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Tuesday, September 17, 2019

10 NFL rookie sleepers who could surprise in 2019

Hunter Renfrow

The 2019 NFL Draft has come and gone, and the early-round picks have understandably dominated the news cycle. After all, it’s players like Kyler Murray, Nick Bosa and Quinnen Williams who appear to excite the masses. However, championships are often won in the later rounds, where great value can be found. The majority of league rosters are made up of Day 3 picks and undrafted free agents.

Who are some of these late-round picks who could become big players in 2019? Here’s a look at some potential standouts.

10. Hakeem Butler, WR, Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals snagged three different receivers in the draft, including Hakeem Butler in the fourth round. Of those three receivers, Butler has the most to gain by joining Kliff Kingsbury’s offense. At 6-foot-6 and 225 pounds, Butler comes in and immediately creates matchup nightmares for opposing defenses on the outside. So long as he’s able to polish off his route running and finds more consistency with his hands, he’ll give the Cardinals a legitimate game-breaking downfield threat. Rookie quarterback Kyler Murray has to be pleased.

9. Dexter Williams, RB, Green Bay Packers

Dexter Williams isn’t projected to start or take over as the starter in 2019, but that’s not to say it won’t happen. Either way, Williams will see the field this coming season, and when he does, his remarkable athleticism will immediately come into play. Not only is Williams very strong for his size (5-foot-11, 212 pounds), but his 4.16-second shuttle at the NFL Combine proves there’s a lot more than meets the eye with this sixth-round pick. Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams may be roster locks, but Williams is looming and will likely close the gap significantly come training camp.

8. Darwin Thompson, RB, Kansas City Chiefs

Darwin Thompson thinks he can become the next Barry Sanders, and while that’s a bit of a stretch, there’s no denying he landed in an ideal situation. The Kansas City Chiefs sport a fast-paced and explosive offense, which is right up Thompson’s alley. And while he’s a bit undersized (5-foot-8, 198 pounds), Thompson does possess a unique blend of both size and power, leading some to believe he could become a legitimate three-down back in the NFL.

7. Amani Hooker, S, Tennessee Titans

With Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro locked in as the starting safety duo, it doesn’t appear as if the Titans have much space for Amani Hooker to make an impact as a rookie. However, the fourth rounder gives Mike Vrabel’s defense an added element of versatility and may even change the way they scheme. Tennessee could very well employ a three-safety look in 2019, leaving Vaccaro to cover the slot, Byard to fall back deep, and Hooker to cover all intermediate routes and crash the line against the run. He won’t out-snap Byard or Vaccaro, but you better believe the Titans will find a significant role for Hooker.

6. Riley Ridley, WR, Chicago Bears

Riley Ridley, brother of Atlanta Falcons wideout Calvin Ridley, unexpectedly slid until late in the fourth round, allowing the Bears to swoop in and snag what may eventually be considered one of the draft’s biggest steals. Looking for a dump-off option for young quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, the Bears found an answer in Ridley, who can create separation underneath and has enough speed (4.58 at the NFL Combine, but has posted lower numbers previously) to make something happen after the catch. The more acclimated Ridley becomes to the NFL game, the more dangerous he’s going to become. He’ll make an impact from the start, but expect an even stronger second half in 2019.

5. Hunter Renfrow, WR, Oakland Raiders

Many expected Hunter Renfrow to end up with the Patriots, but the Raiders and Jon Gruden had other ideas. In need of a tough-minded inside threat for quarterback Derek Carr, Oakland traded up in Round 5 to snag the two-time national champion and experienced receiver. And while Renfrow isn’t going to blaze by defenders at the NFL level, he has enough speed to pair with his solid route running and excellent hands to make an impact out of the gate. Don’t be surprised to see Renfrow starting in the slot from the jump.

4. Mack Wilson, LB, Cleveland Browns

Once upon a time, Mack Wilson was considered among the best linebacker prospects in the 2019 NFL Draft, but legitimate questions about his coverage ability led to a slide in April. He eventually landed with the Browns in Round 5, adding even more talent to a suddenly star-studded roster. And while Wilson won’t start out of the gate, defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, who has a history of success with linebackers, will begin to groom him to take over for Joe Schobert. Until that time, Washington will lean on him as a sure-tackling run-stopper who can occasionally rush the passer.

3. Julian Love, CB, New York Giants

The Giants and general manager Dave Gettleman traded back into Round 1 to select cornerback Deandre Butler, but landing Notre Dame’s Julian Love in Round 4 may bring a greater overall value. A versatile defensive back, Love not only gives the Giants added depth at cornerback, but he also played a little free safety in minicamp. With lacking depth at both positions, Loves provides James Bettcher with some added options — he’s a player who could develop at safety or one that comes in and starts right away at the nickle position alongside Janoris Jenkins and the aforementioned Baker.

2. Kelvin Harmon, WR, Washington Redskins

After posting an underwhelming 4.60 40-yard dash and an equally unimpressive broad jump, the Liberia-born Kelvin Harmon fell like a rock in the 2019 NFL Draft, ultimately landing with the Redskins in the sixth round. However, at 6-foot-2 and 221 pounds, Harmon has the size necessary to compete at the NFL level and has already proven capable of coming up with the big play in big moments. He’s not flashy, but he’ll have an opportunity to grow and redeem himself from a forgettable NFL Combine performance alongside fellow rookie Dwayne Haskins.

1. Deionte Thompson, S, Arizona Cardinals

If not for a degenerative knee condition, there’s no way Deionte Thompson would have slipped to Day 3, but that’s water under the bridge now. And while Thompson’s knee issues should be a cause for concern, the upside is that he’s a Day 1 starter at free safety and a potential difference-maker in Arizona’s secondary. Thompson has all the tools necessary to succeed at the NFL level — size, speed, smarts, instincts — and could prove to be the draft’s biggest steal. Some experts had Thompson as high as their No. 3 overall safety, and for good reason, so expect him to make quite a bit of noise early on for the Cardinals.

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