Zach Wilson and Early Round 2021 NFL Draft Picks Who Have Struggled Thus Far

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistSeptember 21, 2021

Zach Wilson and Early Round 2021 NFL Draft Picks Who Have Struggled Thus Far

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    We're two weeks into the 2021 NFL season, which is far too soon to start labeling rookie players as busts. However, the fact remains that some high draft picks have not lived up to expectations early in their inaugural campaigns.

    Here, we'll examine the biggest rookie disappointments so far, why these rookies have disappointed and what needs to be done to get them on the right track. Again, careers are not defined by two games alone. Something, though, appears to be holding these potential future stars back.

    We'll be looking specifically at first- and second-round picks who have been put into positions to contribute immediately, so players like quarterback Justin Fields—who hasn't yet claimed the starting role, to the chagrin of some Chicago Bears fans—doesn't qualify.

    Players are listed in the order they were drafted.

Trevor Lawrence, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Selected: Round 1, 1st Overall

    During the preseason, I wrote that the Jacksonville Jaguars would be wise to lower expectations for No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence. The former Clemson star has all the physical upside a team could want, but he joined a team that won just one game in 2020 and is helmed by a coach with no NFL experience.

    Even though few expected Lawrence to be an elite quarterback right out of the proverbial gate, his performances in the first two weeks have been disappointing. There has been some good—he's thrown four touchdown passes and is on pace to break the rookie touchdown record—but the flashes of brilliance haven't come as often as one might expect.

    The rookie struggles have come early and often.

    Lawrence tossed three interceptions in his NFL debut and another two picks last week against the Denver Broncos. He's completed only 50 percent of his passes and has an underwhelming passer rating of 57.1. Only 39.8 percent of his passes have been deemed on-target.

    Again, though, Lawrence is not surrounded by an All-Star cast. Even if he continues to struggle throughout his rookie campaign, improved results will come as long as Jacksonville continues to improve its roster. Lawrence is also still adjusting to the speed of the NFL game.

    The challenge for the Jaguars is keeping Lawrence healthy and his confidence intact—and the foreign feel of losing has not yet taken its toll on him.

    "I feel like I'm in a good spot. I'm the same person, the same mindset. Nothing's changed," Lawrence told reporters after the Broncos loss. "Making sure I keep my confidence every week is big, and I think I have that so we're going to get better."

    Lawrence hasn't been the instant star that past No. 1 picks like Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Joe Burrow were, but given time, he should still be great.

Zach Wilson, QB, New York Jets

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    Selected: Round 1, 2nd Overall

    Trevor Lawrence hasn't fared much better than New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson. However, given Wilson's presence in a big market, fans are likely to find a lot more coverage on his early struggles than those of Lawrence. And to be fair, that coverage is warranted.

    The Brigham Young product has been borderline unwatchable through two games. He tossed four interceptions against the New England Patriots in Week 2, has five picks overall and has thrown only a pair of touchdown passes. He has completed 55.7 percent of his throws but has averaged a modest 6.7 yards per attempt.

    That average was tied for 25th in the NFL among qualifying quarterbacks heading into Monday night.

    The reality is that Wilson hasn't appeared ready to be a starter in the NFL. Of course, unlike Lawrence, he was never viewed as a "sure thing."

    "The good with Zach Wilson is really good, but the bad can be really, really bad. And when he goes to a bad team like the Jets and he's trying to win games, those are big concerns," one unnamed quarterbacks coach told Bruce Feldman of The Athletic in April.

    Wilson is in a similar situation to that of Lawrence. He is on a bad team with a rookie head coach and with no opportunity to learn from the sideline—backup quarterback Mike White has no regular-season experience.

    Blaming Wilson for his struggles is like blaming a server for a salmon that isn't fully cooked. The Jets were responsible for ensuring that Wilson was fully prepared before placing him on the field. They didn't, and so the ups and downs are likely to continue.

    However, the physical upside that made Wilson worth a gamble at No. 2 overall remains. As long as the Jets learn from the Sam Darnold experiment and do a better job of developing and protecting Wilson in the future, there's no reason to believe that he won't become their long-sought franchise quarterback.

Alex Leatherwood, OT, Las Vegas Raiders

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Selected: Round 1, 17th Overall

    The Las Vegas Raiders are off to a hot 2-0 start and looking like a force in the AFC. Wins over the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers should have fans feeling very confident about Las Vegas' playoff chances in 2021.

    Fans' confidence in rookie offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood, however, may already be waning. Leatherwood has been merely serviceable in his two starts thus far. According to Pro Football Focus, Leatherwood has been responsible for four penalties and three sacks allowed in only 117 offensive snaps.

    Against the Steelers in Week 2, Leatherwood allowed a strip-sack and nullified a touchdown with a holding penalty. He exited the game with an oblique injury.

    To be perfectly fair, though, Leatherwood didn't ask for the expectations that come with being a first-round pick. In fact, many believe that he shouldn't have been one. Leatherwood was the 35th-ranked prospect on Bleacher Report's final big board.

    "We knew it would be controversial—completely understand that," general manager Mike Mayock said in a news conference in April.

    If viewed as a second-round pick instead of a mid-first-round selection, Leatherwood's early struggles probably wouldn't seem so disappointing. And as far as his on-field performance, Leatherwood deserves a little slack.

    The Alabama product is still adjusting to the NFL and has faced aggressive and potent defenses in back-to-back weeks. The early results haven't been ideal, but given time, Leatherwood will become a mainstay along Las Vegas' powerful offensive line.

Kadarius Toney, WR, New York Giants

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    Selected: Round 1, 20th Overall

    The New York Giants are still trying to figure out if Daniel Jones can be their franchise quarterback. Improving Jones' supporting cast was a clear goal for the offseason, and drafting a pass-catcher with the 20th overall selection made sense.

    However, fans expecting Florida product Kadarius Toney to improve Jones' arsenal instantly have been left disappointed. Through two games, Toney has caught two passes for minus-two yards. He's played just 19 percent of the offensive snaps and has provided a passer rating of 79.2.

    The disappointment goes back to training camp, where Toney spent time on the reserve/COVID-19 list and missed time with an undisclosed injury.

    According to Zack Rosenblatt of—who attempted to decipher an admittedly cryptic Instagram post by Toney—the rookie may be growing frustrated with his role.

    The reality, though, is that Toney was never likely to make an instant impact. Though a tremendously talented breakaway threat, Toney was not a polished prospect.

    "Essentially, you're betting on the flash with Toney and hoping he develops into a consistent superweapon creating yards from across the formation for a creative play-caller," Nate Tice of the B/R Scouting Department wrote in April.

    It's going to take time for Toney to adjust to the pro game, and it's going to require offensive coordinator Jason Garrett to find ways to utilize his young weapon. As long as the Giants are patient with Toney—and he's patient with his own development—New York will uncover a new home run threat.

Najee Harris, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Matt Durisko/Associated Press

    Selected: Round 1, 24th Overall

    The Pittsburgh Steelers won 12 games a year ago but ranked dead-last in rushing. With the 24th overall pick, they scooped up Alabama running back Najee Harris. It seemed like a perfect match and one destined to yield immediate dividends.

    "He lacks home run speed, but his ability to be a productive player in any type of run scheme and in the passing game—as long as he picks up NFL protection schemes quickly—should make him a plug-and-play three-down running back," Nate Tice of the B/R Scouting Department wrote of Harris.

    Harris has been a three-down back for the Steelers, playing 97 percent of the offensive snaps through two weeks. He's also been a factor in the passing game, catching six balls on eight targets for 47 yards and a touchdown.

    As a workhorse runner, though, Harris has left plenty to be desired. He has averaged just 3.2 yards per carry and has a long of just 18 yards. That's not what the Steelers expected when they made Harris the first running back off the board.

    While Harris landed with a good team—often a recipe for early success—he's also playing with a rebuilt offensive line. With four new starters on the unit—Chukwuma Okorafor, Kevin Dotson, J.C. Hassenauer and Trai Turner—the line is still coming together. The Steelers also have a new offensive coordinator in Matt Canada.

    It's also worth noting that Harris has gone up against two very good defensive fronts in the Buffalo Bills and the Raiders.

    As the offensive line and the offense in general continue to mesh, Harris's production should improve. The game-changing runs will come, especially when Pittsburgh takes the field against less imposing defenses.

Elijah Moore, WR, New York Jets

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    Adam Hunger/Getty Images

    Selected: Round 2, 34th Overall

    We've already touched on why Zach Wilson entered a difficult situation with the Jets. New York has a first-time head coach in Robert Saleh and a first-time play-caller in Mike LaFleur. Growing pains for the offense are to be expected.

    Like Wilson, second-round wideout Elijah Moore has struggled early. Also like Wilson, he came into the regular season with high expectations, his stemming from training-camp hype.

    "Elijah Moore, their second-round pick, has really been the buzz of camp," NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah reported before the season.

    Through two games, however, Moore has been anything but a star. He has caught just five passes for 44 yards on 12 targets. Two passes intended for Moore have been picked, and the Mississippi product has provided a quarterback rating of just 12.5 when targeted.

    While the Jets may have hoped that Moore would immediately be a go-to target, he's been much closer to the opposite.

    Still, Moore is a rookie receiver playing with a rookie quarterback in a brand new offense with an underwhelming supporting cast—a group that recently lost starting left tackle Mekhi Becton for an extended period to knee surgery.

    As is the case with Wilson, Moore is going to benefit from extended exposure to NFL competition and a growing rapport with his teammates. Expect the two rookies to develop together in the coming months and years and for Moore to become one of Wilson's most trusted targets. Just don't expect it to happen overnight.

Jackson Carman, G, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    Selected: Round 2, 46th Overall

    We have yet to see early round offensive linemen Teven Jenkins (back) and Christian Darrisaw (core) because of injury. Cincinnati Bengals rookie guard Jackson Carman, however, has been healthy but out of the offensive lineup.

    The Clemson product has played just eight snaps through two games, all on special teams. This is not what Bengals fans expected when Cincinnati grabbed Carman with the 46th overall pick in the draft. The Bengals—who were getting quarterback Joe Burrow back from multiple torn ligaments in his left knee—needed an instant upgrade on their offensive line.

    It was apparent early that Carman might not fit the bill. He was reportedly out of shape in camp and failed to make a strong impression.

    "Second-round OL Jackson Carman reported to camp out of shape & didn't win a starting job," NFL analyst Evan Silva tweeted before Week 1. "So #Bengals will be running out journeyman types Quinton Spain & Xavier Su'a-Filo at guard."

    Carman has been an afterthought in Cincinnati's offensive plans, while Burrow has already been sacked nine times—though to be fair, neither Su'a-Filo nor Spain has been credited with allowing a sack by Pro Football Focus.

    The bottom line is that Cincinnati has its franchise quarterback in Burrow. The early 2021 draft should have been used to support him. First-round pick Ja'Marr Chase (155 yards, 2 TDs) is doing exactly that.

    Carman? Not so much.

    For the second-round pick, though, it's simply a matter of getting into NFL shape and adjusting to the nuances of the pro game. Given time, he'll get on the field. Then, Carman can be judged by what matters—his performances.


    *Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.


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