Struggling NFL Rookies Who Can Break out in 2022

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistDecember 13, 2021

Struggling NFL Rookies Who Can Break out in 2022

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    Any fan who has followed the NFL for a while knows that it's always unwise to judge a player on a single season. Rookies can struggle for a variety of reasons—inexperience and a bad supporting cast being two big ones—only to emerge as stars in the following years.

    Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen is a prime example of this. He posted a dismal 67.9 passer rating as a rookie in 2018 but has since become one of the league's most dynamic dual-threat signal-callers.

    Here, we'll examine seven early 2021 draft picks who have largely disappointed this season. We'll dive into why they've failed to meet expectations and how they can change the narrative in 2022.

    Players who have missed significant time to injuries this year will be avoided, and players are listed in alphabetical order.

Rashod Bateman, WR, Baltimore Ravens

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    Terrance Williams/Associated Press

    Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson quickly became a star in the NFL, winning the regular-season MVP award in only his second year. However, Jackson has had room to improve as a volume passer.

    Jackson's 401 passing attempts in 2019 remain a career-high.

    In Jackson's first three seasons, he lacked a true No. 1 wide receiver on the perimeter. The selection of Minnesota wideout Rashod Bateman at No. 27 overall was supposed to change this. The early return on investment has been disappointing.

    To be fair, Bateman did open the season on injured reserve following groin surgery. However, he's been in the lineup since Week 6, and his production has been very inconsistent. Bateman has three games of 80 receiving yards and four with fewer than 32.

    Bateman has provided a passer rating of just 55.6 when targeted.

    With Bateman getting a late start to the season, he hasn't had many opportunities to develop chemistry with Jackson. He's also part of a passing offense that runs through Mark Andrews and Marquise Brown, so in critical situations, Jackson isn't looking in the rookie's direction often.

    Batemen had just five targets and four receptions combined in close games against the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers in Weeks 12 and 13. He had a strong performance in Week 14, breaking the 100-yard barrier for the first time in his career, though Jackson missed the bulk of the contest with an ankle injury.

    Things should change as Bateman gets more experience and more reps with Jackson. Receivers often make a jump in Year 2, and it should be no different for Bateman.

Jamin Davis, LB, Washington Football Team

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    The Washington Football Team drafted former Kentucky linebacker Jamin Davis with the 19th overall pick. The thought, at the time, was that Davis would be another piece of ammunition for a dominant Washington defense—one that ranked second overall and fourth in points allowed.

    However, Washington's defense has taken a major step back this season, and Davis has merely been average.

    Davis stepped into a full-time starting role in Week 7 and has played 57 percent of the defensive snaps. Davis has compiled 57 tackles, but big plays have been few and far between. Davis has no sacks, interceptions or forced fumbles and has only three quarterback pressures.

    With nine missed tackles and an opposing passer rating of 108.9 allowed, Davis has not lived up to his draft status.

    A year of seasoning should help Davis in the coverage department, while an improved supporting cast should allow him to make more impact plays. Specifically, Washington needs to upgrade a secondary that ranks 30th in passing yards per game allowed.

    Sacks and turnovers should come for Davis if opponents aren't regularly shredding Washington's back end.

Richie Grant, S, Atlanta Falcons

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    Gary McCullough/Associated Press

    In terms of raw numbers, Atlanta Falcons safety Richie Grant has not met expectations. The Central Florida product was taken 40th overall and was expected to make an immediate impact on a Falcons pass defense that ranked dead-last in yards allowed in 2020.

    Fans may be upset that Grant hasn't been a big-time contributor thus far.

    The rookie played only sparingly over the first few weeks of the season, and he played just 25 percent of the defensive snaps heading into Week 14—he missed Sunday's game with an ankle injury. While Grant does have 27 tackles, one forced fumble and one pass deflection, he has allowed an opposing passer rating of 110.2

    The reality, though, is that Atlanta is taking a patient approach with Grant and his development. Grant, to his credit, has bought into that plan.

    "I've been sticking to it since I got here, and it's starting to pay off," Grant said, per Scott Bair of the team's official website. "I'm getting more snaps and opportunities, and I'm doing better in practices. That's translating to games, to making plays."

    More experience and more opportunities should translate to more production for Grant. In coverage, Grant should also benefit from an improved pass rush. Atlanta has just 16 sacks as a team on the season.

Trevor Lawrence, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence has shown some flashes of promise, but he hasn't performed like the "generational" quarterback he is supposed to be.

    Taken No. 1 overall out of Clemson, Lawrence has started every game this season. However, he has thrown for only 2,735 yards with nine touchdowns, 14 interceptions and a passer rating of 68.9. Those aren't the numbers anyone expected when "Tanking for Trevor" was a thing last season.

    "Lawrence is living up to the hype he received as the top high school quarterback in the country and looks like a Week 1 franchise quarterback with the upside to win multiple MVPs and only injuries or an incompetent franchise will put him on a path toward failure," Nate Tice of the B/R Scouting Department wrote after the draft.

    One could argue that incompetence has indeed derailed Lawrence's rookie campaign. The Jaguars lack offensive talent—they rank 30th in yards and 31st in scoring—while the team has shown little growth or consistency under rookie head coach Urban Meyer.

    Lawrence openly questioned the coaching staff for pulling star running back James Robinson following a fumble in Week 13.

    While Lawrence may not benefit from a better coaching situation in 2022—franchise owner Shad Khan plans to stick with Meyer, according to ESPN—but he should have a better supporting cast. Jacksonville should look to improve its offensive talent in free agency and the draft. Lawrence should also have fellow Clemson product and first-round running back Travis Etienne, who has missed his rookie season following Lisfranc surgery.

    Lawrence may not make the sort of Year 2 jump that Peyton Manning once did—he led the league in interceptions in 1998 and was a Pro Bowler the following year—but he should be much closer to being the player fans have expected to see.

Alex Leatherwood, G, Las Vegas Raiders

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The Las Vegas Raiders raised a few eyebrows in April when they used the 17th overall pick on former Alabama offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood—who was widely regarded as a second-round prospect at best.

    Now playing right guard, Leathwerwood has done nothing to make the Raiders look like against-the-grain geniuses for picking him. According to Austin Gayle of Pro Football Focus, Leatherwood has allowed the highest pressure rate (tied) among offensive linemen in the NFL.

    Of course, it's not Leatherwood's fault that he was drafted higher than expected. It's also not his fault that he joined an offensive line in a state of flux. This past offseason, Las Vegas traded center Rodney Hudson, right guard Gabe Jackson and right tackle Trent Brown. 

    The new-look line has struggled to find a rhythm all season—it has allowed 31 sacks and paved the way for a rushing attack ranked 28th in yards per attempt—which has likely hindered Leatherwood's development. Moving back to guard, where Leatherwood last started in 2018, probably didn't help either.

    Another year of pro experience and more cohesion (and perhaps more talent) on the offensive line should help Leatherwood improve in Year 2. He may not prove to be a surprise steal of the draft, but Leatherwood shouldn't be the mistake-prone liability he has been in 2021.

Levi Onwuzurike, DT, Detroit Lions

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    The Detroit Lions used the 41st overall pick on former Washington defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike, and there was some early concern about his NFL readiness.

    "Onwuzurike is a quality football player, at least when we saw him last on the field in 2019, but there are questions about how special his skill set is and how valuable those traits are," Justis Mosqueda of the B/R Scouting Department wrote.

    Onwuzurike, who opted out of the 2020 season, has had a sluggish start to his pro career. He has played just 34 percent of the defensive snaps and has only 28 tackles, one sack and two quarterback pressures.

    Of course, Onwuzurike is playing on one of the most talent-starved NFL defenses. Detroit ranks 31st in yards per pass completion allowed and has little in the way of an edge-rushing presence—only Charles Harris has more than three sacks this season.

    With poor coverage and no one on the perimeter to regularly command double teams, Onwuzurike has had few opportunities to be a disruptive penetrator on the interior. That is likely to change as the lions add more defensive talent. As Onwuzurike continues to develop in Year 2, expect him to be on the field more and to become more of an impact playmaker.

Zach Wilson, QB, New York Jets

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    New York Jets rookie quarterback Zach Wilson wasn't viewed as the "can't-miss" prospect that Lawrence was. However, a lot was still expected from the Brigham Young product and No. 2 overall selection.

    "Overall, Wilson is a legit franchise QB prospect who will add excitement and explosive plays to whatever offense he joins, but might take some time to adjust to what he can—and can't—get away with at the NFL level," Tice wrote.

    Wilson has largely disappointed. Wilson did miss four games with a PCL injury, but he's struggled more often than not when on the field.

    In nine starts, Wilson has passed for 1,741 yards with six touchdowns, 11 interceptions and a lowly 65.3 passer rating. For a prospect drafted for his traits and upside, that's not good enough.

    Wilson has had a lot working against him, though. He's been without left tackle Mekhi Becton, who required surgery following a Week 1 knee injury. He's also been under pressure on 27 percent of his dropbacks. To make matters worse, the offense has struggled to find under first-year coordinator Mike LaFleur.

    New York ranks 31st in yards and dead-last in points this season.

    With a healthy Becton on his blindside, a year of experience under his belt and a little more offensive consistency surrounding him, Wilson should take positive steps in Year 2.


    *Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.