There’s a reason the NFL Draft is seven rounds. There are simply a lot of good players in college football, most of whom could potentially be starters at some point in their careers. Obviously, many of the first-round picks will be in the starting lineup this season, but there are also a bunch of mid- to late-round picks who could get significant playing time in 2017.
These 15 players could surprise a lot of people and be starters relatively early in the season.
Damontae Kazee, DB, Falcons
The Falcons took Kazee in the fifth round after he primarily played cornerback at San Diego State. In Atlanta, he’ll try to make the transition to free safety, while also competing for time in the slot as a cornerback. His position flexibility gives him a decent shot to crack the starting lineup at some point this season. Kazee’s best shot is at free safety where the Falcons have been looking for competition with Ricardo Allen.
Kazee has great instincts and ball skills, pulling down seven interceptions last season as a cornerback. If he can bring that playmaking ability to free safety, he could wind up having a big impact in Year 1.
Tim Williams, OLB, Ravens
The Ravens underwent a youth movement on the defensive front in the draft, landing Chris Wormley, Tyus Bowser and Williams. All three could potentially be starters, but Williams has the best chance. If not for off-field concerns, he likely would’ve been a late first-round pick or early-second-rounder.
He has the potential to push both Albert McClellan and Terrell Suggs for snaps, possibly earning a starting job. He’ll obviously need to stay out of trouble off the field, but if he can do that his pass-rushing ability will shine this summer.
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Eddie Jackson, S, Bears
The Bears are somewhat weak at safety despite having Adrian Amos and Quintin Demps as their projected starters. Jackson is a rangy, aggressive safety who sometimes takes too many chances, but the Bears’ coaching staff can reel him in and get him under control.
If not for a broken leg last year at Alabama, Jackson could’ve gone much earlier than the fourth round. He also can return punts, which shows just how much athleticism he has.
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Jordan Willis, DE, Bengals
The Bengals have had the same pair of defensive ends -- Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap -- for most of the past seven years. Though Dunlap has double-digit-sack potential, Johnson’s play has fallen off. He had just 3.5 sacks last season, and if he continues to struggle, Willis could swoop in and start on the right side.
Willis, a third-round pick, is a dynamic pass rusher who can provide a spark on a defensive line that has been underwhelming the past two years. Don’t be surprised to see Willis starting over Johnson at some point.
Larry Ogunjobi, DT, Browns
With the Browns switching to a 4-3 defense, they’ll need someone to fill the hole at 3-technique next to Danny Shelton. Ogunjobi, a third-rounder, has a good chance of winning the job. He’s raw and needs work, but he can be a disruptor in the middle of the line, pushing linemen backward. Look for the Browns to have at least three rookie starters this season with Ogunjobi possibly making it four.
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Xavier Woods, S, Cowboys
Many believed Woods would be a third- or fourth-round pick in this year’s draft, but he surprisingly fell all the way to the sixth, where the Cowboys were able to scoop him up. After losing both J.J. Wilcox and Barry Church in free agency, Woods has a good shot at winning the starting job opposite Byron Jones.
In order to do so, he’ll need to play under control. Sometimes he gets too aggressive in coverage and when going for big hits.
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Jake Butt, TE, Broncos
This one will be difficult to project because Butt is coming off of a torn ACL. It’s the second time he’s suffered that injury, and the first time he was back on the field in just over six months. If he hits that timetable again, he’ll be back by July. He expects to return for the start of the regular season at the very least and hopes to be a full go for training camp.
The Broncos are deep at tight end with Virgil Green and Jeff Heuerman, but Butt is the most talented of the bunch when healthy. They got a steal in the fifth round.
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Kareem Hunt, RB, Chiefs
We’ve seen Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware holding down the running back position the past two years, but that could change this season. Hunt was drafted in the third round, but he has great potential despite his mid-round draft slot. He’s a big back with good vision and decent hands as a receiver, which could set him apart in camp.
Look for Hunt to compete for the starting job in the coming months, possibly supplanting Ware and West on the depth chart.
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Desmond King, S, Chargers
The Chargers signed Tre Boston, so he’ll be another blockade on King’s path to the starting lineup. However, despite being a bit undersized, King has great instincts and ball skills, which will show through in practice. Obviously, he has a lot to learn switching from cornerback to safety, but the potential is absolutely there.
It was surprising to see him slide all the way to the fifth round, but he landed in a good situation with the Chargers needing a center field safety. Don’t be surprised to see him pass Dwight Lowery at some point.
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Isaac Asiata, G, Dolphins
Left guard is a trouble spot for the Dolphins, but Asiata, a fifth-round pick, has a chance to alleviate that concern. As a run blocker, he can open up holes with his strength and power, but he does need to improve in the passing game. Fortunately, he’ll have an entire summer to work on that with an NFL coaching staff, which could vault him into the starting lineup relatively early in the season.
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Pat Elflein, C, Vikings
There’s no way around it: The Vikings’ offensive line was atrocious last season. Their biggest issues were at left and right tackle, but they could also use help at center. Elflein was drafted in the third round, but it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to see him in the starting lineup in September.
He can help open up running lanes for fellow draftee Dalvin Cook and free-agent addition Latavius Murray. He’ll play early and should get a good opportunity to win the starting job over Nick Easton.
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ArDarius Stewart, WR, Jets
Stewart is already being talked about as a starter for the receiver-needy Jets, and I don’t expect that conversation to go away between now and September. Stewart is a bit undersized and isn’t an elite athlete, but he can win out of the slot thanks to his route-running savvy.
Eric Decker and Quincy Enunwa will be the primary starters, but the Jets still need a slot receiver with Devin Smith once again on the shelf. Stewart could take the job and run with it all season.
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Cameron Sutton, CB, Steelers
The Steelers have depth at corner with Artie Burns and Ross Cockrell, but William Gay is getting up there in age and already lost his starting job last season. Sutton could push him as a starter inside as a slot corner, boasting good size for that position. He just doesn’t have the straight-line speed to hang with deep threats on the outside.
Sutton’s ball skills and stickiness in man coverage – which the Steelers run plenty of – will impress coaches early on and elevate him quickly on the depth chart.
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Shaquill Griffin, CB, Seahawks
The Seahawks spent four draft picks on defensive backs between the third and sixth rounds, which was somewhat surprising. Griffin has the best chance of the bunch to win a starting job, mainly because he perfectly fits the mold of what the Seahawks are looking for in cornerbacks.
He’s big, rangy and has good ball skills, which makes him an ideal starter opposite Richard Sherman. As a third-round pick, Griffin wasn’t one of the top cornerback prospects, but his fit in Seattle with that defense makes him a very intriguing rookie.
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Samaje Perine, RB, Redskins
The Redskins struggled mightily to run the ball last season before Rob Kelley took over the starting job. He was a pleasant surprise, but he’ll be pushed by Perine for valuable snaps. The rookie is a powerful back who runs hard on every single down, putting up good numbers during his time at Oklahoma.
Because the draft class was so deep at running back, Perine fell all the way to the fourth round despite having starter potential. He was a good value pick for the Redskins, who need to be more physical on offense.