7 NFL Rookie Projects Expected to Develop, Contribute Right Away in 2024

Coveted NFL draft prospects typically come in two flavors. Teams either target “pro-ready” players who are polished enough to play early or “projects” who may lack refinement but possess elite athletic traits.

Unrefined rookies are often expected to sit or perhaps struggle during their rookie seasons before finding their feet in their second or third seasons. Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen is a terrific example of this. While he did get on the field early as a rookie, he didn’t become a truly reliable signal-caller until Year 3.

In today’s NFL, many project prospects, like Allen, are asked to work through their early struggles as on-field contributors. Some even become impactful as rookies because of their elite traits and pro coaches who are more adaptable than ever before.

Here, we’ll examine seven first- and second-round prospects from the 2024 draft who will be asked to contribute despite being labeled as projects during the predraft process.

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Six quarterbacks were drafted in the first round. Of that group, two—Caleb Williams and Jayden Daniels—were viewed as high-floor prospects.

Drake Maye is likely to sit behind seasoned journeyman Jacoby Brissett for the New England Patriots, while Michael Penix Jr. will sit behind Kirk Cousins for the Atlanta Falcons.

Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell recently stated that Sam Darnold is QB1 over J.J. McCarthy heading into training camp. This leaves Denver Broncos quarterback Bo Nix as the rookie in an open competition with a legitimate chance to be a Week 1 starter.

The Oregon product is competing with Jarrett Stidham and Zach Wilson in Denver, neither of whom is good enough to keep the 12th overall pick on the bench for long. Despite having loads of college experience, however, the first-year QB is very much a project.

“Nix will ultimately be a dice roll on athleticism and accuracy,” Derrik Klassen of the Bleacher Report Scouting Department wrote. “With that said, it’s a little worrisome that Nix is still unrefined in some areas as an older prospect with a ton of games under his belt.”

Head coach Sean Payton has touted the rookie’s progress in the early offseason.

“He’s picking it up,” Payton said in May, per ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio. “There’s a lot that’s going in. He’s throwing the ball extremely well.”

As a rookie, though, Nix will need to improve his footwork and pocket presence to be a consistent and dependable signal-caller. That’s going to take time, but Payton and the Broncos can only be so patient.

Payton tried to work with Russell Wilson before pulling the plug on him this offseason. His team needs to find some real success in 2024, and that’s unlikely to happen with Stidham and/or Zach Wilson under center all year.

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The Miami Dolphins used the 21st overall pick on former Penn State pass-rusher Chop Robinson.

While the rookie has loads of athletic upside, he wasn’t overly productive in college (11.5 sacks in 43 games) and still needs to develop, both physically and as a sack artist.

“[Robinson] has a lot more traits than production right now, making him more of a project,” Matt Holder of the B/R Scouting Department wrote. ” He has made a handful of impactful plays via sacks and tackles for loss, but the consistency play in and play out just isn’t there right now. He needs to add some size to be more stout against the run, which should coincide with more production.”

Expect new Dolphins defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver to rely on the 21-year-old early and often this year, though. Simply put, he may not have much choice.

Miami is clearly in win-now mode. It has made consecutive trips to the postseason but hasn’t secured a playoff win since 2000. The franchise already made some tough financial decisions this offseason—like parting with cornerback Xavien Howard—and with Tua Tagovailoa’s extension looming, the window with this roster is shrinking.

And the Dolphins need pass-rushing help. Zach Sieler and Bradley Chubb can lead the rotation, and Miami added Calais Campbell. However, Andrew Van Ginkel departed in free agency, while Emmanuel Ogbah remains unsigned, and Jaelan Phillips is recovering from a torn Achilles that he suffered in Week 12 last year.

Robinson probably won’t be asked to start right away, but he’ll need to play a prominent role as a rotational pass-rusher The Dolphins cannot afford to develop him on the sidelines.

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The first three receivers selected in April—Marvin Harrison Jr., Malik Nabers and Rome Odunze—were all widely regarded as high-floor prospects.

All three were ranked inside the top 10 players on the Bleacher Report Scouting Department’s final draft board, and all three should make an immediate impact.

Brian Thomas Jr. was the fourth receiver off the board, selected by the Jacksonville Jaguars with the 23rd overall pick. He’ll also be expected to contribute right away, even if he’s further behind in the development curve.

The Jaguars lost Calvin Ridley in free agency and desperately need Thomas to emerge as a big-play target for quarterback Trevor Lawrence. The signal-caller took a step backward last season after making the Pro Bowl as a sophomore in 2022.

With the Houston Texans becoming the team to beat in the AFC South and the Indianapolis Colts not far behind, Jacksonville needs Lawrence to return to form immediately.

The LSU product can help with that, though he needs to work on his route-running and his receiving skills.

“As a route-runner, Thomas is a mixed bag,” Klassen wrote. “…The other slight downside with Thomas is that he isn’t the ball-winner his size suggests. He shows flashes of high-point skills, but Thomas’ ability to fight through traffic and reach for the ball in the air comes and goes.”

The good news for the Jaguars is that the 21-year-old is a 6’3″, 209-pound pass-catcher with 4.33 speed. He can be a potent contributor as a big perimeter target and as a speedy downfield threat right away.

However, developing Thomas into a complete No. 1-caliber receiver will be a process that the Jags may still be tackling next offseason.

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From a physical standpoint, few offensive-line prospects were as impressive entering the draft as former Oklahoma tackle Tyler Guyton.

At 6’8″, 322 pounds and with immense play strength, there’s virtually no limit on his upside.

“Guyton is a young, inexperienced and green tackle prospect with elite physical tools and flashes of dominance that can get him on the field right away,” Brandon Thorn of the B/R Scouting Department wrote.

As a one-year starter in college, though, the former Sooner lacks experience. Additionally, the Dallas Cowboys drafted him 29th overall to be their left tackle. At Oklahoma, he started on the right side.

Guyton, who has been working as Dallas’ second-team left tackle, has enjoyed the transition but has conceded that it isn’t easy.

“It’s a little bit different than I thought,” he told The Athletic’s Jon Machota. “I love it, though. It’s just I didn’t know what I didn’t know. It’s just getting acclimated to new techniques and things like that, all of the new plays. It’s been fun, but it’s also been a challenge, for sure

Dallas desperately needs Guyton to develop quickly and thrive in his new role. The Cowboys are entering a playoffs-or-bust season—potentially their last with quarterback Dak Prescott—and they lost longtime starting left tackle Tyron Smith in free agency.

If Guyton can’t solidify the left tackle spot, Dallas will have few alternatives. They include starting the inexperienced Chuma Edoga (10 starts) or moving Tyler Smith from guard to tackle—which would, in turn, create a void at left guard.

Simply put, drafting Guyton with a position switch in mind was a gamble. It’s one that could determine the stability, or lack thereof, of Dallas’ offensive line in 2024.

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The Carolina Panthers have put a lot of effort into supporting second-year quarterback Bryce Young this offseason.

They hired an experienced QB coach in Dave Canales to fill their head-coaching vacancy, they added to their offensive line, and they traded for receiver Diontae Johnson.

However, Carolina entered the draft without a long-term No. 1 receiver on the roster. Johnson has long been more of a No. 2 target, and last year’s top target, Adam Thielen, will turn 34 in August.

To fill the vacancy, the Panthers traded into Round 1 to select Xavier Legette 32nd overall. He has intriguing physical traits as a 6’1″, 221-pound receiver with 4.39 speed. Yet, his rawness will make it difficult for him to be a go-to target right away.

“Legette is an intriguing prospect with size, adequate speed and ball skills,” Klassen wrote. “The concern is that Legette is not a dynamic mover, and he is still a work in progress when it comes to the finer parts of the position.”

It’s a particularly big concern for the Panthers because Young—the No. 1 overall pick in 2023 who had a disastrous rookie campaign—needs dependable pass-catchers who can elevate him. Legette isn’t entering the league as that sort of player. His development has also been hampered this offseason by a hamstring injury.

Still, the South Carolina product’s combination of speed and play strength should get him on the field early. Even if his play isn’t consistent, the team will likely develop on the field, much like it did with Jonathan Mingo—who played 89 percent of the offensive snaps in 15 games—last season.

The Panthers simply don’t have the receiver depth required to allow Legette to sit.

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Barring an injury to Cousins, the Falcons are unlikely to rely on Penix this season. It’s a different story for second-round pick Ruke Orhorhoro, though.

Atlanta traded a third-round pick to move up for the former Clemson defensive lineman. A versatile and athletic player, he should get on the field early as a rotational interior defender. However, he isn’t particularly polished as a pass-rusher.

“He has a decent bull rush that should translate to the NFL, but he needs to develop another move beyond that. A big reason for that is he’s still learning to use his hands,” Holder wrote.

It’s a potential issue for the Falcons because fielding a functional pass rush has long been an issue for them. Atlanta hasn’t had a single player reach 7.0 sacks since Vic Beasley did it in 2019. Defensive lineman Calais Campbell led the team with 6.5 sacks last season, and he remains a free agent.

The need for pass-rushers is exacerbated by the fact that Atlanta is looking to win now with Cousins under center. The Falcons did use a third-round pick on edge-rusher Bralen Trice, but Orhorhoro will be counted on to make an impact this season.

In addition to providing some semblance of an interior pass rush, Orhorhoro will tasked with providing insurance for star defensive tackle Grady Jarrett.

Jarrett has long been one of Atlanta’s most reliable pass-rushers (34 career sacks) but he also suffered a torn ACL in late October.

While Jarrett is expected to be back in time for training camp, the Falcons will likely be cautious with his workload. Expect Orhorhoro to play a prolific role early and often in 2024, even if he’s still learning along the way.

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Former BYU offensive tackle Kingsley Suamataia might face more pressure than any other rookie project in 2024. The Kansas City Chiefs are the defending Super Bowl champions and are expected to make another title run this season.

However, the Chiefs haven’t re-signed 2023 starting left tackle Donovan Smith, meaning Suamataia is set to compete with second-year man Wanya Morris for the job this offseason. According to head coach Andy Reid, a front-runner has yet to emerge.

“[We] like the production we’re seeing from both of them,” Reid said, per Jordan Foote of FanNation. “Both of them are young guys. We’ll just see how it all finishes up through camp.”

Of course, if the Chiefs truly believed in Morris, a 2023 third-round pick out of Oklahoma, they probably wouldn’t have taken a chance on Suamataia. The rookie possesses a tremendous amount of upside, but he is a project.

“Suamataia has the physical tools of a starting tackle with an unrefined skill set that is built on flashes rather than proven consistency,” Thorn wrote.

In need of refined technique, footwork and pad level, Suamataia might not be a consistently dependable lineman in Year 1. However, the Chiefs could easily justify allowing him to work out the kinks on the field because of his ceiling.

Expect Kansas City to rely on Suamataia to protect Patrick Mahomes for much of the coming season, even if the rookie experiences his fair share of growing pains.

The Chiefs need to develop a long-term solution at left tackle, and Morris—who was responsible for three penalties and two sacks allowed in 340 snaps last season, according to Pro Football Focus—probably isn’t the answer.

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