NFL Rookies to Watch on Thursday Night

By John Shirley

Football season officially kicked off last Thursday with the Hall of Fame Game, but tomorrow night is the first night with multiple games to watch and analyze.

And nothing is more fun to analyze in the Preseason than all the new rookies. Some of these rookies are expected to take the league by storm right out of the gate, some will be trying to quiet critics that have already deemed them a bust, some will be trying to make a solid impact on their new team, and others will just be trying to prove they belong in the NFL.

Here are 8 rookies to watch for tomorrow that range in draft status and expectations, along with stats and an excerpt from their scouting reports in the Sports Info Solutions (SIS) Football Rookie Handbook (click the link to purchase):

Trying to live up to expectations:

Arizona Cardinals QB Kyler Murray – The Cardinals offense will be interesting to watch all season, and this will be the first look at their new franchise QB. In his lone season as a starter at Oklahoma, Murray could not have been better. Among QBs in the Handbook, he ranked first in Yards / Attempts (11.6), On-Tgt% (79%), Independent QB Rating (143.2), Expected Points Added (EPA)/ Dropback (.47), and Rushing EPA (61.4). He also compares well to last season’s No. 1 overall pick, Baker Mayfield.

Detroit Lions TE T.J. Hockenson –  During the lead up to the Draft there was debate about whether Hockenson or fellow Iowa TE Noah Fant was the top player at the position. The Lions ended up making Hockenson the highest drafted TE since Vernon Davis (6th pick in 2006). If last season is any indication, Hockenson should have no trouble living up to those lofty expectations. He led all Handbook tight ends in Receiving EPA (47.4) and ranked 5th in both Target Share% (17%) and Yards per Route Run (2.3 yards). And he did all of this while sharing the field with another first round talent at TE.

Trying to quiet the critics:

New York Giants QB Daniel Jones – This will be the first in-game look at the Giants top pick and heir apparent to Eli Manning. The Giants have taken criticism for what some saw as reaching for Jones with the sixth pick, but he can quiet the critics with a strong preseason. That said, he will need to show an understanding of the offense and improve upon his 75% On-Target Throw Percentage (On-Tgt%) as a junior, which ranked ranked 8th out of 13 qualified Rookie Handbook QBs (Murray was best at 79%).

Denver Broncos QB Drew Lock – Lock is another QB that was drafted as an heir apparent, though he has faced less criticism as a second round pick. Similar to Jones, Lock will need to improve his accuracy moving forward as he had an even worse On-Tgt% of 73% his senior season. One of the bright spots for Lock in college was his deep passing ability. He thrived on these throws and had an IQR of 135.4 on deep throws last season (IQR is scaled the same as QB Rating, but doesn’t penalize a QB for dropped passes or reward him for dropped potential interceptions)

Trying to make an impact:

Buffalo Bills RB Devin Singletary – Singletary will be trying to stand out in a crowded Bills backfield that includes veterans LeSean McCoy, Frank Gore, and T.J. Yeldon. To do that he will need to show the same ability to break tackles and excel on off-tackle runs that he showed in college. Last season he broke tackles at a rate of 41 per 100 touches, which led all Handbook running backs. Over the last three seasons he averaged 7.2 yards per carry on off-tackle runs.

Green Bay Packers LB Rashan Gary – The Packers spent big on free agent pass rushing help this off-season and then also drafted Gary with the 12th overall pick. During training camp, Gary has impressed with the physical traits that made him such a high pick, as he tries to become a big part of the Packers edge rotation. When he does get on the field he should make an impact in the passing game (13% Pressure Percentage last season) and in the running game (opponents averaged only -0.38 EPA per rush attempt when running towards him). Another interesting aspect to watch in the preseason is how Gary performs when asked to stand up as an OLB. Last season at Michigan, he had his hand on the ground 99% of the time and rarely dropped into coverage. 

Trying to make a name for himself:

New England Patriots QB Jarrett Stidham – Unlike Jones and Lock who were higher picks, Stidham will need to audition for the role of heir apparent. Stidham is also coming from a college offense that is very different than what he will be running in the NFL. These points mean that the preseason will be vitally important for him to showcase his ability. Although his completion percentage declined by six percentage points from his junior to senior seasons, his Catchable Throw% actually increased from 80% to 81% and he had a higher On-Tgt% (77%) than Jones or Lock. He also showed an ability to read zone coverage in college by posting an IQR of 124.1 versus zone last season.

Miami Dolphins CB Nik Needham – Needham was a favorite among all the SIS Video Scouts who studied his tape. He is an under-the-radar undrafted prospect from UTEP, but has already spent some time practicing with the Dolphins first team defense in camp. During the next four games he will attempt to showcase the coverage skills that led our scouts to rank him the fourth best CB in the Draft. Over the last three seasons Needham allowed a Completion% of only 44% on 126 targets and an EPA / Target of only -0.14.

For more football content, check out the new episode of the Off the Charts podcast. Click here for the link

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