Defining a Successful Season for Every 1st-Round Rookie
In today’s NFL, expectations are at record-high levels when it comes to rookies. Fans and media alike look at their rookie class the same way they look at free agency, putting unreasonable goals on these first-year players.
In actuality, most NFL teams keep focused on the long-term development of their draft picks, putting more stock into the benefits down the road than just plug-and-play contributors.
To help temper unreasonable expectations, I’ve put what should be anticipated for each rookie that was taken in this year’s first round. Not every player will be an instant impact, and some may not provide much of anything as rookies. Here’s what to expect in year one for the top 32 picks in the 2014 draft.
Houston Texans: Jadeveon Clowney
Regarded as not only the best defensive player in the draft, but also the best defensive prospect in recent memory, Jadeveon Clowney enters the 2014 NFL season with near-Pro Bowl level expectations. However, it’ll likely take some adjustment to a 3-4 defense as well as defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel to find the best way to make Clowney productive.
That being said, the elite athletic talent Clowney possesses won’t be hidden from NFL offenses this year. While a double-digit sack season is asking a lot, Clowney won’t face many double-teams like he did in college thanks to the diverse talent of the Texans' front four, and six or seven sacks seems like a number to shoot for. Look for him to pick up his production and pressure consistency midway through his rookie season.
St. Louis Rams: Greg Robinson
While Clowney received most of the predraft hype, many evaluators felt that Greg Robinson wasn’t that far off in terms of rare, unique talent with All-Pro upside. With ideal size and fluidity along with a nasty style as a mauling blocker, Robinson has all the tools to be a franchise left tackle and become one of the NFL’s best.
But as a rookie, he won’t be taking over for Jake Long quite yet, barring injury. However, it looks as though he’ll be a starter in some capacity. The expectation is that he’ll either start at left guard over currently slated starter Brandon Washington or challenge Joseph Barksdale and Rodger Saffold for the right tackle spot. Either way, it’d be a surprise if Robinson wasn’t on the field protecting Sam Bradford in Week 1.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Blake Bortles
In today’s NFL, the expectation for rookie quarterbacks taken in the first round is to start early and immediately show signs of promise. However, the Jaguars have made it clear that Bortles will be sitting as a rookie for most, if not all, of his first year in the NFL.
While that may come as a surprise to some NFL fans, especially after seeing guys like Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III show Pro Bowl potential as rookies, those that evaluated Blake Bortles closely know he’s still a ways away from being mechanically sound and having NFL-level footwork. I’d expect him to sit for his entire rookie season, with the outside chance of starting games in the tail end of his rookie season. The future looks bright for Blake Bortles, but that future will likely start in 2015.
Buffalo Bills: Sammy Watkins
The Bills were aggressive on draft day, trading the ninth pick in the draft and a 2015 first-rounder to land Sammy Watkins. With the Bills clearly in the market of giving 2013’s first-round pick EJ Manuel more weapons to foster his development, Watkins enters the locker room with the hope that he can take this team out of the doldrums of the AFC East.
Viewed as a rare receiver talent, the statistical expectation for Watkins should be in line with what A.J. Green did for the Bengals as a rookie. Green produced just over 1,000 yards on 65 receptions and seven touchdowns. Watkins will be battling with last year’s second-round pick Robert Woods and recent trade acquisition Mike Williams for touches, but 1,000 yards certainly seems within his grasp.
Oakland Raiders: Khalil Mack
Currently listed as a defensive end on the Raiders' depth chart at OurLads, Khalil Mack’s rookie role will certainly be littered with versatility as Oakland’s defensive coordinator Jason Tarver finds the best ways Mack can contribute in the team’s must-win season. After adding LaMarr Woodley and Justin Tuck in free agency, Mack won’t need to be a high-volume sack producer as a rookie.
However, the Raiders need to win games this year and show signs that the rebuilding process is on track if general manager Reggie McKenzie and head coach Dennis Allen want to keep their jobs for the future. With that said, getting their first-round pick active in the game-planning is a must-do. Look for Mack to rush from multiple spots, with five sacks and 50 tackles reasonable expectations.
Atlanta Falcons: Jake Matthews
Thanks to the versatility that Jake Matthews has after playing both tackle positions in college, he can slide in at left or right tackle for the offensive line-needy Falcons. If Sam Baker can return from his injury and play up to his previous ability, Matthews will likely slide in on the right side and supplant Lamar Holmes.
However, if Baker struggles, don’t be surprised if the Falcons opt to cut their losses on Baker and give Matthews time at left tackle, viewed as the more important position to protect the right-handed Matt Ryan. Either way, Matthews will be inserted as a starter by Week 1.
Tampa Bay Bucs: Mike Evans
Adding Mike Evans to go along with Vincent Jackson gives the Bucs two long, physical receivers to torture cornerbacks with for the next few years. It’s unclear exactly how the Bucs will be able to properly utilize two receivers with very similar skill sets, but with no other receivers on the roster capable of starting instead of Evans, they’ll need to make it work.
I didn’t view Evans as a receiver prospect on the same level as Sammy Watkins (and certainly not in the A.J. Green category), as I think he’ll struggle early in the NFL getting consistent separation on in-breaking routes. That being said, projecting 800 yards is reasonable thanks to the sheer volume of snaps he’s expected to get in his rookie season.
Cleveland Browns: Justin Gilbert
Arguably the team’s biggest defensive need, the Browns moved down four slots to draft Justin Gilbert of Oklahoma State, perceived by most evaluators as the cornerback with the most upside in this draft class. While he doesn’t always play with ideal timing and anticipation, his length and fluidity were too much to pass on, especially for a defensive-minded head coach like Mike Pettine.
Slated as the starter opposite Joe Haden, Gilbert will still need to beat out previous mid-rounders Buster Skrine and Leon McFadden, but with how high his draft selection was and the skill set he possesses, it’d be a surprise if he didn’t end up as the opening day starter. Look for Gilbert to make plenty of mistakes and probably more than a few big plays early in his rookie season, but his ball skills and body control should allow for at least one interception. Growing pains will certainly persist, as they do with most rookie cornerbacks.
Minnesota Vikings: Anthony Barr
New head coach Mike Zimmer had great success developing pass-rushing talent during his tenure in Cincinnati. Now that he has his hands on Anthony Barr of UCLA, a raw yet very moldable athlete who’s only been playing defense for three years now, it’s exciting to see just how quickly Barr can provide production for Minnesota.
He’ll likely get time at linebacker and as an edge-rusher thanks to his athletic versatility and the team’s needs at both spots, but he’ll need time before he can be counted on consistently. If he starts at linebacker, he’ll need to develop the nuances in coverage and will require patience. However, a four- or five-sack season and a handful of wow plays thanks to his athleticism should be expected.
Detroit Lions: Eric Ebron
The Lions wanted to leave the draft with another weapon for Matt Stafford, and they drafted the 2014 class’ best tight end in Eric Ebron at No. 10 overall. Expectations are that he’ll play alongside Brandon Pettigrew, who’s a better blocker, in the offense. But in terms of pass-catching, don’t be surprised if Ebron quickly leaps Pettigrew when it comes to Matt Stafford’s targets.
Ebron can play in-line tight end or in the slot, and I’d expect he does a little bit of both as a rookie and throughout his career. Detroit will need to fine-tune his role in the offense, but Ebron is certainly capable of 700 yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie in the high-octane Lions offense.
Tennessee Titans: Taylor Lewan
The Titans signed Michael Oher in free agency, and he was immediately penciled in as the team’s starting right tackle to replace David Stewart. However, the drafting of Taylor Lewan likely adjusted those plans. Lewan was arguably this draft’s second-best offensive lineman, as his athleticism and physicality as a run- and pass-blocker made him a top-15 lock.
He’ll likely battle with Michael Oher for the starting right tackle job as a rookie, with every expectation that he’ll be awarded the spot. It’s unclear if he’s the long-term answer there or if he’ll be groomed for the left tackle spot that Michael Roos currently holds. Either way, as a rookie, I’d expect Lewan to get ample experience against NFL pass-rushers, including fellow rookie Jadeveon Clowney twice in his first season.
New York Giants: Odell Beckham Jr.
With a similar skill set to Victor Cruz, it’ll be interesting to see how the Giants utilize their new offensive weapon Odell Beckham Jr. as a rookie. While Cruz will likely still get the most targets in 2014, it’s still to be determined whether Eli Manning will prefer Rueben Randle or the rookie Beckham.
Beckham’s vertical ability and body control when finishing against man coverage should certainly excite Eli Manning, who is prone to giving his receivers jump-ball opportunities with the expectation that they will win in one-on-one situations. Six hundred yards and four touchdowns is my projection for Beckham, but it could be much more if he supplants Randle as Eli’s second-favorite target.
St. Louis Rams: Aaron Donald
Aaron Donald was all set to be one of the favorites for Defensive Rookie of the Year, as his quickness as an interior pass-rusher and NFL readiness screamed of instant NFL success. However, he landed in St. Louis, where he’ll be surrounded by three other former first-round picks.
He’ll be playing alongside the long and hole-clogging Michael Brockers, so it’s still likely he’ll get his fair share of one-on-one opportunities on the interior that he consistently took advantage of as a senior at Pittsburgh. But in terms of production, he’ll need to beat edge-rushers Chris Long and Robert Quinn to the quarterback if he hopes to get on the sack sheet. Still, five sacks and 10 or more tackles for loss is realistic.
Chicago Bears: Kyle Fuller
With incumbent starters Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman on the wrong side of 30, the Bears drafted Kyle Fuller with the full intention of him being one of their replacements in 2015. Still, the Bears will look to Fuller to be the third cornerback in a division that sees plenty of three-wide sets from opposing offenses.
Fuller will likely be viewed as a near starter, and I’d expect him to get work at both nickel corner and outside in three-wide sets as a rookie. While he’s unlikely to produce at a high level in terms of tackles, passes defended or interceptions, Bears fans should feel the benefits of Fuller as injury protection for the aging vets in the secondary as well as support against the Packers and Lions offense twice a year.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Ryan Shazier
The Steelers have notoriously been a team that picks the best player available when it’s their turn in the first round. Despite a somewhat awkward fit, the Steelers chose Ryan Shazier at No. 15 overall, and he’s immediately set to battle recent draft selections Vince Williams and Sean Spence on the inside of their linebacker unit next to Lawrence Timmons.
Shazier’s range and athleticism is something to be coveted, and if he does win the job immediately, his ability to finish tackles on the perimeter will be instantly on display for fans. However, with the depth behind him, I wouldn’t expect Shazier to be playing more than 70 percent of the team’s defensive snaps as a rookie. Still, 60 or more tackles and a handful of sacks is what he should provide for the Steelers' front seven.
Dallas Cowboys: Zack Martin
For the second straight first round, the Cowboys opted to upgrade their offensive line. After grabbing Travis Frederick at pick 32 in the 2013 draft, Dallas made Zack Martin the team’s first pick this year. After playing left tackle in college but flashing the ability to play right tackle or inside at guard during Senior Bowl practices, Martin offers ample versatility for Dallas.
With the Cowboys' biggest need at left guard and Martin’s experience on the left side of the line in college, that’s the expectation of where Martin will start as a rookie. However, Doug Free has proved to be replaceable at right tackle, so I wouldn’t rule out that being an option. But, after being perceived as one of the safer prospects in the 2014 class, Martin will hope to keep Tony Romo safer in the pocket in what seems to be a make-or-break season for Romo and most of the Cowboys veterans.
Baltimore Ravens: C.J. Mosley
After drafting Arthur Brown in the second round last year and Daryl Smith playing well on the interior last season, the Ravens didn’t have a perceived need at inside linebacker. However, with one of the most highly rated defensive prospects still on the board, the Ravens made C.J. Mosley the pick at No. 17 overall.
He’ll enter camp as the favorite to be the starter next to Daryl Smith in the Ravens' consistently impressive defense. While he’ll likely be subbed out at times for Arthur Brown, Mosley has the best chance of any defensive player drafted to hit 80 or more tackles as well as offer interior pass-rushing help.
New York Jets: Calvin Pryor
With most of the focus of the Jets' predraft work on offensive weapons to help second-year quarterback Geno Smith and free-agent addition Michael Vick, the Jets chose to give Rex Ryan another defensive piece in Calvin Pryor.
Even after drafting Dee Milliner in the first round last year, the Jets clearly needed more help in their defensive backfield. They’ll bank on Milliner and free-agent acquisition Dimitri Patterson being capable starters at cornerback, but they’ll need the hard-hitting, explosive Pryor to be an enforcer in the short and mid-range routes. A few interceptions and 70 tackles are realistic despite his over-aggressiveness and need for more polish in his drops and anticipation as a safety.
Miami Dolphins: Ja'Wuan James
Miami clearly needed help on its offensive line after losing Jonathan Martin, Richie Incognito and John Jerry this offseason. While it may have been a reach, the Dolphins answered their right tackle need in the first round when they selected Tennessee’s Ja’Wuan James at No. 19 overall.
James wasn’t viewed as a first round-worthy offensive lineman for most evaluators, but his experience at right tackle (he played 49 consecutive games there in college) and high character makes it an understandable pick for a team in dire need to fill a hole. With Branden Albert and Ja’Wuan James as bookend tackles, Ryan Tannehill has a fighting chance now to stay upright in the pocket long enough to showcase his immense upside.
New Orleans Saints: Brandin Cooks
The Saints needed to begin the process of restocking the offensive cupboard, and they moved up to pick 20 to get their newest offensive playmaker, Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks. Despite being undersized, Cooks was able to get separation consistently in college and should remind fans of DeSean Jackson early in his NFL career.
It’s unclear if he’ll get the chance to play outside at receiver or if he’ll be forced to play in the slot, but there’s no question the Saints have big plans for Cooks. Drew Brees’ distributive nature may limit the targets Cooks will get as a rookie, but his big-play ability should give him a strong chance for 500 or more yards and four touchdowns, with the potential for plenty more if he can break free.
Green Bay Packers: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
Packers general manager Ted Thompson has put a premium on defensive backs in recent drafts, clearly looking to upgrade that area of the defense for the long term. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was a bit of a surprise pick, being that most didn’t expect he’d be there, but his versatility and fill of a major need likely made him a shoo-in for the pick once the Packers were up.
Projected to start at free safety over fellow young prospect Micah Hyde, Clinton-Dix will likely play alongside Morgan Burnett in a hybrid role, protecting the deep part of the field and finishing in the short area. Like Calvin Pryor, Clinton-Dix will be counted on to keep this secondary productive, so 70 tackles or more and an interception or two thanks to his vertical alignment initially seem like reasonable expectations.
Cleveland Browns: Johnny Manziel
With reports surfacing that Johnny Manziel will start the season as a rookie on the bench, most seem to be up in arms with the coaching staff and management. In all likelihood, having Manziel sit as long as possible and develop the nuances of the game couldn’t be a better situation for the dynamic quarterback.
With Brian Hoyer ahead of him, the competition isn’t exactly stiff for Manziel to steal the job away once he’s ready. And despite the expected impatience with fans, having Manziel develop as a pocket passer and become more comfortable in the offense is the best for the short and long term. Still, I’d expect him to start at least eight games this season and make a handful of exciting plays along with more turnovers than most will expect thanks to him adjusting his style to the pro level.
Kansas City Chiefs: Dee Ford
The Chiefs surprised many when they drafted Dee Ford at pick 23. The outside linebacker spot was not projected to be a major need, and the team was in need of a receiver and secondary help first and foremost. However, the selection of Ford gives this defense another unique pass-rusher to utilize in their pass defense that can allow Justin Houston and Tamba Hali a better chance to stay fresh all game long.
Ford, who’s primarily just a speed-rusher, will be best suited as an edge-rusher in obvious passing downs, supplanting Tamba Hali at select times. With Hali having an inflated contract for the future, the Chiefs will likely find out if Ford can replace him long-term, but that won’t entirely happen in his rookie season. I’d say Ford gets enough rotational opportunity for three to four sacks and maybe a forced fumble or two, but nothing special thanks to the limited snaps I’d expect him to receive.
Cincinnati Bengals: Darqueze Dennard
With Leon Hall returning from injury and Terence Newman and Adam Jones on the wrong side of 30, the Bengals were in clear need of defensive back help this offseason and chose the draft to find the answer. While Darqueze Dennard is a bit undersized and has less-than-ideal arm length, his polish and physicality made him a great fit for the Bengals at pick 24.
Cincinnati likely won’t ask him to start right away, but expectations are that he’ll battle for a starting job opposite the (hopefully) healthy Leon Hall and be groomed for the future as a starter. He’ll likely get work in the slot as well in his rookie season. However, the Bengals shouldn’t expect more than eight starts and minimal statistical impact from the rookie.
San Diego Chargers: Jason Verrett
Despite concerns over his shoulder and diminutive size, the Chargers still took the most NFL-ready cornerback in the draft at pick 25. Based on the lackluster cornerback depth chart the team currently boasts, it’d be a surprise if Jason Verrett couldn’t beat out Steve Williams, Shareece Wright and Richard Marshall for one of the starting spots.
Thanks to his quickness and physicality in the short area, he’ll likely be the primary slot coverage cornerback, with bigger receivers likely giving him trouble early on when asked to play on the edge. He’ll struggle, like most rookie cornerbacks forced to play right away, but if he can stay healthy, Verrett could be a three interception-type cornerback with long-term upside of being one of the league’s premier slot coverage corners.
Philadelphia Eagles: Marcus Smith
Many on draft day in Eagles country questioned the pick when the team surprised and took Marcus Smith, but based off my evaluations, he wasn’t a major reach. With unique athleticism and speed to power off the edge, Smith’s ability as a developing pass-rusher proved worthy of a first-round grade, and the Eagles capitalized on the opportunity to find Trent Cole’s long-term replacement.
He’ll be groomed behind Cole and other Eagles rushers as a rookie, which is an expected situation for Smith. With just two years at the edge-rushing position, he needs ample time to develop his hand placement, counter rushes and timing in the run game. That being said, most of his issues are coachable. With time, he should be a plus-starter, but anything more than two or three sacks as a rookie would be unnecessary and unexpected production for him.
Arizona Cardinals: Deone Bucannon
After adding Tyrann Mathieu in last year’s draft and signing Antonio Cromartie in free agency, the Cardinals once again opted to add one of the premier defensive backs in the 2014 class. Deone Bucannon can step in immediately and give this team a high-impact, explosive tackler at strong safety that can finish plays in the short and mid-range in coverage.
Bucannon will be playing with some impressive cornerbacks, so he won’t be asked to be the immediate enforcer the way Calvin Pryor or Ha Ha Clinton-Dix may have to be, but his skill set should allow for 70 tackles or more as a rookie. Thanks to the support around him, don’t be surprised if Bucannon is one of the leaders in the Defensive Rookie of the Year voting.
Carolina Panthers: Kelvin Benjamin
With the drafting of Kelvin Benjamin, the Panthers made it clear that their first priority was to give Cam Newton more weapons for now and the future. Despite being a young roster, general manager Dave Gettleman seems OK with his young talents being asked to step in and contribute to this near-playoff team.
The Panthers have Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood as experienced receiving threats, but none can provide the jump-ball ability or red-zone threat that Benjamin can bring to this team. While I wouldn’t expect Benjamin to get nearly the number of targets as the other first-round receivers, 400 yards and six touchdowns seems to fit Benjamin’s expected impact.
New England Patriots: Dominique Easley
Coming off of his second ACL injury in three years, the Patriots were clearly taking a chance on Dominique Easley as a first-rounder. While his play early in his senior year and flashes throughout his college career made him an expected top-20 pick, he fell to the Patriots at 29 due to concerns over whether he’ll ever be consistently healthy to contribute.
If he can step in and be at 100 percent by the time camp officially opens, he’ll immediately be thrust into the starting rotational battle with veteran Tommy Kelly. Thanks to his injury-riddled past and need to get re-acclimated after his injury, I wouldn’t expect Easley to win that battle out of camp, and he’ll likely be a versatile pass-rushing option as a rookie.
San Francisco 49ers: Jimmie Ward
Despite rumors of a major trade-up for a receiving threat, the 49ers chose to stay put and take Jimmie Ward, a versatile playmaker at safety who can fill multiple roles for the defensive back-needy team. He mostly played strong safety in college, but his flashes of vertical coverage and dominance at cornerback at the Senior Bowl likely opened eyes enough to make him an intriguing nickel option as well.
I’d look for him to be the team’s immediate answer in the nickel and challenge free-agent addition Antoine Bethea for the starting strong safety job in camp. More than likely, Ward wins that job by midseason and begins to play 80 percent of snaps for the 49ers by Week 6 or 7. Racking up 60 or more tackles and a few turnovers, both interceptions and forced fumbles, would fit the playmaking expectations the 49ers have for Ward.
Denver Broncos: Bradley Roby
The Broncos signed Aqib Talib in free agency, but their cornerback needs required more than just one new starter. After getting beat up vertically for the second straight playoffs, Denver added Bradley Roby, one of the fastest first round-worthy cornerbacks in recent draft history.
He’ll immediately begin battling with Chris Harris and Kayvon Webster, and despite his need to develop in his patience and footwork, he will likely win the job thanks to his incredible speed and athleticism. He’ll be prone to mistakes early and often throughout his rookie season, and physical receivers will give him the most trouble, but he’ll make more than his fair share of wow plays throughout his career, including his time as a rookie.
Minnesota Vikings: Teddy Bridgewater
The Vikings made the bold decision to trade up to the final pick in the first round to secure Teddy Bridgewater, my top-rated quarterback in the 2014 class. Likely third in the depth chart behind former first-rounder Christian Ponder and recent re-signing Matt Cassel, Bridgewater will have to earn his stripes as a rookie and battle for positioning in the quarterback rotation.
While he could use the extra time to develop, I’d speculate that once Cassel begins to falter, the team will turn to Teddy to inherit the offense and guide them to victory by midseason. With the expectation of eight or more starts as a rookie, Bridgewater could very well be in strong competition for Rookie of the Year, as I’m projecting 200 yards per game when he is thrust in the starting lineup, with more touchdowns than interceptions in his rookie season.