Jalen Reagor, Isaiah Simmons and NFL Rookie Busts Who Should Shine in Year 2
The 2020 rookie class faced unique challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across the nation. The NFL had to implement and adjust new protocols to protect players, staff, media and fans. With the new wrinkles, some first-year talents got off to a slow start and struggled throughout the season.
Of course, some first-rounders hit the ground running. Washington Football Team edge-rusher Chase Young and Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson earned Pro Bowl nods. Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert could win Offensive Rookie of the Year with 4,336 yards, 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
On the flip side, a handful of top-32 picks fell short of high expectations. While we shouldn't apply the bust label after one campaign following an abnormal offseason, a handful of rookie performances raised some concerns. Fortunately, they all have the potential to shine in Year 2.
In descending 2020 draft order, let's take a look at players most likely to bounce back from a rough first year with a strong leap in 2021.
Jeff Okudah, CB, Detroit Lions
Drafted: No. 3 Overall
Viewed as the top cornerback on most boards going into the 2020 draft, Jeff Okudah went within the top three as a potential difference-maker for the Detroit Lions pass defense, which gave up the most yards and sixth-most touchdowns for the 2019 season.
Instead, Okudah had a rough injury-riddled rookie term, and the Lions didn't see an improvement in coverage, allowing the third-most yards and the most touchdowns this season.
Okudah recorded 47 tackles, four for loss, two pass breakups and an interception. While that doesn't seem terrible, the Ohio State product struggled mightily in coverage, surrendering two touchdowns, a 77.4 percent completion rate and a 118 passer rating when targeted.
Furthermore, Okudah saw a defensive snap count reduction and didn't start in Weeks 10 and 11. He missed the following two games with a shoulder injury and then opted to undergo season-ending groin surgery.
Nevertheless, former Lions head coach Matt Patricia saw positive signs from Okudah midway through the 2020 season (h/t SI.com's Logan Lamorandier):
"Jeff, I think he's improved every week. And really part of it has been the technique and the fundamentals, things like that. But, really now we're starting to get into a little bit more awareness, a little bit more game-plan-type plays, things that repeat throughout the course of the season, kind of get his vision to open up a little bit more and see a bigger part of the field."
Perhaps a change in the coaching ranks could help Okudah carry some momentum into his second year. He's a solid tackler who showed slight flashes of his ball skills. Under a new staff, the former Buckeye may take a significant leap in 2021.
Isaiah Simmons, LB, Arizona Cardinals
Drafted: No. 8 Overall
Isaiah Simmons drew widespread intrigue going into the 2020 draft. At Clemson, he lined up in multiple spots as a high and box safety, slot cornerback, linebacker and edge-rusher, per Pro Football Focus. Through the first half of the season, the versatile defender didn't even play consistent snaps on defense.
Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph chose to limit Simmons' snaps through Week 7. He didn't trust the rookie early, per ESPN's Josh Weinfuss.
"He wanted to be a starter from day one," Joseph said, "and he just wasn't ready."
Without a typical offseason with rookie minicamp, organized team activities or a preseason, Simmons had to learn on the job, which put him through difficult times, per Weinfuss.
"I was just learning on the fly the differences within the game," Simmons said. "And it's definitely a lot faster, more physical, everyone's good at this level. ... I guess I probably looked bad but it was all just a learning process. Some things have to fall apart to come together, so it's kind of the way I took it."
After playing fewer than 30 percent of the defensive snaps in each contest through Week 7, Simmons was at or above that threshold for each game after the team's Week 8 bye. He logged sacks in consecutive outings between Weeks 11 and 12, and Joseph rewarded him with starts in two of the last three games.
Simmons can easily build on 54 tackles, four for loss, two sacks, two pass breakups and an interception next season.
Damon Arnette, CB, Las Vegas Raiders
Drafted: No. 19 Overall
The Las Vegas Raiders made somewhat of a surprise pick at No. 19, taking Damon Arnette. His average foot speed (4.56-second 40-yard dash) and age (24) were obvious red flags. Is he a slower cornerback with limited potential? He didn't extinguish those criticisms.
Even as a mature rookie cornerback, Arnette didn't show textbook tackling technique. He exited consecutive games with concussions because of awkward initial contact on stops.
When healthy, Arnette struggled in coverage, allowing a 78.1 percent completion rate and a 106.9 passer rating when targeted.
In Week 16 against the Miami Dolphins, Arnette had a baffling miscue, covering an empty flat area on a Cover 2 zone assignment, which allowed quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to complete a 34-yard pass to wideout Mack Hollins downfield. The Dolphins proceeded to kick a game-winning field goal thanks to that blown assignment coupled with Arden Key's 15-yard roughing the passer penalty.
In addition to the concussions, Arnette missed multiple games because of thumb surgery. He suited up for just nine contests, logging only two pass breakups.
On a positive note, Arnette had a solid start before injuries sidelined him for October and half of November, per Vincent Bonsignore of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
"Arnette remains a work in progress—he ranks 56th among cornerbacks, according to Pro Football Focus—but he brings a swagger to the Raiders' defense that is noticeable," Bonsignore wrote. "Plus, his play was on the upswing at the time of his injury."
The Raiders fired defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, so we could see Arnette evolve for the better within a new scheme. If he can stay healthy, his physicality can strengthen the back end of the defense. The former Buckeye will have an entire offseason to correct his tackling technique, which should improve with experience.
K'Lavon Chaisson, EDGE, Jacksonville Jaguars
Drafted: No. 20 Overall
In 2019, the Jacksonville Jaguars selected edge-rusher Josh Allen in the first round. He had a strong rookie campaign, logging 10.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss. The club didn't see similar results from its rookie pass-rusher this season.
K'Lavon Chaisson lined up for 51 percent of the defensive snaps and started in three contests but had a quiet year. He recorded 19 tackles, three for loss, a sack and a pass breakup. Defensive coordinator Todd Wash expected a gradual buildup for the 21-year-old, who came out of LSU as a redshirt sophomore, per John Reid of the Florida Times-Union.
"We knew when we drafted him that it was going to be a work in progress. Wash said. ''He comes in the building and works and studies. He's a real joy to be around and you're seeing development with him. I think once again he's going that's going to make a lot of impactful plays in the future.''
In 2021, Chaisson may move into an expanded role. Defensive end Dawuane Smoot, who played 59 percent of the snaps on defense and started the last six games, will become a free agent in the offseason.
Regardless of Smoot's status, Chaisson could earn more snaps with a solid offseason. Nevertheless, he must diversify his pass-rushing moves to make an impact at the point of attack.
Jalen Reagor, WR, Philadelphia Eagles
Drafted: No. 21 Overall
The Philadelphia Eagles attempted to add a spark to their passing attack. Despite an underwhelming 4.47-second 40-yard dash at last year's combine, Jalen Reagor's potential as an explosive playmaker propelled him into the first round of the 2020 draft. He averaged 17.5 yards per reception as a true freshman at TCU.
With Alshon Jeffery coming off Lisfranc surgery and DeSean Jackson battling hamstring and ankle injuries through his age-34 term, Reagor had an opportunity to leave a strong first impression. He's not satisfied with his contributions, per Les Bowen of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
"It wasn't enough," Reagor said. "It wasn't enough for the team. It wasn't enough personally."
Reagor finished the season with 31 receptions for 396 yards and a touchdown. Head coach Doug Pederson thinks the rookie wideout's thumb injury (torn UCL) delayed his development, per Bowen.
"That growth process, you're starting to see glimpses of it now, toward the end of the season with him, that we were hoping for in Weeks 3 and 4 in the regular season, but he had the injury [Week 2] and it set him back," Pederson said.
Philadelphia had bigger issues on offense. It benched quarterback Carson Wentz for Jalen Hurts in Week 14. If Wentz isn't traded and has a bounce-back season or Hurts goes through a full offseason as a prepared starter, Reagor could make strides in his second season.
Fair or not, Eagles fans will always compare Reagor to the pick after him. Minnesota Vikings wideout Justin Jefferson had a Pro Bowl year, hauling in 88 receptions for 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns in 2020.
Jeff Gladney, CB, Minnesota Vikings
Drafted: No. 31 Overall
After a 52-33 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Christmas, head coach Mike Zimmer gave a blunt assessment of his defense, per ESPN's Courtney Cronin.
"Yeah, this is a bad defense," Zimmer said. "Worst one I've ever had."
This isn't all on Jeff Gladney, but in Week 16, Drew Brees targeted him with great success—much like other quarterbacks did in 2020. Dave Campbell of the Minneapolis Star Tribune added context to the rookie's season in a Week 16 stock report.
"Gladney missed three tackles, and Brees completed every pass that went to his coverage area," Campbell wrote. "He was bound to have struggles in his first year, particularly when asked to bounce back and forth between the slot and the outside, but there have been more downs than ups lately for the first-round pick out of TCU."
Gladney played 958 defensive snaps and allowed 768 yards and six touchdowns in coverage. Despite a shaky rookie term, his steady role on the outside and as a slot defender could help him adjust to the pros in 2021.
Gladney finished the 2020 season with just three pass breakups and zero interceptions. On a positive note, he's a physical defender who doesn't shy away from contact, logging 81 tackles, including 63 solo and seven for loss.