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Top five breakout NFL rookies in 2018

Written by: Mike Lukas
Updated October 14, 2022
6 min read

Part of the fun of the NFL offseason is watching the experts predict how well recently drafted rookies will do in the upcoming season.

Fantasy football gurus tend to rank NFL rookies based on their likelihood to score lots of points, so running backs and wide receivers usually get their top nods. The NFL made a list projecting their top 100 rookies of the 2018 season and it stood out because it included a lot more positional diversity than most other lists did.

Except they only gave a one-sentence description of each player and they included a quarterback in their top group who probably won’t play much in 2018 (Cleveland Browns Baker Mayfield) and left out one that most certainly will (New York Jets Sam Darnold).

So here, listed from #1 thru #5, is our Top Five Breakout Rookies of the 2018 NFL Season with some interesting player details and impressive stats included.

And please keep in mind that, with the exception of the first rookie named, the entire list is completely arguable.

#1 New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley

Every single list of rookies who will affect their teams the most in 2018 has New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley at number one. Across the board, football experts consider Barkley one of those once-in-a-generation players whose college numbers and game film highlights suggest that he will have an immediate impact on the Giants.

Barkley’s speed – he ran a 4.4 second 40-yard-dash at the NFL combine – combined with his strength – he bench pressed 225 pounds 29 times (tied for most reps for running backs at the combine) – make him a runner, receiver and kick returner who’s been described as instinctive, elusive, decisive and physical. Barkely’s one of those rare game changers who’s a threat to score on every carry, like the hall-of-famer he’s often compared to, Barry Sanders.

Barkley’s a triple threat and has the numbers to prove it

The 6-foot, 233-pound running back was born in the Bronx but went to high school in Whitehall, PA, an environment his father Alibay and mother Tonya felt was safer and more suburban than New York City. And, it turns out, more conducive to playing football. As a high school senior, Barkley rushed for 1,856 yards and 31 TDs and was a four-star recruit. After originally committing to Rutgers, he changed his mind and chose to play in the Big Ten for Penn State.

Barkley, now 21, had an incredible college career. In his three years with the Nittany Lions, Barkley broke records (including most career rushing touchdowns, 43, and most total yards in a single game, 358) and earned awards, including the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year (twice), Running Back of the Year (twice) and Return Specialist of the Year (once). Those were all based on the impressive numbers he put up on three fronts:

  • Rushing – he ran 672 times for 3,843 yards and 43 TDs averaging 5.7 yards a touch.
  • Receiving – he caught 102 passes for 1,195 yards and 8 TDs.
  • Kickoff returns – he returned 19 kickoffs for 519 yards and 2 TDs.

Projected to be a top ten pick in the draft, Barkley went 2nd in the first round, selected by the New York Giants who already had a quarterback but needed help with their 26th ranked running game.

Barkley is great news for Manning and Beckham Jr.

Whether he’s in the backfield or in the slot, Barkley’s a threat to run or catch the ball on every play and that helps wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who returns healthy after sitting out most of 2017 with an ankle injury. Beckham Jr. has a better chance to return to his 2016 numbers (101 catches for 1,367 yards and 10 TDs) now that defenses will have to split their attention between he and Barkley which gives both more room to succeed.

That is if quarterback Eli Manning can take advantage of it.

There are those who accuse Manning, 37, of being past his better days, but with Barkley on the field, Beckham Jr. healthy, All Rookie tight end Evan Engram (64 catches for 722 yards and 6 TDs) and receiver Sterling Shepard (59 catches for 731 yards and 2 TDs) returning, he’s got enough tools to score a lot more points than last year’s 15.4 per game, second worst in the league.

So what’s the catch?

The only real downside to Barkley has nothing to do with him – it’s the risk involved in using a 2nd overall pick on a running back instead of a quarterback to back up (and eventually replace) the retiring-sooner-rather-than-later Manning. Running backs have notoriously short shelf lives, and true NFL superstars are as rare a breed as dabbing unicorns.

But the way Barkley plays, he can definitely help Manning and Beckham Jr. turn the 3-13 Giants back into a playoff threat in just one season. The 2018 NFC East will be one of the tougher NFL divisions, as usual, but a Barkley infused Giants could turn the Wildcard heat up on everyone.

#2 Indianapolis Colts guard Quenton Nelson

Drafting Notre Dame’s mean and nasty offensive guard Quenton Nelson in the first round was the first step in re-tooling the Indianapolis Colts’ dangerously porous O-line.

If the Colts want their franchise quarterback Andrew Luck to turn their 4-12 team around, they have to do a lot better job of keeping him safe in the pocket and creating bigger holes for second year running back Marlon Mack (93 rushes for 358 yards and 3 TDs his rookie season). The Colts offensive line allowed a league worst 56 sacks in 2017 while only moving the ball a total of 4,553 yards, second worst in the NFL.

It’s Nelson’s new job to help drastically change those offensive numbers.

Why a guard was drafted 6th overall

It’s not often an offensive lineman, especially a guard, gets drafted in the first round, let alone in the top ten. In fact, the Colts hadn’t done it since 1984. But truth be told, most experts thought Quenton Nelson was so valuable a player that they predicted he’d be selected in the top five (some even thought the Giants would take him 2nd).

Nelson, now 22, was always a big kid who played football with the older boys back where he grew up in Holmdel Township, New Jersey.  He played football for Red Bank Catholic High School (where he was already able to bench press 225-pounds 26 times) and by his senior year, he became ranked as a five-star prospect by Rivals.

Playing for Notre Dame, where his senior year offense averaged 317.9 rushing yards a game (sixth best nationally), Nelson developed a reputation as a powerful blocker with quick feet and hips and the ability to pull from left to right and pulverize whoever’s in his way. He plays like he takes the threat of every opponent personally and makes it his job to keep whoever he’s blocking completely and thoroughly out of the action right up until the whistle blows.

At the NFL combine, with hands measuring 10 3/8” and 33 ¾” arms, Nelson benched 225-pounds 35 times, good enough to tie for fourth best, and soon after Indianapolis selected the player they thought they could re-build their offensive line around.

The Colts have rebuilt their O-line around Nelson

In addition to selecting the 6-foot-5, 325-pound Nelson, Indianapolis also drafted Auburn guard Braden Smith in the second round and signed free agent right tackle, Austin Howard (BAL). The Colts expect their re-tooled, Nelson-led line to give a healthy Luck more time to make throws and create wider gaps for Mack to run through.

The biggest thing expected of Nelson is to keep opponents from damaging Luck and there’s film of him doing exactly that against Georgia. Left with nobody to block, Nelson somehow spots a blitzing defensive back out of the corner of his eye. Despite his gigantic size, Nelson’s agile enough to twist and scramble five yards towards the blitzer and lay down a devastating block, saving his quarterback Brandon Wimbush from a certain pummeling.

That’s exactly what Nelson’s being hired to do for Luck and Indy.

So what’s the catch?

The only beef with Nelson is that he tends to hold onto his blocks a little too long, which, in the NFL, might keep him from getting to the second level quick enough. But teaching him how to release his blocks sooner will be the job of Colts offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo, and with Nelson’s natural abilities and work ethic, learning such NFL basics shouldn’t be a problem.

Nelson and his new line will make a tremendous impact on the Colts’ floundering offense. With bigger holes being opened and safer pockets for a healthy Luck to throw from, the 2018 Indianapolis offense should see a huge jump in production, all benefits from drafting Nelson.

#3 Denver Broncos defensive end Bradley Chubb

Last season, Denver’s defense ranked 3rd in the league, and a big reason for that was second-team All Pro linebacker Von Miller, who most would argue is currently the best at his position. Problem is, opponents know this and double- and triple-team him every game, so the Broncos went into the 2018 draft looking for a pass rusher effective enough to prevent defenses from piling up on Miller.

Experts considered the top pass rusher in the draft to be North Carolina State linebacker Bradley Chubb, giving him a prospect grade of 7.32, which indicates a Pro-Bowl caliber player. In his final two years with the Wolfpack, Chubb recorded 48 tackles for loss and 20.5 sacks. As a senior, Chubb won the Bronko Nagurski Award given to the nation’s top defensive player.

He’s exactly the counter to Von Miller Broncos general manager John Elway was looking for.

Can’t wait around fo nobody I need it right now

Et opslag delt af Bradley Chubb (@astronaut) den

Chubb grew up in Georgia with athletic blood

Chubb was a hybrid linebacker-defensive end at Hillgrove High School in Powder Springs, GA where he was 40 pounds lighter but just as capable as he is now of shedding blockers and pursuing ball handlers with tenacity. As a senior, Chubb helped his HS team advance to the Georgia 6A quarterfinals.

The Chubb family is full of accomplished athletes:

  • Father Aaron was a star linebacker at the U. of Georgia.
  • Brother Brandon was a standout linebacker at Wake Forest who has played with the Rams,  Lions and 49ers.
  • Cousin Nick played for Georgia and is now a running back for the Cleveland Browns.

Bradley Chubb is physically impressive – he’s 6-foot-4, weighs 269 pounds, has 34” arms, runs a 4.65 40-yard-dash, bench pressed 225-pounds 24 times at the NFL combine and has the skill and strength to push blockers backward in the pocket. Chubb moves like a smaller man but with definite big-man power.

Chubb will give offenses something else to focus on

For those wonder what Chubb brings to the table, take a look at his NC State numbers over three seasons including the two games he played his freshman year:

  • 198 combined tackles
    • 100 of those solo efforts
    • 54.5 of those for a loss
  • 25 sacks
  • 6 forced fumbles

Besides the numbers, Chubb, who’ll be 22 this year, has a reputation for toughness. Watch the game film of his broken finger that got snapped sideways, and then watch a few plays later when Chubb sacks the quarterback using both hands like he’s immune to pain. The Broncos are counting on Chubb’s raw determination, size and already high-skill-level to immediately attract offensive attention away from Miller.

So what’s the catch?

There’s talk that Chubb needs to get a little better on counter moves, since in the NFL his opponents will be bringing blocking tricks and skills to the table that he didn’t have to deal with at the college level. He’s not the speediest of edge players, but the size and respectable speed he does have is enough to drop blockers and get to where he’s going, which is on top of whoever’s got the ball.

With Casey Keenum now on board, the Broncos finally have a quarterback they think they can count on and they want Keenum out on the field as much as possible. That’s more probable with a Chubb/Miller duo shutting down offenses and hunting down quarterbacks. With Chubb, the 5-11 last place Broncos may finally have a chance to climb back towards the top of the AFC West once again.

#4 Los Angeles Chargers free safety Derwin James

The 9-7 Los Angeles Chargers were just one win away from a Wildcard spot in the playoffs last season. With an offense ranked 3rd in the league and a defense ranked 15th, it wasn’t difficult for Chargers general manager Tom Telesco to figure out where to focus during the offseason.

Telesco drafted versatile Florida State safety Derwin James 17th in the first round to fill the hole left with free agent Tre Boston not returning. Telesco was pleased with the selection, having spotted James as a freshman back in 2015 when he was watching 13th ranked Florida State play 12th ranked Florida. Telesco had been keeping an eye on the hard tackling safety ever since.

With James’ huge-for-a-safety size (6-foot-3 and 215-pounds) and quickness (ran a 4.47-second 40-yard dash at the combine, tied for 7th-fastest among defensive backs) and strength (benches 405 lbs and squats 555 lbs, benched 225 lbs 21 times at the combine, tying for third most in his group), the Chargers are counting on James to help out on obvious passing plays when smaller guys are on the field.

Et opslag delt af DJ3 (@derwinjames) den

Pooh Bear a Florida State man since high school

When he was born, James was so hairy and fat his mother started calling him ‘Pooh Bear’ and as he got older and larger that nickname ironically stuck. He played football and got nearly a 4.0 GPA at Haines City High School in Haines City, Florida. By his senior season, James was rated as a five-star recruit by Rivals and considered the best safety and fifth best player overall in his recruiting class.

Having already received a scholarship offer from Florida State University after his freshman year in high school, James committed to them early on, even getting a tattoo of their logo on his deltoid muscle. In 2015, his first year at FSU, James  made 91 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 4 passes defended, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

In the second game of James’ sophomore year, Florida State had a 36-point lead over the Charleston Southern Buccaneers. Midway through the third quarter, as James moved towards his man he felt a sharp pain in his left knee as he made the tackle. Thanks to a torn meniscus, the star safety would miss the rest of the season after only playing those two games. After fully rehabbing his knee, he played in 12 games in 2017 as a redshirted sophomore, finishing with 84 tackles, 2 interceptions, 11 passes defended, and a sack.

And now the Chargers are banking on James bringing that same intensity to the NFL.

James is a playmaker who’ll play the field

Head coach Anthony Lynn has indicated James is a good fit for the Chargers defense since he can do multiple things, such as play linebacker or strong or free safety. And with his size they can rush him off the edge, his 5.5 sacks in just over two college seasons proof of that. James is a good tackler in space with 186 tackles at FSU, 110 of those solo, 15 of them for a loss. An outstanding coverage guy, James also had 3 interceptions in college, something needed by the Chargers who only had 11 total interceptions last season.

He has said he had no thoughts of going pro following his junior season, but with two years of college eligibility remaining, James now finds himself with a 4-year deal worth $12.39 million and a $7.1 million signing bonus. He says he’s as good as ever after the injury, which is believable coming from a man known for his ruggedness, a tackler with the ability to knock players back.

So what’s the catch?

As with any previously injured player, the fear is that James’ knee could become a future problem.  On top of that, he’s young, 22 in August, and according to Lynn and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley he’s still got a lot of work to do learning the system and getting caught up.

But James, with his strong motor, hard tackling skills and leadership qualities, the Pooh Bear turned alpha dog who talks and people listen, might be the one-game difference the Chargers need to see the playoffs. And being that difference would be his vengeful proof to the NFL that it was a huge mistake for sixteen other teams to pass on him in the draft.

#5 New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold

The Jets were 5-11 in 2017 and in last place in the AFC East. Their starting quarterback, Josh McCown, was an NFL journeyman with a losing career record (18-43) when he signed for one year and it showed – his Jets’ offense ranked 28th in the league and his 198.9 passing yards per game  ranked 24th.

General manager Mike Maccagnan traded with the Colts to move up to the third pick and drafted their future franchise quarterback Sam Darnold of the University of Southern California.  Most of the NFL was shocked that Darnold was still on the board and the Jets gratefully selected the consensus top quarterback in the draft.

Maccagnan has made it clear that the 6-foot-3 inch and 225-pound Darnold will compete with the re-signed McCown and signed free agent Teddy Bridgewater (MIN) for the starting job.

Darnold is notoriously boring

Darnold, now 21, was raised in Capistrano Beach, CA by dad Mike, a plumber, and Mom Chris, a teacher. Darnold was so low key as a kid that his parents refer to him affectionately as ‘Flatline’. As a quarterback, that same un-dramatic demeanor keeps him calm in the pocket and will allow him to stay centered and focused while making the difficult transition to the NFL.

A two-sport athlete at San Clemente High School, Darnold was so good at basketball, he was named South Coast League MVP twice and named to the all-CIF team. His basketball coaches would marvel at the way he’d make 70-foot passes down the court. Those same skills translated to football – his incredible vision on the field comes from driving up the court in basketball and keeps him from being robotic in the pocket. At first Darnold played linebacker and wide receiver and didn’t become the quarterback until the starter was injured. When he was the legitimate starting QB, Darnold broke the school record for most touchdowns in a game when he threw 5, twice.

Darnold missed much of his high school junior year with a foot injury, but during his senior season he threw for 3,086 yards and 39 TDs while running for 800 yards and 13 TDs. He was ranked as a four-star recruit by Rivals, ranked as the eighth best dual-threat quarterback in his recruiting class and the 179th best player overall.

He received multiple scholarship offers to big schools, but after Darnold impressed USC coaches Clay Helton and Steve Sarkisian at a football camp, they offered him a scholarship.

Can Sam do for the Jets what he did for USC?

Refusing to play linebacker as requested by defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, Darnold redshirted for his freshman year. Besides, as a quarterback he was behind Cody Kessler and Max Browne on the depth chart and wouldn’t have seen much playing time anyway. Darnold finally started in 2016 after Browne went 1-2 to begin the season.

Completing 246 passes for 3,086 yards and 31 TDs with only 9 interceptions for a passer rating of 161.1, Darnold also rushed for 250 yards and 2 TDs while making 3 solo tackles somewhere along the way. His Trojan team was invited to and won the 2017 Rose Bowl 52-49 over Penn State, Darnold setting Rose Bowl records in passing touchdowns (5) and total yards (453). Darnold won the Archie Griffin Award, given to college’s most valuable player to his team throughout the season, the first freshman to ever win the award.

His sophomore year, 2017, Darnold completed 303 passes for 4,143 yards and 26 TDs and 13 interceptions for a passer rating of 148.1. He ran for 82 yards and 5 TDs while making 2 solo tackles along the way. After USC beat Stanford 31-28 for the Conference Championship (Darnold was the game’s MVP), they were invited to the Cotton Bowl where they lost to the Ohio State Buckeyes 7-24.

The fact that Darnold, with a prospect grade of 7.00 (indicating a Pro-Bowl caliber player), was still available for the Jets worked out perfectly for a team desperately in need of a franchise quarterback. A role that probably won’t be filled by his competition for the starting role: McCown, who only completed 267 passes for 2,926 yards for 18 TDs and 9 interceptions last season or Bridgewater, who didn’t even play in 2017 due to injury and put up unimpressive numbers before that.

Jets fans tired of two 5-12 seasons in a row are hoping Darnold adjusts to the league sooner rather than later. He’s got a huge, accurate arm and he’s unfazed in the face of competition, especially against two quarterbacks who’ve been average at best. Add in a relatively easy 2018 schedule (tied for 25th in difficulty) and the conditions for ‘sooner’ appear to be there.

So what’s the catch?

The 13 interceptions and the nine fumbles Darnold had during his second and final season in college concern some people, some saying the interceptions come from him having a little hitch in his throwing motion and the fumbles are because of his smaller 9 3/8” hands. But experts chalked it up to Darnold having to deal with all new receivers, numerous injuries and some coaching decisions that were questionable.

Though Darnold still has a lot of developing to do – he has a habit of throwing off his back foot and takes some chances that you can’t in the NFL – it’s nothing defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers can’t fix. It’s uncommon for a rookie quarterback to put up veteran numbers and turn their team around, but with Darnold’s uncanny ability to diagnose complex defenses and situations quickly and to make perfect throws in small windows, he might be one of those rare exceptions to the rules.

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Mike Lukas

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Mike Lukas is a retired standup comedian turned freelance writer now living in Dallas, Texas, originally from Cleveland, Ohio. His love for the game of football and all things Cleveland Browns turned Mike into a pro blogger years ago. Now Mike enjoys writing about all thirty-two NFL teams, hoping to help football gamblers gain a slight edge in their pursuit of the perfect wager. Email: [email protected]

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