The NFL is full of surprises every season. There will inevitably be a surprise playoff team, and a team that was expected to be a contender will falter. There will be players who are expected to have Pro Bowl-caliber seasons who will see their level of play drop, and there will be guys who shine that have never played at a high level before.
With training camps approaching, the expectation is for every first-round draft pick to give major contributions. While some will shine, the surprise is always about the later round picks who give heavy contributions to their teams.
The question is what later round picks will shine this season? Here is a list of five candidates:
Matthews had 112 receptions and 1,477 yards his senior season at Vanderbilt. That is after his junior season where he had 94 receptions and 1,323 yards. He walked out on the field every week, every defense he faced knew he was the No. 1 receiver, and he found a way to make plays. The SEC is supposedly the best conference in college football; if that is the case his production should carry even more weight.
Matthews has a knack for finding ways to get open. He is not considered a burner, although he ran a quality 4.4 40 time at the NFL combine. In the Philadelphia Eagles’ system, he could have an immediate impact. With the departure of DeSean Jackson, and Jeremy Maclin coming off of injury, Matthews will have a chance to shine early.
Jernigan has all the talent of a first-round player, but at times his effort has not been the best. If he comes in and plays hard, the Baltimore Ravens could have found themselves a steal in the second round. When he wants to be, he can be as disruptive as any interior defensive lineman that was in the draft. He doesn’t have the technique of Aaron Donald, but he is bigger and may play better against the run.
Jernigan has motivating factors right in his locker room. The knock on Haloti Ngata when he came out of Oregon was he didn’t have a great motor. In the same locker room is Terrence Cody. Cody is a big body in the run game but has not been what the Ravens had hoped he could evolve into. It is up to Jernigan which player he would like to resemble.
3. Jace Amaro
Playing offense for the New York Jets is a blessing and curse. It’s a blessing because it is one of only 32 opportunities to play in the NFL. It is a curse because what goes for offense in New York is barely recognizable as such. The Jets hope Amaro can be a big body who dominates the seam area of the field. The question is can Mike Vick or Geno Smith get him the ball?
It took Amaro a few seasons to figure things out in college but once he did, he really did. Last season, he ended up with 106 receptions, 1,356 yards, and seven touchdowns. He became the focal point of the Texas Tech Red Raider offense. He won’t put up those type of numbers for the Jets, but if he can make plays on third down and in the red zone, the Jets will be happy they got him.
4. Derek Carr
Carr will probably have to wait until after the Oakland Raiders’ first bye week, but after that he will have his chance to shine. Teams are working quicker than ever to find out if their draft picks are the future of their franchise, especially with quarterbacks. The Raiders will want to see how Carr handles adversity and bounces back from the inevitable rookie struggles.
For Carr, it will be big to make plays in clutch moments. In Russell Wilson’s rookie season, he led five game-winning drives. Andy Dalton led four in his rookie campaign. Geno Smith struggled mightily last season, but he found a way to lead five game-winning drives. If Carr can be calm in the clutch he could become the Raiders’ quarterback of the future.
5. Tre Mason
For all the critics who talk about how Mason is not the ideal size, he ran up, down, and around college football. This is not some thin, Warrick Dunn-type running back. (Dunn had a quality NFL career by the way.) Mason is built like Ray Rice, and maybe faster than Rice.
Mason goes to a situation with the St. Louis Rams where they don’t have a dominant player at his position. (Zach Stacy averaged 3.9 yards per carry and didn’t hit the 1,000 yard mark.) Mason is going to get carries. It would be wise for head coach Jeff Fisher to employ the same tactics Auburn used last season with Mason. Every time there was a big play Auburn went into the hurry up. Mason seemed to thrive in the hurry up system they employed. He will not gain 1,800 yards as he did last season at Auburn, but he will certainly help the Rams fight for a playoff berth.
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