Analysis

Five NFL rookies who will fall below expectations in the 2020 season

With the NFL season around the corner, which five rookies will fail to meet expectations this season?

Drafting players is a combination of the team’s needs and what player is available at the team’s draft spot. This combination ultimately defines a team’s expectations for a player.

First, to accurately understand the reasons I chose the following rookies, we must define the expectations for rookie players once drafted. For the purposes of this article, I’m assuming a player drafted in the first round is expected to not only start but make an immediate impact. There are some obvious exceptions, like Jordan Love. 

Jeff Okudah 

Okudah was drafted third overall by the Detroit Lions. The Lions were in desperate need of a cornerback following the trade of Darius Slay to Philadelphia. The 2019 1st-team AP All American helps address the void left by Slay’s departure and gives Matt Patricia a potential lock-down corner to control one side of his defensive backfield for years to come.

However, as early as he was drafted, the expectations for him are higher than other players who were chosen later in the draft.

Jumping from college to the NFL is tough for some players, specifically at corner. With the NFL canceling the traditional rookie mini-camp, the transition is even tougher for players like Okudah. Okudah will face some of the best wide receivers the NFL has to offer in the early part of his rookie season, with games against Green Bay (Devante Adams), Arizona (DeAndre Hopkins) and New Orleans (Michael Thomas).

Tua Tagovailoa

Again, an early draft-pick, saddled with high expectations. Tua Tagovailoa was drafted by the Miami Dolphins at the No. 5 spot. Tagovailoa has all the essential skills to become a successful quarterback. In fact, ESPN describes Tagovailoa as having the “it factor,” which we saw with 2017 Kansas City Chiefs draft pick Patrick Mahomes. There is no doubt that this quarterback has the potential to be an asset to the Dolphins’ success for years to come. 

My biggest question is, will he be able to remain healthy for the entire season? Tagovailoa’s college career abruptly ended when he dislocated his right hip and fractured his posterior wall. Since then many questions have risen about his body’s ability to hold up to the grind on an NFL season. Couple his injury history with the fact that the Dolphins’ offensive line tied for the league lead in sacks allowed in 2019.

Despite the fact that the Dolphins have worked to improve the protection, the fact remains it is a weakness and in combination with the seemingly fragile body of the franchise quarterback, the chances of success seem bleak. 

Finally, will Tagovailoa even see the field in 2020? With Ryan Fitzpatrick and Josh Rosen in the mix at quarterback, does it make sense to let Tua heal and give the organization time to improve the supporting pieces around the future of the franchise? The NFL is a business, the smart business decision in this situation might be to let Fitzpatrick and Rosen play this year.

CJ Henderson

Henderson was drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars, to fill a cornerback position following the recent departure of Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye. The cornerback is considered by some as the best pure cover corner in the draft class and the general consensus is that he has the athleticism and length to stick to the best receivers in the league and do it well. 

Although Henderson is known for his coverage skills and expected to be a lock-down coverage guy, I have to wonder if his relative inexperience at the position will be a problem. Is he mentally ready to cover some of the best athletes in the country each week and live to tell the tales?

As discussed with Okudah, the transition from college to the NFL is specifically difficult for cornerbacks but Henderson’s biggest issue might be the lack of support on the defensive side of the ball. In recent years, players like Ramsey, Bouye, and Calais Campbell have left for greener pastures, leaving fewer weapons at all levels. Even the most gifted cornerbacks will struggle to cover without a pass rush that can get to the quarterback. 

Austin Jackson

Austin Jackson was drafted by the Miami Dolphins. A spot on their offensive line needed to be filled after they gave up more sacks than any other team in the 2019 season (per ESPN) and drafted a potentially fragile franchise quarterback in Tagovailoa.  Jackson’s athletic ability, quick feet and NFL-ready frame gives him the physical tools to protect the quarterback for years to come. 

My concern with Jackson is that he will play early on in the season and with no mini-camp or in-person off-season workouts, will he be able to succeed when thrown into the fire? Most pre-draft analysis of Jackson raved about his athleticism and his potential but he was largely labeled a project and not day one ready.

Comments about his footwork and techniques being the most often immediate issues. Given the lack of hands-on NFL coaching available to him this offseason and the technique deficiencies, Jackson could struggle with some stud D-lines in his first few weeks, teams such as; Buffalo, Jacksonville, Seattle, San Francisco, and Denver. Given Miami’s need for improved offensive line play, regardless of whether Tua is playing or not, he will likely be the starting left tackle in week 1. 

Justin Herbert

Justin Herbert was drafted by the Chargers sixth overall, looking for a long term solution to the hole created by longtime Charger quarterback, Phillip Rivers. Rivers started every game since being named the starter in the 2006 season.

Similar to the aforementioned rookies on my list, Herbert has all the physical tools. Canon for an arm, athletic, and the 6’ 6” frame that defines the ideal quarterback. In the course of his career at Oregon, he threw for 95 TDs and only 23 INTs. From a skill and physical tool perspective, he’s ready for the league.

With all of that said, Herbert is only the second QB drafted by the Chargers’ organization prior to the 5th round since the 2004 draft. The other was Charlie Whitehurst in 2006 in the 3rd round.

From a fanbase perspective, is the expectation that this is the next Philip Rivers? Is the fan expectation that once Herbert is ready to start that he’s going to start every game for the next decade or more? Can Herbert possibly get out of the shadow of the Charger legend and future Hall of Famer? Fan expectation is not the focus of this article, but in this case, it is certainly worth mentioning.

Another point worth mentioning is Tyrod Taylor. The Chargers brought the veteran quarterback in to help the team compete without forcing Herbert to start before he’s ready. There is some chatter around the league that if Taylor plays well enough to keep the Chargers reasonably competitive, then Herbert might not see the field at all in 2020. Back to Rivers, this is the same slow maturation process used by the organization with Rivers when he sat behind Drew Brees for two years. 

In conclusion, every player has the potential to succeed in the 2020 season but some may have a tougher time than others. These are the five that I believe may struggle to meet or exceed expectations, not only because of no mini-camp or in-person off-season workouts due to COVID-19, but also because of the circumstances surrounding the player and the team.

 

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