Buying or Selling the Hype on NFL's Biggest Rookie Names This Offseason
The NFL offseason is nearing a close, and it's almost showtime for the high-profile players selected in May's draft. With nearly six months separating the end of the NFL season and the start of training camps, there is an abundance of time for hype to generate.
The current rookie class will likely produce some fantastic NFL contributors. Some players will have a major, instant impact on their teams, and others will make bigger strides in future seasons.
As always, though, the current season is the most important one. Coaches and players work year-to-year and constantly face pressure to perform. That's why we will be breaking down the hype on some of the biggest names in the 2014 NFL draft class.
Let's take a look at the projected stats for big-name rookies and buy or sell whether they'll reach that production or fall short.
Jadeveon Clowney, DE/OLB, Houston Texans
2014 Projection: 70 total tackles, 10.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and two interceptions by Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Curt Popejoy
The No. 1 overall selection in the 2014 draft seemed destined for that very distinction since he arrived at South Carolina as a freshman. From top overall high school recruit to top overall pick to the Houston Texans, Jadeveon Clowney has been considered a transcendent player. But will his immense talent allow him to reach the projected stats above?
First, we must know what top rookie pass-rushers have achieved in recent seasons:
- 2009: Clay Matthews—51 total tackles, 10 sacks, one forced fumble
- 2009: Brian Orakpo—50 total tackles, 11 sacks, one forced fumble
- 2011: Von Miller—64 total tackles, 11.5 sacks, two forced fumbles
- 2011: Aldon Smith—37 total tackles, 14 sacks, two forced fumbles
- 2011: J.J. Watt—56 total tackles, 5.5 sacks
- 2011: Robert Quinn—23 total tackles, five sacks
- 2013: Ezekiel Ansah—32 total tackles, eight sacks, two forced fumbles
Across from Watt, Clowney will have opportunities to get to the quarterback and notch an impressive sack total. Coming out of college, Clowney was a better prospect than all of the above players, which his No. 1 overall status validates.
The projection of 70 total tackles and 10.5 sacks seems high, especially since Clowney didn't total more than 54 tackles in any season at South Carolina. But with more games and surrounding talent, Clowney's pure talent should get him close to the baseline projected. I'm buying this hype.
Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo Bills
2014 Projection: 65 catches, 950 receiving yards and seven touchdowns by NFL Media analyst Bucky Brooks
Sammy Watkins enters the NFL coming from an offensive system in Clemson that featured few route combinations, instead relying on Watkins' ability to make plays after screens. That doesn't mean Watkins won't be a polished route-runner in time, but he doesn't have the experience or polish of past rookies who were very productive in their first seasons.
Looking at the past seven drafts, here are the rookie receivers to eclipse 1,000 yards:
That's it. Just two receivers since 2007 have hit the 1,000-yard mark. Brooks' projection of 950 yards would mean Watkins is one of the most productive rookie receivers of the last few years, but the Buffalo Bills' situation isn't ideal for that type of breakout season.
For Watkins to succeed, quarterback EJ Manuel has to greatly improve his game. Ranked Pro Football Focus' 41st-best quarterback last year, Manuel struggled with his accuracy and decision-making, causing the Bills offense to sputter. His ability to stay on the field is also an issue, as he missed six games due to various injuries.
To buy on Watkins' hype would mean I'm buying on Manuel's improvement, and that's a major leap of faith. As much as I like Watkins as a player, I'm selling this projection.
Khalil Mack, OLB, Oakland Raiders
2014 Projection: 16 games, 30 total tackles and 11 sacks by Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Chris Roling
Khalil Mack had a tremendous collegiate career at Buffalo, setting NCAA records for career tackles for loss and forced fumbles. He's an elite pass-rushing prospect who has the ability to drop back in coverage as well. During the draft process, some reports even said Mack might be the potential No. 1 overall pick over Clowney.
That type of talent is why the Oakland Raiders selected Mack with the No. 5 overall draft pick. He's the type of player that can make an enormous impact on the game for a decade. On top of his impressive athleticism, his ball awareness and hand usage are skills that will lead to early success.
He has the inside track on starting at strong-side linebacker for the Raiders, which will have him seeing a majority of run plays and tight-end coverage responsibilities. More opportunities for tackles is better for Mack.
As a pass-rusher, Mack has a variety of moves at his disposal. He has a nasty spin move that gets offensive tackles off balance and left looking lost. His speed-to-power transition causes linemen to get pushed back into the quarterback. Finally, his ability to bend the edge forces offenses to commit an extra blocker to his side.
Having already looked at what past rookie pass-rushers have accomplished, we know it's possible for Mack to reach 11 sacks. That number would mean Mack has a phenomenal rookie year.
The Raiders signed four veteran defensive linemen to eat up blocks so their speedy linebackers could wreak havoc on the offense, and I expect that strategy to work. I'm not only buying this hype but predicting Mack produces at least twice as many tackles as projected.
Eric Ebron, TE, Detroit Lions
2014 Projection: 45 catches, 550 receiving yards and five touchdowns by NFL Media analyst Bucky Brooks
The Detroit Lions have gone "all-in" this offseason to improve their receiving options around quarterback Matthew Stafford. The team hopes selecting tight end Eric Ebron 10th overall in the draft was the last piece to the puzzle and will allow this offense to set records.
Similar to Lions star receiver Calvin Johnson, Ebron is highly athletic and presents major matchup issues for defenses. Ebron is too fast for linebackers, but he's too big for many safeties to disrupt at the point of contest.
Ebron brings a contrasting skill set to the Lions' other receivers, Golden Tate and Ryan Broyles. Both are more possession-type receivers, relying on their route precision and hands to convert first downs. They should allow Ebron to be a monster on seam routes.
However, rookie tight ends haven't been especially productive in recent years. Bengals 2013 first-round pick Tyler Eifert produced just 39 receptions and 445 yards. The Indianapolis Colts' tight end duo of 2012 featured Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener, but neither player matched Ebron's projection.
There's also Reggie Bush, the Lions' versatile offensive weapon. He's a dangerous receiver who is coming off a career year with 506 receiving yards.
With so much competition for receptions, it'll be difficult for Ebron to beat the above projection. Forty-five receptions, 550 receiving yards and five touchdowns seems modest, but that would be the best rookie season by a tight end since Aaron Hernandez's 2010 season with the New England Patriots. I'm selling that level of hype.
C.J. Mosley, LB, Baltimore Ravens
2014 Projection: 113 total tackles, three forced fumbles and three passes defended by Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Curt Popejoy
C.J. Mosley was a somewhat surprising selection by the Baltimore Ravens with the 17th overall pick. One month after they re-signed veteran Daryl Smith to a four-year contract, and just one year after taking Arthur Brown in the second round of the 2013 draft, Mosley joined the Ravens to fill the void left by Ray Lewis.
Expect him to beat out Brown for the starting job next to Smith. Brown played just 211 snaps behind Josh Bynes and Jameel McClain.
Although unexpected, Mosley is a great fit with the Ravens. He's a sure tackler and tremendous at recognizing plays. His ability to be around the ball while at Alabama was uncanny. His injury history is a concern, but if he can stay healthy, he could be the Defensive Rookie of the Year.
With all of that said, the Ravens started both Bynes and McClain in 2013, resulting in 96 total tackles. Mosley is a much better player than each of them, and thus I am buying this hype.
Johnny Manziel, QB, Cleveland Browns
2014 Projection: 3,339 yards, 23 touchdowns, 19 interceptions, 495 yards rushing, 78 QB rating by Prediction Machine, via Paul Myerberg of USA Today
Cleveland Browns fans received a new sense of hope and optimism when the team traded up to select Johnny Manziel 22nd overall. The master of improvisation joins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who had success molding an effective offense around a similar quarterback in Washington, Robert Griffin III.
There are no guarantees Manziel will begin the season as the Browns' starter, as Lindsay Jones of USA Today reported. Even if he can beat out incumbent Brian Hoyer for the job, he'll have a difficult obstacle to overcome.
Star wide receiver Josh Gordon could miss the 2014 season due to his off-field actions, leaving tight end Jordan Cameron as the lone proven receiver on the roster. The rest of the receiving group is a mix of young, unproven talent and old reclamation projects such as Miles Austin and Nate Burleson.
The positive is that the Browns will rely on the run game, led by running backs Ben Tate, Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell. The zone-blocking scheme employed by Shanahan is meant to relieve pressure on the quarterback by setting up short third-down situations.
As exciting as Manziel can be, he'll have to learn when to force passes into coverage and when to progress to his next read.
At Texas A&M, he was in a system that often asked him to look toward star receiver Mike Evans, and if he wasn't open, Manziel was to scramble. That won't work in the NFL, especially with Manziel's frame. His risk of injury is extraordinarily high, as he tends to break the pocket, even when no pressure is near.
The projected stat line indicates a poor rookie season, as a 78 QB rating would've ranked just 28th in the league in 2013. That's below backups Matt Cassel, Kellen Clemens and Case Keenum. This hype is somewhat negative, but Manziel's transition to the NFL will not be smooth or easy, so I am buying it.
Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Carolina Panthers
2014 Projection: 71 receptions, 1,050 yards, nine touchdowns by Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Curt Popejoy
The Carolina Panthers drafted Kelvin Benjamin 28th overall to contribute to their offense right away. After letting veterans Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn walk away in free agency, the leading receiver left is tight end Greg Olsen.
In other words, expect quarterback Cam Newton to be looking toward Benjamin often in 2014. He doesn't face much competition, as the Panthers chose to sign veterans who have low upside, such as Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant.
Benjamin is very raw in his route development. He played just two seasons for Florida State and emerged as a legitimate weapon in 2013.
As great as his 6'5" frame is for leaping over defenders and bringing down difficult catches, he lacks lateral explosion and doesn't have much upside on intermediate routes due to his stiffness. He likely will be a vertical slot option for the Panthers, playing similarly to New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham.
The Panthers are a run-heavy team, and that won't change in 2014. Benjamin will have opportunities to make big plays this season because of that. Having Newton as his quarterback will also help tremendously.
As we saw in a previous slide, a 1,000-yard season would be a historical season. For a raw player, that is a tremendous stretch. I'm selling this stock.
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Minnesota Vikings
2014 Projection: 3,200 passing yards, 23 passing touchdowns, 11 interceptions and 62 percent completion rate by NFL Media analyst Bucky Brooks
The Minnesota Vikings traded up into the last pick of the first round to get their quarterback of the future, Teddy Bridgewater. Despite going through a draft process that saw Bridgewater face conflicting reports on performance, he still was the top overall quarterback prospect in the draft for Bleacher Report's Matt Miller, NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah and myself.
That's because he excels at the mental part of the game. His pre-snap recognition and awareness is fantastic. He threw just four interceptions last season, as he reads his post-snap progressions quickly and efficiently. Being able to lead a receiver in stride with a pass is critical, and Bridgewater was excellent with his ball placement throughout his career at Louisville.
Some say his arm strength is lacking, but that's erroneous. Many of his incomplete deep balls were not due to arm-strength issues but poor receivers.
Surrounded by Adrian Peterson, Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson and Kyle Rudolph, Bridgewater will be in a terrific position to succeed. It'll help to have a solid offensive line in front of him. That's how a team is supposed to help its rookie quarterback.
Bridgewater isn't a perfect quarterback or prospect, but he has already started taking first-team snaps with the Vikings. Expect him to firmly take control of the Vikings' starting quarterback job in training camp.
Considering Bridgewater's elite mental capacity and processing, it is plausible he reaches the projected 2-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. The rest of the projection is modest, as 3,200 passing yards would've ranked 20th in 2013. I am absolutely buying this hype.
Bishop Sankey, RB, Tennessee Titans
2014 Projection: 245 carries, 1,127 yards, six rushing touchdowns; 22 receptions, 156 yards receiving, two receiving touchdowns by Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Curt Popejoy
Oftentimes, how a player fits with a team determines how well that individual will do throughout his career. For Bishop Sankey, he couldn't have gone to a better situation than Tennessee. It all starts with his new head coach, Ken Whisenhunt.
As offensive coordinator for the San Diego Chargers, Whisenhunt called run plays 486 times in 2013, which is an average of about 30 carries per game. After the Titans released Chris Johnson, they had to find a workhorse back who could handle a heavy load. Sankey thrived when he received more touches as a Washington Huskies back.
Not only is Sankey one of the most well-rounded athletes in the NFL, as outlined by Mock Draftable, but he brings toughness as well. He doesn't actively seek contact, which will help his longevity, but he does welcome it. He isn't going to avoid running through lanes because a linebacker is peeking through. That's the toughness the Titans wanted to find, and they did well to get a great fit.
The projected rushing total of 1,127 yards would've been a top-10 figure in 2013. Sankey isn't a top-10 back in terms of talent right now, but considering his situation and how many touches he will get, I am buying this hype.
All stats used are from Pro Football Focus' Premium Stats (subscription required) or sports-reference.com. All combine and pro day info is courtesy of ESPN.com. All contract information is courtesy of Spotrac.com.