The NFL's Best Fits Between Rookies and Schemes
No matter how talented a rookie is, taking the NFL by storm is a complicated prospect.
More is expected of first-year players. They're facing better, stronger, faster and more experienced opponents than ever. Generally, those opponents understand things they don't and can read their intentions in ways collegiate opponents never could. Playbooks are thicker. There's more to memorize. And they're making big money for the first time, so it's likely they're facing off-field pressures as never before.
Add to that the proposition that coaching staffs had better understand what they can (and can't yet) do and adjust their plans accordingly. Of course, that doesn't always work out. Coaches have their own pressures, and many are too inflexible to change their game plans to meet the attributes of their players. That can be a gut shot for a 10-year veteran never mind a young man who's trying to find his feet in the league.
Coaches can make or break rookies, and better coaches can save them from oblivion. Look no further than Jared Goff. The first overall pick in the 2016 draft, Goff landed with the Los Angeles Rams, whose offense was a disaster—then-offensive coordinator Rob Boras combined regressive route concepts with a limited playbook and the inability to mitigate the shortcomings of his blockers and receivers.
The result? Goff put up one of the worst rookie seasons of any quarterback ever—in seven starts, he completed 112 of 205 passes for a 54.6 percent completion rate, 1,089 yards and five touchdowns with seven interceptions. Per Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics, it was the worst debut season for a quarterback since at least 1987, putting Goff in the pantheon of Kelly Stouffer and Ryan Leaf.
Fast-forward to 2017, and Goff was a different player, completing 296 passes in 477 attempts for a 62.1 percent completion rate, 3,804 yards and 28 touchdowns with seven picks. The difference? New head coach Sean McVay and his willingness to look at where Goff was in his development and create plays that gave Goff favorable, quick reads on every snap. Goff got comfortable, and his talent came out.
Here are 10 rookies whose coaching staffs and schemes give them advantages other first-year players may not have.
Giants: RB Saquon Barkley
If you're going to select a running back with the second overall pick, you'd best believe he's more than your average ball-carrier. Giants general manager Dave Gettleman certainly believes that of Penn State product Saquon Barkley, whom Big Blue chose just after the Browns tabbed quarterback Baker Mayfield.
Gettleman was clearly on the Barkley bandwagon all along, saying, via Pat Leonard of the New York Daily News, that it's like Barkley "was touched by the hand of God."
That's a lot for anyone to live up to. And while I'm not in the group that sees Barkley as a generational talent—I think he needs to run with more consistent power and decisiveness—new Giants head coach Pat Shurmur clearly has a plan for Barkley.
What the rookie can do, based on his college tape, is present a big-play threat from anywhere on the field at any time—he gobbles up chunks of yards. Judging from Shurmur's remarks, it's clear the Giants plan to use Barkley in more ways than other teams might.
Per Big Blue Interactive, Shurmur praised Barkley's blocking and receiving and talked about his "'collision balance.' When he goes through the hole and someone tries to tackle him, he can keep his balance, but also when he is stepping up to try and block someone, he has a good set of lowers to drop his weight on him. We are going to nitpick him, I'm sure, at some point, but this is a guy that can do everything."
And everything is what he'll do in Shurmur's offense. Last season, Orleans Darkwa led New York with 751 rushing yards and five touchdowns. Barkley could probably exceed those figures in his sleep, but it's what he can do as an outlet receiver on screens and swing passes, and a target in formations for Eli Manning, that will make him especially valuable. Manning's skills are declining, and he needs as many functional assets around him as he can get.
Barkley has said he'd like to model his game after Marshall Faulk's. That seems to be the role the Giants would love him to have. In his prime with the St. Louis Rams, Faulk was the rare do-it-all guy who did it all at a Hall of Fame level—run, catch, block and become the epicenter of an offense. Gettleman's belief and Shurmur's vision for that goal put Barkley in the driver's seat.
Bears: LB Roquan Smith
From Dick Butkus to Mike Singletary to Brian Urlacher, the Bears have enjoyed quite the history at middle linebacker. That's a spot that isn't as important in today's NFL, as nickel is the new base defense and linebackers are required, more than ever, to patrol half the field and be as adept in coverage as they are at stopping the run.
Georgia product Roquan Smith is the prototypical inside linebacker at a time when the inside and outside designations have been blurred, and he's in the perfect scheme for his talents. The Chicago defense is run by Vic Fangio, who's best known for his time as the 49ers' defensive coordinator from 2011 through 2014.
Then, Fangio ran a 4-2-5 nickel alignment with Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman as his linebackers. Bowman was great, but Willis was the star with his athleticism and intelligence. Fangio's defense requires a shot-caller smart enough to see the entire field on every play and the skill to react accordingly.
"Me and Patrick Willis, we have similar speed and whatnot and a high IQ for the game," Smith said, per JJ Stankevitz of NBC Sports Chicago.
That's high praise to give oneself, but Smith's tape bears it out. I'd say Willis was better against the run—simply able to use his strength to hold the point a bit more consistently—while Smith has it more together in coverage. But the uncanny sixth sense to be around the ball at all times and know where the play is going? That's something Smith and Willis have in common.
When you watch Smith, be ready to be amazed at how many plays he stops and how many he's involved in. Smith led the SEC with 85 solo tackles in 2017, but he's not one of those linebackers who just hangs around and racks up meaningless stats—he reads plays well, flows to the ball and has a great knack for coverage—he was Pro Football Focus' highest-graded coverage linebacker in the 2018 draft class, allowing 0.6 yards per snap.
Smith will be asked to roam the field as he did in college, and Fangio will be smart enough to put him in ideal spots to succeed.
Cardinals: QB Josh Rosen
Complicated? Cocky? Too smart for his own good? Whatever the reasons, UCLA product Josh Rosen seemed to rub a lot of NFL people the wrong way, which led to his status as the fourth quarterback selected in the 2018 draft.
Based on talent and game tape, it's tough to argue for any signal-caller over Rosen, as he shows the most obvious attributes that lead to quick success in the NFL—he reads the field well, can make stick throws from multiple platforms, and his mobility is underrated.
Rosen would have had a chance at success with the Browns, Jets or Bills—the teams that picked Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold and Josh Allen before him—but his drop to the 10th overall spot could be the best thing that ever happens to him.
Mike McCoy, Arizona's offensive coordinator, has a history of working with young quarterbacks that shouldn't be dinged too much by his stint as Denver's offensive coordinator last season—there's only so much you can do with Brock Osweiler, Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch.
As Denver's offensive coordinator in 2011, he was the only NFL coach to make Tim Tebow look decent by giving him a simplified offense that presented easy first reads and didn't task his abilities too much.
McCoy won't have to do that with Rosen. Perhaps the biggest challenge McCoy will have is to keep Rosen challenged—it's clear the rookie is smart and confident in his abilities, sometimes to his own detriment. Rosen doesn't just need a coach; he needs a manager and confidant—someone he can trust and who he knows will trust him.
"I've coached plenty of different personalities," McCoy said, per Craig Morgan of ArizonaSports.com. "There's plenty of people that have opinions."
So far, Rosen seems like he's bought in.
"My goals for the year are basically to accomplish what coach McCoy sets out for me," he said. "Whatever he wants me to do, I'm going to do to the best of my ability. I'm not going to be that guy that comes in and thinks he's the man from day one. It's a long process. I've got a lot to learn from him."
If that holds steady, Rosen—who worked in multiple offenses at UCLA and has every attribute you'd want in a young quarterback—should be able to mold his talents to whatever scheme McCoy deems best. McCoy has worked in everything from option-based stuff to pure West Coast offenses to elements of the three-digit system, so it will be fascinating to see how it turns out.
Packers: CBs Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson
In 2017, the Green Bay pass defense was a problem no matter how you sliced it. Per Football Outsiders, the Packers ranked 26th in pass defense, and of their four primary cornerbacks—Damarious Randall, Davon House, Josh Hawkins and Kevin King—only Randall played at an above-average level.
That's why the Packers also ranked dead-last against No. 1 receivers and 26th against No. 2 receivers. Basically, the Green Bay corners got turned out no matter who they faced.
One part of the equation to improve things was to fire longtime defensive coordinator Dom Capers; another was to hire longtime defensive assistant Mike Pettine as his replacement.
And just in case you thought the Green Bay front office didn't see the cornerback position as a primary concern, it picked two cornerbacks—Louisville product Jaire Alexander and Iowa product Josh Jackson—as the final piece of the puzzle. Or, at least, that's what Pettine hopes.
Like Capers, Pettine prefers a base 3-4 defense with a lot of hybrid looks, but the Packers' new coordinator is even more passionate about aggressive press coverage on the outside than Capers was. Green Bay built its defense on that principle through Capers' tenure from 2009 through 2017, but after 2009 and 2010, the unit never ranked in the top 10 in yards or points allowed.
Pettine's defenses with the Jets and Bills from 2009 through 2013 ranked in the top 10 in yards allowed every year, and his Jets defenses in 2009 and 2010 and Browns defense in 2014 ranked in the top 10 in points allowed.
Alexander and Jackson should help matters considerably. They're different players—at 5'11" and 190 pounds, Alexander is more of a technician who's equally adept at playing outside and in the slot. Jackson, at 6'0" and 190 pounds, is a longer, more aggressive defender who led the NCAA with eight interceptions in 2017.
Both players should fit Pettine's schemes perfectly, and that combination might just put the Green Bay defense in a place it hasn't been in a long time.
Cowboys: LB Leighton Vander Esch
Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is one of the smartest guys in the NFL, and his Cover 2 and Tampa 2 schemes require linebackers to do a lot. Not only must they be quick to and decisive and powerful at the line of scrimmage against the run, but they must also be adept when dropping into coverage.
Marinelli, who's piloted the Dallas defense since 2014, has had a couple of players who can do it all but only in limited doses. Veteran Sean Lee is one of the league's most dynamic defenders when healthy, but he's never played a 16-game season since he was selected in the second round of the 2010 draft.
Injuries have been a constant problem. And linebacker Jaylon Smith, perhaps the most gifted defender in the 2016 draft class, fell to the second round after suffering a major knee injury in his final collegiate game. He's started six games in his two-year NFL career, and though he's shown potential, it's unknown how his story will turn out.
So, the Cowboys went back to the well in 2018, selecting Boise State product Leighton Vander Esch with the 19th overall pick. Vander Esch fits the Marinelli profile perfectly—at 6'5" and 256 pounds, he's an athletic marvel who uses tremendous quickness to get behind the line of scrimmage, and he looks like an enormous safety when he drops into coverage.
Per Pro Football Focus, he led all off-ball linebackers with a 15.9 percent run-stopping rate in 2017, and he led the nation with 47 tackles on runs of two yards or fewer. He also ranked third among off-ball linebackers with a 12.5 percent rate of passes deflected or intercepted.
Vander Esch is capable of playing any of the three linebacker spots in Marinelli's base 4-3 defense, but as the Cowboys work to make their secondary more versatile with hybrid cornerback-safeties and slot defenders, they will need a primary backer who can move well enough to patrol the field in a nickel or dime role.
Vander Esch has all the attributes to make this a natural fit.
Patriots: RB Sony Michel
It may have been a surprise to some when B/R's NFL1000 team placed Dion Lewis fourth overall in its running back rankings. The former Patriot, who signed a four-year, $19.8 million contract with the Titans in the offseason, earned that ranking by being one of the most versatile and efficient players in the NFL.
Equally adept at rushing, receiving and blocking, Lewis left a hole in Bill Belichick's offense that wasn't going to be easily filled. The Patriots replaced Lewis with Georgia product Sony Michel, selecting him with the 31st overall pick after they had chosen guard Isaiah Wynn, Michel's college teammate, at No. 23.
Wynn should be a slam-dunk as a first-year starter with his strength, athleticism and technique, but it's Michel who could be a breakout player and give Belichick and his staff a level of explosiveness they've never had in a running back.
Belichick has always preferred versatile backs who can fill a spot and play in a rotation. Michel might be the first Patriots back since Corey Dillon to break that mold and have a chance to become a franchise player.
Michel averaged 6.1 yards per carry through four collegiate seasons, making his mark against strong SEC defenses and setting opponents on their heels with his quick bursts through holes and remarkable second-level speed. He also caught 64 passes for 621 yards and six touchdowns.
Per Pro Football Focus, Michel led the NCAA in percentage of runs for 15 yards or more—22 of his 156 carries last year went for big gains, and he amassed 1,227 yards and scored 16 touchdowns on his totes. He also showed he could block credibly, which is a non-negotiable skill in the New England offense.
Michel has the versatility the Pats demand, but he could also add a big-play dimension that even Lewis didn't. That's why New England picked him in the first round, and that's why he'll get every chance to prove he's an ideal fit.
Panthers: WR D.J. Moore
When a reporter asked Panthers general manager Marty Hurney why he took Maryland receiver D.J. Moore with the 24th overall pick instead of the more well-known Calvin Ridley from Alabama, he was succinct with his answer.
"He's 210 pounds," Hurney said, per the team's official site.
Ridley, who the Atlanta Falcons took two picks later, is the perfect inside-out multiposition receiver. But Moore touts a more formidable physical profile, which makes him an ideal target for Cam Newton in a Carolina offense that will now be led by Norv Turner.
Turner, who's been an offensive mind in the NFL since he ran Jimmy Johnson's offenses in Dallas from 1991 through 1993, prefers bigger receivers. His system relies on deep drops, heavy play action and deep vertical routes in which the pass-catchers are directed to win physical battles.
Despite playing in an offense that wasn't spectacular in any category, Moore caught 80 passes for 1,033 yards and eight touchdowns in 2017. He was the first receiver from a Power Five conference to amass over 1,000 receiving yards in a season where none of his quarterbacks threw for more than 1,500 yards since Hakeem Nicks did it for North Carolina in 2008, per NFLDraftScout.com.
Moore is used to doing a lot with a little, which should serve him well in a Panthers offense in transition. He should eventually develop into Newton's best receiver since the glory days of Steve Smith.
Ravens: QB Lamar Jackson
Heading into the draft, few prospects were more divisive than Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson. ESPN analyst and Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian famously opined that he would be better off switching to receiver in the NFL even though he had never taken a snap at the position.
Jackson, who threw for 9,043 yards and 69 touchdowns to 27 interceptions in college, ran a complicated scheme for Bobby Petrino—a strain of the Erhardt-Perkins offense that the Patriots prefer. Despite that, some NFL evaluators questioned his upside at quarterback, which brought to mind many of the old dog whistles we've heard about other black signal-caller prospects in the past.
Jackson had to wait until the end of the first round before the Baltimore Ravens took him with the 32nd overall pick. As was the case for Arizona's Josh Rosen, the frustrating delay may turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Jackson.
"Ten or 15 years ago, there was Michael Vick and everybody else," said Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta, who will take over the top spot from Ozzie Newsome in 2019, per the team's official site. "But there's really been a proliferation of these types of quarterbacks over the last five or 10 years. The game has changed, offenses have changed, the way offenses attack you has changed."
Several members of Baltimore's coaching staff also have experience working with more mobile quarterbacks and integrating their skills into traditional passing concepts. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and quarterbacks coach James Urban were on the Eagles' staff in the early 2010s when Vick learned how to use his athleticism in a West Coast offense. Assistant head coach Greg Roman was in charge of taking Colin Kaepernick's attributes and working them into a power-running offense with advanced route concepts.
Jackson has already proved he has the potential to follow in the footsteps of Vick and Kaepernick. With everyone in the building believing in him and a coaching staff well-versed in the development of players like him, Jackson would be hard-pressed to find a better NFL home.
Eagles: TE Dallas Goedert
The two-tight end set is one of the staples of the Doug Pederson offense that brought the Philadelphia Eagles their first Super Bowl title in February.
Last season, Pederson had Zach Ertz, Trey Burton and Brent Celek as his primary tight ends. He aligned them tight to the formation and in the slot, which presented a ton of problems for opposing defenses, particularly in the red zone. When the Eagles released Celek and Burton signed with the Bears in March, it left openings for a more athletic option at the position.
Enter Dallas Goedert, who the Eagles selected with the 49th overall pick.
Though the South Dakota State product didn't have much tape against top-level collegiate defenses, his athletic profile made that irrelevant. The 6'5", 260-pounder is reminiscent of Travis Kelce, a third-round pick out of Cincinnati in 2013 who likewise benefited from a spread-out offense that rarely asked him to block.
Goedert is more of a big receiver than a traditional tight end—i.e., a guy who blocks consistently—but that shouldn't matter in Philly's offense. As Brian Solomon of The Athletic noted, the Eagles blew defenses away in the red zone with their multi-tight end sets, amassing 16 touchdowns and throwing no interceptions.
With his quickness, physicality to break out of coverage and ability to high-point the ball with defenders all around him, Goedert could make Pederson's packages even more effective.
Washington: RB Derrius Guice
Derrius Guice may be the best power back in the 2018 class, but he slipped to the 59th overall pick. The LSU product reportedly rubbed some teams the wrong way leading up to the draft, according to Tom Pelissero of NFL Network, but he also has the potential to frustrate every defense he faces with his combination of power, production after contact, lateral agility and second-level speed.
Guice showed a bit more of that in 2016 than in 2017, but he still gained 1,251 yards on 237 carries and scored 11 rushing touchdowns during an injury-plagued campaign. If the Redskins get the version of him who gained 1,387 yards on only 183 carries and scored 15 rushing touchdowns in 2016, he might be the steal of this draft.
Guice is in a rushing offense perfectly suited to his traits. Washington assistant head coach/offensive line coach Bill Callahan oversees the running game, and he wants backs who will shoot through gaps decisively on one-cut runs through structured zone-blocking concepts. Guice is quick and aggressive to the hole, and once he busts through first contact, it's tough for linebackers and defensive backs to bring him down.
The Redskins finished 7-9 last year, and Samaje Perine led the team with only 603 yards and one touchdown on the ground. Guice has the potential to eclipse that yardage total halfway through the 2018 season.