NEW YORK (AP) – Baker Mayfield, Saquon Barkley and Sam Darnold. The top three picks in the most recent NFL Draft are all expected to make a major impact in 2018, assuming of course Mayfield (Cleveland Browns) and Darnold (New York Jets) earn the starting jobs.
But often it’s the unheralded rookies that can make a real difference. Recent examples are Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys (fourth-rounder in 2016) and Alvin Kamara of the New Orleans Saints (third-rounder in 2017). Both paid major dividends and won Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Here are a few under-the-radar rookies to look for in the 2018 season:
DUKE DAWSON, NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
New England grabbed the Florida cornerback late in the second round to possibly fill the spot left by Malcolm Butler, who inexplicably missed virtually the entire Super Bowl loss to the Eagles as Nick Foles had 373 yards passing and threw for three touchdowns (and caught a memorable one) on his way to being the MVP.
Butler signed with the Titans in the offseason, and Dawson could see significant playing time — if he can grasp Bill Belichick’s defense.
Dawson led the Gators with four interceptions last season. Would it surprise anyone if he made a key interception in a big game for New England?
MASON RUDOLPH, PITTSBURGH STEELERS
Pittsburgh traded up to select Rudolph with the 76th overall pick, the highest the organization has taken a quarterback since making Ben Roethlisberger the 11th overall selection in 2004.
In a radio appearance shortly after the draft, Roethlisberger expressed surprise, asking why Pittsburgh used a third-round pick on a quarterback when there were players at other positions who could make a more immediate impact.
Rudolph’s main competition to win the backup job to the 36-year-old Roethlisberger is Oklahoma’s Landry Jones.
“We valued (Rudolph) as much as the rest of the quarterbacks that were drafted (in the first round),” Steelers GM Kevin Colbert said after the selection.
MAURICE HURST, OAKLAND RAIDERS
New Oakland defensive coordinator Paul Guenther will make use of the fifth-rounder from Michigan, who was taken to help bolster what has been a struggling pass rush.
Hurst had 5½ sacks as an interior rusher. He slipped to the fifth round because of concern over a heart condition that got him sent home from the NFL combine.
Hurst said it was something he has dealt with for a long time and hadn’t impacted him on the field. He said he has been cleared by doctors at Harvard and Michigan, but that didn’t prevent every team passing on a player projected as a first-round talent until the Raiders got him at 140th overall.
If his health issues subside, Hurst can team with star Khalil Mack to help fix a defense that has been a sore spot.
HAROLD LANDRY, TENNESSEE TITANS
The Titans had only four draft picks and took the Boston College linebacker in the second round.
New head coach Mike Vrabel, a big-play linebacker in New England, and new coordinator Dean Pees are looking to get younger in the heart of the defense; veterans Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan are heading into the final year of their contracts. Landry ranked second in school history with 26 sacks and second with 47½ tackles for loss.
Landry was rated as a potential first-rounder before being shut down with an ankle injury during his last year in college.
“We felt like we got a first-round-caliber player that for whatever reason slipped into the second round,” general manager Jon Robinson said during the draft.
ROYCE FREEMAN, DENVER BRONCOS
After a 5-11 season and a last-place finish in the AFC West, the Broncos retooled and added Freeman in the third round from Oregon. He could make an immediate impact in a backfield that lacks a runner who has ever had a 100-yard game in the NFL.
General manager John Elway said in April he’s a “big banger that we haven’t had for a while.”
Freeman played all four seasons with the Ducks and had a Pac-12-record 60 touchdowns as part of a big workload with 947 carries.
“It is not often you get backs playing as many games or taking as many carries,” Freeman said during OTAs. “I feel like the fact that I was able to do so proves I am a durable running back.”
DANTE PETTIS, SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
With quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo signed to a long-term deal, the 49ers needed to upgrade the offense and took the wide receiver in the second round.
Pettis caught 63 passes for 761 yards and seven TDs last season for Washington. He has experience playing outside and in the slot and provides another deep threat in coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense for Garoppolo.
Pettis set an NCAA record with nine punt returns for touchdowns, averaging 14.2 yards on 90 returns at Washington.
He is the son of former major league baseball player Gary Pettis and the cousin of former NFL receiver Austin Pettis. Gary Pettis is the third base coach for the World Series champion Houston Astros.
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