Panic Meter for NFL Rookies Who Struggled Through the 2021 Season

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistDecember 4, 2021

Panic Meter for NFL Rookies Who Struggled Through the 2021 Season

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    In the NFL, early-round draft picks have to meet high expectations. Given the slightest reason for concern, doubters will worry about top selections becoming complete busts.

    Fanbases expect top rookies to translate their potential into tangible production right away. When that doesn't happen, skeptics begin to ask if it's time to hit the panic button.

    For the most part, we shouldn't make a sweeping judgment about a player's career after just one season. Because of injuries, tweaks to new systems and position or personnel changes, coaches must make adjustments across the roster, which may affect a first-year player's progress.

    Before anyone casts serious doubt about premier players in the 2021 draft class, we'll take a look at first- and second rookies who have mostly struggled through the first three months of the season and assess a level of concern on a panic meter that ranges from one (lowest) to 10 (highest).

Jamin Davis, LB, Washington Football Team

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    Jamin Davis came into the league as one of the top two Defensive Rookie of the Year betting favorites, but he's not in consideration for the award. That's because of his limited role early in the season and his inconsistencies as a starter.

    At 6'3", 234 pounds, Davis has the size and skill set to develop into a three-down linebacker on the pro level, but his athleticism hasn't helped him in coverage.

    Through 11 contests, Davis has allowed an 85.7 percent completion rate and a 114.4 passer rating. While he's shown the ability to track the ball and make stops with 32 solo tackles, the Kentucky product has to become a valuable asset on passing downs to fulfill first-round expectations. Teams need more than a two-down thumping linebacker for a first-round pick. 

    Davis had his most active outing in Week 6 against the Kansas City Chiefs, logging a team-high 11 tackles. After that game, he took on a starting role and has provided flashes of solid tackling.

    Davis might find a groove in coverage as he plays more snaps with the first unit, which would lead to more pass breakups and fewer completions for the opposing team. Don't hit the panic button with him yet. He only started for one term in college and may just need more seasoning before breaking out in the NFL.

    Panic Meter: 1

Liam Eichenberg, OT, Miami Dolphins

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    In a few games, Liam Eichenberg has put together solid run-blocking performances, sealing blocks on the edge with the ability to move into the second level and open lanes downfield.

    However, Eichenberg allows way too much pocket pressure, which is a concern with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa's injury history. 

    According to Pro Football Focus, Eichenberg has allowed nine sacks with just as many penalties. Tagovailoa is a left-handed quarterback, but that doesn't diminish the significance of the rookie tackle's ability to protect his passer's strong side. He cannot allow pass-rushers to tee off on the quarterback and disrupt the aerial attack.

    While rookie offensive linemen often struggle with their technique, which usually leads to penalties, Eichenberg's passive tendencies with his hands and labored lateral movement make him a liability on the edge against defenders with a blend of strength and athleticism. 

    The Dolphins' use of run-pass option designs could mask some of Eichenberg's shortcomings by moving Tagovailoa out of the pocket, but the Notre Dame product must at least stalemate defenders on routine dropbacks, or he'll have a short run with the starters.   

    Panic Meter: 6

Justin Fields, QB, Chicago Bears

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    Justin Fields didn't start until Week 3 and has been out the past few weeks with a rib injury. Still, he has a large enough body of work for us to make an early assessment of his rookie season.

    Initially, the Chicago Bears coaching staff limited the passing game with Fields under center. He threw no more than 20 passes in each of his first three starts. Since Week 6 against the Green Bay Packers, the rookie signal-caller has made 27-plus pass attempts with the exception of Week 11 when he exited the game during the third quarter because of that aforementioned rib injury. 

    Fields started to make strides once the Bears opened up the playbook for him. Between Weeks 6 and 9, Fields completed at least 68 percent of his passes in two contests. He had his best performance in the final outing of that four-game stretch, throwing for 291 yards, a touchdown and an interception against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    On the flip side, Fields has just four touchdown passes and eight interceptions. He hasn't thrown for multiple scores in a game this season. He'll offset subpar passing performance with the ability to run the ball, which will allow his play-caller to work around some of his growing pains.

    Nevertheless, Fields may not have the same coaching staff next season. If you ask critics of Matt Nagy and his staff, that's a good thing. With that said, the Ohio State product would have to learn a new system in his second campaign, which may delay or expedite his development, leaving him in a gray area of concern.

    Panic Meter: 4

Richie Grant, S, Atlanta Falcons

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    Richie Grant has suited up for all 11 of the Atlanta Falcons' games, but he's just recently started to take on a consistent defensive role.

    The Falcons have experienced veterans Duron Harmon and Erik Harris at safety, though second-year pro Jaylinn Hawkins seemed to pass Grant on the depth chart as well. Since Week 7, the rookie has spent a lot of time in the slot when defensive coordinator Dean Pees uses his big nickel formation. 

    Grant isn't quite ready to make his presence felt in the big leagues yet. He's allowed a 70.6 percent completion rate and a 111.6 passer rating in coverage. Perhaps the Falcons made the right choice to use him primarily on special teams before ramping up his snaps on defense. 

    Grant lists fourth among Falcons safeties in defensive snaps, so he must make up some ground for a bigger role. Pees' three-safety look should allow him to work through his ups and downs, though.

    Grant isn't an explosive athlete. Therefore, he might be best suited to play in the slot rather than free safety during his early development. The UCF product is a good fit for his current position with room for immediate growth.

    Panic Meter: 2

Trevor Lawrence, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Trevor Lawrence has shown promise in short glimpses with nine touchdown passes and 10 interceptions through 11 contests. He threw the ball all over the field in his NFL debut, finishing with 332 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions against the Houston Texans.

    Since then, Lawrence hasn't thrown for multiple touchdowns in a single game. He topped 272 passing yards in back-to-back outings against the Tennessee Titans and Miami Dolphins, but the rookie signal-caller has looked out of sync with his pass-catching group in recent contests. Between Weeks 9 and 11, Lawrence didn't throw a touchdown pass or top 162 passing yards in a single game.

    In fairness to Lawrence, he started the offseason on the mend because of surgery on his non-throwing shoulder, and he also battled a hamstring injury. Dual-threat running back Travis Etienne, Lawrence's former Clemson teammate, suffered a season-ending Lisfranc foot injury in August.

    In Week 4, Lawrence lost starting wideout DJ Chark Jr. for the season because of a fractured ankle. Over the past two weeks, the Jacksonville Jaguars have placed tight end Dan Arnold (knee) and wideout Jamal Agnew (hip) on injured reserve. Those two pass-catchers list third and fourth on the team in targets, respectively. 

    Under offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, who has a history of fielding strong ground attacks, Lawrence could have a strong bounce-back 2022 campaign with James Robinson and Etienne in the backfield. The two running backs could take a lot of pressure off his arm and allow him to pick apart defenses that load the box. 

    Panic Meter: 2

Alex Leatherwood, OL, Las Vegas Raiders

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    The Las Vegas Raiders coaching staff complicated Alex Leatherwood's transition into the league, and that may continue beyond this season.

    Leatherwood started at right tackle through Week 4 before shifting to right guard. He struggled at both positions, drawing 12 penalties and allowing five sacks, per Pro Football Focus.

    Interestingly, when asked about his move inside, Leatherwood talked about how he's been able to pick up his duties at guard with less of a learning curve.

    "It's definitely inside, so it's not as much space,” Leatherwood said. "It's a little bit slower up in there, so it naturally comes a little bit more easier."

    At Alabama, Leatherwood became a key cog in the Crimson Tide's ground attack while starting at right guard and left tackle through three collegiate terms. Though the rookie first-rounder struggled at both spots on the right side of the Raiders' offensive line, his run-blocking performances and comments about the position switch indicate that he may be best suited at guard.

    However, according to The Athletic's Vic Tafur, the Raiders might shift Leatherwood back to right tackle.

    "While we can't be certain of what the Raiders will do next spring given that they may have a new front office and coaching staff, the plan right now is to move Leatherwood back to right tackle," Tafur wrote. 

    Leatherwood has played slightly better at guard than tackle, which raises significant concerns about his development in the latter position. 

    Panic Meter: 8

Zach Wilson, QB, New York Jets

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    Among the rookie quarterbacks who have played a significant number of snaps, Zach Wilson raises the most concern.

    Wilson has thrown touchdown passes in just two out of seven games this season. Meanwhile, he has been intercepted in all of his appearances with the exception of Week 7 against the New England Patriots when he exited during the second quarter because of a knee injury. 

    According to Brian Costello of the New York Post, the Jets have to help Wilson settle down early in games, which would provide some evidence of his progress.

    "To me, you need to see a few things from Wilson," Costello wrote. "First, he needs to start games off better. It has been a theme all season with Wilson not playing well early. His first-half stat line this season: 0 touchdowns, 7 interceptions. The Jets coaching staff must figure out a way to calm Wilson down earlier in games." 

    Even more telling, Gang Green had its best offensive output with Mike White and Josh Johnson under center, scoring 30-plus points in consecutive weeks while Wilson was out because of that knee injury. The former made his first pro start in Week 8, and the latter didn't throw an NFL pass between the 2019 and 2020 campaigns.

    Unlike Trevor Lawrence, Wilson isn't working with an experienced play-caller. As a first-time offensive coordinator, Mike LaFleur has to find the right buttons to push with his rookie quarterback while learning on the job.

    Panic Meter: 7

    Maurice Moton covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @MoeMoton.