Not every NFL rookie's learning curve is the same. For instance, Denver Broncos second-round QB Drew Lock started four years in the SEC but won't start out of the gate in the NFL, while first-rounders Kyler Murray and Dwayne Haskins each started for only one season — albeit brilliantly at major programs — but are likely to be handed the reins by their respective organizations on Day 1.
The QB position obviously is unique, but the point remains: Outside circumstances as much as talent level or draft status dictates how soon a rookie is called on in the pros. The Broncos agreed to trade for Joe Flacco more than two months before the opportunity to trade down with Pittsburgh in Round 1 for an extra second-rounder converged with Lock's surprising tumble to Day 2. Arizona doesn't draft Murray No. 1 overall, and Washington might not pick Haskins, if not for the Kliff Kingsbury hire and Alex Smith injury, respectively.
The NFL is a league about attrition and turnover, where patience decreasingly is awarded. Keep that in mind as we unveil the five small-school rookies with the biggest shoes to fill this season. Also keep in mind that the pressure not only falls on these raw prospects being tossed into the fire but their position coaches (included in parentheses).
1. Houston Texans OT Tytus Howard, Alabama State (OL coach: Mike Devlin)
Heck, we could mention either of Houston's picks along the offensive line on the first two nights of the draft, as Northern Illinois' Max Scharping (selected 55th overall) doesn't exactly hail from a football factory but could be asked to start on Day 1.
But Howard is the Texans' first-rounder, and whether or not they had Andre Dillard in their sights before the Philadelphia Eagles traded directly in front of them, the reality is Howard is now the guy responsible for protecting Deshaun Watson's blindside. Remember, last year another small-school rookie — Julie'n Davenport of Bucknell — played a big part in Watson, less than a year removed from his second ACL surgery, absorbing more punishment than any other NFL quarterback.
Howard is a far greater talent, but he has a ton to learn after playing quarterback in high school and beginning his college career at tight end. He might have as much upside as any player in the draft, but production — not upside — is what Houston is banking on to better protect the organization's most important asset.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars LB Quincy Williams, Murray State (LB coach Mark Collins)
We'd be lying if we told you we know a ton about the ex-Racers safety who wasn't in our draft magazine or database despite it being routinely updated for two months after the mag went to the printer. But the Jaguars would be lying if they told you there isn't significant concern internally over the abrupt announcement by Telvin Smith that he's not playing football this season.
Smith is about as rare of a playmaking linebacker as there is in the NFL, and though he took a step back (along with Myles Jack) last season, Jacksonville still must replace the roughly 100 tackles and three takeaways it banks on annually from one of the game's fastest, most dynamic defenders. Perhaps recent vet signees Najee Goode, Ramik Wilson and D.J. Alexander can lengthen Williams' leash a bit, but they're all replacement-level players aiming to replace a stalwart, and none match Williams' draft (over-draft?) pedigree.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers CB Sean Bunting, Central Michigan (CB coach: Kevin Ross)
Three disappointing years after selecting Vernon Hargreaves 11th overall, the Bucs surprisingly made Bunting the fourth cornerback off the board last month. He's an athletic and rugged ballhawk, just the way new DC Todd Bowles likes his defensive backs, but Bunting started only two years for the Chippewas, who won just once in 12 tries last season.
Bowles asks a lot of his corners in a man-heavy and blitz-happy scheme, where Bunting will compete with VH3 and a pair of second-rounders last year in Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart for early playtime. But GM Jason Licht is very much on the hot seat, and after appearing to whiff on Hargreaves, his highest-drafted corner since will be expected to ball. Whether Bunting is up to the challenge could help tell the tale of the 2019 Tampa 'D.'
4. Pittsburgh Steelers WR Diontae Johnson, Toledo (WR coach Darryl Drake)
Plucked with the second overall pick in the third round to help replace another former MAC receiver you might have heard of (and certainly have heard from this offseason), Antonio Brown, Johnson joins a WR corps with JuJu Smith-Schuster, who established himself as a star last year, and James Washington, the 2017 Biletnikoff winner who was selected six spots earlier than Johnson in 2018 and endured a rough rookie go.
Still everyone will associate the Johnson pick with Brown after the All Pro's loud forced exit from Pittsburgh and is well aware of Kevin Colbert's track record drafting wideouts. Not only was Johnson selected more than 100 picks before the fellow MAC product Brown nearly a decade earlier, they're nearly identical in size and have similar styles. No pressure though.
5. Baltimore Ravens EDGE Jaylon Ferguson, Louisiana Tech (DL coach Joe Cullen)
The all-time NCAA sack leader, Ferguson fell to the middle of Round 3 partially as the result of his sub-optimal pro day after his combine invite was rescinded. All he'll need to do to get over that disappointment is help Ravens fans get over the disappointment of future Hall of Famer Terrell Suggs departing in free agency for the comforts of home in Arizona. Also departing the Ravens EDGE stable this offseason was Za'Darius Smith, who led the Ravens in sacks and QB hits last season.
Matt Judon becomes Baltimore's new pass rusher 1A, but with the higher-pedigreed Tim Williams of Alabama yet to show much entering Year 3, the hope has to be that Ferguson, despite a much bigger jump in competition, endures fewer growing pains.