Predicting the 10 Most Disappointing NFL Rookies
The NFL draft brings annual hope to every team in the league in the form of draft picks with the potential to immediately make their teams better. Inevitably, that hope turns to disappointment for teams whose rookies fail to live up to immediate expectations.
As the number of first-year players making instant impacts in the league seemingly rises each year, so too do the expectations that rookies—especially those drafted in the first or second round—face from day one.
Franchises and their fans have come to expect immediate returns from draft picks, which only increases the likelihood that top rookies, at least in their first seasons, will fall short of the hype.
Last year’s No. 1 overall pick, Kansas City Chiefs offensive tackle Eric Fisher, and the No. 3 overall selection, Miami Dolphins defensive end Dion Jordan, were among the biggest disappointments of last year’s rookie class. St. Louis Rams wide receiver Tavon Austin (selected eighth overall), Tennessee Titans guard Chance Warmack (drafted 10th) and Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd (the 23rd pick) are additional examples of first-year players who didn’t live up to the hype in 2013.
While all of those players showed their potential for greatness at times and could emerge as stars within the next few years, their play as rookies lacked the consistency to meet the increasingly demanding standards for top draft choices.
Because of the lofty, often unrealistic projections that early-round draft choices are expected to match, a player can emerge as a solid contributor for his team in his first year and still be labeled as a disappointment.
That could be how the chips fall for the following 10 rookies. Each of these players have star potential and were selected in the first two rounds of the draft as a result. But they face expectations that will surpass what their current skill sets and surroundings will make them capable of accomplishing in 2014.
Players listed in order of draft selection.
Blake Bortles, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars
The last four quarterbacks selected with top-three NFL draft picks—Washington’s Robert Griffin III, Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck, Carolina’s Cam Newton and St. Louis’ Sam Bradford—each started all 16 games of their rookie seasons and accounted for an average of 3,784 passing yards, 20.5 touchdown passes, 459.75 rushing yards, 6.75 rushing touchdown and 8.25 wins.
Those numbers set a high bar for Blake Bortles, who was selected as the No. 3 overall pick in this year’s draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Bortles will face expectations for a top-three quarterback that have been significantly raised by the standouts selected at the top of recent drafts. Realistically, Bortles projects to be an average-at-best quarterback if he starts as a rookie, which in itself remains uncertain.
Jaguars coach Gus Bradley told NFL Network’s “NFL Total Access” in May that the team wants to give Bortles “a year to develop.” That would likely be a scenario to Bortles’ benefit, for while the Central Florida product has the physical tools to be a high-quality NFL starter, he has a longer way to go to be NFL-ready than Luck, Griffin, Newton or Bradford did entering their respective rookie seasons.
The team will, however, face both internal and external pressure to play their high draft pick by the end of the season, unless incumbent starter Chad Henne plays well above his typical level of performance that has led to a 59.5 completion percentage and more interceptions (62) than touchdowns (55) in six NFL seasons.
Should the team make the change to Bortles at any point this season, expect the rookie signal-caller to have growing pains. Throughout his three-year career at UCF, Bortles had accuracy issues along with sloppy footwork and mechanics, all of which still need to progress significantly for him to have sustained success as an NFL passer.
It’s easy to forget with the recent successes of rookie quarterbacks such as Luck, Griffin, Newton and Seattle’s Russell Wilson that, historically, first-year signal-callers have struggled more often than not when pressed into duty. Bortles has the skill set to be Jacksonville’s future at quarterback, but don’t expect him to be the immediate savior of the team’s offense in 2014.
Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo Bills
Sammy Watkins should immediately become a starting wideout for the Buffalo Bills offense and could contend for a 1,000-plus yard season and Offensive Rookie of the Year honors in his rookie season. Yet because he will face expectations topped by no one except those for Jadeveon Clowney, the Houston Texans’ No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, the potential for his season to fall short of projections is as high as that of anyone in the draft class.
While Watkins was the No. 4 overall selection, he holds the weight of a No. 1 overall pick because of the price—first- and fourth-round picks in the 2015 draft—that the Bills paid the Cleveland Browns to move up to select him.
Furthermore, Watkins plays a position that is not only one of the most high-profile spots on the field, but also where his production will be directly affected by the success or failure of Buffalo’s still-shaky second-year starting quarterback, EJ Manuel.
The Clemson product has been, on average, the most highly drafted offensive rookie this year in fantasy football drafts, according to MyFantasyLeague.com’s Average Draft Position rankings. That’s an indicator that football fans throughout the country are expecting high, immediate statistical production from Watkins in 2014.
His abilities to make plays as a runner and return specialist will bolster his ability to put up big numbers right away, but his ability to excel as a receiver could be limited, at least initially, in an offense that did not produce a 600-yard wide receiver this past season.
Watkins is a polished receiver whose route-running ability and athleticism give him the skills to immediately succeed against NFL defenses, but he’ll have to compete for touches on a weapon-laden offense that also includes Mike Williams, Robert Woods, C.J. Spiller and Scott Chandler among others.
It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise if Watkins is outperformed by some of the rookie class’ other top wideouts, but anything less than excellence will be a disappointment given the steep investment Buffalo made to trade up and draft him.
Anthony Barr, OLB, Minnesota Vikings
Sometimes compared to Dion Jordan as a draft prospect leading up to the draft, Anthony Barr could have similar struggles in his adjustment to playing in an NFL 4-3 defense.
Should the Vikings use Barr as a defensive end like the Dolphins used Jordan in 2013, Minnesota’s first pick in this year's draft will have to become stronger at the point of attack, a trait Jordan wasn’t able to demonstrate in his rookie season. It’s more likely, however, that Minnesota will use Barr primarily as an outside linebacker, a position at which the UCLA product will have to improve at making plays in space and dropping back into coverage.
It isn’t exactly clear where Barr will fit in the Vikings defense yet, as NFL rules have kept him away from OTAs while he completes his degree at UCLA. According to Matt Vensel of the Star Tribune, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer has “hinted that Barr’s role could be similar to how the [Denver] Broncos use outside linebacker Von Miller” as a hybrid strongside linebacker/defensive end.
Unfortunately for Barr, his late arrival to workouts could damage his ability to contribute as a rookie. Perhaps the least NFL-ready of this year’s top 10 draft picks, Barr has the athleticism off the edge to make an immediate impact as a pass-rusher but might only be cut out for a situational role until he becomes a more fluid, natural player at the second level.
If the Vikings intend to play Barr at linebacker, he certainly should have a good shot at earning a starting job, given the team’s lack of established talent at the position outside of Chad Greenway, who will likely move to weak-side linebacker if Barr wins the strong-side job.
Being pushed into action due to positional need, however, wouldn’t mean Barr is ready to play every down at a high level. A raw talent who played just two years of defense at UCLA, Barr has star potential but is likely at least a full year away from maximizing his skill set.
Calvin Pryor, FS, New York Jets
Expectations will be high from the get-go for Calvin Pryor, a hard-hitting ballhawk out of Louisville who will likely take over the New York Jets’ starting free safety job from Antonio Allen.
With that spot in the lineup, assuming he earns it, Pryor would assume immediate responsibilities to play center field and be New York’s last line of defense. That could leave Pryor, the No. 18 overall pick and the first safety selected in this year’s draft, in a position to have his flaws exposed all year long.
Pryor has no shortage of playmaking ability, but he isn’t yet a natural in pass coverage. An aggressive player who makes some mistakes as a result, he isn’t particularly fluid in his hips and has limited recovery speed.
He would be better suited to start his NFL career in a complementary role alongside a more athletic, naturally rangy free safety, but while Dawan Landry is a good in-the-box strong safety, primary coverage responsibilities on the back end will likely fall to Pryor, who could make some of the same mistakes as Allen but whose higher upside and playmaking ability can offset those breakdowns.
The Jets, who were desperate enough to sign washed-up veteran Ed Reed midway through last season and make him an immediate starter at free safety, will be counting on Pryor to make a difference right away in their secondary.
He should do so, but his highlights are unlikely to come without some bumps in the road.
Dee Ford, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs
The case could legitimately be made that Dee Ford was the best player available when the Kansas City Chiefs drafted him with the No. 23 overall pick in this year’s draft, but the Chiefs aren’t likely to get much out of their first-round selection in 2014.
Drafted to play outside linebacker in Kansas City’s 3-4 defense after lining up as a 4-3 defensive end at Auburn, Ford faces a transition that often takes NFL players at least one year with which to become comfortable. Ford has all the athleticism an edge-defender needs to flourish in the transition, but that doesn’t necessarily mean his adjustment process will be smooth.
Even if the position switch comes naturally to Ford, he’ll still have a tough time getting on the field as a rookie. With an exceptional pair of starting outside linebackers in Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, both of whom were ranked by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) among the top six 3-4 OLBs in the NFL this past season, the Chiefs will only able to justify getting Ford significant playing time if he is truly ready to make an impact and/or if Houston or Hali gets injured.
That won’t give Ford, being that he is a top-25 pick who was a pass-rushing standout in the SEC, a free pass from high expectations.
At the very least, Ford will need to notch some sacks and show he can bring pressure as a situational pass-rusher to avoid being labeled a disappointment after his rookie season. He should be able to make an immediate impact in that capacity, given his explosive burst and ability to break down blockers with his hands, but he could struggle in other capacities as he has to learn how to play in space and needs to bulk up to consistently shed blocks.
Deone Bucannon, SS, Arizona Cardinals
Given the sparsity of safety talent there was in this year’s draft class, it’s hard to fault the Arizona Cardinals for selecting Washington State’s Deone Bucannon with the No. 27 overall pick. The Cardinals might get let down, however, if that selection comes with the expectation that he will be a standout starter at strong safety in his rookie season.
There’s a lot to like about Bucannon. He’s a heavy hitter in the box who is also an explosive, rangy athlete, giving him the ability to excel both in run support and in coverage. His work ethic—Cardinals coach Bruce Arians labeled Bucannon as a “perfectionist,” according to Darren Urban of azcardinals.com—is also a positive.
He has the potential to be as good as any safety in this year’s draft class, but his game still has a long way to go, especially in coverage. Like Pryor, he is a big-play safety who can create turnovers on the ball, but he also ends up out on his position and giving up big plays more often than he should.
Bucannon could be a terrific strong safety in time, and give Arizona one of the NFL’s most dynamic young safety combinations alongside Tyrann Mathieu, but his rookie season will likely be a lesson in becoming a more disciplined, technically sound player in order to take full advantage of his physical gifts.
Urban wrote in May that, “it seems obvious Bucannon will be the starter at strong safety sooner rather than later,” but that could set him up for some failures in his rookie season, especially early. Don’t be surprised, even if he begins the 2014 season in the starting lineup, if he gets pushed by second-year safety Tony Jefferson—even if only temporarily—for playing time and perhaps even his starting role.
Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Carolina Panthers
Saddled with the pressure of headlining a Carolina Panthers receiving corps that is essentially brand new, No. 28 overall pick Kelvin Benjamin will be expected to emerge as one of Cam Newton’s primary targets right off the bat. That could be a heavy burden to bear for the Florida State product, who has huge a upside as an outside playmaking receiver but also a flawed game.
At 6’5” and 240 pounds with long arms (nearly 35”), according to NFL.com, Benjamin has highly intriguing measurables at a position where bigger is often considered being better. Possessing a size advantage over every defensive back he faces, Benjamin is a consistent threat to win in jump-ball situations.
Size isn’t everything, of course, and while it can help him win on throws where he can’t separate from defensive backs, he’s still going to have to be able to get open on a more consistent basis to emerge as a No. 1 receiver in Carolina.
Limited speed and quickness makes it tough for Benjamin to break free from defensive backs; in order to fully make up for what he lacks athletically, he has to become a more polished route-runner.
Benjamin’s potential to create mismatches is promising, especially in the red zone, but the two-year collegiate player isn’t likely to reach the top of his game until at least his second season in the league.
That’s typically fine and expected for a wideout drafted late in the first round, but for a Panthers offense that touts Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant as its top veteran receivers, the team likely holds expectations for Benjamin that he might not be prepared to meet in year one.
Demarcus Lawrence, DE, Dallas Cowboys
As the No. 34 overall pick, Demarcus Lawrence technically went two spots outside of the draft’s first round, but the Dallas Cowboys made it clear they valued him like a top-32 pick when they traded a second-and third-round pick from this year's draft to move to the top of Round 2 to select the Boise State product.
Placing first-round expectations on Lawrence leaves him in a position to be a rookie disappointment. While he is an athletic edge-defender with an explosive burst and high pass-rushing potential, he’s more of a developmental project than a player ready to immediately tear up NFL offensive lines.
Because of the high investment the team made in Lawrence, Cowboys fans will quickly expect him to emerge as the replacement for another Demarcus—DeMarcus Ware—who was the star of Dallas’ defense and recorded 117 sacks over the past nine seasons.
Lawrence isn’t ready for that responsibility, even if he brings a fresh ability to get after opposing quarterbacks. As Rick Gosselin of The Dallas Morning News suggested in May, Lawrence “probably won’t start as he gets his strength up,” and instead will start out his career as only a designated pass-rusher.
The rookie defensive end will have to emerge quickly as a sack artist or make rapid progress as a point-of-attack run defender to get on the field as an every-down player. Only then will the Cowboys’ trade up for him be justified and meet the expectations that come with that level of investment.
It’s possible he might not even see the field much early, however, at a position where the Cowboys have a solid two-deep set of veteran defensive ends in Anthony Spencer, George Selvie, Tyrone Crawford and Jeremy Mincey.
Cody Latimer, WR, Denver Broncos
Despite having the No. 1-ranked offense in the NFL this past season, the Denver Broncos traded up to the No. 56 overall pick in the second round of this year’s draft to add another playmaker: Indiana wide receiver Cody Latimer.
Understandably, the receiver is expected by many to thrive immediately in a situation where he will be surrounded by talent and have Peyton Manning passing him the ball. That talent surrounding him, however, might ultimately keep him from making a significant impact in his rookie year.
With Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and offseason free-agent addition Emmanuel Sanders sitting as the top three on Denver’s receiving depth chart, Latimer will have to beat out Andre Caldwell just to be the Broncos’ fourth wideout in the rotation.
If he can do so, he should have opportunities to get on the field, but his opportunities to catch passes will not only be limited by the standout veteran receivers on the field—as well as star tight end Julius Thomas—but also by Latimer’s own limitations as a football player.
A 6’2”, 215-pound wideout who ran a 4.38-second 40-yard dash at Indiana’s pro day, according to Zach Osterman of The Indianapolis Star, Latimer’s physical measurables are certainly impressive. He didn’t appear to play as fast on the field as he tested at pro day, however, and he doesn't appear to possess the short-area quickness to break away from defenders in the open field.
As Latimer develops, he should come closer to taking full advantage of his physical capabilities and could emerge as a major weapon for the Broncos offense in time. As a rookie, however, Latimer might not have enough ability to force his way onto the field and make an impact on such a talent-laden offense.
Stanley Jean-Baptiste, CB, New Orleans Saints
Consider that Stanley Jean-Baptiste is a 6’3”, 218-pound player who converted to cornerback from wide receiver midway through his collegiate career, and it’s clear the New Orleans Saints will be hoping that their second-round pick (No. 58 overall) emerges as the NFL’s next Richard Sherman.
That said, any immediate expectations for Jean-Baptiste to play at the level of Sherman, who established himself as one of the NFL’s elite cornerbacks while helping lead the Seattle Seahawks to a Super Bowl title this past season, are likely to go unfulfilled, at least during his rookie season in 2014.
It’s true that Jean-Baptiste’s size and ball skills give him star potential, but it’s apparent from his game film that he’s still learning the nuances of playing cornerback. As he makes the leap to the NFL, he must correct his flawed footwork and improve his technique to overcome a long speed that is subpar for his position.
Despite his shortcomings, expectations for Jean-Baptiste are already higher than they typically are for a late second-round pick, likely thanks to his similarities to Sherman.
Jean-Baptiste has been getting some first-team repetitions at cornerback in offseason workouts, according to Mike Triplett of ESPN.com.
Sports Illustrated’s Peter King thinks the Saints should consider featuring the rookie from Nebraska prominently in their opening day lineup. (King suggested that Jean-Baptiste could take repetitions away from Keenan Lewis, but if he is going to beat out anyone to start, it would be 35-year-old Champ Bailey, who King thinks “should start if healthy”.)
Regardless of whether or not Jean-Baptiste earns a starting spot, he should see solid playing time as a rookie because the Saints will want to use his size where it can give them an advantage. How much playing time he receives should be contingent upon his development, however, as he remains a raw talent who is likely to get exposed at times throughout his first year in the league.
All measurables courtesy of NFL.com unless otherwise noted.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.