Henry Ruggs III and Early-Round 2020 NFL Draft Picks Who Have Struggled Thus Far
Rookies shouldn't feel discouraged by a slow start, especially this year without spring's typical organized team activities or a preseason. But despite the circumstances, first-year players who struggle early can still raise some concerns.
Though wide receivers need to build chemistry with their quarterbacks and can forge a connection through informal practices, nothing takes the place of an actual game against live opposition. While Las Vegas Raiders wideout Henry Ruggs III can add an explosive dimension to an offense, his rapport with quarterback Derek Carr needs a tune-up.
A rookie running back could've had a highlight moment in his NFL debut, but he dropped the ball in a critical situation. On top of that, that young tailback may have issues establishing himself in a three-man backfield.
Although a certain cornerback went into the season as a backup, he's been thrust into a starting role because of injuries at the position. Quarterbacks have picked on him for two weeks.
Here's an assessment of five early-round rookies who've stumbled through the first three weeks of the season with limited production or, in one case, an inexcusable mental error. Of course, though we should monitor their progress, all these players have ample time to bounce back.
DL Ross Blacklock, Houston Texans
Ross Blacklock has served as a rotational player on the Houston Texans front line with little impact. The defense needs him to fill holes on the interior. Going into Week 3, the club ranks last against the run.
Blacklock has played limited defensive snaps, but that's partially his fault. NFL officials told head coach Bill O'Brien that the rookie second-rounder threw a punch, which prompted his ejection in Week 2.
"We're just gonna chalk it up to it being a dumb rookie mistake, He's learned from it, and we're going to move on from it," Reid said. "Guys have already told him about it. He knows what he did wasn't the right decision to make."
The Texans listed Blacklock as a healthy inactive before their Week 3 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Clearly, the TCU product has walked himself into the team's doghouse within the first three weeks.
Blacklock made a poor first impression, which hurts his early growth and the Texans' ability to patch up their porous run defense. In two games, he's assisted on just one tackle.
CB Jeff Gladney, Minnesota Vikings
Jeff Gladney cannot hide in the secondary. Opposing quarterbacks have already singled out the No. 31 overall pick in coverage.
Per Pro Football Focus, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Philip Rivers made sure to seek out Gladney and exploit his inexperience (h/t Dane Mizutani of the St. Paul Pioneer Press):
"Despite a performance to forget in Sunday’s 28-11 loss to Indianapolis—Pro Football Focus calculated that Colts quarterback Philip Rivers completed 6 of 8 passes for 76 yards and a touchdown when throwing Gladney's way—the rookie still believes he belongs at the highest level," Mizutani wrote.
In Week 3, Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill followed suit and had late-game success.
"Ohhhh boy. Suddenly, after a 61-yard pass with Jeff Gladney in coverage, the Titans are a yard away from taking the lead," Chad Graff of The Athletic tweeted.
Two plays after the 61-yard gain, the Titans scored a touchdown and took a 25-24 lead.
With Mike Hughes (neck) and rookie third-rounder Cameron Dantzler (ribs) battling injuries, Gladney cannot afford to lose his confidence. He's started the last two games, and quarterbacks have placed a bullseye on his jersey. The TCU product must bounce back quickly to strengthen the Vikings' 30th-ranked pass defense.
WR Henry Ruggs III, Las Vegas Raiders
The Las Vegas Raiders selected the first wide receiver in the 2020 draft, taking Henry Ruggs III with the No. 12 overall pick. Through the first two weeks, the Alabama product has been limited by missed opportunities and hamstring and knee injuries that kept him out for Week 3.
Ruggs has caught four passes for 59 yards, though 45 of those yards came on one completion in the first quarter of the season opener against the Carolina Panthers. Head coach Jon Gruden has also exercised his creativity with the rookie wideout by using him on a jet sweep.
However, offensive coordinator Greg Olson acknowledged that Ruggs' connection with quarterback Derek Carr needs work.
"Again, we see the speed," he said. "I think it's just a matter of time between he and Derek to get a chance to hit those full-speed routes together. We're happy with where he's at. I know there's probably frustration out there. 'Why's this guy not getting more explosive plays?' But they'll come. It's just time."
Ruggs suffered a leg injury in his NFL debut but suited up for the following contest against the New Orleans Saints. He reeled in one of three targets for four yards. His ailment may have been a factor in the lackluster performance, but Tashan Reed of The Athletic noted Carr overlooked the speedy wideout downfield.
"He had a particularly rough sequence when he missed wide receiver Henry Ruggs III on a deep route on first down," Reed wrote.
Aside from his injury, Ruggs has struggled to make an early impact, though that's not all his fault. Carr shares some of the culpability.
When Ruggs suits up again, he has to do more than force defensive backs into pass interference penalties with his breakaway speed, and displaying better timing with Carr is a good starting point.
RB D'Andre Swift, Detroit Lions
D'Andre Swift had a chance to score on a go-ahead touchdown reception with 11 seconds left in his first NFL game. He dropped a pass from quarterback Matthew Stafford in the end zone, and the Detroit Lions lost 27-23 to the Chicago Bears.
During a media presser, a Lions reporter asked Stafford if he'd hesitate to target Swift in passing situations going forward.
"Oh, no, not at all," the quarterback said. "Throwing it to him 100 times out of 100. Trust that kid. He'll make the play."
Swift went into the 2020 draft as one of the top pass-catching running backs in the class. He recorded 73 receptions for 666 yards and five touchdowns in three seasons at Georgia. The former Bulldog can play on all three downs and handle a bigger workload if Kerryon Johnson continues to struggle with knee injuries.
However, the Lions also signed Adrian Peterson this past offseason, which complicates the pecking order out of the backfield.
Swift has played 60 offensive snaps. After a crucial drop in the season opener, he caught five passes for 60 yards in Week 2.
He has made little impact on the ground, though, logging eight carries for 20 yards and a touchdown. He's recorded fewer rushing yards than Stafford (24) through three contests. Oddly enough, the dual-threat tailback only touched the ball once during last week's outing against the Arizona Cardinals.
As an early second-round pick, Swift should ideally earn more touches in the coming weeks. He may have a hard time carving out a consistent role on the ground, though. Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell seems prepared to feature Peterson until further notice.
LT Andrew Thomas, New York Giants
Andrew Thomas, who the New York Giants selected fourth overall, isn't the most fleet of foot among rookie tackles. He's a massive 6'5", 315-pound offensive lineman with immense power, using a sturdy base to stand his ground and strong hands to drive defenders backward.
Thomas would've likely started on the right side of the line, where he played as a true freshman at Georgia, but Nate Solder's decision to exercise the COVID-19 opt-out opened a spot on the left side. The former Bulldog started his last two collegiate years at that position.
Through three weeks, Thomas has matched up against Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebackers Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt and Chicago Bears edge-rushers Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn. That's a tough task for any first-year offensive tackle.
According to Pro Football Focus, Thomas has allowed the second-most quarterback pressures through three weeks (h/t SNY's Scott Thompson):
"Thomas has allowed a total of 13 quarterback pressures over the first three games of the season," Thompson wrote. "To break it down, that's nine hurries, three quarterback hits and one sack allowed. Only Bengals tackle and former Giant Bobby Hart has allowed more pressures (15) through the first three weeks."
In addition to Thomas' lapses in pass protection, he has also struggled on run downs.
"In one sequence against the Steelers, Thomas blocked down and Bud Dupree raced in untouched to deck Saquon Barkley in the backfield," NorthJersey.com's Art Stapleton wrote. "Two plays later, Thomas did a good job of getting to the second level, but whiffed on linebacker Devin Bush, who ended up making the tackle at the line of scrimmage."
We have to take the high level of competition into account when assessing Thomas' blocking issues. Nevertheless, speedy pass-rushers may pose a problem until he figures out how to counter them on the perimeter.