With rookie mini-camps cancelled and preseason effectively out of the window, there has never been a tougher time to be a rookie in the NFL. Gone are the preamble games where previous unknown stars are given the platform to impress, absent are the moments to impress the coaching staff when the limelight shines.
Despite the disruption and truncation, the next Richard Sherman (2011, 5th round, #154 overall) or Julian Edelman (2009, 7th round, #232 overall) may be sitting amongst the late round selections of the 2020 NFL draft. Read on for three names who have as good a chance as any to emulate the success of those gone before them.
Jauan Jennings, WR, San Francisco 49ers (7th round, #217 overall)
It was no secret the San Francisco 49ers had to upgrade their receiving corps for the 2020 season. This was made abundantly clear when the decision was made to trade up for Brandon Aiyuk in the first round. Lost in this excitement was the selection of Jauan Jennings, 192 picks later.
In many ways, San Fran is the perfect landing spot for Jennings. Whilst he may be lacking top-end speed, this is more than made up for with his strength and ability at the point of the catch. Standing tall at 6″3 with 215 pounds on his back, the potential is there to call Jennings one of the steals of the draft.
His final year in the college game with Tennessee proved fruitful, hauling in 59 catches for 969 yards and 8 TDs. If he can get anywhere close to these numbers, it’s back slapping time in the Bay Area.
Initially, the road-map for Jennings to see the field seemed congested. But now with Jalen Hurd lost for the year and Deebo Samuel nursing an injury, opportunity beckons sooner than anticipated. He will compete with the newly signed Jaron Brown and Tavon Austin for snaps, however it would be remiss of the 49ers to not fully tryout their rookie.
If Jennings can give the coaching staff reasons to be hopeful during training camp, it will not at all be surprising to see him usurp the likes of Brown and Austin on the depth chart prior to week 1.
Bradlee Anae, DE, Dallas Cowboys (5th round, #179 overall)
Most draft nicks pinned a third round grade on Anae, it would have been a pleasant surprise for the Dallas front office to get their guy on day three of the draft.
Much like the 49ers need for wide-outs, the Dallas Cowboys were dearth of talent on the defensive edge. Free agency saw the arrival of Aldon Smith, who has not graced the field since 2015, whilst Randy Gregory returns after his year long suspension. No doubt about it, the elite Demarcus Lawrence needed a more reliable and talented playmate. Up step Bradlee Anae.
Only until recently, Anae was the favourite to start opposite Lawrence. Now with former Minnesota Viking Everson Griffen in the building, he may have to wait a bit longer to see regular snaps. Nonetheless, there is talent in the defensive end out of Utah that cannot be ignored.
He is ideally suited to hybrid defence in the NFL, which is exactly what new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will cook up in Dallas. Anae will of course be relatively raw entering the league, but the explosiveness and power he possesses will be a major help.
With many experts tipping the Dallas Cowboys for success in 2020, Nolan and the rest of the defensive staff will hope and aim to get Anae up to speed as quickly as possible. Should either Lawrence or Griffen miss time, likely next man up Anae needs to be NFL ready.
Anthony McFarland Jr., Pittsburgh Steelers (4th round, #124 overall)
Once more – team has a need, team addresses need, team hopes they have hit on a late round gem.
The solid if unspectacular James Conner has been a missing true backup since he burst onto the scene in 2018. Long gone now are the days where the Steelers called upon bell-cow Le’Veon Bell to lead their rushing attack. Days of a team revolving around a bell-cow in general are numbered.
Conner and Anthony McFarland Jr. have the scope to provide Pittsburgh with a timeshare it simply has not seen in the modern-day NFL. It should not take long for McFarland to surpass Benny Snell Jr. and Jaylen Samuels on the depth chart. Whilst Samuels will likely retain some form of a third down role, it’s increasing unlikely for him to get many carries in a game.
McFarland will likely enter the 2020 season as a change of pace back, and this will prove to be a huge change. Speed has been achilles heel of the Steelers running game since 2018. The greatest strength of McFarland’s game is his pace. Clocking a 4.44 40-second dash at the combine only served to confirm what was seen on the film.
Should the offensive line of the Steelers keep up its impressive play of the past few seasons, opportunities aplenty will be created and many a gap will be breezed through by this highly impressive former Maryland product.