The NFL’s 10 Must-See Rookies This Season

  • Johnny Manziel

    QB, Browns

    In case you missed it over the summer, Cleveland is now the center of the sports world. When the Browns drafted Johnny Football and the Cavs brought LeBron James back home, the city acquired the two most closely scrutinized athletes on the planet — two men whose every move and every word on and off the field is replayed, analyzed, and picked apart like Nucky Thompson’s financials at the FBI office.

    Fifteen years after their reboot, the Browns are still looking for, if not a savior, at least a solid starting quarterback. Manziel can be the one. Or he could be another flop in a long line of them for the Browns. Either way, the world will be watching him every step of the way.

    1 of 10
  • Mike Evans

    WR, Buccaneers

    Having played college ball with Manziel at Texas A&M — where he was Johnny’s go-to target — Evans knows how to make himself available when his quarterback goes off-script. And in Tampa, it looks like the QBs will be doing a lot of improv. After losing four starters from its O-line (including Pro Bowlers Carl Nicks and Donald Penn) the Bucs might have problems protecting the passer, who will in turn be thankful for Evans’ 6-5 frame, his hops and his hands, and his skill at being a safety valve.

    2 of 10
  • Michael Sam

    DE, Cowboys

    It’s understandably surprising when a seventh-round draft pick makes his mark in the NFL. It shouldn’t, however, come as a surprise when that seventh-rounder is a SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year who under normal circumstances probably would’ve been a second- or third-round choice.

    The made-for-TV movie version of Michael Sam’s story would have him winning a starting job in his rookie year. But reality is that the St. Louis Rams — who drafted Sam but then cut him earlier this week — already had a really good defensive line without Sam, bookended by Chris Long and 2013 NFC sack leader Robert Quinn. Simply cracking the St. Louis rotation was always going to be a tougher task for Sam than cracking heads once he lined up on the field.

    The latest reports are that Sam will join the Cowboys’ practice squad, which means one of this year’s most talked-about rookies could soon take the field for the league’s most talked-about team.
    3 of 10
  • Bishop Sankey

    RB, Titans

    He’s right in the mix to replace departed Chris Johnson as Tennessee’s featured back, and whoever wins that job will have about as many opportunities to become a star like CJ2K. The Titans’ passing game isn’t exactly reminding fans of Air McNair or Warren Moon and the Run-N-Shoot, so running the ball will be high priority.

    4 of 10
  • Deone Bucannon

    SS, Cardinals

    Bucannon slides into an underrated secondary that is only underrated because Arizona plays in the same division as Seattle’s Legion of Boom, and because the Cardinals’ DBs don’t have a catchy nickname. Coming from a tradition of solid DBs to come out of Washington State, Bucannon can play the role of Kam Chancellor for the Desert Swarm defensive backfield (see, there’s your nickname, no charge) as the rough one who delivers big hits across the middle and takes advantage of teams who try throwing away from Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie.

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  • Jadeveon Clowney

    LB, Texans

    Also taking his spot alongside some talented teammates is Clowney, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft who will only make Houston’s J.J. Watt-led front seven better. There’s nothing a rookie linebacker likes hearing more than, “Rush the passer. Don’t worry about the rest,” and that is pretty much Clowney’s job description in Year 1. In the Texans’ 3-4 defense he’ll be playing LB for the first time instead of his natural defensive end position, but his transition should be eased by his rather simple objective: Get sacks.

    6 of 10
  • Kelvin Benjamin

    WR, Panthers

    The Panthers need a replacement for Steve Smith ASAP, and franchise QB Cam Newton reportedly took a liking to Benjamin early on. That makes sense. The 6-5, 240-pound receiver put his name on the map while playing with a Cam-like QB at Florida State named Jameis Winston.

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  • De’Anthony Thomas

    RB, Chiefs

    Are we looking at the next Dante Hall? The next Devin Hester? In his first preseason game, Thomas took a punt back 80 yards for a touchdown, showing the speed, shakes, and vision that made him a YouTube sensation at Oregon. Thomas is officially a running back and will get some looks in KC’s offensive sets, but he can (and likely will) make an immediate impact returning kicks for the Chiefs.

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  • Ha Ha Clinton-Dix

    S, Packers

    History will chalk up Green Bay’s disappointing 2013 to Aaron Rodgers’ broken collarbone, but another culprit was the team’s very bendable and breakable defense. (Note: The Packers did make the playoffs, but that alone isn’t good enough in Titletown.) One notable stat from last season is that Green Bay’s safeties didn’t collect any interceptions, a problem the team addressed by taking Alabama ball-hawk Clinton-Dix with its first-round draft pick. A willing and able hitter as well as a cover guy, Clinton-Dix is as much a threat to separate an opposing team from the ball as he is to separate a receiver from their cleats.

    9 of 10
  • Blake Bortles

    QB, Jaguars

    The blueprint has been drawn up and the pieces have been assembled for what Jacksonville hopes is an eventual return to the days when they were a legit contender. Or just not the worst team in the league. With their first three picks in this year’s draft, the Jags got their quarterback in Bortles (No. 3 overall pick), followed by USC playmaker Marqise Lee, and Penn State record-breaker Allen Robinson at wide receiver.

    Bortles won’t just be handed the starting QB job thanks to the presence of veteran Chad Henne. But he is undoubtedly the centerpiece of the Jaguars’ rebuilding effort, he’s already the face of the franchise, and he might even be popular enough with Jacksonville fans to make them forget about giving that Tebow guy a chance.

    10 of 10
  • Johnny Manziel
  • Michael Sam
  • Bishop Sankey
  • Jadeveon Clowney
  • Kelvin Benjamin
  • De’Anthony Thomas
  • Ha Ha Clinton-Dix

The long months of workouts, scouting combines, pre-draft hype, draft-week drama, contract negotiations, OTAs, training camp, cuts, and preseason games are all in the past.

Now it’s time for this year’s NFL rookies to show what they can do in football games that actually count.

But don’t think that what happens this season is a sure sign of what’s in store for the future. In this rookie class are future starting quarterbacks who will spend Year 1 of their NFL career standing on the sideline; future Pro Bowlers who will struggle adjusting to the pro game; future Super Bowl champions who won’t even sniff the playoffs. And on the flip side, it’s just as likely we will see a rookie or two who peaks in Year 1 — looking like a star this season before falling off and eventually out of the league.

Presented here are 10 rookies to keep an eye on in 2014. Some of them may be X-factors on teams with realistic Super Bowl aspirations; others may be in store for a lot of losing. One thing they all have in common is that their time for waiting is over.

Follow Amaar on Twitter at @UmmahSports