May 25, 2024

NFC rookie check-in: 2024 draft picks who could replace a veteran

More than two months before training camps open, teams are already getting a good look at rookies in mini-camps and envisioning the roles they may play for the 2024 season.

With that in mind, we asked Yardbarker’s NFL writers to identify the rookie on each NFC team who could replace a veteran as a starter.

NFC East

DALLAS COWBOYS | DE Marshawn Kneeland | Dallas has 700-plus snaps to fill after losing defensive ends Dorance Armstrong and Dante Fowler to free agency. Kneeland won’t replace Pro Bowlers DeMarcus Lawrence or Micah Parsons, but after 28 tackles for loss with Western Michigan, the 6-foot-3, 275-pound run-stopper should see work on early downs, possibly ahead of Sam Williams, the team’s second-round pick in 2022.

NEW YORK GIANTS | RB Tyrone Tracy (fifth-round pick) | With five years’ experience at wide receiver, Tracy should play as a third-down back, but at 5-foot-11 and 210 pounds, he could take snaps from RB Devin Singletary, the NFL’s 21st-leading rusher last season. At Purdue last season, Tracy averaged 6.3 yards per attempt (4.44 after contact) and forced 46 missed tackles on just 114 carries, per Pro Football Focus.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES | LB Jalyx Hunt (third-round pick) | New defensive coordinator Vic Fangio loves Hunt but can’t be impressed with linebacker Nolan Smith, who had one sack and played just 16% of snaps as a rookie in 2023. With 46 tackles (nine for loss,) 6.5 sacks, three quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, one blocked kick and a pick-six in 2023 at Houston Christian, the former college safety could easily jump the line in Philadelphia’s defensive rotation.

WASHINGTON COMMANDERS | WR Luke McCaffrey (third-round pick) | Jahan Dotson, the 16th overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, has just 1,041 yards receiving in two years with the team. McCaffrey led Rice with 13 touchdown catches last season and with three inches and 13 pounds on Dotson (5-foot-11, 182 pounds), the former college quarterback could easily become the team’s No. 2 receiver and a favorite target of its new quarterback, Jayden Daniels. — Bruce Ewing

NFC West

ARIZONA CARDINALS | Running back Trey Benson (second round pick) | Veteran James Conner is coming off a career year, but the Cardinals used a second-round pick on Florida State’s Benson (1,896 yards rushing past two seasons). He is one of the top backs in the 2024 class and could give Arizona’s running game a big boost and take playing time away from Conner, who is 29.

LOS ANGELES RAMS | Running back Blake Corum (third round pick) | Kyren Williams had a great season for the Rams in 2023 (1,144 yards rushing), but he plays an extremely unforgiving position, one in which there is always somebody younger and fresher ready to take your spot. Williams’ heavy workload last season (228 carries) opens the door for him to wear down this season, giving former Michigan star Corum a chance to steal carries and even start.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS | OL Dominick Puni (third round pick) | Even though the 49ers have all five starters returning on their offensive line, it is still a unit that can use upgrades. That is especially true on the right side, where former Kansas standout Puni has the ability to play either guard and tackle. That could spell trouble for either guard Spencer Burford or tackle Colton McKivitz.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS | Guard Christian Haynes (third round) | Fixing the interior offensive line is a big priority, so former Connecticut standout Haynes could start right away. He most likely would take the spot of guard Anthony Bradford, who made 10 starts last season for the Seahawks. — Adam Gretz

NFC North

CHICAGO BEARS | Running back/kick returner Ian Wheeler (undrafted) | Among the rookies,  quarterback Caleb Williams and wide receiver Rome Odunze are Day 1 starters, but undrafted free agent Wheeler could join them. A star running back at Howard, Wheeler had 1,322 yards (31.5 YPA) and three touchdowns as a kick returner (52 attempts), meaning he could potentially push for the role in Chicago currently occupied by WR Velus Jones, who is already on the hot seat.

DETROIT LIONS | Defensive tackle Mekhi Wingo (sixth-round pick) | The ex-LSU standout slipped a bit in the draft, perhaps due to his 6-foot, 286-pound frame, but he posted the second-fastest three-cone drill (7.33 seconds) and third-fastest 20-yard shuttle (4.45 seconds) among DTs at the combine. Wingo could contend for a spot ahead of Alim McNeill and Levi Onwuzurike along the defensive line. He could also start at edge-rusher, where he lined up during rookie mini-camp.

GREEN BAY PACKERS | Center Jacob Monk (fifth-round pick) | Monk impressed in his final year at Duke, allowing only one sack in 343 pass-blocking snaps, and could start at center eventually. He has average size for the position (6-foot-3, 310 pounds), but Monk is speedy, athletic and has tremendous versatility, starting games at right guard (36), right tackle (12) and center (10) in college. That puts him in excellent position to compete with Josh Myers and Sean Rhyan for the starting RG spot.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS | CB Khyree Jackson (fourth-round pick) | A big, physical cornerback with closing speed, Jackson has tremendous upside, allowing only one touchdown and a 41.6 passer rating in 320 coverage snaps last season with Oregon. With a solid camp, Jackson could overtake 2022 fourth-round pick Akayleb Evans, who finished 70th among cornerbacks in 2023 with a 52.5 rating, per Pro Football Focus. — Mike Santa Barbara

NFC South

ATLANTA FALCONS | EDGE Bralen Trice (third-round pick) | His Washington Huskies teammate Michael Penix Jr. might have a long wait to become Atlanta’s starting quarterback, but Trice could challenge for a starting role on the defensive line with a strong camp. The Falcons had one of the league’s worst pass rushes last season, so Trice might be able to unseat veteran Lorenzo Carter.

CAROLINA PANTHERS | TE Ja’Tavion Sanders (fourth-round pick) | Carolina probably didn’t spend the first pick of Day 3 on Sanders to have him sit behind tight ends Ian Thomas and Tommy Tremble for long. The two-year starter at Texas had 99 receptions for 1,295 yards and seven touchdown catches the past two seasons.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS | QB Spencer Rattler (fifth-round pick) | Rattler’s unexpected drop to Day 3 could ultimately be a blessing for the former five-star recruit. The former South Carolina star should have a chance to earn the No. 2 spot behind Derek Carr, who was forced to leave three games last season due to injury. And if Carr falters, who knows?

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS | WR Jalen McMillan (third-round pick) | McMillan can immediately compete for the slot-receiver role in Tampa’s offense with wideouts Mike Evans and Chris Godwin lined up on the outside. He played alongside Rome Odunze and Ja’Lynn Polk at Washington, so he already knows how to stand out in a crowded field. — Eric Smithling