With the 2014 NFL Draft finished and the official release of the regular season schedule, some of the best freshman match-ups are laid out in full. In a sport full of strategy and teamwork, we still love the individual showdowns in the NFL and the rookie class is by no means exempt from the show. We spend countless hours trying to predict which rookies are actually going to make it and sometimes they flop, but every few years a star emerges and everything falls into place. Unfortunately, the months after the NFL Draft are painful and seem to drag by until that glorious Thursday Night Football kickoff in September.
The 2014 NFL Draft brought us 3 quarterbacks in the 1st round, all of whom carried some pretty heavy attention during the off-season. It was also a heavily defense-oriented 1st round which kind of decreases the anticipation of some rookie match-ups since their positioning puts more emphasis on keeping points off the board than putting them on the board. Considering timing, popularity, college rivalry and draft status, we’ve narrowed it down to 10 rookie match-ups that have the potential to be amazing rivalries. Since there were no runningbacks drafted in the 1st round of the 2014 Draft, a lot of the highly anticipated rookie match-ups also favor defense. With the 1st overall pick going to a defensive end, there must certainly be a lot of Houston fans that hope Jadeveon Clowney will spend a long time terrorizing the AFC South.
Even if your team has been pretty quiet during the offseason, the 2014-2015 regular season kicks off with a Fail Mary reunion between the defending Super Bowl Champions and the Green Bay Packers. There’s potential for a solid rookie match-up on the first night of the season with Seattle using their first draft pick on former Colorado wide receiver Paul Richardson and Green Bay filling a huge void in their secondary with Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Regardless of where your loyalty lies, there’s nothing like watching two rookie contenders vie for the top seat.
10. FS Ha Ha Clinton-Dix v. WR Mike Evans
Week 16 – GB v. TB
Evans and the Texas A&M Hogies steamrolled Clinton-Dix’s Alabama team during their last two meetings and it will be interesting to see if he can help Tampa Bay do the same against the Packers’ improved secondary. Clinton-Dix will be joining powerhouse linebacker Clay Matthews and his highly-anticipated new defensive partner, eight-time Pro Bowler Julius Peppers on the Packers’ defense. While Tampa Bay’s highest-drafted prospect will hope to find a place in the WR2 position supporting Vincent Jackson. Given the timing of this game, there could be serious postseason implications.
9. WR Sammy Watkins v. CB Kyle Fuller
Week 1 – BUF v. CHI
The Buffalo Bills paid a hefty price to move up and snag the No. 1 receiver who’s seen plenty of Fuller in the Atlanta Coast Conference. Sammy Watkins was drafted 4th overall out of Clemson while Fuller went 14th from Virginia Tech but fans might get a glance in week 1 of the regular season if both these rookies are able to make the starting lineup. According to the NCAA, Virginia Tech dominated Clemson during the 2000’s but the Tigers have crushed the Hokies during their last three meetings. Chicago may have drafted the best cornerback in this year’s draft so it’ll be interesting to see how he stands up to the no.1 wideout.
8. RB Jeremy Hill v. RB Bishop Sankey
Week 3 – CIN v. TEN
Last year Cincinnati drafted the first RB in the 2nd round when they selected Giovani Bernard from North Carolina, so this year it was almost bizarre that they locked down the 2nd RB of the draft with Jeremy Hill from LSU selected 55th overall. The Bengals didn’t miss the first pick by much since Tennessee snagged Washington’s Bishop Sankey just before with the 54th pick of the 2014 NFL Draft. If Hill wasn’t competing with Bernard for RB1 and if Tennessee hadn’t come fresh off losing Chris Johnson, this could’ve been one of the hottest match-ups of the season.
7. OT Greg Robinson v. DE/OLB Khalil Mack
Week 13 – STL v. OAK
Mack will take on Robinson off the edge given the game is late enough in the season for both players to put on a good performance. Former Auburn offensive lineman Greg Robinson surprised the football community when he was drafted 2nd overall by the St. Louis Rams while Mack was highly-touted through the Combine and arguably could’ve gone earlier than 5th overall.
Ideally, the rookie defensive match-up of the year would’ve come down to the Texans’ Jadeveon Clowney and the Rams’ Greg Robinson, but the 2014-2015 regular season won’t grant that wish. But, in a game that will likely focus more on David Carr’s debut than a defensive showdown, we can still expect a good performance from both sides of the ball.
6. QB Johnny Manziel v. QB Blake Bortles
Week 7 – CLE v. JAX
It should come as no surprise that fans are (perhaps unreasonably) expecting a rookie QB showdown. It’s not impossible but both athletes will have to put in a lot of work to guarantee the QB1 position in Cleveland and Jacksonville, respectively. As much as that could happen, it’s unlikely to compare to the new school rivalry between 49ers’ QB Colin Kaepernick and defending Super Bowl champion QB Russell Wilson.
Jacksonville could have drafted Johnny Manziel 3rd overall but surprised many people when they selected former University of Central Florida QB Blake Bortles who was expected to go later in the first round. Although Manziel is rather unconventional for his position, he did win the 2012 Heisman Trophy Award and would probably like to lead the rookie class. Bortles will also have to watch out for former Oklahoma State CB Justin Gilbert in the secondary.
5. CB Justin Gilbert v. WR Sammy Watkins
Week 13 – CLE v. BUF
The first defensive back off the board versus the first wide receiver drafted at the 2014 NFL Draft. Watkins is a former Clemson superstar while Gilbert hails from Oklahoma State. With Buffalo’s recent woes during the regular season, Watkins is likely the underdog in this match-up as Gilbert should be looking to make one dangerous defensive tandem with Pro Bowler Joe Haden.
However, if Watkins snags WR1 in Buffalo then don’t expect this rivalry to last very long as Cleveland is likely going to put Haden to work on the rookie wide receiver. If this match-up does pay off in favor of Buffalo, Cleveland can only blame themselves as they were the ones who traded the 4th overall pick of the draft to the Bills who then drafted Sammy Watkins.
4. TE Eric Ebron v. FS Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
Week 3 & 17 – DET v. GB
This match-up could wind up being the best rookie match-up of the entire season. With the first face-off coming early in the season and the last match-up capping off the regular season, the NFC North is a ticking time bomb. If this rookie battle ends in favor of Green Bay, Detroit will only have themselves to blame as they questionably passed on Alabama’s Clinton-Dix when they took the North Carolina TE 10th overall. With both prospects carrying high expectations — Ebron hoping to fill the void in Detroit’s TE slot next to Calvin Johnson and Clinton-Dix expecting to be Green Bay’s secondary saviour — this deflated rivalry could find some rejuvenation in 2014.
3. DE Jadeveon Clowney v. OLB Khalil Mack
Week 2 – HOU v. OAK
Arguably the biggest battle for Defensive Rookie of the Year will come early when the Texans’ Jadeveon Clowney duels the Raiders’ Khalil Mack for the top spot. This is a showdown of premier pass-rushers in their debut season with both players coincidentally landing in franchises facing their own crises. According to Bleacher Report, both players pan out pretty evenly as Clowney produced 16 sacks over the past 2 years at SC, while Mack boasted 18.5 during the same period at Buffalo. But, some analysts believed Mack was a better fit Houston’s 3-4 style so we’ll see who settles in quicker during the week 2 faceoff.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers v. Baltimore Ravens
Week 2 & 9 – PIT v. BAL
Regardless of the emerging 2014 NFL Rookie class, the Pittsburgh Steelers-Baltimore Ravens is rich with history of back-and-forth battles for the AFC North Division. However, the upcoming season will bring us two matchups pretty early in the season which could make these rivalries that much more important for either team to consider a postseason berth. While the AFC North has traditionally been a showdown between these two teams, the Bengals have been on the rise the last 2 seasons and Cleveland is hoping to rejuvenate the franchise with the popular addition of QB Johnny Manziel and former Oklahoma State CB Justin Gilbert.
One of the best rookie matchups we can look forward to is betwen former Kent State WR Dri Archer versus former Florida State FS Terrence Brooks. Archer ran a 4.29 40-yard dash, the fastest of any prospect at the 2014 NFL Combine and Brooks helped his team win the 2014 BCS National Championship game defeating the Auburn Tigers 34-31 in Pasadena, California. Another highly anticipated contest is between former Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier and former Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley. Although Shazier is an outside linebacker and Mosley is considered an all-around inside player, these two just need to be good enough to keep this rivalry going.
1. QB Johnny Manziel v. DE Jadeveon Clowney
Week 11 – HOU v. CLE
The two most talked about players from the 2014 NFL Draft will face off for the first time in Week 11. South Carolina native Jadeveon Clowney wound up in Texas where Johnny Football had hoped he would continue to call home, but Manziel found a surprising home in Cleveland. Although the former Texas A&M QB is less likely to start, this late season match-up will give both rookies enough time to find roots in their new homes. There are many football fans that would love to see Clowney hit Manziel like he hit former University of Michigan RB Vincent Smith in the 2013 Outback Bowl.