Of the myriad surprises that pepper each NFL season, among the most pleasant are rookies who provide instant starter-level impact despite being drafted after Round 1.
Think of Colts linebacker Darius Leonard, picked in the second round in 2018, leading the NFL in tackles and capturing the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award. Or Saints running back Alvin Kamara, picked in the third round in 2017, racking up 1,554 yards from scrimmage to help power the second-most prolific offense in the league that year. Or, of course, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, drafted in the fourth round in 2016, grabbing the starting job and leading Dallas to the playoffs in Year 1.
Which rookies will make a similarly grand first impression in 2019? I talked to six different lead executives in player personnel from six different teams and asked them who they thought had the best chance to surprise among this year’s rookies. Below is my list of the top 10 rookie risers, based on factors including preseason buzz, plucked from the ranks of players drafted in Round 2 or later.
1) David Montgomery, RB, Chicago Bears
Draft position: Round 3, No. 73 overall, out of Iowa State.
Two years ago, when he was offensive coordinator for the Chiefs, Matt Nagy helped turn a third-round pick (Kareem Hunt) into the NFL’s rushing leader. Can the Bears head coach work the same magic with Montgomery this year? In Chicago’s preseason opener, Montgomery looked like the second coming of Matt Forte, contributing on the ground (three carries for 16 yards and a score) and through the air (three catches for 30 yards). Montgomery’s all-around skills make him a better fit for Nagy’s offense than Jordan Howard, who ran for a team-high 935 yards last season before being traded to Philadelphia. Montgomery will have every chance to become Chicago’s bell-cow back, with Tarik Cohen and Mike Davis serving as complementary weapons.
2) Erik McCoy, C, New Orleans Saints
Draft position: Round 2, No. 48 overall, out of Texas A&M.
After Max Unger’s retirement, the Saints were in need of a center, so they signed Nick Easton away from Minnesota — but that was before they had the opportunity to nab McCoy. New Orleans entered the draft scheduled to pick 62nd at the earliest, thanks to last year’s trade up for Marcus Davenport, so Sean Payton and Co. must have been delighted to still land McCoy, who I thought should have gone in the first round, even if they did have to move up a bit in Round 2 to get him. McCoy started the preseason opener against Minnesota, entrenching himself in the position. McCoy is going to play in this league for a long time and win a lot of honors. Easton, meanwhile, can be shifted into the valuable role of swing backup.
3) Juan Thornhill, S, Kansas City Chiefs
Draft position: Round 2, No. 63 overall, out of Virginia.
Time spent at cornerback and safety in college helped prepare Thornhill to make a quick impact in Kansas City, where his range and propensity for forcing turnovers in practice have made him a likely candidate to beat out incumbent Daniel Sorensen for a starting safety spot opposite Tyrann Mathieu. A former high school quarterback, Thornhill understands the game very well — you don’t pick off 13 passes, as Thornhill did at Virginia, by accident — and he’s going to make a lot of tackles. If Thornhill does win a starting gig, he’d be in position to accomplish something relatively rare under coordinator Steve Spagnuolo; only James Laurinaitis (in 2009, with the St. Louis Rams), Landon Collins (in 2015, with the Giants) and Dalvin Tomlinson (in 2017, with the Giants) have started 16 games as rookies on Spagnuolo-coached defenses.
4) Tony Pollard, RB, Dallas Cowboys
Draft position: Round 4, No. 128 overall, out of Memphis.
Pollard is one of the few people benefitting from Ezekiel Elliott‘s decision to stay away from the team while seeking a new contract extension, as Pollard is now receiving more practice reps. This should help him further adjust to the NFL after serving primarily as a backup for Darrell Henderson in college. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones offered strong praise for Pollard after his 4-carry, 16-yard preseason debut against the Niners, saying Pollard “looked confident out there” and is capable of “carrying the whole load.” It’s fair to guess that Jones might be posturing some, considering his impasse with Elliott, but regardless, Pollard is in line to become an immediate contributor. Even after Elliott returns, Pollard could help shoulder some of the burden that is annually placed on Elliott, who led the NFL in touches in 2018 with 381.
5) Jalen Hurd, WR, San Francisco 49ers
Draft position: Round 3, No. 67 overall, out of Baylor.
Hurd only transitioned from running back to receiver two years ago, when he transferred from Tennessee to Baylor, but so far, so good for this walking size-speed nightmare, who chipped in two scores against the Cowboys. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Hurd is a big, strong, talented receiver, and I think he’s going to catch 50-plus passes for the Niners this season. Hurd’s chances to take on a large role are especially strong in light of the foot injury suffered by slot receiver Trent Taylor.
6) Hunter Renfrow, WR, Oakland Raiders
Draft position: Round 5, No. 149 overall, out of Clemson.
Like Pollard, Renfrow benefited from the absence of a star topping the depth chart at his position, getting extra snaps while Antonio Brown stayed away from the team due to foot and helmet issues. Even now that Brown is back, however, Renfrow should see extensive time in the slot. He’s on the smaller side (5-10, 184 pounds) and isn’t real fast (4.59-second 40-yard dash), but he does have a history of producing for Clemson, especially in big games. And Oakland has been preparing him to play multiple receiver positions, giving him the flexibility to contribute even more in the years to come.
7) Greedy Williams, CB, Cleveland Browns
Draft position: Round 2, No. 46 overall, out of LSU.
The long list of LSU defensive backs making an impact in the NFL should continue with Williams. His preseason debut against Washington was marked by the kinds of up-and-down swings that are common for rookies at this point in the NFL calendar: Williams intercepted a pass and was part of a blown coverage that led to a Redskins touchdown. Before the draft, there were concerns about Williams’ willingness to tackle, but he’s been working hard to settle those concerns. He should also continue to improve his physicality as he adds to his 6-2, 185-pound frame. If Williams winds up winning a starting gig, we’ll see exactly what he’s made of, as he’ll definitely be tested playing opposite a cornerback the caliber of Denzel Ward.
8) Dalton Risner, OG, Denver Broncos
Draft position: Round 2, No. 41 overall, out of Kansas State.
There are two positives to Risner’s addition in Denver. First, he’s a plug-and-play starter at left guard who has drawn praise from his teammates and is already looking like a veteran. Second, he’ll allow the Broncos to switch Ron Leary to right guard, which is where he prefers to play. Risner should start and contribute in the NFL for a long time.
9) Miles Sanders, RB, Philadelphia Eagles
Draft position: Round 2, No. 53 overall, out of Penn State.
Sanders had a disappointing offseason after being sidelined by a hamstring injury. Now healthy, Sanders is poised to push Jordan Howard for the starting running back gig. Sanders managed just 3 yards on three carries in his preseason debut. But you can expect the competition to unfold throughout the preseason, as the Eagles rotate through and sort out the options in their very deep running back unit. The thing that I like so much about Sanders is that he’s fresh, having played behind Saquon Barkley for most of his time at Penn State, and he can catch the ball, which means he doesn’t have to come out in obvious passing situations. I think he’s going to impress this season.
10) Devin Singletary, RB, Buffalo Bills
Draft position: Round 3, No. 74 overall, out of Florida Atlantic.
The Bills did not have a running back need going into the draft, having signed Frank Gore and T.J. Yeldon to complement LeSean McCoy. But Buffalo couldn’t resist grabbing Singletary, based on how highly he was ranked on their draft board. And he’s already showcasing the skills that helped him rush for 4,287 yards and 66 touchdowns at Florida Atlantic, racking up 48 scrimmage yards on 12 touches against the Colts. If Singletary continues to show he belongs on the field, one has to wonder whether McCoy will be traded at some point in 2019 to pave the way for him. He’s the kind of player who will have a tendency to make something special happen whenever he’s on the field.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Jarrett Stidham, QB, New England Patriots
Draft position: Round 4, No. 133 overall, out of Auburn.
The Patriots have consistently found quality backups throughout Tom Brady‘s incredible run as their starting quarterback, hitting on players like Jimmy Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett and Matt Cassel. Though he is currently likely to stick as the third-stringer, mastering the offensive system behind current backup Brian Hoyer, Stidham looks like his name could be the next added to that list. If he’d been drafted by a QB-needy team, I think we’d see him on the field a lot sooner, and he could even become the person to take the reins from Brady, if and when he ever retires.
Amani Hooker, S, Tennessee Titans (Round 4, No. 116)
Justin Hollins, EDGE, Denver Broncos (Round 5, No. 156)
Miles Boykin, WR, Baltimore Ravens (Round 3, No. 93)
Ty Johnson, RB, Detroit Lions (Round 6, No. 186)
KeeSean Johnson, WR, Arizona Cardinals (Round 6, No. 174)
Taylor Rapp, S, Los Angeles Rams (Round 2, No. 61)
Cody Barton, LB, Seattle Seahawks (Round 3, No. 88)
Mack Wilson, LB, Cleveland Browns (Round 5, No. 155)
Jakobi Meyers, WR, New England Patriots (undrafted)
Terry McLaurin, WR, Washington Redskins (Round 3, No. 76).
Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.