a ballhawking defender with sticky hands and superb instincts. He not only has a pair of interceptions and a splashy pick six to his credit, but he has also flashed some skills as a rusher crashing off the edge. Randall has been just as impressive on the other side of the field. The 5-foot-11, 196 pounder nabbed three interceptions during the regular season, including a 46-yard pick-six return in Week 15. With Rollins and Randall growing into roles as designated playmakers, the Packers' rookie tandem could spark a playoff run.
4. Devin Funchess, Carolina Panthers, WR: The lack of a true No. 1 WR is frequently cited as the Panthers' biggest weakness heading into the tournament, but the recent emergence of Funchess as a big-play specialist should alleviate that concern for Ron Rivera and Co. The 6-4, 225-pound pass-catcher finished the regular season with five 20-plus yard receptions on the way to averaging 15.3 yards per catch (31 receptions). Most importantly, Funchess snagged five touchdowns and flashed immense potential as a designated red-zone weapon. With points coveted at a premium in the playoffs, Funchess' ability to put the ball in the paint could make him the Panthers' most dangerous playmaker.
3. Eric Kendricks, Minnesota Vikings, LB: The Vikings' defense sparked a surprising run to the NFC North title, but the unit will need to take it up a notch for coach Mike Zimmer's squad to move beyond a "one-and-done" appearance. Kendricks will play a pivotal role as the designated playmaker in the middle of a "see-ball, get-ball" defense built on speed, athleticism and quickness. The rookie not only leads the team in tackles, but his unique combination of rush and cover skills allows Zimmer to use a variety of tactics to harass opposing offenses. Given the strong quarterback play and punishing running games that exist in the NFC, Kendricks' performance could determine whether the Vikings enjoy a long stay in the tournament.
2. Marcus Peters, Kansas City Chiefs, CB: It's uncommon for a rookie cornerback to emerge as the best player on a veteran-laden defense, but one could argue that Peters is the Chiefs' franchise defender based on his immediate impact on the perimeter. The ultra-aggressive cover man led the NFL in interceptions (8) despite facing a barrage of throws in his direction (Peters was the most-targeted defender in the NFL). Although he surrendered a few big plays, Peters showed impressive ball skills and savvy as a crafty technician on the island. Most importantly, he didn't flinch when opponents frequently aligned their No. 1 WR on his side and challenged him with an assortment of double moves designed to take advantage of his aggressive ways. If the Chiefs find a way to advance to Super Bowl 50 as a No. 5 seed, Peters will certainly lead the charge as the team's shutdown corner.
1. Tyler Lockett, Seattle Seahawks, WR/KR: Lockett's ability to score from anywhere on the field as a receiver-returner could make him the MVP of the 2015 postseason. The speedster accounted for eight total touchdowns (six TD receptions, one punt-return score and a kick-return touchdown) during the regular season, exhibiting exceptional balance, body control and burst with the ball in his hands. While his dangerous return skills make him one of the most feared performers in the playoffs, it's his potential to destroy No. 3 CBs on double moves that could make him a prolific scorer for the Seahawks in the tournament. With opponents increasingly focusing on Doug Baldwin as the Seahawks' most dangerous weapon in the passing game, Lockett could emerge as the perfect complement as the vertical playmaker on the back side. Given the Seahawks' gradual shift to a pass-first attack behind Russell Wilson, this rookie pass-catcher is primed for a big postseason.