Predicting 10 Most Disappointing NFL Rookies
NFL rookies are rarely expected to be disappointments. Each team brings in its rookie class every year with optimism that its draft picks will provide the players that it needs to fill the holes on its roster in order to reach the next level of success.
Yet while every rookie class produces instant superstars, we all know that many rookies will fail to live up to expectations in their first seasons. Some of those players, especially those who were draft reaches with early picks, will never live up to expectations.
San Diego Chargers outside linebacker Melvin Ingram, Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Nick Perry and San Francisco 49ers wide receiver A.J. Jenkins are among the first-round picks who fell well short of meeting expectations as rookies last season.
The following 10 rookies were all drafted in the first three rounds of the 2013 NFL draft, and all have the potential to be great. However, while they were all drafted to quickly step into important roles for their teams, they may not be ready to fill those shoes just yet.
10. T.J. McDonald, S, St. Louis Rams
The St. Louis Rams released Quintin Mikell and did not re-sign Craig Dahl, leaving the team to find new starters at the safety position. With little experience on the roster at the position, one of those starters is expected to be T.J. McDonald, the No. 71 overall pick out of USC.
McDonald may be the most talented and athletically-gifted safety on the Rams' roster. He has terrific size for the position (6'2", 219 lbs.), is an explosive athlete and has a nose for the ball.
As an in-the-box safety, McDonald should be a big playmaker as a blitzer and hard-hitting tackler. His coverage ability, however, is quite suspect.
McDonald shows stiff hips and could be a liability in deep coverage. For a team that really needs to improve from last season in its ability to cover the middle of the field, McDonald must improve quickly to be the player the Rams need in 2013.
McDonald has the athletic ability to cover receivers over the middle and tight ends, but he hasn't shown the fluidity of motion or technique to do so consistently yet. He would be best suited to be worked into an NFL defense gradually by playing mostly in run support or as a "star" hybrid/linebacker, but that likely won't be an option in St. Louis.
Video courtesy of Draft Breakdown.
9. Kenny Vaccaro, S, New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints added an impact player to their secondary with the selection of Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro at No. 15 overall, but while Vaccaro can be an immediate playmaker on the Saints' defense, he may not be able to fix their problems at the safety position right away.
Vaccaro does a very good job of making plays on the ball. He is a hard hitter, aggressive blitzer and active tackler. He has good ball skills in coverage and has good playmaking range.
The Saints, however, already have two safeties with a good amount of playmaking ability in Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper. The problems with those safeties, who Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded as the NFL's two worst safeties last season, are blown coverages and missed tackles.
Those two elements are also issues in Vaccaro's game. While he is a physical cover safety who is very good in slot coverage, he has some issues with deep coverage. He also is known for making plays all over the field in run support, but whiffed tackles were an issue for him throughout his Texas career.
Vaccaro should be a coverage upgrade over Harper, who he is expected to replace in the starting lineup, and should make some big plays that will get the team and its fans excited about his future. But it is unlikely that his addition is going to immediately fix the middle of the Saints' secondary in 2013.
8. D.J. Hayden, CB, Oakland Raiders
It's tough to include Oakland Raiders cornerback D.J. Hayden on this list, because he has a story that makes everyone want to root for him.
The Houston product made one of the most incredible comebacks in NFL draft history, surviving a near-fatal injury and ending up as the No. 12 overall draft pick less than six months later.
Going into his rookie season, however, Hayden is facing more adversity. After undergoing abdominal surgery in May, Hayden missed the majority of the Raiders' OTAs and the team's three-day minicamp, putting him behind on repetitions going into training camp.
Hayden is "on track" to return for training camp, Raiders head coach Dennis Allen told the Contra Costa Times, but he is going to have to catch up quickly. He is expected to be one of the team's two starting cornerbacks this fall.
Hayden has yet to play in a football game since his injury, and has to come back as an even better player than he was before. While he is an outstanding athlete with great ball skills, he needs to become more polished in off coverage and acclimate himself quickly to an increase in competition.
Given all that he is coming back from, the best move for the Raiders may be to start him out as the nickel cornerback behind Mike Jenkins and Tracy Porter. That, however, would not be living up to the expectations for Hayden's rookie season.
Strong safety Tyvon Branch is the closest player the Raiders have to a star on their defense. With one of the NFL's lesser-talented rosters, the Raiders need their first-round pick to be immediately productive at the very least.
While Hayden certainly has proven he can overcome adversity, his rookie season could be a disappointment.
7. Travis Frederick, C, Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys desperately needed to improve their interior offensive line in the 2013 NFL draft. That desperation led them to draft Travis Frederick with the No. 31 overall pick, even though few—including the Cowboys’ own draft board—graded Frederick as a first-round talent.
Frederick is expected to start at center. While he should be an upgrade over previous starting centers Phil Costa and Ryan Cook, he also may not be the player they need to immediately solve their interior line woes.
While Frederick finished his Wisconsin career at center, he is a better fit to play guard in the NFL. Nonetheless, he steps into a position where he must immediately handle the pressure of anchoring the Cowboys' offensive line and making play calls.
Stepping in immediately as a starting center is daunting for any NFL rookie in that position, but it could be a tough adjustment for Frederick. While he can be a big, physical mauler in the middle of the Cowboys' offensive line, he is a subpar athlete, even for an interior offensive lineman.
Frederick will struggle with pull and trap blocking, and will have to be very technically sound against speed rushes up the middle. For a team that struggled mightily in giving up pressure up the middle last season, Frederick must quickly adjust to the NFL game and improve his pass protection.
If he cannot do that, this pick will continue to be questioned just as much as it was when the Cowboys made their surprising first-round selection.
6. Kyle Long, G, Chicago Bears
Travis Frederick wasn't the only surprising offensive lineman selected in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft.
Eleven picks earlier, the Chicago Bears made an unexpected choice when they drafted Oregon's Kyle Long at No. 20 overall.
With an intriguing combination of length and athleticism, Long has the versatility to play both offensive tackle and guard. He is expected to start at right guard as a rookie, according to the Chicago Tribune.
The son of Hall of Fame defensive end Howie Long and brother of St. Louis Rams defensive end Chris Long, Kyle Long has great bloodlines and inherited their NFL size and athleticism. The problem for Long going into his rookie season is his lack of experience.
Long is both quick and powerful, and has the potential to develop into a great NFL player. However, he needs to become more acclimated to playing offensive line at a high level and improve his technique.
Unfortunately for Long, he hasn't had much opportunity to gain experience yet with the Bears. Due to NFL rules and a late graduation date for Oregon, Long was unable to participate in organized team activities this spring.
Long is going to need to progress quickly in training camp and in the preseason to be ready to start in Week 1. It is more likely that he will have his fair share of struggles as an inexperienced player going up against NFL defensive linemen who can match him in size and quickness.
5. Xavier Rhodes, CB, Minnesota Vikings
A long, athletic cornerback who has great size (6'1", 210 lbs.) and plays with great physicality, Xavier Rhodes has as much upside as any cornerback in the 2013 NFL draft class. The No. 25 overall pick, however, is going to be put in a tough position as a rookie with the Minnesota Vikings.
Following the team's release of Antoine Winfield, Josh Robinson is moving inside to the slot, which should push Rhodes into an immediate starting role on the outside. Opposite an unspectacular starter in Chris Cook, Rhodes could go into the season as the Vikings' No. 1 cornerback.
Rookie cornerbacks typically struggle to some extent, but if Rhodes ends up as the team's No. 1 cornerback, he could be in for an especially rough year.
While Rhodes is a physical man-to-man cornerback with the speed and length to match up with any receiver, he did suffer some bad beats at Florida State. He battles hip stiffness, needs better technique in zone coverage and struggles against double moves.
If Rhodes is taking on opponents' best receivers as a rookie, that means he will be lining up against Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall for a combined four games as a rookie. His game needs to improve considerably to be ready for that challenge.
4. Geno Smith, QB, New York Jets
This may seem high on the list for a second-round pick, but Geno Smith was drafted into a situation where expectations are high.
With Mark Sanchez coming off of a career-worst season, Smith will be pressured to win the starting quarterback job and provide an immediate upgrade under center for the New York Jets.
The No. 39 overall pick out of West Virginia may be the most talented quarterback of any signal-caller in the 2013 draft class, but he also may not be ready to take on that expectation as a rookie.
In West Virginia's spread offense, Smith had to make mostly quick reads and short passes. Now, Smith must quickly transition to playing in the Jets' West Coast offense under new offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg.
Jets quarterbacks coach David Lee said "there's no similarities whatsoever" between West Virginia's spread and the West Coast offense, according to Conor Orr of the Newark Star-Ledger. Lee also said Smith is "struggling with the basic things" as he makes that adjustments, according to Orr's report from last week.
In addition to learning his new offense, Smith must also improve in numerous other areas. He has to develop better footwork and make better decisions under pressure, while he needs to become more consistent with his downfield accuracy.
Smith may not win the starting job. Lee called the quarterback competition between Smith and Sanchez "even," and ESPNNew York's Rich Cimini said there was "no doubt" Sanchez would start if the season were to start at the end of minicamp.
If Smith loses the starting quarterback competition, that in itself will be a disappointing start to his career, but it could be the better result for Smith long-term, as he still has many flaws that he must work on to develop his game.
3. EJ Manuel, QB, Buffalo Bills
Coming off of a season in which Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson all became rookie quarterback sensations, expectations are going to be high for EJ Manuel in 2013.
The No. 16 overall pick out of Florida State was the only quarterback selected in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft.
While it came as a surprise that Manuel was the first quarterback drafted, it is a move that could pay off long-term for the Buffalo Bills. With a strong arm, good athleticism and big-play ability, Manuel has the most physical upside of any quarterback taken in this year's draft.
Upside, however, remains a key word for Manuel. He lacks the NFL readiness of last season's rookie starting quarterbacks, including the Miami Dolphins' Ryan Tannehill and Cleveland Browns' Brandon Weeden.
Manuel is in a two-way battle with veteran free-agent addition Kevin Kolb for the Bills' starting quarterback job, so he is no lock to start as a rookie. He will face the expectation of winning that job in training camp, nonetheless, as 10 of the last 15 quarterbacks selected as first-round NFL draft picks have been Week 1 starters for their teams as rookies.
Growing pains should be expected if Manuel does win the job. He has to improve upon his downfield accuracy and decision-making, which will likely result in some costly mistakes in his rookie season.
2. Ezekiel Ansah, DE, Detroit Lions
A year ago, Ezekiel Ansah had never started a football game in his life and was nowhere to be seen on the NFL draft radar. Nonetheless, the No. 5 overall pick is walking into an immediate starting job with the Detroit Lions as a rookie defensive end.
The Lions are replacing their top three defensive ends from last season, but their top draft investment is a virtual lock to start. This could be a daunting task for a player with only three years of football experience at any level.
Ansah is coming off of a breakout season at BYU where he displayed a combination of size, length, strength and athleticism that gives him the potential to be an NFL star. That said, he remains a raw, boom-or-bust player with a long way to go in his technical development.
Ansah has poor hand technique, especially as a pass-rusher. While he is an incredibly gifted athlete, he needs to become better at translate his gifts as it pertains to beating blockers at the line of scrimmage.
Ansah has a long way to go to become a premier NFL pass-rusher, but he will immediately be put in the position to be the Lions' primary pass-rushing end. Against NFL offensive linemen who can match his size and athleticism, he is likely to struggle until he develops better pass-rushing moves and gets better leverage at the line of scrimmage.
With so little experience relative to his NFL peers, Ansah is unlikely to play at a level close to his potential as a rookie.
1. Dion Jordan, DE, Miami Dolphins
It isn't hard to see why the Miami Dolphins fell in love with Oregon's Dion Jordan and made him the No. 3 overall selection in the 2013 NFL draft. A tremendous athlete with outstanding length (6’6”, 34” arms) Jordan has as much upside as any prospect in the draft class.
The Dolphins took a big risk, however, on a player who needs to significantly develop to avoid being a bust.
Jordan is an unnatural fit to play defensive end in the Dolphins' 4-3 scheme, which is where they plan to play him. To succeed on an NFL defensive line, he needs to become a more well-rounded pass-rusher and bulk up to become stronger against the run.
Jordan did not have great pass-rush productivity at Oregon, and most of his production came from simply beating his opponents around the edge with his speed. While Jordan is a rare specimen who can still create mismatches at the next level, he must develop his limited arsenal of pass-rush moves to be the premier pass-rusher he was drafted to be.
Like Long, Jordan was forced out of OTAs and minicamp by NFL rules due to Oregon's late graduation date. That left him to miss a valuable learning opportunity as a player who needs to significantly develop to succeed as a rookie defensive end.
Jordan could also see playing time at linebacker, and his abilities to drop into coverage and make plays in space give him the versatility to play that role as well.
With his pure explosiveness and athleticism, Jordan will make some flash plays as a rookie. Becoming stronger, more physical and more technically sound, however, will be necessary for him to become a consistent starting-caliber defensive end, not only as a rookie, but to avoid being a bust as a whole.
Video courtesy of Draft Breakdown.
Dan Hope is an NFL draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report.