NFL Rookies Thrust into the Toughest Situations

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistMay 12, 2017

NFL Rookies Thrust into the Toughest Situations

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Rarely are NFL rookies thrust into easy situations. Jumping from a college dorm to a well-paid job with heavy competition and high expectations in a big city isn't for everyone, and time is often required to adjust. 

    But some rookies face a little more pressure and slightly more challenging circumstances than others. Coming out of the 2017 NFL draft, these are those rookies.  

DeShone Kizer in Cleveland

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    By all indications, the Cleveland Browns will give rookie second-round pick DeShone Kizer a chance to compete for their starting quarterback job, which makes sense because the only other candidates are Brock Osweiler, Cody Kessler and Kevin Hogan. 

    But the very fact head coach Hue Jackson has made it clear—per Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer—that Kizer will have a chance puts extra pressure on a somewhat raw product. 

    That dynamic also hasn't stopped the Browns from making lofty comparisons to Ben Roethlisberger.

    "I don't know that I've coached a guy with this kind of skill set," said Jackson recently on WKNR 850 AM, according to Cabot. "But he's a big powerful man, so I know he's going to get compared to another guy on another team in our division."

    Trying to beat out three mediocre quarterbacks to win a starting job in the most quarterback-hungry market in football won't be easy on Kizer, who many analysts figure will need time to develop. But even if/when he gets that gig, the pressure won't go away. 

    This is a team that hasn't posted a winning record since 2007, hasn't made the playoffs since 2002, hasn't won a playoff game since 1994, hasn't won its division since 1989, hasn't won a championship since 1964 and has used a league-high 26 starting quarterbacks in the last 18 seasons. 

    Good luck, DeShone. They're all counting on you

Taco Charlton in Dallas

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    The Dallas Cowboys need to bring more pressure on defense next season, especially if the front seven wants to help out a secondary that lost four key players—cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr as well safeties Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox—in free agency. 

    Dallas ranked 19th in the NFL with a sack rate of 5.4 and 25th with a Pro Football Focus pass-rushing grade of minus-13.8 last season. And their four most active edge-rushers—Tyrone Crawford, Jack Crawford, Benson Mayowa and Demarcus Lawrence—were held to a combined 15 sacks. 

    So it wasn't surprising when the Cowboys used the No. 28 overall pick on Michigan product Taco Charlton, who is coming off a 10-sack senior season in the Big Ten. 

    That was Charlton's only season as a full-time starter, though, and he was actually hampered much of the year by an ankle injury suffered in September. He's not a prototypical quick-twitch rusher, and he's not a super-athlete like Myles Garrett. 

    Point being, he might need some time to adjust and might not be cut out to become a consistent sack machine at the NFL level. But that's what the Cowboys need, and patience isn't their strong suit. A competitive window is open with Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and that offensive line, so Dallas will be hoping to get a lot out of Charlton right away. 

Dalvin Cook in Minnesota

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    There were several reasons why the Minnesota Vikings averaged a league-low 3.2 yards per rushing attempt and 75.3 rushing yards per game last season. Superstar back Adrian Peterson was hurt, his replacements weren't worthy, the offensive line was bad, and quarterback Sam Bradford lacked the ability to stretch the field. 

    To Minnesota's credit, it has addressed the position itself by signing veteran back Latavius Murray in free agency and selecting Florida State stud Dalvin Cook in the second round of the draft. 

    Murray basically established himself as a platoon back with the Oakland Raiders, and you generally know what you're getting there. But that puts a lot of heat on Cook, who many figured would be a first-round pick after rushing for 3,456 yards, averaging 6.7 yards per carry and scoring 40 touchdowns during his two full seasons as a starter at Florida State. 

    The problem is the Vikings still have that conservative passing game featuring checkdown king Sam Bradford, and the jury is still out on a revamped offensive line that is likely to employ more zone-blocking principles in 2017. 

    Football Outsiders ranked that line 30th in football in terms of "adjusted line yards" last season, so it's hard to imagine it not improving next year with better run blockers—free-agent additions Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers—manning the tackle spots. But we just don't know, and Remmers and Reiff both still posted negative PFF grades last season.

    Cook spent the predraft process trying to dodge questions about his character and his hangers-on. Now, he's got something extra to prove as an apparent second-round steal. Folks are expecting him to stay out of trouble, earn a large role right away and then immediately succeed in that role. And they're expecting that despite the fact there are questions surrounding the rest of the offense. 

    Filling AP's clown-sized shoes was never going to be easy regardless. Under these circumstances, it's a hell of a task. 

Corey Davis in Tennessee

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    Tennessee Titans rookie wide receiver Corey Davis basically embarrassed the Mid-American Conference the last four years, catching 331 passes for 5,278 yards and scoring 52 touchdowns during his time at Western Michigan. 

    But that was the Mid-American Conference, and this is the NFL. And in Tennessee, the stakes will be particularly high.

    The Titans are coming off a winning season and should be expected to improve again in 2017. They spent big money upgrading the defense in free agency, and the rest of the offense is stacked with a mean, talented offensive line, two high-quality running backs and a franchise quarterback in Marcus Mariota. 

    All that was missing entering the draft was top-end talent in the receiving corps, and the feeling is they addressed that by using the No. 5 overall pick on Davis. Because No. 2 overall pick Mitchell Trubisky is expected to have time to develop as a quarterback in Chicago, Davis is the highest-drafted offensive skill position player who is supposed to play a major role from the get-go.

    If he doesn't earning a starting job and the Titans are forced to again use Rishard Matthews and Tajae Sharpe as Mariota's primary wide receivers, it'll be a disappointment. And if he earns a starting job but doesn't help a contending team by putting up big numbers right away, it'll still be a disappointment. 

    Despite coming from a peripheral college program, Davis might indeed be the most polished receiver in this year's draft class. But he might have more on his shoulders this summer and fall than any other non-quarterback entering the league. 

    And it doesn't help that he's still recovering from ankle surgery. 

Deshaun Watson in Houston

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    For now, the Houston Texans insist that Tom Savage, not rookie first-round pick Deshaun Watson, is their starting quarterback. 

    "I don't know if people believe us," general manager Rick Smith said soon after drafting Watson 12th overall, per ESPN.com's Sarah Barshop, "but we're comfortable with Tom Savage as our quarterback."

    But that'll eventually change because you don't forfeit two first-round picks for a quarterback and then have him hold a tablet on the sideline for long. And that's especially the case in Houston, where the Texans are in win-now mode with one of the best defenses in football. 

    Smith knows how much he needs a franchise quarterback. That's why he overpaid Brock Osweiler last offseason and then was ready to move on when Osweiler stunk in 2016. 

    They're saying the right things in order to make Watson's NFL transition easier, and they deserve kudos for that. But Savage has a career 74.9 passer rating and zero touchdown passes on 92 attempts. The 27-year-old former fourth-round pick is a tailor-made backup. Three years into his career, there are no indications he'll become a franchise quarterback or even a high-quality starter. 

    Savage will eventually struggle in 2017, at which point the Texans will be forced to go to Watson. 

    Will he be ready? There won't be a lot of room for growing pains if the Texans want to take advantage of the return of three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt. 

Garett Bolles in Denver

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    A lot has been made of the Denver Broncos' quarterback situation, but the truth is the team has been dealing with a problem at left tackle ever since Ryan Clady began to fade in 2014. Clady gave up a ton of pressure that season, Ryan Harris was even worse in 2015, and Russell Okung didn't fare any better while taking 11 penalties in 2016. 

    Now, the Broncos are set to use a new blind-side protector for the fourth consecutive season. Veterans Menelik Watson, Donald Stephenson and Ty Sambrailo will all compete for jobs at either tackle position, but the hope in Denver is certainly that No. 20 overall pick Garett Bolles will win the left tackle job this summer. 

    Bolles stood out in the predraft process and possesses every physical trait you look for in a cornerstone left tackle, but his technique needs work and he didn't exactly face stiff competition while excelling more as a run-blocker than a pass-protector at Utah. 

    He might still be talented enough to beat out those vets for a starting job, but that won't put Bolles in a much more comfortable spot. He'll likely be tasked with protecting Trevor Siemian (who had a high sack rate while completing just 42.8 percent of his passes under pressure last season, according to PFF) or Paxton Lynch (who has two career starts under his belt and fared even worse than Siemian under pressure as a rookie, albeit in a small sample). 

    And he'd be forced to protect them from some of the fiercest defensive fronts in the league. Six of Denver's games come against division rivals Kansas City, Oakland and the Los Angeles Chargers.

    Welcome to the NFL, Garett. Now meet Tamba Hali, Justin Houston, Khalil Mack, Bruce Irvin, Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. 

    With a team that's trying to win right now in the strongest division in football, that's far from ideal. 

Marshon Lattimore in New Orleans

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    Rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore is also fully expected to play a huge role early in his career after being picked 11th overall by a New Orleans Saints team in desperate need of immediate help on defense. 

    The Saints entered the draft with a particularly glaring lack of talent at corner. Rumors swirled that they were interested in trading the New England Patriots for Pro Bowl cover man Malcolm Butler, but instead Lattimore became the apple of their eye. They had him ranked in the top four on their draft board, according to Josh Katzenstein of the Times-Picayune, and even considered trading up for the first-team All-Big Ten Ohio State product before landing him where many thought he was a steal. 

    So it's safe to say they expect him to win a starting job from either Delvin Breaux or P.J. Williams. That alone puts a lot of pressure on a rookie who is trying to shake a reputation for being injury prone. 

    And even if Lattimore doesn't earn a starting role, he'll inevitably have a lot of playing time as a No. 3 or No. 4 corner. The nickel has essentially become the new base defense in the NFL, and he'll be tested early and often in the NFC South. 

    Just look at the Saints schedule. Not only will Lattimore have to deal with the Panthers (2015 MVP Cam Newton), the Falcons (2016 MVP Matt Ryan and All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones) and the Buccaneers (2015 No. 1 pick Jameis Winston and 1,000-yard receivers Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson) twice each, but the Saints also face the Patriots and Packers in the first seven weeks of the 2017 season. 

    And Lattimore might not have a lot of support as part of a defense that surrendered more points per game (28.4) than all but one other unit in football last season. 

Kevin King in Green Bay

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    Another rookie cornerback who was arguably a steal in the draft and will face pressure to earn a starting role for a contending team is Green Bay Packers second-rounder Kevin King. 

    The 6'3", 200-pound Washington product feels like a first-round pick because many projected him to go in Round 1, but he was the first pick in Round 2 and Green Bay's first selection in the draft. He's got the size, speed and measurables to make an impact right away after starting the last three years in the Pac-12, and Green Bay really needs some cohesion and stability at corner. 

    The Packers do have top 2015 draft picks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, but neither has been consistently healthy or reliable. And they brought former Packer Davon House back in free agency, but he was terrible before getting benched by the Jaguars last season. 

    King looks like the best corner the Packers have, which either means he'll let a contender and its fans down by failing to impress in camp or he'll earn a major role and have to face top receivers like Julio Jones, A.J. Green, Dez Bryant, Antonio Brown, Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson in games that matter, without much time to adjust to pro football. 

Zay Jones in Buffalo

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    The Buffalo Bills essentially used a pair of Day 2 draft picks on enticing East Carolina wide receiver Zay Jones, which makes sense considering they lost receivers Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin and Justin Hunter in free agency and they appear to be losing faith in top wideout Sammy Watkins. 

    A top-five pick in 2014, Watkins has yet to make a Pro Bowl and has just one full season under his belt. He's missed 11 games in the last two years due to injury, and the Bills have declined to pick up his fifth-year option for 2018. In fact, Vic Carucci of the Buffalo News has doubts the team is motivated to keep him around beyond the 2017 campaign. 

    Those losses, those dynamics and Watkins' injury history—as a matter of fact, he's currently recovering from foot surgery—probably means Jones will be asked to play a major role for a Bills team that is looking to take the next step after teetering around .500 the last few years. 

    They do have solid pieces on defense, a great running game and a good quarterback in Tyrod Taylor, which means that a nice rookie season from Jones could make a huge difference. 

Leonard Fournette in Jacksonville

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    Las Vegas thinks Jacksonville Jaguars rookie running back Leonard Fournette has the best shot at winning Offensive Rookie of the Year, and my eyeballs agree. Fournette is built to dominate at any level and comes from a program that should have him ready to do so immediately in 2017. The guy averaged 6.2 yards per carry during his three years at LSU.

    But he isn't perfect. Lingering ankle issues held him back in 2016, and it might not be easy to live up to sky-high expectations behind a quarterback like Blake Bortles.

    Bortles continued to disappoint in his third season, completing just 58.9 percent of his passes while averaging just 6.2 yards per attempt as the league's fifth-lowest-rated qualified passer. But his numbers would have been worse if he didn't pad his stats in garbage time. In one-score games last season, Bortles had more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (12) and a passer rating of 70.5. 

    PFF rated Bortles as the third-worst qualified quarterback in the league last season, and the two guys below him—Brock Osweiler and Ryan Fitzpatrick—are no longer employed by the teams they started for. Per the same source, his passer rating on throws that traveled 20-plus yards was 17.5 (!). A total of 30 other quarterbacks attempted at least 25 such throws, and none had a rating below 45.0. 

    With one of the league's worst quarterbacks running that offense, Fournette will have his work cut out for him as a rook.