Who Are the NFL's Best Developmental Projects?
For some draft picks, expectations are based around early contributions to their draft team, in most cases as a rookie. Even Day 3 picks are at times expected to challenge for key rotational roles or fill voids in select formations or situations.
However, more than a few rookies are drafted without any expectation of producing as a rookie, or even in their first few seasons. Some prospects are drafted with long-term hopes of development, becoming “projects” on rosters. While many of the players who are deemed projects never reach their potential, the allure of the high ceiling they possess and the confidence position coaches have in their abilities leads to teams drafting these prospects every year.
Here are eight players who won’t have starter outlooks as rookies, but they will be players to watch for the future as their respective teams try to push these projects to their optimistic ceiling.
Blake Bortles, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars
In today’s NFL, when a quarterback gets drafted in the top 10, the expectation is that he's going to start early in his rookie season, if not Week 1. But the Jacksonville Jaguars have made it clear that Blake Bortles won’t be starting early in his NFL career, and there’s a real possibility that he won’t play at all in his first season in the NFL.
The team drafted Bortles for his long-term upside, not his immediate impact to a rebuilding franchise. Too often, fans want immediate returns on a quarterback, when in reality it’s more important to put a quarterback in a position to win championships by developing him at his own pace.
For Bortles, his need for mechanics and footwork adjustments are clear and currently not at an NFL level. It’ll take more than a full offseason before he’s ready, but when his issues are cleared up, his playing style and ability may remind of Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck.
Logan Thomas, QB, Arizona Cardinals
Logan Thomas has the prototypical size, body type, athleticism and arm strength to immediately remind of Cam Newton. However, Thomas was plagued with inconsistency during his career, never realizing his full potential despite flashing all four years as a starter at Virginia Tech.
Despite the Newton comparisons, Thomas fell to the fourth round of the draft, an area that isn’t known for producing future NFL starters. He did, however, land in an ideal situation for his development in Arizona. He has the opportunity to learn behind Carson Palmer for two years, play in an offense that is vertically stretching and be developed by Bruce Arians, one of the more respected offensive minds in the NFL.
While Thomas hasn’t been named Arizona's “quarterback of the future” yet, the potential is certainly there.
Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, New England Patriots
Talk about an ideal situation for Jimmy Garoppolo.
He was drafted in the top 100 picks, and though it wasn’t as early as he hoped, he was drafted by arguably the best franchise in the NFL. He has the opportunity to learn behind one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time in Tom Brady and have a full three or four years to grow in the system before he’ll be asked to compete for a starting job.
Garoppolo has a tremendously quick release, adequate arm and plus athleticism, but it’s his mental makeup and leadership characteristic that likely sold the New England Patriots on his potential. With Ryan Mallett in the final year of his deal in New England, Garoppolo is set up to be Brady’s feature backup in 2015 and be groomed to take over the reins from Brady for the future.
Brandon Coleman, WR, New Orleans Saints
Drew Brees has done his part to keep the New Orleans Saints offense tremendously productive, but it was clear this offseason that the team needed to restock the cupboard with weapons for him to utilize. After drafting Brandin Cooks in the first round, however, the team passed on receivers until undrafted free agency. However, the Saints were able to land Brandon Coleman of Rutgers, who garnered a third-round grade from me predraft.
Coleman fell out of the draft largely because of his noticeable and consistent struggles this past season, despite boasting 6’6” size and impressive vertical ability. While he doesn’t have the same explosiveness or elite athletic ability, he does have a similar skill set to Cleveland’s Josh Gordon and could be a surprise impact rookie despite going undrafted.
Seantrel Henderson, OT, Buffalo Bills
Seantrel Henderson was one of most highly viewed recruits in the country out of high school, but he never matured nor reached his potential despite 6’7” size and obvious athletic upside. Combine that lack of development with quitting his pro day early and failing the NFL Scouting Combine’s drug test, and it’s clear that he wasn’t going to go early in the draft.
The Buffalo Bills still decided he was a worthwhile project but made it clear that this is his “one shot”, according to head coach Doug Marrone. With the Bills likely being the only team who will be willing to give him a shot to play in the NFL, the potential motivation and professional environment could be exactly what Henderson needs to reach his starter-level potential.
Daniel McCullers, DT, Pittsburgh Steelers
A highly touted junior college recruit, Daniel McCullers failed to live up to increasingly high expectations in his two seasons at Tennessee. With incredible size and mass at 6’8”, 351 pounds, McCullers can’t help but eat up space on a defensive line. However, his lack of conditioning and development in the run game dropped him to the sixth round.
Now in Pittsburgh, he’ll have a chance to immediately battle for the starting nose tackle position, where the team is currently hoping former undrafted Steven McLendon or recent free-agent signing Cam Thomas can win the job outright. However, with his sheer size and flashes of elite nose tackle play in college, there’s certainly a chance that, within the next two seasons, McCullers is a key cog in the Pittsburgh front seven.
Larry Webster, DE, Detroit Lions
The Detroit Lions have clearly put a premium on their front four on defense, drafting four defensive linemen in the past two drafts. With ample depth at the position, the team opted to draft small-school and former basketball standout Larry Webster from Bloomsburg in the fourth round.
With only two years of football experience in his college career, Webster is far from a finished product as a defensive end. He has some stiffness as an edge-rusher and lacks effective counter-rush moves to effectively get through NFL-level pass-blockers. However, his plus-length and fluidity in space open the door to starter-level upside with time.
If Webster can develop in similar fashion to last year’s first-rounder, Ziggy Ansah, the Lions will have plenty of pass-rushing talent to build around for the future.
Pierre Desir, CB, Cleveland Browns
It may be bold, but there’s a real chance that the Cleveland Browns' fourth-round cornerback could develop into a better NFL starter than their first-rounder at the same position. Justin Gilbert and Pierre Desir both have awesome length, fluidity and flashes of impact-cornerback potential.
The main difference between the two is where they came from. Gilbert had ideal coaching at a BCS conference, and he still showed signs of a lack of development, consistency and instincts. Desir played against lower competition, had less-than-ideal coaching and never got the chance to show his skill set outside the all-star circuit (where he was very impressive).
Desir won’t be asked to do much in the Browns defense other than provide depth and potential nickel/dime value, but by 2015, he could be battling with Gilbert for the long-term starting job opposite Joe Haden.
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