NFL Youngsters Who Could Still Blossom into StarsJuly 17, 2018
NFL Youngsters Who Could Still Blossom into Stars
Hurry up and wait. Nothing better describes the maturation process for the majority of young NFL players.
Most franchises pin their hopes upon their latest, supposedly greatest saviors. Teams continually sell the narrative they're only one or two individuals from legitimate contention.
Sure, there are those like Ezekiel Elliott, Joey Bosa, Alvin Kamara and Marshon Lattimore who crush their rookie seasons.
The curve has been ruined for everyone else since the wait for top talent to develop can be excruciating. Some need a longer adjustment period to figure out the NFL, though. A year or two is necessary for most to establish a comfort level and have the game slow down enough to become a consistent performer.
Others never see the light and disappoint.
But some are too talented not to emerge. The signs are present to differentiate between those who are ready to blossom into stars and those who never will. They already flashed during the early portions of their careers, find themselves in the right situations and are ready to become something more than unfulfilled potential.
The payoff is well worth the wait.
QB Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans
Marcus Mariota is primed to develop into one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks on four different levels despite last season's underwhelming performance.
The fourth-year signal-caller is already superb in two vital areas. First, Mariota ranked third behind the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees and New England Patriots' Tom Brady last season in adjusted completion percentage under pressure, according to Pro Football Focus. Also, the 2015 second overall pick still hasn't thrown a red-zone interception.
Mariota is one of the NFL's most dynamic weapons behind center. Yet the Titans coaching staff, particularly new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, must make improvements to his quarterback mechanics—primarily his footwork—and craft a scheme around his unique skill set.
Instead of relying on Mike Mularkey's exotic smashmouth, the Titans offense will now resemble Mariota's old Oregon offense.
"We're not going to run it into eight or nine guys," head coach Mike Vrabel said, per ESPN.com's Cameron Wolfe. "We're not going to be silly. I believe in screens. I believe in play-action, things he does well. We're going to give Marcus some easy-access throws, RPOs or run relief. I believe that players are more important than plays."
RB Marlon Mack, Indianapolis Colts
The Indianapolis Colts added a pair of running backs during April's NFL draft, but neither Nyheim Hines nor Jordan Wilkins is expected to immediately push second-year runner Marlon Mack for the starting spot.
Mack, on the other hand, flashed lead-back potential last season.
"Look, everything with Marlon was better than I expected, everything," general manager Chris Ballard said, per the Indianapolis Star's Zak Keefer. "And I know he had some pass-protection issues, but he also did some good things in pass protection for a rookie back. He ran between the tackles better than I ever expected."
The previous coaching staff could always lean on Frank Gore even though his explosiveness as a runner faded long ago. The 2017 fourth-round pick brought a different dynamic as a slashing runner with big-play potential. Mack tied for second among rookies last season with six carries of 20 or more yards.
"Me in this offense, I feel like I can be that explosive guy," Mack said of Frank Reich's new system.
Life will be much easier for Mack, too, since he'll be running behind a far more talented offensive line that features Quenton Nelson, Braden Smith and Austin Howard.
WR Josh Doctson, Washington Redskins
Josh Doctson has never lacked talent. But he hasn't put it all together yet.
The Washington Redskins receiver enters his third season after an injury-plagued rookie experience and an underwhelming sophomore campaign. Doctson finished fifth on Washington's roster last year with 35 receptions and 502 yards. Playing 16 games, though, built the young receiver's confidence.
"Every new year I'm looking to be better. I have been better," Doctson said, per the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Drew Davison. "Just off the field maturing, off the field understanding how to be an NFL player. There's just a lot that goes into this game that people overlook when they first get into the league. I lost my first year [to injury], last year I was able to play and then this year looking to do huge things."
The TCU product entered the 2016 NFL draft as the top wide receiver prospect of the class. Concerns over a lingering Achilles injury caused a draft-day slide and continued to plague him. Now fully healthy, Doctson should return to the player who showed explosive downfield capabilities and once leaped over defenders with the greatest of ease.
Alongside Jamison Crowder and Jordan Reed, Doctson will be new quarterback Alex Smith's vertical threat.
WR John Ross, Cincinnati Bengals
It's unfair to say a player is a disappointment when injuries take their toll. But John Ross' issues extended beyond last season's knee and shoulder ailments. His benching and healthy scratches were far more concerning.
The Cincinnati Bengals selected Ross with the ninth overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft to be an explosive threat opposite A.J. Green. His combine-record 4.22-second 40-yard-dash speed makes the wide receiver a unique talent. Although, he clearly wasn't ready to play at the NFL level.
"Not to have excuses or anything, I just honestly wasn't physically and mentally ready for what I got myself into," Ross said, per WKRC Cincinnati's Richard Skinner. "I couldn't put a stamp on what was the problem, because there were so many problems. I was focused on something new every week. That's what I realized it's just not working for me."
Now, everything is starting to click for the second-year receiver.
"I was in college last year and it's a different game," wide receivers coach Bob Bicknell said. "Even beyond not being here because he was injured, which is not something he can control, you need that time and you need to be able to be around NFL defenses and to see it. I think he's progressing great and I think he's learning well."
TE Gerald Everett, Los Angeles Rams
The Los Angeles Rams went from the NFL's worst offense in 2016 to first in points per game during the '17 campaign, and the unit can be even better if it receives more contributions from the tight end position.
Head coach Sean McVay didn't need to rush Gerald Everett into the lineup despite the fact that he was the franchise's first pick (No. 44 overall) in the 2017 NFL draft.
Everett has the potential to be a Jordan Reed-like presence. The 6'3", 240-pound target is an outstanding athlete, but he'll never be confused as a full-time in-line option. Instead, he's an H-back who can be used on the wing, in the backfield or out of the slot.
"I think he's got some dynamic ball skills, and as he grows in this league he'll push all the other guys more and more," tight ends coach and pass game coordinator Shane Waldron said, per Kristen Lago of the team's official site. "I hope to see, like every Year 2 player, a great jump when it comes to training camp with him."
Everett's athleticism will allow him to stretch the seam and work the middle of the field to complement an already impressive cast featuring Todd Gurley II, Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks.
OT Cam Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars
Cam Robinson wasn't supposed to be the Jacksonville Jaguars' starting left tackle last season. Branden Albert's unexpected retirement (and release after he unretired) forced the rookie to man the blind side, and, expectedly, he struggled.
Opinions were divided on the 2016 Outland Trophy winner long before he stepped onto an NFL field. At times, the Alabama product appeared to be a dominant force. Other times, Robinson struggled to maintain balance, leverage and technique.
Those same inconsistencies became evident at the professional level. However, the coaching staff identified specific areas where he could improve this offseason.
"I had to learn to become a workout guy," Robinson acknowledged, per the Florida Times-Union's Phillip Heilman. "I knew I had to get stronger. I never really had a problem working out, but I bought in more to the weight room because I knew what I had to get accomplished."
Functional strength and work ethic are often overlooked aspects of line play. Obviously, Robinson lacked the upper-body development to consistently handle NFL defenders. Also, consistent repeatable technique is crucial, especially in a lineman's pass set.
By identifying the need to address two key shortcomings, Robinson has a chance to realize his potential as an NFL left tackle.
OG Joshua Garnett, San Francisco 49ers
Plenty is working against Joshua Garnett as he prepares for his third NFL campaign. Yet, he still has a chance to emerge as the San Francisco 49ers' starting right guard.
"I think Josh is putting together a pretty nice improvement pattern," offensive line coach John Benton told The Athletic's Ted Nguyen.
Garnett, whom the 49ers selected in the first round of the 2016 NFL draft, is no longer an ideal system fit for the team's offense. Kyle Shanahan's zone stretch usually features lighter and more athletic blockers, whereas Garnett came out of a power scheme when he won the Outland Trophy as a member of the Stanford Cardinal. As a result, Garnett spent the offseason reshaping his body and is down to 305 pounds, according to ESPN.com's Nick Wagoner.
The third-year lineman spent all of last season on injured reserve after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery, and he returned a different blocker.
"I see a guy who's really going for it," Shanahan said, per the Sacramento Bee's Matt Barrows. "I've been very proud of how he's handled his year off."
Garnett should be ready to overcome another first-round pick, Jonathan Cooper, in the upcoming guard competition. If not, another team better suited for his skill set could land a potential starter.
DT Robert Nkemdiche, Arizona Cardinals
More than raw talent is needed to excel at football's highest level. No one rivaled Robert Nkemdiche's ability at the high school and collegiate levels before he became a 2016 first-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals. He's no longer the most talented guy on the field and needed to realize he hasn't been good enough.
"For me, that severity was not being at the level of potential—just being average," the defensive lineman said during an interview on Doug & Wolf for Arizona Sports 98.7 FM. "It's crazy to me. I don't like that."
Nkemdiche is, by far, the most naturally gifted among the Cardinals' interior defenders. The 6'4", 296-pound lineman is quick off the snap with the athleticism to infuriate opposing guards and centers. But he needs to couple his raw tools with better technique and consistency.
"Robert's going to be tremendous for us this year," head coach Steve Wilks said during minicamp, per the team's official site. "He's locked in. He's focused. He came back in shape. He's ready to go. He said, 'Coach, I'm committed to excellence this year,' and so far he's been a plus on the football field."
It now falls upon Nkemdiche to prove he's ready to dominate.
DE Shaq Lawson, Buffalo Bills
Sean McDermott's defensive scheme is predicated on the front four creating pressure. The Buffalo Bills defense needs a boost from its edge-rushers, and Shaq Lawson is ready to answer the challenge.
"Like most of our guys, and in this case Shaq, this is a time for us to grow, to learn. And this case for Shaq, it's time that he steps up," McDermott said in June, per the Buffalo News. "He's adopting the habits of what it takes to be successful in this league on and off the field, and he's consistent both on his approach off the field as he is on the field."
The Bills selected Lawson in the first round of the 2016 draft, but he's had only six sacks in his first two NFL seasons. That lack of production led to swirling trade rumors.
"I've just been seeing it," the defensive end told The Athletic's Matthew Fairburn. "Yeah, it's been a wake-up call. I've been hearing trade rumors and then I kind of realized, 'I'm a first-round pick, third year now. It's time to wake up.'"
To become a full-time performer, Lawson lost 12 pounds this offseason, according to Pro Football Talk's Josh Alper. A slimmer physique should help improve his first-step quickness and overall flexibility.
LB Reggie Ragland, Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs acquired Reggie Ragland 10 days before the start of the 2017 season. The linebacker became a full-time starter by Week 8, but he managed only 44 total tackles.
A full year with the same franchise will significantly help Ragland, especially since he missed his entire rookie campaign after suffering a torn ACL during training camp.
"I'm very comfortable now," the 2016 second-round pick said, per the Kansas City Star's Blair Kerkhoff. "As far as the defense is concerned, I'm more comfortable now."
The Chiefs jettisoned all-time leading tackler Derrick Johnson this offseason, which created an opportunity for Ragland to become an every-down option. The 2015 SEC Defensive Player of the Year was considered a two-down run defender coming into the league. Next to Anthony Hitchens, he will now attempt to show his skill set exceeds previous expectations.
"I feel like I am underrated as a cover guy, but as a three-down guy, you want to be the main guy out there calling everything, and you want to get the guys lined up," Ragland said.
Right now, the third-year veteran isn't only a starting inside linebacker; he's also a nickel backer unless he proves he can't handle coverage responsibilities.
CB Eli Apple, New York Giants
Eli Apple floundered under the direction of former New York Giants head coach Ben McAdoo after the team selected him 10th overall in 2016. His career with the organization appeared to be over after a suspension for conduct detrimental to the team ended his 2017 campaign.
A new staff brings a different approach.
"You hear things," new Giants head coach Pat Shurmur said in May, per Newsday's Tom Rock, "but I'm sure glad that I truly believe in a clean slate. He's been nothing but professional, he's been out here competing, he's one of the guys that has been here almost every single day and I haven’t seen anything that somebody might have thought I heard. He's been great."
While Apple's maturity has been brought into question, his natural ability hasn't. At 6'1" and 201 pounds, the 22-year-old defensive back is fluid in coverage and has the size to handle bigger receivers.
"In terms of his stature, his skill set, yeah, he's what you're looking for," Shurmur added.
Apple came into the league at 20 years old and seemed to be overwhelmed by the transition. Now heading into his third season with a more understanding staff, his play could help overhaul his reputation.
S Damarious Randall, Cleveland Browns
Not every player is afforded the luxury of playing the position for which he's best suited. Take Damarious Randall, for instance, who spent the past three seasons playing cornerback after the Green Bay Packers chose him with a first-round pick in 2015.
Randall played safety for the Arizona State Sun Devils, but his lack of size (5'11", 196 pounds) and previous cornerback experience made him an intriguing option to change positions. However, he was never fully invested in the switch.
During an interview on SiriusXM NFL Radio (via Dawgs by Nature's Chris Pokorny), Randall said he didn't enjoy watching tape as a cornerback, as he had to focus exclusively on wide receivers. Instead, he said he "likes to see the whole play."
In March, the Packers traded Randall to the Cleveland Browns, who have already moved him to free safety.
Randall's sideline-to-sideline speed and ball skills will allow Jabrill Peppers to move to strong safety. That will give defensive coordinator Gregg Williams a highly athletic duo to utilize in numerous different looks.