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Underrated NFL Rookies Who Will Make An Impact In 2018

By Chris Trapasso
(CBS Sports)- Last week, I pinpointed likely  Offensive  and  Defensive Rookie of the Year  candidates. But what about other first-year pros who’ll make important contributions to their respective clubs in their debut seasons?
While they may not garner considerable attention and aren’t likely to be household names in Year One, these rookies have the skills to thrive instantly at the professional level and landed in exquisite situations that should accentuate their specific abilities.
Ito Smith (Photo Credit: Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Ito Smith , RB,  Falcons
Smith is definitely the type of running back the Falcons love, a fluid athlete with plus receiving skills. He had 132 receptions in his last three years at  Southern Miss  and averaged a whopping 10.3 yards per grab. Yes, he’s squarely behind  Devonta Freeman  and  Tevin Coleman , but Atlanta does have 74 touches from 2017 to replace from  Terron Ward  and  Taylor Gabriel . Smith is a bouncy jump-cut back ready to be an efficient offensive chess piece as a rookie. I could’ve included Atlanta’s second-round pick, cornerback  Isaiah Oliver  here too. With the way the NFC South plays offense, stockpiling cornerbacks is almost a necessity. The Falcons got a good one in the former  Colorado  standout … he can fly and tracks the football well.
Bradley Bozeman , C,  Ravens
Baltimore’s penciled in center is  Matt Skura  who was a major liability at right guard a season ago. He played center at  Duke , so he should be more effective at the pivot, however, the Ravens shouldn’t expect him to thrive on the inside this season.  Nico Siragusa , who suffered a serious knee injury in his rookie season last year, and  Alex Lewis , another player who was out the entire 2017 campaign with a knee injury are contenders for the center spot. Bozeman isn’t as athletic as Skura … he’s stronger though and mobile enough to work to the second level on combos. I wouldn’t be surprised if he finds his way on to the field as a rookie and provides  Joe Flacco ,  Alex Collins  and Co. quality blocking at the center spot. He was the anchor of  Alabama’s front the past two seasons and flourished with power.
Harrison Phillips , DT,  Bills
I often referred to Phillips as a “leverage monster” during the pre-draft process. To me, that’s a lineman who uses his hands extremely well to control the opposition with physics and body geometry en route to “winning” a specific play. With arms slightly longer than  Gerald McCoy’s , immense upper and lower body strength, Phillips gets underneath offensive linemen, and center-of-gravity is vital in trench battles. He probably won’t load the stat sheet with sacks, but he’ll make his fair share of impact run stops, and, almost as importantly, free up Buffalo’s athletic linebacker duo of  Tremaine Edmunds  and  Matt Milano .
Bo Scarbrough (Photo Credit: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Bo Scarbrough , RB,  Cowboys
Scarbrough didn’t become the next  Derrick Henry  after replacing the former Heisman winner, but he certainly is physically imposing. Scarbrough is 6-foot-1 and 228 pounds with 4.52 speed and a ridiculous 40-inch vertical. Like many of the other prospects to enter the  NFL  from the Nick Saban-run Alabama, Scarbrough has made-in-a-lab athletic talents. In college, he was at his best when Alabama’s blockers controlled the line of scrimmage and provided clear running lanes. The huge back is difficult to bring to the turf when he has a full head of steam. Of course, Dallas’ ground game will be the  Ezekiel Elliott  show, and  Rod Smith  flashed in 2017. But Scarbrough landed in an ideal situation to maximize his talents, and he brings some of same the wear-down-a-defense power as Elliott.
Frank Ragnow , C,  Lions
Part of the reason the Lions haven’t had a 100-yard rusher since like 1999 (not really) has been the lack of consistency in the middle of their offensive line. Ragnow is a no-nonsense, non-flashy people-mover. He’s a brick wall in pass protection and plays with a wonderful blend of strength and athleticism in the run game. In a division with Green Bay’s underrated defensive line and the avalanche of pass-rushers in Minnesota, having a reliable center is crucial. Most offensive linemen aren’t ready to deal with the strength they’ll face up front in the NFL as a rookie. Ragnow is.
Martinas Rankin , OL,  Texans
Rankin might need to add some weight and a touch of strength to his game, but from technical and footwork standpoints, the former  Mississippi State  tackle is extremely polished. Obviously, building around  Deshaun Watson  is of the utmost importance for the Houston organization, and while the front office has done an admirable job giving him weaponry on the outside, he needs to have steadier blocking up front. Watson was one of the most pressured quarterbacks in the NFL as a rookie. Rankin can match speed-rushers with his quickness and isn’t susceptible to counter moves because of his strong punch and consistent hand placement inside defensive linemen’s pads. The Texans’ offensive tackle spot is far from settled with second-year pro  Julie’n Davenport  and  Seantrel Henderson  on the edges. Rankin should play a significant amount of snaps as a rookie and give Watson much better protection than he received in 2017.
Dorian O’Daniel (Photo Credit: Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)
Dorian O’Daniel , LB,  Chiefs
O’Daniel is entering the NFL at the perfect time, when nickel is the league’s base formation and linebackers’ ability to play in space has never been more critical. At right around 6-1 and 223 pounds with running back-like change-of-direction skills, the former  Clemson  star is masterful in space in coverage and on outside runs. He racked up 88 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, two interceptions and five pass breakups in 2017. On the Chiefs,  Anthony Hitchens  and  Reggie Ragland  are the likely starters at linebacker, but the latter is mainly a run-stopping specialist and could head to the sidelines on third down. O’Daniel is part-linebacker, part-safety with quick recognition skills that boost the impact of his athleticism. Expect him to fill up the stat sheet in Kansas City this season.
Ja’whuan Bentley, LB,  Patriots
Remember thorn-in-your-side  Rob Ninkovich ? With the Patriots, he was an undersized but ferocious run-stuffing edge-rusher who provided some pass-rush in critical situations. At 6-1 and 246 pounds, Bentley isn’t a specimen on the outside. But he plays a lot like his fellow Purdue alum … bigger than his size would suggest because of a powerful, jolting punch and refined ability to beat blocks against the opposition’s run game. He totaled 29.5 tackles for loss in his four-year career at Purdue, which included 11.5 tackles for loss during his senior campaign. Bentley won’t be a double-digit sack guy in the NFL. He should find his way onto the field as a strong-side linebacker for New England and shore up the team’s run defense on off-tackle runs.
R.J. McIntosh, DT,  Giants
Watch Miami’s game against  Notre Dame  from a season ago. Focus on the inside.  Quenton Nelson , one of the most decorated, highly sought after guard prospects in some time, certainly played well in that game despite the overall poor performance from the Fighting Irish. But there were a few reps in which McIntosh utilized a swift swim move against the most recent No. 6 overall pick and made him look silly. At nearly 6-5 and 286 pounds, with long arms and an impressive first step, McIntosh has the size and skill set to thrive as an inside rusher in nickel for the Giants. He accumulated 12.5 tackles for loss in 2017. Ahead of him on the Giants depth chart are  Damon Harrison  — the league’s finest run-stopping interior defensive lineman — and  Dalvin Tomlinson , another run-halting specialist. McIntosh very well may be used almost strictly as a pass-rusher as a rookie.
Richie James (Photo Credit: Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
Richie James , WR,  49ers
The 49ers have  Trent Taylor  as their primary slot wideout, and the former  Louisiana Tech  standout had a respectable rookie season in 2017 with 43 catches, 430 yards and two scores on 60 targets. He’ll get pushed by James this year, and I wouldn’t be stunned if the rookie ultimately becomes the club’s slot weapon. At  Middle Tennessee State , James was electric after the catch and even demonstrated the willingness and capability to make incredibly difficult grabs outside his frame. If fully healthy, James has the speed — 4.48 at the combine — and elusiveness to become a productive quick-strike option in Kyle Shanahan’s offense right away.
Greg Stroman , CB,  Redskins
Like many before him at  Virginia Tech , Stroman was a super-productive member of the Hokies secondary for many years. He finished his career in Blacksburg with nine interceptions and 26 pass breakups in three seasons. His smaller size lends itself to outstanding suddenness, which is very useful when covering the slot.  Orlando Scandrick  can play there, yet I wouldn’t rule out Stroman making the most of his opportunities on the inside in a division with the likes of slot targets like Sterling Shepherd,  Cole Beasley , and  Nelson Agholor .

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