Ryan Tannehill and Ronnie Hillman: 2 Big-Name NFL Rookies with Bust Potential
Every National Football League draft season is followed by the remainder of the offseason, the preseason schedule and finally the actual slate of games that count.
Simultaneous to these evolving periods on the calendar are waves of hype that build for certain prospects, some of which reach a crescendo before the players themselves crash down to the floor of rookie reality and even further into the basement of bust candidacy.
NFL rookies get overly or wrongly hyped for a variety of reasons.
It can be a widespread misread on their general abilities or a specific overestimation of readiness.
Other cases are more out of the control of the players themselves, such as debilitating injuries or staffs/systems that do not properly utilize them. Still other instances are borne by fans' and fantasy footballers' expectations based on how productive players were in college, and those expectations often fail to grasp the arbitrary relationship of that connection.
A fun and challenging caveat to the rookie bust discussion comes in the form of players that succeed/produce in their first years, only to flame out relatively quickly thereafter.
Is that player a bust, or does his one season of relative quality preclude him from that branding?
I still see that case as a bust. Teams do not draft and develop players with the plan or idea that they will only get one year of production out of them, especially if the prospect is taken in the higher rounds.
A famous example of this scenario is Ickey Woods, the charismatic former running back of the Cincinnati Bengals.
Woods was selected 31st overall (an early second-round pick at the time, which would be a late first-rounder under the current format) out of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, and he enjoyed a splendid first campaign for the Bengals. As their feature back en route to narrowly losing in the Super Bowl, he ran for over 1,000 yards, a 5.3-yard average per attempt and 15 touchdowns.
Mainly due to a serious knee injury, Woods made only 10 more starts in the ensuing three NFL seasons and was out of the league for good following the 1991 year.
While I am open to this sort of trajectory with the following prediction for two name-recognition rookies to bust, I will assert that I do not expect either of them to enjoy an even remotely similar level of success that Woods did in 1988.
Ronnie Hillman, RB, San Diego State University; Round 3: 67th Overall, Denver Broncos
To begin, this video (courtesy of DraftBreakdown.com) illustrates well Hillman's strengths and weaknesses.
While he certainly cannot be considered a high pick, a mid-third-round selection—and there are countless prospects that fail every year in this draft range—Hillman registers differently on a couple of points.
The first: I thought he was grossly over-drafted.
While neither my evaluation nor draft projection of Hillman ever made it into a previous Bleacher Report piece, I repeatedly stood alone in the Twitter draftnik community with my undrafted free-agent grade, and I did not even list him as a priority free agent.
This led to my being comfortable projecting him to be a mid-Day 3 pick, so when Denver pulled the trigger where they did, I saw a foundation being laid for a solid bust and disappointment.
Given Hillman's size, perceived skill set and draft position, it appears that the Broncos feel as though he could be LaMichael James 2.0 or some approximation of a Brian Westbrook or Darren Sproles type of player.
I dispute all of this, offering that Hillman does not run with nearly the same conviction or explosion as this trio—two traits that made, make or will (in James' case) make them all so dangerous.
My second point revolves around Hillman getting a fair amount of publicity this offseason as a sleeper all-purpose back in Denver's new Peyton-headed offense and/or an intriguing later-RB or flex option in fantasy football. When I evaluated Hillman last winter, I saw an undersized back that is not especially electric running away from and putting up huge numbers against defenses with very little speed and NFL talent.
Will Ronnie Hillman be a bust?
He constantly bounced runs outside, and often succeeded, at the first sight of noise inside. That running instinct—something that also befalls fellow rookie running back David Wilson, another bust prediction of mine—is rarely productive at the highest level.
In terms of third-down functionality, he offers little in pass protection due to a lack of leverage, lower-body strength and technique. He is also an unreliable receiver out of the backfield.
I do not see Hillman appealing to John Fox or Peyton Manning as a rookie, and he should find the going only harder as his first contract progresses. That is, unless he enjoys tremendous development toward becoming a more complete back.
With all of the question marks surrounding Denver's offensive backfield, which has partly led to some of the excitement around Hillman from an opportunity standpoint, the name I recommend keeping an eye on is Mario Fannin.
Those who followed me on Twitter or read my work leading up to the draft are aware of my opinion that Tannehill has some of the highest bust potential in this class because of where he was selected.
I will contradict myself to a degree by acknowledging that Tannehill's bust rating very likely goes down if he is relegated to the clipboard and No. 3 duty throughout the majority—if not the entirety—of his first two seasons.
And that sideline development could even spill into a third season if either Matt Moore or David Garrard is able to establish himself as the unquestioned starter, stay healthy and lead the Dolphins to the playoffs this year or next.
It will be interesting, however, in the same light, to see if the Dolphins exercise the discipline of letting Tannehill get his NFL legs underneath him from the sideline should either veteran struggle, or if the team falters in general. The modern NFL landscape is an impatient one when it comes to quarterbacks drafted in the top 10.
Not unlike a lot of other would-be phenom signal-callers, I think Tannehill will greatly increase his chances for even a modicum of success by sitting two or three seasons.
Despite his physical prowess, which is ample, where he struggles—so much so that I have him pegged as the bust that I do—is with the nuances and instincts for the position. The craft, if you will.
Some of this can be explained away, and perhaps he can be projected to play up as it dissipates with experience.
But I also believe that there is an innate feel to playing the position of quarterback—an unseen timing on different plays, being able to deliver the ball blindly to outlets when the blocking goes awry, knowing how to manipulate coverages with the eyes and subtle movements.
I feel as though Tannehill lacks most of that ability and is simply a great athlete out there, just playing the position.
One physical thing that Tannehill does suffer from as it projects to the NFL, though it is correctable to a degree, is that he almost always telegraphs where he is going with the ball. Combine this with a somewhat average release in terms of quickness, and the result will be a lot of pass deflections, interceptions and even boomerangs at the next level.
Superior arm strength and weaker college competition—just a slower game in general—forgive this combination. But it will be something Tannehill will have to clean up if he is going to avoid becoming another highly-drafted athletic bust at the quarterback position.
Right now I liken his profile and career trajectory to that of J.P. Losman, Kyle Boller and Patrick Ramsey.
They are all above-average athletes with good size and arm strength that ultimately did not develop because of cerebral and instinctual limitations.
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