Johnny Manziel

Which NFL rookies are shooting up depth charts?

NFL preseason action is just beginning and the 2014 draft class is already generating buzz.

This year’s rookie class is one of the most exciting groups in years, featuring a bevy of headline talents. The following six players are working their way toward a coveted starting job for their respective teams.

Johnny Manziel, QB, Cleveland Browns
The Browns have been adamant about Brian Hoyer being the starting quarterback this season ever since they selected the former Heisman Trophy winner with the 22nd pick of this year’s draft. However, their attitude is slowly changing in regards to the dual-threat highlight reel QB from Texas A&M.

“That’s possible,” Browns head coach Mike Pettine told the Akron Beacon Journal on Wednesday when asked about Manziel’s potential to start the Browns’ second exhibition matchup. “That seems like about a month away to me.”

Pettine also told reporters it was a “possibility” Manziel would see some time with the first-team offense Saturday against the Detroit Lions. He was stern in declaring it was very unlikely the rookie would join the starters on the field in his first taste of professional football in another interview on Thursday.

Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has already made his own decision for whom he believes will be the Browns’ Week 1 starter when the two teams meet in Pittsburgh. Whether that implies LeBeau has doubts about Hoyer or has admiration for Manziel is unknown.

At the end of the day, it will come down to who the Browns believe gives them the best chance to win this season. And whether they like it or not, that man is Johnny Manziel.

He is the present and future with a much more promising skill set than Hoyer possesses. It’s not an accident Hoyer was a journeyman backup quarterback for four seasons before landing in Cleveland. A 3-0 start last season shouldn’t be enough to cloud reality.

Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Minnesota Vikings

The most NFL-ready quarterback in this year’s draft class, Teddy Bridgewater has been turning heads since day one in Vikings camp. And perhaps quicker than many expected, as the 32nd overall pick is already slated to see some time with the first-team offense in Minnesota’s preseason opener against the Oakland Raiders.

The Louisville product took a sudden tumble down draft boards in the final weeks before the draft. The Vikings were not swayed by others’ disdain for the polished rookie, however, and they may reap the benefits immediately.

Bridgewater could flourish in an offense headed by coordinator and quarterback guru Norv Turner. With potent targets like second-year wideout Cordarrelle Patterson and veteran Greg Jennings in tow, the 21-year-old’s transition to the NFL could be seamless. But first, he’ll have to beat out Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder to secure the starting gig.

C.J. Mosley, LB, Baltimore Ravens
A talented linebacker having success in Baltimore? That’s nothing new. But the predictions coming from top NFL analysts is a bit surprising, specifically because two great football minds have come to the same conclusion.

CBS Sports’ Pat Kirwan and ESPN’s Jamison Hensley both predicted Mosley could be a top contender for the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award.

He didn’t fail to back up the hype, and delivered a strong outing against the San Francisco 49ers in the Ravens’ preseason opener:

 

He eventually did get his first NFL sack, taking down backup quarterback and former No. 1 pick Blaine Gabbert. In doing so, he likely secured his spot as the team’s weak-side inside linebacker with Arthur Brown—the preseason favorite—falling far behind on the depth chart.

Andre Williams, RB, New York Giants

The injury to Peyton Hillis and the unfortunate retirement of David Wilson may make his climb a bit easier, but Williams’ big-time performance in the Giants’ preseason opener against the Buffalo Bills in the Hall of Fame Game should help the Heisman finalist garner more carries going forward.

Williams lit up the Bills for 48 yards and one touchdown in seven carries. He showcased an impressive combination of speed and power on a 21-yard run and sparked questions about how he slipped down into the fourth round.

Williams was expected to be used heavily on third down and in goal-line situations. However, another performance or two like the one he had in Canton, and he could see a lot of time in the backfield when the regular season gets underway. He’ll see an even bigger boost if he proves he can catch the football out of the backfield.

Seantrel Henderson, OT, Buffalo Bills
When Cordy Glenn returns from injury, he’ll be the starting left tackle in Buffalo. No one is going to question that.

But Seantrel Henderson, a highly touted NFL prospect who took a major tumble in the draft (all the way down to the seventh round) due to character concerns, has looked good in camp and performed even better in the Hall of Fame Game against the Giants.

Henderson received comparisons to the San Diego Chargers’ D.J. Fluker (a first-rounder in the 2013 NFL Draft) by CBS Sports’ Rob Rang. He received praise for the size and power he possesses, which enabled him to star in pass protection and as a run blocker at the University of Miami.

That talent has been showcased early on, and as long as he can stay focused, he could earn himself a comfortable place on the Bills’ roster with potential to be a permanent fixture in the starting lineup.

Devon Kennard, LB, New York Giants
USC linebacker Devon Kennard has been a head-turner since the first day he stepped foot on the field at the Quest Diagnostics Training Facility. The versatile athlete has lined up at a variety of positions already, but he has a great chance to be the Giants’ Week 1 starter in the Sam linebacker slot.

Another impressive fourth-round pick for the G-Men, Kennard had two tackles (one for a loss) in his debut. His rapid ascension up the ranks (albeit in part because of the injury due to Jon Beason) is even more remarkable because of head coach Tom Coughlin’s well-known reticence with rookie players.

Will Kennard continue to be a starter once Beason is able to return to the lineup? It’s hard to tell at this time. Ultimately, it depends on where the Giants choose to use Jameel McClain when Beason returns at middle linebacker.

He is best suited on the strong side with either Jacquian Williams or Spencer Paysinger likely to starter on the weak side.

The assumption would be that Kennard would be bumped out in favor of McClain as the starter. Stu Woo of the Wall Street Journal says that may not be 100 percent accurate, though:

“Kennard has played so well on the strong side that he could win a starting job over the veteran McClain, even if Beason reclaims his starting spot in the middle before Week 1.”

It would be very uncharacteristic of Coughlin to start a rookie over a veteran like McClain. But with the success Kennard has had in such a short amount of time, the former Trojan may be the Giants’ best opening-day option despite his lack of NFL experience.

Lou Musto

About Lou Musto

Lou Musto is a staff writer here at The Sports Daily. You can follow him on Twitter @LouisMusto.

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