Breakdown or Breakthrough: Predicting How Players Respond to NFL Rookie Wall

Sean TomlinsonNFL AnalystOctober 13, 2017

Breakdown or Breakthrough: Predicting How Players Respond to NFL Rookie Wall

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    The 2017 NFL rookie class has already produced white-hot starts, which has led some to wonder when the cooldown will come for first-year standouts such as Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt and Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.

    The answer? Maybe not at all.

    The rookie wall looms for some as touches or targets pile up and the physical marathon of a longer football season at a higher level takes its toll. Inevitably, a few rookies will be left at the bottom of that wall late in the season.

    But plenty more plow through and leave the wall in a crumpled heap, usually because they already logged lots of starting time in college or a high-volume workload. For them, there is no physical shock in the NFL and no threat of a sudden decline during pivotal games in November and December.

    Hunt should easily leap over any rookie-year hurdles that lie ahead because he was a steady workhorse in college. Watson should do the same after starting two full seasons for Clemson and shining during national championship games.

    Others don't have that background and might not be so lucky. Let's take a good, long look at the rookie wall and see which youngsters are ready to break through and which could be bracing for a breakdown.

Honorable Mentions

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    A few that didn't make the final cut in rapid-fire style...

    Cooper Kupp, Los Angeles Rams wide receiver: Cooper Kupp was a small-school prospect who played at a lower level in college. But at some point if you're consistently tearing apart defenses, quality of competition concerns fade away. Kupp definitely did that in college while posting 1,600-plus receiving yards in three of his four seasons. He handled high-volume targets just fine then and can keep doing it now.

    Verdict: Breakthrough

          

    Zach Cunningham, Houston Texans linebacker: Cunningham led the SEC in tackles during his final season with Vanderbilt (125). He also logged starts going all the way back to his redshirt freshman season. 

    Verdict: Breakthrough

         

    Evan Engram, New York Giants tight end: As expected, Engram has emerged amid the rubble that is the Giants offense. He was shut down in Week 5 by the Rams, but prior to that Engram recorded four straight games with 40-plus yards. He's no stranger to lots of targets and production, as he finished 2016 with 65 catches for 926 yards and eight touchdowns for Ole Miss. So, yes, Engram will be just fine when the rookie wall comes.

    Verdict: Breakthrough

Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans Quarterback

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    There was a time not long ago when the Houston Texans were content to call Tom Savage their starting quarterback. He needed to make sure a seat remained at least room temperature for a while, the thinking went, and then first-round pick Deshaun Watson would take over.

    Their plan didn't even last one full game. Savage was benched in Week 1, and then a brief adjustment period followed for Watson. That was perfectly fine and normal, and there were still dazzling moments even as he went through the process of feeling comfortable at the NFL level.

    Watson averaged only 5.2 yards per attempt against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 2. But he showcased his mobility with 64 rushing yards, most of which came on a 49-yard touchdown run.

    He's soared since his second start, which makes it hard to foresee a time when Watson dives headlong into a rookie wall. That fate gets even more difficult to imagine when his brilliance under bright lights at Clemson is factored in too.

    Since Week 3, Watson has averaged 8.6 yards per attempt, and he's done that while recording two games with four-plus touchdown passes. That includes Week 5 when he finished with five touchdown throws. He's set a new record with 12 touchdown passes over his first five game appearances. Watson has also run for 179 yards with two rushing touchdowns, and he has a passer rating of 100.7.

    Eventually defenses will have a better feel for Watson, and then game-plan accordingly. But that was the assumption throughout his college career at Clemson too, and Watson didn't slam into any walls there. No, he threw for 825 yards over two national championship games against Alabama.

          

    Verdict: Breakthrough

Kareem Hunt, Kansas City Chiefs Running Back

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    Ed Zurga/Associated Press

    Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt has already recorded four 100-plus-yard rushing games. That's given him an absurd lead in the league rushing standings, as Hunt has 609 yards on the ground, and the Jaguars' Leonard Fournette is a few miles behind in second with 466 yards.

    He's having the sort of start to a career that we've only seen a few times and is currently on pace to challenge two highly regarded records.

    One is the rookie rushing record, which has stood for 34 years since Eric Dickerson finished with 1,808 yards back in 1983. And perhaps even more impressively because it shows his versatility, Hunt's pace for 2,480 yards from scrimmage is just shy of that single-season record, which was set by Chris Johnson in 2009. Only 10 players in league history have reached the 2,300-yard single-season plateau.

    Of course, it's still so very, very early to read too much into those paces. However, the mere possibility that he bests those marks shows how incredible his start has been. But will Hunt's nitro-fueled start eventually lead to an empty tank in December?

    Hunt will surely see his soaring early production get knocked down a peg. That alone won't be cause for concern. There's a reason, for example, Dickerson's rookie rushing record has stood for over three decades. Maintaining such a scorching pace every week is incredibly difficult.

    But failing to set more records doesn't mean Hunt will slam into a wall. By definition, the rookie wall means a spiral is coming, and for us to assume that will happen with Hunt, there needs to be some past history to lean on. Specifically, there should be a sharp rise in workload compared to his college career.

    That's simply not the case, as right now Hunt is averaging 22.6 touches per game, and during his final year starring for Toledo, he averaged 23.3 touches. Just like he has with the Chiefs so far, Hunt turned that heavy workload into a wildly productive season and finished with 1,878 yards from scrimmage in 2016.

    He's handled punishment in the past just fine, and he can do it again.

          

    Verdict: Breakthrough

David Njoku, Cleveland Browns Tight End

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Cleveland Browns tight end David Njoku was off to a sluggish start to his rookie season before Week 5. Which wasn't alarming because that just made him ordinary.

    The tight end position comes with a complex transition from college to the NFL. Few first-year tight ends can duplicate their sparkling college production right away. Why? Because blocking, and doing it well at the NFL level, is difficult.

    Back in August, Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated detailed the reasons rookie tight ends struggle, and blocking is always at the top of the list. In college, athletically gifted tight ends aren't asked to block nearly as much. That was the case with Njoku too, and now at the NFL level he's having to adapt fast.

    Early inconsistencies aren't new for tight ends. Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots, a generational talent with three 1,100-plus-yard receiving seasons, recorded only 546 yards in his rookie year. And the Panthers' Greg Olsen finished with just 391 receiving yards as a rookie.

    Njoku has gone through the same adjustment period and the same inconsistent start. He's had two games with fewer than 15 receiving yards, and his standout performance came in Week 5 with 48 yards, which included a couple of sprawling catches.

    Njoku's explosiveness should eventually make him a regular contributor and likely also a Pro Bowl-caliber player. But he just might need time to get there.

         

    Verdict: Breakdown

Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers Running Back

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    Mike McCarn/Associated Press

    The concern hovering around running back Christian McCaffrey heading into the draft was clear just by looking at him. The talent oozing from him wasn't hard to see either.

    Yes, he finished his time at Stanford with 1,900-plus yards from scrimmage in two straight seasons. And yes, no amount of gaudy yardage could mask the fact that at 5'11" and 205 pounds, he's undersized for an NFL running back.

    He showed the ability to overcome that smaller stature throughout his college career and still be an effective inside runner. But even knowing that, did his future team want to subject him to intense pounding right away during his rookie season? Or was it best to lean on his abundant pass-catching skills while still scripting plays for him?

    The Carolina Panthers have largely gone with the latter approach so far after selecting McCaffrey with the eighth overall pick. And because of that, he likely won't have to worry about scaling the rookie wall. He'll be able to just step over it because his workload as a runner is so low.

    McCaffrey has been given double-digit carries just once, and, as a result, he had recorded only 96 rushing yards entering Thursday. The Panthers are minimizing the physical abuse McCaffrey has to endure by keeping Jonathan Stewart still heavily involved. He's been given 77 carries, which is far ahead of the 34 allotted to McCaffrey.

    The rookie has still maintained a consistent pass-catching role, and his 237 receiving yards rank fourth among running backs. He's a hybrid player who thrives in space. Eventually he could do the same between the tackles, too. But avoiding that pounding right now will make him more productive as a rookie and also possibly prolong his career.

         

    Verdict: Breakthrough

Malik Hooker, Indianapolis Colts Safety

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    The Indianapolis Colts desperately needed to lower the level of embarrassment in their secondary. In 2016, they allowed 27 passing touchdowns (tied for 20th), and 262.5 yards per game through the air (27th). They were roasted and spent plenty of time flailing while failing.

    Which is why the Colts targeted a ball-hawking safety in the first round of the 2017 draft. They snatched the best such defender by selecting Malik Hooker with the 15th overall pick. A standout for Ohio State, Hooker was magnetized to the ball in 2016 and reeled in seven interceptions.

    Now he's already recorded three interceptions over just his first five NFL games. The concern about him going forward, however, lies in recent injury history and a lack of game experience.

    Hooker spent just one season as a starter for the Buckeyes. That tends to happen when a player is part of a powerhouse college football program with so much talent elsewhere on the depth chart. But consequently, he doesn't have much experience with the physical demands of a full season.

    That gets more concerning when combined with his medical history. During the offseason he had surgeries to repair core muscle and labrum issues. He also suffered offseason hamstring and shoulder injuries.

    His body will adapt eventually. But for now, the physical demands of starting could wear him down.

         

    Verdict: Breakdown

Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints Running Back

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    Matt Dunham/Associated Press

    Alvin Kamara is part of a New Orleans Saints running back depth chart that just became less congested after Adrian Peterson was traded to the Arizona Cardinals. Now Kamara's workload will surely rise, though likely not above a level he can handle.

    Peterson became an afterthought for the Saints and was given just 27 carries over four games. But that average of nearly seven carries per game still needs to be replaced. Mark Ingram will do most of the heavy lifting, as he has often during a career that's featured two seasons with 200-plus carries, with the most recent coming in 2016.

    But Kamara will see an uptick in snaps as well, and mostly as a pass-catcher. He busted out in that role during a Week 4 win over the Miami Dolphins, finishing with 10 catches for 71 yards. It was a game when the 22-year-old also recorded five carries for 25 yards, giving him a total of 96 yards on 15 touches.

    That will probably be the ceiling for Kamara's workload, with Ingram handling most of the early-down duties. The former Tennessee Volunteers standout is familiar with that level of punishment after averaging 11.8 touches per game throughout his college career.

         

    Verdict: Breakthrough

George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers Tight End

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Soul-crushing doesn't really even begin to describe the San Francisco 49ers' season so far. Four of the rebuilding team's five losses have come by three points or fewer.

    When a team's heart aches that much, it begins grasping for positives. And the steady emergence of tight end George Kittle is fueling hope in San Francisco right now.

    Kittle could end up becoming a bargain of a fifth-round pick. He's needed some time to adjust to the pros and was limited by a hip injury. But over the 49ers' last two games, the 24-year-old has established himself as a reliable weapon, especially in clutch moments.

    Kittle has caught nine balls for 118 yards since Week 4, an average of 13.1 yards per reception. That includes a sizzling late-game stretch in Week 5 when he erupted for 73 yards on one drive, including a touchdown that forced overtime against the Indianapolis Colts.

    His sudden surge hints strongly at what could be coming as his connection with quarterback Brian Hoyer grows. The concern, however, is that he's never been the focal point of an offense or had to experience the physical grind of running lots of routes while often grappling with press coverage. His single-season highs at Iowa were 22 catches and 314 yards, and both came in 2016 when he was limited by a foot injury.

    A struggle with the rookie wall could be coming for Kittle, but the future is still bright.

          

    Verdict: Breakdown

Tarik Cohen, Chicago Bears Running Back

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    The Chicago Bears dug up a glistening mid-round gem in running back Tarik Cohen. The small-school stud from North Carolina A&T was selected with the 119th overall pick in the 2017 draft, and he's quickly given the Bears one of the league's best young running back tandems.

    He was slotted into a backfield that already featured Jordan Howard, who finished second in rushing during his 2016 rookie season with 1,313 yards. Cohen has become the ideal complementary option without struggling at all with the transition to a higher level of competition.

    In his NFL regular-season debut, the 22-year-old lit up the Atlanta Falcons for 113 yards from scrimmage. That included two chunk plays: a 19-yard receiving touchdown and a 46-yard run.

    Cohen has sailed past 100 total yards twice already and is averaging 67.6 yards per game in mostly a secondary role behind Howard. He leads the Bears in receptions with 25 and is well on his way to shattering his single-year high in college (37 catches).

    Such a sharp increase in usage leads to rookie-wall concerns. But the real physical bruising for a running back comes when their carry totals climb drastically. Cohen, who shouldered the load of 264 carries in 2015, has proved in the past he's physically able to withstand plenty of whacks and keep on trucking.

    That's not something he'll have to worry about now, though, as long as Howard stays healthy. Cohen has logged 36 carries over five games, which is far below the 82 given to Howard.

    Verdict: Breakthrough

Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars Running Back

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    In the early days of training camp, Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone was asked how much he would ideally like to see quarterback Blake Bortles pass each game.

    The correct answer to that question is always as little as possible. Bortles is a wonky-throwing quarterback who generously spreads around the gift of interceptions. He's thrown 55 interceptions over 51 career games and simply isn't a starting-caliber NFL quarterback.

    Marrone is well aware of both those facts, and he also knows the power of Leonard Fournette, the rookie running back the Jaguars selected with the fourth overall pick in the 2017 draft. Which is why he wanted to do much more than just take the focus away from Bortles.

    "For me, I’d like to run the ball every play," Marrone said back in late July, via John Oehser of Jaguars.com. "I want to go back to the old way. I want to change the game."

    So far he's tried hard to keep that promise.

    Fournette has been the bruising workhorse the Jaguars wanted and needed in their attempt to minimize Bortles. His 466 rushing yards place him second in the league and behind only Hunt. He's also scored six times, including once as a pass-catcher. He's proved capable in that role too, with 128 yards on 13 receptions.

    Fournette has become the centerpiece of Jacksonville's offense as planned. The result has predictably been a heavy immediate workload, with the 22-year-old's 109 carries leading the league.

    But he doesn't lead by a wide or outlandish margin, with the Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott only four carries behind Fournette. He's set an early pace for 348 carries, which sounds like a lot during a rookie season because, well, it is a lot during any season. For perspective, Elliott led the league in 2016 with 322 carries, and in 2015 Adrian Peterson was the leader at 327 carries.

    Still, any concern about Fournette's workload is more about the long-term impact than any short-term rookie wall. He's young, fresh and, most importantly, has thrived with a hefty carry total before during his time at LSU. In 2015, he turned 300 carries into 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns.

    Fournette is a solidly built human house at 6'0" and 228 pounds. Now isn't the time to worry about him breaking down. That will come in a few years if this workload continues. We perhaps saw the first long-term blow when he missed time due to an ankle injury during his final year at LSU.

        

    Verdict: Breakthrough

Kendell Beckwith, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Linebacker

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers liked what they saw in linebacker Kendell Beckwith enough to move up and grab him at the end of the third round, trading fourth- and sixth-round picks to the New York Jets.

    They've been rewarded quickly with a thumper and a snap-hog.

    It's already a win whenever the 107th overall pick becomes a starter right away. But it's an even better jackpot when that pick has played nearly every defensive snap. Beckwith has been on the field for 98 percent of the Bucs' defensive snaps while recording 36 tackles, per Pro Football Reference. 

    The highlight of Beckwith's season so far was his 14 tackles during a Week 5 loss to the New England Patriots. He's made early progress with his tackling ability, because as Pro Football Focus noted, Beckwith missed 14 tackles over just 10 games in 2016 with LSU.

    If he keeps that growth up, the 22-year-old will be a quality addition to a solid front seven. However, there is still concern over his durability if an every-down role continues.

    Beckwith tore his left ACL in late November 2016 during LSU's second-to-last regular-season game. He recovered remarkably fast but is still less than a year removed from the injury. It'll be tough for that knee to hold up throughout the intensity of a full NFL season.

         

    Verdict: Breakdown