2011 NFL Preseason: 18 Most Disappointing Rookies of the Exhibition Season
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.
This slideshow isn't entitled "18 Sure-to-be Busts of 2011 Draft Class" for a reason. Making mention and condemnation aren't the same.
In fact, I've got pretty lofty hopes for guys like Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers, the mild disappointments of mid-Florida; for A.J. Green, kept mum by opposing secondaries; for Patrick Peterson, not exactly performing like otherworldly prospects do.
Overall: I'm sure I won't be let down—in the long haul.
But for now, I'm not sold. For all it is—a four-round bout of meaningless exhibition football; some 10 percent of all turnstile revenue; as much a chance to shine as to end up in surgery; marred by the lockout-shortened offseason—the preseason is a chance for rookies to impress by showing glimpses of their potential. It can be raw yet blemished, equal parts brilliance and gaffe.
But they've got to give me something.
What I've got so far?
Two that scream "Draft Day reach," in Corey Liuget and Muhammad Wilkerson.
Others, like Jonathan Baldwin, that bellow "bust."
Others still—like Cam Newton, whose performance shimmers with both "lifelong winner" intangibles and visceral physicality, and shoddy accuracy—remain to be seen.
Overall: Let's keep reactions curbed. Far from the last word on these players' careers, these analyses are only what we've got to work with thus far. Let's see what we've got when that mold hardens.
For now, though, this is all we've got: three weeks of preseason football in the books, two games of which are the most meaningful.
And with that, we offer the 18 biggest disappointments of the preseason.
All Things Considered
Leon Halip/Getty Images
We like to throw these slides into the show, if for no other reason than to focus your hate mail.
In other words: We'll tell you what we considered when making our selections. This way, you know what to bash, and whether you need to at all.
First: To disappoint, you have to have some baseline level of expectation. And to have said baseline expectation, you have to have some sort of discernible talent or hype.
In other words, to make the cut, you've gotta be relevant.
So please, hold the "you totally whiffed on the No. 142 overall pick's training camp underachievement" email. Nobody cares about him but you.
That said, we'll focus mostly on picks from Rounds 1 and 2. They field the steepest financial investment. They make the headlines. And if they don't, they land on this list.
Moving right along: We know that the lockout hurt rookies, most particularly quarterbacks working with first-year coaches (like Cam Newton).
Same deal with the new-look CBA. While rooks won't have the same culture shock from the shortened offseason schedule—OTAs reduced to 10, from 14; two-a-days considerably limited—given that they haven't logged pro offseasons to compare this one to, the extra practice could've helped.
And yes, that shows.
We took that into account, and so, are only judging based on what he and all rookies should be able to control: the football.
Still, we'd like to diminish those effects. A league-wide phenomenon, the lockout's impact should be normalized across first-year players.
In other words (and to beat the Cam Newton example to a pulp): Since Jake Locker hasn't struggled nearly as mightily as Newton and Blaine Gabbert, you have to believe that they're at least partly (if not entirely) culpable for some of the lumps he's taken. It'd be pretty hard to argue for that in Newton's case especially, given that his No. 1 selling point is how his athleticism (a lockout-proof commodity) can compensate for his passing deficiencies.
All things considered: We know about the lockout.
So let's be easy with the "if not for the lockout" cop outs.
Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers (No. 1 Overall)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
The "It Really is Near-Impossible to Live up to No. 1 Overall Pick Expectations" Disappointment
Let's dive right into this one, given how we've teased the hell out of it thus far.
Keeping this one simple: Cam Newton isn't accurate.
Let's just focus on that.
For the moment, disregard the rest of the noise contributing to his 6-for-17, 75-yard Week 3 against Cincy.
(Note: Of the two preseason games that matter most, Weeks 2 and 3, that was Newton's turn with the first team offense. Jimmy Clausen started the week before, and Newton shuttled in for mop-up duty.)
Half of that—gaffing on identifying the blitz/mike linebacker and setting his protection accordingly, reading defenses, going through progressions—is a direct corollary to the lockout, and, in fairness to Newton, shouldn't really be held against him. (Though will be in due time.)
But Newton's missed high and wide and ugly in all three of his games, and you have to wonder whether that's more serious than any rookie stumble this preseason. Much as I've insisted that it's possible, or should be possible, to coach up accuracy, it seems to be an elusive part of NFL quarterback instruction. Simply, you just don't see that many guys tighten up their mechanics or spirals—or capacity to hit tiny windows—after draft day.
So change has got to come from Newton (because nobody's teaching him).
And fast. The longer we don't see passing prowess, the less we'll be able to play 9-of-10 cards in the rookie excuses deck.
By and large, it'll mean the accuracy issues are here to stay.
That's not what Jerry Richardson meant when he said, "let's keep it that way."
These impressions are subject to change. My mind's as far from made up about Newton as it was for Tim Tebow, whose precision passing and dedication to the play -- as opposed to tucking and running from being over-skittish—earned an approving nod against the Seahakws on Saturday.
Had the same doubts about Tebow. They're gone.
Not because of Tebow's line. But because of the zip on his throws. The catchability of near-every one. He's starting to look like an NFL quarterback.
That could be Newton, too. But this accuracy thing has got to sturdy up.
In the meantime: Newton's got to give me something. SOMETHING!! Especially as a No. 1 overall pick.
He can struggle in nearly every other facet of the game. But if he's consistently botching 5-yard crossing routes and overshooting deep balls, I won't be whose most despaired.
That'll be Steve Smith.
And that'll be a problem.
Blaine Gabbert, Jacksonville Jaguars (No. 10 Overall)
Rick Stewart/Getty Images
The "No Way This Guy Lasts" Disappointment
Moving right along with our quarterback-first focus:
I really don't think Blaine Gabbert is going to pan out. I don't even care about the stat lines. (Not that they clash with my analysis; they don't.) Gabbert just looks lost in the pocket.
I'm fond of words, and choose descriptors with more consideration than my editors like—it's like engine sludge to on-deadline writing; it comes from nowhere and gets messy.
But that's really the best way to describe it: "lost." Fact is that this dude genuinely looks like he was chloroformed, and awoke on an alien planet to play a quirky game he'd never before seen with a goofy, oblong ball he'd never before held.
I don't get it. I mean, I wasn't high on him either—he blew it for me in the bowl game against Iowa; not even because of the game-sealing (for Iowa, anyway) interception. But I didn't think he'd be atrocious.
That's something of a peculiarity, too; you can't point to any one thing as the source of his overwhelming disappointment. With Newton (and Tebow before him), it was accuracy. Doesn't have otherworldly pocket presence to compensate, nor is he particularly comfortable calling out protections. But neither are Newton's glaring knock. They're his arm.
If he fixes the arm, he wipes the criticism.
I don't even know where to start with Gabbert.
Maybe it's the team, and that the Jacksonville Jaguars are the closest to least conducive environment to success as the 2002 Houston Texans. (They're not that bad; save for Gabbert, they've actually drafted as well as any team in the league in the last three years.) But you can't blame everything on environment. At some point, a quarterback's play has to justify his team's investment.
To date, I haven't seen that from Gabbert.
I hate to do this, one because it's so early, and two because he seems like a genuinely good dude (not that anyone doesn't; that was just my read on Gabbert's vibe). But Gabbert might be the foremost bust of the 2011 Draft class.
If that's too flimsy for you: Gabbert will be the foremost bust of the 2011 draft class.
Mason Foster, Buccaneers (No. 84 Overall) and Casey Matthews, Eagles (No. 116)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
The "Playing too Small to Fill Such Ginormous Shoes" Disappointments
Do I think three weeks is a little much to ask for third- and fourth-round picks to start significantly contributing? Sure.
But that's what's being asked of Mason Foster (No. 84 overall) and Casey Matthews (No. 116) by their respective teams.
The Bucs needed Foster to anchor the heart of one of most promising, albeit youthful, defenses. He's come up somewhat short on that front, not establishing himself well enough to earn much distinction outside of a limited role. Given that the Bucs essentially packed Barrett Ruud's bags for him (signed in the offseason by Tennessee), it would've been nice if he'd shown more than two-down backer chops. In what's shaping out to be an uber competitive NFC South (at least if you'd all but booked regress from the Saints, only to find that was a catastrophic underestimation), Tampa needed more from Foster, the No. 1 inside linebacker taken this April.
(On that note: I know Ruud wanted a long-term deal. But Foster's unreadiness makes you wonder why the team didn't keep Ruud on for at least another season—and not even for franchise tag money. Given Ruud's one-year contract with Tennessee, you have to imagine that he could've been had for less than the average of the top five-paid players at the position, potentially a gross overcompensation for Ruud.
Wait? What was that? Oh? Another reason to whup on on Malcolm Glazer?
Score one more for this guy...)
Same goes for Matthews, the fabric holding the defensive end of the "Dream Team" together. He's a victim more than a perpetrator—it's not his fault Eagles' defensive line coach Jim Washburn's nine technique requires him to play monstrous and out of his mind; nor is it that the organization completely devalued its second-level positions about a decade ago, unfairly thrusting someone as undersized as Matthews into the fold—but needs to exceed his current level if he's going to make a dent.
If not, he might compromise more than just Howie Roseman's slew of defensive add-ons—cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and defensive ends Cullen Jenkins (yes, he's a DEFENSIVE END!!!) and Jason Babin. If the middle proves a tender spot of an already creaky defense, Matthews could implode the Eagles' entire campaign.
Needless to say, the thought is somewhat disappointing.
Jonathan Baldwin, Kansas City Chiefs (No. 26 Overall)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
The "Knucklehead (and Hand)" Disappointment
You almost wish Baldwin did next-to-nothing for the entirety of the preseason.
But instead of merely whiffing by No. 26 overall standards, coming up short as the physical presence and compliment to Dwayne Bowe he was hoped to be, the former Pittsburgh Panther that oozed with promise on Draft Day continued the downward tumble that has left Chiefs brass shaking its head in disapproval, connecting with teammate Thomas Jones.
Literally, as in, threw a punch and "connected."
And as if that wasn't bad enough, Baldwin will likely be sidelined for the rest of the exhibition season with a bum thumb.
A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals (No. 4 Overall)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
The "Curiously Quiet Top Wide Receiver" Disappointment
Have you heard a peep out of A.J. Green this August?
That's part good. Wouldn't want him getting his Mike Tyson Fight Night on like our other list-makers.
But for the No. 4 overall pick? Eh.
I'll give you that he's playing for the Bengals, and with Andy Dalton. And that he had awfully high standards to meet, given his pre-Draft Day hype.
As for his glaring lack of chemistry with Dalton, you could argue that the two players' struggles are pegged. This preseason, Green's only pulled in only seven balls for 82 yards and one touchdown, meaning he hasn't exactly made himself ubiquitously available.
Given that the entire offense was engineered around him, and his otherworldly projections coming out of Georgia, Green hasn't logged the "did you see THAT?!" we hoped.
No red flags yet—we're all sure he'll be a star; just a question of whether we can see it through the smog of a Cincy organization that couldn't be stable if it wanted to—but no doubting this early-season disappointment.
Robert Quinn, St. Louis Rams (No. 14 Overall)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
The "Only Disappointing Because of Unrealistic Expectations" Disappointment
I really don't know if you can pin this on Robert Quinn and pretend to be fair about it.
But he was selected No. 14 overall in April, to the second-to-foremost defensive authority in football, Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo, with the lofty hope that he's the last square of the franchise's defensive puzzle that's taken a half decade of Draft Day misses to piece together.
In short: There's a lot riding on Quinn. Accordingly, a lot's going to be expected of him. (A burden which, for record, I actually think he's capable of shouldering in the regular season.)
Even if it's mildly unrealistic. You have to wonder whether he was worth that No. 11 pre-draft grade from (cue goofy, Trey Wingo voice) "Mist-ah Mel Kip-ah Juni-ah" in April.
His body of work so far? A mere four tackles on (meaningless) game days. #Crickets.
I'll give you that two went for a loss, one being a sack.
But one lonely tally against the Colts? Against one of the shakiest offensive lines in the sport, who, mind you, didn't have Peyton Manning barking out protection schemes in that or any preseason game this exhibition season?
A goose egg against the Titans? Against one of the contenders for the Raspberry for the runners-up? I don't care if they slanted the entire line Quinn's way: He's got to come up with more than that.
That's far from expectation.
Admittedly, he's performed in camp, to the extent that he's a likely opening day starter for the Rams. But, given the parameters of the question—who's disappointed most in the preseason? Quinn has to make the cut.
Patrick Peterson, Arizona Cardinals (No. 5 Overall)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
The "I'm Sure He Won't Be, but is Playing Most Like a Bust" Disappointment
Everything you need to know:
No. 5 overall pick Patrick Peterson hasn't cracked the Cardinals' starting lineup. That "elite" corps has allowed 37 first-half points (most attributable to starters are core contributors, who are most likely to play then and only then) over three preseason games. Four touchdowns, three field goals.
If you play with the numbers, you'll find that, in relative terms, that equates to 24.67 points per game, just ahead of the Bengals' 2010 mark, No. 24 in football last year. Given that only one touchdown -- a two-yard plunge from Packers' reserve Alex Green—was rushing, you can put most of that on secondary.
Want more proof?
Starters' stat lines against the Cardinals this preseason:
That's not all that impressive. Not the numbers opposing QBs have posted; they're solid.
But what they say about the lineup Peterson can't seem to crack, Greg Toller and A.J. Jefferson? "Who?!" is right—as is "why?!" as in, "why in the hell isn't Peterson running first-team reps yet?!"
I get that two of those round out my Top 5 NFL quarterbacks (coming soon). And that the preseason is defined by chicken broth-bland defenses with little complexity, at least that a defensive coordinator is willing to glean that early.
And, yes, corner makes for one of the sport's toughest transitions. If acclimating to the "game speed" of the NFL is rookies' foremost hurdle, it's going to be highest for DBs, expected to shadow some of the fleetest footed quicksters on the planet.
Given corners' delicate confidence, it's no wonder why Ken Wisenhunt is holding Peterson back, over thrusting him in the lineup and subjecting him to a humbling.
But that's what Peterson is paid (handsomely, for record; slated rookie wage scale or not) to do. The overwhelming optimism that he would (and can) is why the organization felt cozy enough to trade Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in the Kevin Kolb deal.
Yes, Arizona needed a quarterback to pull it out of its post-Kurt Warner rut, making DRC somewhat expendable. But the organization hoped to stray from that era's atrocious defense, too. Tough to imagine that they let DRC go if they didn't expect PP to be the next CB (Champ Bailey).
Tough to imagine that they draft him at No. 5 overall.
But, if you remember, what rifled Peterson's stock atop most draft boards (including mine; I had him as the best player available) was his versatility. This was a guy you could stick in the slot, screaming down the sideline for wheel routes-turned touchdowns. A guy you could plop back on punt and kickoff returns, all but securing certain, unofficial victory in the field position battle.
I haven't seen any of that yet.
Sure the sample size is small; Peterson's only returned three punts. And the league near-legislated his distinctive competence out of the game by bumping kickoffs up five yards.
But just 8.33 yards per return this preseason? That was then-Chief rookie Javier Arenas' mark from a year ago.
If you're arguing that Arenas is a nice, underrated player whose selection and early development champion this new era of Chiefs viability, given their obvious draft savvy, I'm totally with you. But you're also proving my point: Peterson wasn't supposed to have a comp. He was that good.
That he does, though, suggests he hasn't been.
Corey Liuget, SD (No. 18 Overall) and Muhammad Wilkerson, NYJ (No. 30 Overall)
Chris Trotman/Getty Images
The "Who The Hell Are You?!" Disappointment
This, truthfully, isn't even fair. Why Corey Liuget (No. 18 overall) Muhammad Wilkerson (No. 30 overall) were scooped where they were this past April, I couldn't tell you.
Given the Larry English pick—he went No. 16 overall in 2009, and went precisely nowhere—you figure the Chargers just have the Draft Day tickle to faceplant, in the spirit of possibly looking super smart.
I'll give the Jets more leeway, though you could bash them for gushing over small school picks like Wilkerson (Temple) and Vladimir Ducasse (second round in 2010, No. 61 overall), the latter of whom is still running second-team reps, behind starting guard Matt Slauson. Still, you figure a Mike Tanenbaum pick for a Rex Ryan defense has pretty solid chances.
But so far? You'd never even know what those chances were. You wouldn't have even gotten that far.
Because to establish a line—a personal pastime of mine; seriously; I set the weekly house line for the number of times per Entourage episode that E makes a giant tool of himself (you won if you took the under this week, surprisingly, even with a better-friendly 2.5 line)—you'd have to actually know who the hell these people were.
I'll admit, I wasn't the most scrupulous in my pre-draft studies this year, but I don't think I've ever seen Corey Liuget's name in print or spoken word.
In fact, if you were to tell me this was the Martin Eisenstadt of the 2011 draft, I'd totally believe you.
(He's a defensive tackle out of Illinois, touted as the third-best interior lineman, 13th-best overall, in the draft. Yeah. I yawned too.)
I've got no reason to think otherwise. Sure he's posted eight tackles over three games. But three came against one of the shoddiest O-lines in the sport (Arizona), and four in the preseason debut of a corps thrown together just days earlier. (Seattle, which if you remember, pieced its offseason signings around Robert Gallery, who couldn't practice until August 5. Gallery debuted against the Chargers six days later.)
As for Wilkerson: Three tackles in two games? Eh. I'll see what he gives me tonight against the Giants -- you figure he's got to come to play on Monday Night Football, right? -- but for now, Wilkerson might be the reach of this draft.
If, of course, Liuget doesn't beat him out.
Adrian Clayborn (No. 20 Overall) and Da'Quan Bowers (No. 51 Overall), Tampa Bay
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
The "I Knew Exactly Who You Were, But Don't Know Where You Went" Disappointments
I've got no explanations for these. Really. Totally blank.
Both are playing in the same 4-3s in which they flourished at Iowa (Clayborn) and Clemson (Bowers), and shot up most draft boards.
Neither were nicked this preseason, like the rest of our absentees. That includes Bowers especially, given that the hush-hush knee injury that no one wants to acknowledge, for fear of jonesing him, has kept him out of only one practice this preseason. Seems he's holding up.
And while Bowers hasn't cracked the starting lineup—something of a disappointment itself, given that he's losing out to Michael Bennett (yeah, I know)—Clayborn has, listed as No. 1 on both ESPN's and the team's depth charts.
So how he's only managed just one tackle per preseason game is something of a head scratcher.
But they were figured to glean those reputations, even this early. Remember: Bowers was only marginally more touted as the stiffest end rusher in the draft over Clayborn, because of the injury history that sunk him all the way to the second round.
On talent alone, the gap would be much wider.
That's not a knock on Clayborn; Bowers was supposed to be that good. And considering his place on the side of Floridian milk cartons state-wide, Bowers has to be tapped a mild disappointment.
There's still little doubt in my mind that the two will pan out, thus forging the scariest defensive line in recent league memory (and, given their age, extended memories). But, even if only for my own selfish fandom (which is watching these two eat faces all along the eastern seaboard), I'm pretty bummed that neither has boomed so far.
Nick Fairley, Mikel Leshoure, Prince Amukamara, Bruce Carter and DeMarco Murray
Leon Halip/Getty Images
The "Qualify Only on Technicalities and Semantics" Disappointments
I wanted to put them here as much as they wanted to succumb to the injuries that landed them here. But Nick Fairley and Mikel Leshoure (No. 13 and 57 overall, to DET), (Prince Amukamara (No. 19 overall, to NYG), Bruce Carter and DeMarco Murray (No. 40 and No. 71 overall, to DAL) were all highly anticipated adds for their respective teams, but haven't contributed to date.
So yeah; that they haven't done much this preseason is, technically, disappointing.
Leshoure, out for the year with a ruptured Ahillies, won't change that in 2011. Serious bummer. But even though Fairley, possibly out for the season-opener while his surgically-repaired foot (stress fracture) mends, can, his fragility and Leshoure's absence rob Detroit of its two Draft Day gems—not to mention those extra somethings that thrust the Lions into NFC North viability.
Less those two, everyone's "Detroit Lions as this year's sleeper" picks—already warranting "overrated for being underrated" status; really, it's obnoxious—will have to wait 'till 2012.
The Giants are in a similar bad way with Prince Amukamara (foot), who they won't get back until Week 5 at the earliest. Granted, their cornerback woes started with Amukamara -- he was hurt in practice -- and were only pried after Terrell Thomas (torn ACL) and Bruce Johnson (ruptured Achillies) game day injuries. Have to believe that Amukamara's return ends them.
(And all our longing to hear opposing teams' local broadcasters stumble through a deceptively easy name to pronounce. Really. Don't psyche yourself out. It's uh-Moo-kuh-Marr-uh. Not that bad at all -- part of the reason it'll be chock full of hilarity when the Bills network announcer botches it in Week 6.
Assuming, of course, the Bills have a network...)
Still, I was kind of looking forward to seeing him mix it up. Sure, the drop-off between he and consensus No. 1 corner (slash player) Patrick Peterson was pretty stark. But for a guy who watches more Big 12 football than he cares to admit (yet somehow suckered himself into admitting...), and followed Amukamara's ascent with Nebraska, I'm pretty unsatisfied. Needed more Amukamara.
As for Carter and Murray: I'm a raging Cowboys fan. Copping to my bias, I'm admittedly immersed in the team's day-to-day dealings (about as much as I'd care to admit this time), and Carter's and Murray's potential impact—not to mention their exhaustive injury histories. So yeah, when it comes to measuring disappointment, their absence pretty much red lines.
Murray has already seen action, leading the Cowboys with 32 yards on seven carries against the Vikings on Saturday. Still skittish about that hammy, again, given the slew of health problems (not the least of which was a knee; "yikes" is right) he's had.
Carter's expected return is uncertain, though we know he won't be cleared for contact practices until Week 1. Remember: The timeline of his mid-December surgery puts Carter at about eight months into rehab. Though some guys (namely Wes Welker) have bucked it some, the rule of thumb with ACL reconstructions is about a year, if not more. Let's (and by "us," totally turning and talking to Dallas fans more than New Yorkers and Philadelphians) hope his physical freakishness spills into his recovery time.