NFL Analysis


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Day 3 NFL Rookies Who Could Make Instant Impact

San Francisco 49ers safety Malik Mustapha
Wake Forest Demon Deacons safety Malik Mustapha (3) breaks up a pass intended for Notre Dame Fighting Irish wide receiver Jordan Faison (80) in the first quarter at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL Draft is more than just the first round. The majority of NFL players are drafted on Day 3. And there are always a handful of rookies picked from Rounds 4-7 who make an impact right away. Look no further than Puka Nacua, who helped the Los Angeles Rams get back into the playoffs last year.

Who are the rookies that could step in right away and contribute in Year 1? Here are five Day 3 rookies to watch during the 2024 season.

Late-Round Picks Who Will Make Impact in 2024

Buffalo Bills running back Ray Davis
Kentucky Wildcats running back Ray Davis (1) runs with the ball against the Clemson Tigers in a game in the Gator Bowl at EverBank Stadium. (Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports)

Ray Davis, RB, Buffalo Bills 

The Buffalo Bills want to be more balanced on offense moving forward with Josh Allen. While they can win a lot of games with him throwing 40-plus times, the Bills believe their best chance of winning in the playoffs is to be more balanced. That played out in the second half of the 2023 season when the Bills leaned more into the run game.

James Cook is a capable starter, but the Bills needed to add a better player behind him in 2024. Last year, Latavius Murray, Ty Johnson, Damien Harris and Leonard Fournette all got time in the backfield. The Bills addressed their backup running back need in Round 4, selecting Kentucky RB Ray Davis.

Davis is a short (5-foot-8) but powerful running back who can run between the tackles. He is a tough, competitive runner who should fit well in Buffalo. The biggest knocks on Davis entering the 2024 NFL Draft were his age (he will turn 25 in November) and his college workload (840 touches). 

But the Bills don’t need a developmental running back with upside. They need a competent No. 2 back that can spell Cook and carry the workload if needed. That is why Davis is such a perfect fit with the Bills.

It wouldn't be a surprise if Davis opened the season as Buffalo's clear No. 2, and by the time the season ended, he and Cook were sharing the backfield equally. Davis is the type of runner the Bills have been missing over the last few seasons, and his style should fare well when the weather starts to turn. Outside of Keon Coleman, it wouldn't be a shock at all to see Davis be the second-most productive Bills rookie this season.

Malik Mustapha, S, San Francisco 49ers

This was not a particularly strong safety class, but several potential starters fell to Day 3 of the NFL Draft. One name to watch is Malik Mustapha, who fell to the bottom of Round 4. The biggest reason why Mustapha fell in the draft despite 24 starts at Wake Forest is due to his coverage ability. While he can operate fine in two-high looks, he is not the type of safety that can match up with opposing tight ends and slot receivers.

Instead, Mustapha makes his money by making plays in the run game. He is a box safety who plays like a linebacker and has no fears when it comes to taking on guards in the run game. Mustapha has fantastic instincts in the run game and the athleticism to be a disruptive defender. His game is reminiscent of a healthy Jamal Adams, who can be effective as a blitzer and as a run defender. 

Mustapha could have a role right away for the San Francisco 49ers due to the injuries of Dre Greenlaw and Talanoa Hufanga. Both players suffered season-ending injuries, and it's unclear when they will be back on the field. The 49ers need another physical presence in the middle of the defense, and it wouldn't be a surprise if Mustapha was the other nickel linebacker with Fred Warner. 

Mustapha doesn’t have the ceiling of some of the other safeties in this class because he’s always going to be limited in coverage. But as a box safety that can become an enforcer, Mustapha landed in the perfect situation. Expect him to play a ton early in the season and earn a role on the defense moving forward.

Las Vegas Raiders linebacker Tommy Eichenberg
Ohio State Buckeyes linebacker Tommy Eichenberg works out for NFL scouts during Pro Day at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. (Columbus Dispatch/USA TODAY-Sports)

Tommy Eichenberg, LB, Las Vegas Raiders

The biggest offseason goal for new coach Antonio Pierce was to improve the "spine" of the Las Vegas Raiders' defense. In the first week of free agency, the Raiders added Christian Wilkins to pair with Maxx Crosby, Tyree Wilson and Malcolm Koonce. They wanted to get better in the front seven, and they accomplished that goal.

But they did not draft a defensive player until Day 3 of the draft. One of their mid-round picks that is worth watching this year is linebacker Tommy Eichenberg, a fifth-round pick from Ohio State. During his career in Colombus, Ohio, Eichenberg started 27 games for the Buckeyes and racked up 266 tackles, including 21 tackles for a loss. However, an offseason hamstring injury forced him to miss a lot of pre-draft training, which could be why he fell to the fifth round. 

Robert Spillane and Divine Deablo give the Raiders two solid linebackers. But both will enter the final years of their contracts, and neither was drafted or signed by the current front office or coaching staff. Spillane is the most likely linebacker to stay on the field because Deablo has been unable to stay healthy for much of his career. It wouldn’t be a shock to see Eichenberg take his spot in the starting lineup as he would give the Raiders another plus run defender.

Eichenberg’s ability to stop the run is the reason he could get on the field a lot as a rookie. He has fantastic instincts and the power to stop runners in their tracks. While his coverage ability is a bit of a question mark, there is no doubt that he can be a net positive for the Raiders' defense right away with his intensity and football IQ.

Eichenberg projects as a starting linebacker in the NFL. The only question is how long will it take him to steal a job away from a veteran? 

New York Giants running back Tyrone Tracy Jr.
Purdue running back Tyrone Tracy Jr (RB25) during the 2024 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Tyrone Tracy Jr., RB, New York Giants

The New York Giants made the (wise) decision to let Saquon Barkley walk in free agency after six years of production. The Giants are in a semi-rebuild, so throwing even more money at a running back who has struggled to stay healthy didn't make sense. Instead, the Giants signed Devin Singletary to a modest contract and didn’t select a running back in the first four rounds of the 2024 NFL Draft. However, they added one of this class's most intriguing backs in former wide receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr. 

Tracy started his career with the Iowa Hawkeyes, appearing in 38 games as a wide receiver. But after modest production, he transferred to Purdue and started five games at receiver (2022). Ahead of the 2023 season, Tracy transitioned to running back, which likely saved his career. In his first year playing the position, Tracy led the Big Ten in yards per carry (6.3) and scored eight rushing touchdowns.

While Tracy isn’t ready to be a full-time running back (146 career carries in college), he is an incredible athlete who is a threat to score on any play. He posted a 9.78 RAS score, which ranks 42nd all-time (out of 1,903 running backs) after posting a 40-inch vertical jump at 209 pounds. 

Only Singletary is ahead of him on the depth chart, so Tracy should find a role right away. He is the most explosive running back on the roster and could have a Tony Pollard-like impact on the Giants in Year 1. 

Los Angeles Chargers cornerback Cam Hart
Notre Dame cornerback Cam Hart (5) intercepts a pass intended for Wisconsin wide receiver Kendric Pryor (3) during the second quarter of their game at Soldier Field in Chicago, Ill.

Cam Hart, CB, Los Angeles Chargers

The Los Angeles Chargers used a lot of their early draft capital to upgrade the offense, adding Joe Alt (offensive tackle) and Ladd McConkey (wide receiver) with their first two selections. The front office knew that they are in Year 1 of a rebuild, and it wouldn’t be possible to fill every hole in one offseason.

However, one player to monitor is Cam Hart, a cornerback that the Chargers selected at pick No. 140 (fifth round). Hart started 33 games at Notre Dame, recording 19 pass deflections and three interceptions. His overall production was modest, but his size (6-foot-3, 202 pounds) and his athleticism (9.00 RAS) are excellent. Hart’s game lacks refinement and his change-of-direction skills are poor, but it’s not hard to see how Hart could get on the field as a rookie. 

The Chargers' only established cornerback is Asante Samuel Jr. He was exclusively an outside cornerback last season. It remains to be seen how Jim Harbaugh and Jesse Minter view Samuel in their defense.

If Samuel gets moved to the slot, that opens up an opportunity for Hart to be one of the starting outside cornerbacks for the Chargers. Here are the other cornerbacks on the roster besides Samuel and their snap counts from the 2023 season: 

Kristin Fulton644
Ja'Sir Taylor534
Deane Leonard222
Chris Wilcox, Matt Hankins0

Needless to say, the Chargers have a big opening at cornerback, and Hart’s size, length and athleticism could make him a Day 1 starter. While we should expect that transition to be bumpy, Hart could easily be the best option on the outside with Kristian Fulton and Samuel in the slot. One way or another, expect Hart to be on the field in Week 1.