As the NFL regular season draws closer, PFF takes a look at those rookies who should be very impactful on a team’s success this season. Be it a first-round pick, or later, these rookies will look to supplant their roles in helping their new team this season, and beyond.
While we’ve taken a look at the AFC East teams, today we’ll examine those impactful rookies in the AFC South:
Malik Hooker, S, Ohio State
Hooker should immediately fill a hole in the Colts secondary left by the departure of Mike Adams and the recent successful move of T.J. Green from safety to cornerback. Hooker registered 10 stops in run defense a season ago for Ohio State, compared to Adams four last year. Even more impressively were Hooker’s coverage skills he displayed in his last season in Columbus. He tied the nation’s lead with seven interceptions while allowing just a 41.4 passer rating on throws into his coverage, all allowing a paltry 0.48 yards per snap he was in coverage.
Those numbers are a huge upgrade from a Colts secondary that saw their lowest passer rating when targeted of 88.3 by Adams. Green and Clayton Geathers saw the highest and eighth-highest average of yards allowed per coverage snap last season among the league’s 92 qualified safeties at 1.30 and 0.93 yards, respectively. Shoulder issues aside, Hooker’s coverage instincts and run-stopping prowess will be key to his impact in Indianapolis, and should be felt quickly to start the season.
Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
That being said, Fournette has to remain healthy to prove a big impact for the Jaguars as he sat out the final three games of the Jacksonville preseason. When he is healthy – really hasn’t been a full season of healthy football since 2015 – Fournette is as dangerous a runner as anyone. He registered 3.65 yards after contact, per attempt that season, the second-highest mark of any running back in the country with at least 220 carries. He broke loose on 27 carries of 15 yards or more in 2015 as well, compared to Yeldon and Ivory’s combined seven runs of 15 yards or more a season ago. His impact should be immediate, if he’s healthy come the regular season.
Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
National Champion. Heisman Finalist. Sure, those are great monikers to stick by any name, but sometimes those don’t necessarily impact the NFL game as much as they may have the college game. Watson on the other hand, seems poised and ready to be impactful for the Texans, and it’s just a matter of WHEN he will see the field this season, not IF.
Watson played his best, against the best last year en route to the National Championship. He fielded the nation’s top adjusted completion percentage against Power 5 opponents at 77.0 percent. Incumbent Texans QB Tom Savage has a limited amount of snaps under his belt with the team last year, and still saw a 71.0 adjusted completion percentage of his own.
What sets Watson apart however, is his big-play ability, fielding the nation’s 16th-highest passer rating on deep passes (20-plus yards downfield), at 110.6, compared to Savage’s 59.8 a year ago. If that’s not impactful, then I don’t know what is.
Corey Davis, WR, Western Michigan
Davis fits in nicely as very possibly third-year QB Marcus Mariota’s top target, once he’s healthy. Davis is a big body at 6-foot-2, 205 pounds. He utilized that big body last season at Western Michigan to come down with 98 receptions for 1,512 yards and a FBS-best 19 touchdowns. During his three-year career at WMU, Davis never saw lower than a 120.6 passer rating when targeted. Tops on the returning Titans wide receivers in that regard from a season ago? Rishard Matthews at 104.8.
Davis should utilize his rare combination of size and speed to beat defenders deep as well, much like he did at WMU a year ago, hauling in 13 receptions that were targeted 20 or more yards downfield. Those numbers should coincide with Matthews 11 deep pass receptions a year ago to form a top 1-2 deep tandem.