It has been over two months since the 2018 NFL Draft took place. Teams have seen their rookies in OTA’s and minicamp, but won’t truly be able to judge where the first-year players stand until full-contact training camp starts later in July. When camp starts, these organizations are going to monitor rookies for different characteristics depending on if they were early or late draft picks.
Most first-round picks are expected to make an immediate impact on the football field. On the other hand, coaches will closely watch their late-round picks for the ability to play in defined sets or on special teams.
However, there are always a few under-the-radar players who break out and make strong contributions for their teams. Here are three late-round picks with star potential.
Royce Freeman, Denver Broncos RB (71st pick)
When Denver drafted Royce Freeman in the third round, they had already released C.J. Anderson, their former starting running back. Head coach Vance Joseph declared an open competition, but second-year running back Devontae Booker is expected to earn the role.
The former Oregon Duck will surely have something to say about that. A thumper who will not hesitate to create contact and break tackles, Freeman brings a new dimension to the offense. Unlike many other big backs, Freeman has the agility to cut back quickly and find the right holes.
At the beginning of the clip, Freeman starts going one way, but quickly cuts back and finds a hole created by the offensive line. Then Freeman breaks a few tackles and finds the open field, where he hits another cutback to gain 10 extra yards. This play shows his whole package of skills: vision to find holes, physicality to blast through defenders and agility to make players miss.
Freeman is also durable and produces consistently, as he had over 100 yards in all but three games last season, averaging six yards per carry. Durability is a big concern for running backs, but the Broncos drafted one who comes without signs of injury risk.
Watch out for Royce Freeman. He could end up being a huge bargain for Denver.
Deon Cain, Indianapolis Colts WR (185th overall)
Deon Cain, a former Clemson Tiger, could turn into the Colts’ second receiver this year. This would be unexpected for a Day-3 draft pick, but Cain has the athleticism and skills to move up the depth chart fairly quickly.
Cain is a well-rounded receiver who is able to attack on all parts of the field. He takes the top off defenses, shown by his 4.43 40-yard dash and ability to consistently high-point deep balls. In addition, he runs smooth routes through the middle of the field and knows how to position himself well between the defender and the ball.
Most of Cain’s biggest weaknesses revolve around physicality. He sometimes has a difficult time starting his routes and getting separation underneath when covered by long or physical corners who can keep up with him. In the NFL, most top corners are capable of being physical. Unless Cain can become stronger on his routes, he may be best-suited to be a star No. 2 receiver.
The biggest reason for Cain’s fall was his plateau in production after becoming the top receiver at Clemson in 2017. He had three fewer touchdowns and only ten more yards last year compared to 2016 when he was the second option. This dip in production could have been the result of a drop in focus, which is coachable, or a drop in quarterback play.
However, it is likely that Cain’s best chance to achieve his full, Pro Bowl level potential is as the second receiver on his team. He has this opportunity in Indianapolis, with a talented quarterback throwing passes and a Pro Bowl receiver ahead of him.
Nyheim Hines, Indianapolis Colts RB (104th overall)
Nyheim Hines, out of N.C. State, is another Colts offensive rookie with a ton of talent. He is a Swiss Army Knife-like player who can play as a running back, pass catcher and kick returner.
Hines is a tremendous athlete, shown by his RB-leading 40-yard dash time of 4.38. In addition to blowing by defenders or making them miss in the open field, he has a great stiff-arm, which makes it even more difficult to bring him down. The Colts fourth-round pick is not the quickest to find holes, but once he gets through the first line of defense, catching him is a formidable task.
In the first play, Hines shows his strong stiff-arms by pushing away two defenders, then uses his sprinter speed to race away from all the other defenders. During the second play, Hines uses his elusiveness as well as his stiff-arm to get through the entire second and third levels of defense. These plays both show that if Hines can get past the first line of defense, he has the ability to become an explosive playmaker in the NFL.
Marlon Mack is the assumed starting running back in Indianapolis on Day 1. However, if Hines makes use of his touches on offense and special teams by hitting a few explosive plays, he might force the coaching staff to involve him more. With his athletic ability and dynamic skill set, Nyheim Hines could be the 2018 version of Alvin Kamara.
Featured image by IndyStar
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