Which 2014 Top-10 Picks Must Rebound in Their Sophomore Years?

Matt Bowen @MattBowen41NFL National Lead WriterJune 23, 2015

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Transitioning to the NFL as a rookie isn't easy. Plenty of players struggle to adjust to the challenges of facing pro talent, meeting the demands of NFL coaching staffs and being accountable in pro buildings. 

With Day 3 developmental projects, this can be accepted to a degree. But guys who come off the board on Day 1 are expected to play a significant role in the game plan and produce results. A top-10 pick who fails to adjust is a killer in the NFL.

Here are five top-10 picks from last year's draft whose teams need them to show the ability to contribute on Sundays. These guys can and must raise their level of play as second-year pros.

Lions TE Eric Ebron

Everyone wants that tight end who can stretch the middle of the field, create favorable matchups and generate stress for opposing defensive coordinators inside the 20-yard line. When a tight end can use his size to go get the football, it's a high-percentage throw for the quarterback and an opportunity for the offense to cash in.

GLENDALE, AZ - NOVEMBER 16:  tight end Eric Ebron #85 of the Detroit Lions runs with the football under pressure from the Arizona Cardinals defense in the first half at University of Phoenix Stadium on November 16, 2014 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by No
Norm Hall/Getty Images

Ebron was expected to be that guy in Detroit, a tight end who could use his frame to shield linebackers or safeties at the point of attack and use his 4.6 40 speed after the catch. At 6'4", 265 pounds, the North Carolina product looked like an ideal fit for a Lions offense with Matthew Stafford slinging the ball.

But Ebron hauled in just 25 passes with one touchdown as a rookie, showing some inconsistency catching the ball and failing to live up to the predraft hype as a player teams would struggle to match up against.

I will say Ebron blocked much better in the run game than previously expected, but the Lions didn't draft a tight end at No. 10 overall to block down on the edge. He was brought in to produce in the passing game and move the sticks on third downs.

Can Ebron take a major step in Year 2? I've always said the majority of pro players make a developmental jump going into their second pro seasons as the game slows down mentally and a comfort level is established on the field. That has to be the hope here for the Lions, because Ebron has the talent level and skill set to be a productive player.

Jaguars QB Blake Bortles

Putting Bortles on the list might be a bit too harsh, given the responsibilities and expectations that come with playing quarterback in this league. It's tough for a rookie to take the ball and just start carving up veteran secondaries in the NFL.

JACKSONVILLE, FL - DECEMBER 18: Blake Bortles #5 of the Jacksonville Jaguars sets to throw during the first half of the game against the Tennessee Titans at EverBank Field on December 18, 2014 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
Rob Foldy/Getty Images

However, I'm looking at this from the perspective of the offensive upgrades the Jaguars made this offseason to set the table for the second-year quarterback.

Gus Bradley's team added veteran tight end Julius Thomas and rookie running back T.J. Yeldon to go along with a young group of wide receivers who have talent and speed. But none of that matters if the Jags fail to get production and consistent decision-making from Bortles.

In terms of measurables, Bortles has ideal pro size in the pocket (6'5", 232 lbs), and he can make all the throws you need in the game plan. Plus, he should be much more prepared to run this offense in 2015 after being thrown into the fire as a rookie.

Plenty of mistakes and inexperienced plays show up on the tape from last season, but there is nothing better than live game reps for player development in the NFL. Bortles now has the tape to self-scout, make corrections and take his game to another level.

The stage is ready for Bortles to produce for a team I believe can be competitive in the AFC South. And that should be the goal for a guy who went No. 3 overall in the 2014 draft.

Texans OLB Jadeveon Clowney

Clowney was one of the most hyped prospects I can remember coming out of South Carolina, and I really wasn't surprised to see him go No. 1 overall to the Texans, given his freakish measurables and athletic ability. But multiple injuries limited his production (he played in only four games), and we didn't see any of that expected "impact" play.

GLENDALE, AZ - AUGUST 09:  Linebacker Jadeveon Clowney #90 of the Houston Texans runs out onto the field before the preseason NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals at the University of Phoenix Stadium on August 9, 2014 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Ch
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

In the NFL, "availability" will always be more important than talent, because guys can't produce, make plays or contribute to games from the training room. They become ghosts and fall behind from a developmental perspective. And even though players get hurt every week in the pros, it's still a kick in the gut when your top pick isn't dressed on game days.

Clowney is still rehabbing his knee after undergoing microfracture surgery, and that could impact his snap count early in the season. But instead of talking about where he is going to line up in Romeo Crennel's system or what type of role he'll play in the base package (which I have done plenty of times in the past), the goal here should be getting him back in uniform. Figure the other stuff out later.

Clowney has the talent, the speed off the ball and the rare blend of size and functional power to get to the quarterback in a defense that could be one of the best in the NFL, with J.J. Watt and talent at all three levels. It's time for the No. 1 pick to play ball.

Falcons LT Jake Matthews

Whenever you start a rookie at left tackle in the NFL, there's going to be a transition period until they develop technique and footwork and learn how to handle speed off the edge. These guys will take some lumps early in the season before they progress as starters.

GREEN BAY, WI - DECEMBER 08:  Clay Matthews #52 of the Green Bay Packers defends against  Jake Matthews #70 of the Atlanta Falcons in the third quarter at Lambeau Field on December 8, 2014 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

However, focusing on Matthews, he really struggled early in the season. And while he did show signs of improvement toward the end of 2014, his overall grades don't reflect that of a top-10 pick. According to Pro Football Focus's overall ratings, the Falcons left tackle ranked 84th overall out of 84 players at the position.

Now, those grades don't always tell the whole story, but they do give us a baseline when watching tape and studying the core technique or blocking assignments at the position.

Looking back at the draft, it was an easy decision for the Falcons to take the best tackle on the board at No. 6 (after Greg Robinson went to the Rams at No. 2). I would have made the same pick based on Matthews' athleticism and his college tape from Texas A&M. Building up front and giving quarterback Matt Ryan a bookend on the left side was just smart football.

One way to look at this—like we did with Bortles—is to focus on the reps Matthews saw in 2014 and project his development into his second season. That's what the Falcons are banking on under new head coach Dan Quinn with Matthews playing like a top-10 guy on the edge.

Browns CB Justin Gilbert

When I was watching tape on Gilbert coming out of Oklahoma State, I saw a top-10 talent at the cornerback position. Gilbert had the pro size (6'0", 202 lbs), the length to play press, the straight-line speed (4.37 40 time) and the ball skills to become a true playmaker in the NFL.

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 07:  Justin Gilbert #21 of the Cleveland Browns returns an interception for a touchdown during the third quarter against the Indianapolis Colts at FirstEnergy Stadium on December 7, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Jason Miller
Jason Miller/Getty Images

However, playing cornerback in the league requires much more than natural talent, and Gilbert failed to live up to his draft status as the No. 8 overall pick. To be a productive player in the secondary, technique has to be the focus along with a professional approach to game prep and accountability on Sundays.

There were times on the tape when Gilbert would keep his shoulders square, show smooth footwork in his pedal and break on the ball with speed. Look at the pick-six he produced when he baited Colts quarterback Andrew Luck into throwing the ball to the flat. That's the player I expected to see much more of in 2014.

The Browns put Gilbert on notice when they signed veteran cornerback Tramon Williams in free agency to pair with Joe Haden at the top of the depth chart.

Because of that, Gilbert must now compete for playing time and prove he is ready to handle the demands of playing in a pro secondary. This group in Cleveland is a top-five unit, but it could be even deeper if Gilbert combines pro-level technique and accountability with his skill set.

Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report.


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