The NFL's Most Intriguing Developmental Prospects
Player development within the NFL doesn’t get nearly as much attention as the annual draft and free-agent frenzy do each year, but it’s arguably the most important aspect of building a successful team.
There aren’t many true developmental players in the NFL anymore. As the expectations for rookies become more immediate and intense each year, teams are becoming less willing to wait on players who need multiple years to capitalize upon their potential.
Despite the reality that most projects have to quickly become a productive player in order to keep their roster spot, there are still young players around the league each year who emerge as impact guys after being brought along gradually by patient teams.
Examples of players who started out their career as a minimal contributor and progressed to break through as a difference-maker this past season included New York Jets defensive tackle Damon Harrison, New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette and Seattle Seahawks cornerback Byron Maxwell.
None of the following 10 players have made a noticeable impact in the NFL yet, and they might not take on a significant role for their team in 2014, either. All of them, however, are young players with the tools to possibly emerge as a standout if their teams stay the course and continue to help them improve and overcome their flaws.
Martavis Bryant, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
Eighteen wide receivers were selected ahead of Martavis Bryant in this year’s NFL draft, and while all of those players could be considered more polished and NFL-ready players, Bryant has the potential to be as good as any of the wideouts drafted before him.
A 6’4”, 211-pound receiver who ran a 4.42-second 40-yard dash at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine, Bryant has arguably the best combination of size and speed among all receivers in the 2014 rookie class.
Although he was overshadowed at Clemson by Sammy Watkins, the No. 4 overall pick in this year’s draft, Bryant made a name for himself with his ability to make challenging catches, such as his circus-catch touchdown versus Ohio State in the 2014 Orange Bowl, the final game of his collegiate career.
Bryant has the ability to make any catch in his vicinity; the problem is that he doesn’t secure receptions (even the easy ones) consistently. His proclivity for drops along with his lack of route-running development and minimal ability to make defenders miss laterally led him to falling to the No. 118 overall pick in the middle of the fourth round.
He isn’t likely to see much playing time as a rookie behind projected Steelers starting receivers Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton and Lance Moore. Nonetheless, if he can make necessary the developments in his game as a pass-catcher and route-runner, he could emerge in his second or third season as a big, fast “X” receiver and deep threat for the Steelers offense.
Denard Robinson, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars
When a team drafts a player with the expectation that he will switch positions, it must have the patience to give that player time to learn the fundamental skills of that new role.
That’s a gamble the Jacksonville Jaguars took when they selected former Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson in the fifth round of the 2013 NFL draft and then immediately moved him to running back. He was unimpressive in his rookie season, gaining just 66 yards and fumbling the ball three times on just 20 rushing attempts, but he still has the developmental potential to emerge as a dynamic offensive weapon.
An explosive athlete who ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash at the 2013 combine, Robinson often looked more like a running back than a quarterback throughout his collegiate career, and he has the natural skills to be a dynamic rusher in the NFL, too. Still, it’s likely that it will take Robinson until at least his third season in the league to hit his stride at his new position.
From a standpoint of pure playmaking ability, there’s nothing that should keep Robinson from making big plays in the open field when he has the opportunity. If he is ever going to emerge as more than a gadget player, however, Jacksonville’s coaching staff must ensure that he protects the ball more effectively as a ball-carrier and learns how to effectively pick up blitzes as a pass protector in the backfield.
Another important step in Robinson’s development is bulking up in the weight room, but that is a step he has reportedly already made. According to Mike Wilkening of Pro Football Talk, Jaguars coach Gus Bradley said in March that Robinson was up to 212 pounds.
Robinson’s rookie season might have come as a disappointment, but the Jaguars didn’t draft him with the expectation that he would be an immediate star. Even at a position that tends to churn through players and spit them out quickly, Robinson has special potential that could allow him to keep getting better and end up becoming Jacksonville’s “best kept secret” as his next few seasons progress.
Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, OT, Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs drafted a player they expect to be a bookend of their offensive line for many years to come when they selected Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher with the No. 1 overall pick in 2013. Their sixth-round investment in Laurent Duvernay-Tardif in this year’s draft comes with far less risk, but it could result in them ending up with another bookend tackle for their offensive line after a couple years of development.
Having played his college football north of the border at McGill University in Canada, Duvernay-Tardif faces a steep rise in competition in the NFL. Despite his dominant play at McGill, he is likely at least two years away from being ready to take on a significant role on an NFL offensive line.
He fell to the No. 200 overall pick in this year’s draft as a result, but he could end up being one of the class’ biggest steals in time. A tremendous all-around athlete for his listed measurables of 6’5” and 315 pounds, Duvernay-Tardif has all the physical tools he needs to match up against the significantly bigger, faster and stronger opponents he will face in the NFL.
Duvernay-Tardif’s game film can be tough to evaluate because of the inferior competition he played against in Canada, and he clearly has a long way to go in terms of developing his technique and fundamentals, but his potential is obvious in his length, agility and power.
It’s probably best for both the Chiefs and Duvernay-Tardif that they don’t play him at all in his first two seasons. Nonetheless, Duvernay-Tardif could be a perfect replacement for Donald Stephenson at right tackle, should he succeed in his development over the next 24 months, when Stephenson’s contract expires at the end of the 2015 season.
Margus Hunt, DE, Cincinnati Bengals
It was clear in his rookie season that Margus Hunt—despite his play of just 165 snaps this past year, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required)—was not ready to play in the NFL. Hunt accrued a minus-8.0 overall rating—a very bad score for a player with a low snap count—from PFF in 2013, and he finished the year with just three total tackles and one half-sack.
That could leave Cincinnati Bengals fans wondering if selecting Hunt in the second round of the 2013 draft was a mistake. The team, however, shouldn’t yet give up on Hunt, a former track star who came to the NFL with limited football experience, as he could still develop into a disruptive force on the Bengals defensive line.
Hunt’s rookie struggles proved that he can’t get by in the NFL on his physical tools alone, but the SMU product is an exceptional athletic specimen who is listed at 6’8” and 280 pounds yet ran a 4.60-second 40-yard dash and posted 38 repetitions in the bench press at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine.
To take advantage of his rare combination of size, athleticism and strength, Hunt must continue to work diligently upon improving his technique. While his physical gifts give him the ability to be a difference-maker while rushing the passer from both outside and inside, he is inconsistent with his hands and fails to win with leverage.
Fortunately for the Bengals, they can continue to afford to be patient with Hunt for another season or two, even after they lost star defensive end Michael Johnson as an unrestricted free agent this offseason. The door is open for Hunt to seize more playing time if he impresses with his progression in training camp and the preseason, but the Bengals still don’t need him to play a large role in a rotation that still includes Carlos Dunlap, Wallace Gilberry and Robert Geathers.
Hunt’s physical tools are too promising for the Bengals to give up on him quickly, and if they continue to work on making him a more fundamentally sound football player while gradually increasing his role on the defense, he could work his way to stardom by his third or fourth season.
Quanterus Smith, DE, Denver Broncos
After tearing his ACL during his senior season at Western Kentucky, Quanterus Smith’s development was delayed for a year, and he spent his rookie season with the Denver Broncos shelved on injured reserve. He’s still likely to be a year or two away from making a big impact in Denver’s defensive line rotation, but he has the potential to emerge as an impact player off the edge.
With the emergence of Malik Jackson last season and the signing of veteran pass-rusher Demarcus Ware in free agency this year, the Broncos won’t have much need for Smith to play in 2013 unless one or two of their defensive ends go down with an injury. Even so, the Broncos should stay committed to developing their fifth-round pick, an explosive edge rusher with the athleticism and moves to give opposing quarterbacks nightmares.
Smith would have needed time to develop even if he hadn’t suffered a major injury before the end of his collegiate career, but his raw ability was obvious when he was on the field for the Hilltoppers. He is a good athlete who has great length and plays with active hands, but he will need to improve his strength and pad level to make a consistent impact against NFL offensive lines.
Assuming Smith has no ill effects from his knee injury in 2014, he should be able to contribute as a situational pass-rusher if asked to do so.
As Ware is only likely to be in Denver for a season or two, the Broncos should look to harvest Smith’s talent as much as possible and set him up to be ready—if his development goes as hoped—to take on a key role in the Broncos defense after Ware’s tenure in Denver is over.
Ra’Shede Hageman, DT/DE, Atlanta Falcons
Considered to be a boom-or-bust prospect in this year’s NFL draft, Atlanta Falcons second-round pick Ra’Shede Hageman has the potential to be a special player as an interior defensive lineman, but he still has a long way to go in his development.
The 6’6”, 310-pound defender has an ideal combination of size, explosiveness and power that gives him the versatility to play any spot along the defensive line. That could make him a very valuable asset on the Falcons’ hybrid defensive front, as he offers the potential to line up everywhere from nose tackle to defensive end.
It wouldn’t have been a surprise if a team took a chance on Hageman in the first round of this year’s draft due to his upside, but it wasn’t a shock to see him to fall to Round 2, either. While he has the physical tools to develop into a impact player for the Falcons, he has to overcome technical flaws that could limit his playing time early on.
Recruited to Minnesota as a tight end, Hageman made strides throughout his collegiate career as a defensive lineman but remained an inconsistent player throughout. To succeed at the next level, where he won’t be able to get by on his physical tools alone, he has to become better with his hands and play with better pad level.
While the Falcons will certainly try to get the No. 37 overall pick involved as quickly as possible on their defense, it’s likely that he’ll only come off the bench as a situational pass-rusher in his rookie year. By his third or fourth year in the league, however, he could emerge as a star if he improves upon the fundamentals of his game.
Kareem Martin, DE/OLB, Arizona Cardinals
Consistently translating his athleticism to the football field was a problem for Kareem Martin at North Carolina, and that challenge won’t be made any easier as he works to learn a new position in the Arizona Cardinals’ 3-4 defensive scheme. That transition will likely keep Martin off the field for the most part as a rookie, but his physical upside gives him big developmental potential.
A 6’6”, 272-pound defensive end who has 35-inch arms and ran a 4.72-second 40-yard dash at this year’s combine, Martin’s raw measurables are among the most impressive of all of the prospects in this year’s rookie class. He has the upside to rush from both the outside and the inside, and he also has the point-of-attack strength to hold up as a run-stopper on the edge.
To truly take advantage of his physical traits, however, Martin needs to become more fluid on the football field. Not a natural bender around the edge, Martin’s linear and somewhat stiff play does not allow him to physically dominate to the extent of his capability.
In addition to working out the kinks of his game, it could take Martin a couple years to work his way into a fit on Arizona’s defense. He’s been lining up at both defensive end and outside linebacker in offseason workouts, according to Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic. However, he’s a bit undersized for playing inside as a 3-4 defensive end, and he must move more effectively in space to succeed as a linebacker.
Despite a decently productive career at North Carolina and an eye-popping combine performance, Cardinals fans shouldn’t get their hopes up for the No. 84 overall pick to make a major immediate impact. With proper development, however, Martin could emerge as a fantastic edge defender and play a similar role to current defensive end starter Calais Campbell, which is exactly what the Cardinals are hoping for, according to Somers.
Caraun Reid, DT, Detroit Lions
By selecting BYU’s Ezekiel Ansah with the No. 5 overall pick in last year’s draft, Detroit Lions general manager Martin Mayhew made it clear that he is willing to take chances on defensive linemen with physical gifts, even if they clearly need time to develop to reach their potential.
The Lions did so again this year with two defensive line selections: Bloomsburg defensive end Larry Webster in the fourth round and Princeton defensive tackle Caraun Reid in Round 5.
Reid, specifically, could end up making a huge impact in a year or two if he is developed properly. While he is a slightly undersized defensive tackle who needs to spend time in the weight room to build up his strength, he is an impressive athlete with good hand skills and a natural burst off the line of scrimmage.
As he makes a big jump in competition from the Ivy League to the NFL, his flaws as a point-of-attack run defender will be exposed. Fortunately for the Lions, they aren’t likely to need Reid to play much immediately, which should allow him to develop his strength behind the scenes while looking to maximize his interior pass-rushing ability.
Should Reid make consistent progress and prove that he can hold up against bigger, stronger NFL offensive linemen, he could be the Lions’ replacement for Nick Fairley if Fairley is allowed to walk as an unrestricted free agent next offseason.
A good fit for the 3-technique defensive tackle position Fairley plays in Detroit’s 4-3 scheme, playing alongside Ndamukong Suh—assuming Suh is retained by the Lions—would give Reid plenty of opportunities to show off his ability to shoot gaps.
Ivy League products aren’t typically seen as top-flight developmental talents for the NFL, but while he probably won’t play much as a rookie Reid could prove to be a hidden gem in Detroit.
Zach Mettenberger, QB, Tennessee Titans
While early-round quarterback selections are typically expected to become starters within their first or second seasons in the NFL, quarterbacks selected in later rounds often have the most time of any NFL players to develop their skill set without being expected to take on any immediate playing time.
There were many quarterbacks selected between the second and sixth rounds of this year’s draft who aren’t expected to play as rookies but could be in line to become starters in their second, third or fourth years in the league. All of those quarterbacks need to develop significantly to lead NFL offenses, but while all of them have the potential to eventually be successful first-string quarterbacks, the most intriguing prospect of that group is Tennessee Titans sixth-round pick Zach Mettenberger.
Mettenberger went into the draft with a bevy of injury-related and off-field red flags, including a torn ACL that he suffered in November and, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, a diluted drug test sample at this year’s combine. Had it not been for those red flags, Mettenberger likely would have been selected much earlier than the 178th overall pick.
The LSU product has some flaws in his on-field game, too, including a difficult-to-change fact that he has limited mobility and athleticism. That said, he has the arm strength and accuracy to make any throw on the field from the pocket, and that gives him as much potential to be a starting quarterback as any non-first-round selection from this year’s draft class.
Mettenberger, who started his collegiate career at Georgia before being dismissed from the team and pleading guilty to two misdemeanor counts of sexual battery, needs to prove he can stay out of off-field trouble before a team will make him the face of its franchise. But if he can do so and prove that his pocket-passing ability can make him a sufficient NFL signal-caller, he might end up being the eventual successor to Jake Locker, whose contract will expire at the end of the 2014 season.
Ladarius Green, TE, San Diego Chargers
Ladarius Green has only caught 21 passes for 432 yards in his first two NFL seasons, but the San Diego Chargers should continue their commitment to developing their 2012 fourth-round pick and culling his talent.
Part of the reason Green hasn’t had much production is simply that he hasn’t had much opportunity to play behind longtime San Diego starting tight end Antonio Gates. When he has checked into games, though, he’s shown steady improvement as both a pass-catcher and blocker.
He’ll continue to back up Gates in 2014, but as Gates will turn 34 years old later this month, the eight-time Pro Bowler is likely on the back end of his career, which should enable Green’s opportunities to consistently increase.
Green has an exceptional combination of size and athleticism, and Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers believes Green is “still figuring out how good he can be,” per Michael Gehlken of U-T San Diego.
If Green can continue to make steady progress, there’s still plenty of time for him, at just 24 years old, to become the next star tight end in San Diego.
All measurables and stats courtesy of NFL.com unless otherwise noted.
Dan Hope is an NFL draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report.