Rookies who could start for each NFL team

As teams open training camp, NFL Nation reporters assess which rookie has the best chance to crack the starting lineup for each team.

AFC East | AFC North| AFC South | AFC West
NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West


AFC EAST

MLB Tremaine Edmunds

The Bills allowed middle linebacker Preston Brown to sign with the Cincinnati Bengals in free agency, leaving a hole at a spot where Brown played almost every snap since he was drafted in 2014. To the surprise of general manager Brandon Beane, Edmunds was available at No. 16 in the April draft, and the Bills were able to trade up to land an athletic prospect they hope can develop into the centerpiece of their defensive front seven. Edmunds, 20, will have huge responsibilities as a rookie in receiving play calls from the sideline and aligning the defense. — Mike Rodak

DB Minkah Fitzpatrick

The Boston Globe reported in May that owner Stephen Ross was not initially on board with the team’s selection of Fitzpatrick at No. 11, but now that Fitzpatrick is in the fold, he has the talent and background from Alabama to contribute immediately in the NFL. He might not start over Reshad Jones or T.J. McDonald at safety, but the Dolphins are likely to find him a role as a third safety or simply as a fifth defensive back. In the modern NFL, defenses are in sub packages the majority of the game, so that is essentially a starting job. Fitzpatrick led the team in interceptions this spring, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel. — Mike Rodak

OL Isaiah Wynn

He lined up at left tackle and left guard in spring practices and is part of the mix to replace departed Nate Solder as Brady’s blindside protector. His college teammate Sony Michel should see plenty of action at running back alongside Burkhead, White and possibly Mike Gillislee, Jeremy Hill, Brandon Bolden or Ralph Webb. Cornerback Duke Dawson (second round, Florida) should compete for playing time, most likely in the nickel package. — Mike Reiss

DE Nathan Shepherd

The third-rounder will get a chance to fill Muhammad Wilkerson‘s old spot on the line. In the spring, Shepherd split first-team reps with former Indianapolis Colts starter Henry Anderson. Shepherd has the physical ability to succeed on this level, but he isn’t in Kansas anymore. We mean that literally. He played at Division II Fort Hays State, and it’s a long way from the small central Kansas school to the NFL. — Rich Cimini


AFC NORTH

TE Hayden Hurst

The first-round pick is the best pass-catching tight end on the team. There’s a reason the Ravens used the No. 25 overall pick on Hurst after not re-signing Benjamin Watson and not being able to lure Eric Ebron to Baltimore. The only experienced tight ends on the roster are those who excel in blocking (Nick Boyle and Maxx Williams) and on special teams (Vince Mayle). Hurst should make an immediate impact after standing out in the offseason with his hands, route running and quickness. How much does Baltimore’s passing game rely on this position? Only four quarterbacks since 2012 have completed more than 500 passes to tight ends: Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Tom Brady and Joe Flacco. Third-round rookie Orlando Brown Jr. could start at right tackle for Baltimore this season. — Jamison Hensley

Cincinnati Bengals

C Billy Price

The first-rounder is the obvious answer, as he was drafted with the intention of replacing Russell Bodine, who left in free agency. Price is progressing well after tearing his pectoral muscle at the NFL combine and recently said via Twitter that he is “fully cleared for football activities.” However, a sneaky starter could be safety Jessie Bates. Although the Bengals have starters George Iloka and Shawn Williams, don’t be surprised if Bates gets playing time early and often, even if it’s just as a third safety when the Bengals are in nickel or dime packages. The Bengals have a new defensive coordinator in Teryl Austin, and he could throw in a few surprises. — Katherine Terrell

CB Denzel Ward

He’s the easy choice here, except there is no “could” about his status. Ward will start. The interesting rookie to watch will be running back Nick Chubb. GM John Dorsey has never drafted a back as high as he drafted Chubb, and Chubb looked very good in offseason work. Yes, it was without pads, but Chubb showed an innate ability to find a hole and make a jump-cut to find space before heading downfield. The intensity and challenge will ratchet up higher in camp, but Chubb was praised by running backs coach Freddie Kitchens for the “violent” way he attacks the line of scrimmage. One factor to keep in mind about Chubb that could keep him from starting: Veteran free-agent signee Carlos Hyde might have looked better in camp. — Pat McManamon

Safety Terrell Edmunds

The first-rounder will open camp behind Morgan Burnett and Sean Davis, but the Steelers might find a way to get Edmunds on the field early. His athleticism showed up in offseason workouts, and he’s the kind of back-end communicator the Steelers covet. Edmunds could see the field as a dime linebacker or a third safety in Year 1. — Jeremy Fowler


AFC SOUTH

WR Keke Coutee

In a crowded group of receivers, Coutee could start in the slot alongside DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller V. Last year at Texas Tech, Coutee caught 93 passes for 1,429 yards and 10 touchdowns. Coutee is on the smaller side, listed at 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, but coach Bill O’Brien said he thinks the speedy receiver has the right “body type for that position.” Coutee should be another good weapon for quarterback Deshaun Watson and should serve as a major contributor on special teams. — Sarah Barshop

Indianapolis Colts

G Quenton Nelson

There is no “could start” when it comes to Nelson, the No. 6 overall pick in April’s draft. The Colts didn’t use a high draft pick on Nelson to have him begin his NFL career as a backup. He spent the entire offseason working with the first unit at left guard. Poor offensive line play has played a significant role in quarterback Andrew Luck getting knocked around most of his career and missing 26 games over the past three seasons. Nelson will join an offensive line that features left tackle Anthony Castonzo, center Ryan Kelly, right guard Matt Slauson (who worked with the first unit in offseason workouts) and right tackle Denzelle Good, giving Luck possibly the best line of his seven-year career. — Mike Wells

WR D.J. Chark

It’s hard to see any rookie earning a starting job without an injury (even Will Richardson is unlikely), but the one with the best chance would be Chark. The second-round pick from LSU impressed teammates with how quickly he seemed to pick up the offense, his smooth route running and his hands. The 6-foot-4 Chark made perhaps the most impressive catch of OTAs/minicamp when he jumped to snag a pass and managed to get the toes of both feet in before falling out of bounds. Marqise Lee, Donte Moncrief and Keelan Cole are the Jaguars’ top three receivers, but if Chark continues to impress, he should get significant playing time and could possibly end up a starter before the season ends. — Mike DiRocco

LB Rashaan Evans

He was drafted in the first round to be the Titans’ present and future at inside linebacker. He has flashed some of his versatility and willingness to learn, but coach Mike Vrabel gave an honest — yet cautious — assessment of his performance during spring workouts: “He’s not where he needs to be to start for our defense, and that’s OK.” Free-agent signee Will Compton has taken many of the first-team inside linebacker reps opposite Wesley Woodyard, but it would certainly be a disappointment if Evans didn’t win that role by Week 1. — Cameron Wolfe


AFC WEST

OLB Bradley Chubb

Not could — will start. The Broncos have big plans for Chubb, who was the No. 5 overall pick in this April’s draft. Chubb was already trending toward the starting lineup with his combination of size, athleticism and technique before Shane Ray continued to seek medical opinions about his injured wrist. — Jeff Legwold

LB Dorian O’Daniel

He won’t play in the regular defense but should see a lot of work on obvious passing downs and special teams. O’Daniel is only 220 pounds, so the Chiefs don’t view him as a run defender. But he showed the speed, coverage skills and knowledge of the defensive schemes during offseason practice that he’ll compete for a regular job in passing situations. — Adam Teicher

S Derwin James

The obvious choice here is their first-rounder. Selected No. 17 overall, James played mostly near the line of scrimmage as a strong safety with the second unit during offseason work, as defensive coordinator Gus Bradley focused on the Florida State product learning a new system. However, James should find a way into the starting lineup by the time the regular season starts because of his athleticism, ability to get people on the ground in space and cover talented tight ends such as Kansas City Chiefs pass-catcher Travis Kelce in the middle of the field. — Eric D. Williams

DL Maurice Hurst

True, he was seen as a top-three overall talent by Pro Football Focus, so saying he could start is not exactly a huge leap. But Hurst has a heart issue that sent him home from the combine and scared off enough teams that he fell to the Raiders in the fifth round, No. 140 overall. With last season’s starter at left defensive tackle, Eddie Vanderdoes, recovering from a torn ACL suffered in the season finale, Hurst ran with the first-team defense in the 4-3 base during the offseason program. He impressed with his pass-rushing ability, albeit in shorts. “Definitely got a steal with him,” All-Pro left guard Kelechi Osemele said. “He’s looking real good. He’s going to be good. If he just keeps going, the sky is the limit for that guy.” — Paul Gutierrez


NFC EAST

OL Connor Williams

The second-rounder should start at left guard. The Cowboys have made no pretense about giving him every opportunity to be the starter by having him line up with the first team since the first organized team activity. He is making the transition from tackle at Texas to guard in the NFL, but the Cowboys believe Williams has the athleticism and strength to make the move with ease. The Cowboys’ top three picks, including first-rounder Leighton Vander Esch and third-rounder Michael Gallup, could also find their way into the starting lineup, or at the very least, play a ton of snaps. — Todd Archer

RB Saquon Barkley

The No. 2 overall pick is going to start and handle a heavy workload. Second-round pick Will Hernandez also looks as if he’s going to be a day one starter. He finished the spring as the first-team left guard. Defensive lineman B.J. Hill, a third-round pick out of North Carolina State, has a strong chance to start at defensive end with Josh Mauro suspended the first four games of the season. — Jordan Raanan

TE Dallas Goedert

He isn’t in line to take over the No. 1 tight end role — that belongs securely to Zach Ertz. But there’s a good chance that he’ll have a role in this offense if the promise he showed this spring carries through the summer and into the fall. The second-round pick was a big-time playmaker at South Dakota State and showed off his soft hands and ability to separate during OTAs. At 6-foot-4, 260 pounds, he could be another red zone option for quarterback Carson Wentz. — Tim McManus

DL Daron Payne

The Redskins should have two rookie starters: first-round pick Payne along the defensive line and second-round pick Derrius Guice at running back. Payne worked with the starting group at nose tackle all spring, and that isn’t expected to change. Guice worked behind Rob Kelley at running back but is too talented to end up doing so when the season begins. The coaches respect Kelley quite a bit, but Guice has a chance for an excellent first season. — John Keim


NFC NORTH

LB Roquan Smith

The plan is for Smith to start immediately alongside Danny Trevathan at inside linebacker. Given Smith’s speed, he figures to be an every-down player on Chicago’s defense — the strength of the team. Former Iowa center James Daniels — drafted in Round 2 — figures to be in the mix for a starting job at left guard. — Jeff Dickerson

OL Frank Ragnow

It’s not a “could” start; it’s a “should” start. He has taken all of the first-team reps at left guard during practices open to the media and seems to be settling in there. Beyond Ragnow, second-round pick Kerryon Johnson might start at running back in some games, but he still should have a role each week and could end up as the featured back by season’s end. — Michael Rothstein

CBs Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson

One of the two had better start. That’s why new general manager Brian Gutekunst used his first- and second-round picks, respectively, on the pair of cornerbacks. If Kevin King and Tramon Williams man the outside positions, then perhaps Alexander could start in the slot in the nickel package. — Rob Demovsky

CB Mike Hughes

Minnesota might not be in any rush to pitch a competition at nickel corner between Hughes and Mackensie Alexander, but the first-round pick should see time in the return game early on. Aside from Hughes, kicker Daniel Carlson probably has the best shot of any rookie to win a starting job. — Courtney Cronin


NFC SOUTH

WR Calvin Ridley

He has all the tools to be an immediate contributor. He can line up outside opposite Julio Jones and be an instant threat. When the Falcons took the field for their two playoff games last season, they started Jones and Mohamed Sanu at receiver with 11 personnel: two tight ends, two receivers. It will all depend on the alignment, but expect Ridley to be on the field a lot. He’s a fluid route runner with great speed and the ability to establish separation. “He’s the real deal. And he’s a good person. He’s not walking around like he thinks he’s hot s—. He’s walking around like a really good dude,” Falcons free safety Ricardo Allen said. Keep an eye on second-round pick Isaiah Oliver, too, a cornerback who has already shown great ball skills playing outside, according to his teammates. — Vaughn McClure

CB Donte Jackson

The rookie out of LSU was drafted in the second round to bring a swagger to the secondary that hasn’t been there since Josh Norman in 2015. Jackson will be given every chance to start ahead of free agent Ross Cockrell and veterans such as Captain Munnerlyn. Jackson worked with the first team a lot during offseason workouts. If he performs well enough in the preseason to start opposite James Bradberry, it will go a long way toward making this a top-10, maybe top-five, defense. — David Newton

DL Marcus Davenport

The first-rounder is the only rookie expected to step in and play a major role immediately, given that the Saints didn’t have a second-round pick. Third-round receiver Tre’Quan Smith is an exciting prospect with size and speed, but it’s hard to see him passing both Cameron Meredith and Ted Ginn Jr. right out of the gate. Fifth-round safety Natrell Jamerson, among others, could emerge as a key special-teams contributor right away. — Mike Triplett

DL Vita Vea

He will start opposite Gerald McCoy at defensive tackle. There’s a good chance that Ronald Jones can grab the starting running back spot. The rookie to watch is cornerback Carlton Davis: Can he beat Vernon Hargreaves and Ryan Smith to start on the outside opposite Brent Grimes? “He’s off to one of the fastest starts of the rookies,” coach Dirk Koetter said of Davis, who was getting plenty of first-team reps during mandatory minicamp. — Jenna Laine


NFC WEST

OL Mason Cole

One of the position battles to watch in training camp involves a rookie who could win the job. Cole, Arizona’s third-round pick out of Michigan, can push incumbent center A.Q. Shipley for the starting job. Cole hasn’t missed a start in 104 games — or the equivalent of eight years — and has the experience and skill set to slide into the starting lineup. — Josh Weinfuss

None

It’s very unlikely that any rookie will crack the starting lineup. The Rams traded their first-round pick to the New England Patriots in exchange for wide receiver Brandin Cooks. Their first two selections, in the third and fourth rounds, were offensive linemen Joseph Noteboom and Brian Allen, who will spend the season learning behind veterans. Linebacker Micah Kiser, a fifth-round pick from Virginia, competed at inside linebacker through the offseason program but is not expected to win the job. — Lindsey Thiry

OT Mike McGlinchey

He was poised to handle the starting right tackle job immediately after the Niners traded Trent Brown to the New England Patriots. McGlinchey’s polish and ability to make a difference in the run game appealed to the 49ers, and he should step in on day one. None of the other 49ers rookies are as much of a sure thing, though second-round wideout Dante Pettis has a good shot to be the team’s punt returner after a record-breaking college career at Washington in that role. Third-round linebacker Fred Warner could also have a chance to play early as Reuben Foster serves a two-game suspension, and fifth-round cornerback D.J. Reed could potentially push for playing time in the slot and as a kick returner. — Nick Wagoner

RB Rashaad Penny

It’s a sign of the times in Seattle that perhaps as many as six of the Seahawks’ nine draft picks conceivably could start or see significant playing time right away. That’s what happens when a team experiences as much top-of-the-roster turnover as Seattle did this offseason. The marquee position battle involving one of those draft picks is at running back, where Penny is competing with Chris Carson for the starting job that Carson won last year before he got hurt. As is usually the case with rookie running backs, Penny will have to prove that he can be trusted in pass protection first. He’ll have to pry the job away from Carson, who has looked determined to keep it. — Brady Henderson

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