NFL1000: Fixing This Year's Rookie 'Busts'
Things don't always work out in an NFL player's first season.
The pressure is on for every young player to have a positive effect on his first professional team, and among high draft picks, that pressure intensifies. Rookies can be labeled "busts" quickly—sometimes one or two bad games can get that ball rolling—but success is dependent on a number of factors.
First, there's team and scheme fit. Is a team trying to retrofit a player to do things he's never done before and may not be capable of doing? Second, there's mentorship. Is this young player being led by a strong locker room so that he can understand the team culture, or is he left to figure things out on his own?
Sometimes, teams expect too much. Putting one great first-year offensive lineman on a line that couldn't collectively block its way out of a paper bag is a sure recipe for failure. So too is insisting that a spread-offense quarterback run a West Coast offense right away.
Sometimes a player is simply overmatched—he hit his low ceiling as a college guy, and against the rigors of the NFL, things aren't going to work out. Or it's possible that a player will require more than one season to put it all together. Perhaps more than one head coach as well.
When we look at first-year players and label them "busts," it's more about accepted and convenient terminology than an absolute definition.
Here's our NFL1000 team:
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
And here's how some of the NFL's most prominent struggling rookies can turn things around in year two and beyond.
Quarterback: Mitchell Trubisky, Chicago Bears
"Bust" is not be the best word to describe Mitchell Trubisky.
His developmental arc trended in the right direction this season, and he has come a long way from the player asked to throw only 16 passes in an overtime win against Baltimore or seven passes the following week against Carolina.
Over the past few weeks, we have seen him manipulate pockets with his athleticism and deliver throws in full-field progression reads with accuracy and velocity, even in harsh weather conditions.
But all rookie quarterbacks experience bumps along the way and need to improve areas of their game. Coming out of UNC, Trubisky faced questions about his mechanics, particularly with his lower body and his lead hip. These concerns linger still and contributed to some of the interceptions this season.
He improved in this area, but his mechanics are still a work in progress.
Trubisky will need to be better with his eyes as his second season unfolds. One of his Week 15 interceptions against Detroit is a prime example. He never looked the safety off Dontrelle Inman's post route, even though he had a crossing route underneath to high-low that defender. The safety made an easy interception in the red zone, ending a scoring threat.
Plays like that need to be eliminated.
Trubisky showed promise this season, and the Bears seem to have their quarterback of the future. Now it is a matter of refining the weak spots in his game to make sure he lives up to the hype of going second overall.
—NFL1000 QB Scout Mark Schofield
Quarterback: DeShone Kizer, Cleveland Browns
How much time do we have? That's a real question facing new general manager John Dorsey and the rest of the Browns organization heading into the draft.
We've been critical of how the team and head coach Hue Jackson handled DeShone Kizer this season, but at some point you need to see signs of improvement from the quarterback himself. Mistakes being made in Week 1 are still being made on the cusp of Week 17.
First, Kizer needs to be faster with his reads in the pocket. On too many plays, he was slow to get through progressions and slow to decide where to go with the football. That's asking for trouble in the NFL.
Second, Kizer needs to get much better with his eyes. Back in Week 1 against the Steelers, his first interception of the year came on a sideline pattern where his eyes went immediately to his first read and never wavered. Interceptions that he threw in Week 15 and Week 16 mirrored that mistake. Young quarterbacks have a tendency to lock onto their reads early, and he'll need to rid himself of this habit.
Third, Kizer needs better situational awareness. Learning to throw the football away at times, living for the next down or the next possession and managing the clock are all aspects of playing the position. Again, part of that comes from the sidelines, but Kizer needs to be the leader on the field.
Kizer has a lot to remedy heading into 2018. He has the talent to do so, but whether he gets the chance is another question.
—NFL1000 QB Scout Mark Schofield
Running Back: Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals
Joe Mixon's struggles this season haven't necessarily been his fault. He averages 3.3 yards per carry for a Bengals offense that ranks 31st in rushing.
Mixon is one of three second-round picks at running back for the Bengals who has struggled to produce consistent yards this season, along with Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill.
The Bengals need to rebuild this offseason. Marvin Lewis appears ready to step aside, and whomever takes over should make rebuilding the offensive line a top priority. The Bengals lack direction offensively, but in Mixon they have a talent to build around.
Mixon has displayed the traits that made him one of the top running backs in the 2017 draft.
He has fantastic movement skills for a back his size (6'1", 228 lbs). He can also drop his shoulders and run defenders over. Further, he has patience behind the line of scrimmage, where he can almost come to a full stop, a la Le'Veon Bell, while he allows blocks to develop before quickly bursting through the hole.
He needs an offensive line that isn't getting beat consistently. He needs a coaching staff with a clear philosophy and plan of action, willing to give him the lead role and scheme up the best ways to make use of his talent.
If the Bengals are able to find a capable coaching staff and add some talent up front, Mixon could break out into one of the top running backs in 2018.
—NFL1000 RB Scout Mark Bullock
Wide Receiver: John Ross, Cincinnati Bengals
"Fixing" John Ross is simple: He just needs to play.
As a rookie, Ross finished the season with just 17 total snaps on offense. Head coach Marvin Lewis typically refuses to play rookies much, but only playing 17 snaps is nearly a fireable offense when you consider the Bengals selected Ross inside the top 10 and don't have a reliable receiver on the roster outside of A.J. Green.
Ross is still a raw receiver who needs to improve his route running and his hands, but he has the skill set to contribute in any offense right now. Even at his current state, he can fill a Ted Ginn Jr.-type role.
He can create enough separation with his world-class speed to open up passes to running backs underneath. However, that didn't happen in 2017 because of Lewis' stubbornness; the Bengals opted to keep him inactive most weeks, even when he was healthy.
Assuming the Bengals hire a new coach and Ross can get healthy, he should have no problem finding a role in the offense. He is too talented not to contribute.
Aside from health, Ross needs to learn how to run routes from multiple positions, as he will likely be contributing some in the slot in 2018. The track record of first-round picks who failed to catch a pass in their rookie season is frightening, but Ross should be able to break that trend.
Look for him to become the team's No. 2 receiver in his second season.
—NFL1000 WR Scout Marcus Mosher
Wide Receiver: Zay Jones, Buffalo Bills
Unlike John Ross, Zay Jones' problems in 2017 had more to do with his on-field talent than his situation and playing time.
Drafted to be a starter who could play in Week 1, Jones has been a liability this year. Through 15 weeks, he has just 25 receptions on 71 targets for 291 yards and two TDs. He hasn't found a way to make many big plays for an offense that needs a playmaker at wideout.
Jones is a bigger receiver at 6'2", 201 pounds, but he often plays smaller than that. He has struggled to catch outside the framework of his body, something he did well in college. But his biggest problem is he hasn't been able to create consistent separation on the outside.
His lack of separation forces him to be a jump-ball receiver, and with quarterback Tyrod Taylor not trusting him to make those plays, it often leads to too much of a delay in the pocket.
For Jones to avoid being labeled a "bust," he has to improve his route running. He needs to be quicker out of his breaks and run a more diverse route tree. His game might be best suited for the slot, as he can use his size to box out defenders.
Not all hope is lost for Jones, but he may never become anything more than a No. 2 or No. 3 receiver.
—NFL1000 WR Scout Marcus Mosher
Wide Receiver: Corey Davis, Tennessee Titans
Corey Davis' rookie season likely hasn't been what the Titans were hoping for when they selected him fifth overall.
Davis is a highly athletic receiver who moves effortlessly and flashes dominant traits. He's at his best after the catch, where he can use his size (6'3", 209 lbs) and speed against smaller defenders. At times, he looks like Terrell Owens once the ball is in his hands.
However, those flashes of brilliance were few and far between. He missed most of the offseason and most of training camp due to injuries. Even during the season, Davis missed nearly two months with a hamstring injury. His health has been a major question mark since he declared for the draft.
Other than health, a lot of Davis' struggles this year came because of the offense. Marcus Mariota and the passing offense backtracked in 2017.
One of the best parts of Davis' game is his ability to win downfield, and he was paired with a quarterback this season who was hesitant to even challenge defenses past 15 yards. With a full offseason of work, Mariota and Davis should find a better rhythm.
Davis' ineffective season should have been expected considering how much practice time he missed. Expect him to become the Titans' clear-cut No. 1 receiver in 2018.
—NFL1000 WR Scout Marcus Mosher
Offensive Tackle: Garett Bolles, Denver Broncos
Garett Bolles had an interesting year, and even though he struggled at times, there's hope. However, he needs to cut down on his penalties.
Bolles has been the second-most penalized player in the NFL, and that isn't going to cut it for an offense like Denver's that isn't designed to be behind the sticks and convert long situations.
The root cause for the penalties is his inability to meet opponents with a set base.
When pass-rushers try to convert speed to power against Bolles, he often doesn't have both of his feet on the ground. He gets blown back as a result, and then in a last-ditch effort to stay in the play, he holds after getting beat.
As a guy with borderline base play strength already, not having a set base makes it nearly impossible for Bolles to win hat on hat, which happened more and more as the year went on. Footwork and weight distribution are the areas Bolles needs to work on next season.
—NFL1000 OL Scout Ethan Young
Offensive Guard: Ethan Pocic, Seattle Seahawks
After a few decent games, Ethan Pocic struggled down the stretch for the Seahawks.
What can Seattle do to see that Pocic puts it all together next year? For starters, the Seahawks can put him at a single position and allow him to get comfortable there.
The Seahawks announced Pocic, a center in college, as a tackle when they selected him and spent a lot of the offseason giving him reps there before realizing he needed to go back inside. Pocic was initially deployed at left guard after Luke Joeckel went down and then flipped to right guard when Joeckel returned.
Yes, that means Pocic has been moved three times in the last calendar year. That only makes life harder on a rookie who is trying to adjust to the NFL.
—NFL1000 OL Scout Ethan Young
Defensive End: Taco Charlton, Dallas Cowboys
It's no secret the Cowboys have been trying to land a top-end pass-rusher for years. Before the season, fans were hopeful it would come from rookie first-round pick Taco Charlton, when it was actually Demarcus Lawrence who stole the show.
Even in the preseason, it was clear that Charlton was rough around the edges. Against Big Ten bookends, he was easily able to win with a predetermined spin move. At the NFL level, you can only win with an inside spin move if you force offensive tackles to overset. Without a high-end first step, it was unlikely this style would translate immediately to NFL success.
The result? Charlton had to spin in place a lot before he learned that he needed to evolve his game.
With that being said, he didn't get any smaller. At 6'6", he has a rare frame for the position. If he can develop to become a technique-based pass-rusher, like a Tamba Hali, there is plenty of upside in his game.
That is going to come from reps, which means Dallas needs to commit to giving him a starter's share of snaps.
—NFL1000 DL Scout Justis Mosqueda
Defensive Tackle: Eddie Vanderdoes, Oakland Raiders
While he never lived up to recruiting expectations at UCLA (thanks, Jim Mora!), it was clear at the Senior Bowl and in the preseason that Eddie Vanderdoes had some level of untapped potential as a larger defensive tackle (6'4", 304 lbs).
Vanderdoes was explosive and aggressive, which at times was a double-edged sword.
He tried to immediately burst into the backfield to make a play. This is fine. The issue is that when he was put in a bad position, his instinct was to spin out of grasp. This either led to backfield penetration or his landing a gap over from the hole he was designed to fill, leaving a massive void in the center of the defense.
This is an issue that will iron itself out with playing time. Vanderdoes can be a nickel lineman, but Oakland's defensive structure rarely allows that.
Basically, the Raiders play a 3-4 defense with the undersized Denico Autry and Mario Edwards playing more of 3-technique roles on the interior than as edge-rushers. When a slot cornerback needs to come on the field, the nose tackle is the first player to go.
If Oakland embraces a more 4-3 style of play, or if one of the "big ends" comes off the field instead of the nose tackle next season, expect a rapid rise in Vanderdoes' game.
—NFL1000 DL Scout Justis Mosqueda
Inside Linebacker: Jarrad Davis, Detroit Lions
The Lions knew linebacker was an issue heading into last offseason. DeAndre Levy had fizzled out. With their first-round selection in 2017, they grabbed Jarrad Davis, a bulky, athletic player from the University of Florida. He did not turn out to be an immediate fix.
Davis lacks consistency. Dating back to his days at Florida, he would pop off the film with a few standout plays showcasing his athleticism. The appeal of a linebacker so quick and violent was tantalizing. However, Davis regularly misread certain blocking schemes and could be caught being slow to trigger toward the ball.
Those same issues showed up in his rookie season.
Versus simple zone plays, Davis can be a terror. He picks up on those schemes well and fires toward the ball with little hesitation, often allowing him to fill his assigned gap correctly.
When faced with misdirection, pulling guards and tricky read keys from more intricate block schemes, he freezes. Davis gets caught behind the play and must then recover, not a recipe for success for any linebacker.
Heading into next season, Davis needs to prove he is more capable of handling all sorts of block schemes and understand how to read them.
Likewise, Davis is not a coverage connoisseur. He was often out of place in coverage while at Florida, and the same has been true in Detroit. Similar to his issue with intricate block schemes, he does not always feel out route combinations or pass keys correctly. Too often Davis is stuck with his feet in the mud as a tight end or running back darts past.
He is far from a lost cause. Though inconsistent and incomplete, he showed signs of life as a violent, downhill linebacker. With all the athleticism necessary, Davis could still thrive. He must prove to be a more aware, versatile and confident linebacker.
—NFL1000 LB Scout Derrik Klassen
Cornerback: Adoree' Jackson, Tennessee Titans
It's been an up-and-down campaign for Adoree' Jackson, which isn't a major surprise considering the volatility of his play in college.
What stands out with Jackson's overall play this year, though, was how it compared to fellow rookies who were drafted later than Jackson but played more consistently from the start to the end of the season. Outside of a stretch from mid-November through mid-December, Jackson has been unable to live up to the first-round status as the Titans cornerbacks have struggled to be impactful.
Much of what Jackson does well boils down to his elite athleticism and speed, giving him the upper hand in recovery ability and margin for error. When he correctly recognizes or anticipates a route, he has lockdown upside.
For about a month, he seemed to have figured out his opponents, performing especially well on stick routes, such as go-routes and curls. But the last two weeks have brought back the uneven play and tendencies that leave Jackson out of position to challenge his receiver at the catch point.
For Jackson to take the next step, he must engage with his hands earlier in routes to help disrupt the timing of the receiver, all while keeping his shoulders aligned with his knees. He has the natural inclination to lean into his target while his feet are planted and then rely on his speed to recover, but that's not a sustainable technique.
He has all of the potential in the world to become a great player, and he flashed it this year for a brief time. As he heads to year two, it's about honing his strengths and applying what he's seeing in the film room to the field.
—NFL1000 DB Scout Ian Wharton
Safety: Jabrill Peppers, Cleveland Browns
The most memorable plays in Jabrill Peppers' rookie campaign were penalties in Week 12 and Week 16, summing up what was a difficult year for he and the Browns.
Playing in defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' absurd scheme that had him between 20 and 30 yards downfield with little to no linebacker help, Peppers was completely lost. Williams deserves blame for how he's used Peppers, but isolating Peppers' performance has shown little reason to be excited.
The jump in athleticism from college to the NFL has exposed Peppers' struggles processing what is happening as plays develop, as well as his knack for taking poor pursuit angles in space.
He's still overly reliant on his speed to make up for his mistakes, and that must change next year regardless of what the scheme dictates. His instincts were muted with the high alignment this year, but even when he played in the box as Williams rotated him closer to the line of scrimmage, he struggled to anticipate play direction and calls.
Some of that should improve with more experience and repetition. In an ideal situation for Peppers, the Browns won't play nearly as much Cover 3 with him as the free safety and he'll roam closer to the ball and be a downhill attacker.
Asking him to be less of a traditional free safety and more of a hybrid weapon will get the most out of his skill set.
—NFL1000 DB Scout Ian Wharton