NFL1000: How Struggling Rookies Can Avoid Bust Label

NFL1000 ScoutsFeatured ColumnistNovember 10, 2017

NFL1000: How Struggling Rookies Can Avoid Bust Label

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    No matter how great you were in college, the transition to the NFL is fierce and difficult. If you're a quarterback, the pressure you're facing (literally and figuratively) is at least twice as fast and ferocious. If you're a running back, the gaps open and close with a quickness you may not have seen. If you're a receiver, you'll face defenders who are in more coverages and play them more expertly than you're used to. If you're an offensive lineman, you'll see stunts and games you didn't see with your prior team.

    Oh, yeah…and in the NFL, defensive linemen know how to use their hands.

    If you're a defensive lineman, you'll have to learn techniques you probably weren't taught in college just to survive. Linebackers and defensive backs will have to deal with playbooks that are much more complex than the ones they've used before.

    It's a wonder there aren't more first-year busts. Those players who transcend the transitional difficulties are those who put in the work, develop accordingly and are in the right systems for their talent. Of course, it doesn't always work, and there are those who need time to adjust.

    Just ask Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff about that. A year ago, he looked like one of the worst quarterback picks in NFL history. With a new offensive line, better receivers and a vastly improved game plan, he's playing at borderline Pro Bowl level.

    This season, as in every season, there are those rookies who are struggling to adjust to the NFL for a host of reasons. Our NFL1000 team of scouts has been watching their game tape all the way through:

    Lead Scout: Doug Farrar
    Quarterbacks: Mark Schofield
    Running backs/Fullbacks: Mark Bullock
    Receivers/Tight Ends: Marcus Mosher
    Offensive Line: Ethan Young
    Defensive Line: Justis Mosqueda
    Linebackers: Derrik Klassen
    Secondary: Ian Wharton

    Here are our suggestions for those rookies who are most obviously dealing with NFL adjustment issues.

DeShone Kizer, QB, Cleveland Browns

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    Let's begin with some numbers: Seven starts, a completion percentage of 54.6, five touchdowns, seven interceptions and an adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A) of 2.82.

    Those are Jared Goff's 2016 passing statistics, which are slightly better than those of Cleveland Browns rookie DeShone Kizer in 2017. In his first seven starts, Kizer completed 52.1 percent of his passes for three touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He's put up an ANY/A of 2.75.

    Given the sophomore season Goff is enjoying for the Los Angeles Rams, it is clear a developmental turnaround is possible. But unless the Haslems plan to back up a full Brinks truck to Rams head coach Sean McVay's front door, it is unlikely the the Browns owners will hire the first-year head coach away from L.A.

    So how can Kizer avoid a permanent bust label?

    First, he needs to eliminate turnovers. This is the most obvious area he can make big strides in down the stretch. Not only has he thrown the most interceptions in the league (tied with the Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton), but he also leads the NFL in red-zone interceptions. Four of his 11 picks came inside the opponents' 20-yard line, and two of those came inside the 10-yard line. No other quarterback in the league has thrown more than one red-zone interception.  

    Second, Kizer needs help. While the Browns could use a talent infusion at wide receiver, the young quarterback also needs assistance from a schematic viewpoint. Head coach Hue Jackson needs to give his quarterback easy read concepts, which will allow him to focus on one side of the field.

    Jackson also needs to do more with pre-snap motion and shifting to give Kizer the ability to glean the defensive coverage and alignment, rather than having to do it on the fly post-snap.

    To date, Kizer seems like a bust, and the numbers bear that out. But Goff was in a similar position last season. Turnarounds can happen, but the Browns rookie needs to eliminate turnovers and get a bit of help to create his own comeback story.

    —NFL1000 QB Scout, Mark Schofield

Mitchell Trubisky, QB, Chicago Bears

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    It's not hard to imagine that Chicago Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky would have trouble dealing with NFL defenses. The second overall pick in the 2017 draft started just one season at North Carolina, so the NFL was going to be an uphill battle for him when he hadn't quite gotten the hang of NCAA coverages just yet.

    Trubisky has had a few good moments in his four starts since he replaced the underperforming Mike Glennon on October 9, but more than anything, he's been a hidden entity.

    Trubisky has completed just 38 passes in 80 attempts for 512 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. That includes starts against the Baltimore Ravens and Carolina Panthers in which he completed eight of 16 passes and four of seven passes, respectively. He got more shots against New Orleans' defense October 29 and completed 14 of 32 passes for 164 yards and an interception.

    Put an inexperienced rookie quarterback up against three of the NFL's best defenses, and most would struggle. He has an additional problem in that the Bears' receivers are hardly a Murderers' Row—Trubisky's targets require scheming to get open for the most part.

    When that happens, he can find success, as he has the arm and mobility needed to make big plays. His 45-yard completion to receiver Tre McBride in the first quarter of the Saints game is a great example. McBride got open on a deep over route that started on a stack crossing concept, and safety Marcus Williams was late in coverage. Trubisky delivered the ball to McBride before Williams and cornerback Ken Crawley could catch up.

    But many of Trubisky's big plays have happened after he's broken the pocket and one or more receivers have followed him around the field outside of structure. The rookie still has trouble identifying open receivers on timing routes, which makes it hard for him to get in a rhythm. It lends a scattershot element to Chicago's passing game.

    Head coach John Fox's first responsibility is to win, so it's understandable that he would want to lean on running back Jordan Howard and Chicago's excellent defense. But Trubisky won't learn how to play like an NFL quarterback until he's given more opportunities to learn through adversity. The Bears offense will be inconsistent in the short term because of it, but every young NFL quarterback must make these errors before things get better.

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout, Doug Farrar

Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers

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    When the Carolina Panthers selected running back Christian McCaffrey with the eighth overall pick in April, there was much excitement over what he might bring to the offense. At Stanford, McCaffrey was a prolific running back with good vision, patience and outstanding elusiveness, but his skill set didn't stop there. He would often motion to or line up in the slot, a position where he ran a full route tree as well as most college receivers.

    McCaffrey's NFL career hasn't gotten off to the best start. It's not for a lack of touches, either. He has 64 carries for 183 yards and a touchdown on 2.9 yards per carry. He also has 54 catches for 406 yards and two touchdowns. However, it's the way the Panthers have gone about getting McCaffrey those touches that has led to his lackluster production.

    The Panthers have run him primarily between the tackles, while most of his catches have come on screen passes or checkdowns in the flat. The offense has tried to force the ball to McCaffrey, but it's lacked imagination in doing so.

    The team needs to move him around more. Allow him to motion to and from the backfield and see how the defense reacts. Not only would it give quarterback Cam Newton an indication of man or zone coverage, but the Panthers also might get a shift in the defensive front that gives them a positive look to run against.

    Carolina should also expand McCaffrey's role as a slot receiver. Stack him with other receivers and run quick route combinations that make use of his ability to work in and out of breaks sharply. Use another receiver as a decoy and have McCaffrey follow behind him.

    Similarly, the Panthers could look to use him as the decoy. He draws plenty of attention from the underneath coverage defenders, so the team could use him on short crossers or hook routes to draw the coverage to him and open intermediate level in-breaking routes behind the underneath coverage.

    Someone who looks purely at the stats might label McCaffrey a bust for his rookie season, but that'd be more due to the way the Panthers have elected to use him than anything he's done wrong. There are plenty of simple, easy schematic adjustments the Panthers could make that could open things up for McCaffrey and help him shake off the potential bust label.

    —NFL1000 RB Scout, Mark Bullock

Zay Jones, WR, Buffalo Bills

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    When the Buffalo Bills traded Sammy Watkins and let Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin leave via free agency, the team knew it would go through a significant transition at wide receiver. It'd have to replace its top three wideouts from 2016, which is tough to do in one offseason. The Bills made these moves with the knowledge they'd have to rely heavily on rookie receiver Zay Jones.

    Buffalo selected Jones with the 37th pick in the 2017 draft, but like many of the receivers in the class, he has struggled. Unlike the rest of the rookie wideouts, opportunity hasn't been a problem for him. He's started seven games (more than Corey Davis, Mike Williams and John Ross combined) and has received more targets than every first-year receiver (44) aside from Cooper Kupp (47).

    Jones has played a ton (430 snaps in eight games), but he hasn't been productive. Despite seeing 44 targets, Jones has caught just 16 passes for 168 yards and one touchdown. He's only gone over 25 yards receiving twice in a game.

    So how can Jones avoid the bust tag?

    First and foremost, Kelvin Benjamin, who came over in a trade with Carolina on Oct. 31, should help. Jones was a good prospect when he came out of East Carolina, but he doesn't project as a No. 1 receiver. Instead, having him work as the No. 2 or potentially No. 3 better suits his skill set. The Bills would also be smart to give him opportunities to play in the slot, where he can use his 6'2" size and ball skills to win in the middle of the field.

    More importantly, it's important for the Bills and Jones to stay patient. Thriving as a rookie receiver, especially in a run-first offense, can be difficult. He has a ton of talent and more than enough athleticism to succeed, but it will take him time to develop as a route-runner. As long as the Bills can keep him as the second or third option in the passing game, he should have no problem improving over the second half of the season.  

    —NFL1000 WR Scout, Marcus Mosher

David Njoku, TE, Cleveland Browns

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    The Cleveland Browns had three first-round draft picks in 2017, and Miami tight end David Njoku was the only one tabbed to address the offense. They took Njoku after Texas A&M pass-rusher Myles Garrett (No. 1 overall) and Michigan defensive back Jabrill Peppers (No. 25). Selected 29th overall, Njoku caught 64 passes for 1,060 yards and nine touchdowns in two seasons for the Hurricanes, and he did that as a big-play threat who had 17.2 percent of his catches go for 30 or more yards in college.

    So far in the NFL, things have been a bit more difficult. Njoku has played in eight games with just two starts and has caught 18 passes on 32 targets for 195 yards and three touchdowns. He's dropped a couple of passes, but that's not the reason for his low reception and yardage totals.

    Njoku is a highly explosive player in space who's still learning route timing and how to chip blockers on the way out to catch the ball. Many of his routes take a long time to develop, such as deep overs from the formation or deep outs as an iso receiver.

    When Njoku is put in position with timing routes, DeShone Kizer frequently overthrows him or gets it to him late, which lets defenders catch up to the route. Njoku isn't yet great on contested passes, and until he is, the best bet for head coach Hue Jackson and his staff is to get Njoku open with route combinations and other concepts that will give Kizer an easy read.

    Njoku's touchdowns show his potential. There was the 21-yard out route in Week 5 when he muscled New York Jets rookie safety Jamal Adams out of the way to bring in the ball. He faked an inside block in Week 3 against the Colts, then abused linebacker Jon Bostic as he headed to the left side of the end zone. And he caught a deep pass from Kevin Hogan over two Ravens defenders in Week 2 for his first NFL touchdown.

    That Hogan is responsible for two of Njoku's three touchdowns is no accident. Kizer hasn't figured out how to get on the same page with his rookie tight end, and the sooner that happens, the better. Njoku is the most physically gifted offensive player on the Browns roster, and he needs more help from his quarterback and the guys who design his routes.

    Only then will Njoku realize his potential, and he has a ton of it.   

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout, Doug Farrar   

Adam Shaheen, TE, Chicago Bears

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    Chicago Bears tight end Adam Shaheen was one of the more interesting prospects in the 2017 class. At 6'6", 278 pounds, Shaheen was your typical old-school tight end who could dominate in the run game with his blocking ability but also stretch the field as a receiver with his athleticism and toughness.

    However, the biggest concern he presented as a prospect was the level of competition he faced. Shaheen played at Ashland University, and the transition from a lower-level school to the NFL has proved to be a big jump for him.

    Shaheen has played in all eight of the Bears' games this season and has started four. But he has just one catch for two yards. As a blocker, he has struggled with technique and flexibility, and he's been beaten far too often given his size and strength. 

    But much like the rest of the players on this list, Shaheen needs time to develop and patience from the coaching staff. On top of that, he is now adjusting to playing with a rookie quarterback in Mitchell Trubisky, and that has likely slowed his growth. Shaheen needs to continue improve his route running as he can no longer just be bigger and more athletic than everyone else on the field. Now that he is facing similar athletes on each play, he has to rely more on technique rather than raw tools.

    Shaheen's ceiling is as high as it gets, but it may take him a few years before that talent surfaces. In the meantime, he needs to continue to practice well enough during the week to earn snaps on game day. The more he plays, the quicker he will catch up to the speed of the NFL. There is still a long ways to go before we can consider Shaheen a bust.

    —NFL1000 TE Scout, Marcus Mosher   

Garett Bolles, OT, Denver Broncos

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    None of the rookie offensive tackles who are playing full time are doing so all that poorly.

    The Denver Broncos' Garett Bolles has had a slower transition to the league than his first-year counterparts, though, so he's here over the likes of New Orleans' Ryan Ramczyk and Jacksonville's Cam Robinson. Bolles needs to continue to improve in some areas to avoid trending down to a level of play that could warrant a bust label for the first-round pick.

    Bolles' main struggles have come in pass protection. The sack he allowed to Eagles defensive end Vinny Curry in Week 9 is a great example of where he needs to improve: his hand technique. He carried his hands low the entire play and didn't attempt to bat down Curry's attempt at establishing leverage.

    As a result, Curry was easily able to get inside Bolles' frame. And considering Bolles was already retreating out of a vertical set, his weight distribution was not in a place where he could allow Curry to dictate leverage, which is why Curry was able to convert speed to power and drive Bolles into quarterback Brock Osweiler.

    Bolles has the tools to be a solid tackle. His fluidity and ability to get in position on reach blocks in the run game has already been an asset for this Denver rushing attack. If he can improve his hand technique, he'll be able to rely on these tools in pass protection and evolve as a player.

    —NFL1000 OL Scout, Ethan Young

Ethan Pocic, OG, Seattle Seahawks

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    The Seattle Seahawks' Ethan Pocic has only played 32.8 percent of their offensive snaps, so there is a small sample to assess him in, but his tape has not been encouraging. His biggest struggles have been in the run game, where his problems have been twofold: The game seems to be going fast for him, and because of that he seems to be a step behind everyone else. That's caused him to struggle to get in the right position to drive defenders off the ball.

    Even though he is not winning mano a mano out of his short sets, his play strength is not the problem. It's the fact his reactions are extremely delayed.

    His hesitation has extended to pass protection. One of Pocic's strengths at LSU was his ferocity in jumping all over opponents, and those sorts of reps are few and far between on his NFL tape. Part of that is schematic, but Pocic is not a nuanced technician who can counter what opponents throw at him, which is how Seattle seems to have asked him to play.  

    It extends past the scheme, though. So why is Pocic playing with so much hesitancy? I mentioned how the pro game looks fast for him, which happens to a lot of rookies, but the fact he played center in college, right tackle in camp and is starting at left guard can't help, either.

    Pocic has a lot of intriguing natural tools, and it seems guard is the right place for him long term, but Seattle needs to give him a chance to get ingrained there and perhaps change its deployment of him before he can get back to what he does well: taking advantage of his 6'6" frame and strong upper half to start jumping on people again.

    —NFL1000 OL Scout, Ethan Young

Pat Elflein, C, Minnesota Vikings

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    When the Minnesota Vikings selected Ohio State center Pat Elflein in the third round of April's draft, they had big plans for the reigning Rimington Trophy winner (given to the top center in the nation). The team moved Joe Berger to guard to pave the way for Elflein, who became the first rookie center to start his first regular-season game for the Vikings since Mick Tingelhoff in 1962. Elflein switched from guard to center in his senior season for the Buckeyes, so his move to the NFL was another big adjustment. 

    When you watch Elflein get off the snap and engage in run blocking, you see the strength and leverage that allows him to contend with defensive tackles who outweigh the 6'2", 303-pounder by at least 20 pounds. When Elflein latches on and starts to move his defender out of the way to help create a gap, he can be a formidable force.

    However, growing pains show up at times in his pass blocking and movement to the second level. These are common adjustments when centers move up to the NFL, especially when they don't have a ton of experience at the position.

    He'll allow pressure when he's back-stepping in pass coverage, and he doesn't latch on throughout the play. Too often, I see Elflein lose defenders when they move outside a short area, and he's not yet ideally efficient when it comes to moving to the second level and attacking linebackers who may be quicker than he is.

    Elflein has the characteristics of a fine center. When he learns to mirror a defender through a play and uses his feet more efficiently to promote lateral movement, he'll be better able to keep his leverage against defensive tackles and pass-rushers. When he does that and becomes more aware of his assignments on twists and stunts, Elflein will be a top-tier center. He has a tendency to stick in the middle of a stunt—a sign he's not quite sure where to go as a defender blows by him. When you see this more than once, you assign the responsibility appropriately.

    Right now, there's too much randomness with his pass protection and second-level blocks. The solution is time and technique. The Vikings can afford to let Elflein learn on the job, because they've improved enough of their offensive line in the offseason, and their guards help clean up the occasional technique flaws.  

     —NFL1000 Lead Scout, Doug Farrar

Taco Charlton, DE, Dallas Cowboys

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    The Dallas Cowboys have needed penetration help on the defensive line for years. The team seemed to have addressed the problem in the 2017 draft, and it did finally receive the help it needed. However, it's come from Demarcus Lawrence and David Irving instead of first-round pick Taco Charlton.

    The team took him there despite not giving the former Michigan defensive end, known best for his spin, a first-round grade, according to David Moore of the the Dallas Morning News. So far he's looked like he deserved the lower-round grade. Here are the top defensive linemen, in terms of snaps, per Pro Football Reference, in Dallas this year sorted by tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage for every 100 plays:

    • Irving: 5.56 tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage per 100 plays
    • Lawrence: 4.12
    • Tyrone Crawford: 1.66
    • Maliek Collins: 1.42
    • Charlton 1.07
    • Benson Mayowa: 0.49

    As you can see, there's a significant difference between Irving, Lawrence and Charlton. To start the season, Charlton focused too often on setting up his signature spin move, but he has developed in that aspect as the year has gone along. Getting away from thinking about going to a counter move before you're in a position to execute it (when an offensive tackle oversets) is a major key for NFL pass-rushers. Charlton is learning that slowly.

    If he can start straight-rushing on a down-to-down basis, work on dip-and-rip technique, and develop more burst out of his stance next offseason, he could have a great sophomore effort. That's all up to him and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, a legendary defensive line coach.

     —NFL1000 DL Scout, Justis Mosqueda

Tim Williams, OLB, Baltimore Ravens

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    With an aging Terrell Suggs (35) and a departing Elvis Dumervil, the Baltimore Ravens needed to add pieces to their outside pass-rushing unit this offseason. Za'Darius Smith would not be enough opposite Suggs to build the defense upon. The Ravens turned to the NFL draft for answers. In the middle of the third round, they selected Tim Williams, a sparingly used yet hyper-efficient pass-rusher out of Alabama.

    Williams has not seen the field over the last month, though. He played 60 snaps through the first four games  of the season but has been sidelined with a thigh injury since then. He was a full participant in practice last week despite missing the game against the Tennessee Titans, per CBSSports.com. It appears he is close to getting back on the field.

    Prior to the injury, however, Williams was lackluster. The Alabama product was being used primarily as a sub-package rusher on passing downs, with occasional work as a rotational player on normal series. Williams failed to show much of the same burst, tenacity and speed-to-power capabilities he showcased in college.

    Furthermore, Williams was not a bendy player coming out of Alabama, and it has hurt him more than anticipated. Some pass-rushers can get by without being especially flexible, but they must compensate with great technique and closing speed. Williams has neither of those offsetting traits, and it leaves him as an easy pass-rusher to shut down. Offensive tackles don't have to worry much about getting torched around the edge when facing him. They can commit to playing him head-on and anchoring him.

    The key for Williams will be to alter his game. Without great bend, he can't spring pass offensive tackles the way he did in college. He needs to hone his technique, work on installing countermoves and set them up with his initial burst. If Williams can't adapt and retool his game, he could be in trouble. The talent is there. Now he needs to prove he knows how to use it.

     —NFL1000 LB Scout, Derrik Klassen

Adoree' Jackson, CB, Tennessee Titans

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    The Tennessee Titans thought they might have solved their secondary woes after they spent significant assets to add bodies in the last two offseasons. Safety Kevin Byard and corner LeShaun Sims were 2016 additions, and the 2017 offseason brought safety Johnathan Cyprien and corner Logan Ryan via free agency. Among the corners, it was their second 2017 first-round pick, Adoree' Jackson, who was supposed to be a major difference-maker with his athleticism and big-play potential.

    While Byard has been excellent this season, the rest of the unit has struggled to be impactful and effective in coverage. Jackson's been a liability, having allowed 20 receptions for 193 yards, two touchdowns and four penalties in man coverage, per my own charting. Missed tackles have also been an issue, as Jackson seems to lack functional strength when facing bigger ball-carriers.

    Similar to his play while at USC, Jackson is overly reliant on his pure speed to recover from mental mistakes. He struggles with his technique and often opens or closes his hips before receivers make their definitive cut. That leaves him out of position to at least force a contested catch more often than he should be as a starter. Jackson was expected to be a project, but the Titans' decision to take him at No. 18 over much more refined and similarly gifted athletes looks like a massive mistake so far.

    There's reason for optimism, though, and Jackson can improve. Week 9 was his most consistent effort, as he allowed just 31 yards on four receptions and nine targets, per my charting. His balance must improve in his backpedal in an effort to mirror receiver movements, which will keep him close to his foe until the ball arrives. As he continues to study opponent's tendencies, his anticipation and route recognition can also make massive leaps.

    —NFL1000 DB Scout, Ian Wharton

Jabrill Peppers, S, Cleveland Browns

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    The marriage between Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and safety Jabrill Peppers was a perfect one on paper. Williams' aggressive, downhill defense utilized exotic blitz packages and was exactly what Peppers was built for as a 5'11", 213-pounder who played his best as a box defender at Michigan.

    Yet so far, Peppers has just 26 tackles and one pass defensed in six games, and he's looked like a borderline NFL talent more often than a first-round pick.

    Most of this has been due to Williams' unpredicted usage of Peppers. Until Peppers' last game, the coordinator had him unusually deep as a single-high safety, sometimes as deep as 35 yards off the ball. That's not who Peppers is as a player, and if Williams continues to use him that way, it's unlikely he'll overcome a bust label. Here's where the Browns coaching staff must continue to utilize him as it did against the Houston Texans in Week 6.

    As Briean Boddy-Calhoun looked more capable as a coverage safety than Peppers, the Browns were free to use Peppers and Derrick Kindred as underneath enforcers. The three-safety look isn't an uncommon one, and Williams can allow his most athletic players to wreak havoc as robbers who lurk on crossers and throws to the middle of the field.

    This will especially benefit Peppers, as he doesn't have the instincts or feel for the ball as is needed for playing deep safety. Putting him closer to where the ball could go will reduce the need for mental processing and allow him to chase and play football, which is exactly how Michigan got the most out of him.

    —NFL1000 DB Scout, Ian Wharton