Seven former Ohio State players were selected in this past weekend’s 2018 NFL draft. Now that they know where they will be beginning their NFL careers, it’s time for them to get back to work.
While the new crop of rookies are still just getting settled in with their new teams, they’ll be taking the field for rookie minicamps either this weekend or next. Soon after that, they’ll participate in offseason workouts and mandatory minicamps with the rest of their new teammates. And in less than three months, the new rookies will begin their first NFL training camps, which is where their opportunities to compete for position on the depth chart will truly heat up.
All seven of Ohio State’s draft picks will be looking to prove that they belong on the field this season, while those Buckeyes who have been signed as undrafted free agents or otherwise invited to rookie minicamps will be looking to prove that they belong in the NFL altogether.
Cleveland Browns cornerback/No. 4 overall pick Denzel Ward and Cincinnati Bengals center/No. 21 overall pick Billy Price, as first-round picks, stand out as the most likely Buckeyes to become immediate stars for their teams in their upcoming rookie season. That said, the other Buckeyes who were drafted this weekend – Tyquan Lewis, Jerome Baker, Sam Hubbard, Jalyn Holmes and Jamarco Jones – should also have a shot to earn playing time this season and potentially earn starting spots either this year or down the line.
Let’s take a look at how each drafted Buckeye could fit in with their new NFL teams this season and going forward, as well as which undrafted Buckeyes have the best chances to make rosters and earn playing time this season.
Denzel Ward, CB, Cleveland Browns (Round 1, No. 4 overall pick)
Even though he was one of the first four players selected in the entire draft, Ward won’t simply be handed a starting job by the Browns. The Browns’ roster already included five veteran cornerbacks who started at least seven games for various teams last season – T.J. Carrie, Jamar Taylor, E.J. Gaines, Terrance Mitchell and Briean Boddy-Calhoun – so all of them will be competing for a spot on the top row of the depth chart, too.
With that being said, Ward should certainly have every opportunity to beat out those cornerbacks and earn a starting job or even become the Browns’ No. 1 cornerback right off the bat, given how highly he was selected. Ward is more talented than any of those cornerbacks, and the Browns wouldn’t have drafted him with the No. 4 overall pick if they didn’t feel like they needed to upgrade their lineup at the position.
Dominant in coverage in his final season at Ohio State, earning consensus All-American honors in the process, Ward is arguably a better prospect going into the league than former Buckeye teammate Marshon Lattimore was last year – and Lattimore went on to win Defensive Rookie of the Year honors for the New Orleans Saints. Already a technically sound player possessing elite speed, it’s well within the realm of possibility that Ward could make his own run at that award this season.
Billy Price, C, Cincinnati Bengals (Round 1, No. 21 overall pick)
The surest bet among Ohio State’s draft picks to be an immediate and successful starter for his new team in his rookie season might well be Price, assuming he is able to make a full recovery from the incomplete pectoral tear he suffered at the NFL Scouting Combine, which he has already said he is on track for before the Bengals begin training camp in July.
Each of Ohio State’s last two centers to be drafted, Pat Elflein and Corey Linsley, have gone on to immediately earn starting jobs and have excellent rookie seasons with the NFL teams – and Elflein was selected in the third round while Linsley was selected in the fifth round. As a first-round pick who is even more talented than they are, Price has the potential to be even better.
The Bengals’ starting center from the last four seasons, Russell Bodine, is now with the Buffalo Bills, and the only other center on their roster is T.J. Johnson – a 2013 seventh-round pick who has started just five career games. As long as Price is healthy, the four-year Ohio State starter should be easily to win the starting center job in training camp and establish himself as a leader of the Bengals’ offensive line in his first NFL season.
Tyquan Lewis, DE, Indianapolis Colts (Round 2, No. 64 overall pick)
Lewis’ path to a starting spot on the Colts’ defensive line could be blocked by another former Buckeye, John Simon, who is expected to be one of the Colts’ starting defensive ends in their new 4-3 defense. Jabaal Sheard is expected to start opposite Simon, while 2017 third-round pick Tarell Basham from Ohio University and free-agent signee Denico Autry are also expected to be in the defensive end rotation.
For Lewis and fellow second-round draft pick Kemoko Turay from Rutgers, that means they’ll have to compete just to earn a spot in the rotation this season. That said, the Colts presumably wouldn’t have invested second-round picks in each of them if they didn’t think they could contribute quickly, and Lewis – a three-year regular in Ohio State’s defensive end rotation – has a wealth of experience that should make him a pro-ready player.
Because of the Colts’ depth at the position, it’s unlikely Lewis will see a huge amount of playing time at defensive end as a rookie. One thing that could help his chances of getting on the field early, though, is his experience playing as an interior pass-rusher in the Buckeyes’ "Rushmen" package. Don’t be surprised if the Colts look to deploy Lewis in a similar role in their own defense in pass-rushing situations.
Jerome Baker, LB, Miami Dolphins (Round 3, No. 73 overall pick)
Outside of the first-round picks, Baker appears to be in the best position among the Buckeye draftees to potentially earn a starting spot right away in his first preseason.
The Dolphins went into the draft with a need to add a playmaker at outside linebacker, and Baker was the top player they drafted at the position. While fellow former Ohio State linebacker Raekwon McMillan is set to start for the Dolphins at middle linebacker this season and Kiko Alonso is set to be one of the Dolphins’ starting outside linebackers, the other outside linebacker spot in their 4-3 base defense appears to be wide open for competition.
Returning veteran Stephone Anthony could open camp as the Dolphins’ starting strongside linebacker, but Baker should get every opportunity to beat him out. Even if the Dolphins were to not believe he is ready to start at the linebacker by the beginning of the season, though, Baker should still at least see some playing time in the linebacker rotation while also utilizing his top-notch athleticism to make plays on special teams.
Sam Hubbard, DE, Cincinnati Bengals (Round 3, No. 77 overall pick)
Like Lewis, Hubbard isn’t likely to be in the mix for a starting defensive end spot in his rookie season, but he should have a shot to at least earn his way into the rotation and see some playing time.
The Bengals have an established pair of starting defensive ends in Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson. They also drafted a third-round pick at the position last year, Jordan Willis, who should be in line for increased playing time this year, as will 2017 fourth-round pick Carl Lawson, who primarily plays linebacker but is also part of the Bengals’ edge pass-rushing rotation.
Still, the Bengals should have an opening for one more defensive end in their rotation with the departure of Chris Smith to the Browns in free agency. Given that Hubbard is at his best as a run defender, he is likely to see most of his playing time on early downs when Dunlap or Johnson is rotated out of the game for rest, while being groomed as a potential future starter with Dunlap and Johnson both entering the final years of their contracts.
Jalyn Holmes, DT, Minnesota Vikings (Round 4, No. 102 overall pick)
Although Holmes primarily played defensive end at Ohio State, Vikings general manager Rick Spielman has already indicated that they will move Holmes inside to play as a 3-technique defensive tackle, as Spielman believes Holmes’ best value to the team could come as an interior pass-rusher – a role that Holmes, like Lewis, played regularly for the Buckeyes in the "Rushmen" package.
Sheldon Richardson signed with the Vikings this offseason to be their starting 3-technique tackle, but Holmes projects as Richardson’s likely top backup. Like Lewis, Holmes’ best opportunity to get on the field in a regular capacity as a rookie will likely come in pass-rushing situations, where the Vikings could take advantage of his experience as an interior pass-rusher and play him simultaneously alongside Richardson to give their defensive line a jolt of inside quickness.
Richardson’s contract with the Vikings is for only one season, so if Holmes impresses in a situational role as a rookie, he could potentially be groomed to take over a starting spot on the Vikings’ defensive line in 2019.
Jamarco Jones, OT, Seattle Seahawks (Round 5, No. 168 overall pick)
Given that he was a fifth-round pick, Jones isn’t likely to push for a starting spot on the Seahawks’ offensive line as a rookie, which means he might not see regular playing time on offense this year. Duane Brown is in line to be the Seahawks’ starting left tackle, while Germain Ifedi is in line to start at right tackle, and Jones is likely to begin his career as one of their backups.
If he can establish himself as a reliable backup and perform well when called upon this year, though, Jones could have a shot to move into the starting lineup in 2019. Brown is entering the final year of his contract with the Seahawks, while Ifedi has struggled in his first two seasons since being a first-round draft pick in 2016.
So if the Seahawks don’t re-sign Brown after this season or if Ifedi continues to struggle, Jones could end up having the chance to replace one of them next season. For this season, Jones will likely be a reserve, but he’ll still need to be ready to play, as he could end up being the first tackle off the bench if one of the starters suffers an injury.
Undrafted Free Agents
While Ohio State’s seven draft picks should all be safe bets to make their teams’ 53-man rosters, given that none of them were selected later the fifth round, the same cannot be said for the Buckeyes’ undrafted rookies. Those players, including five Buckeyes who have already signed free-agent contracts and three others who are set to participate in tryouts at rookie minicamps, will need to compete and perform well over the next four months just to earn spots on regular-season rosters, let alone earn regular playing time.
The players who have only received tryout invitations at this point face the longest odds of making a 53-man roster, giving them no teams have even committed to signing them to their 90-man rosters. Nonetheless, at least three Buckeyes are set to participate in rookie minicamp tryouts in hopes of beating the odds: quarterback J.T. Barrett will participate in the Colts’ minicamp, defensive tackle Michael Hill will participate in the Detroit Lions’ minicamp and former walk-on defensive end Nick Seme will tryout as a long snapper at the Browns’ minicamp. (Update: Ohio State announced Monday morning that Barrett has also accepted an invitation to participate in the New Orleans Saints' minicamp.)
The five undrafted Buckeyes who have already signed free-agent contracts will still have to battle just to earn roster spots as well, but all of them should at least get to compete in training camps with realistic paths to making their teams’ rosters.
Defensive backs Damon Webb and Elijaah Goins both signed with the Tennessee Titans, whose secondary coach Kerry Coombs – given that he was formerly Ohio State’s cornerbacks coach and special teams coordinator – should already be familiar with their abilities to contribute on defense and perhaps more importantly, on special teams, which is where they will need to prove they can make plays in order to secure roster spots as backups in the secondary.
The same could be said for Cincinnati Bengals signee Chris Worley, who played all three linebacker positions in Ohio State’s 4-3 defense and therefore offers versatility as a potential backup linebacker for the Bengals, but will also likely need to make his mark on special teams first to have a shot to stick around and contribute on defense.
The Oakland Raiders, who signed Baugh, have four veteran tight ends on their roster in Jared Cook, Derek Carrier, Lee Smith and Pharaoh Brown, but any of them other than Cook could be beaten out for a roster spot. The Carolina Panthers, who signed Sprinkle, have a strong top trio of defensive tackles in Kawann Short, Dontari Poe and Vernon Butler, and another solid returning veteran in Kyle Love, but should still have a roster spot at the position for Sprinkle and seventh-round draft pick Kendrick Norton to compete for.
Unlike the drafted Buckeyes, it would be a surprise to see any of the undrafted Buckeyes play in major capacities for NFL teams in 2018, but it’s possible that a few of them could earn regular-season roster spots this season and work their way up into bigger roles in future seasons.